How Are You Using Your Brain?

My students learn the nervous system has two primary functions: control and consciousness.

In the interest of time, I simplify our stunning neurophysiology into these categories. The former is described somewhat like a robot–stimulus measured and response executed. It’s the reason you scratch an itch or shift in your seat without thinking, a methodical system for moment-to-moment reactions.

The latter is far more nebulous.

As an instructor, I take the responsibility of educating those under my supervision in subjects beyond the regimented textbooks in front of them. When it comes to this higher activity of the human brain, it is my duty to help them understand the marvel between their ears. “This is what brought us to the top of the food chain,” I say.

Why does that hunk of tissue separate man from beast?

Humans are able to think and project forward. Unlike lower organisms, we go beyond “risk-reward” thinking–“Last time I walked over there I got shocked.”–into a full spectrum of scenarios rich in detail with varying outcomes. Instead of our conscious mind being built predominantly on the past, we are uniquely able to make incredible predictions about events in a manner unrelated to what we have experienced before.

In other words, we are able to imagine multiple futures.

Is this a blessing or curse?

I’m struck by the fear we are able to manufacture, the widespread tendency to expect the worst and prepare for it. When at a crossroads, it seems most people are willing to see frightening ends to every path winding out of sight. Focused on these terrifying results, the tortured soul–forgetting the whip is in his or her own hand–is frozen in place.

Using history to determine future is a tricky business.

If allowed to, mice will follow the same path through a laboratory maze over and over to cheese. The way becomes programmed into their mind, which affects their expectation about the reward. What happens when the prize is moved?

This occurs in humans, as well. We encounter obstacles and find ways over, around, under and through them. Through some stroke of good fortune, we may be able to do the same thing again and reproduce the result, shaping our perception of what is likely. We assume it will always be that way.

Poor decisions can have the same effect, leading us to believe one ensures another and another and another with little hope for escape. We forget what it’s like to conceive of something good.

In essence, our grasp of possibilities is what puts humanity in a class all its own.

It drives us to the highest peaks and the lowest valleys of our emotion–all before we take a step.

And, it will continue to be our greatest weakness or most indispensable asset depending on how we use our brain.

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1 Response to “How Are You Using Your Brain?”



  1. 1 Change Something to Reign Supreme « MeBuilding Trackback on August 18, 2010 at 8:05 am
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