Preserved Stories Blog


Our brain is not a unitary organ

The photo is from the June 28, 2015 CBC article cited at the post on this page. The caption reads: "Despite the damage to this car after hitting a moose on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula, Stephen Bromley says he remembers nothing about the accident. (Submitted photo)."

The photo is from the June 28, 2015 CBC article cited at the post on this page. The caption reads: “Despite the damage to this car after hitting a moose on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, Stephen Bromley says he remembers nothing about the accident. (Submitted photo).”

As I have noted in a previous post, one of my favourite proverbs, which a Grade 4 student (originally from Newfoundland) shared with us during an English lesson that I taught when I was an elementary school teacher in Mississauga, Ontario, is the one that goes as follows:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a moose on the road.”

The proverb brings to mind a CBC article.

A June 28, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Moose-collision memory loss reveals complex brain functions: Newfoundland drivers’ blackouts not surprising, scientist says.”

Our brain is not a unitary organ, but is made up of a complex set of subsystems

The article notes:

  • The system at the heart of our memory is a seahorse-shaped section of the brain called the hippocampus, Watter explained. It’s responsible for linking different parts of human experience to form a coherent memory.
  • In the most severe – but rare – cases of hippocampus damage, the person can no longer create or retain new memory, as seen in Christopher Nolan’s 2000 box office hit Memento.
  • The cases of the two Newfoundlanders appear to be much milder and hopefully more transient, Watter said.
  • “You probably experienced it at the time, and they may have thought, ‘Oh my goodness! I’m gonna hit this creature!’ But there’s not enough time for that to be encoded in your long-term memory system before you get the physical shakeup.”
  • What did catch Watter’s attention, he said, is that both people managed to drive for some distance before they stopped.
  • It underscores that our brain is not a unitary organ, but is made up of a complex set of subsystems that are responsible for various functions, he said.
  • “It’s certainly possible to have some of those things more functional than others for a small amount of time,” he said.
  • According to Michelle Higgins, the woman behind the wheel in 2012, her doctor said her brain became overwhelmed in the collision and was unable to process what happened, so it shut down and took her to her destination on autopilot.

[End of excerpt]

Mindfulness

The discussion brings to mind my understanding of what the concept of mindfulness entails. My own understanding is outlined in the following post:

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness is defined in different ways, by different people, as noted in the following posts:

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness stands in contrast to mindlessness

The latter post – “Mindfulness stands in contrast to mindlessness” – underlines that mindlessness is seen to stand in opposition to mindfulness.

The above-noted posts refer to a definition of mindfulness advanced by Ellen Langer, which differs in subtle but important ways from the definition of mindfulness associated with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an eight-week course of instruction in mindfulness, which I’ve outlined in the post entitled Mindfulness Meditation.

In a previous post – William Davies (2015) speaks of a happiness industry – I’ve referred to a couple of books that I found of interest, which deal with the concept of mindfulness in ways that add to the ongoing conversations about what mindfulness is, and what it entails.

Buddhism

In the above-mentiond post I have noted, with regard to The Happiness Industry (2015), that:

The book doesn’t serve as a complete answer to everything. However, the discussion as it relates to the branding of Buddhism is of interest.

I’ve addressed the latter topic at a previous post entitled: The relationship between Buddhism and violence is a topic of interest.

The author’s discussion of mindfulness has a flippant quality to it, which I enjoy. No point in taking such things too seriously.

Having embarked upon a project as a beginner practitioner of mindfulness, however, after taking a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course over a decade ago, I would say that the book’s characterizations of mindfulness are slightly on the superficial side.

That being said, what is on the surface is of interest, and the arguments that William Davies advances warrant close consideration.

Four sets of definitions come to mind

I’m aware of four possible definitions or conceptualizations of mindfulness, namely: 1) the MBSR trope; 2) the Ellen Langer meme; 3) the William Davies overview of what mindfulness appears to be; and  4) the conceptualization featured in The Upside of Your Dark Side (2015) (see below).

The Upside of Your Dark Side (2014)

Some books that address themes related to The Happiness Industry (2015) include:

The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness (2006)

The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your “Good” Self – Drives Success and Fulfillment (2014)

With regard to the two above-noted books, a June 16, 2015 CBC The Current article (from which I learned of the books) is entitled: “Success By Design: Research shows Jerks get the corner office.”

The value of mindlessness

Now, the The Upside of Your Dark Side (2014) offers a discussion of mindfulness and mindlessness that is, again, of interest, and adds to the quality of the conversation regarding the topics at hand.

The latter text notes (p. 150):

“We offer a contrast to the large amount of scientific and public coverage suggesting that mindfulness is better than mindlessness. Under­standing how mindless thinking bolsters success will give you an edge over peers trying to log into a mindful state as often as possible. Even if you wanted to, it is physically untenable to always be mindful. To capitalize on unconscious thinking, we described the strengths of mindlessness in life areas as layered as goal pursuit, trusting people, creativ­ity, prejudice, and complex decision making.”

[End of excerpt]

Now, the June 28, 2015 CBC article about the moose is of much interest because it advances the concept that the brain is not a unitary organ.

Mindfulness as contrasted to mindlessness

The characterization of mindfulness that Todd B. Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener  advance in Your Dark Side (2014) can be characterized as follows. Sometimes, the authors assert, you can’t engage in mindfulness, because some of the most creative work is done by the mind when the mind is in a state of mindlessness.

A key point that occurs to me is that the authors’ experience of mindfulness appears to be limited.

