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The Role of Neuroscience in Human Understanding
Neuroscience has evolved since the 1960’s to revolutionise our understanding of how the brain works with our Central and other nervous systems. We know more as a result of the way we learn, adapt, become addicted to things, and how our body and our consciousness is affected by the workings of the brain.
Repeatable experiments are making findings that overturn Descartes old held notion that the brain, like the universe, is an inert, inanimate, ghost like machine. Findings are now showing that the immaterial mind can indeed influence the material brain, via thoughts that alter the physical state of your brain synapses at a microscopic level.
Imagination is now being seen to effect brain changes at the neural pathway level, which is a notion not possible under Materialism. This basic truth of Buddhist thought, that creative visualisation meditation creates the actual basis for changing oneself to a new reality is now being understood at a Neuroscience level.
Faith and fact are starting to find common ground with Neuroscience research. One branch of this research is the emerging field of “Infancy-Mind research”, led by cognitive psychologists and Neuroscientists such as Professor Elizabeth Spelke, Professor Bruce Hood, Michael Merzenich, and others.
The findings of this area of Neuroscience are that babies are born equipped with the essential mental equipment to make sense of the chaos of their new environment. Babies at 6 months can distinguish quantities 8 from 16, and 16 from 32.
We are all born with core systems for understanding the world, and there are windows of opportunity to engage these skills, which then get wired into an area of the brain known as the Penfold maps, where habits, skills and inclinations to move toward or away from, are hard wired.
We are born with an inherited set of maps and core skills which represent the adapted stance of the parent to their environment at the stage where they conceived the child. There is in the field of Epigenetics, explanations and mechanisms that support the idea and way in which emotional DNA and intelligence can be passed across generations.
The implications are that we may inherit more than genetic material from our parents and may explain how some emotional disorders such as addictions or Depression can run across generations in families, even when environmental factors are excluded.
We now know from Neuroscience that the brain is made of many neuronal pathways, or neurons that are connected to each other and work together. If certain pathways are blocked, then the brain uses older pathways to go around the block. This is one of the principles of how our brains are “plastic” and can be rewired or changed with the correct stimulus.
The old concept of the mechanistic brain which has hard wired, localised sections of brain dedicated to only one function, is now seen to be false. It is true that we are born with dedicated functions in specific areas of the brain, but upon injury or impairment another area of the brain can adapt and assume the function now lost in the damaged area of the brain.
Our brain works collaboratively within itself and it can and does adapt all through life under a principle of “neurons that fire together, wire together”. This helps us to better understand how addictive behaviours begin and deepen over time due to wiring up of associations between craving impulses and satiation by indulging in the addiction.
Treating addictions is now able to be crafted with knowledge of brain processes that deepen or weaken addictions. Indeed the whole process of psychotherapy is now gaining understandings from Neuroscience and associated trauma research using an understanding of how the 3 key sections of the brain work with the body to construct, and then change reality with the right stimulus.
This is the concept of the Triune brain and we now know how evolution shaped its design, and its function, and how to work with the triune brain to effect emotional, cognitive changes to the unconscious and conscious parts of the mind.
A simple but effective model of the brain according to many neuroscientists can be where it is considered as a three-fold design based on our human evolutionary journey. Simply put we have a three layered brain or “Triune Brain”.
The rear most and oldest evolved part of the 3 layered brain is called the “Reptilian brain”, and has a primary role in managing the arousal machinery of the human condition. This brain then relates closely to the middle “limbic” brain which has a key function of emotional interpretation functions, and together they function within us to organise our responses to sensory stimulus, with all responses having a body involvement and movement component.
It is the reptilian and limbic brain segments that directly relate to working with the electromagnetic energy. It is from these two brain centres that our unconscious mind is comprised.
The pre-frontal lobes are the most recent evolutionary brain segment in humans, and provide us with our logical, reasoning, thinking, logic forming, and free-will choice making aspects of consciousness. It is the “conscious logical brain”.
The three brain system importantly is now understood to broadly “push” information forward from the body into the oldest Reptilian brain segment, then into the Limbic middle segment, and then forward to the pre-frontal rational brain. Neuroscience shows us that neural pathways are predominately arranged to process in this direction, and there are fewer pre-frontal brain neural connections feeding information the other way.
That simply means not as much of the conscious, rational cognition processes feed significant or permanent information backwards into the Limbic or Reptilian brains, from where Neuroscience is indicating that changing one’s unconscious beliefs, patterns, reactions and related healing must have a primary focus.
