The Post-Postmodernist Brain

May 15, 2021 Cognitive Insights, Neurocognitively, Sociocultural Issues No Comments

“because your experiences are unique, so are the vast, detailed patterns in your neural networks. Because they continue to change your whole life, your identity is a moving target; it never reaches an endpoint.” [1]

This is a quote from a recent book on neurocognitive science. The book (and author) is top-notch in this domain.

Please read first: [see: “Constructionism”] This text also contains some neurocognitive insights.

Also relevant before reading further: [see: “The Brain as a Predictor”]

Why post-post

‘Post-Postmodernism’ (PPM for the sake of this text) attempts to get beyond the search for chaos that one can see in many Postmodernist artists and writers. This chaos may be searched as an excuse for acting out egoistic tendencies without respect for others and eventually not even for oneself. That is the way of mere-ego. [see: “The Story of Ego”]

Another aberration of Postmodernism may originate in an utter rejection of an overshoot of Modernism/Positivism. This rejection may itself lead to overshoot or to a state of escaping something rather than going towards a workable new domain.

PPM is an attempt to find new solid ground, being constructive towards a viable alternative. Hopefully, this lasts for a long time and heralds a direction in which to proceed indefinitely. A serious ambition!

Modern brain research is helpful in this

as the above quote already shows. The ‘identity as moving target’ is very Postmodern. Having this insight based on neurocognitive science is very PPM. It invites freedom but doesn’t throw one into chaos.

On the contrary, it shows scientific constraints between which any explanation of the human mind – and how it can be changed – should be kept. It deconstructs any building outside of this domain, laying the groundwork for new, more flexible and respectful construction. One can see AURELIS and specifically Lisa [see: “Lisa“] as part of this construction.

Some obsolete brainy insights

Brainy research appears to be objective to a higher degree than generally thought. One needs to know that present-day methods of brain visualization are still quite deficient in space and time. For instance, fMRI is a crude tool for discerning which brain parts are ‘active’ during a specific mental activity.

Thus, much brain research shows results that mainly conform to the theorizing from which the research has been conducted. The highly respected prof. Lisa Feldman Barrett is a staunch critic of theory-laden brain research. A relevant conclusion from her:

Some scientists describe the human mind as a collection of “mental organs” for fear, empathy, jealousy, and other psychological tools that evolved for survival, but the brain itself isn’t structured like that. Your brain also does not “light up” with activity, as if some parts are on and others off. It does not “store” memories like computer files to be retrieved and opened later. These ideas are metaphors that emerged from beliefs about the brain that are now outdated.” [2]

There are no neat parts with clearly distinct functions correlating with what one would expect if the brain would be something like a car engine. Any function is dispersed in the brain, in different locations ― especially consciousness.

Of course, this critical stance is relevant to all directions. But we are making progress in ever more robust findings, including from new methods of brain research.

The emerging picture is very PPM.

Some quotes showing this:

From Lisa:

Picture billions of neurons, each one sending signals to other specific neurons all at once, using neurotransmitters, neuromodulators, and other dynamic bells and whistles. That whole picture is one “pattern” of brain activity. Complexity means your brain can create massive numbers of different patterns by combining bits and pieces of old patterns it has made before.” [2]

And again from Lisa, lying close to the one from the subtitle:

Anytime you learn something​—​a new friend’s name or an interesting fact from the news​—​the experience becomes encoded in your wiring so you can remember it, and over time, these encodings can change that wiring.” [2]

Lisa, very constructionist:

Scientists are now fairly certain that your brain actually begins to sense the moment-to-moment changes in the world around you before those light waves, chemicals, and other sense data hit your brain. The same is true for moment-to-moment changes in your body​—​your brain begins to sense them before the relevant data arrives from your organs, hormones, and various bodily systems. You don’t experience your senses this way, but it’s how your brain navigates the world and controls your body.” [2]

This constrains, as well as opens the view on non-conscious processing, from Freudian-Modernist to PPM, by Efrat Ginot:

We know now that a large part of the unconscious does not simply contain delineated repressed memories or unacceptable self-states, but mostly intertwined neural networks of innate affects, the conditioned learning they induced, myriad automatic defenses, and the innumerable associations to them.” [3]

Mind is also constrained by what one can best understand from the brainy side, by Efrat:

The motivational aspects of resistance are often less of a factor than this evolutionary determined propensity for the brain to conserve energy and automatically use established maps and networks.” [3]

Very PPM is also the knowledge that our brain/mind massively reuses modalities, for instance, by John Bargh:

when a person is dealing with social coldness (like betrayal of trust), the same neural brain structures are engaged as when that person touches something cold, or feels cold all over, as when she goes outside in the wintertime without a coat. Similarly, experiencing social warmth, as when you are texting your family and friends, activates the same specific part of the brain that is stimulated when you are holding something warm in your hand.” [4]

One big quote by David Eagleman, starting from single-neuron investigation, and which should convince anyone towards PPM:

