How It Works
Our three-pound brain is tuned to the space/time world we inhabit. Only a relatively small part of our large brain is needed to regulate such rhythmic internal space/time maintenance functions as circulation, respiration, and digestion.
Most of our brain is devoted to recognizing, understanding, and responding to the very complex external space/time challenges we continuously confront. These often-unpredictable challenges require rapid access to potentially useful information gained through personal experience or provided by others.
Not everything in the external and internal environments is of immediate concern. Our brain thus contains emotion and attention systems that alert us to and focus on selected immediate dangers and opportunities. This integrated arousal/focusing system is commonly called our working brain (or working memory), and it certainly simplifies our cognitive load. Imagine a working brain that consciously attended to everything occurring inside and outside our brain. We don’t need a constant conscious awareness of everything, just ready access to information we need when we need it. Think of the single page a library patron is currently reading and the immense amount of additional readily available related information the library contains, if needed.
It’s thus biologically praiseworthy for our brain to have a powerful limited-capacity cognitive processing system focused on selected immediate concerns – but connected to a large easily accessed storehouse of potentially useful background and supplementary information.
Think metaphorically of the information on a computer screen. It’s only a very small part of the immense amount of data stored in the computer’s files and in accessible Internet sites. The computer screen, like our working brain, contains only the information of current interest.
As I work on this column, I have visual access to about three paragraphs – which is about all I currently need and want as I write, edit, and move text. A few minutes ago, I scrolled back to the beginning to find out if I had already written a thought that entered my mind, and then I scrolled to the end to add a resource I thought readers might find helpful. I also retrieved, temporarily superimposed, and read filed information I thought I could use — a recent article I wrote and another file of summarized memory research. And then suddenly, the you have mail notice popped up at the top of the screen, and I briefly abandoned this project to read and briefly respond to a query from a friend. Before returning to this column, I spent 30 minutes looking through several books in my print collection for information I might use…
I trust you get the idea. The immediate focus of my attention was what was on the screen, but I could easily move in time and space to related and unrelated stimuli and media and come back to where I was. My computer is thus an electronic notebook that supports and simplifies the writing efforts of my working brain – and its excellent file system and search engines expedite the rapid retrieval of needed information.
I can effectively operate my computer, but most folks (including me) have to admit that we don’t know how or where a computer stores and retrieves all the information it contains.
Similarly, although we effortlessly use our memory, where and how our brain stores and retrieves it is still an enigma (although theories certainly abound). Our frontal lobes apparently select and assemble the various information units involved in comprehension and response. Goldberg (2001) reports that our prefrontal cortex (behind our forehead) is directly interconnected with every distinct functional unit of our brain, and so it integrates most brain functions. It’s often metaphorically called our brain’s CEO for its key role in determining what’s currently important and what to do about it.
When It Doesn’t Work
Computers can malfunction, and so can our working brain. Many brain disorders are related to the specific systems that process the emotion and attention functions that drive our working brain.
EMOTION. As implied above, emotion is a sort of biological thermostat tuned to environmental changes, and especially to high contrast stimuli that signal a potential danger or opportunity. Some stimuli are innately arousing (a large object moving quickly in our direction typically activates fear, even in infants). Other emotionally arousing stimuli are learned through experience (a spam email message typically activates anger in those heavily involved with email correspondence).
Our emotional response is affected by a personal lifelong temperamental bias (located somewhere along a wary-to-curious continuum) that often biases our initial view of a challenge as being a danger or an opportunity. Mood is a short-term bias that factors in our current level of interest in the challenge and the amount of energy we currently have to devote to it. Thus, something ignored one day might anger us the next.
ATTENTION. An emotional arousal activates both memories of related challenges and our attentional system, which shifts our focus to the new challenge. The you have mail note mentioned above was able to capture my attention because my writing had temporarily hit an impasse, so even an email message seemed more exciting. If I had been writing up a storm at the moment, I would certainly have ignored the email alert.
Our attention system is functionally composed of an orienting system that shifts from the current to a new focus, an executive system that recognizes the challenge and searches for the relevant resources needed to meet it, and a vigilance system that hold our attention on the current challenge while ignoring minor distractions. A major distraction will activate the orienting system, which will shift to the new focus, and begin the process anew.
It’s obvious that many things can temporarily or permanently disable our working brain. Folks can over-respond to minor challenges or ignore major ones. Folks can be so concerned about what might happen that they ignore what is happening. Folks can become disabled by events that trigger powerful emotional memories. Folks can have difficulty attending to rapidly moving high contrast information. Folks can’t disengage from a problem and so obsess over it. Folks can be easily distracted. Folks can’t focus for an extended period on a single important task…
The causes and proposed cures are varied, and often ill understood. Chemical interventions (drugs) often work if the problem involves the over/under production and distribution of key brain chemicals. Behavioral interventions often work if the problem involves neuronal pathways that aren’t robustly developed. Many working brain problems involve multiple causes and treatments. One shouldn’t expect such a complex key cognitive system to continuously function without problems, or expect that a simple solution will solve all problems.
Next month’s column will thus discuss what scientists know about working brain dysfunction, proposed interventions, and the roles parents and educators can play in helping children with working brain problems.