MY BRAIN AND ME

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by Academician Pavel SIMONOV, Director of the RAS Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology

Since time immemorial to this day man has been a fascinating object of studies by philosophers, social scientists, physiologists, anthropologists, doctors, educationists, lawyers and artists. Each of these disciplines attack the problem from its own angle and perspective. Every scholar even within one and the same discipline, like psychology, for example, seems to read his own meaning into familiar terms. And that means that there are no cut and dried definitions for terms like "emotion," "willpower," "consciousness," "personality" and so on. And only when we have exact and unambiguous definitions can psychology become a true science like let us say astronomy or chemistry?

The perspectives of these efforts were very well defined by Prof. Vygotsky (1849-1934) who said: " Problems before traditional psychology remained unresolved largely because of its idealistic approach which isolated the human psyche from the general process to which it belongs. It was regarded, instead, as something isolated which exists side by side and independently of physiological processes... What we must investigate are not some psychic and physiological processes taken out of a common context, which makes them absolutely incomprehensible; but we must consider the process as a whole with its subjective and objective sides simultaneously".

This absolutely sound approach can be supported by two rather recent examples.

Our staff member Professor A. Ivanitsky * has compared physiological manifestations, registered as induced electric potentials of the brain (EP), with subjective psychological reactions of an individual. These studies revealed three stages of a process of building a subjective image.

At the first stage the brain analyzes the physical characteristics of an external signal or stimulus. This is reflected in the early components of EP registered by encephalographic instruments over a period of 100 ms. This is a preparatory stage of perception which is not accompanied by any phenomena at the physic level.

The psychic awareness, or sensation, comes at the second stage when the physical parameters of a signal are compared with the information stored in the memory which helps determine the relative subjective importance of the signal. This phase coincides with the EP waves occurring between 100th and 200th ms after the signal input.

The third and decisive stage of perception is the final identification of the signal. This corresponds to a section of the EP, designated as P-300, which manifests itself most clearly in the frontal sections of the brain. When a person has to choose one of several answers depending on the nature of a signal, the EP diagram registers one more complex described as "the potential of response selection" which seems to be associated with the taking of a decision on an appropriate response. A striking coincidence of all the three stages of a subjective perception with events objectively registered in brain tissues leads one to conclude that they are but different manifestations of one common process.

The second example comes from my own experience. Our experiments in 1964 led us to conclude that an emotion is a reflection in the human brain and the brain of higher animals of some pressing requirement and of the possibility to satisfy it at the present moment. The dependence of the intensity and the sign of an emotional response upon the urgency of a requirement and the likelihood of satisfying it has since been confirmed by numerous psychophysiological studies. The intensity of an emotion was assessed by objectively registered physiological changes (heartbeat, changes in skin electric potentials, changes of the electric activity of the brain etc.). The urgency of the requirement was assessed by the intensity of an unpleasant irritation which a person was trying to avoid or the length of deprivation. The possibility of satisfaction was assessed by a summary value of errors com-


* From 2000 - Corresponding Member of RAS. - Ed.

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mitted by the subjects, or the probability of confirming conditional signals.

It is interesting to note that the data objectively registered by physiologists and results obtained by psychologists and reflecting the subjective perception of tested individuals turn out to be comparable and produce an identical and qualitatively assessable and controlled result.

In 1984 American researchers D. Price and J. Barrell reproduced these tests in a purely psychological version, asking the tested individuals to mark themselves on a special scale the intensity of their desire, the probability of satisfying it and the degree of emotional strain. A quantitative assessment of the data confirmed a dependence which the researchers called "the common law of human emotions."

This theory of emotions provided the basis for numerous experiments in which the electrical activity of different sections of the brain was confirmed and registered. Two systems were identified in this way. One (frontal sections of the new cortex and hippocamp) assesses the probability of satisfying a requirement, while the second (hypothalamus and nuclei of the amygdaloid complex) singles out the dominating requirement which gets the priority The result of a complicated interaction of these four brain structures is the emotional state experienced by a person at a given time.