They can describe it as a concept but they have not adopted a practice of mindfulness, of the kind that is available to beginner practitioners of mindfulness.

I have been practising mindfulness for 11 years, after taking a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course.

I am a beginner practitioner of mindfulness, which stands in contrast to a person who is highly trained in academic pursuits, but appears to have minimal or no experience with the practice of mindfulness.

Three ways (at least) of addressing mindfulness as a topic of discussion

I am not saying that everybody, who wants to speak about mindfulness, should have some experience with what mindfulness actually entails. What I am saying is that there are many definitions of mindfulness available to us:

1) One such set of definitions is associated with the practice of mindfulness.

2) A second set of definitions is associated with the intellectual understanding of what mindfulness is said to entail.

3) A third set of definitions involves practitioners of mindfulness who are also engaged in intellectual pursuits such as academic research and the analysis of research data.

Anecdotal evidence: A case study for your interest

What I would suggest is that a person can experience mindfulness while the mind is experiencing mindlessness.

This is how, as a beginner practitioner of mindfulness, I approach the matter at hand.

Let me provide an analogy.

Years ago, as I’ve explained elsewhere, I relearned how to speak. As a child and adolescent, I had stuttered severely, to the extent that at times I could not get out any words at all. At the age of 41, I attended a three-week speech clinic in Edmonton. As I’ve mentioned in presentations that I’ve made over the years, in Canada and elsewhere, in Edmonton I learned what I like to call “Fluency as a Second Language.” After I learned the language, I spent two or three years consciously applying the new skills in situations that in the past would have stopped me in my tracks, so far as effective use of my voice was concerned.

Can you formulate sentences while consciously applying fluency skills?

Now, at that time, in the late 1980s, there was a school of thought that existed, among some academics concerned with research about stuttering, that it was impossible – absolutely impossible – for a person to formulate sentences while at the same time focusing on the application of fluency skills. The argument was that you can do one thing (that is, formulate sentences) or do another thing (that is, consciously apply fluency skills), but you can’t do both things at the same time.

In my case, what I did, was that I focused on the rate at which I was speaking, while I was formulating sentences. Because I was practising my fluency skills regularly, the way that a musician would be practising some aspect of playing some musical instrument every day, or some aspect of vocal music every day, so long as I focused on my rate of speaking, all of the fluency skills would fall into place, without further mental effort on my part.

Because I was practising speaking at different rates every day, twice a day, in the way a musician would be practising basic skills every day, it was easy for me to 1) formulate sentences to my heart’s content and 2) maintain conscious awareness of the application of my newly acquired fluency skills.

Thus I was doing what, in the late 1980s, one academic school of thought was convinced could not be done. I was formulating sentences while consciously attending to fluency skills. One observer, a non-stutterer, once commented: “Jaan comes across as a person who has taken an intensive accent-reduction course; he comes across as a person who is taking great care to apply what he has learned in the course, because otherwise his old accent would emerge.”

After several years of daily work, the process of applying my fluency skills became pretty much automatic.

Mindfulness and mindlessness

The analogy extends readily to the practice of mindfulness, as I understand the concept. In the late 1960s, I read a book about psychology that said that the practice of being consciously aware of the present moment is something that anybody can achieve for a second or two at a time, but it’s impossible to maintain such an awareness on a sustained basis. Until I took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course in 2004, I had assumed that the psychology text had the correct view of things.

I have since learned otherwise. As a beginner practitioner of mindfulness, after over a decade of daily experience in mindfulness meditation, during which I sit and meditate by focusing on attending to my breathing, I now tune in to the present moment, to the extent that my skills at the current level of practice enable me to do, throughout the course of the day.

Mindful awareness of creative mindlessness

I experience plenty of occasions for creativity – for the kind of mind wandering, for the kind of experiences of mindlessness – that are conceptualized by Todd B. Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener in The Upside of your Dark Side (2014).

At the same time, given that – as the June 28, 2015 moose-on-the-road story underlines – the brain is not a unitary organ, there is a part of my mind that maintains some measure – I say some, to underline that I am a beginner practitioner – of mindfulness, at all times of the waking day, starting from the early morning hours. Going through the day, in this way, is a most delightful and enjoyable experience.

Updates

A Feb. 7, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “Trauma prompts the brain to focus on survival, not ‘peripheral details’: Traumatic or deeply emotional experiences are encoded by a special neural pathway, psychologists explain.”

A March 6, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “René Girard’s theories still explain the violence all around us: French-born scholar spent his career trying to understand what what makes violence a chronic problem.”

A Sept. 4, 2016 article is entitled: “Girl, 13, killed in Stephenville moose-vehicle collision: 13-year-old girl travelling in front passenger seat of 2-door vehicle.”

A Sept. 15, 2016 CBC online video is entitled: “Moose: A Year in the Life of a Twig Eater.”

 

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2 Responses to Our brain is not a unitary organ

  1. Steven Lesser says:

    Newsletter #16 asks:

    “…in the 69-70 somewhere, the whole school banded together to change one of the rule[s] in dress code. Do you remember which part of the code was being challenged?”

    Do I ever. Boys were required to wear ties to school. We hated that. One day, towards the end of the school year, we held a big rally on the front steps of the school. As I recall, someone blew a trumpet to urge us on. Then we all took off our ties and marched in the front doors, tie-less. That was my first year at MCHS.

    Because there were so many of us, the administration had to use the VisEd room for detentions. We sat for half an hour after school every day for a week.

    But the next year: No more ties.

  2. Jaan Pill Jaan Pill says:

    Beautiful story! I’ll pass it along to the Newsletter editors.

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