Thursday, March 13, 2014

New findings in brain science

I spent two hours last night reading these two papers and then about an hour typing up my notes.  So if I spend another hour summarizing them for you, that would make four hours.  Wasted you say?  Perhaps.  But incredibly interesting.  If you have any interest in how the brain works, they are mindblowing (sorry, couldn't resist the pun).

The two papers cover the default network and where intentions come from.

The studies were deep dives into brain modeling and found some strong evidence that explains how our brains really work.  And if you have read any of my past blogs on this topic, you will know that it is nothing like the way it seems to us when are doing the thinking.  That homunculus we feel like we have inside our heads that is guiding our decisions, actions, imaginations, and thoughts is just not real.  It is an emergent property of lots of interconnected subsystems - sometimes working together and sometimes working at odds. 

I made extensive notes on these papers and learned a ton.  But I am going to distil the papers down to a few basic (and probably oversimplified) conclusions so that they might be of interest to anyone reading this.  I know most of you don't have my fascination with the details.

The default network (DN) is the closest thing we have to an inner voice, but it is not what we refer to as executive control.  It turns out, these are in different areas.  Executive control (FPCN) is the part of the brain that mode-switches between the DAN, which is what links our sensory perceptions and the actions that need to be made operationally in real time, and the DN, which is where we do our imagining, moral reasoning, remembering, social interacting, future planning, and other deep stuff.

Then we also have a salience network that does the automatic stuff (see the next paper on the myth of intentions).  That mode-switches between reacting automatically and letting the brain think first. 

So what we have is one unconscious executive deciding if we should think or if we should just act preconsciously (i.e. without any thinking).  Then we have another unconscious executive taking the decisions that require thinking and deciding whether we should think unconsciously (i.e. thinking, but not consciously) or consciously.  Unconscious thinking is where we directly link the sensory information coming into the brain with responses that have been successful in the past and activate them. This is a much more fuzzy process than behaviorism used to claim, but sort of like that. 

Then if we think consciously, the DN is brought in. This is the first place where we have a sense of consciousness.  It has three different areas that all work together.  One DN area has a model of ourselves, our current situation, our past history.  We also use this to model people similar to us, assuming that they think and act the same.  We also have a second DN area that has examples of other people so we can predict what they might do/think/want/react. This is more abstract.  Then we have a core area that monitors our current state.  Who am I?  How am I doing?  How am I feeling? This part does moral reasoning (or skips it) and social processing.  The core actually has three areas, but that is too much information I think for now.

The DN is also where we do things unrelated to current needs.  Planning, wistful nostalgia, creative insight, daydreaming, predicting the future, telling ourselves stories, that kind of thing.

The paper also has some great insights into the origins of psychological disorders that are often based on a screwed up DN.  If your core is damaged, you might have a problem with moral reasoning (psychpaths).  If your DN gets active too often, you might exhibit obsessive behavior.  If your DN keeps turning on and off, you can exhibit ADD.  If your DN is too connected to negative feelings in your amygdala, that would be depression (or positive feelings would be mania). 

The paper also suggests how cognitive behavioral therapy can focus on the DN activities to change the way we process them.  It also talks about how mindfulness can help reduce the intensity of DN activity so we don't get affected by it so much and can just take it easy.

Of course, this is way way oversimplified.  But very cool stuff if you take my word for it.

The paper on intentions is great because it turns out that our brains are run more like a distributed, agile, flat company than a hierarchical top down bureaucracy.  We have no CEO in charge.  Our workforce is fully empowered to make decisions in the field and act on them.  The C-suite only gets involved when we need to make globally relevant strategic decisions.

The example I usually use for this is why when you are carrying a very full cup of coffee it is better not to look.  Your muscles automatically adjust to small movements so that you don't spill.  If you consciously watch, your slower conscious brain sends a signal too late, after your hand has already adjusted, and winds up overcompensating - spilling the coffee over the opposite side.

The brain science part is that they found specific areas of the lateral prefrontal cortex and the neural connections between the anterior and posterior areas. What they showed is that the decisions are made by areas distal to conscious control.  When we think we are making a decision, it is often already made, by a distal part of the PFC, and what we are really doing is making up an explanation for why we think we did what we just saw ourselves do automatically.