People can ask whether it is really necessary to prove the interconnection between the activity of the brain and psychology To my mind the answer is absolutely Yes. This is because arguments continue on whether or not science can analyze human psychology and its manifestations.

While physiological experiments have helped formulate a concept corroborated by experiments, support on the part of psychologists has prompted a return to neurophysiology Attempts have been made to "superimpose" this new theory of emotions upon the analysis of interaction of anatomically distinct and functionally specialized structures of the brain.

The way we see it, consciousness is knowledge which can be transmitted with the help of words, mathematical symbols and generalized art images to others, including other generations, in the form of cultural monuments. This communicative origin of consciousness enables a person to conduct a dialogue with himself, that is - it generates self-consciousness. The inner "me" which judges our own acts is just that, and this view was shared by Freud (1856-1939) who pointed out that the actual distinction between the unconscious and the subconscious is that the former is accomplished with the help of material which remains unknown (unidentified), whereas the latter is associated with verbal images.

The decisive role of the speech structures of the brain in the phenomenon of consciousness is demonstrated by neurophysiological studies conducted at the Burdenko Institute of Neurosurgery. Its researchers have proved that the restoration of consciousness in patients after grave head and brain injuries coincides in time with the restoration of links between the motoric- speech zones of the left hemisphere (in right-handed persons) and other sections of the cortex. Another specialist in this field, Prof. E. Kostandov of the Institute of General and Forensic Psychiatry of the Russian Medical Academy points out that: "The activation of connections between the gnostic sections of the cortex and the speech zone is the decisive link in the structural-functional organization of mechanisms that provide for the identification of a stimulus." (See article The Asymmetrical Brain by Prof. E. Kostandov in this issue.)

The discovery of a functional asymmetry of the brain had tremendous impact upon the studies of the physiological basis of consciousness. At the same time it would be an oversimplification to ascribe both consciousness and speech to the left hemisphere alone. Sentences in one's native tongue, for example, originate in the right hemisphere and are finally formulated in the left one. Paradoxical as this may be at first sight, but patients with an injured left hemisphere are concerned about their condition and their future. When the right hemisphere is affected patients are unconcerned and care-free. Thus a general conclusion is that the right hemisphere is more associated with the motivation of a person and the left one with his informative, or cognitive, sphere. Metaphorically speaking a patient with an affected left hemisphere is an individual with plenty of requirements and not enough ways of satisfying them. And the other way round - a patient with an affected right hemisphere has more than enough means for satisfying the sharply reduced range of motivations and requirements. This accounts for a predominance of either negative or positive emotions. When the left hemisphere is affected the patient's speech is upset, but his personality remains intact. When the right hemisphere suffers - both self-awareness and self-esteem decline.

Modem studies of brain activity bear out our notions of a personality as an individually unique composition and inner hierarchy of biological (vital), social and idealistic requirements of a given person, including their modifications (preservation and development, "for myself and "for others"). The predominant most frequent and longer lasting requirement-the "supreme goal of one's life" - is the core of a personality, its basic trait.

And let me stress that consciousness never has and never will govern a person's behavior. A person is guided by his needs, interests and desires. And more often than not we come across a rather complicated combination of several requirements and a person may not be aware of them all. But in any case a personality is characterized by the predominant motivation. We know, for example, of the great difference between fear and cowardice. Fear is a natural emotional response we all share stemming from the instinct of preservation, and not necessarily self-preservation. It may be fear for someone else, for a product of collective efforts and so on. But cowardice is a personal trait, the worst of human defects in which self-preservation dominates over all other competing motivations and

page 80


requirements prompted by ethics, sense of duty and responsibility for the well-being of others.

It seems there is some connection between a person's requirements, consciousness, and subconscious manifestations of his higher nervous activity.

