Posts Tagged 'brain'

What You Hear When You Can’t See

Our brains are wired for sight.

Something on the order of three-quarters of the connections between neurons are built around processing imagery, whether getting it back to the occipital lobe or merging the separate angles and colors into an accurate picture. Even with such dedication, mistakes are made when miscalculations result in poor guesses. We call this an optical illusion.

What happens when we can’t see?

Other senses are heightened to superhuman levels, right?

Wrong.

Blindness allows other inputs unintended attention.

Current thinking holds the elimination of our primary sensation–vision–gives other stimuli free reign in the mind’s playground. Imagine for a moment your workload is suddenly cut back to 25%. Think you could encounter a lot you might have otherwise missed?

This is why every sound seems amplified when you’re walking in the dark.

It’s the same with us when our eyes are closed to purpose.

We are unsighted by either conscious choice or unconscious ignorance. We identify what is proper and avoid it or are flat-out unaware there is anything else. Lacking a central point to navigate by, we are lost and rudderless.

Then, the winds of doubt and fear blow us far off course.

“Do you really think you’re good enough to pull that off?”

“That looks too hard.”

“Maybe you should try something else instead.”

Clouded by the judgment of others and devoid of confidence, we are susceptible to anything that would push us in any direction. We drift from one whim to the next unguided and uninspired, forever tormented by a treasure we know exists and are unable to find. (I have sailed in this manner for longer than I care to admit.)

How can we get back on track?

Some are lucky and stumble upon the reason for our lives.

Most have to work for it.

Intent focus helps us quiet the noise and find a path wherever we are to go.

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The Optimist’s Reward

The brain allocates energy based on belief.

A recent study at the California Institute of Technology demonstrated the effect of perception on what’s referred to as “neural effort”. In essence, researchers found optimism and pessimism affected the amount of work nerve cells into a task.

Positive-minded people are motivated by grander reward and those mired in negativity are “trying harder to avoid losses and seem to care less about potential gains”.

This is hardly a surprise. Most would argue it’s common sense.

What’s most striking is the lack of correlation to actual results.

As subjects performed the task–one hard enough even an author of the study admitted he failed–functional MRI lit up based on their evaluation of how the test went. To quote the article, “individuals in the group who believed they had performed well were just as likely to have performed poorly, and vice versa for individuals in the group who believed they had done badly”.

This has interesting implications in the big picture.

Extrapolating the results, it’s easy to see how our concept of the progress we’re making will shape our desire to continue after falling short. At school and work, we often face situations where we think we are on track and end up off the map. Which group is more likely to pursue the correct answer–the optimist or pessimist?

Eventually, by way of combining good outlook with continuous effort, we end up accomplishing whatever we set out to.

Carrying on is an exercise in placing the result behind the effort, exercising “that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do”, to borrow from comedian Steve Martin. This “selective ignorance” led the subjects in the study to keep going regardless of the challenge.

Achievement is, in this way, the product of hope and persistence.

It’s a matter of saying, “I’m doing all right” when the outcome is unfavorable.

Then, it comes time to make another push just as forceful as the one before–if not more so.

Finally, after smiling and sweating through round after round of attempts, the reward arrives, just as expected.

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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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Rest is essential to peak performance.

The pace of modern life has bred a notion of constant effort to achieve results.

Eat on the run.

Sleep when you can.

Relax if you dare.

If you take a break, someone else will get ahead, right?

Wrong.

Your body and mind have finite resources. Pushing the limits and denying recovery invites total shut down.

Give yourself the opportunity for replenishment and rejuvenation.

Hit the sack early.

Go for a stroll in the park.

Take a vacation.

Time spent refueling your tanks is a great investment.

A tired brain has little creativity.

Uncoordinated and unfocused, it swings wildly at everything thrown its way. Sure, sometimes it smacks a lucky home run, but most of the time it hits a weak grounder if it makes contact at all.

Meeting demands under the weight of tremendous fatigue is inefficient and often ineffective. In this state of stress, every tissue from head to toe aches for time to cool down and rebuild.

Jump at the chance for a breather. Grab a few moments and reboot your system.

You’ll carry on better when you do.

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The War for Peace

There is a silent conflict going on.

Covert operations and clandestine counterattacks are occurring at this very moment on some of the most valuable  real estate in the world.

The battle rages between your ears.

On one side, “is.”

In opposition, “could be.”

The former has greater numbers, bolstered by years of remembered history. “Face the facts!” is the battle cry, followed by a laundry list of experiences and excuses. This army digs in, content in the safety of reality as constituted.

The latter is bolder, seizing larger pieces of landscape by the day. The tactics are unconventional, guided more by passion than tradition. “Forge the future!” echoes over the hills and valleys as these forces sweep forward, driven by a deep-held sense of purpose.

One side must win.

