Specialized Areas of the Brain

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    Moving to/from/in Places (only 9 minutes)

    (I’d like to talk someday about how a fairly constant, group-conscious awareness of compass and relative directionality and distance is built into American Sign Language conversations. )

    Analyzing Faces, Sounds, Others’ Thoughts, etc ( < 18 minutes)



    First, some terms and concepts, to highlight the underlying binary nature of how the nervous system and brain operate.

    • Our brain is a complex signal processor that evolved from simpler brains, that evolved from simple sensory and control circuits.
    • Brains receive sensory data (as input), and provide control signals as output. In neuroscience, input (e.g. sensory data) are referred to as “afferent” signals, and output (e.g. muscle control) are referred to as “efferent” signals.
    • Before complex brains evolved, nerve systems evolved as simple communication channels to enhance communication and coordination between different parts of the simplest of animal bodies. In vertebrates, spinal columns evolved to support long nerve fibers for longer bodies, and in fact afferent and efferent nerve fiber channels are segregated and grow differently during fetal development.
    • Increasingly complex efferent nerve systems evolved (again, in “binary” fashion) into two, separate body control nerve systems: 1) a “sympathetic” system that stimulates action; 2) a “parasympathetic” system that inhibits action. For example, sympathetic nerves trigger fight/flight behavior, while parasympathetic nerves simultaneously suppress digestive activity to efficiently manage energy and resources during momentary crises.
    • Sympathetic control effects quick action, e.g. to pump adrenaline into the blood for fight or flight, and parasympathetic control tends to act more slowly, which helps explain why it it takes so long to calm down after a sudden crisis.
    • Finally, complex brain parts evolved that process the inputs received into outputs that control bodily processes, always evolving toward the quickest and most efficient way process sensory data as beneficial vs harmful and execute calculated body control, all (of course) to increase survival and (of course) procreation of viable offspring.

    Now, let’s zoom out and consider the above physiological paradigm in our context of consciousness. Quite simply, based solely on the binary nature of nervous system and brain operation, our emotions and cognition operate mostly at a positive vs negative, or good feeling vs bad feeling level, researched and described in modern research as “positive or negative valence“. The most interesting, and common way to measure and document this valence is through experiments that obviously demonstrate whether an animal is repulsed or attracted to a stimulus. The neuroscience concerned with these studies are now called Affective Neuroscience, a term coined originally by my research hero Jaak Pansepp (see video, below).

    (Note that I found the words affective vs afferent slightly confusing at first, but think of them now as mostly unrelated terms.)

    I started writing this post to ponder our human tendency to emotionalize religious and political beliefs in binary, tribal, good vs bad and good vs evil feelings and social pressures and behaviors. But maybe the above preface to that is enough for now.

    On to the show:

    Jaak refers to a couple of studies, for which I’ve found a couple current links, and then a third link for anyone interested in a fairly highly technical overview on affective neuroscience research:



    I mentioned this before but just in case it was missed, here is the final talk by Dan Dennett at a series of lectures given in Dublin last year. (Start at 7:00 if you want).

    List of speakers here with several talks that are relevant (or just interesting). 5 Nobel Laureates among them.



    Thanks Reg!

    Related to my previous post…

    I think it’s useful to know that Jaak sorted his primal list largely based on the order in which they probably evolved in brains, so it also reflects largely on which parts of the brain have the “deepest” physiology and evolved usage.


    More advanced emotions, brain parts, and behaviors can build somewhat (and so be related to) the less advanced ones. E.g. play is very obviously relevant to positive social interaction. (That’s not to say that humans can’t misuse “play” to a negative extreme! E.g. bullying, trolling, or other contemporary cultural pathologies.)

    As for how we define and understand consciousness, I like to focus on pathologies and less usual conscious experiences, because even we don’t experience them ourselves, we can still imagine what the consciousness of other people might feel like. I’m thinking of the deaf or blind, cognitive genius or challenges, and several other examples. Below is a video presentation by someone who’s focusing on panic attacks, and PTSD. I’ve skipped some minutes into the video to save a bit of time for you, but of course you might decide to run the whole thing from the beginning.

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