Mind the Brain

Human Brain Chart

The better you can understand your brain, the better you can understand your own mind. And understanding your own mind is an open door to self-liberation and freedom. Short of that, every human being is a slave to mindless habits, automatic trance states, and manipulation by outside special interests and powerful forces.

The short video clip below by Jordan Peterson provides a preliminary sketch of the human brain as a whole.

Peterson is a clinical psychologist and philosopher, so his concerns about the brain deal largely with higher level functions. But the brain can be understood on multiple levels — from the molecular to the neuronal to the local nuclear and neural cluster levels to lobes and white matter connections between organised brain centres.

Brain Networks

Neuroscientists are beginning to focus more closely on “brain networks” and the “brain connectome”. Brain networks are now often seen as the highest level of brain function involved in consciousness, and the interconnections of the connectome facilitate the real time operation and interlinking of of brain locations and systems — which allows brain networks to emerge.

Human Connectome

Default mode network: a network of brain regions that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest

Attention networks: Primarily mediated by the frontal areas of the brain including the anterior cingulate cortex, attentional control is thought to be closely related to other executive functions such as working memory.

Cingulate Cortex: cortical hub. Anterior CC (ACC): cognition, arousal/motivation/drive, motor control, FOCUSED attention; Posterior CC (PCC): general, broad monitoring __ https://neurospirit.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/class-3-brain-basis-of-meditation-and-enlightenment/

Many cognitive scientists now believe that the interplay between the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex plays an important role in how emotions / feelings combine with higher level executive functions to synthesise our day to day mind operations.

In terms of function, the insula is believed to process convergent information to produce an emotionally relevant context for sensory experience. To be specific, the anterior insula is related more to olfactory, gustatory, vicero-autonomic, and limbic function, whereas the posterior insula is related more to auditory-somesthetic-skeletomotor function. Functional imaging experiments have revealed that the insula has an important role in pain experience and the experience of a number of basic emotions, including anger, fear, disgust, happiness, and sadness.[59]

The anterior insular cortex (AIC) is believed to be responsible for emotional feelings, including maternal and romantic love, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, sexual arousal, disgust, aversion, unfairness, inequity, indignation, uncertainty,[60] disbelief, social exclusion, trust, empathy, sculptural beauty, a ‘state of union with God’, and hallucinogenic state.[61]

Functional imaging studies have also implicated the insula in conscious desires, such as food craving and drug craving. What is common to all of these emotional states is that they each change the body in some way and are associated with highly salient subjective qualities. The insula is well-situated for the integration of information relating to bodily states into higher-order cognitive and emotional processes. The insula receives information from “homeostatic afferent” sensory pathways via the thalamus and sends output to a number of other limbic-related structures, such as the amygdala, the ventral striatum, and the orbitofrontal cortex, as well as to motor cortices.[62] __ Insular Cortex

After digesting the gist of what the insular cortex is currently thought to do, consider the anterior cingulate cortex (the ACC):

The dorsal part of the ACC is connected with the prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex, as well as the motor system and the frontal eye fields,[5] making it a central station for processing top-down and bottom-up stimuli and assigning appropriate control to other areas in the brain. By contrast, the ventral part of the ACC is connected with the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, hypothalamus, hyppocampus, and anterior insula, and is involved in assessing the salience of emotion and motivational information. The ACC seems to be especially involved when effort is needed to carry out a task, such as in early learning and problem-solving.[6] __ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anterior_cingulate_cortex

The insular is best connected with the body’s internal sensors, while the anterior cingulate cortex (planning and judgment) is well connected to the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system (emotions), and the hippocampus (memory).

You Are What You Think (and do)

The different parts of the brain — and the interconnections between them — shrink or grow based upon what one thinks about and what one does with his time. The brain of a pianist will look distinctly different to an experienced brain scientist than will the brain of a mathematician or heart surgeon. Brains of accomplished individuals will display differently on anatomical or functional scans, depending upon their areas of expertise.

