Friday, June 29, 2012

Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist who is the Director of Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Comtemplative Wisdom.  He is well published and authored the books Buddha's Brain and Just One Thing.
Dr. Hanson has an informative newsletter and conducts seminars throughout the United States.  In my opionion his focus of "Mindfulness" and Neuroscience is wonderful contribution to wellness.

What’s On Your Mind: Or In Your Brain? (Click on Title)

by Al Babich

How do we decide if we are using our Mind or our Brain?  Certainly, we wouldn’t have a Mind without a Brain.  And we know without the brain and its functions we wouldn’t last very long.  But maybe it is the distinction between the Brain and Mind or the synergy of the two that provides our sustainability and quality of life.

We all enter this world with a brain that is designed to protect us.  The brain gets better at protecting us with time and stimulation.  Have you ever notice seeing a water hose or twig on the ground and jumped back quickly thinking it was a snake?  That’s the good ole brain in survival mode working even before we identify the object as a water hose or twig.

Our brain is hard at work interpreting the environment around us, which includes objects, people and conditions.  The brain in its most primitive functions will monitor whether you are threatened (will it eat you), is it food (can I eat it) or am I attracted to it (can I mate with it).  The first two have to do with survival of the organism the last has to do with the survival of the species.

If we only responded to the three brain imperatives above our species wouldn’t have advanced too far.  Fortunately for us, natural selection favored individuals who were most gregarious and able to work cooperatively.  We evolved to cooperate and our species thrived.  Our cooperation may have been the major stimulus leading to the development of many different forms of communications.

Other qualities evolved from our cooperation such as sympathy, empathy, integrity etc.  Cooperation evolved beyond satisfying basic needs to emotional bonding and to what we call “humanity”.

There are many who are able to articulate the above better than I, but my treatise is the synergy between the brain and mind to facilitate the “humanness” in us all  and simultaneously provide individuals with a good quality of life.

That’s A Big Order
The “Big Order” begins with neonatal care.  Approximately between 6 and 9 months of gestation the neural matter begins to specialize and migrate to the locations in the brain where it will remain for life.  There are circumstances where this specialization and migration is not totally successful. For example a mother who consumes alcohol during this period may deliver her baby with Infant Alcohol Syndrome (IAS).  The alcohol caused neural errors that impact future development.  There are other types of addiction or even medications that can influence the migration of neurons during the last 6 to 9 months of gestation.

After birth neurons cease to migrate and are ready to be stimulated or be “turned on.”  Much of the neural “turn on” is innate such as breast feeding (although some infants need a little help to latch on to receive momma’s milk).  The neural stimulation develops neural networks necessary for survival.  Some of the neural stimulation has time limits.  I’m sure you have read accounts of children being deprived of human interaction in their early years, which means the neural networks for speech are not ”turned on” at the appropriated time in development. If they are rescued, those over 12 will not be able to speak in sentences. 

I worked with a student who had emigrated from Korea.  He was unable to make eye contact or initiate or maintain a conversation.  I learned that he was raised in an orphanage where they housed the infants in play pens stacked on each other.  There was not enough staff to provide human interaction or physical contact.  When his neural networks for “bonding” with humans were primed, they were not stimulated.  We usually think the phrase “use it or lose it” is for the elderly, but in developing human beings it is all too true for infants too.

In most settings, for our little ones who are under neural and physical construction, as their faculties come on line they relish environmental stimulation and activity.  Do you remember when you couldn’t wait to hear “Mommy or Daddy” come out of their mouths and that’s when all kinds of verbalization began.  That’s also when you are very careful what words you use around them especially in a fit of anger.

I’m sure our children would walk in spite of us, but we love to help the process along with training and practice complete with pictures and videos.  But, did you notice the walking seems to be a brief period and then its “running” every where.  That’s when your child learns his first physics lesson.  “Two solid objects can not occupy the same space at the same time.”  Just a note, with our son, we knew the emergency room nurse by her first name and that’s nothing to brag about. He was a runner.

What About The Mind ?
The more the brain is fully developed the more opportunities it provides to the mind.  A substance abused brain provides very few opportunities for the mind.  The addicted brain provides a very myopic focus whether it is drug/alcohol, gambling, pornography etc.  A neural network has been established in the reward system of the brain and has been trained for the acquisition of the object of the addiction.  In this scenario the mind has fewer options for responding rationally to the environment.
The mind comes in to play to choose alternatives to basic brain satisfactions.  In development, the parents provide a guiding structure to help the child involve his or her mind development for its own self guidance.  For instance, dad says, “John, you can only have two cookies then put the bag a way.”  John eats the two cookies and finds them very good.  He comes back later and eats the whole bag and then spends fifteen minutes in the bathroom over the stool rediscovering why two cookies were enough.  When his friend Jimmy asks him if he wants to eat a bag of cookies he bought, John may benefit from his previous experience or may need to learn the lesson all over again.  Although the example above is very simple it’s a lesson we all review even into adulthood.
The mind provides guidance sometimes contrary to our basic instincts.  We aren’t surprise when a mother and father runs into a burning building to save their children, but what about the incidents of total strangers doing the same?  Why do couples adopt children when they have children of their own?  Altruism is one of the more human qualities of the mind.
The well-developed mind will choose altruistic activities over self-gratification for external rewards.  Those who spend hours serving at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, cleaning the church, sitting with the sick while the spouse receives a respite develop neural networks that reward us for behaving in caring ways that the brain’s basic reward system can not relate.  I would propose that a mind directing the brain puts us in touch with what makes us HUMAN.
There is no dichotomy between brain and mind when the synergy between the two enhances our humanity and well being.