The more I know, the more magical the brain becomes

After initial feedback on my paper I am now in the ‘polishing it’ stage which is a relief although I still need to create examples of invitations and instruction letters that I am sending to participants. I have also just written the reflection piece for this paper and, standing back, I really feel that I have come so far personally.

“Doing the project proposal has been a very adult and cathartic process as I have reflected on my expectations and reactions along the way. Understanding that the questioning and challenges were to create robustness of thinking, congruency and enable success was reassuring. It has also been humbling as I have reigned in my initial naive assumptions and gained a realistic understanding of what is possible and required. The journey of repeatedly questioning my project, albeit from different perspectives, was taxing although the end point is refreshing.

I have learned to have a conversation not to defend myself but to articulate my rationale such that others feel it is solid. I am now embracing and inviting thoughts from others as welcomed observations on possible flaws or issues showing me where I need to reflect or rethink. Alongside this, I am learning to decline questions and distractions which are not within the sphere of my project which is a new concept for me. These abilities will also be valuable in business meetings to maintain purposeful and focussed conversations.

I am definitely more thoughtful about my writing: What counts and what does not need to be said. I also notice that whilst reading, I am less accepting of sloppy writing where concepts are misconstrued or links feel tenuous.

I am also thoughtful about what I wish to bring to coaching as well as energised to see what I discover and to share it with my fellow coaches. Overall I feel grounded and considered about my project both in its possibilities and its limitations.”

Now I understand why ‘Doing a Doctorate’ books talk about this being a journey of personal development.

I have read Pinker’s “How the mind works” which I loved and learned a lot – exceedingly thought provoking. It is also controversial and you’ll see why below. I liked his thought that “Science is here to explain the largest number of facts with the fewest assumptions.” His theory is that “the mind is a complex system of neural information processing that builds mental models of the physical and social world and peruses goals which are ultimately related to survival and reproduction in a pre-modern world.”

The first half of it is more about the brain working and neuroscientific elements where he talks about the ‘Computational theory of mind’. He means that it computes information not that it is a computer. In fact he continuously demonstrates how much more complex our brain is than a computer. I was thinking about that today when logging into my Amazon account. For extra security, I had to fill in the letters that it displayed in a distorted format so I could prove I was a human not a computer. It doesn’t seem to need much distortion to fool a computer although I found it quite easy to read. The second half the book seems to be more about psychology although in a way I have not read before.

His overall premise is that we are a result of natural selection. That most of the aspects we have are because they survived better than other aspects – the human being with the improved aspect survived better and was more successful at reproduction. He’s quite pragmatic and a realist when he states “Don’t confuse how the mind works, with how it would be nice for the mind to work.” In this he means that we didn’t develop good eyes because we needed them but that people with better eyesight survived over those with poorer eyesight.

  • He talks about the brain having inbuilt assumptions about our world to solve unsolvable problems such as how our eyes adjust light so that we see things correctly. I understood this when I took a photograph of a beautiful rose-red cloudy sunset. The photo was a shock to me as it was yellow and orange, not red, and the sun beneath the clouds was a bright patch. It was quite different to the view I saw. He gives a number of other examples on this topic which are fascinating.
  • Glial cells take up more room in the brain than neurons but are less interesting.
  • Why is fear more useful to us than happiness? If food gets less then things get worse as food gets less. If food gets plentiful then you only need so much more and then the effect flattens off. So people respond more to loss than gain.
  • In talking about memory retrieval he discusses how costly (energy and time) it is to retrieve too much information, thus information is only retrieved when its relevance outweighs the cost of retrieving it. Also we remember commonly retrieved and recently retrieved information much better. Finally, when we retrieve information we retrieve the emotion attached to it as well which helps us take steps towards having more pleasure and less pain. He also talks about needing to funnel the information towards an executive controller, perhaps the anterior cingulated sulcus, which selects a plan amongst all the competing aspects such that we remain coherent in our actions.
  • Later chapters discuss the role of love, war, emotions and art amongst other things.

Some people are questioning whether neuroscience is stripping the magic out of being human whereas for me it is the opposite as I begin to understand the amazing things our brain can do and have to cope with.

Finally, I thought this was interesting article in the Nature magazine, called “The race to map the human body — one cell at a time.” It has some wonderful animations of travelling through tumours in the body: More Pixar than Hammer Horror.