You can back the soldiers afraid of change or put your energy into the infantry embracing it.

Time will go on either way.

If you’ve decided to strengthen your personal revolutionaries, be certain to grab every inch of your mental terrain.

This is the war for your life and losing the field is costly.

You will be the only casualty.

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The Big Bang in Your Head

This Cosmic Microwave Background image shows temperature fluctuations across our expanding universe.

The Discovery Channel manages to really grab hold of me from time to time.

I was flipping through the handful of stations I watch as I took a break from reading Sunday night and quickly became engrossed by How The Universe Works, as close to a crash course in astrophysics as you can find on television. This episode, amongst many other things, highlighted a “cosmic game of risk” which resulted in all we see throughout the cosmos.

In the moments after the Big Bang, pure energy reigned.

Disorganized and expanding faster than the speed of light (at an infinite temperature, no less), a battle commenced between the component parts of this nebulous cloud of everything. In one corner, matter as we know it–protons, neutrons and electrons–existed. Literally opposite, antimatter appeared as a mirror image, an immovable object made up of antiprotons, antineutrons and antielectrons (positrons) facing the unstoppable force of our atomic reality.

The conflict was explosive.

In the way one magnet’s positive end exerts an irresistible pull on the negative side of another, these two extremes raced toward each other like jousting knights. And, just as with medieval nobles astride mighty horses, the winner made the difference by having a little bit more.

All that came into being over the last 14 billion years resulted from the miniscule advantage matter had over antimatter.

The face-off is equally violent when old thinking meets new. All that would restrain you jostles for position against what might lift you to another level. Every reason you’ve got to stay where you are lunges at each motive you provide to move on.

The outcome of your mental battle rests on who can bring the most to the fight.

Can your optimistic operators overtake pessimistic platoons?

Your future is on the line.

Will it be feeble or phenomenal?

Achieving victory is as much about vigilance as strategy.

Mind your thoughts, they are your soldiers. Feed and clothe them well. Rotate each unit regularly to keep them fresh for the skirmishes with “But what about…” and “You should…”, the scouting party seeking a place to gain a foothold for “You’re not good enough.”

Swarm them and retake the high ground with forward-looking ferocity.

The last one standing determines whether you flame out or flourish.

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Understanding Mental Static

There’s a peculiar sensation I have when my mind is struggling to comprehend something.

It’s an odd numbness and tingling on my scalp, unlike the squeezing pain of a headache. Most times it will be localized, yet it can be all over the place at others. It travels back and forth between my forehead and the crown of my head, drifts over to the right or left and occasionally takes the shape of a mohawk.

It’s as if something is gently trying to get through my skull.

Since last May, I have had it fairly often, usually for a day or two–though it has hung around for several months, too. When most pronounced, I felt slightly disconnected from my body, like a portion of my “me” was hovering above my head like a wispy stratus cloud.

I’ve taken “mental static” to be a symbol of change.

Admittedly, the fogginess is unsettling. You know something’s off-kilter, yet you’re unable to totally put your finger on it. God is trying to reach you and your cell phone has only the faintest of signals. Regardless of where you stand or how you tilt your head, the call always seems to drop when He says “I’ve got to tell you t–“.

Frustration ebbs and flows.

This feeling is one of the consequences of evolutionary change. As you go about the process of unraveling your thinking–and all the experiences shaping it–your brain stomps its feet and screams. When it comes to shifting in a new direction, it is the most petulant of children:

“No! I like the way I am. It’s too hard. I’m staying right here. I don’t wanna.

Part of you crosses its arms and pouts during metamorphosis.

For our ancestors, survival depended upon the ability to detect subtle differences between shadows on the savanna. Traveling to new areas created new problems in separating “food source” from “possible predator.” The heightened awareness that comes with uncertainty is merely your bloodline speaking up after 200,000 years of development:

“Hey! Be on the lookout.”

When your lazy modern mind hears the echoes of its hardened primitive ancestors, it sits straight up on the couch. Instead of being more conscious of what surrounds you and choosing each step carefully, fear tempts you to stay amongst what you’ve come to categorize as “safe.”

There are two things you must do when encountered with this situation:

1. Be patient
Look, your psyche has been living quietly in a cushy environment for years. It has had its way for as long as it can remember and is assured by the easy routine of its situation. It will attempt to run back to the known with all its might.

Hold its hand–firmly–and tolerate the tantrum until it relents, regardless of how long it takes.

2. Accept it
Though this second part would seem to work hand-in-hand with the first, it bears mentioning on its own. The situation is what it is–in fact, everything just is–and you must relinquish the tendency to pass judgment on it. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Don’t be the person that stands in a long line cracking jokes and “making the best of it,” then complains to the attendant upon reaching the front.

You’re on the road to a better mindset. Don’t turn around just because it’s unpaved.

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