Let’s talk about something different

March 2, 2018

After writing many blogposts which were basically rants about environmental destruction, the insanity of violence, weapons, war, and the ruthlessness of imperialism, I’m taking stock, trying to find out, if there could be an issue who’s illumination and discussion would provide crucial insights and actually help a bit to understand life and improve it.

Something which could not be dismissed as agitprop.

A fellow blogger made me aware of Kazimierz Dąbrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, which is a theory of personality development, based on the notion that psychological tensions (anxieties, blockages, traumas) are necessary to grow ones personality.

Dąbrowski endured two World Wars, he was a member of the Polish resistance in WW II, he was subjected to torture, he was one of 36 surviving psychiatrists in Poland (out of the 400), and he suffered from a lifelong obsession with self-mutilation. His theory clearly reflects his life experience, just like Viktor E. Frankl’s logotherapy and his book Man’s Search for Meaning reflects Frankl’s experience of the holocaust, of Auschwitz, and the loss of his wife, his mother, and his brother in Nazi concentration camps.

These people have something to tell, their theories and views of human nature can help many others, including those few lucky ones, who never suffered from abuse, loss, discrimination, or war.

We don’t live in paradise, we don’t live in perfect societies, most of us will be psychically injured at some point on our lives journey, resulting in deeply engraved anxieties, blockages, traumas, psychoses. In the rare case that we are indeed unscathed, we nevertheless constantly have to deal with the psychological defects of fellow humans.

Carl Gustav Jung was luckier than Dąbrowski and Frankl, as a Swiss citizen he was spared the hell of war. The psychical instability of his mother and the experience of poverty in his early years nevertheless may have caused suffering and psychological injuries.

Jungs theories were so influential that they became a separate school of psychotherapy, called Jungian psychology, or analytical psychology.

Kazimierz Dąbrowski was a friend of Abraham Maslow, famous for his hierarchy of needs, his involvement in humanistic psychology and later transpersonal psychology. Maslow was also in contact with Frankl, though Frankl criticized the humanistic psychology movement for overlooking the transcendent nature of human experience. Maslow himself was an atheist and found it difficult to accept religious experience as valid unless placed in a positivistic framework.

Maslow, who’s parents were first generation Jewish immigrants from Kiev, experienced anti-Semitism from teachers and other children. He had a troubled relationship with his mother and no childhood friends, causing him to become a recluse, only visiting libraries and reading books.

It is hard to escape controversy

Patricia and Paul Churchland, world-renowned neuroscientists, now in their seventies and happily married for 50 years with two children, Anne and Mark, also neuroscientists, have denounced the work of Dabrowski, Frankl, Jung, Maslow, and contemporaries as “folk psychology.” They are the main proponents of eliminative materialism, the belief that everyday, common-sense psychology, or psychology wich is merely based on observation of clients and patients, thereby seeking to explain human behavior in terms of individual beliefs and desires, constitutes a flawed theory that must be eliminated in favor of cognitive neuroscience.

The Churchlands are apparently amiable and sensible people, why didn’t they use a reductionist approach, replacing or amending traditional methodology and incorporating the existing pool of scientific knowledge into their work?

Their harsh rejection of traditional psychology is most likely caused by the detrimental influence of religious thought on US science and the fierce resistance of the few remaining dualists, who believe in a separation of brain and mind, in a soul, in qualia, free will, an after-life, and god.

The Churchlands are famous atheists, and in the heated US culture wars they have been viciously attacked. That they oppose metaphysical beliefs (spiritual, religious, esoteric), and unscientific beliefs and speculations in general (ideologies, philosophies), is an understandable reaction. It is an overreaction nevertheless.

Patricia Churchland responded to criticisms: “the co-evolutionary vision of research proceeding on many levels simultaneously was an essential theme of my book Neurophilosophy. I have been unwaveringly committed to the idea that neuroscience cannot do it alone, and that experimental psychology is indispensable if we are to have a prayer of understanding the nature of the mind/brain.” And she recalled: “I should mention that my early days studying brains at the medical school were often greeted with hilarity and disbelief by philosophers. How could I waste my time on something that would teach us nothing significant for understanding perception, reasoning, and so forth? It was not unusual for a concerned philosopher to sit me down patiently and try to explain functionalism to me, since I must obviously have missed the point.”

