Monday, 12 August 2013

Love Your Brain-3


Click to go back to the main menu for Mickie Kent's Love Your Mind, Body and Soul Series

“The brain is more than the black box to our flight system. It is more than a computer. It is more than the sum of its parts, and it is more than the sum of all our body parts. It is as vital to our existence as the heart, and yet, without normal brain function, even though the heart can keep us alive, "who we are" can die or disappear. Conversely, the brain on its own - pickled in some laboratory jar - is no good either. Its deepest secrets are lost to us. So, we must love our brain, because we love our true self, which is an indivisible union that creates a conduit for the universal energy that sustains the life within us.”
— Mickie Kent

The real question many want to know is will we ever be able to replicate our brain in terms of a computer or hardware where we could download our conciousness, and thus escape disease, ageing and all the other complications that come with organic - and ultimately fragile and mortal - life.

As mentioned towards the end of part two to this mini-series, is this what philosophers mean when they predict technology will replace us in the future? But even though we may succeed in downloading our memories, and even create hardware that functions with as much sophistication as a brain, will we ever be able to download our soul - or that part of the mind we label as consciousness? I write about this in more detail in my two articles "The Love System" and "Delve into the Mysteries with Love", which reveals the latest scientific thought behind such theories.

However, when it comes to unlocking the power of the brain, this is more than just about the quest for immortality, or lengthening our time spans on Earth, it's about actually going in search if what makes us who we are - because before we can download it into a sophisticated bit of machinery, we have to find it first, and prove it exists. Now, naturally, we perceive we exist, so we must, and so arguably are evidence of that existence - but because we have failed thus far to be able to quantify or measure human consciousness, it still eludes the narrow grasp of rational scientists.

Yet, if we can replicate our carbon bodies into more sturdy matter such as silicon, then some argue it is not what the skull is made of, but what is inside it that counts. The question is how do we find the inner ingredients, and can it exist without the complete union of the organic body? Do we need the physical senses, the heart and the gut (which both are believed to have mini-minds of their own), the brain's own physical make-up of matter and synapses all working in harmony to create the perfect environment for not only life, but the font of where our human nature (our authentic self) springs from, exist?

Sometimes to the most complex questions, comes the most simple answers. Our mental life is only part of what we think, or feel, or do, but how we relate to others - which is just as important as communication is the vital drive to human nature. We have seen how it is through social unions that branched us off in our evolution to where we are today. Although we are born with a brain with all the tools and potential ready to fire, it does not develop in a vacuum. As we have seen in the first part of this series, we need to do a lot of learning to make the brain function to capacity.

Of course, love is a huge factor here, too, for the development of a healthy, cognizant brain, true love is food that keeps on giving. That is why we need to show our brain love, so that it can be nurtured into its most beneficent state to help us achieve our highest potential. And though technology may take us beyond the natural capacity of our brains, and help us do this quicker, wouldn't we lose who we are?

This is the question, with all the implications of ethics and morals, that has been worrying philosophers since we began to question our origins and the very nature of our existence. We exist, therefore we are - but just what are we? And where does the hub of "who we are" lie? If through technology, our universe could evolve super-intelligence, would this naturally follow that it would include super-consciousness, too?

Super-intelligence, by the definition given to us by our great thinkers, does not mean a "really clever human" but something that far outstrips anything our intelligence can do. It would be vastly superior to us. We obviously can't conceive what a super-intelligence might be able to achieve, any more than a kitten can appreciate quantum mechanics, but we can at least quantify things by thinking about computers as a comparative subject. Their processing power and the sorts of calculations they can do, the complexities they can simulate have evolved at break-neck speed. Computers may even one day evolve to test the underlying principles that set our laws of nature so precisely attuned to foster life, to play with the parameters of creation and see what might evolve. This "playing God" might seem to exhibit a part of our nature, but does that mean intelligence - and the curiosity it awakes - is the spark that ignites life into human nature, or the litmus test for it? Is it both? Or is the proverbial "chicken and egg" question, where we ask what came first?

The subject of computers simulating complex worlds such as ours also raises the question - could we ourselves be in such a simulation? Could what we think is the universe, be some sort of "vault" of heaven, rather than the real thing? And in using logic to cut out "God" from the equation, it takes us back to where we started. Could our super-intelligence be the god we have always imagined?

Well, the simulation hypothesis - that we are currently living in a computer simulation - some say should be understood literally. It's not just in a metaphorical sense, some believe we are literally living in a simulation created by some advanced species, in a computer they had built in their universe. If there is such a thing as a multiverse, then there will be on some of them intelligence that has evolved to advance way beyond our own, with the capabilities to create such hardware, and we are merely a simulated universe in their own computers "playing God" to see what will evolve.