This is why “talk therapies” have been a relative failure in dealing with creating permanent change in the deep seated unconscious mind, notes neuroscientist Bessel Van Der Kolk. Van Der Kolk notes it simply is not the role of a rational executive pre-frontal brain to engage in any form of psychotherapy or counselling which will “squelch sensations, control emotional arousal, and change fixed action patterns”.
The prominent Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, notes that “we use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them”. Trauma researcher and Neuroscientist Bessel Van Der Kolk argues that “neither Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), nor Psychodynamic psychotherapy pay much attention to the experience and interpretation of physical sensations and pre-programmed physical action patterns.
Neuroscientists note that the best that verbal therapies can offer is to help people inhibit the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) physical actions that their emotions provoke. In short the best verbal therapies can help people with ‘anger management’ such as in counting to ten and taking deep breaths.
Van Der Kolk then further argues that from this understanding we must look to a form of healing that involves the body and the reprogramming the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) physical responses, involving utilising the body as a key means of having the client develop awareness of their internal sensations and physical action patterns.
Body Psychotherapy is one of the Western therapeutic modalities that does not operate solely from a “talk therapy” model. Instead Body Psychotherapy works holistically with the mind, the body, energy, and all 3 brain layers in the healing processes it uses.
The bottom line is that consciousness changing therapy must arouse the motoric and emotional sensations in the body in order to engage the two rearmost reptilian and limbic brain centres, from where healing can then be initiated into a BodyMind context. The various “talk therapies” are pre-frontal brain focused and cannot scientifically be supported in claims that they can alone effect permanent change, notes Bessel Van Der Kolk.
Psychiatrist and researcher Eric Kandel discovered that as we learn, our individual neurons alter their structure and strengthen the synaptic connections between them. He won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for discovering that when we form long term memories, neurons change their anatomical shape and increase the number of synaptic connections they have to other neurons.
When we learn we alter which genes in our neurons are “expressed” or turned on. Kendel’s work showed that when we learn our mind also directly affects which genes in our neurons are “transcribed” or can alter the basis of the existing gene in making new proteins occurs.
Kendel argues that when psychotherapy changes people, it goes deep into the brain and its neurons and changes its structures by turning on the right genes, and makes better adapted changes in neural associations and networks.
The classical theories of “Free Association” of the mind, as postulated by Freud, find a basis in neural networks. The cognitive and emotional realisations brought into awareness of the client by therapists, will cause the neural network realignments, breakages of old neural synaptic associations and connections, and new associations and neural “wiring” and connections in the brain.
The emerging findings of Neuroscience support the whole model of BodyMind Psychotherapy and its use of emotional states to effect deep and lasting change in clients. The old Materialism scientific model of the brain and mind, and also the role of traditional psychology and “talk therapies” is challenged by these recent findings and may over time force a review of long held beliefs that science has held onto since the 17th century.
The old theory of the brain called “localisation” where like a machine, the brain was viewed as being made of parts, each part having a pre-assigned location and function, and if damaged, could not be replaced, is now no longer held to be universally true.
This localisation was also applied to our senses with the same theory proposing that dedicated receptor cells specialise in detecting various forms of energy around us, from one dedicated sense awareness channel. This too has been proven to be a false premise.
The plasticity of the brain works in part through sensory substitution which has been shown by Neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita to allow a damaged brain area to have its function “acquired” by another brain segment. It takes on the sensory “feed” from the nervous system and processes it in place of the now damaged original brain segment.
The brain re-organises its sensory-perceptual system and can process different origin signals as they are all reduced into a common homogeneous electrical impulse “state” within the nervous system of the body. It proves that it our brains that “see”, “hear”, and “taste”, and so how a whole range of phantom signals can arise in some people when the brain is traumatised in different ways.
The findings also show how we each learn to process information within the brain in certain ways that may lead to us dominating by using one way more than another, and like in a gym, developing bigger brain muscles or neural networks in one area, and suffering a loss or atrophy in other under –developed areas of the brain not being utilised or “worked” enough.
This implication has important relevance for the education of both children and adults. All through life we have an internal competitive “plasticity” where what through habit we pursue and redo, we increase the neural networks whilst others at the same time are shrinking if not actively engaged.
