How Your Brain Works – Lecture Review and summary

Welcome back to another blog post by mental health carer Matthew Mckenzie. Every so often, I run through a review from a lecture course, many lectures courses I tend to go through are based on psychology, psychiatry, ethics or even philosophy. I feel it is very important those caring for loved ones suffering mental health problems at least pay some attention to such fields, even if there are things they might not understand.

On this blog post, I want to review a course called “Optimizing Brain Fitness”. The course has 12 lectures lasting 1 hour each. The course is simple at times and then tends to switch to hard mode, being that it introduces different keywords and structures of the brain.

The lecturer who teaches this course is Prof. Richard Restak who is a Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.  He is also a neurologist, neuropsychiatrist, author and professor.

Prof Richard Restak

Prof Richard Restak

He starts off with how your brain is forming while your hearing his words. Richard feels that We thought brain was fully formed at adulthood. However its the life experiences that shape the brain and what has happened to us over these experiences.

Dr Richard talks about why he was interested in brain development, he then talks about the future lectures of this course. One of the important aspects is looking at how we can optimise our brain fitness, the importance of diet, the role of sleep and even having fun with puzzles and games all affect brain optimisation and development.

He feels physical and mental exercises differ. Physical exercise lead to physical health benefits, but mental exercises are performed differently. A combination of exercises is better hence, visual observation, using your hands, tactile perception, exercising in logic, numbers, use of imagination and visual spacial thinking all help in brain development.

Dr Richard then moves on to discussing 3 of the important functions that will be mentioned in the course ‘Optimizing Brain fitness’. The first being ‘Attention’, or what is stated as ‘focus’ where you would keep your mind on ONE thing at a time.

The next important function of the brain that will be explored in the course is ‘Memory’. The third function being called ‘Working memory.

Dr. Richard Restak gives us at least a taster on the importance of the use of ‘Attention’ in this lecture, he mentions that the brain function of ‘attention’ is the gateway to math, reading, visual memory and more. The function ‘attention’ helps coordinate movement, sensation and thinking. Next he talks a bit more about ‘memory’, which is an extension of ‘attention’. Richard explains that we cannot use information if we cannot remember it. Lastly ‘Working Memory’ is one of the most important tasks carried out by the brain, why? It is that we use ‘working memory’ when we want to concentrate on multiple tasks at a time and mentally manipulate them.

The next part of the lecture moves into the physical aspects of the brain. One aspect mentioned is the ‘Frontal Lobes’. What are they? Richard asks the listener. Dr Richard states that the Frontal Lobes are what we call the CEO of the brain and usually does control processing. The frontal lobes can help us see the consequences of our actions, sequencing things, executive control and drives. Basically whenever we consciously think something out, the frontal lobes are involved. Dr Richards does urge caution because there are many other actions that we do that are not based on control processing, e.g. reasoning, which is based on automatic processing. Automatic processing involves things that just happen e.g. eating, walking and things requiring not too much concentration.

Dr Richard then moves on to explaining how Automatic processing helps free up other areas of the brain for other uses. A good example of this is how Richard mentions that Alfred North Whitehead the philosopher quoting that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them”.


Alfred North Whitehead

The thing is that we move to ‘Control processing’ when we encounter something unexpected and that we have to think about. Too much ‘Control processing’ leads to confusion or paralyses, however a balance is needed between cognition and emotional brain processes.

Dr Richard gives another example of when a person picks up the phone and it turns out to be a sales call rather than a friend phoning, the person reacts emotionally to the call which is “automatic” and so we are not always cognitive, there are times when we react automatically and emotions can come into play.

In the lecture we move on to what parts of the brain involves cognition? Dr Richard says it usually is the back of brain. The control processing mainly involves the interior parts of the brain that being the pre-frontal and frontal areas. Cognition tends to involve the whole brain and cannot be located in one part of the brain. Emotions can be tied to the deeper structure of the brain being the limbic system and the right hemisphere.

Richard moves on to question how we experience things and feels that we experience things as a unified experience. Where sights, sounds and smells are all compiled into one experience. So how does the brain work? It is via information, which is basically the unit of exchange regarding the brain. Where ‘message transmissions’ are the basic functions regarding information.

An important question is raised about brain organisation, is the brain organised as a vast interconnected single entity? or are the neural cells physically separated from each other? Dr Richard speaks about the arguments neuroscientists have regarding the answer and he mentions the ideas of Camillo Golgi.

 Camillo Golgi

Camillo Golgi

He then moves on to talking about brain Synapses, which is a structure that permits a neuron (or nerve cell) to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron. The neuron is the basic working unit of the brain, a specialized cell designed to transmit information to other nerve cell. Richard then explains a bit about brain receptors, which usually receives the transmission through binding.

He raises an interesting point regarding the balance of receptors, especially if there is a large increase of receptors we get the problem of addiction, a decrease would be a withdrawal reaction. All this leads up to how medication can control the imbalance of receptors and other parts of brain abnormal problems.

Next Dr Richard talks about the brain as a whole and how neuroscientists in the past had found it easier to learn about the brain through abnormalities, fast forward to the present and brain imaging can tell a lot about the brains functions. He then explains about structural imaging and process imaging. Structural imaging shows the location of things happening within the brain, e.g. Cat Scans or MRI scans are examples of structural imaging. Process Imaging focuses on the activity of the brain and thus electro chemical activity is identified, e.g. functional MRI and PET.

Dr Richard moves on to how imaging can be useful and talks about activation maps and shows how activation maps differ between someone listening and someone talking as if different areas of the brain light up. Unfortunately Imaging cannot predict individual behaviour, imaging cannot predict how someone’s character. Plus imaging is no good at measuring courage or consciousness, where a good example of this is the problem of phrenology, where someone could tell what a person was thinking by looking at the part of the brain or how big the part of the skull was and other factors. Such practices ended up as neuromythology.

Dr Richard Restak then starts to talk about Basic brain facts on how the brain has 100 billion neurons. He then mentions how extraordinary complex the brain structure is and how even computers struggle to map the brain in its entity. In fact don’t expect to see a wiring diagram of the brain in your lifetime.

I have covered a large part of this lecture, but the rest looks into brain development from a young age to adulthood and how important it is to use the brain or loose it as Synapses get removed by pruning.

The lecture is actually quite easy to understand since Dr Richard speaks at a slow pace and even pauses every so often, even though there are technical terms, there are times Dr Richard actually repeats the terms in order for the message to get through.