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Neurohacking - Basics
Written by NHA   
Friday, 03 July 2009 20:40

 

Intelligence: The Basics

 

(This article is complementary material for Tutorial 1)

 

To get one thing straight, we are ALL relative newbies in neuroscience right now. Whether you’ve never studied intelligence before or you’ve been studying it for many years, you’re likely to be behind the times unless you’ve seen the latest research.

This is because the current rate of discovery in neuroscience is exponential. Many old myths have been busted. Many of the things we thought were true are not. Many things that we never suspected to be true are. In many areas, the truth has turned out to be the opposite of what was expected. And it is likely to take quite some time for the awareness of the ‘general public’ (and even many scientists) to catch up.

What we try to do on this site is bring you the latest discoveries from research, incorporated into an overall ‘map’ for studying and working with intelligence in ways that are optimal for your health and wellbeing. Because of the recent rate of discovery, you will probably find you have to put aside old ideas completely and approach the subject as something completely new (this is possibly the best approach, because old fallacies will get in the way of coherent understanding).

What we have learned and are learning is exciting, but can also be difficult to take on board, because what we now know implies that our potential is much greater than we previously believed. We would like you to begin considering “intelligence”, therefore, with a completely open mind. (Imagine you are an alien anthropologist studying humans, if that helps you remain objective.) The latest discoveries have left most people behind, stuck with beloved old theories that are no longer sufficient for understanding intelligence and its development.

 

Myth Busting & Updating Your Knowledge – The Main Changes in What We Know

Apart from complete nonsense (such as, “people only use 10% of their brains” –an apocryphal rumor which is probably only spread by those who do), some much older and more widespread beliefs about intelligence have been busted recently. Here’s an update:

 

Intelligence is NOT IQ

 

This fact is going to take a long time to overwrite the old belief. The false belief that intellect equals intelligence is incorporated into everything, from education to personal self-esteem and our understanding of ourselves.

IQ is intellect, which is only one small factor of intelligence. We now know that an optimal intelligence requires the following factors to be developed in the order listed, to achieve its maximum potential. (The main brain networks controlling these factors are listed in brackets; and if you want to learn about brain networks you can do so in the tutorials, or in “Anatomy, Physiology & Brain Networks: The Basics” in the basics section of the library.)

 

  • Your physical senses and the brain’s physical condition [mainly N1 & 2]
  • Your perception [mainly N1, 2 & 3]
  • Your alertness, attention and orientation [mainly N1, 2 & 3]
  • Your memory and association skills [mainly N3]
  • Your emotional stability [mainly N3]
  • Your imagination [mainly N3]
  • Your creativity and ability to use tools [mainly N4]
  • Your intellect / IQ [mainly N5]
  • Your prediction, planning and strategy skills [mainly N6]

 

Mimicry, procedural learning, social skills, empathy, decision making and judgement, natural morality and so on are also part of a healthy intelligence, but as we proceed we shall see that they all, without exception, rely on the same set of networks and on the few crucial factors listed above.

In the popular sense, evolutionary psychology often defines intelligence as the general mental ability to learn and apply knowledge to adapt to and creatively manipulate our environment, as well as the ability to reason and have abstract thought. This is more accurate, but we now know exactly what the brain is (or should be) doing -it is predicting and interacting. These are the flexible “survive and thrive” skills evolution has developed and they are why we are as smart as we are.

A superior ability to interact with the environment and overcome its challenges is often seen as the most important sign of intelligence. In this case, 'the environment' does not just refer to your physical landscape (eg. mountains, forests) or your surroundings (eg. home, workspace) but also to new circumstances, social contacts such as colleagues, friends, acquaintances and family, and complete strangers. The capacity to face the unknown in new experiences and learning, without fear and with eagerness to discover, is a hallmark of strong intelligence.

