Sunday, May 02, 2010

Day-dream a little dream of me.

I like thinking.  I like encountering new ideas.  I like learning new things.  And I like conveying what I know to other people.  I think this is why I was attracted to science fiction from an earlier age.  I have heard it called the 'literature of ideas.'  
As someone who likes the process of thinking, I have a long-standing fascination of how we think.  Everything we are is encased within our skulls and a lot of processes that we take for granted, our memories, how we process the flood of data coming in through our five senses, our very sense of self, are still not fully understood.  Consciousness, our sense of self, is one feature of our brains that we are still trying to understand.  
Earlier this year I discovered that science has pinned down one part of this puzzle.  In an article published in Science News I learned about the brain's default network.  Some of the features of this network within our brains are: 
It has two major hubs, the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) with the precuneus and the medial prefrontal cortex.  The PCC with the precuneus is associated with pulling memories from your brain's archives, sort of the brain's librarian.  The prefrontal cortex is associated with imaging, thinking about yourself and thinking about what others are thinking.  It is interesting to note that these are the same areas of the brain hardest hit by Alzheimer's sufferers.  
The default network is more active, 20 times more active, when you are day-dreaming, imaging yourself doing something, or simply sitting there doing nothing as compared to when you are actively engaged in some process, such as solving a puzzle.  
I have read other articles that indicate the default network is more active in people with schizophrenia, even when they are trying to actively focused on doing something, a time when the default network is normally quiescent.  Blood relatives who are 'one step' removed from schizophrenics (brother-sister, mother-daughter, etc.) are shown to have elevated activity in the default network, though not as high as in people with schizophrenia.  I found this particularly interesting because one of my sisters was diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago.  
The overall consensus from my readings about the default network is that it acts as something of a simulator for the brain.  Our memories and experiences, plus the input of our senses from our environment, feed into it.  When we are not engaged in some activity, which typical has us interacting with our surroundings or other people within those surroundings, it is running possible courses of action based on what we remember, what we sense around us, and what we think other people are thinking of doing.  The experience of schizophrenics of hearing voices speaking to them may be due to the default network's simulations becoming 'objectified' to the point that they seem to be coming from outside source.  
I have become fascinated by this brain structure.  The idea-lover in me finds it remarkable that our brains work hardest when we seem to be doing nothing at all.  The artist in me sees something poetic in the fact that we are more ourselves when we are daydreaming than when we are working.  I have also started wondering if, due to my 'one-step' relationship with my sister, I have a default network which has worked a bit harder in giving me the stories that I can't stop writing.  I have joked with friends about writing being the only way to quiet the voices in my head.  Maybe that joke has been truer than I knew.  
As a science fiction writer, I have wondered how this part of the brain could be used to improve our lives.  For people with Alzheimer's some sort of drug or device to strengthen the network might be a potential cure, while for schizophrenics something to calm its raging activity would give them a more normal life.  Going beyond that, I have imagined something I've called a "Personality Assistant."  I imagine it to be a device which connects to the default networks of our brains and focuses its activity to overcome negative or faulty information we may have collected.  People who are scared of job interviews could use their Personality Assistants, or PAs as I called them in stories, to run simulations in their brains showing them how to be more successful at them.  Someone trying to learn a skill, such as a new language, could have their PA run simulations of them using the language, gaining weeks or months of experience while they sit and stare out a window day-dreaming.  
In one story I wrote recently, entitled "Forms of Worship," which is currently making its rounds to the publishers I submit to, I took the idea of a Personality Assistant one step further.  If the brain's default network could be networked with those parts of the brain overseeing motor control, one could create a device that would give the uninitiated the knowledge and physical skills to perform specific actions.  These "Survival Assistants," or "SAs" as I've dubbed them, would allow someone to do things like field strip a weapon, hunt game, find food in the jungle, or similar such tasks that would normally require an expert or years of training to accomplish.  In "Forms of Worship" I describe what happens when a field scientist's SA becomes damaged, apparently allowing it to take over her personality.  After learning about the default network I didn't find it too great a stretch to think about something unnoticed deep in my brain priming me for action.  
I wonder what my default network is making up for me to think about now.  
Current Project & News
I am still working on the story I'm calling "The Long Ride."  I've become somewhat fascinated by the relationship I'm developing between the main character, the man stuck on the interplanetary transfer vehicle, and a woman lawyer that contacts him through a social network, not know who he is.  Every time I write a scene between the two of them I think up another scene I want to write, just to see how it would turn out.  Most of it won't go into the final story, but my hope it will enrich the final product by making the two of them more real for me.  


Blogger slcard said...

Fascinating, Erick. I think I like your brain.

May 3, 2010 at 7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Erick,

Interesting post. I always enjoy reading new info about the brain.

I checked out your story generator post too. Great little idea there to get a story going.

lowly_scribe from anticiworkshop

May 3, 2010 at 11:48 AM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

slcard - Thanks. I like it, too. It's a useful thing to have, though I wish it would keep track of my grocery lists better. ;=).

lowly_scribe - Thanks for the comment. The story generator idea was one of the most useful things I've encountered. I'll have to locate the book I got it from and post the title.

May 6, 2010 at 7:00 AM  
Blogger slcard said...

Oh no, Erick. Never use a list. That takes all the hunting and gathering fun out of it.

May 6, 2010 at 12:07 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

The problem with me, though, is that I'll go to the store for one thing, see something else and think, "Oh, yeah, I need that too!" and end up forgetting to buy whatever I went for in the first place. I've lost count of the times I've spent wandering a store thinking to myself, "what did I come here to get again?" Maybe the default settings on my default network read, "grocery management set to Off."

May 7, 2010 at 5:23 AM  

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