We should probably expect to see such diversity in brain functioning and brain anatomy between differently skilled persons of accomplishment — and between persons of accomplishment and persons who devote themselves almost exclusively to trivial pursuits. Even more interesting are the differences one would find when comparing the brains of persons who live in emotional turmoil, with the brains of persons who have largely found peace within themselves and with those around them. We need better imaging devices with higher spatial and temporal resolutions, but we can already note important differences with the machines that are already available.

Not Just Practise, But the Right Kind of Practise

If we wish our brains and our minds to function optimally, we need to work at it — to practise. But that takes a lot of work, and to do work we need to be motivated. Understanding the benefits of proper practise can help to motivate us to make more of an effort in shaping the different parts of our brains and lives.

The higher up the ladder toward mastery we climb, the more skilled we need to be at devising the types of practise we work at.

More for your consideration:

10,000 Hours to Expertise?

Professor K. Anders Ericsson studied the links between practise and expertise. Ericsson discovered that in some domains, expertise improved with increased levels of practise.

From “Expertise:”

For example, the critical difference between expert musicians differing in the level of attained solo performance concerned the amounts of time they had spent in solitary practice during their music development, which totaled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts, around 5,000 hours for the least accomplished expert musicians and only 2,000 hours for serious amateur pianists. More generally, the accumulated amount of deliberate practice is closely related to the attained level of performance of many types of experts, such as musicians (Ericsson et al., 1993; Sloboda, et al., 1996), chessplayers (Charness, Krampe & Mayr, 1996) and athletes (Starkes et al., 1996).

In other areas, highly practised experts performed no better than “less trained individuals”:

… recent studies show that there are, at least, some domains where “experts” perform no better then less trained individuals (cf. outcomes of therapy by clinical psychologists, Dawes, 1994) and that sometimes experts’ decisions are no more accurate than beginners’ decisions and simple decision aids (Camerer & Johnson, 1991; Bolger & Wright, 1992). Most individuals who start as active professionals or as beginners in a domain change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work and leisure experience in a domain is a poor predictor of attained performance (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996).

How do experts solve problems?

… For appropriate challenging problems experts don’t just automatically extract patterns and retrieve their response directly from memory. Instead they select the relevant information and encode it in special representations in working memory that allow planning, evaluation and reasoning about alternative courses of action (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996). Hence, the difference between experts and less skilled subjects is not merely a matter of the amount and complexity of the accumulated knowledge; it also reflects qualitative differences in the organization of knowledge and its representation (Chi, Glaser & Rees, 1982). Experts’ knowledge is encoded around key domain-related concepts and solution procedures that allow rapid and reliable retrieval whenever stored information is relevant. Less skilled subjects’ knowledge, in contrast, is encoded using everyday concepts that make the retrieval of even their limited relevant knowledge difficult and unreliable. Furthermore, experts have acquired domain-specific memory skills that allow them to rely on long-term memory (Long-Term Working Memory, Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995) to dramatically expand the amount of information that can be kept accessible during planning and during reasoning about alternative courses of action. The superior quality of the experts’ mental representations allow them to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances and anticipate future events in advance. The same acquired representations appear to be essential for experts’ ability to monitor and evaluate their own performance (Ericsson, 1996; Glaser, 1996) so they can keep improving their own performance by designing their own training and assimilating new knowledge.

Going by the above descriptions, it should be clear that most of the persons who are thrown up as “experts” to the general public are not experts at all, but poseurs who are capable of speaking in jargon and mouthing simulations of reasonable arguments about superficial — often misleading — ideas.

It should also be clear why some people can never be actual experts, no matter how much practise time they put in. The quality of their cognitive apparatus cannot cope with the amount, complexity, and sophistication of concepts which must be skillfully stored, organised, and manipulated. But beyond the levels of cognitive skill, character structures likewise constrain many people from rising to the levels of expertise which a well-functioning society demands. Conscientiousness, impulse control, planning skills, motivation, grit, resilience, etc. etc. fall broadly under the umbrella of “executive functions” which are critical to achieving higher levels of expertise and success.

Finally, personality traits make some persons more likable than others, more empathetic than others, and better communicators than others. Persons with better developed personality traits are more apt to achieve success in many areas — including working their ways into positions where higher levels of expertise can be best applied.

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