Introduction to Neuroscience for High-Performers

Introduction to Neuroscience for High-Performers

Introduction to Neuroscience for High-Performers

Where the Term Neuroscience Comes From 

In the late 1950s and early 60s, MIT biophysicist Francis Otto Schmitt conducted experiments on the brains of giant squids. The purpose of his research was to determine how nerve cells respond to various stimuli. Ultimately, Schmitt hoped his research would lead to a better understanding of the human brain. 

Schmitt wanted to go beyond how the brain senses to reveal the mysteries of memories, thoughts, and emotions. He realized that to accomplish advancements like this, many interdisciplinary sciences needed to be brought together in one organization dedicated to that goal. 

In 1962, under Schmitt’s leadership, the Neuroscience Research

Program (NRP) was formed to bring together all of the scientific disciplines that studied the brain and behavior. This was the first time the term neuroscience was used. 

Neuroscience is the study of how the nervous system develops its structure and what it does. Neuroscientists study the brain and its impact on behavior and cognitive functions.

Neurobiology, neurology, and neuroscience share many overlaps. Neuroscience can be viewed as a multidisciplinary branch of biology and the scientific study of the nervous system.

Today, neuroscience has developed many specific areas of study, that include: 

  • Developmental neuroscience—the study of how the brain forms, grows, and changes over time. 
  • Cognitive neuroscience—the study of how the brain creates and controls thought, language, problem-solving, and memory. 
  • Molecular and cellular neuroscience—that explores how neurons function through the study of genes, proteins, and other molecules. 
  • Neurogenetics—that studies inherited changes to neurons, including research on genetic diseases. 
  • Behavioral neuroscience—the study of the brain areas and processes underlying how humans and animals behave. 
  • Clinical neuroscience—that explores how to treat and prevent neurological disorders and how to rehabilitate patients with damaged nervous systems. 
  • Neurophysiology—which refers to the study of the nervous system itself and how it functions. 
  • Sensory neuroscience—the study of the body’s sensory systems and how the nervous system interprets and processes sensory information. 

Neuroscience is still an emerging field. There are many breakthroughs in research being performed every year. Many of them have happened since then-President Bush declared 1990-2000 the “decade of the brain.” 

Even before neuroscience had a name, interest in the brain and its impact on human behavior began thousands of years earlier with the discovery of a papyrus scroll dating back to 1600 BCE. 

The Edwin Smith Papyrus Cracks Open the Ancient Brain

In 1862 an antiquities dealer named Edwin Smith purchased an ancient Egyptian medical text. This papyrus scroll is believed to be the oldest surviving surgical text to focus on procedure rather than magic. 

The scroll describes the trauma from 48 cases of injuries, fractures, wounds, dislocations, and tumors suffered by Egyptians during the Second Intermediate Period between the end of the middle kingdom and the start of the new kingdom. This chaotic period began with the death of Queen Sobekneferu at the end of the 19th century BC. 

What makes this 15-foot long papyrus scroll significant is that it presents a rational and scientific approach to the medicine being performed in ancient Egypt. Describing things such as “Practices for a gaping wound in his head, which has penetrated to the bone and split the skull.” 

The scroll’s most likely use was as a reference text for treating wounds suffered during military battles. Its author was most likely a battlefield surgeon who described "the pulsations of the exposed brain" and wrote a detailed description of the brain’s rippling surface. This text would provide a scientific reference for the brain for over a thousand years. 

Descartes Paves the Way for Modern Neuroscience

The pineal gland is a tiny organ located deep in the center of the brain. Today, we understand its main function to be the brain’s interpretation of light and dark in order to convey the information needed to produce and secrete the hormone melatonin. 

In 1664, Rene Descarte was obsessed with this gland. In his “Treatise of Man” he argued that the pineal gland is the seat of consciousness and place where thoughts are formed.  

While many of Descarte’s assumptions were later disproven, the fact that he was even asking these types of questions inspired new advancements in neuroscience. “Descartes physiology of the nervous system has served as the foundation for all that has since been done in the interpretation of that system,” said British theoretical biologist and philosopher Joseph Henry Woodger. 

The same year that Descarte published his treatise, an English doctor named Thomas Willis released "Cerebral Anatomy" (1664). In it, he describes the different structures in the brain and coins the term "neurology." 

The pioneering investigative work of Descarte and Willis helped put the brain and nervous system at the forefront of research science. 

Brain Regions, Neurons, and Learning

The late 1800s and early 1900s brought many breakthroughs in science’s understanding of the brain.