Children can easily learn to use a dominant skill or way of processing information, and neglect other brain areas, which can then lead to learning difficulties later as under the “use it or lose it” neuroscience principle. If the child starts to rely on one way of processing information it can lead to difficulties in some areas of schooling and learning that require the now dormant, shrinking areas of learning function that see and process information in other ways.
There are key neural developmental stages in children and teenagers where a “window of opportunity” exists to develop certain skills and strengths and if not taken up, then become much harder to learn later when that part of the brain re-organises and decides that skill is not a key survival adaptation required by this child in the world. Language learning is a key example of this.
Children can benefit enormously in learning a key skill when the brain is the most “plastic” in taking up this skill, and also later while still at school in strengthening “the weak links in the chain”. Learning at this stage gives the child a neural “reward” of brain secretions of neurotransmitters involving Dopamine and Acetylcholine, which also assist the formation of neural networks in the young brain.
When children learn and grow they thrive. Otherwise the resulting frustrations around learning during schooling have been shown to lead to absenteeism, bullying, anti-social disorders, depression, addictions and withdrawal, and poor socio-economic outcomes as adults for such children.
In the same way adults can benefit by using various forms of “mind gym” to sharpen the “brain saw” as we get older and tend to rely on habitual ways of using the brain in repetition and comfort zone based lifestyles. If adults do not remain curious and explore, and keep learning, we degenerate and neutrally start to lose neural circuits which result in accompanying body and mental wastage, frailty, senility and loss.
Autopsies show that the brain sizes of deceased educated people have increased numbers of branches among the neurons in their brains. Continual learning and curiosity has been shown to increase brain weight by over 5 percent over time.
The neuroscientist Michael Merzenich showed the brain is constantly in a fluid or “plastic” state all through our lives, and constantly employs internally a competitive “use it or lose it” system in the brain to adjust the existing neural networks of our learnt skills and memories. The brain will “prune” existing networks as they become dormant and little used skills, and allow expansion of new emerging active networks that reflect some focus by the person on competence and practice in either a new or existing learnt skill or knowledge practice.
The key is to practice or keep using all our current facilities, skills, pursuits and interests, and where possible, tackle or take on new ones, both at the bodily and mental levels of being. Whatever habits we develop we reinforce or break by this same “use it or lose it” process, which has implications for the way we view and treat such disorders such as addictions.
We can lose our plasticity if we do not overcome a tendency for rigidity, routine and safety, and this is often seen when older people retire. They may lose their sense of purpose and inquiry in life, and just settle down in retirement with no replacement stimulus and curiosity via new goals, wishes, energy and enthusiasm.
With a quiet desperation these adults settle down to shrink in body, brain and mind, and just wait for death to take over. This is also seen with the phenomena of busy people who are active and busy right up into their 80’s or 90’s, and who once they stop, often quickly deteriorate and die or deteriorate into senility or illness.
Body Psychotherapy promotse a BodyMind exercise routine for clients that is designed to keep alive the body-centric sense of self that promotes positive neural reinforcement. The brain also works by wiring its neural circuits with a policy of “what fires together wires together”.
Neuroscience is also now defining the processes of how consciousness itself arises. Consciousness is primarily the process whereby we become aware of some objects, thoughts, and feelings, while others lurk unnoticed below conscious perception.
Traditional theories proposed a “seat of consciousness”, and possibly a dedicated brain area for the formation of consciousness. Recent evidence and research points to Bernard Baars “global workspace” model where non-conscious experiences are processed locally within separate sections of the brain, often those dedicated to handling sensory input from a certain sensory organ such as the eye via the visual cortex.
According to this theory, there are connections between long distance areas of our brain, and we only become conscious of locally gathered information if these signals are broadcast across this “global workspace” of connected processes. Neuroscience research of Stanilas Dehaene has found these connective wirings to be in place and to be especially dense in the prefrontal, cingulated and parietal regions, which all contribute to processes of conscious planning, thinking and reasoning.
The difference between remain unconscious or becoming conscious is the triggering of simultaneous activity across the network of these linked local areas of the brain via some as yet unknown broadcast mechanism. The research into this area of human consciousness is ongoing.
We know that conflicting messages of reality somehow get resolved and so the broadcasting of conflicting messages does not ordinarily occur, otherwise a state of confusion would result, instead of a subjective and filtered but coherent reality. These filtering and resolution processes are also not yet completely understood, but they exist and help explain how each of us has a subjective reality which is not quite the same as the next person.