In such a theory, everything we see, and our brains themselves, would just be parts of this simulation. And if we are simulations, might we have been created for a purpose? Might creation not be down to chance after all? Might there be a grand design and a grand designer after all - just not as we imagined, but just as our ancestors believed?

But are we just creatures crawling across a board in a simulated game of life? Are we little more than blips of data? There is evidence that some simulated games (however basic) could exhibit some of the properties of the "real" universe, but we can't be certain to any extent that the laws governing our natural world are like those games - but we do know that the laws governing our natural world are simple.

Does Destiny play chess?

We can write these rules down in simple equations, ad get simple computer programmes to simulate them, and from great simplicity we derive immense complexity. But even if our existence was inside some simulation, are we still real for all that? Speculations about the nature of reality, and whether it might be an illusion or a dream (indeed some great designer's dream) goes back for hundreds of years. Philosophers have been pondering if we are merely watching shadows on the cave of a wall, and believe them to be real because we have nothing more real to compare it with. But does it mean those shadows aren't real?

Even if the simulation hypothesis were true, surely it would just mean that reality was slightly different than what we thought it was, not that we suddenly discovered it didn't exist. For most practical intents and purposes, in such a scenario we have no reason to get depressed by the philosophical implications of such arguments. If we feel ourselves to be real, then we are. If the everyday aspects of life are real to us, then they are. It could be a simple as that. It's all going to feel the same, theorists surmise, regardless of whether we truly have free will or not, or if our life and universe as we know it, is "real" in some sense other than which we initially believed it to be.

It also doesn't really matter if the universe is going to end in a Big Rip or Big Crunch, for all the thinking we like to do about the big things, what really touches us emotionally are the everyday little things. It is these small interactions that makes our life feel real - and even if we were all living in some "Matrix-movie" style scenario, if this is where we are happiest, the "real" world can be the true illusion.

Our brain, for all its great thinking potential, goes where the heart is - or where the love is. More importantly, some believe it's these little things that make us who we are. The mundane, and the small, as simple as a single breath, and yet when focused upon with great mindfulness can unlock the vastness of the mind than even any great philosophical debate could hope to achieve.

In the ways that matter to us we are real enough. Whatever force has guided our creation, mathematical or intelligent, it has constructed from simple atoms, a being capable of thinking beyond the limits of physical investigation. These arguments show the limit of the reach of the human intellect - where our corner of the world is indeed a very, very small corner in a vastly bigger universe than we had ever imagined, where we might never, even in principle, be able to reach out to the other parts - while at the same time these arguments also emphasise the astounding reach of the human intellect.

We can begin to formulate theories and hypotheses that extend way beyond the world around us which we have evolved to cope with - of our birth, survival and death - because it turns out that our brain has the potential to grapple with fundamental questions of existence and the nature of the world.

So we shouldn't ignore or sideline philosophy or the big thinkers - who are really the big questioners. Not sticking myself in that category by any means, but you may have noticed that in the first half of this final to my mini-series, I have asked a lot of questions. There is a reason for this.

It is in asking questions that we not find the answers, but realise that asking questions IS the answer.

It is very important that we do not dismiss any ideas, just because we think they are irrational, or their arguments weak. They may have merits we do not understand. In searching for an alternative explanation to the religious accounts of our creation, cosmologists have uncovered a possibility that seems incredibly similar - an all-powerful, all-knowing, super-intelligent being. An entity whose motives are unfathomable, and whose existence is unprovable.

if we did dismiss out of hand every theory that seemed silly to us, we would have dismissed atoms, black holes and all sorts of other marvellous things which we have no trouble in believing in today, because it can be quantified, if not entirely explained to any great satisfaction, by the methods laid down by science. And when you ask a basic question about the nature of reality, don't you expect an answer that is a bit "out there"?

The universe, like our brains, indeed as part of our brains, is "out there" and mysterious, and untrappable - and that is indeed part of its charm and allure. If you believe there is no particular reason why our human brain should have evolved just far enough to be able to assimilate the deeper levels of reality, than the point is that we can, and we are doing so. And what is amazing is that we have made so much sense as we have done out of the external world. What's been discovered about our universe in the last decade or two, in the history of science, will be one of its most exciting chapters, with the best yet to come.

The key question of course the one I began this series with - which is what we still don't know. And that is the challenge for the coming century, but for now, maybe for us pioneers who love our brain, rather than lose ourselves in the grandiose vastness of existence, we can go small, as small as the breath, and focus on our own little slice of the universe - our brain. When we hold up our brain, what do we see? What does it reveal about us?

