Understanding Your Great-Grandparents
© 2006 Lawrence Gold
The field of brain research has progressed remarkably over the past few decades. Despite that fact, many people remain ignorant of the basics of brain functioning – essential information for those who intend to use their brain beyond middle age. This article is to bring you up to speed on some of the discoveries of brain research and to correlate these discoveries with facets of your own life, so that you can understand, when you have gone wrong, where you have gone wrong and why, not to mention, how, or with whom.
It should be understood, first of all, that your brain has what researchers refer to as “plasticity.” To say that your brain has plasticity is not to say that your brain is made of plastic. While that is true of Barbie and Ken, some politicians and certain news commentators, it is not true of you. No, the term, “plasticity,” refers to your brain’s capacity for reshaping the way it functions – its adaptability.
This is an important point. It means that people have tremendous variability in how they go about doing things and in what kinds of things they can do. You’ve heard the saying, “He couldn’t think and chew gum at the same time.” That’s what I’m talking about. Some people can think and chew gum at the same time, and some people can think and chew more than one kind of gum at the same time. Others can even type.
Which leads us to my secretary – who stands as an important exception to this observation, being a blonde. Actually, I don’t have a secretary.
Back to your brain. Anatomists found long ago that the brain of vertebrates (animals with backbones) has three major parts. Perhaps you have seen pictures of them. These are the brain stem, the cerebrum, and the cerebellum.
The brain stem, as the name implies, is associated with plant-like functions – breathing, digestion, sensitivity to light – functions that are ongoing automatically, the so-called autonomic functions. Now, I know that plants don’t have lungs, but they do breathe through the leaves, taking in carbon dioxide and sending out oxygen (the opposite of what animals do); they do take in nourishment through the roots (in a way similar to how our intestines do it), and they do turn toward sources of light. That qualifies. Your brain stem is associated with vegetative functions and your interior life.
Your cerebrum is associated with moment-to-moment, immediate responsiveness to things – emotions, memories, movements, and sensations. It is the brain-center of action in the outside world. In the human, the cerebrum is especially associated with thinking, with learning, and with a sense of humor (which is the recognition of the unexpected results that come from certain actions). The sense of humor, particularly, is a higher brain function, and is lacking in some people. Many attempts have been made at humor transplants, and they have, in general, failed, probably because of the confusion some people have about intended vs. non-intended results. You may be confused about this point, yourself. I’ll clarify, but first I have to confuse you, some more.
The cerebrum, frankly, is what most people think of as the brain. It’s big, it’s gray, and it’s covered with wrinkles, kind of how your great-grandfather seemed to you when you were little. These wrinkles have a special purpose; they increase the surface area of your brain so more brain cells can fit in. These wrinkles are called, “rugae,” by medical scientists. The word, “rugae,” comes from the same word-root as the word, “corrugated,” which Webster’s
Thesaurus defines as
ridged, grooved, furrowed, folded, fluted, roughened, creased, wrinkled, flexed, crinkled, crumpled, puckered
Your brain is puckered, or if you like, corrugated. Your brain isn’t exactly a cardboard box, but you get the idea. (In that case, what does “thinking outside the box” really mean? Where is the box? In your brain??)
Now, your cerebellum is associated with the coordination of muscles and movement. The word, “cerebellum,” means “beautiful brain,” which is odd because whereas the cerebrum is wrinkled (like your great-grandfather), the cerebellum is even more wrinkled (like your great-grandmother). If your cerebrum has about as many wrinkles as your face, your cerebellum has about as many wrinkles as your fingerprints. Where learning is concerned, more wrinkles means more brain cells and more storage capacity for learning. This makes sense, if you think about it.
Where your cerebrum controls actions, your cerebellum contains the know-how to carry them out without your thinking about it. Your cerebrum is always telling your cerebellum what to do and your cerebellum is always coming back with an action, and not always the right one. Think about all your good intentions.
To understand this relationship better, let’s think about typographical errors. When you learn to type, you learn to type words by striking keys in a certain sequence. First, you learn where the letters are on the keyboard, then you learn to strike them in sequence to type the word, “the,” for example (people with dyslexia may prefer the word, “cat”, which refers to something you can actually see. Dyslexics have trouble understanding words about things they can’t see.) Then, the mere intention to type the word, “the,” results in your typing the word, “and”. Why is this? It’s because you weren’t paying enough attention to your typing and since both words contain three letters, involve similar rhythms in typing them, and are used with about the same degree of frequency, your intention to type the word, “the” (sent from your cerebrum to your cerebellum), resulted in your cerebellum causing you to type the word, “and,” which was close, but no cigar.
This explains many of the arguments between your great-grandmother (who sent your great-grandfather out to the corner store for cream) and your great-grandfather (who came back with a newspaper and a cigar). Your great-grandfather had a routine: walk to the corner store for a newspaper and a cigar; your great-grandmother had a different agenda. Somewhere along the way, your great-grandfather got distracted and went into his routine. He didn’t do it on purpose. Maybe it was partly your great-grandmother’s fault for not making sure she had his attention to begin with, maybe it’s just that he was set in his ways. Maybe both.
Anyway, you get my point. The cerebellum has routines and the cerebrum triggers them. Your cerebrum doesn’t (you don’t) usually monitor every detail of every action; it triggers (you trigger) the whole action and then it fine-tunes (you fine-tune) it, so you don’t always make a left turn the same way and sometimes end up in the bushes. Otherwise, your great-grandmother might as well have gone and gotten the cream, herself. Sometimes, the result is a newspaper and a cigar. It probably would have been better if she had gone with him to make sure he didn’t get off track, and the same is true of how to avoid typographical errors. Enough attention is needed when doing a learned action to keep the cerebellum on track.
