The mind: a malleable, dynamic, adaptable system
According to Dan Siegel: “The mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information with self-organizing properties”. (Siegel, 2012)[i].
On the side of embodied processes scientists are beginning to realize that there is a strong relationship between food and emotions, which influence behavior and I will argue also attention. Dr Hilary Jones wrote in the article: “ Your food influences your mood: The second brain residing in our stomachs”[ii], that many of us don’t realize just how much the foods we eat can impact on our mood and mental wellbeing. In a recent paper published in the journal of Nutrition and Food Science[iii], over 81% of patients reported a significant improvement in mood and mental wellbeing as a direct consequence of applying the dietary changes recommended.
Why is this? Emma Young in the article “Gut instincts: The secrets of your second brain”[iv] explains that embedded in the wall of the gut, is the enteric nervous system (ENS), which plays an important role in our physical and mental well-being. It can work both independently of and in conjunction with the brain in our head. The ENS helps us sense environmental threats, and then influences our response without us noticing. “A lot of the information that the gut sends to the brain affects well-being, and doesn’t even come to consciousness,” says Michael Gershon at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, New York.
Scientists now know that the ENS influences the brain. In fact, about 90 per cent of the signals passing along the vagus nerve come not from above, but from the ENS (American Journal of Physiology – Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, vol 283, p G1217). Emma Young also reports that this second brain shares many features with the first. It is made up of various types of neuron, with glial support cells. It has its own version of a blood-brain barrier to keep its physiological environment stable. And it produces a wide range of hormones and around 40 neurotransmitters of the same classes as those found in the brain. In fact, neurons in the gut are thought to generate as much dopamine as those in the head. Intriguingly, about 95 per cent of the serotonin present in the body at any time is in the ENS.
On the side of social experiences, some researchers have discovered the mirror neuron, a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.(Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2004)[v]. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.
Some neuroscience research suggests that these neurons facilitate the work of the “empathic brain”, proposing that humans possess a deeply interconnected, social mind as mirror systems may simulate observed actions, and thus contribute to theory of mind skills (Keyser, 2011)[vi]. Others argue that mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy. (Blakeslee, 2006)[vii]. While much more research in this area is needed, these findings are very important as these systems may hold some part of the answer in terms of “learning disabilities” and/or autism. Already, some neuroscientist have proposed that the mirror neuron system may underlie cognitive disorders, particularly autism. (Overman & al, 2006). Other research is suggesting that making direct eye contact with someone gives a feeling of special connection because of “eye cells neurons” in the Amygdala, that process emotions and social interactions (Gothard, 2012)[viii].
A genetic connection
These advancements in neuroscience suggest that we are wired to sense the world around us chemically and emotionally. But the mind is not the only part of us that pays attention to its environment(s). Geneticist Suzanne Clancy (2008)[ix] explains that DNA protein production is regulated in part by RNA elements, called riboswitches (or RNA switches). These riboswitches are RNA sensors that detect and respond to environmental or metabolic cues and affect gene expression accordingly. According to research Ingrid Lobo:
“The expression of genes in an organism can be influenced by the environment, including the external world in which the organism is located or develops, as well as the organism’s internal world, which includes such factors as its hormones and metabolism. One major internal environmental influence that affects gene expression is gender, as is the case with sex-influenced and sex-limited traits. Similarly, drugs, chemicals, temperature, and light are among the external environmental factors that can determine which genes are turned on and off, thereby influencing the way an organism develops and functions.” (Lobo, 2008)[x]
Not only does our brain and genes sense the environment, they also adapt based on what is being paid attention to. According to scientist Jill U. Adams, (2008):
“Traits that appear or disappear over time are not the result of newly mutated genes encoding defective versions of the proteins associated with teeth or tails, nor are they caused by a loss of existing genes. Instead, a growing body of experimental evidence has shown such traits reflect changes in how, where, and when these genes are expressed.”[xi]
We produce new proteins based on our experiences that can change our genes. From neuroscience, we also know we can grown new neurons based on our experiences. These thread of research suggest that our minds and bodies are highly adaptable and susceptible to their chemical and social environments.
Key to this premise is that our brain pays attention, the mind is not just a regulator of consciousness and subjective thoughts, it also regulates embodied and social experiences. Such a definition opens the door for elements such as the environment, people and energy to have an influence on how we think and perceive the world. Dan Siegel created the notion of “Mind Sight” to identify our human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others.
Another interesting point is that: “The brain changes by driving information flow through its circuits in something called attention. “ (Siegel, 2012). And attention is often considered key to learning disabilities. Thus the need to examine what attention actually is.
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[vi] Keysers, Christian (2011-06-23). The Empathic Brain. Social Brain Press.