The Mind and the Brain

I’ve been reading a number of things lately about the mind (our subjective experience) and the brain, and how they inter-relate.  Some scientists seem perfectly comfortable with simply stating that the mind can be equated to brain-states, and this may be true (I don’t think we really know, though the scientific position rejects the dualistic approach that posits the mind as something more or different from the brain).  But even so, certainly my experience of mind is not an experience of brain-states, it is about concepts like attention, memory, feeling, etc.  I am particularly interested in scientific study of how intentional mind-states have impact on the brain (and thus have known physical effects), even if we don’t really understand what ‘attention’ actually is.

Here’s some material from a book I’ve been reading called Train Your Mind Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley which reports on some recent neuroscience findings (it’s in fact a summary of findings that were presented to the Buddhist community  including the Dalai Lama in a series of workshops).  Many of the findings are with regard to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change in response to various stimuli.  But this one stuck out in my mind (page 158):

Attention is also, as it happens, indispensable for neuroplasticity. Nowhere was that shown more dramatically than in one of Mike Merzenich’s experiments with monkeys. The scientists rigged up a device that tapped the animals’ fingers one hundred minutes a day every day for six weeks.  At the same time as this bizarre dance was playing on their fingers, the monkeys listened to sounds over headphones. Some of the monkeys were taught, pay attention to what you feel on your fingers, such as when the rhythm changes, we’ll reward you with a sip of juice; don’t pay attention to the sounds. Other monkeys were taught, pay attention to the sound, and if you indicate when it changes, you’ll get juice. At the end of six weeks, the scientists compared the monkeys’ brains. Let me underline that every monkey, whether trained to pay attention to what it was hearing or what it was feeling on its fingers, had the exact same physical experience – sounds coming in through headphones plus taps on its fingers. The only thing that made one monkey different from another was what it paid attention to.

Usually, when a particular spot on the skin suddenly begins receiving unusual amounts of stimulation, its representation in the somatosensory cortex expands. That was what Mike Merzenich discovered in his monkeys. But when the monkeys paid attention to what they heard rather than to what they felt, there was no change in the somatosensory cortex – no expension of the region that handles input from the finger feeling the flutter.

It goes on to state that the stimuli that was attended to produced more brain resources going to that stimuli, and not to the one that was ignored.  So in some sense it appears that ‘attention’ can be a part of what shapes our brain, and that since we can direct our attention, there may be ways to consciously direct the development of brain resources.

Now in some ways this finding seems completely obvious.  Clearly when we’re in school, we tend to learn those things which we pay attention to… if you attend a foreign language class and don’t pay attention, you may pick up a few words, but will not learn much.  This just confirms that there’s an actual physical result from the conscious attention.  The interesting questions to me are what techniques can be used to direct attention in the most effective way to achieve one’s goals and desires.

Also it seems to me that as more brain resources are trained on particular tasks, the task moves from one that requires conscious attention to being more of a background, autonomous process, allowing the conscious attention to move to other areas.

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Comments

  • Steve Roth  On March 8, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    re: your first para, my favorite quote (can’t remember who: Pinker?):

    The mind is what the brain does.

    But yes, the idea that the mind can also affect that brain’s doings is fascinating.

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