09 Apr

The Neuroscience Pyramid

Deconstructing Neuroscience

For a few years ago, I read nothing but books on brain science. I have an unique brain that works nothing like normal brains. The key to getting control of my life depended on my understanding my own brain. With time, I graduated to reading neuroscience books written for medical professionals. From there, reading medical books on other organs was just a hop.

When I got an opportunity to work on healthcare a couple of years ago, I took it up with great gusto. It as an opportunity to bring to practice several elegant solutions that I know are available, but for some mysterious reason, hardly anyone practices. But it is easy to underestimate the inertia of medical industry.

Things got a interesting a couple of months ago: I co-founded an organization called Chennai Neuroscience Foundation, which works exclusively on neuroscience. Though I would loved to have started with biohacking and cognitive enhancement, the business compulsions have it that we start from the exact opposite end.

 

Neuroscience Pyramid

When building the business model for CNS, I realized that the entire neuroscience industry falls into a four layered pyramid

 

4-layers-of-neuroscience-pyramid

Bottom-most Layer: Neurosurgeons and Neurologists work on anything that goes wrong with the tissue of the central nervous system and its blood supply.

Second Layer from Bottom: Cells of the central nervous system communicate by exchanging electrical signals and chemicals. When the brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) go out of balance, behavior issues like ADHD, OCD, Schizophrenia, Depression, etc., come popping up. A psychiatrist works on the brain chemicals. They try to balance the neurotransmitters as a means of curing us of mental diseases.

Though the electrical signal exchange is crucial for the function of the brain, we don’t understand it well. No medical specialty works on brain electrics. You might just find few doctors and non-doctors dabbling with brain electrics. The days of neuro-electric field is firmly in the future.

Second Layer from Top: Host of other professionals like psychologists, trainers, teachers, coaches, etc., work on the information content of the central nervous system. The information content include memory, fears, addiction, behavior, habit forming, creativity, logical reasoning, muscle memory, etc. Despite 100 years of psychoanalysis, there is much garbage to be thrown out. Novel techniques (like NLP and psychotropics aided psychoanalysis) are taking the pants off from archaic work horses like CBT. This layer of neuroscience is in for a major reboot.

Top-most Layer: The top layer of neuroscience pyramid, the wellness space, is where the charlatans and pseudoscientists roam. This is the least understood part of neuroscience, though it is going to create super-humans out us. Today, there is enough evidence based science out there to make some feeble attempts at neuro-protection and cognitive enhancement. Though it is not much, anything is better than nothing that we had  until now.

 

Education and Training

The deeper you go down the layers of the pyramid, the more education and training the professionals need.

  • A Neurosurgeon, for example, needs 20 to 25 years of formal education, if not more. After this, they undergo 5 to 10 years of in-field training before they reach a decent level of proficiency.
  • A Neurologist, the doctors who work on tissues using pharmacology, goes through similar amount of formal training. Bu their in-field training is shorter.
  • The formal training required for a psychiatrist is very similar to the training required by a Neurologist. However, their in-field training is even less demanding.
  • A psychologist goes through shorter formal education, with a less demanding curriculum.
  • Trainers, Coaches and the like are often made up of people who jump into the field as an after thought. I am yet to come across a kid who dreams of becoming a trainer or a coach when they grew up.
  • All that a neuro-wellness professional needs is a self-certification. As of today, the neuro-wellness field is full of amatuers and snake oil salesmen.

 

Sickness vs Wellness

As you go deeper down the neuroscience pyramid, the sicker the patients must be. And their sickness is more tangible.

Whereas, the customers on the wellness layer shouldn’t even be called a patient. They are already in their pink of health and they are looking for making themselves healthier.

 

Potential of Each Layer

All the life threatening conditions are addressed by the professional operating at the bottom most layer of the neuroscience pyramid.

The challenge faced by professionals operating higher up the neuroscience pyramid is with recovering the potential lost to mental health issues.

But the highest layers of neuroscience pyramid have the capacity to release immense human potential like we have never seen. At least, that is what we technology-optimists believe.

Today, economic activities in neuroscience industry are limited to the lower layers.

