Dr. Gautham's

Neuro Centre

(Established in 1988)

A Neuro-Behavioral Medicine Clinic

Dr. Gautham's Neuro Centre
4/68 P C Hostel Road
Chetpet
Chennai, Tamilnadu 600031
India

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Programming the mind 

In the brain programming occurs through cognition, memory, and learning.

"The dictionary definition of cognition is "the mental process or faculty of knowing, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning, language, memory and judgment." Thus, cognition includes all of the brain"s mental input and output, from basic activities like using language and arithmetic during a trip to the grocery store, to complex decisions like selecting between two job offers, to the creativity of writing a poem or song, to being able to understand things from another person"s perspective and maintain an emotionally intimate relationship with them.

 

 

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Part of cognition, memory is much more than simply a passive storage system for knowledge. Memory is a set of active processes that encode information. Memory "packages" the information so that it is easier to remember and can be associated with related items already in memory. Memory also involves storing information, which includes constantly rearranging what has been stored so that new knowledge is integrated with what is already in storage, and locating and retrieving information as it is needed. For example, cognition assists memory by helping to identify what is important to remember, thereby freeing you of having to recall everything.

First off, it is important to recognize that there are multiple memory systems, or multiple forms of memory, and they are each mediated by different physical regions in the brain or different wiring systems. And along with that separation, each has distinct operating characteristics that affect how and when things can go wrong.

One of the major lines along which to break down memory types is to distinguish long term versus short term.

Short Term Memory

Within short term memory, researchers often talk about immediate short term memory, which refers to the amount of information a person can respond to or repeat back immediately. A longer form of short term memory is called working memory.

This is the memory function that works as the thinking part of the brain, the part that allows us to do math or take advantage of stored facts for logical deduction. However, even though working memory may rely on some stored information, the data it is currently processing does not necessarily get stored in any long term way.

To distinguish between short term and working memory, Howard Eichenbaum, a professor of psychology at Boston University, uses the example of someone looking up a phone number in a phone book. For a very short time, the person might be able to remember quite a bit about the page on which they found the number, its color, surrounding names, etc. That information is stored in short term memory and disperses rapidly. But working memory will take over, repeating, for example, the seven digit phone number as one walks from the book to the phone. Long term memory, on the other hand, is that information that sticks with you for a long time, on the order of days, weeks and years.

Long Term Memory

Long term memory is itself subdivided into two broad categories, declarative or conscious memory and non-declarative or unconscious memory, which holds information that cannot usually be accessed by the conscious mind but is present and used nonetheless. Within declarative long term memory there are also subcategories, episodic and semantic being the main ones.

Episodic memory refers to personal life memories, events you took part in, what you had for breakfast yesterday, childhood experiences and the like. Semantic memory is more general knowledge about the world and language, such as who was the first President or that Paris is the capital of France. Although one could argue that all semantic memory is gained through personal experiences, such as in a classroom or during a conversation with a friend, somehow this sort of factual knowledge seems to be filed in a system distinct from episodic memory. Some scientists think that the distinction between the two is not complete and that episodic memory may be something of a gateway to the storage of semantic memories because such facts were first encountered during a personal experience of one kind or another. Interestingly though, episodic memories are organized by experience, in something of a time sequence ("I went to dinner with Joe before I left for Paris"), whereas semantic memories are organized around the logical structure of the subject (the government"s organizational tree or grammar rules) and is relatively timeless.

In addition, within long term memory there is emotional memory, that makes you nervous when you enter a dark alley; even though nothing has gone wrong at that moment, your brain associates the situation with danger and you may feel fear. Similarly, when you hear the thumping of the musical score to a scary scene from the movie Jaws, you expect to see a shark and your heart may start beating a little faster.

