Brain Training

The new interface between traditional philosophy of mind and advancing neurobiology is an exciting place to be. It is also a confusing place. There is a lot of loose talk about the brain thinking, feeling emotions and having desires. There is much research about what parts of the brain light up when people are thinking, feeling or desiring something. We have also extended our knowledge of the role of the brain in producing the hormones, neurotransmitters and other chemicals that affect moods and behavioral responses. What are we to make of all this?

There seem to be limitations to what we can learn about people simply by studying their brain activity. Perhaps it is true that certain characteristic spots light up when people report feeling, desiring or thinking something. However, it is always possible to have a feeling that does not correspond to the normal spot lighting up. Similarly, a spot may light up but without the corresponding report.

Another limitation seems to be that no matter how well grounded our correlations become, linking brain states with mental states, we cannot read off the object of a thought, feeling or desire simply by looking at a brain lighting up. For example, we might find a strong correlation between people reporting feeling afraid and the lighting up of a certain portion of the brain. We might even become confident that we can say that the subject is feeling fear just by looking at the brain activity. Nevertheless, we cannot say just what the person is afraid of. Thought is intentional activity, and we cannot arrive at the object of an intention solely by looking at the brain.

While these limitations exist, what we are leaning about the brain does affect our understanding of ourselves as thinking and learning beings. The Socratic injunction to ‘Know Thyself’ just got more complicated. The old idea that the brain stops changing early in life has given way to the idea of the ‘neuroplasticity’ of the brain. The brain changes. Can we train the brain to work better?

Brains are like muscles. We need nourishment and exercise to keep them in shape. We can develop different sets of muscles and change our physical shape over time. Now think of the brain in the same way. We need to feed and exercise the body to keep our brains healthy. Through brain training we may be able to develop new ‘second’ natures, and reprogram our responses to things, thus, over time, changing the neural networks in our brains.

New habits of mind, perception and response need time and repetition to become ingrained. It is said that one needs six weeks or so to break one habit and establish another. During this time, our brains adapt to the change we are making in our lives.

One area of brain activity is of great potential interest. This is the action of the amygdala, in the medial temporal lobe. While our understanding of this area is not complete, the amygdala is part of the story of the fight or flight response, and ‘flying off the handle’ in general. When a tiger comes around the corner, one is running before making any conscious choice. It is an immediate response. If there were ways to prevent the ancient amygdala from carrying out some of its immediate, unthinking reactions, and put a thought process between the stimulus and the response, we could, perhaps, increase our control over our actions and emotional responses. Getting a grip the amygdala might help people shape a thought-mediated response to events rather than blindly reacting to them.

All this is a little fanciful, I admit, but to pursue the theme a bit further, consider the new job opportunities that may open up for certified ‘Brain Trainers.’ They would have to know about the effects of diet and exercise on brain function, as well as amygdala training techniques. In addition, I speculate that meditation will be part of a brain training regime. Imaging studies show that the brains of experienced meditators differ from non-meditators. Their meditation predictably produces beneficial brain waves of a type that non-meditators do not. The practice calms a person who simply breathes and attends to the moment as it unrolls. Training the brain may become part of the good life and contribute to the art of living. Perhaps integrating an awareness of brain chemistry and function into our self-understanding will contribute to the philosophical goal of self-knowledge.

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22 Comments.

  1. Which scenario sounds better? A tiger comes around the corner
    a) You’ve got a grip on your amygdala which allows you to shape a thought-mediated response to seeing the tiger rather than blindly reacting to the sight of it.
    b) You run like hell.

  2. Jeff,
    Lest my message got lost in subtlety, our brains in all likelihood evolved expressly to maximize, within its capability, our survival. In an attempt to alter an annoying characteristic through brain training one risks losing a critical response mechanism.

  3. @ Ralph: In “The Gift of Fear”, Gavin de Becker makes a similar argument: when one is in a life threatening situation, one needs to learn to allow one’s fear to override one’s normal (rationalizing) cognitive responses. There can be no written “best response” to a threatening situation, and believing that is the case is very dangerous. I’m reminded of when I worked in a casino vault reading the “robbery procedure.” What a joke! I’m sure that it goes both ways: in rare occasions the amygdala might save your life. On other occasions, it might get you into trouble.

