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The human brain is a remarkable feat of natural engineering, capable of controlling our actions and ...
2020-02-16 09:00:00

Take Your Brain for a Walk
How to Have a Happy Head

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Take Your Brain for a Walk
Take Your Brain for a Walk

It performs nearly 40 million operations a second and has a tendency to control everything. In addition, it is stubborn and, since the Pleistocene era, has not changed its habits: persistently fantasizing about the bad things that might befall us. It’s worth knowing how to calm our minds so that we can rest from worries and overstimulation.

Read in 14 minutes

The most complex machine on Earth looks like a giant walnut. It is an unappetizing grey colour and has the consistency of jelly. It weighs just over one kilogram. It performs 38 million operations a second but, being an environmentally-friendly product, it consumes barely 12.6 Watts per hour (way less than the weakest lightbulb). Moreover, it uses exclusively green energy – it is powered by oxygen and glucose.

Many aeons ago, this pinnacle of natural engineering was already recognized as perfection. The last modifications to the design were implemented some 50,000 years ago. Since then, the human brain hasn’t changed. There is no reason for it to do so: this unprecedented evolutionary success is proven by its achievements. It has settled all the continents. A few copies have stood on the Moon, and one even made a parachute jump from the stratosphere.

This success wouldn’t have been possible without the external layer of the brain – the brain cortex. It has grown in humans, reaching an unprecedented thickness of two to four millimetres. In order to fit into the skull, it curled up into folds. The only place it couldn’t be tamed was behind the forehead, which expanded and straightened out, in order to accommodate the youngest evolutionary part, the frontal cortex.

It was worth it because, in fact, it is the frontal cortex that distinguishes our brains from all the other brains roaming the Earth. Thanks to the frontal cortex, without getting out of our armchairs, we can imagine what Felix Baumgartner felt as he stood on the edge of the Zenith stratospheric balloon. We can count backwards from 138 in threes and can visualize for ourselves attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, and then write our own fantasies, striking the keyboard with 10 fingers. Empathy, imagination, mathematical and logical skills, and the advanced motor movements of the hands – we have the frontal cortex to thank for it all, as well as the impossibly complicated symphony of chemical and electrical signals that make up the work of the brain.

There’s no need for modesty here: we should be proud of our brains, because nothing else on Earth holds such a miracle in its skull.

However, there is a certain snag.

My brain, so who?

One can describe it as follows: the brain isn’t ours at all; rather we belong to it. We don’t know many things for certain about consciousness apart from the fact that only mammalian brains, at the highest level of the evolutionary tree, are able to create it. This leads to a sad truth: what we are used to describing as ‘I’ is only a useful evolutionary creation of the brain. We are nothing more than a theatre puppet, whose arms and legs are operated by strings. It only appears to us that we do what we want, think what we want, and have at our disposal something that we vociferously define as free will. In reality we only do, think and experience that which is approved in advance by that jellied creation which sits atop our bodies and pulls our strings.

Proof? The 86 million neurons that made up the brain of Benjamin Libet, a physiologist from the University of California in San Francisco, were looking for it. In 1983, that brain came up with a simple experiment: the human subject was given the opportunity to press a button. Measuring the brain’s electrical activity connected with the action demonstrated that the action occurred 300 milliseconds before the conscious intention to act appeared. In other words: the brains under study autonomously decided that they were going to press the button. It was only later that they allowed the thoughts they created to appear to independently arrive at these conclusions.

In 2008, John-Dylan Haynes developed Libet’s experiment further. Using modern imaging techniques, he showed that our brains can take a decision even several seconds before we do so consciously. At that time, determinists could be heard chuckling darkly about the end of free will. Fortunately for us, however, Libet’s results and those of his successors quickly started to be questioned. In 2012, Aaron Schurger proposed a different interpretation of the electroencephalogram (EEG) results and the scientific community began to wonder, not so much as to whether it knew the answer to the question about the existence of free will, but how to even formulate the question. Unable to settle the issue of whether our driving forces are only an illusion, we might as well agree with neurologist Michael S. Gazzaniga. In his book Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, he states: “The mind is in some ways an independent property of the brain while simultaneously being wholly dependent upon it.”