 

The Split Brain Hypothesis is Debunked

 

We now know that the brain’s left and right hemispheres actually process different parts of the same tasks, instead of with the sharp specialization that was suspected formerly. The left hemisphere does indeed contain the “language centers” that we knew of formerly, but the right hemisphere has symmetric language processing areas dedicated to understanding different aspects of language, and so on. The R/L brain paradigm is inaccurate, outdated and not of much use in light of recent discoveries.

 

Freud's "Archetypes" Unconfirmed

 

Freud is now generally considered ‘pre-scientific’. You will not find any Freudian or Jungian or Pavlovian terms in the neurohacking tutorials or files, such as ‘ego’ or ‘subconscious’ or ‘conditioning’, because they don’t describe in any useful way what is really going on, and they can confuse (like a map where the roads are in the wrong place). We use the word ‘archetypes’ in its original sense, referring to eidetic memory images, and this is unconnected to Freudian, Jungian, magickal, religious or any other systems.

Neurologists have now amassed a considerable understanding of the kind of information processing that is performed by the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain. The current scientific definition of the term ‘unconscious’ refers to that part of the processing of the mind of which the individual concerned is consciously and cognitively unaware. (If all processing was conscious, we’d have to think consciously about all our bodily functions all the time in order to make them work, which would be very inconvenient!)

 

The Boundary Between Conscious and Unconscious Is Not Fixed

 

We can learn voluntary control of many formerly ‘unconscious’ processes through biofeedback and neurofeedback, and everything from heart rate to the release of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that control mood and function) can be brought under conscious control. This is obviously beneficial to our physical health as well as our mental wellbeing, because it can be used for physical problems such as hypertension and for mood control. We can work with biology to repair and restore our systems faster and without medications.

 

The Idea that the Brain is a “Black Box*” is History

 

And it's the same thing with the one that we cannot ever discover what is really going on inside it. fMRI and other types of scanning are currently giving us so much new information about how the brain works that it is difficult to keep up with it! In selecting material for the tutorials, we regularly update them to incorporate the newest material that has been confirmed by research, over the last couple of months. *[Ed: Not to be confused with the conceptual use of "black box" in computer science, which is perfectly legitimate. This myth probably came out of this very confusion, from models using the brain-computer analogy]

 

We Can Associate Structure With Function

 

Researchers are now able to record the activity of single neurons or groups of neurons and relate this to behavior. Brain imaging techniques have enabled us to reveal which brain regions in healthy individuals are activated, corresponding to such events as recognizing a face or a word, remembering a number, planning an interaction, or understanding an idea. As a result of all this, biological psychologists have now got a pretty expedient grasp of the links between the brain, the mind, moods and behavior.

 

Biological Psychology

 

It is one of the most useful branches of study for neurohackers because it builds a picture of the brain that draws upon and integrates inputs from, unsurprisingly, biology and psychology. That means it's partly concerned with the ‘big picture’ (such things as how different brain networks interact, and how chemicals released in various parts of the body affect the working of the brain; how genes play a role in determining the initial structure of the brain; and the nature of the complex interdependence between brains, the bodies of which they form a part, and their environment.) But it also looks at how stuff works inside individual networks, how processes such as memory and learning take place on an individual level, and these are facts that are important to grasp about intelligence before we can start messing around with development effectively and making improvements.

 

Brain ‘Lobes’ are Anatomical Divisions, Not Functional Divisions

 

It is now known that mind functions correlate with brain networks, not brain lobes, and as long as we keep ‘thinking in lobes’, it will remain hard to grasp what is going on. The same is true of thinking in ‘brain parts’ –cause and effect are not always obvious in brain functions. Ascribing single brain parts to individual functions is the same error as ascribing individual diseases or traits to single genes. Many parts of the brain work in parallel.

 

Understanding the Difference Between Lobes and Networks - Demonstration

You will need:

  • A good imagination, OR
  • one large plastic bag, 8 small plastic bags with ties and 6 reels of different colored cotton or small balls of wool. Transparent bags are best.

 

Do or imagine doing the following procedure:

Tie all the loose ends of the threads from each reel or ball together. Without breaking any of the threads, unwind most of the thread from all reels and scrunch it up into a big mixed mess on the floor, tangle it all up real good. Leave some thread still wrapped around the reel cores.