  4. Please note that I wrote: “If there were ways to prevent the ancient amygdala from carrying out SOME of its immediate, unthinking reactions.” Of course the amygdala had a role in the survival of the species, and quick reactions are necessary to save your life sometimes. However, there aren’t many tigers running around our major cities, and it may be that the amygdala has lost some of its raison d’etre. I have heard that it is possible to make the amygdala slow down a bit, when quick reactions may not the the best thing for a person.

  5. Jeff,
    You’re right. Not too many tigers on the loose here. But there are rattle snakes, for example, with which my dog and I had an experience. Dumb dog nosed it out of some grass and I, with my lightening speed reactions enable by an untampered amygdala pulled him back to safety.
    Jeff, I’d love to improve my brain’s functioning, get rid of the garbage it doesn’t need, but for what you describe, the payoff might not be worth any risk.

  6. It’s highly unlikely than brain training would dampen the response of the amygdale to the point that people would ignore danger from elements like tigers or snakes. This would take very special, intense training (such as marines “practicing” maneuvers under live fire).

    But brain training could help us reduce unhelpful, automatic responses to the many non-life threatening “dangers” that now trigger fight, flight, or freeze in today’s world – “dangers” such as feeling insulted by the boss. There are many ways that people can work with their own brains to take advantage of the many automatic reactions of the brain while compensating for the brain’s limitations.

    My coauthors and I talk about these in our book, The Brain Advantage. For example, the brain seeks meaning and so sometimes reads meaning into situations that are essentially random. That’s why in one study college students did more poorly than rats in finding food in a maze – the placement of the food was random, but the students felt sure there must be a meaningful pattern to where the food was placed. As a result, they tried to outwit the system. Knowing this, people can learn to raise questions (for example, about sales data), including the question: Could this pattern be a fluke?

    Just one last thought – one of the great things that people can do is to step back and think about what they are doing, think about what the brain is doing. They can take their own thoughts as the object of their thinking (hence, philosophy!) – that’s one of the great benefits of meditation in which we can witness our thoughts, but in a way that changes our emotional reactions to them. Neurologist Jeffrey Schwartz used this to help patients with obsessive-compulsive thoughts and actions overcome the groundless anxiety that was so debilitating to them.

  7. Ms. VH
    How did the groups of students who were convinced there was no meaningful pattern in the placement of the food compare with the rats?

  8. Hi, Ralph – there were no groups of students who were convinced that there was no meaningful pattern. Here’s more detail – a T-maze was used, meaning the maze was shaped like a T and the students (and rats) had to make a decision at the end of the long leg of the T – turn right or turn left? Sometimes a right turn would lead to the food, sometimes a left turn. Exactly where the food was placed was random, with the constraint that it would be on the right 60% of the time. Basically the rats learned over time to always turn in the direction where the food most frequently was placed, so they got to the food 60% of the time. The students got there less often,52% of the time, and the explanation for this was that the students kept thinking there must be some meaningful pattern to the variation from right to left. So they hypothesized about various sometimes complicated patterns that might be determining the placement and then followed these. So the students were certainly acting rationally – the point (which is also a main point in the book The Black Swan by Taleb) was just that in some cases events really are random, so that searching for meaning leads to false conclusions. You can find a write up of this research in Jonah Lehrer’s book on decision-making called How We Decide as well as in The Brain Advantage.

  9. Hi Madeleine,
    You explained the construct of the test extremely well. Thank you.

  10. Dennis Sceviour

    Madeleine,
    It is nice to hear from psychologists in a philosophy blog. Psychological experimentation is filling in many of the gaps that philosophy leaves.

    However, I seem to be missing something here. What is the rat maze test is trying to prove? A brain is not necessary to find food. A similar test could be devised with starfish, fungus, or tree roots, to produce some statistical result.

