The human brain is a network of approximately one hundred billion neurons. Different experiences create different neural connections which bring about different emotions. And depending on which neurons get stimulated, certain connections become stronger and more efficient, while others may become weaker. This is what’s called neuroplasticity.
Someone who trains to be a musician will create stronger neural connections that link the two hemispheres of the brain in order to be musically creative. Eventually, every sort of skill or talent can be created.
Rudiger Gamm, who was a self-admitted ‘hopeless student’, used to fail at basic maths and went on to train his abilities and became a famous ‘human calculator’, capable of performing extremely complex mathematics. Rationality and emotional resilience work the same way. These are neural connections that can be strengthened. Whatever you are doing at any time, you are physically modifying your brain to become better at it. Since this is such a foundational mechanism of the brain, being self-aware can greatly enrich our life experience.
We see this in the politics of fear, in the strategy of poker players or simply when someone is stubborn in a discussion. No matter how valuable an idea is, the brain has trouble processing it when it is in such a state.
On a neural level, it reacts as if we’re being threatened, even if this threat comes from harmless opinions or facts that we may otherwise find helpful and could rationally agree with (people who experience a lot of stress, can find themselves almost constantly in this defensive mindset, since stress can damage the limbic system and drastically increase emotional irritability.) But when we express ourselves and our views are appreciated, these “defence chemicals” decrease in the brain and dopamine neurotransmissions activates the reward neurons, making us feel empowered and increasing our self-esteem. Our beliefs gave a profound impact on our body chemistry, this is why placebos can be so effective.
Self-esteem or self-belief is closely linked to the neurotransmitter serotonin. When the lack of it takes on severe proportions, it often leads to depression, self-destructive behaviour or even suicide. Social validation increases the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain and allows us to let go of emotional fixations and become self-aware more easily.
Recent neurological research has confirmed the existence of empathetic mirror neurons. When we experience an emotion or perform an action, specific neurons fire. But when we observe someone else performing this action or when we imagine it, many of the same neurons will fire again, as if we were performing the action ourselves. These empathy neurons connect us to other people, allowing us to feel what others feel. And since these neurons respond to our imagination, we can experience emotional feedback from them as if it came from someone else. This system is what allows us to self-reflect.
“The mirror neuron does not know the difference between it and others” and is the reason why we are so dependent on social validation and why we want to fit in. We are in a constant duality between how we see ourselves and how others see us. This can result in confusion in terms of identity and self-esteem. And brain scans show that we experience these negative emotions even before we are aware of them.
But when we are self-aware, we can alter misplaced emotions because we control the thoughts that cause them. This is a neurochemical consequence of how memories become labile when retrieved and how they are restored through protein synthesis.
Self-observing profoundly changes the way our brain works. It activates the self-regulating neocortical regions, which give us an incredible amount of control over our feelings. Every time we do this, our rationality and emotional resilience are strengthened.
When we’re not being self-aware, most of our thoughts and actions are impulsive and the idea that we are randomly reacting and not making conscious choices is instinctively frustrating. The brain resolves this by creating explanations for our behaviour and physically rewriting it into our memories through memory reconsolidations, making us believe that we were in control of our actions.
This is also called backward rationalization, and it can leave most of our negative emotions unresolved and ready to be triggered at any time. They become a constant fuel to our confusion as our brain will keep trying to justify why we behaved irrationally.
All this complex and almost schizophrenic subconscious behaviour is the result of a vastly parallel distributed system in our brain. There is no specific centre of consciousness, the appearance of unity is, in fact, each of these separate circuits being enabled and being expressed at one particular moment in time. [Joseph E. LeDeux]
Our experiences are constantly changing our neural connections, physically altering the parallel system that is our consciousness. Direct modifications to this can have surreal consequences that bring into question what and where consciousness really is.
If your left cerebral hemisphere were to be disconnected from the right, as is the case in split-brain patients, you would normally still be able to talk and think from the left hemisphere, while your right hemisphere would be left with very limited cognitive capacities. Your left brain will not miss the right part, even though this profoundly changes your perception.
Once consequence of this is that you can no longer describe the right half of someone’s face. But you’ll never mention it, you’ll never see it as a problem or even realize that something has changed. [Joseph E. LeDeux] Since this affects more than just your perception of the real world and also applies to your mental images, it is not just a sensory problem but a fundamental change in your consciousness.
Brainwaves underpin almost everything going on in our minds, including memory, attention and even intelligence. As they oscillate at different frequencies, they get classified in bands, such as alpha, theta and gamma. Each is associated with different characteristics. Brainwaves allow brain-cells to tune in to the frequency corresponding to their particular task while ignoring irrelevant signals, similar to how a radio homes in on different waves to pick up radio stations.
