Exploring the edges of our brain's self-development.

Updated: May 29, 2021

I wanted to spend some time nailing down a more active biological developmental concept of brain development that focuses on our higher order functions like personality & identity, language & abstract modeling, and conscious agency. These are the parts of ourselves that are only really able appear once the rest of our needs are taken care of, and are also the major parts of what give life meaning and let us cope with the rest when our needs aren't going to be met.

Reading the Dhamma, one of the original Buddhist canonical writings, it became apparent (once I waved away the religious connotations) that it was more or less a straight-forward set of instructions for self-guided cognitive behavioral therapy. In a very simplistic but effective way it touches on the evolutionary reinforcement learning that is building the base of all of our experiences (or karma in their words), and how we can have more systems in place in order to take a step back from that machinic and raw stimulation-induced learning/experiencing of the biological, genetically-encoded brain, and guide our own growth in a more meaningful, free, and creative way. Our whole conscious experience is constructed and "learned" into existence from before birth, mind you, from both our genes and our environment. Now, obviously they didn't know all that back then but the sentiment is the same. This ancient writing helps tap that intuition we have for the simultaneous arbitrariness and universality of our individual, sensory experiences of life, and provides a fairly straightforward framework to marry these seemingly opposing concepts. Concepts like these are the beginnings of realistic, active, and ethical human systems in my opinion, which start in how we orient our hearts and minds.

Essentially, from the time your brain turns on in late pregnancy, that thing is taking in all of the information it can from its environment. It's still mostly performing important processes of cell differentiation in the neocortex, but that process is already being biased by its surroundings. From here on, the experience matters. In infancy, the brain has an extreme number of gray matter connections. That baby is learning like a super computer and already beginning to solidify which systems and connections in its brain are most important and clip the rest to save energy, and all based off the stimulation it receives from its surroundings. Those systems are then cultivated further by the different structured inputs (e.g. reading, playing, touch) the baby receives - giving different internal capacities of the brain more precedence and more substance/feeling to classify and learn to identify itself with. This is one major purpose of the attachment bonds we form early on and the human qualities we learn from our families and friends as we move through our most important developmental years.

Golgi stain drawings of two adult neocortex slices (left and center) and an infant neocortex (right). The adult brain has more white matter which does not show up on the stain. (Source)

These drawings, from 1899, helped earn the author Santiago Ramón y Cajal a Nobel Prize.

There is a famous study where a scientist placed newborn kittens in a bright box with no perceivable corners for a few weeks while they grew. When they took the box away, the kittens had no perception of corners and would just walk off of platforms or run into walls. A feral child, given no meaningful social stimulation early on, will be impaired for life on his or her ability to communicate and form social bonds. This is because, while our brains are near magic in their early potential, they only can be cultivated according to the structured information available to them. Language is a primal function of the human or arguably any brain - it forms the extent of our ability to model ourselves and our environment and use that to perform our most important environmental manipulation as well as creative abilities. Language is also not just verbal and written communication, it's the framework for understanding that we apply in any experience or creative pursuit, and it's more fundamental to the very way we see and feel things and structure our lives in general.

This gets a bit more complicated when you introduce trauma. With trauma in many cases, not only are needs not being met at a base level whether in that instant or over a long time, but you're inducing primal reactive brain systems to take over - which often has dramatic and unending consequences on brain development. So it becomes a double whammy where needs are not met and now with added layers of both physiological and conceptual reactivity and negative bias to carry this person forward. And they are generally completely unaware of this from a developmental viewpoint since they're usually too young or simply never were made aware of these essential growth processes. Instead an ego, or even multiple egos, will develop with iron-sheathed coping mechanisms used to get by locked in place. Your mere disappointment with reality, in isolation with your experiences, can prevent you from cultivating and growing into the very person that would allow you to fully inhabit a better, kinder world in earnest.

It's really not easy to undo these things, thought to be nearly impossible for many because of how multifaceted and careful the approach really needs to be, sometimes involving many practitioners working in sync. (Source)

Addressing these kinds of issues ends up forming the majority of therapy work, where the therapist often tries to recondition these responses and get the client to become aware of their emotional decision-making processes in order to transform them and steer their growth. There's a very wide spectrum of related conditions depending on severity and the amount of time this stuff is left unaddressed. As a psychologist I knew said, if you're not getting better - you're getting worse. There's really no plateau for your mental health - it's up or down, and that's a much steeper up or steeper down the younger you are.

So this is where I think perhaps introducing these concepts as young as possible could be really helpful as a prevention measure. It's a lot to swallow informationally, especially when I talk about moment to moment cultivation of mental health and conscious agency, but the intuition of it is just based on what we know a happier and healthier community ought to look like, while taking much more care to understand the development of the organ that shapes our ability to have such a concept in the first place. The reason to try to start young with this concept of brain cultivation is mostly as a prevention measure, and we can learn to help each other a lot easier later if we cultivate some collective intuition for this.

TBI reveals that all of the common behavioral deficiencies are easily caused by direct damage i.e. inactivation of parts of the brain region we are talking about. Damage can come in many forms however, not just a hit on the head. Addiction, chronic stress, etc. have similar effects over long periods.

When I end up talking about biofeedback with people for the first time, it always becomes a conversation about growing our agency, self control, and ability to go where we want to go with our life to make it mean something to us individually. We want to hear that we can readily transform our minds and situations in a very rational and simple way. We want to feel like we aren't just dogs. And importantly, we want to feel like the effort required to get out on the other end - an exponentially deeper well to climb out of the deeper you are in anguish - is going to land us somewhere that's not merely materialistically better (in health or wealth) but serves a greater purpose. The day to day highs and lows of living and surviving for right now is a more satisfying situation in some people's minds than what they think instead is succumbing to a meaningless grind and a lack of, should I say, Promethean fire in their lives. There is something so deep in our need to connect with life and nature itself that in my experience many people with addictive or psychotic issues identify wholly with, and it's something where I'm understanding how this need gets misplaced more clearly as I get older. This also then forms a very important leverage point to get out of those cycles and see a bigger picture that doesn't require such cycles and can even serve to nullify them entirely.