Put each reel into a different bag (you will have two bags left with no reels in). Then try to stuff the rest of the mixed spaghetti-like mess roughly equally into all eight bags, obviously you will have lots of threads going out of one bag and into another, but when you’ve got it mostly in, try to squeeze the air out and tie the bags closed.

Stuff the lot tightly into the larger bag and squeeze out the air. Wiggle it about until it is roughly ball-shaped.

This is a very simple model of how your brain is wired. It’s simple because we used single threads instead of branches of threads and we tied them together randomly instead of selectively, and for a lot of other reasons, but this is a good basic model to demonstrate how lobes (which are your individual small bags) may or may not have the core of a network inside but are not at all the same things as networks (each network is the thread of just one color). Some networks have cores in one lobe, some lobes have no network cores and all networks have sections in more than one lobe.

 

Brains and Computers Have Limitations in Analogy

 

People are fond of likening brains to computers and vice-versa -and the comparison, although limited, has proved remarkably fruitful for the study of both kinds of thinking machine: a branch of psychology called cognitive science for example has made enormous leaps in helping us to understand the brain by viewing mental tasks as series of steps not unlike computer programs; meanwhile computer scientists have discovered they can set up and program machines as "neural networks", highly interconnected computer systems that "think" in parallel (carrying out many operations simultaneously) much like the human brain can do.

The logical conclusion of this work is a gradual blurring of human minds and "artifically intelligent" machines. In December 2004, neuroscientists hinted at the shape of things to come when they wired a rat's brain to a computer and trained it like a neural network to fly a jet fighter.

Your brain is organized very differently from your PC, however. Far from being a cluttered "hard drive", jammed with random memories and a lifetime of chaotic experience, the brain is a self-organizing, general-purpose information processing system far more robust and adaptable than any computer. Most importantly, the brain is dynamic –it can change its own hardware as well as rewrite its own ‘software’.  This is 'plasticity' and it is one of the most important things to know about in neurohacking.

 

Plasticity and Epigenetics

 

They have complicated sounding names but are simple concepts. Hebb's rule of plasticity tells us “cells that fire together wire together” and this is a way of explaining that intelligence is 'plastic', it is changeable. “Use it or lose it” is a recent neuroscientists' warning that senility, Alzheimer's and dementia are associated with lack of use. It also explains how we learn -the associations we make on the outside cause brain growth and development on the inside.

 

Dense Means Smarter!

 

Being called 'dense' or 'thick as a brick' is an old insult to someone's intelligence. Amusingly, it turns out that the densest brain networks produce the highest intelligence. Density of connections means faster processing and better association. So from now on, being called dense is a compliment. If you think someone's really dumb, you can call them 'sparse'. Smile

 

The “Nature or Nurture” Argument Is Over

 

'Intelligence' is not inherited. The discovery of the brain’s plasticity has shown us that both genes and an appropriate environment are necessary for intelligence to emerge and that sections of your genome can be turned on and off by making physical and environmental changes. This is what epigenetics (and proteomics) are all about.

 

The Genome Is Not Fixed

 

All children  “are born geniuses, and we spend the first six years of their lives degeniusing them.” - Buckminster Fuller

 

The fact that we can alter the connectivity in our own brain networks by changing our environment and behavior (known as 'Input control'), was revealed in the field of epigenetics.

The question, “Are people born with genius or do they acquire it?” has been answered. Regardless of what we are born with, the optimal nurturing of intelligence’s development results in the optimal mind. And optimal development can be achieved at any age.

As long as brain development takes place in the right order, it can proceed at any age.  Your intelligence cannot be ‘fixed’ by your genes -because your genome itself is not fixed. The ‘active’ part of your genome; those genes that are “turned on”, changes throughout your life, (and can be induced to change at any time via various means in NH). The developing fields of epigenetics and proteomics are exploring these changes and finding some fascinating links between our environment, our state of mind, and the expression of our genome. Deliberate habits of thought and behavior can also turn beneficial genes on and ‘rogue’ ones off.