Here are just a few notable discoveries. 

  • David Ferrier provides a map of brain regions specialized in motor, sensory, and association functions in “The Functions of the Brain” (1876). 
  • Santiago Ramon y Cajal proves that nerve cells are the elementary units of brain processing in 1891. 
  • Wilhelm von Waldeyer coins the term "neuron" while discussing Santiago Ramon y Cajal's theory. 
  • Charles Sherrington, who had already coined the term “synapse” maps the motor cortex of apes in 1901. 
  • Alfred Binet develops the IQ “intelligent quotient” test (1903). 

A Psychologist named Edward Thorndike published his doctoral thesis and became famous for his learning theory (1898).  Thorndike’s theory led to the learning method known as operant conditioning within Behaviorism. This is learning that occurs through the reward and punishment of behavior. 

From a behavioral neuroscience standpoint, Thorndike’s work on learning showed that the mind is a network of connections and that learning occurs when new connections are made. 

An American-Canadian neurosurgeon named Wilder Penfield expanded brain surgery's methods and techniques to better understand the effects of epilepsy on his patients. 

His work with colleague Herbert Jasper in 1951 led to the publishing of "Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain." This paper, along with Penfield’s earlier publications, provided the most detailed map of the brain’s regions yet. 

Among Penfield’s many discoveries was that electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes creates vivid recall of old memories. 

Twenty years later, technology would catch up with neuroscience.  The first MRI machine was built by Raymond Damadian in 1972. Computed tomography scanning or CAT-scanning would be invented one year later. With machines able to “see” the workings of the human brain, more in-depth neuroscience research was possible. 

Neuroanatomy Basics 

Neuroanatomy shows the basic structures of the human brain. It is divided into a left and right hemisphere that is connected by a large bundle of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum.

The brain also has 3 major divisions. 

  1. The forebrain—or cerebrum which plays the main role in processing information, including cognition, sensory and associative functions, and voluntary motor activity. 
  1. The midbrain—or mesencephalon is part of the central nervous system associated with vision, hearing, motor skills, sleep cycle, alertness and temperature regulation. 
  1. The hindbrain—or rhombencephalon contains the medulla oblongata, the pons, and the cerebellum. It controls the functions that are fundamental to survival, including respiration, motor activity, sleep, and wakefulness. 

The brain also consists of 6 lobes. Most brain functions rely on many regions of the brain working in conjunction. Each lobe carries out the bulk of certain functions.  

  • The frontal lobe is where executive functions are located. Some of the key functions are thinking, speaking, short-term and long-term memory, movement and attention. 
  • The temporal lobe is associated with forming, retrieving, integrating memories, and plays an important role in processing affect/emotions, auditory information as well as language. 
  • The parietal lobe integrates sensory input, primarily from the visual system, as well as touch, temperature and taste. It is also the seat of proprioception and spatial awareness.  
  • The occipital lobe in the hindbrain processes visual information coming from the eyes. It is also associated with color perception, visuospatial processing, depth perception.
  • The cerebellum in the back mainly controls balance and coordination. 
  • The brain stem regulates breathing, heart rate, and temperature as well as several other vital functions.

Brain matter can be grey or white. Grey matter is made up of nerve cell bodies or soma, dendrites and unmyelinated axons. White matter is composed of axons coated with a protein called myelin that gives this matter its shiny white appearance.

The outer layer of the brain, the cerebral cortex, consists of grey matter neurons and white matter is found in deeper tissues of the brain.

The cells of the brain include: 

  • Neurons—these nerve cells communicate with each other as the basic working unit in the brain. They process information, transmit it to other cells, sense environmental changes, communicate changes to other neurons via electrical signalling and control bodily responses.  
  • Neuroglia—these cells support the signaling functions of neurons. They include astrocytes which control communication between neurons and synapses, influence metabolism, and guide cortical development. Glia can’t communicate the way neurons do, but still participate in brain signalling. They insulate, nourish, repair neurons (but probably much more!). 
  • Endothelia—these are the cells that line the inner wall of blood vessels. 

The brain is one of the most complex structures in nature. We can’t cover it all in one blog post. Let’s focus on the limbic system since that is the part of the brain involved in many of the behavioral and emotional responses needed for survival. The limbic system is the control center for both primitive urges and higher mental functions. 

The limbic system is located beneath the cerebrum on both sides of the thalamus. It includes the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus. 