This ambivalence reflects well the complicated situation we find ourselves in. Because one more problem, flagged up earlier, must be added to the limited influence we have on our own brains – namely, living in the 21st century, we are equipped with a brain hemisphere from the Pleistocene era. The result? Our phenomenal neural network constantly and keenly monitors the surroundings in order to spot everything that threatens us, while using its most modern functions to conduct uncontrolled, tiresome and unprecedented fantasizing about all the bad things that could happen to us. Continual fear of the future is an evolutionary super-adaptation. However, when it is too strong or lasts too long, it can have a devastating effect on us. As Marco Magrini writes in his book The Brain: A User’s Manual: “If negative thoughts don’t stop and are not interrupted by any positive thoughts […], anxiety, in all its variations, becomes chronic.”

And from here, it is just a short step to phobias, funny only when read about in anthologies of the strangest things that the brain can panic over (these include a fear of cheese – turophobia, paper – papyrophobia, and holes – trypophobia).

And how can we escape this? How can we calm our super-advanced, Pleistocene brains, which are poorly-adapted to the era of technology and which tie us into a complicated relationship of control and submission? Fortunately, there are ways to do this. As Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the man who discovered neurones claimed:

“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.”

On the waves of saline solution

It is easiest to understand how functioning in the 21st century can be a nightmare for the hunter-gatherer brain when pouring out of the metro in a crowd, heading towards the footbridge over a noisy multi-lane carriageway while simultaneously picking up another work email. Our brains, bathed in a downpour of unpleasant stimuli, will inevitably react by suggesting we give up everything and head for the Bieszczady Mountains. However, a simpler way to regain one’s peace is to soak oneself in saline solution.

This concept was supposedly born in the insidious minds of secret services officers in the 1950s. Among the strange ideas that emerged at the time for securing strategic advantage over the enemy superpower was the application of sensory deprivation to its citizens. Due to a shortage of captured spies, initial tests were carried out on students by the Canadian Donald Hebb and the American John C. Lilly. The latter built a deprivation pod: a container filled with salt solution, heated to close to body temperature and isolated from external stimuli. The idea was that the person inside would sense as little as possible.

What happens to a brain that is sent into perceptual rehabilitation? The students steeped in salt by Lilly complained of hallucinations, loss of self-confidence and a strong feeling of unreality. Lilly himself, in his book Tanks for the Memories, described his invention as a “hole in the universe”; going into it, he “apparently tuned in on networks of communication from other galaxies.”

Happily, or unhappily, if we decide to rock ourselves in brine today, there is no longer any risk of arguing with a sophist Martian. Currently we know that, when used in moderation, sensory deprivation allows our brains to rest, and takes us into a state of deep relaxation. Moderation is essential however. Our brains are runaway trains that cannot simply be stopped. If they don’t receive any stimulation, they create it themselves – hence the hallucinations noted by the first research guinea pigs and Lilly’s intergalactic wanderings. This is also why people who use flotation tanks can, for example, feel tingling or itching sensations. Their hardworking brains create sensations that don’t reach them from the outside.

Self-relaxer

A cheaper (and fully ecological) method of consoling a stressed-out brain is meditation. Even its simplest element, breathing slowly through the nose, brings positive results. It turns out (as attested by Andrea Zaccaro from the University of Pisa) that when we stop greedily consuming air, our brain waves diminish.

So why is it that, in this case, less is better? Brain waves are created when groups of neurones fire simultaneously. The rhythm is regular and cyclical, but can be very different, depending upon what we are actually doing. It is no surprise that we emit waves of the highest frequency (i.e. gamma waves) when we discover our account has gone into the red, or we miss the bus, or we have to deliver the tax office a signed 35RA/47 form immediately. However, when we calm down, have our head in the clouds, or sleep, our soothed brain emits alpha or theta waves.

A cunning way to get our brains into this state is to slow our breathing. When the nerve-endings in our noses register that the air is flowing slowly and regularly, the brain tunes in like an orchestra, and we experience peace and relaxation.

