By Chet Yarbrough
Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain
By: Lisa Feldman Barrett
Narrated by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Lisa Feldman Barrett gives one pause about thinking they know something about the brain. Contrary to what some researchers have suggested, Barrett believes the brain is not segmented into three functional areas.
Barrett suggests experiment confirms the brain is a singular organ, functioning as a network that controls human thought and action based on experience and memory.
Barrett argues the brain is not for thinking but for survival.
Barrett’s interpretation of Darwinian evolution suggests brains evolve based on random events. A human brain evolves into a network of axons and dendrites that are not segregated but coordinated to preserve human existence.
However, Barrett notes that non-use or lack of firing by a neuron will render it dormant. Key to maintenance of neuronal activity is repetitive firing. (Parenthetically, Barrett notes solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment for that reason.) Firing multiplies the bushy ends of the neuron (the dendrites) which can become lifelong connections for thought and action. Barrett suggests the early years of childhood should be filled with opportunities to learn through different experiences. She believes exposure to different languages at an early age makes later life language-learning easier.
Barrett explains–through environmental influences human brains wire themselves to the world. Each wired connection comes from repeated events that substantiate the principle of neurons firing together to become wired together. If neurons are not stimulated, they become dormant. Barrett argues brain plasticity is based on neuronal activity which suggests different areas of a brain can be retrained to repair some functions of a damaged brain.
Barrett explains human brain’ function evolves over much longer periods of time than other mammals.
Barrett notes neuronal activity evolves in humans over the first twenty or more years of their lives. This longer period of evolution allows more flexibility in neuronal activity than is inherent for other species of the animal kingdom.
The mixed benefit of a longer period of neuronal evolution is evidenced by a calf, giraffe, or deer that can walk soon after birth while a human takes two to three years.
The benefit of longer neuronal evolution is a human child’s time to increase and improve neuronal connections based on wider experience. Though humans may not learn to walk as quickly as a baby Giraffe, they learn more from the changing environment in which they live.
Barrett goes on to argue that words spoken by one person to another modify brain function based on one’s experience and memory. This reinforces realization that words do matter. When one is constantly criticized or ridiculed, the impact of words on human behavior is highly consequential. Barrett explains occasional criticism has little effect on neuronal activity, but repetitive criticism can significantly impact the way a brain’s neurons wire together with permanent effects on human behavior.
This gives credence to psychotherapeutic treatment to discover why humans act as they do. Psychotherapy offers a mechanism for changing one’s behavior. This harks back to Barrett’s notes about brain plasticity.
Barrett believes every human being has a “body budget”. That budget is added to or subtracted from by neuronal activity that is grounded in human relationship. Barrett argues humans are social creatures. Barrett infers relationships have great consequence on how humankind views and lives in the world. She argues human relations can either add or subtract from one’s body budget.
The question becomes–what relational qualities add or subtract to one’s body budget? Barrett infers love and empathy add while hate and apathy subtract from the body budget. Becoming the best of who we are seems up to us.