Last month’s column introduced the concept of our working brain, the set of emotion/attention systems that identify and focus on current challenges. Our working brain must differentiate between what’s currently more and less important (foreground and background), focus on the foreground, and monitor the background in case something important occurs there.
Our working brain is thus quite limited in the amount of information it can process at a given time, and in the length of time it can hold the information. Its content might involve such things as the magazine page you’re reading, the TV show you’re watching, the phone conversation you’re having, or the pizza you’re eating. Our brain and environment are vast storehouses of information, but our working brain is very selective. Think of all the information your computer contains and can access via the Internet, and then think of what’s currently on the screen as analogous to the content of your working brain.
Our modular brain’s 100 billion neurons are arranged into hundreds of highly interconnected systems that process specific tasks. For example, our visual system encompasses some thirty separate subsystems that process such phenomena as color, shape, location, and movement. Our motor cortex contains separate subsystems for each joint in our body. Our working brain (centered principally in our frontal lobes) is interconnected to all brain processing systems.
Communication within both an individual neuron and a complex neuronal system requires input, information processing, and output functions. At the micro level, information enters a neuron via the cell body’s many short dendrite extensions. This incoming neuronal information is consolidated into a response within the cell body, and the response is chemically delivered to other neurons via an axon extension. Similarly, at the macro level, our entire brain contains a sensory system input function, an emotion/attention/problem-solving processing function, and a behavior/motor system output function.
Scientists aren’t certain what neuronal information is, but it’s apparently at least partially a function of the 60 different kinds of neurotransmitter molecules that our brain synthesizes within neurons, transports down their tubular axons, and distributes across the narrow synaptic gap that connects the axon of a sending neuron and the dendrites of receiving neurons.
The proper synthesis of neurotransmitters and the robustness of the connecting pathways are thus key elements in efficient neuronal communication. Our genes and life experiences combine to develop these systems — and it’s obvious that neurotransmitter over/under-production and/or poorly developed neuronal pathways will compromise the efficiency of our brain’s functions.
A Time/Space System
Since our working brain processes what we’re doing right now (present), it’s connected to related brain systems that process what has occurred (memory, past) and what might occur (prediction, future). Further, although it’s focused spatially on what’s here, it must also be aware of what’s there. A developmentally immature or malfunctioning working brain would thus exhibit a reduced ability to process time/space phenomena.
It’s no surprise, then, that many cognitive maladies are related to our working brain and its time/space emotion/attention functions. These would include anxiety, autism, bipolar disorder, dementia, depression, dyslexia, hyperactivity, mental retardation, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. It’s difficult to think of a cognitive problem that isn’t connected in some way to working brain functions.
Further, the massive interconnections between our frontal lobes and the rest of our brain and the complexity of behavior often make it difficult to diagnose the specific cause of a problem, and to effectively treat it. For example, dyslexics who have trouble rapidly processing high contrast information (such as black words on white paper) may have no problem processing the movements of people. Obsessive-compulsives who can’t easily disassociate from one attentional focus (such as washing one’s hands) in order shift to another focus may be able to easily shift their focus from word to word when they read a book.
Chemical interventions may be effective if the problem involves a neurotransmitter imbalance (such as the use of Ritalin to elevate dopamine levels in attention deficit disorder – ADD); and behavioral interventions may be effective if the problem involves the lack of robust pathways to efficiently carry the information among the relevant systems.
In Scattered, a very informative and useful book on ADD, Gabor Maté (1999) suggests that ADD is a frontal lobe impairment (something developmentally delayed), rather than a disorder (an ailment or disease). A child is typically distractible, lacks self-control, and responds impulsively. Our brain’s two-decade maturation uses genetic predisposition and environmental stimulation to develop our ability to control our focus, calmly explore the environment, and delay a response until appropriate.
School and other institutions require young folks to exhibit working brain behaviors (such as to sit quietly for extended periods) that are developmentally difficult for some. Chemical interventions may mask the problem, and behavioral interventions may hasten the maturation, but it’s helpful to think of working brain impairments as being also a culturally driven problem. A grandson’s primary grade ADD behavior benefited from a combination of Ritalin and counseling, while waiting for brain maturation to reduce the problem (which it did). Maté provides a thoughtful analysis of the issue, and practical strategies for adults who have ADD, and for parents of children with ADD.
Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley’s intriguing optimistic new book, The Mind and the Brain (2002), focuses on behavioral solutions to serious working brain impairments. Schwartz uses a Four Step behavioral program to successfully treat folks with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tourette’s Syndrome. The program uses counseling therapy to get the patient’s attention system to relabel, reattribute, refocus, and revalue the unwanted behavior— and thereby to extinguish it.
The book also describes the research that led to the development of the Fast ForWord (FFW) program, a very successful behavioral intervention for children whose ability to develop language competency is delayed by an auditory system that can’t process speech sounds quickly enough to break them down into phonemes. The FFW intervention uses videogame technology that can slow down speech to a speed that these children’s auditory system can process and then, like aerobics, speed it up again as the child’s phonemic system increases its ability to process articulate speech.
Videogame technology has a remarkable ability to engage and hold the emotion/attention systems of children, so FFW is basically an emotion/attention machine connected to a working brain impairment.
Although chemical interventions are currently widely used on folks with working brain impairments, these new successful behavioral interventions stimulate our brain to increase the robustness of relevant pathways and adjust chemical levels. This suggests that we can anticipate even more remarkable developments in human and electronic behavioral interventions directed at eliminating working brain impairments.
The Maté and Schwartz/Begley books are both written for general readers, and both tell fascinating optimistic stories.