Further evidence that a meditating brain is a happy brain was supplied by the neurologist Richard Davidson, who made his name by conducting functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on the brains of Tibetan monks. Davidson proved that regular sessions of mindfulness meditation affect the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for our emotions, particularly negative ones. Meditation allows us to react more calmly to unpleasant events and thoughts, meaning that we don’t give in so easily to stress and we concentrate better. There is also a proposal for busy people. Bashar Badran, a neuroscientist from the Medical University of South Carolina, has shown that the positive effects of meditation and yoga appear more quickly if we use Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) on ourselves during a session.

Anyone who shudders at the thought of connecting their consciousness generator to the mains can instead think warm thoughts about their nearest and dearest. This simple exercise brings extremely positive results; not just moral, but also physiological.

There is research that shows that sending positive thoughts into the world, and embracing other living things with them, literally retunes the brain.

Research into the mind by Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina discovered that Loving Kindness Meditation (as practiced by Buddhists) affects the vagus nerve – part of the parasympathetic system related to resting. The vagus nerve is connected to many of the most fundamental functions of our bodies, such as insulin production. Fredrickson demonstrated that, if we start regularly to emit warm thoughts to the world, the brain will repay us with increased activity of the vagus nerve that causes us to de-stress more quickly. And we will become more like cheerful altruists with a clear vision.

Stretching the imagination

Of course, the road towards such a noble direction has to be slightly bumpy. Apart from studies that show the positive effects of meditation, others warn of the side effects of mindful immersion in the here and now. What are these? Panic, depression, hallucinations and mania, or psychological breakdown. According to research by David Shapiro, 7% of us have brains that react in this way to meditation.

If we are concerned that we might be in this group, for a change we can sweat. Bikram yoga classes comprise 26 asanas done in a room heated to 40°C and with 50% humidity. What benefits can our brains derive from stretching in such tropical conditions? The same as come from meditation: we calm down, we feel less stressed, and we feel physically and psychologically stronger. However, if we shudder at the thought of paying for a heatwave in the era of global warming, our minds can be straightened out even by a session of normal yoga.

Straightened out and even more. As a student, Sara Lazar decided to run the Boston Marathon. Overambitious training led to back and knee problems. Having been recommended stretching, Lazar signed up for yoga classes. Although, at the start, she rolled her eyes over the claims the instructor made that, thanks to yoga, she would feel better both physically and psychologically, after several weeks she did start to notice that she was becoming a better version of herself.

“I started noticing that I was calmer and that I was better able to handle difficult situations, and that, indeed, I was feeling more compassionate and openhearted towards other people and I was better able to see things from other people’s point of view”, said Lazar in a TEDx conference speech.

How is this possible? Research shows that yoga not only reduces stress, but also the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and helps manage pain and insomnia. It also improves our ability to concentrate, and those who practise it regularly are happier. For this we have to thank one of the greatest skills our brains have developed: neuroplasticity. This is the process by which the things we do regularly cause our brains to start communicating differently, so that, under the influence of repeated actions (even juggling), they change physically. With the help of MRI scanning, Lazar studied the brains of people who had started to practise yoga. It turned out that their amygdalas (which process negative emotions) had shrunk in comparison to those who had decided not to explore the asanas. Other studies by Lazar showed that the temporal-parietal junction – the part of the brain behind the ear, responsible for empathy and sympathy – increases in size after meditation and yoga.

On the green meadow

At this moment, each intelligent brain comes to the conclusion that all it has to do is to encourage its human to take concrete action, like a body builder, in order to develop the most desirable ganglia. Fortunately, this type of gymnastics isn’t absolutely necessary. In order to calm the mind, we only need our standard neurological equipment, because evolution took care to ensure that, after periods of high stress, bliss comes naturally to us. We just have to provide our brain with the right conditions for this.

What conditions? The bad news for inhabitants of the concrete jungle is that they should exchange it for a classic cellulose forest.

Contact with nature is such a phenomenal balm for a stressed-out brain that, in some places, it is actually prescribed by doctors.

For a year now, doctors in the Shetland Islands may prescribe their patients walks in the country and birdwatching for north fulmars (large, grey seabirds, part of the petrel family). And when the windy hills are covered with snow, the doctor’s prescription might include removing one’s hat and standing in silence for several minutes in the fresh air.