And she admitted: ”Of course there exist phenomena to be explained. We are in no doubt that there is a nontrivial difference between being asleep and being awake, between being in a coma and being fully functional, between being aware of a stimulus and not being aware of it. We wonder how to explain, understand, and taxonomize those phenomena, and we suspect science may have some surprises for us.”

The influence of Patricia and Paul Churchland’s work on contemporary philosophy and cognitive science has been profound. They have challenged nearly all prevailing doctrines concerning knowledge, mind, science, and language. Dualism on the other hand slowly fades away.

Wisdom of the elders

This is the title of a book by David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson, which compares ancient native knowledge of nature with contemporary scientific ideas about ecology. The phrase is also used by groups who try to keep Native American traditions alive. One can surely use it generally to emphasize, that a good part of cultural traditions, practices, testimonies, and insights of earlier generations deserve it to at least be examined, reviewed, and maybe incorporated in present day knowledge.

The knowledge which psychologists of the 20th century gathered, should not be dismissed as folk psychology. Their analyses and hypotheses may be tainted by religious or spiritual beliefs, yet they got many things right and accumulated a huge body of evidence with their meticulously documented observations of patients and clients.

Kazimierz Dąbrowski

Dąbrowski’s TPD (theory of positive disintegration) is about personality development. He considered psychological tensions, anxieties, and other mental health symptoms as disintegrative processes, necessary for growth. People who failed to go through positive disintegration would remain for their entire lives in a state of “primary integration,” lacking true individuality. Advancing into disintegration and into the higher levels of development (Level III) was depending on having developmental potential, including over-excitabilities and above-average reactions to stimuli.

Dabrowski distinguished five levels of development:

Level I. Primary integration, characterized by psychological integration, harmony, and little inner conflict.
Level II. Unilevel disintegration, characterized by a brief and often intense crisis. Unilevel disintegration occurs during developmental crises such as puberty or menopause, in periods of stressful external events, and in neuroses.
Level III. Spontaneous multilevel disintegration presents the choice of ascending to a state of autonomy and advanced personality growth or, if the development potential is insufficient, falling back to Levels II and I.
Level IV: Directed multilevel disintegration lets a person take full control of her or his development. It means a deliberate, conscious, and self-directed review of values, behaviors, and social position.
Level V: Secondary integration means inner harmony, creativity, vision, and conscious, carefully weighed decisions.

Dabrowski saw the goal of personality development as being the creation of an authentic, unique self, a self which over a lifetime has cultivated a set of irreplaceable relationships, and he could not countenance the disappearance of such a self at death. He argued that there must be life after death and that this post-mortem existence could not be one where the unique individual self loses its identity by merging into a sea of divinity, which in his opinion were the teachings of most Asian religious traditions.

Is there anything of Dabrowski’s thoughts which is useful from a position of theory reductionism and determinism?

First of all, to develop ones personality is a noble goal which should be on top of everyones priority list. Dabrowski clearly defined the direction of this development (inner harmony, self-control, prudence, caution) and there is nothing objectionable in his basket of virtues.

It is well established, that in childhood the brain creates an abundance of new synaptic connections between neurons, and that this build-up peaks during puberty. Having so many new ways of jumping from thought to thought at ones disposal can be confusing and puberty often is a period of psychological strain and turmoil. Yet, as the body systematically eliminates connections which are used less frequently, the mind calms down and a mature personality is formed.

This process can be repeated in later years, fortunately most times in a less extreme form. As new impressions accumulate, new skills are learned, and new relationships are founded, people are often overwhelmed, exhausted, and depressed. They need to clear their mind, which means in neurological terms that redundant, obsolete, or useless synaptic connections have to be eliminated. 

It can also be, that one has acquired inept, ineffective, even damaging habits or reflexes, or that blockages or phobias are impeding normal life. This could make it necessary to have a clear break, to move to another town, even another country, to quit the job, to divorce, to reinvent oneself and start new from scratch. In this case the old synaptic connections, responsible for the flawed habits, will be less frequently activated because everything has to be learned new and a new sub-network has to be built. The old synapses will eventually be eliminated, the old habits and blockages will be forgotten.