In the future, the neuro-wellness industry will grow to be worth several billions of dollars. By then, all the most exciting things on earth will happen in neuro-wellness industry. I am hoping that the business I’ve started in neuroscience industry, CNS Foundation, will eventually take me there.

A guy can hope, can’t he!

22 Dec

Anoxia of a Negative Thought

Happiness

We’ve heard people claiming that we use only 20% of our brain (or is it 10%).  It’s wrong!  We know beyond doubt that the brain is a finite resource and the demand placed on it often surpasses the resources available.

When the brain is assigned more than one task, they compete inside the brain for resources and the energy hungry tasks usually are sacrificed.  Of course, unless it is more critical or more rewarding (in which case, other tasks are sacrificed).

The neocortex (and particularly, the Pre-Frontal Cortex) is central in high cognition (though, higher cognition occurs outside the cortex too).  It is also the most energy inefficient part of the brain.  Evolutionarily, it is the most recent part of the brain, whereas the rest of the brain has been around for millions of years more.  The rest of the brain has had time to evolve better efficiency.

Neocortex is the part of the brain where you hold a thought and process it.  It is also where we hold a negative thought and ruminate over it.  If such a thought is about something that happened in the past, we call it sadness or regret.  If the negative thought is about the future, we call it worry.

Ruminating the past doesn’t change a thing.  We all know it but we often find ourselves unable (the thought it too powerful) or unwilling (we feel guilty to let go) to extricate ourselves from this thought pattern.  The sad thing here is that none of this will ever change the past.  But the rumination will deprive our ability to be available to the people and the challenges that are right in front of us today.

But there is a very interesting perspective to worrying that is not immediately obvious.  When we are facing a future challenge, we ‘usually’ do not need more than a few seconds (if not minutes) of thinking to find the solution.  If we are unable to find a solution after a short reflection, we probably lack data/skill and we need to go out and get some.  In the former case, worrying is a meaningless sacrifice of our mental health.  In the later case, worrying stunts our ability to acquire additional resources that will help us actually solve the problem.  Either way, worrying extracts huge cost from us.  Almost always, it is a wasteful exercise.

Here is a simple technique to stop from dwelving in a past or future negative event:

Do something that shifts the flow of blood (i.e. energy) from the neo-cortex!  It is that simple!!

Get up and walk.  Exercise.  Dance.  All these things shift the energy flow inside your brain to the regions that have the motor control.  If you are good at it, sing a song, play a music or simply listen to a type of music that doesn’t accentuates your negative mood.  Play with kids, play with pets, go to a movie, go to some chat room, spend time with friends.  Start a movement, contribute time to a cause, join a mission, join a competition.  Meditate. Cook.  Shop.  Party.  Watch a movie.  Fall in love.  Travel.  Bunjee jump.  Wear Spandex and fight crime.

The choices are limitless.  The point is to get on to something that shifts the blood flow from the structures that ruminate or worry, to anything other structure in the brain.  All the grand strategies that are taught to stop worrying/ruminating all boil down to this simple thing.

Most of the typical anti-worry or anti-rumination methodologies work ‘on’ the negative thought.  While working on a thought, you must hold it in your mind.  The more you hold a thought in your mind, the more deeply entrenched it becomes and the more difficult it is to extinguish it.  There lies the simple elegance of the shift-blood-flow technique.  It takes just a second to implement and it doesn’t ever involve working ‘on’ the negative thought!

20 Dec

Laser Beam, Table Lamp and DLPFC

Lights

We often focus like a laser beam: Precise and with high intensity.  When we focus like a laser, anything that is not under the beam vanishes from our attention, including our  perception of time.  We are usually under flow state and we are reasonably confident about cracking the problem that we are focusing on.

When we focus like a laser, a portion of our brain called Dorsolateral Pre-Frontal Cortex becomes highly active.  DLPFC is involved in our executive functions, working memory, self control, etc.

Other than laser focus, there is a diametrically opposite powerful mental state: Illuminate like a table lamp!  The light has no specific agenda.  But it has its fingers in every pie there is.  This is the state of mind we typically acquire when we become spontaneously creative.  Examples include composing a new tune, writing a poem, flirting with someone special, etc.

