Our Super-duper Cerebral Cortex
Welcome to stren #64: What Makes Us Human? Wisdom is based on knowledge. Sages throughout the ages have advised us: “Know Thyself.” Let’s modernize the syntax by writing “Know our self,” specifically the self of self-mastery. What is it that makes me “me”? And how am I different than “not me”? We share many similarities with other species but recognizing the special features of our human brain provides us the biggest payoff. Here are some things worth knowing.
- Our brain is among the most complex of all structures. When I was in medical school, I was told it consisted of 100 million cells. Today’s technology reveals that our human brain contains 100 billion cells with 100 trillion connections. If each of the nearly 7 billion people on earth were represented as one cell, our brain would hold everyone and have room for 14 more such collections. Can you imagine creating a machine with so many parts?
- Scientists tell us life on earth began 3½ billion years ago when simple chemical structures became sufficiently complex to reproduce themselves. Single celled organisms progressed to those with two or more cells, and the number of component cells has gradually increased to the present time, where our most complex species have specialized organs working together to promote the survival of that species.
- The first life was brainless and mindless. Simple cells have receptors that draw them to or away from heat or light. As the number of cells increased, chemicals and nerves were introduced to coordinate activities. Simple wiring evolved into a nerve net and then a mass of nerve cells. Some nerves became specialized to receive messages and others to transmit data. When a receiving and transmitting wire are connected by a nerve cell, a “reflex” response is created, such as a knee jerk. Our spinal cord consists of vertical rows of such reflex systems.
- A mass of nerve cells that coordinates the activities of other cells is called “a brain.” The earliest central mass of cells expanded in time to a point where continued growth was attained by an outcropping from the central mass. Can you visualize how one outcropping may lead to another ... and another as more control and wiring was required?
- The simplest brains served to coordinate activities but were “mindless.” We can understand that conscious awareness required greater sophistication. What about becoming conscious of our consciousness, i.e. self-consciousness? Historically, the progression in complexity from one to multiple segments is slow and gradual; greater awareness is to be expected with each increase in brain complexity.
- Our human brain is a contiguous mass of masses so it is difficult to exactly delineate one specialized segment from another; the boundaries are not always sharp. One classification identifies seven segments labeled the medulla, pituitary, pineal body, pons, cerebellum, thalamus, and cerebral cortex. There are other classifications that may be related to function as well as anatomy. The seventh segment, the cortex, is the one that distinguishes us the most from other life. For simplicity, let’s label the six earlier segmented masses of cells the animal brain. The “human brain” includes the animal brain plus the cerebral cortex. The influence of the older segments remains dominant until balance favors the newest segments. Remember, the perspectives of the older segments persist; they remain eager to prevail.
- We have labeled humankind Homo sapiens sapiens – the species that not only knows, but knows that it knows. Scientists estimate the earliest life to qualify as humans emerged about 150,000 years ago. They also tell us that our human brain increases in complexity and size more rapidly than any other organ. The huge dinosaurs which became extinct about 650 million years ago had a huge muscle mass but very small brains relative to the size of their other organs. It appears we are the growing edge of the creative force that has gotten us this far, and we are continuing to progress to even greater sophistication.
- No other species can use symbols to influence themselves and everything about them as we do. Circa 50,000 ago, our intelligent cortex invented sophisticated symbols to add a private mental reality to co-exist with our commonly shared physical reality. Thus, we simultaneously dwell in two worlds: (1) the common physical environment we share and (2) our personal mental universe. By assigning meaning to symbols, we empower them to act as signals to turn on energy. For example, a religious symbol – a Christian cross, or a word – “fire,” may turn on energy by triggering a physical signal such as a nerve impulse or release of a chemical. Some symbols turn on more energy than others. By creating a glossary of symbols, we increase the power of our cerebral cortex. We continue to invent new symbols as we grow knowledge. A basic glossary is provided in stren #100.
- As our human brain manipulates symbols to create new combinations, we imagine new alternatives. We discover nature’s secrets – knowledge of cause-and-effect. We store the knowledge we discover, share it with others, and pass it forward from generation to generation. It is said that we stand on the shoulders of the giants who preceded us and learn from the easy availability of their wisdoms.
- We extend our personal store of knowledge through a data system of libraries and instant communication technology. Information is the basis of “knowing.” Knowledge of cause-and-effect is our source of immense power. Increasingly, we make ourselves godlike creators and destroyers. We create words and symbols that identify events and ideas, record our history, promote current events throughout the world, and predict the future with more or less accuracy. Other earth creatures “know” their environment primarily through their immediate experience; their level of consciousness and use of language is limited.