It happens quite often, that a musician, a dancer, an athlete after having painstakingly learned to master an instrument, to learn dancing, to learn the necessary reflexes in a sport game, finds out that her or his technique is wrong and a hindrance, because when the technique was developed at the start of her or his quest to perfection, the muscles were still untrained and weak, and now, as muscle strength has increased, a different technique would be possible, one that would be much more efficient and would allow to become a top artist or athlete.

The musician, the dancer will have to abandon her or his repertoire and learn new pieces, a new choreography, the athlete may have to temporarily change the training regime. This is the best way to forget the old flawed technique.

Viktor E. Frankl

Like Dabrowski, Frankl, founder of logotherapy and existential analysis, was deeply religious and considered spiritual and religious experiences an important part of human nature. He postulated, that “religion is the search for ultimate meaning”.

Religion is not about ensuring the accomplishment of a relaxed life conduct, or the lack of conflict or some other psycho-hygienic objective. Religion offers more to human beings than psychotherapy; and indeed expects more from her or him.” 

Frankl’s psychotherapeutic method involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then imagining that outcome.

He also coined the term paradoxical intention, meaning the deliberate practice of a neurotic habit or thought, undertaken to identify and remove it.

His concept of tragic optimism implies, that a person is genuinely optimistic even in the face of extremely negative circumstances. In logotherapy, this is represented with the “tragic triad” which consists of pain, guilt, and death.

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run — in the long-run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Frankl about life in the Nazi death camp:

… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….

Frankl concluded that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote: “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

Even a non-religious person has to admit, that there is so much wisdom in Frankl’s writing that it should be obligatory reading and part of every curriculum. This man was a giant, a teacher and preacher, maybe a saint.

Beyond that, from a neurological point of view, feeling well and composed even in adverse circumstances, feeling hope, peace, and love in the most dire moments of life is possible if one trains to control the balance of certain neurotransmitters, like oxytocin, serotonin, vasopressin, dopamine. It can be done, with tricks of imagination, and it needs time, because the links from the working memory to the specialized neurons who produce the required neurotransmitters have to be built one by one.

Paradoxical intention is also an interesting concept. Mental disorders like traumata, phobias, and blockages are clusters of neurons which contain the memory of certain traumatic events. There are two ways to heal these mental injuries. One is to block the links to the cluster by creating diversions to a positive memory. In a therapeutic process all thoughts which could revive the disturbing memory have to be associated with a more pleasant memory. The old cluster will be still there but as it never becomes active it will be slowly eliminated.

Paradoxical intention is a completely different therapy. In the controlled environment of a psychotherapeutic session the disturbing memory is recalled again and again. As it happens with all memories, each recall changes the memory a little bit by merging it with the current mode, the current mental state. If the state is tranquility, composure, trust (in the therapist) the bad memory will be step by step neutralized until it presents no further danger to mental health.

Carl Gustav Jung

Jung was the son of a Lutheran Pastor, but lost his faith in orthodox Christianity at an early age. A good deal of Jungian psychology can be seen as Jung’s attempt to find a substitute for the Christian faith and tradition into which he was born, but against which he started to rebel at a very early age. His interest in esotericism, gnosticism, and Asian spirituality significantly influenced his method of  analytical psychology. 

Concepts of analytical psychology include:

Archetype. A term taken from anthropology to designate supposedly universal and recurring mental images or themes.
Archetypal images. Universal symbols that can mediate opposites in the psyche, often found in religious art, mythology, and fairy tales across cultures.
Extraversion and introversion. Personality traits of openness or shyness.
Shadow. The repressed, therefore unknown, aspects of the personality including those considered to be negative.
Collective unconscious. Aspects of unconsciousness experienced by all people in different cultures.
Anima. The contrasexual aspect of a man’s psyche.
Animus. The contrasexual aspect of a woman’s psyche.
Self. The central overarching concept governing the individuation process, as symbolized by mandalas, the union of male and female, totality, unity. Jung viewed it as the psyche’s central archetype.
Individuation. The process of fulfillment of each individual “which negates neither the conscious or unconscious position but does justice to them both.”

