The older I get, the more unconscious I become. For instance, I’ll go to the refrigerator and take out the milk so I can reach the left over potato salad way in the back. I’ll take the lid off and give the salad a whiff, discover that it’s either crossed over or just about to – I can’t completely decide – and then begin weighing the upside versus the downside of actually eating it. Meanwhile, I’ll have closed the refrigerator door and left the milk sitting out on the counter. Only later when I’ve given the potato salad either a thumbs up or thumbs down – when the milk once again comes into my field of vision – do I realize I forgot to put it back in the refrigerator.
Blame the Rich
As I patiently explain to my wife, the blame for me forgetting to put the milk back in the refrigerator falls squarely on collections of neurons in my brain that scientists call the Rich Club. Damaged Rich Club neural networks are also undeniably involved in the clothes I neglect to pick up off the floor, the trash I forget to bring out and the dishes I fail to remember to put in the dishwasher.
Rich Club neurons appear to play a central role in human consciousness. I suspect they are also integral to the cultivation of mindfulness. Rich Club neurons are like the controversial Hub People that Malcolm Gladwell first introduced in his best-selling book, The Tipping Point. Hub people are well-connected individuals of uncommon influence. For a reasonable graphic image of Rich Club networks, imagine the whole United States as one big, collective brain. Now imagine energy and information being transmitted all over the US by Delta Airlines (which it is and which they do – mostly packaged reasonably efficiently in human beings). How that transmission looks is depicted in the map of their daily flight routes below…
The size of this map makes it somewhat difficult to identify (clicking on all pictures makes them larger), but there are greater numbers of flights arriving and departing from hub cities like Detroit, Atlanta, New York, Memphis, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Salt Lake City. Brain networks work in a similar fashion. Only instead of airplanes moving people and things, neural networks in the brain move energy and information.
The Central Dozen
In the human brain, Rich Club networks are centered in 12 areas, three in cortical areas in each hemisphere: the precuneus, the superior frontal cortex and the superior parietal lobe. Three additional Rich Club areas are located underneath the cortex in both hemispheres as well – in the hippocampus, the putamen, and the thalamus, all sub-cortical structures. For those interested, here is a graphic below showing where each of these structures – highlighted in yellow – is located in the brain …
One Crucial Connection
Here’s what’s really interesting about Rich Club networks: when you look at how Rich Club structures form, it becomes clear that all it takes is for one central and critical neuron to connect to one other central and critical neuron to go from a low degree energy and information processing collection of brain cells, to a high grade, high capacity network. Here’s a picture on the right of how that might happen …
Neurons are connecting and disconnecting all the time. We wouldn’t be able to learn anything new if they didn’t. All it takes is one critical connection between two rich networks (the blue dots in the picture) to create a mega Rich Club Network.
One question we might want to ask ourselves, is what’s the experience like in body and brain when that crucial connection takes place? It’s actually a familiar one for anyone who has put in significant time learning a skill, like riding a bicycle, driving a car or learning to play a musical instrument. As we begin practice, great energy and focused attention is required. We’re super-conscious of where our hands and fingers go, where our feet go, etc. Over time as we put in more and more effort practicing, the skill becomes easier and easier, until one day, voila! we can ride the bike, drive the car or play the instrument effortlessly. And what we know from examining the brains of accomplished violinists, for example, is that massive neural connectivity shows up in the area of the brain that correlates with the left fingering hand. Years of practice end up building Rich Clubs in the brain to permit effortless fingering of the violin fret board. Based upon the amount of new learning I’m doing with brain science in my 60s, I’m guessing such networks can be built for most of us throughout the lifespan.
And another possibility apart from gradually building the network neuron by neuron is the “postulate which arrives full-blown in the brain,” a Eureka! moment that simply shows up unexpectedly when time and circumstances collide. How sweet is the Rich Club then?
So, Who Should Join?
Now that we know where Rich Clubs are and what they can do, the question still remains: should your significant other use their connections to join the club? One thing we might do is invite them. My best guess however, is they will be more than willing to watch you put in the time, energy and effort to get your brain fully wired up with Rich Club Networks. Think then, just how much more organized the house will almost effortlessly become.