I wasn’t really looking for wonderment and surprise when I stumbled onto brain science. Mostly I expected I might occasionally come across an intriguing fact or two that would hustle me up against the short end of the believability spectrum – some wild neuroscientist or other making a deep, left-field declaration that I can’t quite fathom.
And they don’t disappoint. Instead they send me scurrying around the Internet or over to the library looking for “further confirmation” – actually more often looking for dis-confirmation.
The fact that a piece of brain tissue the size of a single sugar grain contains 100,000 neurons making nearly a billion connections was one such you’ve-got-to-be-kidding claim that turns out to be true, pretty much. Depends on what part of the brain the tissue is taken from. My wonderment: how can we even begin to accurately study something so infinitesimal?
Darkness, Darkness, Be My Pillow
Another similar hard-to-believe claim that seems to be true is University of Virginia’s Timothy Wilson’s assertion that 99% of what our brains apprehend in any moment, we grok below the threshold of conscious awareness. Isn’t that astonishing as well as terrifying? What are the implications for a long and happy life if we’re all spending only 1% of it awake? Might the world be better off if more of us spent even more time deeply asleep? We’d produce a lot less procreation, consumption and hydrogen sulfide (Did I mention that we already spend up to 2 hours a day functionally blind? Every time we turn our head, our eyes stop seeing – our brain simply fills in the space between the stop and start of the head turn!).
Next, John Medina’s Brain Rule No. 4 – that healthy brains have a hard time concentrating on a continuous activity for much more than 10 minutes – was a great relief for me to discover. It made it clear that it wasn’t me or ADHD that sent my body fleeing from the boredom of more high school and college classrooms than I care to remember – it was my healthy brain’s natural response to ignorant teaching methods! Big sigh of relief there.
Re-build Foundations Under Castles in the Air
One more claim I found quite compelling was Allan Schore’s assertion that because of the nature of the brain’s early architecture, the developing right hemisphere by necessity becomes the default repository for neuron assemblies retaining and storing traumatic memories. That fact has a lot of implications for any number of human arenas, especially creativity. It would be great though, if Allan would team up with a popular writer who writes aimed at my adolescent brain. Weighty titles like Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self don’t exactly set my learning neuron networks aquiver.
Probably the most confusion-clearing-up revelation for me came from Louann Brizendine. In her book, The Male Brain, she details how puberty finds my testosterone production increased 20-fold to massively toxic levels! And which areas does testosterone attack in the 15-year-old brain: Broca’s and Wernicke’s, home of speech and language production. So, I wasn’t simply a sullen teen; I was a testosterone-poisoned teen! Like many men, I’m still trying to recover from that early wipeout.
Finally, Jill Bolte Taylor’s observation of what a lying sack of bat guano our left hemispheres turn out to be more often than not, was mostly confirmation of any number of contemplative teachings that repeatedly make that claim: a mind generating painful thoughts is a terrible thing to trust. It was affirming though, to have it confirmed by a Harvard neuroanatomist using stroke-induced self-observation. It was also of great consolation to receive her warning about how devious Lefty is in all the ways it then goes about trying to make me forget that it’s constantly lying through its glial cells.
So that’s a pretty interesting collection, I think. Next week I’ll write about the most mind-boggling brain science claim I’ve come across yet. In fact, I had it here at the end of this collection, but I want to take the week to further confirm the truth of it before I post it. Stay tuned.
End Note: I research and write about social neuroscience because I believe knowing how the brain works can profoundly reduce suffering here on planet earth. It has for me. I’ve recently put together a four-session Webinar that one or two of you may find interesting: Life, Art and Neuroscience which explores suffering reduction in depth. Click HERE if you’d like to find out more information. We don’t know what we don’t know until we know it.