Thinking of the brain as a communication system (which more and more neuroscientists are doing) is useful in understanding what helps us get smarter and what doesn't.
What is a communication system?
It's a system that sends and receives signals. Like a radio, phone, or computer (but the brain deals with way more complex signals). In this post, I'll deal mostly with the receiving side.
The brain receives signals from the outside world, which get transmitted through our five external senses (taste, smell, touch, hearing, vision). It also receives signals from inside the body through what's called "interoception." These internal senses include proprioception (the ability to sense where our arms and legs are relative to the body), vestibular perception (in the inner ear, our sense of balance, i.e. movement and rotation in the head), and other sensations from the organs such as hunger, thirst, full bladder.
These signals can be more clear or less clear. They can be interfered with by noise. Noise is more than just annoying sounds. It's anything that interferes with a signal. Some examples of noise: spinning around in circles causes noisy vision and noisy balance; when we're at a party or crowded coffee shop, there are people chattering (audio noise), so it may be hard to hear the one person (the signal) we're trying to listen to; If we're on the internet, trying to do research or anything focused, there is noise pulling us in many different directions (to buy things, to read funny things, to watch funny videos, to watch people getting injured, etc.) Strobe lights are noise.
When there's too much noise, the brain reacts by numbing the senses that are responsive to it. For example we stop hearing certain sounds if they're constant in the background.
More and more, we are getting overloaded by what might be called 'global connectivity' noise. As we take in more and more information from the world and are immersed more in surround-sense entertainment, we become less sensitive to our own internal signals. I still have a flip phone, so global connectivity only cripples me like eighty-ish percent of my waking life.
What we really want is global connectivity within our own brains, as it so happens. Meaning we want for each of our brain regions to be able to send clear signals to many other brain regions. Our short term memory having strong ties to our long term memory, e.g., or the attention-control brain area being able to shut up the brain areas that we don't need to pay attention to at the moment.
Sensitivity increases connectivity, and numbness decreases connectivity. We have to be able to sense ourselves to be connected to ourselves, both 'spiritually' and neurally. Communication between brain networks requires them to both 'speak' and 'listen' to each other.
To increase our sensitivity, we can do two things: 1 - eliminate noise, and 2 - add noise (in a deliberate way) in order to overcome it.
Meditation is an attempt at #1. We sit in quiet and just listen to one signal (our breath, a spot in our body, a word like 'love'), filtering out any other noises (thoughts, feelings, sensations) that come up in us.
Mindfulness is another approach, where instead of filtering out the noise, we watch the noise as it naturally comes up and acknowledge it, let it be there, recognize that it may come again, and just get familiar with it. This actually leads to reduced noise because we're treating the noise as the signal. We get better at finding the truth in the chatter, the signals in the noise.
Both methods seem to lead to increased clarity.
As for #2, adding noise in a deliberate way, practicing Brain Body exercises (coordinating activity in the legs, hands, and mind simultaneously) is practice coordinating many actions at once. In other words, take separate signals, put them all together, create a jumble of noise, and then unify them all into one complex, multidimensional signal.
The key here is that we're combining activities which can honest-to-goodness be done at the same time in an integrated way. We can't combine texting with in-person conversation because those cannot be actually done at the same time. They draw too heavily on the same brain areas and interfere with each other, causing irreconcilable noise.
My prescription is this:
- If you're exposing yourself to noise unnecessarily, change your environment.
- If you've got noise coming from inside your head (which every single person does), observe it, get familiar, watch it change.
- If you want to get better at filtering out signal from noise, either meditate (either mindfulness or regular "focus on something" meditation), and/or practice Brain Body exercises, or both.
And finally, a warning. It's not always easy to tell signal from noise. Sometimes we just need to wait and observe life unfolding before we know what to do next.