- Our mental experience has “perspective.” We may travel through time to dwell on the past, present, and future. We may revisit and “freeze” time. For example, “resentment” is a repetitive dwelling on a past experience while “optimism” is a sustained anticipation of a future experience. We not only travel back and forth in this life but we create elaborate assumptions about an afterlife. Such assumptions profoundly influence our life’s experience.
- Consider how our way of thinking has grown from simplicity to sophistication. Initially, conscious awareness consisted only of images and automatic reactions. Later, thoughts that popped into our mind could be manipulated by thinking about the thoughts. Conscious awareness expanded our power to find original solutions to the goals prescribed by instinct and our nurturers. Like a computer, we acquire data through input. The information is processed to serve the commands posed by the authority that entered it. Such masters at the human keyboard might be instinct, our nurturers, fate, circumstance, culture, and human dictators. Our super-sophisticated human brain enables us to reach the next level of consciousness where we control the keyboard: self-mastery.
- We engage in a process called “reflective thinking” which is the ability to observe our thinking. It is much easier to shave or put on makeup when we see our reflection in a mirror. Our cortex enables us to become conscious of our consciousness, i.e. self-conscious. Our mental life is like a continuous motion picture, “a stream of consciousness.” Fate and circumstance provide the initial story line; they stimulate our thoughts and thinking. We commonly stay stuck at this level. Reflective thinking is our means to become skillful in self-programming. Only we can teach ourselves to become our own person. We may selectively modify the action patterns others have pre-wired, and so we assume responsibility for our destiny. Other living beings follow the script provided by nature and nurture, while we may become the producer and the director of our mental motion picture.
- Thanks to our complex brain and its elaborate mental processing capacity, we can manipulate information, interpret it, and form beliefs. We use the data recorded in our memory and current experience to make assumptions. The collection of assumptions, beliefs, and personal interpretations of data constitute our assumptive worldview. We can more powerfully influence our thinking, feelings, and actions by our assumptions than by the here and now information provided by our body and our senses. Other earthlings are constrained by the limited pathways prewired by nature and their nurturers.
- Unlike our animal brain, which is preprogrammed at our birth to benefit us with the trial-and-error survival skills passed forward through history, our cerebral cortex is more like a tabula rasa, a clean slate. During our first dozen years, our cortex has an extraordinary ability to learn by mimicking whatever our role models dictate. Immature and uneducated, our tabula rasa has little resistance to whatever interpretations our early authorities inscribe. The combined programs become our assumptive worldview and establish the values that influence our thinking, feelings, and actions.
- Our animal brain is amoral. It is prewired to repeat the life cycle. It favors saying “yes” to whatever looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and smells good; it demands risky, self-serving action if it seems likely to succeed without too big a price. Our nurturer’s perspective is commonly the opposite of the animal brain’s amoral seek pleasure/avoid pain demands for instant satisfaction. The conflict between the “yes’s” we inherit and the “no’s” of tradition often persist through our lifetime as a major source of stress. No other species invents the degree of neurotic anxiety that leads to the distinctive human traits of blaming others, guilting ourselves, and harmful aggression to appease our value system.
- Our assumptive worldview not only defines the values that are right and good, it automatically distinguishes what is wrong and evil. Our first assumptive views divide the world into two either/or opposing categories: advocacy, allegiance, love and obedience for “our tribe,” and suspicion, disrespect, hate, and dehumanizing what is not our side. This early either/or way of thinking is an important source of bigotry and prejudice.
- Simple organisms lack consciousness; they respond reflexively. More complex organisms with consciousness add sophisticated but relatively predictable mental responses; they are genetically determined or acquired from previous experience. Humans have a vast repertoire of preprogrammed reflexes and assumptions plus the ability to reflect on our thinking, make modifications, and initiate original action. Pre-wired action pathways are inflexible and poorly adaptable to the new challenges we create. Learn to look for and recognize those hardwired action patterns that have become maladaptive.
- Nature predisposes us to fight or flight, survival of the fittest behavior; nurture prescribes their traditional action pathways through “should, have to, must, ought” trigger words that dictate yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems. Our tendency to respond to information habitually and “uncritically” gets us into trouble when confronted with new issues that require “out of the box” common sense solutions. In our partially civilized world, we are rarely confronted with emergencies requiring instant action.