The trick of course we play on ourselves there is thinking that we are really in control of our situations rather than really actually we're merely checking out and letting the world and our pre-biased habits wash us away. The substances, cults, flings, frivolous purchases, over and undereating, other consumptive habits etc. that many of us end up gorging on then become a means of control. That's a double entendre to say it's a means for us to establish some primal level of control with predictable, comforting repetition and results, and to say it's a means to exploit those who are exploitable when they've stepped away from the driver's seat. It goes both ways, see we learned centuries ago what drives people based on their level of needs being satisfied. We know what people need, and we know what they don't often get, and as a society that is a failure - we do not need to be our past and we need to take responsibility where other's won't or can't.

Our frontal lobes are "executive control systems." It tends to believe itself independent of the rest (it's not), and if a part of that thing isn't working properly you're likely going to be dealing with damaged memory, empathy, and social bonding systems. The narcissism, paranoia, dissociation, dogged obsessions, disoriented realities, etc. that follow are all the result of this same system breaking down in different and nuanced ways along with other parts of the brain that I don't think anyone fully understands yet, though we've narrowed lots of this down pretty well and good at this point. This neocortex thing eating all our calories is always pining for connections, that's its job and how it survives, and then it pulls the strings along those connections to better serve its needs. If those connections lack models of empathy, or those models can't be engaged due to some kind of suppression or lacking in the brain, then it will just control-control-control with whatever it has left like it's in a weird and creepy video game. That's not you, though, or not the only part of you, but it's the thing that "becomes" you, or really you become it once you've checked out.

Our agency is a phantom riding the waves of our brain's massive self-organization and needs complexes, but it IS agency nonetheless. I don't use the word free will here because it's not quite as nuanced. Agency means you can steer the ship, but you can't just stand the ship up and walk it out of the river so-to-speak. Your brain is a real living system with real living structure and real rules, with very many needs to be satisfied before you can begin to play with its abilities (i.e. freeing up energy). The emphasis, however, is that you can shape it, and you can get it to serve YOUR needs, rather than being another wide open radio antenna for the environment to transmit its manipulative garbage advertising through to serve some other needs/desires that aren't really yours. It's not instant, it's not overnight, it's work. It's conditioning, it's learning, it's cultivating and growing, it's hard living and decision-making. We never want to get too happily roosted in our pigeonholes, no matter who we are, because that's not really living - it's just digging a deeper hole. And while we may still have no claims to stake in this life by the end, we do have a wild and wonderfully diverse world that we can choose to impress with the systems and structures and values that we know will grow it into a place that we actually like to live in and which more readily grants us a future worth striving for. We can only do that by embodying those active systems in ourselves first, and that's work.

The more I've learned about breathing exercises, the more it's become apparent how it serves this whole process of energy, transformation, and agency. I broke down the brain's cellular processes that are responsive to deep breathing pretty well in my whitepaper, but the gist is you stimulate your astrocytes (connected to every neuron and capillary in your brain) to open up your blood vessels and get more energy to your neurons. This is just like how you can stimulate the rest of your body with diaphragmatic, vagal breathing and see a corresponding increase in resources getting to your extremities. This opens things up to let more circulation through, this provides a higher base level of metabolism for the system, and this lets the system more fully engage itself more often. It also appears to directly stimulate activity in areas of the brain that become flush with O2, where stress encourages hypertension and clamping of blood flow in the brain. One encourages growth, the other can prevent it entirely and let other systems take over.

If the neocortex's job is to learn and transform itself accordingly, it needs the energy to do it - apparently MUCH more in childhood (supposedly up to 60% of your daily calories) than in adulthood (20% of your daily calories, still a ton) due to how fast that thing is growing and changing. Nutrition and exercise provide the materials and strength to perform these processes - including mental exercise to stimulate and cultivate the brain directly.

In our moment to moment existence we can do a lot to enhance that process. We can internalize the correct breathing, learning, cognitive-behavioral, and eating habits etc. so they become second nature - and just as easily as we can cultivate more destructive short-term-serving habits. We can even decide exactly what coping mechanisms we'll use in the face of sheer stress (I chose learning, but I do still like my ice cream when it gets rough :P). We can do so many things to energize this transformation process and likely make it that much more effective in the short and long term. The realization you have to hold onto is that it's going to feel better - and not "high" better (there is a kind of high) - but long term I'm-happy-in-my-skin-and-my-life-has-genuine-purpose better, and you'll be so much more capable of riding those waves when they do come and later helping others find their way. I want a world that feels cohesive and not fractured, and communities that feel loving and not longing, and it will take a lot of work by all of us to realize that. I know that's probably the only way we're going to bring back our planet's fuller biodiversity over a much longer, multi-lifespan restoration process, and fulfill our swashbuckling, spacefaring dreams of civilization - where a human health and environmentally-oriented growth mindset, informed by a more innate understanding of the brain and its constant conversation with its surroundings will certainly help get us a very long way. Come on y'all it's all right here, no time to waste.

You can kind of imagine that once we fully understand these processes, we'll probably derive a very literal practice of "brain cultivation" for all kinds of things (I suppose virtual neural nets included), not that our cultural material systems don't already do that pretty well.

Disclaimer: This isn't professional advice.

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