This is a pivotal discovery that will be of vital importance to humanity’s future, and whose potential has as yet only been grasped by a few. Fortunately, we are among them.

 

Habits Are Not Fixed

 

In the 21st century, the word "habit" carries a negative connotation. We forget that we can also use the word ‘habits’ in the context of things that are good for us. But brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks and enable new abilities.

So rather than dismissing ourselves as unchangeable creatures of habit, we can instead direct our own change by consciously developing new habits. In fact, the more new things we try - the more we step outside “the known” - the more intelligent we can become. New habits we deliberately ingrain into ourselves create parallel pathways that can bypass the “old habit” roads.

 

Even Personality Is Not Fixed

 

Old ‘trait’ theories of personality have been proved inept. There is no such thing as ‘a creative person’ or ‘a bad-tempered person’. Everyone can be creative or bad tempered in different circumstances and with different (deliberate) development. Human ‘nature’ is malleable by nurture (or lack of it!).

With specialization, we enhance those attributes that we use and practice most, actually growing denser (more connected) brain networks for those skills. Even the type of obsessive specialization that produces so-called ‘savant’ abilities can be learned and developed. New behaviors and habits, ways of communicating and doing things, can all be changed, even the habits of thought that were previously thought to be ‘hard wired’ have turned out to be changeable. You can completely change your mind –and yourself, for the better, on an ongoing basis. There is no indication that intelligence has to stop growing, and no known limit to human memory. Proof that intelligence does not have to decline with age is plentiful.

Personal construct theory is currently used to assess personality, with the understanding that personality is an interactive interface between person, situation and environment.

 

A More Holistic View

 

The mind-brain-body link. Many scientists once rejected the idea that the body’s immune system worked closely with the brain and endocrine systems to carry out its tasks. Such a finding would suggest that our mind could influence illness. Now we know that this is true, and an increasing amount of evidence is showing how the three systems are indeed working together.

The immune system battles countless enemies; viruses, bacteria, parasites and other foreign molecules that make it past body boundaries, and also abnormalities that arise inside the body, such as cancer cells and toxins.

An increasing number of studies show that the immune system is tightly connected to the nervous system, as well as to another communication network that uses hormones, known as the endocrine system. It appears that their three-way communication is vital for adequate health and performance of the body and brain.

This has led to further discoveries, for example on how emotions and attitude (and behavior) can influence illness, how toxins in the system lead to disease, and how the whole is influenced by communication between its parts and in relation to the environment..

 

Mental Health Is a Sliding Scale

 

Ideas about mental health also have undergone upgrading. It is obvious to us that there is a long, sliding scale in physical health & fitness between, say, an obese sedentary alcoholic smoker, and an athlete in top form! Most of us are a bit vague about where exactly we think a line could be drawn between being fit and unhealthy, but most of us would say we are ‘around average’ physical fitness most of the time, and that’s probably fair enough unless you are Superman or seriously ill.

The equivalent of absolute physical health for intelligence is optimal mental function, (and then the possibility of augmenting that to become mentally ‘superfit’ -the equivalent of a mental athlete). It's obvious that in just the same way we vary physically, everyone starts out in a different place on that mental ‘fitness scale’ in the beginning, and everyone has different experiences, and everyone develops at a different pace. So there is no ‘average’ intelligence and there is no point where intelligence can be said to be ‘fixed’ or ‘finished’, and there is no 'average' mental health, because neither is fixed; they change throughout our lives.

We now know that the quality and quantity of brain networks that we develop determines these changes not only in our intelligence but also our personality overall, and ultimately our mental health. More exciting, we know that this is not fixed, but can be improved by pursuing the correct behaviors to stimulate healthy development. The downside of that is that we know how much damage misusing or not using the brain can cause, but that’s good news too in a way because we know more about what to avoid!

