Posts Tagged ‘midbrain’

Self Awareness

February 25, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” There was a corporate lawyer who had a brain tumor. Fortunately, that tumor was diagnosed early and operated on successfully. But during the operation the surgeon had to cut circuits that connects key areas of the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, and the amygdala in the midbrain’s area for emotions.

After the surgery on every test of IQ memory and attention, the lawyer was as smart as he had been before the surgery. But he couldn’t do his job anymore. He lost his job and found that he couldn’t keep any job. He ended up living in his brother’s spare bedroom and, in desperation, he went to the neuroscientist Damasio to find out what was wrong.

The lawyer was fine on every neurological test. The clue to the problem became clear when Damaisio asked the lawyer, “When shall we have out next appointment?” Although the lawyer could provide rational pros and cons of every hour for the next two weeks, he could not decide which was best. Damaisio concluded that in order to make a good decision, we need to have feelings about our thoughts— and the lesion created during surgery meant he could no longer connect his thought with the emotional pros and cons.

These feelings come from the emotional centers in the midbrain, interacting with a specific area in the prefrontal cortex. When we have a thought its valences either positive or negative are evaluated by these brain centers. This helps us shuffle our thoughts into priorities, like when would be the best time for an appointment. Lacking that input, we don’t know what to feel about our thoughts, so we can’t make good decisions.

Our basal ganglia extracts decision rules as we go through every situation in life. Our accumulated life wisdom is stored in this primitive circuitry. However, when we face a decision, it’s our verbal cortex that generates our thoughts about it. But to more fully access our life experience on the matter at hand, we need to access further inputs from that subcortical circuitry. Although the basal ganglia have some direct connection to the verbal areas, it turns out also to have very rich connections to the gastrointestinal tract—the gut. So when making a decision, a gut sense of it being right or wrong is important information, also. It’s not that you should ignore the data, but if it doesn’t fit what you’re feeling, maybe you should think twice about it.

Coleman writes, “That rule-of-thumb seems to be at play in a study of highly successful California entrepreneurs who were asked how they made crucial business decisions. They all reported more or less, the same strategy. First, they were voracious consumers of any data or information that might bear on their decision, casting a wide net. But second, they all tested their rational decisions against their gut feeling—if a deal didn’t feel right they might not go ahead, even if it looked good on paper.”

The answer to the question,’Is what I’m about to do in keeping with my sense of purpose, meaning, or ethics?’ doesn’t come to us in words; it comes to us via this gut sense. Then we put it into words.”

Readers might remember that Trump says he thinks with his gut. However, unlike the entrepreneurs mentioned above, he is not a voracious consumer of data. In fact, he ignores data and depends on his gut. In this case what he gets from his gut is similar to what we find in our toilets.

A review of cortical and subcortical functions taken from Goleman follows:

The neocortex contains centers for cognition and other complex mental operations. The subcortex is where more basic mental processes occur. Just below the thinking brain, and projecting into the cortex, is the limbic center, the brain’s main areas for emotion. These areas are also found in the brains of other mammals. The more ancient parts of the subcortex extend down to the brainstem, known as the reptilian brain because we share this basic architecture with reptiles.