Autopilot, by Andrew Smart (Chapter 2)

Is the Skykeep from Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword a good metaphor for the brain’s “metastable” state? Who knows! But it’s a cool thought I had…

This chapter focuses on noise and its benefits to the brain as well as returning to the resting brain.

And as far as the resting brain goes, it’s pretty interesting:

When you activate your default mode network by doing nothing, it becomes robust and coherent. So, somehow our brains seem to violate the second law of thermodynamics which states that left unattended, thing in general get energy and lost heat. This is called entropy.

It’s why your kitchen just gets messier and messier the longer you don’t clean it. However, the old adage that “the dishes don’t do themselves” does not apply to the brain. (p.36)

Smart’s point here (and further down the same page) is that our brains are largely a self-organizing organism. It doesn’t need a lot of input from external sources (as we saw previously) to function or even function well. The brain seems to get by just fine on many of its own signals (or “noise”) and actually tends to work harder when you leave it alone.

I see this when I’m walking to work or when I’m meditating or I’m just taking a break from it all. Maybe I’m trying to go to sleep and all of the sudden a writer’s greatest fear: I get a thought while trying to sleep but I’m too tried to write it down.

I’d speculate that the reason why your brain seems to do so much legwork imagining and processing the outside and internal world is that you’re giving it the space to. When you’re walking, trying to nap or snooze, meditating or doing something that gives you a lot of time to think, the brain takes those inches and makes miles.

I’ve had some of my best ideas while being idle, you probably have too.

Unfortunately, work doesn’t allow us to be idle much of the time.

And instead we get:

…running yourself to death in a marathon [that] is a compressed version of your entire life.

Over the long term in a less intense, but no less insidious way, our brains are constantly warning us that we work far too much. On the time-scale of a lifetime, constant stress from overwork raises your risk of depression, heart-disease, stroke, and certain kinds of cancer.

It’s a long, horrible list.

(pp. 38-39)

So, I don’t have a car.

This makes it pretty difficult to get around at times, especially when I have to walk far distances. Last night, after working my usual 5 hour shift at my shitty retail job I was feeling pretty tired.

But I still had a 40(ish) minute walk back to where I’m staying right now.

On top of that, where I’m staying involves watching some (lovely) dogs and while I love these dogs, they do not grasp the idea that sometimes humans can be human-ed out. My brain and my body more generally was yelling at me during various points that I should just call an Uber or something, but poverty, so that’s a no-go.

To be overly-technical, I can afford Uber rides from work to “home”, I just shouldn’t keep doing it over the long-term. So I just powered through it and ended up being utterly exhausted when I got home. I just took it easy by watching some Youtube, catching up on Facebook and reading some articles about math rock (one of my favorite music genres).

Still, I try to know my limits as much as possible. I’m going to a late event tonight and I’ll likely Uber back from that if I dance as much as I think I’m going to. Then again, that’s something a lot more fun than work…

Here’s something Smart says that was predictable, yet annoying all the same:

Yet we feel obliged to risk our long-term health in order to work extremely hard at jobs we don’t particularly enjoy in order to buy things we don’t particularly want. This is otherwise known as free-market capitalism.

(p. 39, emphasis mine)

I talked about this in my review of Fight Club but this anti-consumerism from the left always left a bad taste in my mouth.

It strikes me as highly presumptuous for starters: How do we know people don’t particularly want the things they say they want or actually buy? This would be a great place for Mr. Neuroscience (Smart) to come in and talk about the neuroscience of desire and what role capitalism (allegedly) plays in it but nope!

He just leaves it for granted, that no one is buying things they actually want.

Which seems, odd, to say the least.

As for the “free-market capitalism”, I find it hard to believe we have a freed market in any meaningful sense when governments regulate businesses all of the time. And when corporations are lobbying for government control so they can get past these regulations much easier than the competition. Not to mention the diverse array of intellectual property laws, zoning laws, license requirements for businesses and so on that make doing almost anything difficult.

I think Smart should have just left it at “capitalism”.

Let’s learn about the benefits of napping!

Conversely, any new information that you get from Aunt Lisa, including the current episode during which you meet her, goes from your awareness (which involves many parts of the brain) to your hippocampus.

Then if you get a good night’s sleep, relax for a while, or even take a nap, the hippocampus more or less writes these new memories to your neocortex which houses your long-term memories.

This is called memory consolidation. It is especially important when you are learning new ideas or skills.

So the best thing to do after learning new information is to take a nap, or at least be idle.

(pp. 42-43)

As someone who has been watching two dogs (and a cat!) for the past week or so, naps have been pretty helpful to my morning routine. I get up around 7:15 AM and feed and walk them which takes me until (roughly) 7:45 AM.

At which points I try to fall asleep for an hour or two and wake up around 10:15 AM. I don’t actually get myself up and off the couch (where I nap as opposed to sleep) until maybe 10:45 AM or 11 AM.

