Centuries ago, we embarked on a quest for knowledge of the magnificent makeup of man. While science has made many advancements in understanding our organs and ways to fix them, we have had less progress in deciphering the most complex organ of all, our brain. This is because unlike others, the brain is the organ responsible for our thoughts, feelings and reason. It is the organ of the mind: an abstract concept that until just recently was thought to have no physical properties.
The brain is the organ of the mind just as the lungs are the organs of respiration, and the heart of circulation. But could we actually physically see thoughts and feelings the way we see air enter and leave our lungs? Could we see consciousness the way we see blood pumping through our hearts? Could we read the brain and know what the mind is doing in that exact moment? Could there really be such a thing as “mind reading”?
Not too long ago the answer would have been “probably not”. Sure, we can see abnormalities in the brain but observing abnormalities in a person’s mind seemed to be a stretch.
Thus, the dichotomy was established: dealing with the mind was the job of psychology and therapy while dealing with the brain was the job of doctors and medicine.
Today however is a new dawn, recent developments in the mind-blowing fields (pun intended) of cognitive, behavioral and affective neuroscience have, in only but a few short years, made extraordinary strides in revealing how the abstract mind emerges from the physical brain.
In fact, advancements in brain scan technology have allowed us to observe not only the neural signals of our thoughts, feelings and behavior, but even, to some extent, those of our sense of self and our subjective experience of consciousness.
So, what exactly have these advancements told us this far?
In the beginning separate brain regions were found to be responsible for different psychological phenomena, for example the limbic area was responsible for emotions, the prefrontal area was responsible for reasoning and so on.
But the brain is not just comprised of different areas working independently, it can’t be. Because If the brain makes the mind and the mind gives us a feeling of a unified self, then the brain itself must be somehow unified as well.
After countless scans and studies, scientists have found that large-scale networks unify the brain’s different areas. A holistic system exists where areas in these networks talk internally within the network as well as externally to other networks, the product of these “conversations” is your total conscious experience, basically what is responsible for creating a person’s state of mind at a given moment.
What this means is that if you scan a person’s brain and see what large networks are active, you can physically see what the person is experiencing mentally in real time. It is like having an inside look at the architecture of a person’s mental events and behaviors, in other words it is like reading a person’s mind.
One of the largest and most connected large-scale brain networks is the Default Mode Network (DMN). It was named the Default Mode because it seemed to be our brains default state of being, activating when the mind is at rest. It is the network active in self-generated thought. Active when we reflect on ourselves and our lives, when we contemplate events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all. It is active when we dream, imagine and when our mind wanders. It is the network responsible for us having a feeling of a self, separate from our surroundings.
The moment you engage with your environment however, whether you are doing a task or concentrating on a something, your default mode network switches off and the other largest network takes over, your Cognitive Control Network (CCN). It deals with the here and now and supports goal-directed behavior. Here is the important part, The DMN and CCN are anti-correlated, meaning that when one is active the other can’t be. Try it yourself, attempt doing a math problem while thinking about what you might have for lunch tomorrow, you can’t do both at exactly the same time. You can jump back and forth between the two but you can’t solve the problem while simultaneously thinking about what’s for lunch at grandma’s later. This fluctuation between the DMN and CCN (managed by another network: The Salience Network) usually goes unnoticed.
The discovery of these large-scale networks has barely been around for a decade but have told us so much about the way our minds work. Its implementation to psychological disorders has shed a lot of light on the nature of these disorders. From mild depression all the way to schizophrenia, scientist have found a link between an imbalance in these networks and many different psychological disorders. For example, an overactive DMN and an underactive CCN has been seen in both depression and schizophrenia, disorders linked to skewed self-generated thoughts and a disconnect with the environment. This view gives us a holistic look at what it is like to be a person with a disorder and how their brain as a whole communicates with itself in a faulty way.
In my 10 years in the field I have watch it grow at an exponential rate. Its innovation has opened up a whole new world of psychological treatment and medication. These treatments that aim to regulate these networks are revolutionizing psychology and psychiatry, and I for one am very excited to see it keep evolving and enhancing the way we conceptualize the human mind.
Yasmeen Hayat, Msc