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BUILDING MENTAL MUSCLEConditioning Exercises for the Six Intelligence Zones
By David Gamon and Allen D. Bragdon
Walker & CompanyCopyright © 2003 Allen D. Bragdon Publishers, Inc. All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8027-7669-8
Chapter OneEXECUTIVE & SOCIAL
This is the most recently evolved zone of intelligence in the human brain. It works out plans designed to reach consciously contrived future goals. It selects the paths of social interaction that will bring the greatest long-term benefit. It retrieves data from long-term memory and uses it to construct images of similar data as it might become active in future time. It is the seat of human "character"-that galaxy of consistent responses that involve social reliability and responsibility.
If the textured layer of gray matter known as the cortex is the source of our uniqueness as humans, it's the parts of the cortex behind the forehead-the frontal lobes-that are most responsible for the differences between us and our closest animal relatives. This region of the brain, apparently, is most responsible for self-awareness-the ability to introspect, to ponder, to not only act but to be aware of the fact that we're acting, to weigh other conceivable actions, to choose not to act, to imagine how the world might be different if we didn't act or if we weren't alive to act. With this comes freedom from materialistic determination, a philosophical preoccupationwith the mysteries of life and with death, a sense of beauty, religion-in short, all those interests related to the past, the future, and the self that we think of as distinguishing us from other animals.
As the most recently evolved part of the brain, the frontal lobes also house the most fragile parts of our identity-the faculties that require the most conscious effort and practice such as logic, planning, monitoring our own behavior, and achieving desired goals. In the process of becoming responsible social beings, we spend much of the early part of life learning how to modify the impulses that come pulsing upward from the lower parts of the brain. For much of the rest of our life, the conflicts between these different systems-between emotion and rationality, libido and intellect, spontaneity and self-control-ensure our financial contribution to the self-help movement and the psychotherapy business.
Conscious, planned, goal-oriented behavior and emotion are not necessarily in conflict, however. After all, in order to move toward a goal, it certainly helps to desire it. Brain scans show that your left frontal lobe is activated when you feel positive emotions, and the right frontal lobe when you feel negative emotions. Already as babies, some of us have less-than-average activity in one region or the other. If your "positive" frontal region has naturally low activation, you may not have much success in intellectual goal-directed tasks. Some people with frontal-lobe injury lose both their emotions and their decision-making ability; others may become violent criminals. It even seems that "hunches" and "intuitions"-impulses occupying the shadow-world in between rational consciousness and emotion-may have a frontal-lobe locus.
The flip side of the fragility of executive functions is that they are also the most malleable and improvable with practice. The best way to be an expert at organizing information and using it to your advantage is to work at it. Because your frontal-lobe functions are so consciously accessible, this is an easier matter-as long as you're willing to make the effort-than, say, learning to adjust your brain-stem-governed body rhythms.
What part of your brain causes you to respond as a unique individual?
One of the more difficult tasks neuroscience is currently faced with is that of identifying the part or parts of the brain responsible for defining an individual's personality as a unique and stable entity. Lots of progress has been made in associating certain regions of the brain with specific abilities and functions: the hippocampus with the mediation of memory formation, the amygdala with the processing of emotion, areas along the sylvian fissure with various aspects of language. But where is the locus of conscious self-awareness, the site that makes one person have a different identity from another, the region that unites the experiences of an individual human organism into a stable sense of self, despite the fluctuations of mood, affect, drive, and emotion? As Calvin and Ojemann's epilepsy patient asks in Conversations with Neil's Brain, "Where is the real me?"
Is identity an illusion?
A point that Calvin and Ojemann make is that this stable sense of self may be less real than we sometimes imagine. There seem to be many different parts of the brain competing for dominance, with any one part winning out at any given moment. Our sense of our unity of consciousness may result from the fact that there's only one winner at any one time.
But if any region of the brain were to be implicated as the seat of identity, it would probably be included in the front third of the brain called the frontal lobe. That area is the most recently evolved. It allows humans to imagine goals for themselves in the future and select appropriate behavior-an ability that suffers when part of the frontal lobe is knocked out of commission by disease or injury, such as a tumor or a stroke.
What happens when you're no longer you?
The most famous and dramatic case of frontal lobe injury is that of Phineas Gage, a promising young railroad construction crew supervisor who, in 1848, had an iron tamping bar shot into his upper jaw and through the midfrontal regions of his brain. Although he survived and, in some respects, recovered amazingly well, he changed from a soft-spoken, responsible man into a foulmouthed, erratic, inconsiderate boor. His friends complained that he had changed into a different person-that he was "no longer Gage."
In general, personality-related symptoms of frontal-lobe damage may include changes in drive or motivation, mood, and affect (emotional expression), and in the ability to plan or make decisions. Diminished reliability or foresight, socially inappropriate behavior, depression, euphoria, and lethargy are some of the many complaints that have been reported.
We may understand this wide range of symptoms as due to the other parts of the brain for which the frontal regions serve as association areas. The dorsal frontal system connects to parts of the brain involved in the sequential organization and processing of information. The ventral system connects to emotional regions, including
three different limbic systems. The pre-frontal cortex also has strong connections to all sensory regions, as well as to motor regions. This has inspired the identification of the pre-frontal cortex as the "final common pathway," integrating information from a variety of brain regions for the proper motor response.
