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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