Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The power of small changes

I am reading a book called The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (by Jeffrey Schwartz & Sharon Begley). It's reminding me again how little we know about the magnitude of change. A very tiny change in the right place can have enormous impact.

Apparently, we have an area in our brain - the orbital frontal cortex - that sits behind our eyes and is responsible for "alerting you when something is amiss." Actually, it does more than alert you - it could "generate an internal sense that something is wrong, and that something needs to be corrected by a change in behaviour." If something really goes wrong, the neurons fire intensely and repeatedly and create "an inchoate sense of dread."

Reading such an intricate and intriguing story, it's easy to forget how very tiny a neuron is, even a group of neurons. Imagine that you could select which neurons fire in your own orbital front cortex. What dangers would you have avoided if only those neurons had warned you that something needed to be corrected by a change in your behaviour? Just a tiny warning, accompanied by the impulse to action, could change the course of a life, or of many lives.

Somehow, an "inchoate sense of dread" is frightening even when we imagine it as a pattern of neurons firing like popcorn or fireflies. I wonder what changes in me as I imagine the stuff of nightmares as a neurochemical sequence that could have been different. Schwartz wonders these kinds of things, too. HIs book is about the impact of mindfulness on the brain, the basis of free will, and the implications of the new physics for understanding ourselves.

The letters on the page or screen are also small; they also trigger a firing of neurons in particular centres of the brain in a particular sequence with a particular intensity.

I wonder: are there any small changes?

No comments: