Meet the Magical Neurons

The narrator says that these neurons are responsible for seeing, hearing and even being able to appreciate this video. Of course, they also allow you to read this post, and for me to write it.  I normally attribute ownership of my thoughts, emotions, my inner life, to the face I see in the mirror. My inner life belongs to 'him', and 'him' means a person with eyes of a certain color, nose of a certain shape, etc.  My 'him' does not refer to the deep forest of neurons which I know live inside my skull, but which I've never seen.  Of course I know that behind that curtain of skin cells stretched out over a frame of facial bones my inner world belongs to the neurons. Still, it would make me dizzy to keep this in mind as I go through my day.  After many years studying and teaching neuroscience, the idea is still disorienting.

I will take a break from these posts until about February 15, 2015.  I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season.

Fitting Beliefs


My brother loses things a lot, just like I do. One day, he told me he had been aggravated after losing his sunglasses on the beach. But then he remembered a book he was reading about Zen philosophy and about letting go of our 'attachment to things'. As he thought about this philosophy, he didn't feel so bad about losing his sunglasses. I thought about how Zen philosophy is a good fit for a forgetful person.

And I know a guy who was getting into Orthodox Judaism and told me that instead of 10 commandments, the Old Testament actually contains 637 commandments. I don't remember the exact number, but I'm pretty sure it was between 600 and 700. (And I refuse to look it up in Google because who really gives a shit?) Anyhow, I knew this guy had a 'thing' about following rules. I call it a 'thing' instead of saying that he 'liked' to follow rules, because he had overbearing parents, and he resented all the rules they imposed on him. He was partly into Orthodox Judaism because he knew it would freak his parents out, and since they were Jewish, it would be hard for them to forbid his going in this unexpected direction. So, as I say, he had a 'thing' for rules - the kind of mixed up relationship we often have with things that push our psychological buttons. The belief that you should follow all 637 commandments is a natural fit, good or bad, for a guy who has a thing for rules.

I recently saw a video documentary about ISIS. The ISIS fighters were living in rough conditions, as soldiers often do. The guy explained: "The more difficult my situation, the closer I am to God. When I'm in comfort, at home with my family, I don't feel as close to God." This is a helpful belief for someone who needs to put up with a lot of discomfort in order to establish a new caliphate.

Unconscious and uncelebrated activity of the basal ganglia


As I make my way through the day, most of my actions are thanks to the basal ganglia. Soon after I wake, I lean my body forward, and move a foot off the bed and onto the floor while the palms of my hands press against the mattress and balance my body so I don't fall over. Now I swing the other foot to the floor, and now I'm standing.  Many body movements with little thought thanks to the basal ganglia.

It already learned the right routines through lots of daily practice, trial and error.  Now it directs my movements so that I fill my stovetop espresso maker with water and ground coffee.  I'm lucky my basal ganglia is at work, because other parts of my uncaffeinated brain are still in a fog.  I have my coffee, wash the cup, wash myself, get dressed, and out the door. Without my basal ganglia, I'd have to consciously think through each step of these routines.

While the basal ganglia is doing all this work, my cerebral cortex is thinking in words, planning ahead, consciously envisioning goals, evaluating priorities. Like executives in the top floor of the company, the cerebral cortex gets credit for the basal ganglia's work. Why do we so undervalue the activities of the basal ganglia and other parts of the brain operating outside our awareness? That's just it. We're not very aware of the operations occurring outside our awareness. And so we underestimate their contribution to our lives.

Sometimes, we become aware of these hidden activities. You return a difficult tennis shot, one that you couldn't have returned a year earlier. How did you pull that off? You're not quite sure.  A painter applies a brush stroke at a particular angle, beautifully executed. The basal ganglia, with the help of some other brain areas, learned its art through many thousands of past experiences.  It improved from trial and error learning without requiring conscious supervision from language regions of the brain and other conscious processing areas.  How did you do that, she wonders?  She's not sure. That's because the parts of the brain responsible for the action aren't the brain areas now wondering about it.

Prepared enough to be spontaneous


Midway through one of my neuroscience lectures, I come to the topic of sleep disorders. I've given this lecture several times in the past, and so I haven't prepared much before this particular class. "The next kind of disorder we'll talk about is ...." I look at my notes and see Somnambulism.  "The next kind of disorder is called Som..NAHM..BOHH- lism".  As I struggle to get the syllables out, the class discovers how unfamiliar I am with this term for sleepwalking. A moment passes, and I chuckle at my own foolishness. This seems to give them license to laugh as well, because they do. And I just keep moving ahead.  (Adelante!)

There are hazards to being under-prepared.  But can you be over-prepared? The other day, I gave a lecture I'd recently worked on a lot, adding new material, tightening up the organization.  At the end of the lecture, I had the disappointing feeling that it had come off stiff, not very interesting. My immediate thought was that I'd over-prepared.

But now I'm not so sure.  With all the recent reorganization and new material added, I was lecturing over relatively unfamiliar terrain.   With all these changes, I wasn't relaxed enough to improvise. My mind was still consciously working out the material. 

When you're very familiar with something, you can be more relaxed and creative with it. For the lectures that I've given many times, where I know the material to the bone, I know where I'm going and what I want to get across as soon as I start.  I feel confident that I can get the ideas across clearly and so I approach them in a looser, more relaxed way.  Sometimes I can think about the material from a fresh perspective as I'm presenting it. You have to be well prepared in order to wing it.

This is definitely true with jazz improvisation. If I know the chord progressions of a song well enough to play them without thinking, and if I have the jazz harmony under my belt, I'm more free to improvise and be creative. Enough 'preparation' allows you to perform spontaneously.  Same with language.  We no longer need to think about the words we choose and so we can use language in a spontaneous manner. Good luck doing that with a second language you're still trying to master!

A part of the brain, the basal ganglia, has the job of automatizing behaviors. Not just motor behaviors like how to ride a bicycle, but also cognitive behaviors like playing music, speaking, and (I assume) describing the fundamentals of neuroscience.  Well acquired knowledge of the piano, recognizing chess positions, using language, all of these eventually fall into the domain of the basal ganglia, which processes and stores information unconsciously.  Once the basal ganglia has mastered the material, higher brain regions can access it in a flexible manner.  You use both the basal ganglia and the "higher" cortical brain areas when you consciously and creatively make use of knowledge that you've stored unconsciously.  But that's for next time.