As for nondeclarative memory, this includes things like procedural memory, certain habit learning or skills learned that have now become totally unconscious. Much of our life is run by such activities, like driving that familiar route to work, which is such a routine that you often do not even remember the drive because you were thinking consciously about something else while relying on habit to navigate the trip. The skills required for more common tasks like speaking, typing, riding a bike, also rely on procedural memory.

In behavioral science various terms have evolved, all of which have the connotation of Programming.                              

Imitation:

Imitation is the simplest form of programming of the mind. In imitation a new behaviour is learned by copying it from someone else. This is what has variously been called instinctive imitation, imitative suggestion, social facilitation, coaction, and (simply) contagion. Examples in humans include the spread of yawning, coughing or laughter. All these behaviours are extremely contagious. Indeed it can be difficult not to laugh if everyone around you is already laughing. This kind of contagion probably relies on specific stimulus feature detectors  which detect laughing or yawning in someone else and then trigger the same innate behaviour as the response.

Conditioning:

Classical conditioning is when two stimuli become associated by repeated pairing. In the best known experiments Pavlov paired sounds with the smell of meat and found that dogs then salivated to the sounds even without any meat. Classical conditioning is widespread in the animal kingdom, for example when animals learn to distinguish palatable foods from poisonous foods, or learn other important facts about their environment. It occurs in humans whenever we associate two things together because they have previously been paired, whether those things are sights, sounds, tunes, ideas or pain. Behaviour is changed by the process but nothing is passed on by imitation from one person to another, so the process is not memetic.  

 

Next.....

Whether consciously or not, parents shape their children's behaviour by the way they reinforce them. The most effective reward for children is attention and rewards work better than punishment. So if parents pay lots of attention to their children when they are behaving well, and act uninterested when they scream or have tantrums, then behaving well is in the best interests of the children and they will do it. The parents' behaviour can be seen as part of the environment in which the children learn, or as part of a complex pattern of social learning (discussed below). Either way if the children are not imitating the parents then the process is not memetic.

We learn many things by trial and error, such as the physical skills of walking without falling over or riding a bike, or general ways of interacting with other people and the world. For example, people who are generally rewarded for hard work and persistence will behave differently from people whose efforts are met with arbitrary results. Of course memes may be involved - such as the very idea of riding a bike in the first place - but whenever we repeat actions that led to successful outcomes and suppress actions that led to pain or failure, then we are learning for ourselves by operant conditioning.

Cognitive mapping:

Many animals develop complex mental maps of their environment without which they could not live at all, whether they are cats, rats, insects or birds. Some have complex territorial systems in which boundaries are carefully guarded, some (like squirrels for example) hide large numbers of food items are able accurately to find them again, while others use well known paths to explore and find food. The information in the maps is learned by exploration and conditioning. There is no imitation involved. Similarly we develop complex cognitive maps of our own house and garden, the city we live in, and the places we go for our holidays. We can find our way around these places and conjure them up in our imagination.

Social Learning:

Social learning means learning something from other people, (or, more generally, from co specifics). Very often classical and operant conditioning are the basic processes involved, but something is learned in a way that involves other people or animals.

Social learning includes true imitation, but there are other kinds of social learning as well. Imitation means learning something about the form of behaviour through observing others, while other kinds of social learning are learning about the environment through observing others. In true imitation something about the action is copied from actor to imitator, while in other forms of social learning nothing is copied.

Information Processing:

 "Information Processing" refers to the way in which the mind processes bits of information. Using the software analogy the  mind can be said to be programmed using units known as "MEMES". A meme is nothing more than a pattern of information, one that happens to have evolved a form which induces people to repeat that pattern. Typical memes include individual slogans, ideas, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions. It may sound a bit sinister, this idea that people are hosts for mind-altering strings of symbols, but in fact this is what human culture is all about.

The memes keep evolving, just as in the game of "Telephone" (where a message is whispered from person to person, being slightly mis-replicated each time). Selection favors the memes which are easiest to understand, to remember, and to communicate to others. Garbled versions of a useful meme would presumably be selected out.