I would say that the communicative origin of consciousness accounts for its inescapably social quality. The "interiorized" alter ego, subjectively recognized as one's inner self, makes possible not only an internal dialogue with oneself, but accounts for the possibility to think differently from what one says - for the possibility to tell lies. One young researcher made a very good point by saying that you can't lie to your own subconscious self, which always knows the truth. What we call the subconscious covers everything of which one can become aware under certain conditions, such as automatic habits, or ingrained social norms (Freud's super ego) which we feel as "the call of conscience", "a call of the heart", "the call of duty" And there is a direct channel of influencing the subconscious in the form of imitative behavior. Thus a child subconsciously imitates certain standards of behavior of those around him. With time these habits become internal regulators of his actions. The subconscious gravitates to one's vital needs and instinctive behavior, which becomes especially apparent in extreme situations when there is no time for a rational analysis and one has to act on the strength of his previous experience, to respond automatically, so to say.

For example, a herd or a mob would stampede when danger strikes. And if some "thoughtful" calf decides to stay behind and "assess" the threat he would most probably be eaten up or crushed to death. But one always has to pay for experience, and nature rests on crude statistics. If it scores 60 percent of wins in the process of natural selection, the remaining 40 percent are sacrificed. Thus we all face a dilemma. If the danger signal catches you completely off you guard, you better follow the herd instinct. On the other hand, panic can be fatal. But why this is so "good" or so "bad" is already beyond the realm of the natural science and belongs either to theology or ideology.

As for what is called creative intuition, it must fully belong to the ideal requirement of cognition and transformation of the surrounding world. The neurophysiological basis for the intuition includes a transformation and recombination of traits stored in a person's memory, the establishment of new neural temporary links which may or may not accord with reality - something which is established later on. It fact, it is the intuition, or superconsciousness, that promotes progress. Just like biological evolution occurs by means of selection of certain individuals, the evolution of culture inherits from generation to generation ideas, discoveries, and social norms that had first appeared in the heads of some individual inventors and discoverers. The superconsciousness is engaged in the search for meeting both vital and social needs only if they begin to contain some ideal elements. Perceived and comprehended ideals become increasingly social, a fact vividly demonstrated by the fate of various ideologies.

As for spirituality and the soul, which are allegedly incompatible with higher nervous activity, one can say in materialistic terms that these concepts stand for individual expression within the structure of a given personality of two basic human needs: the ideal thirst for knowledge and the need for social altruism "for the sake of others." The term spirituality usually refers to the former (as different from compassion).

The dual nature of human awareness, man's ability to reflect upon things, to look upon himself as if through other person's eyes, call into question the consistency of psychology as one common science. Different experts have different opinions on that score. Some say that this is an interdisciplinary area embracing some mutually incompatible and mutually excluding criteria some of which belong to natural sciences and some to humanities. Others claim that the unity of psychology is attainable in principle. And others still speak of common paradigm uniting all psychologists.

In our opinion this situation calls for introducing a principle of complimentarity, because one and the same phenomenon can be differently assessed depending on the point of view of different observers. Let me explain what I have in mind on the example of free will.

If we regard as complementary the objective and subjective analysis of human behavior (the idea was suggested by Niels Bohr), we can resolve the contradiction which really exists between determinism and free will. A person is not free (determined) from the point of view of an outside observer who regards behavior as a result of genetic predisposition and upbringing. At the same time, a person feels free in choosing his actions from the point of view of his own reflexing awareness. This is a subjective illusion, but it is very important because, feeling himself responsible for his actions, a person once again prognosticates their likely consequences which makes his actions better thought-out. Having to recall from memory such relevant information serves to strengthen the requirement which has consistent priority of motivations of a given individual and thanks to that it can prevail over situational expediency In choosing a mode of action subconscious intuition can supply as clues recombinations of elements of past experience which had never occurred in the life of this particular person or even in the experience of previous generations. It is in this sense, and in this sense alone, that one can speak of self-determination in one's behavior as a particular instance of self-propagation and development of living nature. Genuine free will occurs only in a person's creative activity.


Опубликовано 14 сентября 2018 года




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