- Power can be expressed wisely and stupidly. Wise assumptions based on common sense and current knowledge are likely to result in more productive outcomes than faulty, established assumptions that ignore current knowledge. We make ourselves effective leaders by educating our cerebral cortex to verify our established assumptions using common sense. The Triple A stren, #66, explains the process of examining our maladaptive assumptions and selectively substituting ones that work.
- As we acquire knowledge of cause-and-effect, we continuously upgrade the assumptions that constitute our worldview. Our ancestor’s giant leaps of faith went far beyond reason. They led to idol worship, superstition, and rituals we now consider bizarre. Science inspires us to revise our assumptions and diminish the size of our leaps. We no longer burn presumed witches at the stake or believe we live on a flat world that is the center of the universe. Many faith-inspired groups are now accepting the idea that the creative force that explains us required more than six days and that we are a work-in-progress, better described as humane becomings instead of human beings, because we are proceeding to greater complexity and personal responsibility for our destiny.
- Our ancestors were intelligent but they lacked knowledge. Their survival and ours may be attributed to the cunning use of brains to overcome brawn. Through our use of symbols, we build on our survival skills. Stren #50 explains that we grow knowledge like an asymptotic curve, not as a straight line (see graph below). With the development of the scientific method, we grow our power of knowledge in shorter and shorter periods of time.
- We used fists, rocks, sling shots, and bows and arrows for 150,000 years to kill a few at a time, but now we are creating and making available weapons with ultimate destructive power to multiple tribes. Our generation and succeeding ones now have the power to rapidly advance civilization, eliminate war, and institutionalize peace. We have also made ourselves the first species to put itself on 24/7 alert to destroy all that is about us and we are making this power widely available.
- The newer way of common sense thinking (ANWOT) stimulates self-examination and ownership of our assumptive values. We are unique by the degree we can “override” the assumptions that have become habitual and develop newer paths for action. Mental freedom is the opportunity to choose among existing alternatives and those we self-originate. Through the power of interpretation, we gain the godlike power to create and to destroy. Like it or not, nature is pushing us out of the nest and we must assume responsibility for our destiny. We best recognize that we are humane becomings rather than human beings.
- Nature has provided us with a specialized freedom organ and the message is that it is time to fly off on our own and take charge of our own destiny. The gift of our human brain is a gift of opportunity. We can educate ourselves to create alternative actions, add them to existing ones, and wisely choose from among them. We can also choose to remain stuck in our adolescent stage of maturity where the balance of control remains in our animal brain. We are free to choose wisely and stupidly. What is your choice?
Here is the critical knowledge that will help us survive and thrive. Our human brain has entered a super-mature stage of development that provides us the godlike power to create and destroy. Suddenly, the specialized qualities of the cerebral cortex make us responsible for our survival. The mysterious ability of the human brain to transverse physical and mental (non-physical, spiritual) borders empowers us to influence our own destiny. By the use of symbols to make ourselves interpretive creatures, we elevate ourselves from an immoral to a moral species. We add a spiritual self to our physical self. Our collection of assumed values becomes the moral system that guides our thinking, feelings, and actions.
To the degree we discover knowledge of the universal laws of cause-and-effect, what we otherwise call common sense, we enter into the super-maturity stage of development. To the degree we passively obey authority, we will remain servant to fate, circumstance, culture, and any dictator we allow to dominate our assumptive values. The process of reaching this third stage of development, beyond immaturity and maturity, is called by various names that include super-maturity, becoming our own person, mental freedom, and self-mastery.
Super-maturity and the process of becoming a wise leader for world peace are addressed throughout this collection of strens, but especially 4, 7, 12, 16, 30, and 65-68. You will progress to super-maturity as you substitute the word-switches that apply universal common sense wisdom for those trigger words that turn on outdated action patterns supported by the authority of dictators. ANWOT creates out of the box problem-solving based on current knowledge instead of yesterday’s hard-wired solutions to yesterday’s problems.
The outcome of applying ANWOT to common sense knowledge is that we free our will from our animal brain to assume the humane qualities we now require to survive. Popularizing ANWOT will create the number of new Mental Wealth millionaires needed to prevent the predicted imminent human catastrophe and create permanent world peace.
Only humanmind has the intelligence to enter a third stage of development in which we make ourselves the dominant manager of our life’s experience. By teaching ourselves sufficient wisdoms to make ourselves Mental Wealth millionaires we assume the godlike qualities of mental freedom, problem solving, originality, flexibility, tolerance for diversity and other conflict resolution skills, cooperation, creating love, humor, and the power to “feel good” and “do good.” Understanding the stages of development inspires us to attain the third stage of super-maturity.