Neuroscience: a mirror to human nature

Many experts believe in the importance of neuroscience as a way of revealing previously hidden aspects of human nature and as a tool to help us overcome some of our most disabling problems. The advances we make in understanding the brain have, and will continue to have, a significant and lasting impact on our lives.

The revolution in understanding neurochemistry (however misunderstood it might be by joe public) has brought us important medical treatments for mental illness and neurological disorders, while the study of brain-injured patients has demonstrated that individual brain circuits make specialised contributions to our emotions and behaviour.

Research out of the University of Michigan reveals that good mood can boost brain power in older adults. The study showed that older people, after being given simple mood boosters like small bags of candy or thank you cards, did better on tests of decision making and memory - suggesting that older adults can improve decision making and their mood by putting on a happy face.

Boost your memory naturally.

Another study suggested that a smile-prone personality may be tightly linked to longevity. In the study, researchers looked through the photographs of several hundred professional baseball players who had begun their major league careers before 1950. Then, they compared their snapshots with health records. And it turned out that players who smiled the most in their pictures had mostly outlived their more straight-faced peers. In fact, players with the biggest, brightest grins were only half as likely to have died during any given year of the study period. (Here's another way your looks might affect your longevity.)

How smiles - or a lack thereof - may affect health status isn't totally clear. But we know that how you feel on the inside often shows on the outside. And happiness and emotional well-being have hundreds of health benefits. This is not merely about a sunny disposition about what smiles say, or stats on smiles. Scientists are trying to figure out the mechanism of the Sun's rays on the pineal gland, hypothalamus and the brain, suggesting that all the body needs is proper, natural energy to survive. The nergy from the Sun and the energy that gives us live is one and the same, so evidence that it would help power up our brains is nio big surprise. Our mood also lifts during the summer months, which comes full circle back to the theory of how a good outlook can benefit the brain.

Back to the Michigan University's findings, the idea for the study comes out of prior research on children that revealed they became more creative and had better cognitive skills when they were in a good mood. Since cognitive decline occurs naturally in ageing, researchers wondered if mood-boosting would help overcome some of this decline. The Michigan study was the first to show the power of positive moods in helping older people with these specific brain tasks. The researchers concluded that boosting mood in older adults - which can be done in various ways - improved their memory and helped them make decisions better.

Where does the brain store memory?

Memory is a basic function of your brain. If your cells are healthy, they communicate back and forth to your hippocampus - the brain's filing room, a region of the brain known to be important for learning and remembering - dropping memories in and taking them back out as needed. As we age that process takes longer because we don't have as many brain cells working together. Neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's further disrupt this communication as plaque - small clusters of protein - builds up to toxic levels. Eventually, patients are unable to access that filing room at all. The area of the brain responsible for processing smell is one of the first affected in Alzheimer's patients.

Lead scientist Ruth Propper, of Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey, says there is research which suggests simple body movements can improve memory by temporarily changing the way the brain functions. Memory can be improved simply by clenching the fists, this study suggests. Clenching the right hand for 90 seconds helps in memory formation, while the same movement in the left improves memory recall.

Past research has shown that right hand clenching activates the left hemisphere of the brain, while left hand clenching activates the right hemisphere. This has been associated with emotions - for example right hand clenching with happiness or anger, and left hand clenching with sadness or anxiety.

Memory processing is thought to use both sides of the brain - the left for encoding memories and the right for retrieving them. Future research will examine whether hand clenching can also improve other mental processes, for example verbal or spatial abilities, and memory of pictures and places, as well as words.

In such experiments, we look to brains to help us with new technologies, how our brains can be overwhelmed by them, or even how our brains are affected as children, during our most important stages of learning and developing intelligence. For example, Canadian researchers say the reason we struggle to recall memories from our early childhood is down to high levels of neuron production during the first years of life.

Read how to learn faster, deeper and better.

The formation of new brain cells increases the capacity for learning but also clears the mind of old memories. This could be behind the absence of long-term memory events from early childhood, known as infantile amnesia. Neurogenesis, or the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, reaches its peak before and after birth. It then declines steadily during childhood and adulthood.

Do human cells have memory?

Since childhood, ever since we have been able to speak and form memories, we have been questioning why we are here and what we're meant to be doing. Some academics believe that a significant portion of our long-term memories date from the time when we're between 15 and 25 years of age, because it's a time of particularly fervent self-definition, and we use adolescent memories as a kind of fixative of personal character, foundation myths we tell ourselves about how we came to be the people we are.

Can we wipe the slate and start again?

Memory is complex, precious and all powerful; our memories are malleable emotionally driven and can live on for decades. Quite simply memory holds the key to who we are, but it's also the lock, because loss of memory equals loss of self and identity - think of sufferers of Alzheimer's disease. Some have described such a future as the dark night of the soul. When our brain is eclipsed from its energy, our essence falls into darkness.

