Tag Archives: cognitive

To Be Human in this Lifetime: Top 3 Discoveries in Neuroscience

16 Oct

Oh, to be human in this lifetime.

Our mind is an elegant dance of simultaneous balance with tremendous layers of synchronicity, symmetry and replication. The brain is far more complex than any computer. Scientists have just begun to understand this complexity with the advent of new technologies in brain science. For example, there are more neural synapses than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy – roughly 100 trillion. No computer could possibly match this staggering complexity, and our efforts to understand it or even comprehend the vastness have been elementary at best thus far.

In fact, a single human brain has more “switches” than all of the computers on the Earth (Blow 2007).

brainbow

Example of array tomography imaging.

Consider this image. Known as a “brainbow,” this is a real image of quasi-randomly colored fluorescent proteins in a composite image of a mouse brain that is made from thousands of millions of actively firing synapses. In the human brain, we have more synapses than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and we know less about our own brains than our very own home galaxy system. If Carl Sagan was right that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” we have a long way to go.

  1. The top three scientific developments in the field of psychology and neuroscience begin with the discovery of the “neuronal plasticity” of the brain by the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (Fuchs & Flügge 2014). This was a bombshell revelation that carried two equally critical implications. For one, the brain is capable of being internally damaged such that it may affect its functioning and structure. Two, that the brain is capable of healing, which is now understood to occur structurally, functionally, and electro-chemically. This is easily the most important development in the science of psychology because of the relevance of the following discovery.
  2. The second most important discovery in psychology validates the first as the most important. Paul Broca accidentally discovered cortical localization of function in the brain, scientifically proving the theory of cortical localization correct. Combined with Cajal’s discovery of neuroplasticity, behavior could now begin to be explained through neurological explanations, which is now the fundamental basis of psychology. Contemporary brain science and neuroimaging show the causal relationship between nerve specificity and cortical localization, enabling emerging and exciting therapies to be developed based on new understandings of brain damage and dysfunction.

    The indomitable Alex Gray

  3. Finally, perhaps the most inspiring discovery in all of psychology research is as poetically romantic as it is scientifically invigorating. Building on Harlow’s research on physical loving comfort and cognitive-social development in baby monkeys (Harlow 1958) is the advancing theory of interpersonal limbic synchronicity, a label I’ve developed to describe the following three distinct processes: limbic resonance, limbic regulation, and limbic revision (Lewis & Amini 2000). In limbic resonance, research has shown that our nervous systems and brain chemistry can interact without verbal communication, posing exciting possibilities in the future human communication, conflict resolution, deepening intimacy, and empathy studies (Schore 1994).

Ramon y Cajal’s sketch of neurons. In the planetarium show at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, this is precisely how an artist rendered imagined images of dark matter in the universe. 🙂 

One example of this interaction would be eye contact between two people, whether between strangers who have just met and are experiencing chemistry, or twin siblings who merely need a look to “read” one another. This interaction can result in activation of both parties’ nervous systems, particularly the limbic system (Schore 1994), resulting in anything from increased heart rate to a shared spike in dopamine. Limbic regulation refers to a more long-term effect of how these interactions can influence our body systems and brain chemistry (Schore 1994), such as when living with a spouse of many years. Finally, limbic revision refers to how these processes can be influenced with deliberate action in therapeutic contexts (Schore 1994).

I argued in my psychology capstone thesis that such processes are part of a larger complex interplay at work in the resolution of trauma pathways for survivors of developmental trauma in the context of loving relationships. Essentially, that love heals trauma in the brain.

I’d be curious to further study these processes in the context of facilitated ego-death transpersonal experience, such as in psychedelic-assisted altered states of consciousness or meditative yoga nidra. One day I’ll put a couple in love, on lysergic acid diethyl amide or MDMA into an fMRI machine, and have them get it on. You know, for science. Of course, MAPS is already supporting research on MDMA and PTSD as well as couples’ therapy.

These discoveries illuminate the shadows of previous mysteries that have been integral to the human experience, allowing us to better understand our past as a species.

Finally, they provide compelling avenues for further research that will usher in the most exciting chapter in human history. What delight in contemplating our immense potential for healing and shared experience in these perilous and critical times to be human in this lifetime. 

References

Blow, N. (2007). Following the wires. Nature Methods. 4, 975 – 981
doi:10.1038/nmeth1107-975

Fuchs, E., & Flügge, G. (2014). Adult Neuroplasticity: More Than 40 Years of Research. Neural Plasticity, 1-10. doi:10.1155/2014/541870

Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13(12), 673-685. doi:10.1037/ h0047884

Lewis, T., & Amini, F. (2000). A general theory of love. New York: Random House.

Schore, A. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: the neurobiology of emotional development. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.