You’ll probably notice that I’m a very schedule orientated person. That doesn’t have much to do with being idle, lazy or a slacker, I just like having my days (vaguely) organized so I know what I’m doing and when. I suppose it helps make my days more efficient then they would be otherwise so in that sense it’s useful towards being a slacker.

Unfortunately, I can’t really test whether naps have been helping me or not. Most of the things I’m doing in the morning are not new. I’m not exactly a novice at walking or feeding dogs at this point (been doing it for over 5 years now) so nothing there will help me. In general, I tend to take naps when I’m exhausted or just feel like it, not when a new ideas has suddenly struck me. So I can’t say much about this concept from Smart…maybe I’ll nap on it.

There’s a bit of (what I call) neuro-speculation on page 46 where Smart tries to argue that a “lifetime of being super-productive and pointlessly-busy might also decrease the functional connectivity in your default mode network.” But Smart doesn’t offer any evidence, citations or even anecdotes to explain why this might be the case.

Page 47 worsens slightly because it repeats a point Smart made (though I suppose it could be worth repeating): Even if the brain is mostly made up of internal energy, this doesn’t make the external inputs any less important.

Let’s learn a fun word: Precuneous!

In the back of your brain … sits the precuneous. Th precuneous is a hidden brain structure because it is close to the division between your brain’s hemispheres and parts of it are deep in your brain.

Interestingly, the precuneous also plays a role in self-processing operations like reflecting and maintaining a first-person perspective. Recent analysis using graph theory also indicates that the precuneous is a hub node, in addition to being part of the default mode network.

Like O’Hare or Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport, it has a lot of traffic.

During experimental tasks, or in real life when your attention is directed to a PowerPoint about risk management, the precuneous shows less activity. When you are stressing at work … this region deactivates. In other word: precuneous just doesn’t care.

However, the precuneous is also one of the regions that show the highest resting metabolic rate of any region is in the brain. This means that at rest the precuneous starts devouring glucose like a crazed humming bird. So if you can decouple from your “lean” workplace an start doing nothing, this hub in your default mode network revs up and starts redlining.

Why is that important?

The precuneous seems to be involved in self-reflection.

One of the best ways to get to know yourself is to find a quiet or comfortably noisy place, stare at the sky, space out for a while and see what the precuneous gets up to.

(pp. 50-51)

So, what does all of this amount to?

Basically, work as it exists currently denies us the function of many of the important parts of our brain. It staves them by denying us the ability to be idle and stay idle for a good period of time. The precuneous is not a minor part of the brain that more or less depends on idleness and Smart lists others that are similar.

The lateral parietal cortex is another such part of your brain and it’s quite possibly one of the reasons that we daydream about a better existence while at work. As Smart says, “…your default mode network knows you better than anyone else.” (p. 52) And this includes the “getting things done” part of your brain.

I probably don’t need to tell y’all this but I’ve daydreamed plenty at work. I am a pretty daydream friendly kind of person, always have been, even before I started writing for this site. Daydreaming has always seemed to me as one lovely way to get away from this highly overrated thing known as “reality”.

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the next part of the default mode network that Smart mentions. This part of your brain acts like a “collar wrapped around the corpus callosum” and is “connected to the prefrontal cortex” (p. 52).

It’s main purpose is to monitor your behavior and let you know when mistakes have been made.

It’s a pretty useful part of your brain, but unsurprisingly, work gets in the way:

When the ACC discovers some remotely associated concepts that might work together in a novel idea it directs your attention to this idea, thus boosting its activation so that the idea can enter your consciousness.

As part of the default mode network, the ACC likes it when you are taking it easy and are in a positive mood. During idleness, it appears to be ready to help you find insightful solutions and come up with creative thoughts. When you are stressed out and worried about external concerns, the activity of the ACC decreases. (pp. 52-53)

That said, this “external concerns” part is much more broad than work which is worth keeping in mind. At the same time, work is likely the biggest “external concern” and the most consistent you’ll have to deal with.

Page 54 comes back to the usual problem of lacking citations. Smart says that the hippocampus is important because of self-reflection and that folks who have the luxury to spend time being idle and engaging in self-reflection tend to “be more creative, and to have better mental health in general.” (p. 54) But he offers no studies to back up this assertion.

I’m not claiming Smart is necessarily making a difficult to believe scientific claim here, but where’s the evidence? Where are the studies that this has been examined in? What are some articles he would recommend we look at on this subject?

In any case, it all comes together, a little like this:

In a nutshell, when you are being lazy, a huge and widespread network in your brain forms and starts sending information back and forth between these regions. The butterflies only come out to play when all is still and quiet. Any sudden movements and they scatter.

The default mode network supports self-knowledge, auto-biographical memories, social and emotional process, an creativity. It persists as long as you can relax. (p. 56)

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