The Brain and Self

Throughout his life and writings, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and “the talking cure”, believed and wrote that chemistry would most likely be the ultimate and eventual cure for mental illness. And so it has evolved. Drugs have replaced psychiatry in large part in the treatment of mental diseases.

Equally now, the brain itself is the landscape wherein we seek the epicenters of our mind and emotions. This blog has focused on the Self, an elusive composite of ingredients that add up to our sense of existence and being. A recent study on the brains of young adolescents, seems to point to the existence of Self in a particular part of the brain. When adolescents were put into various experimental situations that made them self-conscious and embarrassed, the part of the brain known as the medial pre-frontal cortex showed extensive excitation and flared up in hyper-activity on the various monitors that showed the brain’s topography. Like Freud anticipating chemistry as his replacement, do we now have to assume that the fleeting figment we call Self is in fact to be found physically in a certain region of the brain?

If so, does that take out of the equation, all of the effort and social practice that we have traditionally acceded to improving our Self and our character? This same new knowledge of the brain would suggest not. While there well may be a portion of the brain, a piece of physiology that corresponds to the sense of Self, that same research also testifies to the surprising plasticity of the brain, i.e., the capacity of the brain to change itself physically in response to need and stimuli.

Just as we can train the brain to recompose itself in the face of a stroke or an injury to the body, so apparently can we change the circuitry and synapses of the brain in response to emotional and social patterns that are improvements in those important areas. This would suggest that the very premise of this blog, that life is a series of scripts, and if we change them, we can change as well, has sound footing. The added beauty is that this change is not just some ephemeral modification in the psycho-sphere, but may in fact be a change effected upon the brain itself, that circuitry and synapses have altered and adjusted. I take comfort in that possible permanence.

The plasticity of the brain, to be able to change and adjust its neural physicality, is encouragement for those who would not just overcome a new physical challenge, but also for those who would overcome and change a social or psychological challenge. Much like having the confidence as we exercise that we are changing and improving a muscle or muscle group, so we can now have similar confidence that the physical organ of the brain, too, is able to grasp and incorporate the psychological and emotional changes that we wish to press into our existence.

It may take repetition and dedication just as any exercise does, but its results may prove to become natural and intrinsic.

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9 thoughts on “The Brain and Self

  1. Interesting experiment on the Adolescents and the medial-pre Frontal Cortex. It would be equally interesting to see what topography lights up in other age groups? Does the self become less aware as we get older or more aware? Could be even further to the point of your book..finding your authentic Self. if the frontal Cortex becomes less reactive to images of the self as we age from Adolescence then this would support the theory that we tend to lose our authentic selves amidst all the many Scripts of life we encounter. It would then be interesting to see if science would show the Frontal Cortex become more reactive once a person did some ‘brain retraining’ or some true ‘searching for their authentic self.’ Maybe they could read a few chapters in your book and then see what lights up on the brain scan!

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    1. Interesting possibilities that you proffer. There is evidence that the medial pre-frontal cortex lights up less in adults when they are placed in embarrassing or self conscious environments. But what the cause of that is, as far as I can read, is attributed to “maturity” whatever that is. Coping skills, a better sense of Self may be among reasons. But as you suggest, the cause may be less benign. It could be ennui, lack of care, boredom. Your experiment of having someone read my book and seek some of its goals with some “before and after” pix of the brain could prove most enlightening. I know they have done some brain studies on Buddhist monks that show brain changes and differences. It would also have been interesting to gauge brain changes back in the 60’s and 70’s when some people spent extended time in communes with spiritual and searching overtones. I would bet the people who drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown in a mass suicide would have shown some brain changes as they lived in that “”brain-washing” atmosphere for years and years. Thank you for provoking most interesting thoughts.

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  2. amen. totally agree with you. i worry too many run to meds before trying brain/mental work first or at least in combo. did not know that freud had forecasted chemistry as a future cure. interesting!

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    1. Yes, as we find more proof of the plasticity and malleability of the brain, we may come full circle and give up on some drugs and re-find a better and more direct way to retrain the brain via personal abd inter-personal verbal and literate exchanges. Self help books may work after all.

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  3. Great post and replies, Thank you all. Is there any evidence that the work required to make the behavioral changes in the brain coupled with a spiritual perspective is more long lasting than a purely medicinal approach? I believe Jung tried to treat Bill W., the founder of AA, but it wasn’t until Bill W. relied on a spiritual practice that a cure for alcoholism could be realized. In other words, does our brain need to believe in an outside source greater than itself in order to change? Or, is the brain geared to be collaborative in its ability to change?

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  4. The Jung and Bill W. connection really peaked my interest because Jung said, more or less, “sorry, I can’t help you.” He tried. There were limits to psychotherapy Jung acknowledged. It’s the medicinal reconfiguration of alcohol on the brain as opposed to the medicinal reconfiguration of the brain with Zolofts, Wellbutrins, etc. What your book advocates is the slower, harder path. There’s evidence in the nutritional fields that vitamins are best derived from our foods because our bodies have to work harder at acquiring the nutrients. In other words, the more complicated extraction process of, say, vitamin c from oranges is more beneficial than just eating a bunch of vitamin c tablets.

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    1. All this also fits with that recent book on excellence in art and sports advocating 10,000 repetitions. I.e., that genius is more than latent talent. It must be exercised extensively. He also gets into the myelination of the brain and its pathways. The brain is malleable but it takes work and dedication.

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