neuroscience

Neuroscience, Psychology And Our Brain

From what I read and experienced thus far psychologists practise in almost complete ignorance of neuroscience. Few would be able to describe the brain’s structure, the basics of how it works, its major systems, or modern theories on brain processes and their effects on behaviour.

Because of that lack of neuroscience, these psychologists end up a lot like a programmer who knows nothing about the underlying hardware of the machine being programmed.

Is that bad? Well, not really. After all, good programmers don’t need to know much about the hardware to create good software. It helps, however, when they know how the hardware can interfere with their programs, and how to tweak the software to take advantage of various hardware features.

Same goes for psychologists. They don’t need to be experts in neuroscience, but it helps to have a grounding in the basics, so that they can adjust their practices to compensate for hardware issues.

However, the hardware/software analogy can only take us so far.

The brain isn’t really like a computer. It’s squishy and runs on a combination of electrical and chemical signals. Moreover, the hardware/software distinction in the brain can get blurred. Because the nervous system is adaptive, changes in the hardware can modify the software and interestingly, changes in the software can modify the hardware.

To dive a bit deeper I will give you a small background in the way the brain works. I’ll do this from a macro and micro point.

Micro

Your brain is formed a billions of individual cells known as neurons and of other cells in there including important ones called glial cells.

Neurons work a bit like a transistor, they either allow an electrical signal to continue along a circuit, or not. A neuron is connected to other neurons via synapses: small ‘gaps’ between neurons that let neurons communicate via chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Typically, when a neuron is activated, an electrical signal travels down one of the dendrites, along the axon, and toward the synapse.

This signal causes the presynapse to release a spray of chemicals (neurotransmitters) into the synaptic gap. These chemicals are specific to the cell for example: serotonin, dopamine, GABA, endorphins, noradrenaline.

On the other side of the synaptic gap are receptors. When enough of the neurotransmitters bind to enough receptor sites, an electrical signal is stimulated and continues along a circuit. This is called neurotransmission.

That is extremly simplified but for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that the brain forms complex electrochemical circuits through the activation of neurons.

There are many different types of neurons, many of which group together into particular regions in the brain. At its most basic, the brain is divided into three sections.

At the base is something we share with reptiles, and which is responsible for most of the automatic systems in our body ( breathing, blood pressure, hormone balance, etc.).

Above that is the limbic system – the primitive brain. This evolved to help us survive, and it’s the cause of most of our problems in the modern world.

Above this is the neocortex, the most recently evolved and, combined, probably one of the most complex structures in the universe.

We often assume that our brains are fully integrated because we experience the illusion of internal integration. It feels like there’s just one person inside your head. In fact, the bit that you call you probably exists somewhere in your prefrontal regions.

This “you” gets information from a lot of other modules, and the result is your experience of the world. The problem is that we treat most of this incoming information not as messages from other brain regions, but as a part of ourselves.

So, when we feel angry, we believe that we are angry, and act accordingly. In fact, like most of the other emotions, anger is just information from a system in your midbrain (the amygdala in the limbic system) that has been activated based on its limited danger-detection system. In other words, our emotions are nothing special – just warnings of potential danger so that you can take the appropriate action.

It’s hard to work effectively with your limbic system because it’s really another, primitive you that doesn’t think clearly, but which has executive override.

When it’s active, you get shut down, meaning you don’t get to make decisions or control your actions. This is why you do and say dumb things when you’re stressed.

Now we’ll go to the interesting part.

Understanding something about the hardware is great – but understanding it won’t fix the software. Good psychologists can modify you by getting access to your individual hardware modules through the software!

This is the weird part, because a lot of human functioning is based at the hardware level. We get information about this activity, and assume that we were the ones that initiated it and we’re wrong. It’s possible that this software that runs us is just an evolutionary fluke, but it’s a really useful one. What this software does well is to observe what’s going on and, with appropriate awareness, it can interfere with output of the hardware.

Human programming, therefore, is the ability to use our awareness of internal processes to change or rather influence our behaviours. Because most of human functioning is closed to us we can look at the outputs and potentially insert an alternate into the output.

The very act of observing internal functions i.e. noticing our thoughts, emotions, actions, etc. and then applying a different action to the one we would normally default to, can result in hardware modifications.

Because the brain is a dynamic “computer”, the software is actually a part of the hardware and vice versa. When the software changes, the hardware has to change, and sometimes we can make improvements.

However, it’s not that easy to do. Software override is hard because of the fact that so much happens at a purely hardware level. It’s especially hard in the times when we really need it, like when we’re under pressure or stress, or in pain, or danger. The times when we really need to be aware and available, to interfere with our default actions, are the times when we usually get switched off.

Which makes sense evolutionary speaking i.e. from a survival perspective, but isn’t much use to us in the modern world where reasoning is really useful in difficult situations.

We can learn though through a lot of repeated practise. This means exposing ourselves to increasing levels of difficulty and retaining full awareness throughout. This is why pilots train in simulators, and soldiers do live-fire exercises. With enough training, any stressful situation can become mundane, allowing executive control instead of limbic system override. It is hard, and it takes a lot of commitment and, well, awareness!

So, with all of that in mind, if we can learn to intervene in order to retain prefrontal activity in difficult situations, we can be a lot more effective.

Thus, psychologists need to understand the neuroscience behind our basic brain principles, and the effects of hardware activation on software functioning, in order to be effective in the treatment of their patients – there’s no point in teaching a person stress-related techniques that require higher brain functioning to work, if those areas aren’t available during stress!

What can you do? As I’ve talked about this a lot learn to be aware of your defaults, and practise intervening with a more effective alternative. This takes presence of mind, and it won’t seem intuitive, normal, or desirable. One day we’ll be able to rely on artificial systems to do this for us. For now, pay attention and make changes.

As always thanks for reading and until next time.

P.S. If you liked this post then you’ll like my books as well. You can get them on Amazon.

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