But although the onset of memories may mark the onset of self-realisation, a meandering exploration of the emotional texture of memories - which are simply echoes of the past reverberating in our heads - this can become just a poetic paraphrase, rather than an explanation into what makes us tick. We can also allow our past to hold our authentic self hostage.

Memories can run out of our control, we know the sheer brute force of a memory that forces it way through to the conscious mind whether you like it or not; and some of us may need to physically "move" our memories in the brain when they take over our lives.

Neurologists tell us that memories are made up of dynamic connections, and through certain therapies we can learn to rewire or relearn our past experiences. Something in the wiring, within that circuit, needs to be changed via talking therapies or programmes specifically designed to rewire the brain and detach us from the shackles of the past.

Click here to rewire your mindset for success!

In the past the thinking was that the brain was inflexible, that memories were set, but today it is believed that the brain is without doubt very malleable. As you grow and age, and lay down your memories, you are building new connections - because as neurons fire together, they wire together. As you're learning, you're building new associations, but sometimes these can be erroneous.

Due to personal or public trauma we can disrupt a connection, or make one that is so debilitating for us it stops us from living our lives. But if the connections in our brain can be altered, they also be strengthened and improved. The Latin term Tabula rasa is the epistemological theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception. Generally proponents of the tabula rasa thesis favour the "nurture" side of the nature versus nurture debate, when it comes to aspects of one's personality, social and emotional behaviour, and intelligence.

The term in Latin equates to the English "blank slate" (or more accurately "scraped tablet", which refers to writing on a slate sheet in chalk) but comes from the Roman tabula or wax tablet, used for notes, which was blanked by heating the wax and then smoothing it to give a tabula rasa.

It's believed the writings of great thinkers such as Avicenna, Ibn Tufail and Aquinas on the tabula rasa theory stood unprogressed and untested for several centuries. In fact, our modern idea of the theory is mostly attributed to John Locke's expression of the idea in "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" in the 17th century. In Locke's philosophy, tabula rasa was the theory that the (human) mind is at birth a "blank slate" without rules for processing data, and that data is added and rules for processing are formed solely by one's sensory experiences.

As understood by Locke, tabula rasa meant that the mind of the individual was born "blank", and it also emphasised the individual's freedom to author his or her own soul. Each individual was free to define the content of his or her character - but his or her basic identity as a member of the human species cannot be so altered.

It is from this presumption of a free, self-authored mind combined with an immutable human nature that the Lockean doctrine of "natural" rights derives. Locke's idea of tabula rasa is frequently juxtaposed with Thomas Hobbes's viewpoint of human nature, in which humans are endowed with inherent mental content – such as with selfishness.

Tabula rasa is used by 18th Century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in order to support his argument that warfare is an advent of society and agriculture, rather than something that occurs from the human state of nature. Since tabula rasa states that humans are born with a "blank-slate" Rousseau uses this to suggest that humans must learn warfare.

The tabula rasa concept became popular in social sciences in the 20th century. Early ideas of eugenics posited that human intelligence correlated strongly with social class, but these ideas were rejected, and the idea that genes (or simply "blood") determined a person's character became regarded as racist. By the 1970s, scientists such as John Money had come to see gender identity as socially constructed rather than rooted in genetics.

Tabula rasa is also featured in Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis. Freud depicted personality traits as being formed by family dynamics (such as the Oedipus complex, etc.). Freud's theories imply that humans lack free will, but also that genetic influences on human personality are minimal. In psychoanalysis, one is largely determined by one's upbringing.

Connect to love for a healthy brain.

Does the brain make the mind, or the mind make the brain? We many never know conclusively, but whether we are a blank slate at birth or a product of inheritance, some today believe that we are a mixture of the two - and of neither at the same time. That there might yet be a new theory out there to better explain why we are the way we are. But exploring our world, and now beyond is what humans do, its in our genome, and it is no surprise that this curiosity is also diverted towards ourselves.

This exploration of our minds and bodies is eventually going to come to a point where we realise that the real secret, the real way to love our brains, is to connect it to our emotions - to be harmonised in such a way that one works in union with the other, to compliment rather than be a chimp to our success. For loving the brain doesn't mean - as the science shows - that we need to demonise our emotions in favour of a completely rational mind, or vice versa. Neither should we allow the destructive sides of our emotions control or sabotage our efforts to get on in life.

Rather, we need to understand both our feelings and our mind, and mediate between the two to capture a synergistic harmony which will bring us in balance with our authentic self and our external world - real or not as the case maybe.

Read more in this series: -1 -2 -3

Yours in love,

Mickie Kent