Monday, December 21, 2009

5. The Mind At Work ---- Ellen Lucas

The Mind at Work ---- How to make it work better for you By Ellen Lucas (1993) The Millbrook Press, 2 Old New Milford Road, Brookfield, Connecticut 06804 USA

ABSTRACT: A practical guide to how the brain works and how to maximize its potential. Explains what is cognition, thinking, critical thinking and creative thinking.

All of us were born with the same amount of nerve cells(100 billion) and brain matter (which can grow to about 3 lb) without any skills for survival. We all learned our survival skills; how to walk, how to eat etc. practically in the same way --- struggling. That being said, why do some of us become great like Albert Einstein and some of us go unnoticed ? This book tries to explore this question.

Let us examine the intellectual infrastructure that we all have in common with all great people. On the top of the spinal cord, the brain stem handles all the automatic responses which keeps us alive; Breathing , Heart rate etc. This is the communication gateway between the body and the brain.

The cerebellum in the brain is a little more advanced structure which handles and coordinates messages between the brain and the muscles in the arms and legs. It handles all normal physical activities without consciously thinking about them; Walking, Riding a bike etc.

There is a group of structures in the brain called the limbic system which regulates the way we feel. One of the structures in this group, hypothalamus, deals with our primitive responses; Eating, Sleeping, Fighting, Mating etc.
Another component within the limbic system is the hippocampus which deals with all the sensory input systems and plays a vital role in memory.
The thalamus, another component, deals with the physical sensations: Pain, Heat, Cold etc.

At the top of the brain is the cerebrum, the most advanced system of the brain compared to the all living creatures. Cerebrum is the one which makes us human while rest of the brain is working to keep us alive. The Cerebrum is where we learn to think and dream.

The cerebrum is divided into two halves, called left and right hemispheres. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body. Thus when we move our right hand, the signals are coming from the left side of our brain.
These hemispheres are connected by a thick band of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. The entire cerebrum is covered by nerve cells called cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is where advanced brain functions occur.

The cerebral cortex is divided into four lobes: parietal, occipital, temporal and frontal. The parietal lobe assembles information from various places in the body. The occipital lobe receives messages from the eyes and controls our vision. The temporal lobe plays a great part in our sense of hearing, language and memory. The frontal lobe's function is to manage and distribute information coming from other parts of the brain.

The Cerebrum and Cerebral Cortex is the place where everything happens that makes us human. We learn, we think , we reason and we conclude. This area is much larger and more developed in humans than in any other animal.

The entire cerebrum is covered by the cerebral cortex, a layer of nerve cells 1/8 inch thick . Nerve cells are also called neurons, sending and receiving information 24 hours a day. They could receive information from thousands of other neurons and also have the capability of sending messages to thousand of other neurons. This feat is accomplished through the neuron components, dendrites to receive messages and axons to send messages. One neuron's dendrites are coupled to other neuron's axons(or vice versa). The place where an axon terminal and the dendrite of another neuron is called synapse. Chemical messengers called neurotransmitters relay messages across the synapses between neurons.

When we were born, the skull is soft to enable us to fit through the birth canal. During the first year of life it triples in size. As cerebrum continues to grow, it quickly runs out of room in the skull and develops wrinkles and folds to increase the surface area as it acquires information and knowledge. By the age of seven it reaches the maximum weight, about 3 pounds.

For the brain to function properly it needs energy which it receives from the food we eat. It needs natural carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins. I stress "natural" because we are biologically equipped to break down natural substances and use them for energy. That is why a well balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables is essential. You can receive someone else's heart or liver and still be you, but not someone else's brain. It is better to take care of it properly in a natural way.

As the brain structure is out of the way, let us examine how it works. The Mind is what encompasses the working brain and the magic word which describes how it works is 'Cognition'. Cognition is a process that includes perception, learning, remembering , and all the things we call thinking.

Perception is the input stage of cognition. It involves all our senses, smell, taste, hearing, touch and seeing. The Brain receives signals from all these senses 24/7 and it may probably ignore some of them if they are continuous, like an unpleasant smell in a barn. Sensory input gives us perception.(For example, a small child sees a four legged creature, hears some sounds and smells something. A perceived package evolves.)

Learning is the process of knowing the description of what the input signals are telling and filing it. Simply put, Learning is receiving sensory input and filing them for later retrieval.(Mother tells the child that creature is a dog. The perceived package is filed as dog.)

Memory is the storage and retrieval of information learned. Scientists think memories are created by neurons forming memory patterns called "memory traces". These memory traces are a combination of electrical impulses and chemical reactions associated with them. (If the child sees the same type of four legged creature, the child remembers it as a dog.)

Thinking is information processing. (If the child sees similar four legged animals and comes out saying 'dogs'. If someone questions what is a dog, describing dog from the package we stored is also thinking.)

The cognitive processes are invisible, we can not see them even if we open the skull. As we know brain does these cognitive processes through chemical and electrical impulses, only way to track them is through the machines which recognize chemical and electrical impulses.

Electroencephalograms(EEG), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron-emission tomography (PET), and computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans are being used for brain imaging. They give us pictures of what is happening and where in the brain. These help us determining and connecting, what thoughts generate what type of pictures and where in the brain, thus giving a glimpse of the mind at work.

The path to thinking is laid out. First we observe things through our senses, we record them in memory and we retrieve them to think about them.
How we record them makes it easy to retrieve them. For example, we record the dog as a four legged animal in our memory, we could retrieve the info in two ways, by seeing a four legged animal or hearing the word dog. suppose if we add sound to the recording, we can retrieve information by just hearing the sound without seeing. The point is the more descriptions you have for an entity the more paths you can create in memory thereby allowing us to retrieve the information in multiple ways. This is the trick in remembering things quickly.

Getting information of a four legged animal with a doggy sound is thinking. Once you got information in memory, identifying it as a dog is critical thinking. Possibilities of having different dog sounds is creative thinking. You can go and look for different sounds coming from dog look a likes.

To be good at cognitive process, we have to gather information first (from schooling, observation etc). Second we have to put that in memory. The more descriptors we have for that information, the more easier to retrieve. Brain has to create memory traces and it uses energy which we have to provide by eating healthy food. Once the information is there we have to practice critical thinking and creative thinking to use that information.

Summing up, while all humans are created with identical brain structures, it is the cognitive function which truly illustrates ones greatness. If one wants to be great, one has to perceive a lot of information and store it for easy retrieval. Once you have information stored in your brain, retrieve it, think critically about it, use it, question it, evaluate it and manipulate it creatively using your brain power with your creative thinking.

One tip, without review, about 80 percent of new material learned in a one-hour period will be forgotten within twenty-four hours. So repeat what you've read and heard within 24 hours, to get the maximum for your effort and blast your neurons for maximum synapses to form memory traces.

There you have it; the path to greatness.


  1. wonderful information sir.

    you have done a good job. thank u v.much.

    -prakash, sr.subeditor, sakshi funday

  2. @Prakash
    Thank you Prakash. I just added another post. Please look at it. I hope to give a good understanding of how disease starts.