Self comes to mind (Damasio 2012)

Is it really a month ago since I did the last blog? I suppose that means a lot must have been happening. Not quite so much on the neuroscience side as I have been working hard to get my resubmission sorted but I am reading (trying) Damasio’s latest book ‘Self comes to mind’. I definitely think I have learned more about human nature and behaviour through reading these types of books than any ‘Neuroscience for …’ book. I find the neuroscience elements go in subliminally as they are often being used and I don’t feel anxious that I need to know all that stuff. Anyway I have a proper textbook for that if I need it.

Let me give you a few themes from the book:

Simple cells, in order to survive, must be able to detect internal and external changes. They must have a response policy for these and be able to act to avoid the threat. The response policy needs to have conditions which if met trigger a movement as the simple cell does not ‘think’. It appears as if the cells act with intention but they don’t. They are just doing what they do which all adds up to a lot. Brains evolved to make this more effective and varied, so they can ‘sense, decide and act’.

The basic intention of the organism’s design is to maintain structure with the overarching purpose to survive so genes can be reproduced. (Easy to forget when life seems to be about which mobile phone or App to buy.) Therefore incentive mechanisms are needed for guidance, so chemicals are released to signal good things (dopamine, oxytocin) or threats (cortisol , Prolactin) to optimise behaviour towards or away from. However, if you have senses you have far more information on the external situation. Therefore, we have developed beyond mere survival to having certain ranges of well-being.

He’s also big on the brain making maps; maps of everything. Brains are constantly up dating their map of the body so it knows that it’s ok or whether it has to do something to get in back within that tight range of requirements needed for survival. He also suggests that event maps make up our memories. He feels that it is more efficient to store ways of recreating maps than every detail of a memory. In essence, the map retriggers the detail of that event within us. There certainly seems to be a lot of evidence that there is neural firing similar to the original event, which happens when we recall it. This can mean that if a memory gets triggered in some way – of which there are many – then a response happens whether we like it or not. Depending on its strength and our abilities to control it, it may undermine what we are doing at that moment. Sometimes we will know this is happening (typically from explicit memories) and sometimes we just know how we feel, and assume that the current situation is making us feel that way (usually from implicit memories). Useful to know when the other person acts ‘irrationally’.

He talks about how we might learn due to mirror neurons. These mimic in our brain what we see others doing. This means we encode how to do things and may be partly how we learn so many things as we grow up. He talks about how if we have encoded it through mirror neurons then we can act it out as required. It makes me think in coaching that maybe I might need to do more real-plays of situations that my coachees want to handle so that they have a memory of doing it. In essence it puts it in their system. I wonder if this is why visualisation has an effect. Seems like a topic that could have more relevance once further explored and understood, so maybe one to look out for.

The saga of my panel has continued and it has been interesting to notice how I have been going through the change curve and what has helped that. It definitely helped to know that I have passed, although the conditions I need to meet are as stringent as I’d feared. Knowing was a mixed blessing as it rekindled some of the emotions but at I least understood the size of the task. Later that week we met as a group and it was helpful to talk about it. Partly it ‘normalised’ the experience and partly it enabled me to explore my options going forward. I also untangled what I felt I could have done differently, from the situation’s dynamic. This certainly helped me think more rationally and tempered the emotional response. I read in LaDoux that the emotional response is about creating action to re-stabilise the system and that once that action happens, the inhibitory neurons are fired to turn off the fight/ flight response. So the act of creating a response quenches what initiate it.

Another week passed until I spoke with my Advisor about the conditions, so I started by tackling the obvious ones. Doing one thing helped me to think clearer and then another condition made more sense, so I started working on that as well. Then I understood another, so by the time I spoke with my Advisor I had sent through my plan for addressing 5/6 of the conditions.

One useful outcome is that I now feel even more certain that my research method is well chosen as I have had to put up a stronger defence of it. Martin Seligman in ‘Authentic Happiness’ says that people move on when they can make something ‘good’ out of the situation, no matter how small. I’d go with that. And although begrudgingly at first, I have got to ‘acceptance’ on the change curve mainly because I have separated what I feel is inexcusable behaviour from the extra thinking the conditions have made me do. Now I can handle the two things independently.

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