The social idea of what ‘mental health’ means has changed fundamentally over the last few years, but not many people are aware of this yet. When the previous generation of neuroscientists were students [not too long ago], ‘mental health’ was rather basically explained to us as discriminating about who was ‘sane’ or ‘insane’, and the idea of ‘sane /insane’ was portrayed by medical science (rather short-sightedly) as a simple polarity.

You were either strolling along absolutely sanely on the clifftop of life or you had ‘gone over the edge’ and fallen, or jumped, or been pushed off it; you either ‘had the plot’ or you had ‘lost the plot on drugs, man’; granddad either ‘still had all his marbles’ or had ‘lost his marbles, poor old thing’.

Neuroscience has progressed a heck of a lot since then, partly because some researchers began to ask the sorts of questions that most people never even thought about –like, where and why and how and when did granddad drop the first marble, and, how many marbles did granddad start out with, and how many must we lose before we are, effectively, a marble-free zone, and whether that was inevitable, or whether we couldn’t increase our marble stash, and so on…

Way back then, not only did we not have any of the tech to find much of this out; there was also a certain degree of trepidation about the research itself. ’Most people’ includes ‘most scientists’ (scientists are people too) and I’m not sure that most people even wanted to think about whether they personally might have dropped a couple of marbles already during situations of personal chronic stress, let alone contemplate the possibility that they might not be able to pick them up again.

Also, before the advent of fMRI et al, we did not have the ability to properly show the development of mental dysfunction, and consequently could not detect it until it became relatively severe. We recognized ‘depression’ and ‘bipolar disorder’ as mental problems but we were not able to see the precursors and the etiology of these conditions and consequently we did not grasp the true nature of mental health itself, because 'sanity' and 'insanity' turned out to be not a polarity at all but a sliding scale of mental sickness or health; very much like the physical health of the body.

We now know that people do not just suddenly ‘become depressed’ or ‘go senile’, there is a series of traceable paths towards and away from these states, based on habits of thought and behavior, all the way from total mental health to total mental dysfunction. But networks can stop working properly and decline slowly for a long time [sometimes years] without you or anybody else noticing and before you show any outward symptoms of malfunction, unless you know what you are looking for. That is part of what we learn in neurohacking, because prevention is always better than cure.

Now that we do know what to look for, we can predict what is going on in a particular brain based on observation and assessment of the kind of behaviors displayed by an individual. Thus we can assess the current health of our brain, and if we take the right steps, improve performance and prevent decline.

 

Mind the Gap

 

This is not going to be popularly discussed in the media because if everyone suddenly starts becoming intelligent and avoiding mental dysfunction, drug companies stand to lose billions (and society itself would be in for a serious rewrite). So you’re unlikely to hear this wonderful news actually on the media anytime soon.

Consequent to and affected by all the factors discussed above, is the phenomenon of an increasing ‘awareness gap’ between the picture that “the general public” currently has of the brain and mind, and what scientists have now discovered is really going on. After a long wait, technology has caught up with and overtaken our need for it and we finally have tools with which to progress rapidly. But the real information about the brain and mind we are now mapping so expediently has diverged increasingly from what people think is ‘known’ about it and the result of this for anyone trying to learn about intelligence can be confusion as these contradictory maps clash. The general public either fail to hear about or understand the significance of new discoveries. Those who keep up with it then find great difficulty explaining and communicating about these discoveries in ways that can ‘bridge the gap’.

New students beginning currently may find themselves speaking in terms about intelligence that most people completely fail to understand because the terms themselves are only just becoming familiar among front-line research scientists. Most people you meet on the street won’t for example know what epigenetics is, and that’s a basic. Early quantum physicists & geneticists (molecular biologists) have already had their turn at this problem, but this time the information that bridges the gap, complex topics such as plasticity and epigenetics, FA and DSI, personal construct theory and developmental timing, is coming in a lot faster than it can be assimilated and is growing ever more bulky; and thus “the gap” increases.