Forest-bathing (or taking in the forest atmosphere) has also been discovered by the Japanese, who call it shinrin-yoku. After walking among the cedars, blood pressure and cortisol levels drop. Meanwhile scientists, who are in constant pursuit of orderly minds, have calculated the minimum daily dosage of contact with nature we need to remain healthy. This turns out to be 20 minutes a day. We rarely recognize the strength of the influence that nature has on us. After severe stress, even looking at photos of nature can help us return to normal. The vagus nerve becomes more active which, as mentioned earlier, allows us to cope faster with the reverberations of the hardships of everyday existence.

Brain tastes

Is it possible that our brains can react positively to even the most ordinary landscapes? Unfortunately, scientists don’t have good news for us. As Denis Dutton writes in The Art Instinct, evolution has equipped us with artistic preferences that have nothing to do with any official classification of art works. This was demonstrated by a project, conducted in 1994, by two Russian painters who had settled in the US, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. They supervised a survey commissioned by the National Institute (a non-profit offshoot of The Nation magazine), which asked people from different parts of the world what they would like to see in paintings. It turned out that our average tastes are surprisingly similar and surprisingly independent of our geography. Wherever we come from, we like to look at a picture that has plenty of green, even more blue, a body of water, and possibly some signs of life. Yes, this is the sad truth: contact with art is one way to de-stress, but our brains relax faster not at an exhibition of abstract art, but when we contemplate a deer at a waterhole.

We get even better results by providing ourselves with the appropriate neurotransmitters. It is a universally-known truth that we can achieve a state of narcotic euphoria entirely for free if we decide to run a bit. Our brains react to the initial pain by increasing the production of endorphins, (and several other neurotransmitters), that initially soothe our suffering and later improve our mood and give us a feeling of contentment. The association with drugs is entirely appropriate here, because endorphins affect the brain in a similar way to other opioids such as codeine, morphine or heroin.

Albert’s road

Natural opioids are nothing in comparison to the advances of science. One April day in 1943, the chemist Albert Hoffman was riding home on his bicycle. The street, trees and buildings were waving and distorting like a crooked mirror. At home it was even worse; the furniture could sense the fear that Hoffman was suffering. He was convinced he was dying, although physically there was nothing wrong with him, according to the doctor he summoned. He must have been pretty surprised when Hoffman revealed that, as part of an experiment, he had self-administered a chemical substance he had synthesized. Its official name – lysergic acid diethylamide – did not make all the history books, but its acronym, LSD, did. As did Hofmann’s next achievement – the isolation of psilocybin, another psychedelic that occurs naturally in many species of fungi.

The fate of Hofmann’s discoveries belongs to the history of counter-culture. After a brief but stellar rise, there was a spectacular fall, and psychoactive psychedelic substances were widely banned. As substances that affect brain function and that change not only human behaviour, but also the perception of reality, and that in many cases are also addictive, they were labelled as ultra-dangerous scientific inventions, able to turn a responsible tax payer into a drug-hungry zombie. It is only recently that efforts are being made to remove the stigma of synthetic monster from psychedelic drugs.

In 2016, scientists from Imperial College London conducted a small-scale study which showed that psilocybin can help those experiencing severe depression. In the same year, it emerged that this same ingredient in magic mushrooms eases symptoms of depression and anxiety in the terminally ill. MDMA, one of the primary ingredients in ecstasy pills, was also studied. It emerged that it can help those with post-traumatic stress disorder. Two teams of scientists independently showed that the use of psilocybin increases openness to experience, one of the personality traits in the Big Five model. What’s more, the shift along the ‘gloomy closed personality’ to ‘curious world experimenter’ axis lasted for more than a year. However, the brain scans of people who were given LSD and psilocybin looked very similar to the brain scans of people who had been meditating for many years.

We are still a long way from answering the question of whether psychedelic drugs can calm the minds of people other than the seriously ill. However, curious human brains would like to know the answer, as well as learning other ways to self-calm, beyond those listed above. It goes without saying that this will not be simple. As mentioned at the beginning, our brains are so complex, complicated and technologically-advanced that the effects of how they work are indistinguishable from magic.

That doesn’t mean we should give up the pursuit of self-knowledge. “In the end, the human species will succeed,” writes Marco Magrini. “Maybe not tomorrow, but in 20, 100 or 200 years, the brains of Homines sapientes will manage to understand the brain.”

 

Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska

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