Now, your great-grandfather learned a lot of routines over his lifetime and your great-grandmother liked some of them (running errands) and put up with others (cigars). The reason she put up with those others is because they were automatic and it was too much trouble to try to change them, even if they were not quite to her liking.
And so, we have described both your great-grandparents’ relationship and how your brain works.
Let me highlight, again, a certain point: Your cerebellum/great-grandfather learned his routines. They didn’t just come out of the ground. Some of those routines suited your great-grandmother; others didn’t, and at a certain point, she just accepted them as inevitable, even though they were just learned behaviors and an old dog can learn new tricks, if he wants to.
The problem with most people is that there is a communication breakdown within their own brain – their intentions don’t always get the desired action and they just accept the breakdown as inevitable. They think they’re getting old, when really they’ve just learned some routines that interfere with other routines. Result – a slowdown, a breakdown, or just lots of wasted effort.
Let’s talk specifics.
There are three basic ways we learn routines: by example, by deliberate cultivation, and by accident.
When you were a baby, you learned to walk. You learned the basics of standing up and your first steps by yourself and over time you learned styles of movement from your family. You did it by spontaneous imitation. Family members tend to develop similar movement patterns and similar posture by example. This is true to such an extent that people in later life attribute their aches and pains to heredity, rather than recognizing that they learned movement and posture from their family, patterns that may persist for a lifetime.
It should be understood, by the way, that many if not most aches and pains come from muscular tension learned and maintained by the cerebellum as movement routines (routine ways of moving, routine patterns of tension). These routines control posture and movement, and routines that involve too much muscular tension cause pain. In a sense, people hurt themselves.
By Deliberate Cultivation
In general, the movement routines learned by example set the foundation for new movement routines learned by deliberate cultivation. That means, for example, that a person’s way of walking (learned by example from the family) forms the foundation for their way of running and affects their performance in all sports. Dorkiness runs in the family. Snootiness runs in the family. Uptightness runs in the family – to the seventh generation.
Among elite athletes we see cultivation of more efficient movement routines, and this cultivation involves learning and self-correction. Even this kind of cultivation (learning which takes advantage of the brain’s plasticity) often leaves movement routines learned by example intact, which accounts for the unnecessarily high frequency of injuries among athletes and dancers.
Cultivation of movement patterns occurs automatically whenever we do something regularly. Auto mechanics, beauticians and computer-workers acquire movement patterns from their work just as dancers and athletes do from their disciplines. Repetition creates lasting routines, which explain the differing kinds of occupational injuries found in different types of work.
While these cultivated movement patterns have their place, if they get overcultivated, they create problems. There’s a story about Smokey the Bear. Every time his mate said, “I’m feeling hot, tonight, dear,” he went and got his shovel and went to look for a fire to put out.
This category of learning accounts for the infirmities of aging so often taken as inevitable – lingering pain, stiffness, general decrepitude.
“By accident” means by accident. You turn an ankle, you have a car accident, you fall skiing, the pain of the injury causes you to tighten up around the painful area. You shift your weight and your movements to avoid pain. Pretty soon, you have a new movement routine.
A subtler form of accidental routine formation is stress. Stress leads to tension. Long-term tension leads to tension as a routine state.
A lifetime of injuries (whether or not bones were broken) and stress leads to a lifetime of accumulated movement routines, one on top of the other. No wonder people become decrepit as they age. Never mind heredity; your history of injuries and stress alone is sufficient to create lingering pains that make you feel old.
Your Body isn’t Broken; Your Brain has Too Many Routines Going On at Once
The pile-up of routines accumulated from learning-by-example, deliberate cultivation, and accidents leads to internal conflicts, experienced mentally as confusion and physically as awkwardness and heaviness of movement (tiredness). Your movements have “typographical errors”.
In Real Estate, there is the concept, “deferred maintenance.” It refers to all the things in a building that have broken down that have just been left unrepaired “until later.” “Deferred maintenance” lowers property value. People have deferred maintenance, too. Too much deferred maintenance, and people look like a structure that’s about to collapse. Think of very, very old people.
You’ve got to catch up on all this deferred maintenance. You’ve got to sort out all those movement routines accumulated from stress and injuries that have already healed and end those that have outlived their usefulness. That’s a job, in itself, but a necessary one.
It’s not really a repair job that you need, however, but debugging.
In computers, debugging refers to removing errors in programming and the junk residue of obsolete data and programs that once were installed and later removed, but left behind fragments that slow computer performance and cause crashes.
Your brain is “bugged,” and you’re feeling it bodily. That’s where you’ve gone wrong (and maybe where you’ve never gone right).
There is a way to debug your brain: unlearn the habitual routines that no longer serve (first step: by becoming specifically aware of them as sensations) and learn more efficient routines (by practice). You’ve got to get your great-grandfather to listen to your great-grandmother.
This kind of statement is problematic in a piece of writing like this because most people haven’t a clue, from personal experience, of what it means. So let’s try a little example.
A sneaky technique for getting your great-grandfather to change his routine is to have your great-grandmother say, “Dear, why don’t you go down to the corner store for a newspaper and a cigar, and while you’re there, pick up some cream.” He’ll be walking to the corner store thinking, “newspaper, cigar, cream … newspaper, cigar, cream.”
Somatic education techniques employ a similar strategy. It’s a truism that we don’t know what we’ve got (or had) until it’s gone, so the terms “habitual routine” and “more efficient action” have little meaning in the words, themselves. Sorry. So think of it this way: take care of your deferred maintenance; debug your brain. Get help from a movement (preferably somatic) educator and you’ll know the difference. Don’t end up like your great-grandparents.