The relevance of this to us in learning: during this time, it is largely pointless reading about intelligence or any brain science in popular “daily” newspapers or magazines unless you are only interested in new products, techniques or drug discovery. Academic neuroscience will remain a worthwhile information source only if the material is less than five years old, but will already be missing ‘since-discovered’ information if more than two years old. When reading text books, go for the latest editions you can. Online open source science sites like MIT’s and the Open University are on the whole good, but remember, not all the contributors will have kept up to date themselves! Being a professor does not mean someone is a latest-information fanatic; in some cases quite the opposite. We should check sources with the usual caution -there are professors out there in ‘respected institutions’ (such as Mensa) lecturing on how god doesn’t like stem cell research, so always make sure you know not just where information is coming from but what point of view it is coming from. Of course I have to recommend our own tutorials, because that’s what being a writer is all about.

 

The Future: Emergence?

 

One current biggie that is only just making itself apparent: as a result of much of this new information, the entirety of biology may well have a new paradigm: emergence.

As one feature of explanation for intelligence, the term ‘emergent property’ is now used. This term conveys the sense that, at each level of organization, new properties appear that are not evident by studying the components, (i.e., at a lower level).

An emergent property is one that emerges at a certain level of complexity. For an example, consider that water is made up of a mixture of two gases, hydrogen and oxygen. At one level of analysis, that of chemical constituents, water is nothing but this combination. However, it is obvious that the combination yields new properties that are not present in the components. For example, the property of liquidity emerges from the components; the individual gases do not possess it. Any study of the properties of water, as in looking at its flow in pipes and rivers, would need to consider this emergent property of liquidity.

Intelligence shows emergent properties. Obviously, the complexity of intelligence depends ultimately on the properties of the individual neurons interacting inside the brain. However, looking at the behavior of individual brain cells in isolation does not enable us to predict the behavior of a connected network made up of those individuals. New principles of organization emerge at the network level and new types of explanation are needed.

We’ve had a few ‘trial runs’ into new mind-mapping possibilities before; exploring the holographic paradigm, morphogenetic fields and interference hypotheses, and are now at a point in neuroscience (and most especially in biological psychology), akin to that of the early theorists and experimenters in physics involving quantum phenomena. It feels like we have been dropped into Aladdin’s cave and there are wonders all around; in fact, the mechanics of emergence could do to biology much the same sort of things that quantum mechanics did to physics and the unraveling of the genome did to genetics.

The main thing standing in the way of progress in neuroscience now is the mainstream clinging to old ideas about intelligence that are already clearly proved wrong. The final biggie that will have to be overcome is this:

 

Behavior Is Not the Evidence, the Process, or the Basis of Intelligence

 

Intelligent behavior is interaction; a secondary result of the output of intelligence; prediction. If the brain were a computer, it would be one whose processing directive is: Predict. Use all the hardware and every application at your service to do this. Turn it all into a massive, densely packed database of intricate associations with which to predict.

To predict accurately, you have to remember and imagine the past and the future and make multiple associations. You have to deconstruct events with intellect and construct events with creativity. You need to assess group behavior as well as individual behavior and your own behavior.

To get this far you need all the factors of intelligence listed at the beginning of this article, but all of them are in the service of prediction. Intelligent prediction leads to intelligent behavior as interaction.

This is true of all mammals. The ability to predict and control the environment, via interaction, no matter which way it changes, to enable a beneficial outcome of “survive and thrive” is what intelligence is all about. Anything that can autonomously achieve this as an individual and in groups is a highly intelligent being.

 

Neurohacking Has Developed Too

 

For thousands of years humanity has used natural substances and techniques for neurohacking to achieve the enhancement of intelligence or to repair mental damage. Those techniques and methods are equally effective today, but the 21st century neurohacker has a broader choice. Neural implants, pharmacology, biofeedback, neural stimulation, memory wiping, deliberate ‘paranormal’ experiences, sleep avoidance, medications that target transmitters, and even prostheses for parts of the brain are happening now. It’s a very exciting time, so welcome aboard!

 

 


[Ed: Editing this article was a real joy! Smile]

 

 

Last Updated on Friday, 02 August 2013 13:49