  11. I believe that the main point of the experiment is just to show that our human tendency to notice patterns and search for meaning in those patterns – a trait that serves us well in many ways – has a drawback. The rat-brain apparently notices the overall pattern that the food is more often on the right, and doesn’t/can’t speculate that there might be some more complicated sequence determining the placement of the food. So the rat takes the simplest course “go to the right” and finds the food more often. People, in contrast, seem to search for meaning and to discern patterns which they suppose must be meaningful. This is great in the sense that it inspires us to look for causal patterns, and (using the scientific method), search for things like the causes of diseases. I don’t want to sound too much like an ad for my books, but I have a chapter about this in an earlier book, Blind Spots (Prometheus Books, 2007). Anyway, in terms of teaching critical thinking, the point of the study is to alert people to the fact that sometimes our tendency to search for and discern meaningful patterns backfires and leads us astray – leads the students to not find the food as often as the rat does. It does this in particular when the pattern – in this case, the sequencing of the placing of the food – is truly not meaningful, but simply random. So the study is not so much about finding food, as it is about noticing patterns and basing our actions on what we notice. To take this a step further, I use this partly to argue against “new age” type thinking which asserts that “there are no accidents” and reads great meaning into coincidental events, like sitting next to a musician on a plane when you’ve been trying to decide whether or not to attempt a career in music. I’m trying to show students that such a juxtaposition of events doesn’t necessarily mean that “the universe” is trying to tell them something.

  12. Dennis and Madeleine,
    With all due respect to you and loads of other people, I’ve come across very few psych and more generally social science experiments that I put any credence in. Almost always the results, in my mind, are questionable.For example, in the above case, I have several questions, one covered by you Dennis in your comment.
    A more straightforward test was performed on me many years ago; I don’t remember the reason why. A psychologist asked me questions and after answering, every so often, an electric shock was administered. I assumed the shocks had to do with my answers. After a short while I realized the shocks were random and I stopped trying to figure out what brought them on.
    It seems to me after a couple of zaps, if the psychologist had asked why I thought I was getting shocks, I would have told him I thought them related to my answers,
    and I would have been spared the other shocks.
    But what was learned by the experiment? Any halfwit could have predicted that the subject was going to try and think his way out of being tortured. The test was set up for that purpose. I wonder how many thousands of times was that test given.

  13. Really, what is a society if not people constantly overriding their natural instincts? I would argue that it already happens all the time. Quine had a nice metaphor: people are like shrubs trimmed into the shapes of elephants. The underlying biology may be different, but behavior is influenced by social pressures. For the most part that works out well for them. But, in extreme/rare instances it does not, and one needs to relearn to listen to one’s “fear”.

  14. Thanks again for the great discussion. I have been talking to someone about this mix of philosophy, psychology and neurology/brain physiology. I am quite happy to speak in a sloppy way about brains ‘doing’ things, ‘intending’ things or having ‘wants’ or ‘desires.’

    However, I ran into a friend who says that the whole project is more or less nonsense, and that it makes no sense to speak of a ‘conscious brain’. The idea is that the ‘mind’ and the ‘brain’ are both abstractions compared to the persons who have minds and brains. So, on this account, the brain never literally ‘sees’ anything, nor does the mind, but rather it is the person who sees. This is to take ‘person’ as primitive.

    Still, I feel that it is too early to foreclose on all the loose talk. Metaphors are research projects in miniature. Of course, every metaphor snaps if it is stretched too far. Nevertheless, the stretching is good for them.

    The same person suggested that we just call ‘amygdala training’ ‘anger management.’

    So what are we to say that this whole talk about brains as if they have desires, consciousness, etc. etc. is a total load of codswallop?