Interestingly, when our mind lights up like a table lamp, the DLPFC become under-active!

DLPFC often underlies the difference between the well-organized disciplinarian and the artsy-creative types.  The former has overactive DLPFC and the later has under-active DLPFC.

Each mental state has its own advantage.  There are times where we need to focus like a laser and there are time where we need to bounce around like the photons from a table lamp.  Usually, every individual is good in one type of thinking.

But there is a ridiculously simple way to acquire each mental state:

Mimic a laser beam or a table lamp with your attention!

Don’t think.  Just visualize your light source and mimic it with your attention.  You can shift your mental state in a jiffy.  With that, your whole persona changes!

18 Nov

ADHD Brain

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is easily the most fascinating, misunderstood, contested and over-diagnosed psychiatric condition.  Through ADHD, we will see how our brain affects our behavior.

There is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called Dopamine.  When you get something right, the dopamine levels in the brain go up.  Of course, getting something right is often closely linked to improving one’s chances of survival or reproduction.  Dopamine is the reward chemical.  It supplies the feel good when we solve a mathematical problem, find delicious food or a delectable mate.  Cocaine high is also supplied by drug induced dopamine.  Dopamine is also responsible for movement, motivation, impulse control, alertness and focus.

There is a neurotransmitter called Norepinephrine (NE).  NE increases secreted in your brain when your stress levels go up.  NE also increases the alertness and focus.  NE is a product of Dopamine.

A small set of the population seem to have a mutation that leaves them with sub-optimal levels of dopamine and/or NE.  Because of the sub-optimal levels of alertness/focus chemicals, unless something excites them (and increases the dopamine levels) or frightens them (and increases the NE levels), these people tend to remain distracted and under-motivated.  These people are thought of attention deficit.

There is also a difference in the way an ADHD brain in wired.  When a baby is born, the neurons inside the brain are cross wired in an almost random fashion.  As the baby grows up, surplus connections are pruned out.  This pruning is needed to build specialized modules inside the brain and make the brain more efficient.  Often, parts of an ADHD brain remains under differentiated.  As you will see later, this not always a bad thing.

It is interesting to see how these subtle changes inside the brain express as personality traits:

  • There is a portion of the brain called striatum, which is partly responsible for physical movement.  People with sub-optimal levels of dopamine in striatum can’t sit in one place.  These are the physically hyperactive types.  The physical movement seem to increase the dopamine levels in the striatum.
  • Striatum is also responsible for motivation.  Less dopamine here results in poor motivation.
  • There is a part of the brain called pre-frontal cortex (PFC) that sits just behind our forehead.  It is believed to be responsible for several functions, including acting as the breaking system of the brain.  When someone has less dopamine in the PFC area, they exert poor impulse control.  It makes them short tempered (bad) and/or spontaneous (good at times).
  • PFC also smothers the creative insights to some extent.  This is one reason why creative people often have poor impulse control.
  • PFC is responsible for forethought, planning, executing, etc.  People with less dopamine in PFC show deficiencies with these skills.
  • PFC is also thought of as the seat of working memory.  Poor dopamine levels in PFC impairs a person’s working memory and makes them poor with details.  On the other hand, they become good at dealing with the big picture (which amounts to consolidating several smaller details into one bigger package).
  • Because of poor level of dopamine in PFC, this brain type is typically disorganized.  On the other hand, some of these people who learn to organize are super-organized.
  • Poor dopamine levels in PFC also results in poor time sense.  Even estimation of time required to complete a task is difficult for them.
  • People with low level of dopamine in cerebellum become physically sluggish.  But all the action happens inside an overactive mind, encased in a still body.
  • Novelty increases dopamine levels.  People with this brain type are usually novelty seekers.
  • Routine task doesn’t generate dopamine.  While these people can handle a novel task of higher difficulty, handling even a simple routine task is such a drag for them.
  • Risk taking pumps up dopamine and norepinephrine.  So, this brain type actively goes looking for risk.  Several of soldiers, police men, stock brokers and other high risk professions are filled with this brain type.
  • Of course, verbal quarrels also increase NE.  Some people with this brain type are pugnacious, particularly when they also have a short temper.  Almost everyone with this brain type is a drama queen.
  • Dopamine is also responsible for salience.  People with sub-optimal dopamine levels forgive others easily.  Except if they also have deficient levels of serotonin in anterior cingulate gyrus, in which case they won’t easily forget a slight.
  • The sub-optimal level of serotonin is ACG is often seen in people with ADHD brain type.  ACG is like the gear shift of the brain and serotonin acts like the gear fluid.  With deficient serotonin, their brain tends to get stuck in the same state.  Combined with poor working memory, these people tend to forget the rest of the world when they lay their hands on a task that fascinates them.
  • Throughout the brain, dopamine and serotonin are in a balance.  As less serotonin is known to cause depression, ADHD brain type with less dopamine (and hence, more serotonin) is not easily susceptible to depression.  However, we live in a world that is designed for non-ADHD brain and living in this world often puts them into very high level of stress.  This high stress often makes them prone to depression and anxiety.
  • Because the wiring inside the brain is criss-crossed, this brain type often results in traffic congestion.  This traffic (data) congestion expresses itself in several ways, including dyslexia.
  • Because of the hyper-wiring, people with this brain type usually have sharper senses.  Some of them can hear very feeble sound and/or sound from wide frequency range.  Many of them wear soft and casual clothes as formal clothes (and wrist watches) are too rough on their skin.  Many of them have a nose that can overwhelm them.  As a matter of fact, any of the senses can overwhelm easily them.  Of course, more severe cases of under-differentiation results in complications which have their own jargon and we are not getting into them here.

