Friday, 21 September 2012

The Neuroscience of Idle Minds

This article explains how the brain is active when at rest and considers the implications of this. 

There is a myriad of activity occurring in our brains, even as we sleep. It is important to distinguish, however, between brain activity and conscious thoughts. Just because a person is having (or thinks he is having) no conscious thoughts, or even if he is unconscious, there is still masses of activity flowing through his brain. 

I think they will find that while our brains rest - whilst we are lounging idly on the sofa, for example - our brains are consolidating memories formed throughout the day. So, it's probably best to take a break after studying and do nothing, rather than watch TV, or socialise, even. 

I also reckon memories aren't, as previously thought, merely set pathways through which a current flows which make up a conscious recall of a stimulus. I think they can change, and perhaps 'exist' in many places at once, constantly being reformed and manipulated through processes such as neuroplasticity. 

It is also suggested that the brain can reuse past experiences to 'prime' connections which may be useful in the current situation. For example, if we are crossing a busy road, not only would we be consciously aware that we are in danger, but the motor sections of our brain would be primed so that we are more prepared to dodge that oncoming bus. 

I particularly like the analogy: 
If your car is ready to go, you can leave faster than if you have to turn on the engine.
The brain is surprising similar to any other machine; yet vastly different and infinitely complex.  

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Monday, 10 September 2012

Did Your Brain Make You Do It?

There seems to be a phenomenon prevalent across much of Western society. People don't like to accept responsibility for their own actions when they've done something wrong. They'd much rather say it that their actions were due to "a complex sequence of chemical reactions within my brain", over which they, supposedly, had no control, and therefore it's not their fault - they're innocent. Of course, the premise is true - we, and all our actions, are the result of various biochemical reactions throughout our bodies. However, that doesn't mean that they're not in our control. That's loosely analogous to saying, "Oops, my car lost control and killed someone - but it was the road conditions; there was nothing I could do." (Yes, it makes no sense)

But what about if our driver had lost control, but instead of killing someone, had collided with another car and changed it's course, when that other car would otherwise have hit a pedestrian? It's unlikely then that the driver would attribute the events to road conditions out of their control. No, they would claim it was their own fast thinking, bravery and heroism that saved the pedestrian's life.

It's nothing new, this phenomenon. It's part of a standard sixth-form psychology course, dubbed 'situational factors' vs 'dispositional factors', or 'self-serving bias'.

However, this likely only applies to Western societies - more collectivist societies would likely attribute their errors to themselves (that is, if they knew that their every move is the result of the workings of the brain). That is because they have a more utilitarian approach; they care more about the good of the society than the consequences they themselves may face. 

My point is, it's a cultural phenomenon, not a neuroscientific one. It's about whether people see themselves as a living being forming a part of a group of living beings for which they are partly responsible; or as an individual biological organism reacting with other individual biological organisms. Of course, both views are true - thus, neither are valid as an argument. You can never say "my brain made me do it" and you can never say "it was my fault, not my brain's", since both are equally true. It just depends how you look at it. 

Pointless argument, really. 

(N.B. I'm referring to adults here, not adolescents whose brains may or may not have fully developed self-control abilities. But this poses a further question - who decides what "fully developed self-control abilities" are? All brains are different, ergo, people have varying "self-control abilities". Do people turn 18 and suddenly reach a baseline level of self-control?)

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