  15. Hey, Jeff – Based on my discussions with a psychologist who is head of the Neuroscience division at Northwestern University, I’d say that most neuroscientists would not say that the brain has desires, feels anger, etc. They’d say that our personal experience of desire, anger, etc. is the result of brain activity (for example, in the amydgala) and that the brain registers or is activated by outer stimuli, like light, triggering our experiences of, for example, seeing an apple. They would I believe talk about consciousness as our personal awareness of what we feel, see, etc. when what the brain is registering reaches the cortex. So yes in a sense the brain is a conceptualization, or a concept, as is the construct of “person” or “mind,” but it’s also a physical reality and the basis for the phenomenological experiences we have. To my mind, this doesn’t make our discussions of all this nonsense. Instead, it returns us to old discussions of what consciousness is, what “free will” means, and ethical issues involving personal responsibility, etc. But those old discussions can now be more informed by our knowledge of how the brain works. For example, a classic example (see Timothy Wilson in a great book called Strangers to Ourselves) is the question of what happens when you’re in a crowded room filled with small groups conversing. You are only conscious of the conversation going on in your small group. If asked to tell someone else what else people were saying in that room, you’d say you had no idea. Yet if someone 10 feet away mentions your name in this situation, you notice it. The question, which to me is a neurological, psychological, and philosophical question, is: how did you do that? Neurologically, it seems that the brain, below the level of consciousness, must be monitoring that surrounding sound, then making a decision (to use loose language) to bring the sound of our name to our attention, at which point “we” become aware of it. Raises all kinds of questions about just what consciousness is and who “we” are.

  16. Consciousness is over-rated.

    You can tell this when every other unwashed new-age leftie on Huffington Post is mis-quoting Bohr that the conscious observer influences quantum events and hence the universe.

    When you hear this sort of nonsense from this sort of an anti-scientific crowd – the only snap conclusion you can reach is that consciousness is BS.

  17. Talking Philosophy | Brain Training | Brain Training - pingback on November 15, 2010 at 1:11 pm
  18. Generalities which may be relevant here: Philosophy starts, more or less, with the dualism/monism dichotomy. The dualist says mind and brain are absolutely different, so for her this discussion is meaningless, amygdala shmygdala. End of story.

    Now, we know there are two kinds of monism, but here only the materialist kind is relevant. The implicit trend in the discussion is toward a vindication of materialism, i.e., the mind is the brain. It’s just that we don’t have full, empirical proof thereof.
    Maybe we never will, whatever that may look like.

    So, for now we content ourselves with baby steps, correlations of lights on monitors and mind states, etc. etc. But we know what the final desideratum is. I’m sympathetic to this, but then I wonder, when X is training her brain, what is doing the training? The mind or the brain? And what trained the trainer, ad infinitum?

  19. I remember my diver training when they tell us that “when you are confronted with an emergency, the first thing to do is think.” Their reasoning is that since the water slows down your physical movements, but not your brain (when underwater), your brain has an unusual comparative advantage over the rest of your body for speediness. It is also true that there are no 75 m.p.h. cheetahs down there, so moving fast is almost never a way to properly deal with an emergency. Running out of air is survivable if you don’t rush to the surface, for example.

    How do you train someone “not to panic”? That seems to transcend diver-specific human endeavors.

  20. It is a well written article with many good points and questions. I would agree that monitoring brain activity (imaging and what-not) has limits on what can be learned about the person. By the same token, I would submit that meditation, however beneficial, would be subjected to the same limitations. i.e. seeing the brain imaging picture doesn’t tell us if meditation is good or bad, despite the person saying he/she feels relaxed/refreshed.

    Why can’t brain training be at the basic level of exercising it with various activities which require mental ability. e.g. do math, solve puzzles, do software programming, play the piano, engage in conversation, play card games, … Physical training at the rudimentary level can be tending the farm, go do some hunting, wrestle amongst the men, … The fact that humanity has progressed beyond that requires us to create other forms of exercise through sports and training routines.

    In addition to other mental activities, I engage in brain training and exercise as I wrote in an article titled “Tickling the Brain, or Cramping It” http://this1that1whatever.com/miscellany/brain-workshop.php.

  21. I enjoy your topics, Philosophy of mind, brain.

    could you please send to my email any news about Philosophy of brain/mind. ali_yaghob2002@yahoo.com

  22. Brain training and exercising is just as important as physical exercise, if not more.

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