Wednesday, February 04, 2015


The third Domain of Brain Systems is about cognition, which is not the usual five senses plus “rationality” or “emotion.”  Instead there are very specific ways the brain acts on sensory information to filter, transform, and record it.  A brain is not the conscious directing of attention to the world, a pool of light like that in front of a miner’s helmet, though one function, the working memory, is like that.  It’s a sort of desktop, a dashboard.  They say most people can only consider five to seven things at once, interacting, but that something like a threat signal (gun going off or door slamming that sounds like a gun going off) will wipe everything off the "surface" and even a simple distraction like someone laughing somewhere, can throw part of the task off the "surface".

The brain is complex, doing an assortment of little stuff all the time with each part specializing the way a carburetor does one thing in an engine and the crankshaft does another.  Thinking is driving a car without knowing what each part is doing or even that they exist.  No need for that because all conscious attention needs to be focused on the road.  The "under the hood" stuff is left to the "unconscious."

When I “talk” online about intelligence, cognition, rationality, as being the smallest part of the work of being human (esp. when one is considering the whole body to be a source and destination of neural information: the little bit that tells you you’re standing upright, the gut signals of wariness), I sometimes get hooted down by a certain kind of person.  Usually it’s a youngish, male, grad-school degree-holder who has a rather prestigious job which he assumes is his because of superior learning and rational thought.  He’s unaware of social patterns and has an unhappy wife, unless she’s in the same system.  He KNOWS that humans are better than animals only because of language and KNOWS he is better than other humans because he has a Ph.D.  In some places we haven’t progressed much beyond Victorian Vienna, except to cast sexier actors in their stories.  They run Wikipedia.

So these new NIMH/RDoC categories arrived at by the “best and brightest” of the academic and institutional psych world, by going to the basic level and working up, are threatening some of the standing order.  I think they’ll agree with that.  We’ve sort of backed into taking into account the evidence from neurology research because of realizing that our thinking strategies leave big holes in reality, sometimes blanks that far more “primitive” people can fill in with no trouble.  This work is entirely and dangerously like the astronomical rethinking by Copernicus and Galileo.  Reconciling psychotherapy with neuroresearch is scary.  Even worse is the idea that perhaps our very cultures are making people psychotic by imposing damage to child brains from poverty or misguided child-raising methods.  Not quite as vicious as lobotomies, but just as chilling.

The Copernican Heliocentric System

Interesting that this RDoC list is not so hard to read as the last one.  I won’t paraphrase.

Cognitive Systems: The category of systems responsible for various cognitive processes.

Attention: Attention refers to a range of processes that regulate access to capacity-limited systems, such as awareness, higher perceptual processes, and motor action. The concepts of capacity limitation and competition are inherent to the concepts of selective and divided attention.

Perception: Perception refers to the process(es) that perform computations on sensory data to construct and transform representations of the external environment, acquire information from, and make predictions about, the external world, and guide action.

Declarative Memory: Declarative memory is the acquisition or encoding, storage and consolidation, and retrieval of representations of facts and events. Declarative memory provides the critical substrate for relational representations—i.e., for spatial, temporal, and other contextual relations among items, contributing to representations of events (episodic memory) and the integration and organization of factual knowledge (semantic memory). These representations facilitate the inferential and flexible extraction of new information from these relationships.

Language: Language is a system of shared symbolic representations of the world, the self and abstract concepts that supports thought and communication.

Cognitive Control: A system that modulates the operation of other cognitive and emotional systems, in the service of goal-directed behavior, when prepotent modes of responding are not adequate to meet the demands of the current context. 

Additionally, control processes are engaged in the case of novel contexts, where appropriate responses need to be selected from among competing alternatives.

Working Memory: Working Memory is the active maintenance and flexible updating of goal/task relevant information (items, goals, strategies, etc.) in a form that has limited capacity and resists interference. These representations: may involve flexible binding of representations; may be characterized by the absence of external support for the internally maintained representations; and are frequently temporary, though this may be due to ongoing interference. It involves active maintenance, flexible updating, limited capacity, and interference control. 

For further details, see Working Memory: Workshop Proceedings (July 11-13, 2010) at:

Go for it, kid!

Grad school is where a person learns to manage these things.  It has a lot to do with success in life.   If you don’t experience this huge shift in seeing the world, then it’s either not a proper grad school or your brain has not finished the final stage of maturation that happens in the early twenties.  Some people never let this stage develop -- it coincides with starting families and work, so demand is high.  But it doesn’t exclude “emotion”, which is a cultural prejudice.  The brain needs emotion, is a-slosh with emotion.  Maybe emotion is the gasoline that powers the velocity forwards.  What’s the use of knowing how to survive if you don’t want to?

COGNITIVE SYSTEMS  (Longer list of possible subjects for study, also taken from the NIMH/DRoC materials)

Visual Perception
Auditory Perceptions
Olfactory Somatosensory Multimodal Perception
Declarative Memory
Language Behavior
Cognitive (Effortful) Control
Goal Selection
Representation and Maintenance
Response Selection, Inhibition and Suppression
Performance Monitoring
Active Maintenance
Flexible Updating
Limited Capacity
Interference Control

AK coaching students

Since parallel to writing these blog posts, I’m also working on materials from Alvina Krause acting classes with emphasis on the “Method” which is managing memory and emotion through sensory triggers, it’s easy to see that this RDoC list in particular is what we were working on without knowing it.  Stanislavski was coming from the same Russian science-respecting tradition as Pavlov and his dog, but moving beyond Stimulus/Response to explore the contents of the “black box” between S and R, where the brain and body did the mysterious things that produced theatre.  We worked as much on focus, self-awareness, motivating movement, finding realizations -- as we did learning lines and remembering blocking of a scene.  In many ways, the instrument (the actor) controls what is available to the mind.

I was not a good actor, but I was beginning to be a good writer.  I vividly remember the contempt of the writing instructor when I showed up as an undergrad, the only woman in the class.  I also remember that he gave me an A+ on my last story.  There was very little actual teaching in the class, but I was learning what I needed from acting class.  Also, I was taking psych -- it was rat psych and unsophisticated, as were the students.  The prof had to lecture us about not laughing at the poor tortured rats as they tried to escape foot-shocks.  It has turned out that empathy is crucial for being human, for a rat in a tube, or even for being a professor of psych.  Undergrads just aren't there yet, which is perfectly clear when we look at the news.

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