The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure, is the brain’s emotional center; the hippocampus, resembling a seahorse, plays an essential role in the formation of new memories about past experiences. If you suffered damage to your hippocampus, you would lose your ability to form new memories. 

Neuroscientists continue to make discoveries every year about how areas like the limbic system influence how the brain works and how it evolves over time. 

The Neuroscience of Flow

Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we think our best and perform our best. The study of flow science actually goes back to the 1800s. 

At the Flow Research Collective, we decode flow states in order to help people unlock peak performance. 

You may think that an optimized brain does more during flow states, but research shows that it actually does less. During flow, you’re so focused on the task at hand that your sense of self disappears and time dilates (speeding up or slowing down).  

Dr. David Egelman discovered that time is calculated in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. We’ll explain more why your perception of time changes during flow in the breakdown below.   

Behind all of these shifts of consciousness lies a mass of neurobiology.

Three main types of brain changes occur during flow. 

  • Neuroanatomy—in flow, parts of the brain are NOT becoming more hyperactive (as in the 10% brain myth) they are actually slowing down. The technical term is transient hypofrontality, or a deactivation of the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex. Dr. Arne Dietrich has hypothesized that transient hypofrontality underpins every altered state. It’s the neuroanatomy behind how climbers can feel one with a mountain, surfers one with waves, or anyone feeling one with the universe. 
  • Neurochemistry—the brain releases a ton of “feel good” chemistry during flow states. You get the performance-enhancing effects of dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, serotonin, and endorphins. These powerful chemicals can make you faster, stronger, quicker. Flow is the only state that releases all five of these chemicals at once. You can read more about their specific benefits in this blog post about how to induce flow
  • Neuroelectricity—the way the brain communicates with itself. Neuroelectricity in the brain can be monitored by looking at brain waves on an EEG. Flow takes place on the border between the alpha and theta brain waves. In an earlier post, we explained the connection between brain waves and flow states.

Because of these neurological changes during flow, your inner critic is silenced while creativity and risk-taking increase. 

Check out some of the specific flow neuroscience research our advisors are doing below. 

Neuroscientists We’ve Teamed Up With

I’ve committed my adult professional life to trying to understand how the brain works. How it can change. And then in more recent years, I decided, “look, I think academic papers and publications and coming up through the ranks is great. But there’s a lot that neuroscience has to provide the general public. How can I educate the general public about those things?” Dr. Andrew Huberman told an interviewer in 2018. 

Huberman is a neuroscientist at Stanford University and one of the Collective’s neuroscience advisors. He has made numerous important contributions to the fields of brain development, brain plasticity, and neural regeneration and repair. 

You can listen to Dr. Huberman give his insights into the neuroscience behind peak performance in two of our podcast episodes. Flow Research Collective Radio has regular conversations on neuroscience, flow and the upper edge of human potential. 

Episode 6: Mastering Optimal Performance in High-Pressure Environments

Episode 18: How to Make Your Career A Source Of Flow with Bret Lockett and Dr. Andrew Huberman. 

Another one of our advisors is Dr. Glenn Fox. He is the Head of Program Design, Strategy, and Outreach at the USC Performance Science Institute. 

We’re partnering with Dr. Fox and the University of Southern California to learn how flow states correlate to creative moments and to determine which aspects of flow are most prevalent in those moments. You can hear Dr. Fox speak in the episodes below. 

Episode 7: Unlocking Creativity and Maximizing Gratitude with Dr. Glenn Fox and Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman.

Episode 13: Leveraging your Emotions to Improve Decision Making and Performance with Dr. Glenn Fox.

In addition to holding a PhD in neuroscience, Fox is also a formally trained mechanic.  In his spare time he restores cars and enjoys woodworking. 

We are also working with Dr. Andrew Newberg to explore the neurobiological signature of flow using fMRI and PET scans in conjunction with Jefferson University Hospital. 

Dr. Newberg is the director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and a physician at Jefferson University Hospital. He is board certified in internal medicine and nuclear medicine. 

Newberg’s research focuses on the emerging field of neurotheology, or how brain function is associated with mental states experienced during religious and mystical experiences. 

Episode 4: Flow States & Unlocking Permanent Enlightenment with Dr. Andrew Newberg.

Neuroscience grounds everything we do at the Flow Research Collective. Our mission is to understand the science behind ultimate human performance and use it to train up individuals and organizations. 

Are you interested in becoming a neuroscience backed peak performance coach? Apply to Become a Flow Trainer Now


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