The transfer of information between neurons becomes optimal when their activity is synchronized. This is the same reason why we experience cognitive dissonance, the frustration caused by simultaneously holding two contradictory ideas.
Will is merely the drive to reduce dissonance between each of our active neural circuits. Evolution can be seen as the same process, where nature tries to adapt or “resonate” with its environment. By doing so, it evolved to a point where it became self-aware and began to ponder its own existence. When a person faces the paradox of wanting purpose whilst thinking that human existence is meaningless, cognitive dissonance occurs.
Throughout history, this has led many to reach for spiritual and religious guidance, challenging science, as it failed to give answers to existential questions, such as: “Why or what am I?”
Counter balancing this is the right cerebral hemisphere, which has the opposite tendency. Whereas the left hemisphere tries to preserve the model, the right, hemisphere is constantly challenging the status quo. When the discrepant anomalies become too large, the right hemisphere forces a revision in our world view. However, when our beliefs are too strong, the right hemisphere may not succeed in overriding our denial.
This can create a profound confusion when mirroring others. When the neural connections that physically define our belief system are not strongly developed or active, then our consciousness, the unity of all the separate active circuits at that moment, may consist mainly of activity related to our mirror neurons.
Just as when we experience hunger, our consciousness consists mostly of other neural interactions for consuming food. This is not the result of some core “self” giving commands to different cerebral areas. All the different parts of the brain become active and inactive and interact without a core. Just as the pixels on a screen can express themselves as a recognizable image when in unity, the convergence of neural interaction expresses itself as consciousness.
At every moment, we are, in fact, a different image. A different entity when mirroring, when hungry, when watching this video. Every second, we become different persons as we go through different states. When we use our mirror neurons to look at ourselves, we may construct the idea of identity. But if we do this with our scientific understandings, we see something completely different.
The neural synergies that produce our oscillating consciousness go far beyond our own neurons. We are equally the result of cerebral hemispheres interacting electrochemically, as we are of the senses connecting our neurons to other neurons in our environment.
Nothing is external. This is not a hypothetical philosophy, it is the basic property of mirror neurons, which allow us to understand ourselves through others. Seeing this neural activity as your own, while excluding the environment, would be a misconception. Our superorganism features are also reflected in evolutions, where our survival as primates relied on our collective abilities.[John Cacioppo:] Over time, the neocortical regions evolved to permit the modulation of primitive instincts and the overriding of hedonistic impulses for the benefit of the group.
Our selfish genes gave come to promote reciprocal social behaviours in superorganism structures, effectively discarding the notion of “survival of the fittest.” The brain’s neural activity resonates most coherently when there is no dissonance between these advanced new cerebral regions and the older more primitive ones.
What we traditionally call “selfish tendencies” is only a narrow interpretation of what self-serving behaviour entails, wherein human characteristics are perceived through the flawed paradigm of identity instead of through a scientific view on what we are: a momentary expression of an ever-changing unity with no centre.
The psychological consequences of this as an objective belief system allow self-awareness without attachment to the imagined self, causing dramatic increases in mental clarity, social conscience, self-regulation and what’s often described as “being in the moment.”
The common cultural belief has mostly been that we need a narrative, a diachronic view on our life, to establish moral values. But with our current understandings of the empathic and social nature of the brain, we now know that a purely scientific view, with no attachment to our identity or “story,” yields a far more accurate, meaningful and ethical paradigm than our anecdotal values.
This is logical, since our traditional tendency to define ourselves as imaginary individualistic constants neutrally wires and designs the brain towards dysfunctional cognitive processes, such as compulsive labelling and the psychological need to impose expectations.
Practical labelling underpins all forms of interactions in our daily lives. But by psychologically labelling the self as internal and the environment as external, we constrain our own neurochemical processes and experience a deluded disconnection. Growth and its evolutionary side-effects, such as happiness and fulfilment, are stimulated when we are not being labelled in our interactions.
We may have many different views and disagree with one another in practical terms, but interactions that nevertheless accept us for who we are, without judgment, are neuropsychological catalysts that wire the human brain to acknowledge others and accept rationally verified belief systems without dissonance. Stimulating this type of neural activity and interaction alleviates the need for distraction or entertainment, and creates cycles of constructive behaviour in our environment.
Sociologists have established that phenomena such as obesity and smoking, emotions and ideas, spread and ripple through society in much the same way that electric signals of neurons are transferred when their activity is synchronized.
We are a global network of neurochemical reactions. And the self-amplifying cycle of acceptance and acknowledgement, sustained by the daily choices in our interactions, is the chain-reaction that will ultimately define our collective ability to overcome imagine differences and look at life in the grand scheme of things.