The neurons we happen to be spying on are not, by themselves, responsible for the perceptual change – instead, they operate in concert with billions of other neurons, so the changes we can witness are just the reflection of a changing pattern taking hold across large sweeps of brain territory. When one pattern wins out over the other in Jim’s brain, a decision has been landed upon. … By itself, a single neuron has no meaningful influence. But each neuron is connected to thousands of others, and they in turn connect to thousands of others, and so on in a massive, loopy, intertwining network. They’re all releasing chemicals that excite or depress each other. … Within this web, a particular constellation of neurons represents mint. This pattern is formed from neurons that mutually excite each other. They’re not necessarily next to one another; rather, they might span distant brain regions involved in smell, taste, vision, and your unique history of memories involving mint. Each of these neurons, by itself, has little to do with mint – in fact, each neuron plays many roles, at different times, in ever-shifting coalitions. But when these neurons all become active collectively, in this particular arrangement . . . that’s mint to your brain.” [1]

Implications for healthcare

These are immense. I did my PhD on top of this. [see RG: “Subconceptual Processing in Medicine”]

An article specifically about the implications: [see RG: “Cloud or Clock”]

This includes verbal communication, with negative and positive effects, thus also psychotherapy/coaching. Again, I call for Lisa:

Why do the words you encounter have such wide-ranging effects inside you? Because many brain regions that process language also control the insides of your body, including major organs and systems that support your body budget. These brain regions, which are contained in what scientists call the “language network,” guide your heart rate up and down. They adjust the glucose entering your bloodstream to fuel your cells. They change the flow of chemicals that support your immune system. The power of words is not a metaphor. It’s in your brain wiring.” [2, with bold by me in times of COVID]

And Efrat, surely:

The implications of these unconscious neural maps for how we can better understand patients’ difficulties are manifold. … Without the knowledge gleaned from neuropsychology, the clinically based understanding of the unconscious could not consider its wider aspects—the many networks and neural maps that underpin and direct all facets of experience. … All therapeutic changes are really changes in neural networks and the connections among them, and change may be more difficult for some patients compared with others. The potential effects of the flexible–rigid continuum are always at work, and they need to be recognized and addressed.Clinicians of all approaches have to consider the implications that stem from one certain fact: it is no longer possible to consider unconscious brain processes as separate from our conscious mental life.

Also, therapeutic consolidation gets a distinct flavor, by Efrat:

Therapists often encounter the puzzling and frustrating experience of realizing that despite the obvious importance of therapy, some patients still forget the content of sessions and report not thinking of therapy outside the office. The triggers for such shifts most likely remain totally out of awareness, hiding the meaning behind the forgetful enaction. Again, taking the vast unconscious into account, it is not simply resistance or intentional avoidance but an automatic change of self-states and the reestablishment of old, rehearsed ones. In addition, when we consider, the weekly therapeutic hour (which in effect is only 45 minutes in most cases), we cannot help but ask ourselves: how can it have any enduring effect at all? As we have seen until now, entrenched neural patterns easily and automatically revert to what they learned, to what they do best and with minimal expenditure of energy.One’s habitual and automatic way of being feels more real and authentic than the newly acquired insight and thus quickly and automatically resumes. The dissociated self-systems can be negative or positive, but possibly because of their weaker neural connections, they are experienced as alien and not belonging to the “real” self. They often feel fraudulent. As old affects and behaviors take over, there is no new insight or state to mull over in between sessions; it fades as only the old one asserts itself. Without reflective awareness and no explicit reactivation, the long-term memories of the session are inhibited.

Implication for the future?

The ambition is to be constructive towards a humane alternative for present-day failures in managing complexity as it is and will be mounting in many domains: education, healthcare, politics, etc.

To me, this humane alternative resides in capital-c-Compassion, being perfectly compatible with how the brain works. [see: “Only Compassion Works”] It is PPM at work on a strong ethical basis.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that this underlies all human mental change? [see: “Mental Change: How it Works”]

To end, I very much like this tender, yet critical admiration of the human brain by Lisa, in one great quote:

  • A brain that can do so many impressive things but at the same time severely misunderstands itself
  • A brain that constructs such rich mental experiences that we feel like emotion and reason wrestle inside us
  • A brain that’s so complex that we describe it by metaphors and mistake them for knowledge
  • A brain that’s so skilled at rewiring itself that we think we’re born with all sorts of things that we actually learn
  • A brain that’s so effective at hallucinating that we believe we see the world objectively, and so fast at predicting that we mistake our movements for reactions
  • A brain that regulates other brains so invisibly that we presume we’re independent of each other
  • A brain that creates so many kinds of minds that we assume there’s a single human nature to explain them all
  • A brain that’s so good at believing its own inventions that we mistake social reality for the natural world.” [2]

References

[1] The Brain: The Story of You, David Eagleman, 2017

[2] Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett, 2021

[3] The Neuropsychology of the Unconscious: Integrating Brain and Mind in Psychotherapy, Efrat Ginot, 2015

[4] Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, John Bargh, 2017

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