There are two people inside every person with ADHD brain type.  One is the dull, distraction prone, absent minded, careless and low-motivation person they live most of their life as.  The second character is highly charged, super-motivated, quick, sharp, intelligent and daring person they turn into when they are in a dopamine or norepinephrine pumping situation.

In other words, the baseline of performance for these people shift from situation to situation.  This dynamically shifting baseline is not understood by most of the people, including the ones who have this brain type.  That leads them to falsely under or over estimate their self worth.

In the next post, we will see how our compulsion to generalize ruins the lives of millions of people with this brain type.

24 Oct

Spirituality for an agnostic

Spirituality

Spirituality is one of the most misused words out there.  The word ‘spirituality’ is like a closet in a teenager’s room: Anything goes in there, but nothing ever comes out.  For example, according to Wikipedia, the term spirituality can be used when dealing with any of the following:

  • Immaterial reality
  • Inner path leading to essence of a person
  • Deepest value and meaning by which people live
  • A person’s inner life
  • Larger reality
  • A more comprehensive self
  • Joining with other human beings
  • Joining with nature, cosmos and/or define
  • Source of inspiration/orientation for life
  • Going beyond the worldly experience

You can stretch spirituality to fit it on everything or nothing.  You and me can be talking about spirituality, but we may be talking two very different things.  I think the confusions is caused by the limitation of the English language.  Sanskrit, on the other hand, has much more specific terms for each of the above.  It is unfortunate that we are letting this knowledge die.  But we are digressing.

Regardless of what anyone means about spirituality, whenever they use this word, I think they are talking about something bigger than themselves of which they are a sub-set.  The super-set may be a group of people, a set of social rules, some guiding principal, nature, cosmos, divine, etc.

This 18 minute long TED video talks eloquently about the evolutionary basis of spirituality.  As the speaker Jonathan Heidt points out, at times we all experience a powerful dissolution of the self and a sense of merging with something much bigger than us.  When we encounter one of these perception warps, it is usually a life changing (or life ending) experience.  We call these transcendental experience a spiritual experience.

Only hitch with spiritual feelings is this: The purpose of these powerful emotions lie deep in our evolutionary past.  In the past, the humans who put their community above the self survived and the ones who put self above community perished.  So, all of us today happily merge into something bigger.  Since the reason for this transcendental and powerful feelings are not obvious, we tend to attribute all kind of reasons to explain them, ranging from merging with a soul mate to merging with the God.

For an agnostic like me, spirituality is the “anything related to my super-set“.  Simple.  It works regardless of whichever context I see that word coming up in.