Awareness is a relationship, not a thing or place
According to some researchers, many kinds of frontal-lobe pathology may be grouped under the umbrella of self-reflective awareness, or the ability to be aware of oneself and one's relation to others and the environment. Based on studies of children, "meta-awareness"-the awareness that one is aware-depends on the relatively late infant development of subparts of the frontal region. The frontal lobe, then, seems to house integration or association regions that are crucial to our stable identity. As is true for so many aspects of cognition, those vexing questions of the source of consciousness and identity may be answered in the associations between many parts of the brain, rather than in one self-contained locus or "module." But, to the extent that we have one, the "driver" of the whole cognitive apparatus-the particular associations that make you different from me-may well be seated, appropriately enough, right up front.
Your right frontal lobe registers negative emotions: how that fact can be useful to you
We sometimes think of our emotional selves-our fears, delights, and outbursts of anger-as diametrically opposed to the cool reason, planning, and logic required for identifying and reaching goals. This is only partly true. Here's why.
Emotions are processed in the frontal lobe
The frontal lobe is a crossroads of the emotional centers of the brain. Negative emotions-disgust, fear, and anger-are registered in the right frontal lobe, and happiness is registered in the left. How do we know? For one thing, these are the regions that electroencephalograph (EEG) readings show to be activated when people are exposed to stimuli that evoke one of these emotional responses-a picture of a dog eating its own vomit, for example.
Emotion and reason are linked
The frontal lobe also controls executive functions such as intention, conscious self-regulation, and planning. People with damage to the left frontal lobe may have difficulty planning a simple sequence of actions and even in initiating voluntary actions, and they may be listless, apathetic, and depressed. Approach-related behavior-movement toward literal or metaphorical goals-requires not only planning a strategy for getting there, but the desire to get moving in the first place.
Low activity in your left frontal lobe correlates with depression
Some people have low baseline readings of left frontal lobe activity. They may often be labeled as inhibited or shy. Their left frontal lobe also shows low response to positive stimuli-happy scenes in films, for example. People who have an unusually high level of right frontal lobe activity tend to be anxious and leery of danger. Depression and sadness are usually categorized by most people as negative emotions, along with fear, anger, and disgust. Even so, it seems that depression is better understood, neurally speaking, as a low level of activity in the left frontal lobe-the "happy" region. It does not show as unusually high activity in the "negative" right frontal area as, for example, anger does.
Does this mean that one side of my body is an eager go-getter, and the other side is an anxious coward?
Since the brain's right hemisphere corresponds to the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere to the right side, you'd expect happiness to be registered more strongly on the right side of the face, and disgust, anger, and fear on the left side. This seems to be true. (It has been speculated that the source of the "enigmatic" effect of the Mona Lisa's smile is that, in her case, it's the left side, not the right side, of the face that is smiling. Thus, the negative side of the face is happy, and the positive side is neutral-resulting in a somewhat inscrutable overall expression.) Some psychologists have argued that the right brain is the dominant hemisphere for emotions in general. This probably has some validity for the perception of emotion in other people's faces and other cues, but not for feeling the emotion itself.
Even though the left hemisphere does dominate in the experience of positive emotion, the right hemisphere seems to be involved in the recognition and processing of both positive and negative emotional signals. The right brain also picks up positive facial expressions more than you'd think based on the left brain's dominance in feeling positive emotions. Still, the left brain does play a role in processing positive signals as well as experiencing them. Happy faces are recognized better when presented to the right visual field (left brain). Also, films shown in the right visual field tend to be rated more pleasant than ones shown in the left visual field (right brain).
So that's why Aunt Mary always thought I liked her fruitcake
It also happens that elderly adults are worse than younger adults at recognizing negative facial expressions-fear or disgust, for example. This finding provides support to the right-hemi-aging hypothesis-that, as we age, the right hemisphere tends to decline more rapidly than the left. Perhaps that's why certain "crystallized" left-brain abilities such as vocabulary size don't decline as fast when we age, compared to certain "fluid" right-brain abilities such as abstract spatial reasoning and facial recognition. In a recent study, young and old adults were asked to assign photographs of faces to categories of emotion ("happy," "fearful," etc.). Older subjects performed much worse than younger ones in identifying negative expressions, but as well as younger subjects in identifying happy faces.
Why is it that your negative-processing right brain best reads the "positive" side of another person's face?
Let's face it, the only time you can read the expression on another person's face is when you face each other. But then, the emotion that each side of the brain is specialized to perceive is in the other half of the brain's field of vision. In other words, when facing someone head-on, you will tend to have his "negative" side in your field of vision connected to your brain's "positive processing" skills, and his "positive" side in your "negative" field. This seeming contradiction suggests that our brains have evolved to prevent us from viewing and responding to other people in a wholly one-sided fashion.
All this has something of the flavor of a diabolical logic puzzle. If you experience frustration and disgust coupled with a desire to throttle the authors of this article, would we be dealing with right-brain-based withdrawal-oriented, or left-brain-based approach-related behavior?
Excerpted from BUILDING MENTAL MUSCLE by David Gamon and Allen D. Bragdon
Copyright © 2003 by Allen D. Bragdon Publishers, Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.