Jung’s Personality Functions:

– Extraversion (defining the self in accordance to the external world)
– Introversion (defining the outer world in accordance to the self)
– Intuition (abstract perception of the environment.)
– Sensation (concrete perception of the environment)
– Thinking (impersonal assessment)
– Feeling (deals with the emotional aspects of objects and subjects)

A neuroscientist, using the terms as they are commonly understood, will certainly object to these categories for various reasons, for instance because intuition, together with common sense, imagination, vision is an output of pattern recognition. It doesn’t belong into this list. Most of the lists items have a rather different meaning in both everyday common-sense psychology and neuroscience. This is definitely not folk psychology, it is Jungian psychology, and one needs at least an extended glossary to understand what Jung actually means.

Jung’s definition of sensation “as the psychological function which transmits a physical stimulus to perception” is compatible with neuroscience, but one could consider this list item simply as part of both thinking and feeling, because sensory input, after being decoded, cleaned from clutter, compared and eventually amended with stored memory bits, will initiate chains of thought, but also often incite instant emotional reaction (acute stress responses) like fear, aggression, fight-or-flight reflex, sadness. The signals from our senses can also stimulate positive emotions like sympathy, love, and calm. Advertising and propaganda use this to increase the acceptance of a message. 

For a neuroscientist, thinking is everything what goes on in the cerebral cortex, feeling (as in emotions) is what goes on in the amygdala and the ventral hippocampus, which are part of the limbic system. In Jungian psychology these terms unfortunately have a different meaning and it is nearly impossible to translate them. 

Because of the different terminology, not much of Jungs methods can be used outside his cosmos. One either has to embrace his views wholeheartedly ore stay away from them. And yet, there is one aspect of his work, which had undoubtedly a positive and helpful influence beyond his dedicated disciples. Jung’s interest in Eastern philosophy and body-mind interventions like meditation, yoga, Zen paved the way for a greater public interest in ancient Eastern wisdom and helped many people find relieve, solace, and a new spiritual home.

Abraham Maslow

Maslow introduced several new concepts in psychology. Best known are: The hierarchy of needs, metaneeds and metamotivation, self-actualizing persons, and peak experiences (high points in life when the individual is in harmony with himself and his surroundings).

Maslov stressed the importance of focusing on the positive qualities in people, as opposed to treating them as a “bag of symptoms.” He emphasized that leadership should be non-interventionist, he wondered, why people didn’t self-actualize after their basic needs were met, and he asked, how one could humanistically understand the problem of evil.

For Maslow, meaning was experienced by the self-actualized, growth-motivated person who used her or his creative powers systematically and who could transcend to higher stages of consciousness through peak experiences. Maslow was an atheist, but like Jung open to body-mind interventions. He wrote about mindfulness: “I can feel guilty about the past, be apprehensive about the future, but only in the present can I act. The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”

According to Maslow, self-actualizing people share the following qualities:

Truth: honesty, reality, pure, clean, and unadulterated completeness
Goodness: rightness, desirability, uprightness, benevolence, honesty
Beauty: form, aliveness, simplicity, richness, wholeness, perfection, completion
Wholeness: unity, integration, oneness, interconnectedness, simplicity, order, synergy
Dichotomy: transcendence, acceptance, resolution, integration, polarity, contradiction
Aliveness: creativity, spontaneity, self-regulation, imagination
Uniqueness: idiosyncrasy, individuality, non comparability, novelty
Perfection: nothing superfluous, nothing lacking, just-rightness, suitability, justice
Necessity: inevitability: certainty, inescapability
Completion: ending, justice, fulfillment
Justice: fairness, suitability, disinterestedness, non partiality
Order: lawfulness, rightness, perfectly arranged
Simplicity: nakedness, coherence, clearness, bluntness
Richness: differentiation, complexity, intricacy, totality
Effortlessness: ease; lack of strain, striving, or difficulty
Playfulness: fun, joy, amusement
Self-sufficiency: autonomy, independence, self-determination

This list reads like a thesaurus and it is one of many indications, that Maslow was aware of the pitfalls of semantics. He wanted to ensure a broad understanding of his research results by using all applicable words to define them.

