Most of us presume that we are the boss of the brain – the CEO with the big picture and the ultimate decision maker. To a degree that is true, but not to the extent we imagine – the sense of control we have over our thoughts and destiny is largely illusory.
By way of example, I’ll describe some of my own personal observations. Some of these you may not relate to – my foibles may be alien to you, but you will have your own foibles that illustrate similar dis-coordination in the brain.
I am in the hyper-vigilant category of humans, fast to respond to danger. Or more crucially for my argument, fast to respond to perceiveddanger. Note that I never chose to be like this, but I may owe my existence in part to one of my ancestors whose vigilance saved him from a grizzly death. But my vigilance is too sensitive – it often takes precedence over other, more important matters, such as sleep. Which is why I can be awoken at 5am by the tiny, miniscule, almost impossible to hear sound of birdsong through double glazed windows.
These birds are no danger to me, but I have no access to the circuitry that misjudges them as a threat. I cannot raise the threshold of sensitivity to such sounds, nor inform my brain that birdsong is never ever a threat. One part of my brain disrupts sleep in an anarchic fashion – there is no coordinated scheme in place.
After falling back to sleep, I am likely to prematurely awaken at around 6am or 7am. If, as I have done so many times, I get up at that time, I will find myself struggling with tiredness and a foggy head all day. The early awakening is normally a result of reduced melatonin secretion from the pineal gland. As we get older it produces less – it is not so much that we need less sleep as we age, but that the brain makes it harder for us to stay asleep.
I tend to lie there are simply relax. What can happen, however, is that another part of my brain may observe awakeness starting and might assume it is time to get up rather than go back to sleep, so it will secrete cortisol in order to get my brain into gear. So my (semi-)conscious mind wants to go back to sleep, and my subconscious mind wants to get up. I know that I am not alone in that situation. But this dichotomous situation is one that gets compounded by the effect of the cortisol – we start to think and then the cortisol makes us react to what we think about, thereby making relaxation and hence sleep even more elusive.
Once again, one part of our brain has one agenda, and another, separate, polar-opposite agenda. The brain is not coordinated.
If you are in any doubt that your brain might also fail to act in a homogenous, harmonious, coordinated fashion, just look back at your first attempts to date someone, and how you became tongue-tied entirely against your wishes. Or if you became nervous playing tennis against a rival – exactly when you needed to be calm and focused, the requirements for optimal performance.
I sometimes sit and watch TV and find that my mind is restless. I cannot actually do what I want to do – I would really like to sit through the programme, but my subconscious decides that it is not interesting enough and stirs me into doing something else. On a less trivial matter, you may want to complete your tax return, but part of your brain really does not want to do that – it resists so much that you procrastinate for months leaving it to the last minute and getting very stressed in the process with the matter hanging over your head nagging you all that time.
It seems, to me, that the brain could benefit from further evolution to supply better coordination to reduce this self-defeating anarchy.