To philosophy and back again

1 cubic mm of brain tissue has tens of thousands of neurons, a billion connectivity sites and 4km of connections (Churchland, 2013). Wow, I still struggle to comprehend that even though I’ve been reading about it for over 4 years now. I think struggling to comprehend the scale of what the brain truly is just from that perspective is partly why we view it as magical, but simplicity at that scale could create the complex behaviours that are us. When it comes down to that level, computers are pretty simple although that simplicity is exquisitely woven together and the end result is pretty impressive.

I’ve enjoyed reading Patricia Churchland’s book “Touching a nerve”. As she is a neurophilosopher it has some interesting discussions which intrigue me. She bravely tackles the conversation about the soul whilst illustrating her points with related information about what the brain actually has to do to get us to behave as coherent human beings. I like how she concludes the soul chapter with “brain science seems to have the leg up on soul science” which cleverly allows for the possibility that soul science may catch-up at some stage. She also covers morality, aggression & sex and warring tendencies with some interesting diversions and thoughts. I agree with her thought that if a criminal pleads that his brain did it and he wasn’t in control, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be locked up for everyone’s safety. In fact, I felt that that type of argument would make it worse for the criminal as he’s effectively saying “I can’t control this problem I have within me”. Currently, with little chance of changing these brain issues, then surely the criminal is effectively saying, I should be locked up. Strange how we’ve taken “It wasn’t me. It was my brain” to imply that the person should be set free regardless of what harm they may cause to others.

However, I found the chapter on consciousness a little unsatisfactory as I felt she didn’t distinguish that well between being conscious and knowing you are conscious. Someone put it as ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing you know’. Which without language are pretty hard to research. She did talk about being conscious through images rather than auditory (that voice in your head). I gave it a go but unfortunately, I needed the voice, like a narration about the images. Although a colleague gave a different perspective on that today. She said that at times she had a feeling about someone that, say, she didn’t trust. We then debated whether she needed to name the feeling with language and what it meant, or whether it remained just a known feeling.

Also, if you can ‘know you know’ without language then it makes me wonder whether an animal knows there is a tomorrow or that it’s going to die? Perhaps that’s too far but do they know another animal in their group has just died, which doesn’t require a sense of time. It’s an intriguing puzzle to ponder on: whether different animals have various greater or lesser forms of being conscious depending on how much ‘processing ability’ and ‘storage’ they have.

Just attempting to think about what that would be like was difficult. I can do ‘just being’, where I am just getting on with stuff and time seems to not be on my mind – I am just doing, absorbed. But having a lesser form of ‘knowing I know’ was hard to compute. For a seemingly objective subject neuroscience certainly wanders into the subjective.

On another note, I am developing my presentation at the UWTSD Coaching conference in November: What angle am I going to take from my research? My supervisor suggested that people would probably like to understand, as a coach how am I using the neuroscience knowledge that I am learning? Good question, very good question. The essence of the question is “well it’s great that you know a lot about the brain, but how does that help your coachees?”

Anyway, fear and determination made me really think about pulling something together and a new coachee provided just the catalyst I needed. This coachee is successful and a cautious decision-maker; they like enough information and time to reflect. When they think about having to make a decision faster than they would like and with less facts, then they feel anxious. Perfect.

So, once we’d explored the situation and set the outcomes etc, I sat down and proffered that I believed it would be useful to know what we might be up against – how they might be self-hindering and thwart their own progress. I’d thought beforehand about doing this and decided to only explain as little as I needed to. I’ve never believed in needing to use lots of big neuroscience words when ‘a part of the brain’ will suffice. Also, I decided to start by asking them if they’d really thought about how the surge of anxiety was actually generated and why? It seemed a good way to raise their awareness to needing to understand this a bit more with respect to their coaching goals.

We discussed neural pathways being shaped by experience and the need to navigate life when younger; how strong emotions from years back are triggered in current situations; how those neurochemicals affect threat level and cognitive ability. To understand the seemingly conflicting dynamic that a surge of anxiety may not be appropriate for the current situation, but it will drive your actions unless you can start to erode into that emotional response. It allowed us to explored quite targeted actions for reducing anxiety and therefore have a chance of experimenting with faster, less-informed decision-making.

I also felt that they then knew what I knew; that we both understand the task ahead and what may hinder its progress. Also, as it was more factual, it didn’t feel at all like a therapy session or became uncomfortable: It was insightful for them.

2 thoughts on “To philosophy and back again”

  1. I love your explanation in laymen’s term of what is happening in the brain to drive the coachees thinking and emotional responses. Quite a skill to do so without neuroscience jargon and it clearly had the desired effect.

    1. Thank you. I really believe it needs to be in service of the coachee and, personally, I don’t feel that saying things like ‘your basal ganglia’ or ‘your periaqueductal gray’ … helps create a safe environment. There are some good little books if they do wish to know more like the ’30 second brain’ and the the ‘little book of big stuff about the brain’ is good for the limbic system overview. If people want to know about how awesome and fallible their brain is then books like the ‘Tell tale brain’ and ‘How the mind works’ are very interesting not to heavy reads. Or Doidge’s ‘the Brain that changes itself’ is a classic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.