Which brings us to the central issue of words and language, essential for communication, education, cultural and social perpetuation.

Words are words, things are things

Language is any standardized code of communication. It can be spoken, written, expressed in periodical signals (morse code, smoke signals), movements (hand gestures of sign language), symbols, and music. Music clearly is a language, so is mathematics. The chemical signaling of plants, the tweedling of birds, the code protocols of telecommunication and computer data transmission, all that also can be considered to be language.

Language is instantiated in the minds (or brains, if one prefers that) of language users, which means that linguistics can be regarded as a branch of neuroscience.

Words are the building blocks of human language. They have to be standardized, they need to have the same meaning for all participants of a communication. The meanings of words have to be learned as a child grows, and this is a huge task, because the English vocabulary is comprised of more than 200,000 words. English has more words than any other language as it incorporated Celtic, Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Germanic invaders, and Roman. The average native English speaker knows about 40,000 words, while foreigners know 10,000 to 20,000 words.

Is a civilized life possible without language? Susan Schaller describes in her book A Man Without Words her work with Ildefonso, a 27-year-old deaf man of Mexican origin. Ildefonso had no language, but Schaller was able to teach him some words to build his skills from there in a slow and laborious process. Reading this book gives an idea about the utter importance of language for society, culture, and every other aspect of civilization.

In neuroscientific terms, words are clusters of neuronal cells, or memory patterns in our cerebral cortex, which consist of various links to other memory patters and receptive cell clusters in other locations of the brain. One connection leads to a memory pattern in the auditory cortex, which is the coding of the sound bite for the particular word. Another connection leads to the visual cortex in the back of our head.

The visual representation of the particular word consists of the words letters. These letters have all their separate representation in the visual cortex of the brain and can be recognized one by one and combined into a word by working memory computation. Often used words will get their own patterns in the visual cortex and the working memory is then only needed, when the writing is uncommon, blurred, sloppy, and not recognizable at a first glance.

The probably strongest connection leads from the words memory pattern to the amygdala deep inside the medial temporal lobes. The amygdala is a part of the brain which organizes the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. From here many neurotransmitter producing cells, muscle contractions and relaxations, the sympathetic nervous system, and via hypothalamus metabolic processes and activities of the autonomic nervous system are influenced.

One connection leads to the motor (muscle, movement) memory area, which is not consciously accessible (at least not without systematic mental training). Though we normally are not aware of our movement memory, this area of our brain is nevertheless of huge importance. Humans are movement animals, every aspect of our life is connected to gesture, motion, movement.

Most words have a movement connotation, for instance the word Hope is related to walking, moving on. The word Love is associated with motor memory patterns like hugging, gently touching, caressing, fondling. We Love with our hands, but we Hope with our feet.

There are many additional connections of the words memory pattern to other patterns in the cerebral cortex, which can either be episodic memories (experiences in our life that we associate with the particular word), other words, or patterns representing actions and reactions.

One crucial connection of the marker or link list which represents a word leads to the working memory. All words have their representation in the working memory and that allows us to consciously evaluate or contemplate words in context with each other and use them in logical conclusions and creative ideas.

Working memory and consciousness

This is a difficult story and it involves much speculation. fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of people who fell asleep or became unconscious from anesthesia showed diminished brain activity, but most significantly a breakdown of the communications between the sub-networks (fronto-pariental, default mode, dorsal attention, visual, auditory, etc) of the brain.

Areas in the limbic system have found to be involved in wakefulness, namely the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus of the hypothalamus, the lateral hypothalamus, the upper brain stem, and the basal forebrain. The ventral tegmental area, the claustrum region, and the intralaminar nucleus of the thalamus also may have a say.

Working memory, also known as ultra short memory, central executive, or rich club, is involved in most of our everyday activities, such as preparing one’s own contribution to a debate while following the other discussants and incorporating their arguments. Working memory apparently is intricately interwoven with conscious awareness, though some studies suggest, that there are also unconscious activities (visual masking and attentional blink paradigms). If these studies were right, consciousness would nevertheless be a subset of working memory. There is also a theory, that the episodic buffer is the main place where conscious experience occurs.

