Professor John Young, a distinguished scholar who has been described by The New York Times as one of the world’s greatest living biologists has written an excellent book titled Programs of the Brain.
Professor Young believes that much of our everyday behavior is stored in the brain in modules or, as he refers to them, programs.
“The brain operates in certain organised ways that may be described as programs“, says Young, “and the actions of these programs constitute the entity that we call the mind of a person“.
The idea of programed modules or networks has been around a long time. Donald Hebb from McGill University proposed the idea in 1949 (Hebb, 1949). Hebb suggested that learning occurs as a result of a group of neural cells firing another, or related group of neural cells. As a result of this repeated firing an assembly of associated cells is established which can prolong the learning experience. The formation of this module makes subsequent activation much more efficient.
Walking Through a Stretch of Virgin Bushland
It’s a bit like walking through a stretch of virgin bushland. The initial track is barely detectable but if you retrace it many times eventually a well-defined path with emerge. Walking through the bush becomes much easier once the path is laid down. If other paths are established in the bushland then eventually it may be possible for groups of people to travel close enough to each other to exchange information and interact.
In a similar, but much more complex way, assemblies of neural cells interact with each other to produce skills that can he used in many different settings.
One of the most remarkable qualities of neural cells is their ability to change shape and volume as a result of learning experiences (Stewart et al, 1984). Not only are new pathways formed in cerebral bushland but the quality and density of the paths changes as a result of experience.
The Neural Program for Driving a Car
Many of the programs in the brain are written through learning. One of the most obvious ones is the program for driving a car. When we were learning to drive a car we were very aware of the specific processes that were required to perform this task. Initially we had to search for the clutch, get the feel of depressing the clutch, and then coordinate this activity with the gear levels and so on. Many of these actions were performed clumsily and occasionally with considerable personal embarrassment!.
However, in a relatively short period of time we mastered these details. The more experience we had in driving a car the easier it became. At some point in this learning experience our skills had reached the stage where we were able to drive the car without conscious awareness of many of the details, such as depressing the clutch etc. The car-driving program was stored subconsciously and was switched on whenever we set out on a journey.
The main difference between the conscious-learning process and the subconscious program is that the unconscious program seems to run with greater efficiency and smoothness than the stumbling, bumbling stage in which we were apt to kangaroo the car through our neighborhood!
“To me it is significant“, writes Young, “that all organisms by virtue of their past history must make selections from sets of possible courses of action“.
This astute observation by Young begs the question of whether the choices are conscious or unconscious. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.
A Practical Everyday Example
Let’s consider how this might work. You get up in the morning feeling jaded and peeved from a poor night’s sleep. You stumble over the cat while bringing in the milk and cut yourself while shaving. These experiences cause you to say to yourself ...it’s just going to be one of those days!.
So what happens now? It could well be argued that the brain with switch on all the programs that run in accordance with the one-of-those days attitude. The feeling cranky program is turned on and is coupled with the slight feeling of nausea program plus a spot of depression and a feeling of tightness in the back of the neck.
So you head out to work with all of these programs running and, as you expected, it is one of those days. Fortunately sleep tends to turn them off again and tomorrow could be a great day with all the great day programs switched on!
We Can Be Victimized by Our Habits
Because many of our behaviors and attitudes are deeply entrenched we can fall victim to habits that arise through a calcification of attitude. Just as hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) can he a precursor of a heart attack, so hardening of attitudes can lead to prejudice and bigotry.
It is very easy to develop mind-sets about people so that whenever we encounter them a neural program is run to give us negative feelings and tension while we are in their presence.
Unfortunately this can even happen with people who are near and dear to us. It doesn’t take a lot of mental energy to run the …my teenage son / daughter is a pain in the butt… program with all the negatives that cluster about that attitude. That mind-set, if mismanaged, can rob us of years of enjoyment with our children.
In the next blog post I will show you how to change these attitudes and gain better control of your Neural Networks.
Hebb, D.O. (1949) The Organisation of Behavior. John Wiley & Sons Inc. New York.
Stewart, M.G.; Rose, S.P.R.; King, T.S.; Gahhott, P.L.A & Bourne, R (1984) Hemispheric asymmetry of synapses in chick medial hyperstriatum ventrale following passive avoidance training: a stereological investigation. Developmental Brain Research, 12, 261-269
Young, J.Z. (1978). Programs of the Brain. Oxford University Press, London.