Opening a Terminal
…otherwise known as “What It’s Like to Be a Fish, Part 2.”
I have to start by showing you this TED talk that just grips me every time I watch it. It’s by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who experienced a stroke in her left hemisphere, and…well, I’ll let it speak for itself.
On the morning of December 10, 1996, I woke up to discover that I had a brain disorder of my own. A blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain. And in the course of four hours, I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.
Would you mind spending 15 minutes or so with her story, if I promise you that it will make you think long and hard about your connectome – about yourself?
During her stroke, Dr. Taylor experienced a series of events that took her to the edge of consciousness – to what some might call the “fringes” of science itself. She brought back a story that is, to say the least, strange and intriguing.
Whatever your thoughts about her out-of-body experience, it’s easy to see that Dr. Taylor is trying her best to report, as accurately as she knows how, the subjective experience of watching her own brain shut down piece by piece. The interpretation is hers, of course – but even a skeptical science hero like me can’t ignore how unusual it is that Dr. Taylor’s consciousness was preserved intact through such a devastating chain of cerebral hardware failures.
What I want to talk about is her inner voice – that “mental chatter” she mentions. She calls it the voice of the “left brain,” which is accurate enough – as soon as I say it’s the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, someone’s going to come along and say I define the area too generally or too specifically – and she describes a point when she could literally hear that voice speaking to her muscles:
I could actually hear the dialogue inside of my body. I heard a little voice saying, “OK. You muscles, you gotta contract. You muscles, you relax.”
Is this really going on all the time – this chatter to our muscles?
Can I just toss an idea out, here? Maybe the verbal chatter is a component – in human left prefrontal cortexes, at least – of sequential reasoning. In people like me, it’s in words. In people who use sign language, it’s in sign. In any case, maybe the chatter is about whatever the attention of the subjective consciousness is focusing on at any given moment.
But that doesn’t mean the chatter doesn’t affect our brain’s non-conscious processing. Just the opposite, actually. Self-talk is a major influence on how we interpret our experiences, which ones we remember most readily, and how we assemble those into a concept of a self – not the subjective self of the “now” moment, but the story we tell ourselves, constantly, about who we are.
This endless interface of the subjective consciousness with “the script” – and the sequential mode of thinking it represents – breaks down to a basic pattern:
1) You have an experience (A mime hands you a peanut-butter sandwich.)
2) Your connectome searches memory for a similar situation. (“I’ve never been handed a peanut butter sandwich on the street before…but I remember that one time a mime accosted me with an invisible scythe.”)
3) Your connectome “sorts” the new experience, and comes up with a few possible responses. (“I should run like hell, lest he start wielding an invisible scythe! Unless…well, that peanut butter does look delicious.”)
4) The motivation that gathers the most brainpower to its cause gains access to enough action selection circuits in the basal ganglia to override all suppression signals and initiate a response in the peripheral nervous system. At some point, the subjective consciousness is alerted that the conceptual “self” has come to a decision.
OK, that last one involved some speculation, I admit.
But it’s clear, at any rate, that this inner chatter is heavily involved in the ongoing narration that helps maintain a coherent sense of a “self” in the abstract. Consciously altering that narration – rewriting the script as you go along – can cause changes in self-perception, which translate to concrete changes in behavior. I’m sure you’ve heard about self-talk before, but are you familiar with scripting?
A related – and controversial – concept is biofeedback: the idea that when you can see the results of your own physiological processes in real time on a monitor, your connectome can be taught to regulate those processes differently – to slow down your heart rate, erase your migraines, and so on.
The thing about biofeedback is, it mostly seems to work on stress-related disorders. So it would be easy to say biofeedback just teaches people to manage stress, which allows their bodies to function more healthily. And I think that’s completely true – but I think there’s another, more useful concept at work here.
See, the brain isn’t isolated up inside the skull – it’s wired into millions of neurons, all throughout the body, in a constant feedback loop. Control any part of the loop, and you control that input to the brain. Another way to say it is, the human brain may be the first organ capable of consciously programming (and reprogramming) itself and its body. This will be old news to anyone who practices meditation regularly.
So, scripts and feedback – where’s the take-home gift here, right? Coming up.
I think when a lot of people imagine a mental script, they’re probably thinking about a script for a movie or a play – one with lines and bits of description. And I’m sure those are part of anyone’s mental chatter. But I’d rather get beneath that surface, wouldn’t you?
I’m going to show my geek colors now: I think Linux is awesome. A lot of things about UNIX architecture kinda make my heart flutter. One thing I love is the terminal1, which is basically all that computer screens used to show: a prompt where you can type commands for the processor to execute. Or you can give the computer a command to execute a script – a pre-written set of instructions to perform a set of actions. Through the terminal, you can even tell the system execute a certain script at a certain time. You can to gain access to – and modify – files and folders that are normally invisible. You can run any program, and appear to be any user you want.
And this can all be done in a connectome.
One key lies in becoming attuned to – then reprogramming – the mental chatter of the left hemisphere. With practice, the mind’s scripts can be linked to sensory or emotional triggers, and automated. They can be safely tested in sandboxes. Inputs and outputs can be rerouted. Combined with bodily feedback, scripts can be used not only to consciously alter any mood, but to erase or create entire behavior patterns.
Now that I’ve explained the basic idea, I’d say I’m about ready to break open the toolbox. So next time, I’m going to talk about three specific examples of using conscious bodily feedback and mental scripting to create concrete changes in behavior and circumstances. And I’m going to explain the neurochemical reasons why they work.
Until then, I’ll sign off with this: your connectome may not be a computer, but it’s a pretty fun thing to hack!
1. Yes, I know Windows can run a DOS shell and use batch scripts. My scientific opinion is that Linux is more fun. Can’t we all get along?