Several influential authors have closely identified working memory with consciousness. Recently William James described memory as a way of bringing back past conscious experiences. In the case of primary memory, there would be nothing to bring back because “it was never lost; its date was never cut off in consciousness from that of the immediately present moment.” James argues that our effective consciousness is material retained in primary memory. Likewise, Atkinson and Shiffrin already in 1971 explicitly stated that they “tend to equate the short-term store with consciousness,” and that the “thoughts and informations of which we are currently aware can be considered part of the contents of the short-term store.” Baddeley in 1993 also argued that consciousness operates through working memory.

It may be a hypothesis still, but for most neuroscientists it is a plausible one. After a few thousand years of philosophical bickering about self, qualia, sentience vs. sapience, and mind-body dualism there is finally the science based, non-metaphysical alternative to define consciousness as the group of momentarily active items inside the working memory.

These items are abbreviated representations of memory clusters in other brain areas, including markers (link lists) of words and symbols, pictures, episodic memories, and feelings.

Incoming signals from the senses, from the amygdala, and from other regions of the brain, where chain activations of neurons are going on, may activate parts of the working memory to start processes of correlating, weighing, providing a feedback, activating other, far away memory clusters. Chain activations of neurons can be diverted or stopped. Incoming signals may also just be observed. They will be part of consciousness but will not start computation or provoke a response in the working memory.

The working memory is not just one place behind the forehead, it is a group of highly interconnected brain areas with nearly “random access,” consisting of a self organizing network structure that can be best described as a low resolution map representation of all memory patterns. Baddeley’s model of working memory is composed of three main components: 

1. Central executive which acts as supervisory system and controls the flow of information from and to its slave systems.
2. The phonological loop.
3. The visuo-spatial sketchpad.

The ability to remain active for up to nine seconds, sending continuously bursts of electrical signals, and the high number of synaptic connections distinguish neurons in the wording memory from other ones, but it is still unknown, if they are a type of “elite neurons” or just very well supported by the glial cells. The high interconnectivity in a densely packed area means that basically every neuron can address every other neuron and that “random access” is possible. 

Pattern recognition

Like most words, the noun “intelligence” means different things to different people. Here it is used to describe the ability to act appropriately in all situations and develop useful strategies in the face of life’s challenges.

This capacity rests on three pillars:

a. Pattern recognition.
b. Memory, short- and longterm, including the ability to access memories easily and purge insignificant details.
c. Computational power of working memory and the cerebral cortex in general.

The working memory is important for reasoning and decision-making and in Western education c. is perceived as the main, if not the only factor of intelligence. But the logical thinking in our working memory is not the most important and most powerful function of our brain, it is by far eclipsed by pattern recognition. 

Pattern recognition can discover, compare, merge, blend complex structures which our rational thinking (reasoning) with its 7 to 12 item limit never would be able to even detect. Pattern recognition is the basis of common sense and intuition, it is involved in orientation, recognition of faces and objects, and in decision making.

A short and drastically simplified description of this function may be helpful:

When a bundle of neurons is activated either by a sensory signal or a command from the working memory, they activate other neurons via synapses which are sufficiently sensitive to relay the signal, and the other neurons activate a third group of neurons, and so on. These activation chains can include thousands of steps and branch out into various smaller or bigger parallel streams. Usually the activation chain represents the stream of incoming sensory signals and the activated synapses will have increase excitability for some time. When another stream of sensory signals is largely similar to the first stream, it will activate the same chain and after a few repetitions the increased excitability of the synapses will become permanent. Even the slightest similarities in further sensory streams can be detected, they will only activate parts of the permanently sensitized synapses but thats enough in most cases.

Millions of synaptic connections are involved in a single process and each one of these synapses is a powerful and versatile operator which can function as a switch, an operational amplifier, a unit of boolean algebra, or a frequency filter. The synapses are channeling and transforming the flow of action potentials and they are controlled by dozens of excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitters. They are also controlled by glial cell (astrocytes), which can control the blood supply (by squeezing the blood vessels of the neurons) and modulate neurotransmitters via an ATP – hydrogen ions feedback loop. Astrocytes also form the myelin isolation of the axons.

The complexity of these processes is truly mind-boggling and the achieved results are mind-boggling and stunning as well. Faintest similarities between the patterns of incoming sensory signals and stored memory patterns can be recognized, vague structures, shapes, symmetries, repetitions, that our conscious mind never would be able to identify, can be detected.

Pattern recognition occurs outside the working memory areas and is mostly subconscious. Many decisions are made intuitively and unconsciously, they are only later rationalized in order to justify the decision. Pattern recognition develops early, 3- and 4-month-old infants can already successfully detect visual patterns and generalize them to new sequences.

Concluding words

No, it is not that easy and it is not that simple. We have found out a lot about the workings of the brain, about human intelligence, about the human psyche, but the riddle of the human mind is not completely solved, glaring gaps in our knowledge still remain.

Molecular biology has made great progress, and we know a lot about the structure and function of  proteins and nucleic acids, essential to life. We know how newly formed cells in the fetal brain find their right place, we know how the migration of axons and whole brain cells is supported by actin and myosin, we know that a protein called SynDIG4 helps to establish a reserve pool of receptors near a synapse that can quickly be recruited to strengthen memories.

Hebb’s rule “neurons that fire together wire together,” is still valid, proven a thousand times but also refined. It has for instance been established, that the retrograde transmitter nitric oxide causes not only the growth of the presynaptic neuron, but also of neighboring neurons (this is called volume learning).

We know that there are various negative feedback loops which prevent outputs of amplifiers to oscillate between the physical extremes. Some 40 percent of neurons are inhibitory (mainly GABA), glial cells also modulate and moderate neuronal activity. 

We know that memories are formed by increased excitability of synapses, by myelination (electric isolation) of axons, by increasing the blood supply to neurons and forming new synaptic connections and new neurons. We know that in a healthy person new neurons are created throughout life and that connections, network nodes, and new substructures in the brains network are constantly changing, are formed anew, or are disappearing.

This is called brain plasticity, and it is an amazing ability which makes it possible to repair damaged brain areas after a stroke, a concussion, or other kind of severe injuries. If the damage is too severe, the functions of the destroyed area can often be partly regained by recruiting other areas and rebuilding the lost capabilities there. Former US Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, shot in the head from close range by psychopath Jared Loughner, is an example of such a recovery.

We know that sleep and dreaming are used to replenish receptors, shrink synapses (who grow with each action potential) to their initial size, fold long protein molecules, replay the events of the day (in dreams) to solidify memory and eliminate unimportant details.

We know, that in addition to electric and chemical signaling between neurons, glial cells (astrocytes) communicate via calcium waves. There is speculation, that electromagnetic interference is an additional method of communication between neurons.

And yet, many functions of the brain remain a mystery.

The human brain consists of 86 billion neurons (16 billion of them in the cerebral cortex, 69 billion in the cerebellum), and the brain uses a quarter of the bodies energy. The number of synapses can only be guessed, and the guesses go up from 100 trillion. Main neuronal pathways, called white matter, are formed by bundles of axons. The total length of myelinated fibers is estimated to be between 80,000 and 180,000 kilometers.

Computer supported EEG (electroencephalography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) allow us to detect local brain activity and has helped to match brain regions with brain functions. The clinical study of injuries by stroke or concussions made it possible to find out, which brain regions are indispensable for certain tasks. Most of our mental activities though involves several brain areas and some, for instance playing music, activate practically the whole brain.

To draw a circuit diagram of the brains networks will take many more years, maybe even decades. Neural coding is a field about the relationship between sensory stimuli and the individual or ensemble neuronal responses and there is an intense debate within the neuroscience community whether neurons use rate coding or temporal coding (they probably use both).

Mathematicians and network theorists will have the final word and the closing arguments will be books full of equations.

As already mentioned, most of what is written in this text is a drastic simplification of the existing body of scientific knowledge, but this is not a scientific paper, I just wanted a.) honor eminent persons who helped to understand human nature, and b.) make the point that we don’t solely depend on philosophers and theologist to explain our inner world, scientists can now do it as well.




  1. Fascinating to combine all these thoughts , theories, and findings in a single post. I’ll be pondering the connections .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] via Let’s talk about something different — Mato’s Blog […]


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