Provision #748: It’s Not All In Our Neurons

Laser Provision

Have you ever heard of “The Neuron Doctrine”? Simply put, the Doctrine asserts that neurons hold a primary place in the brain and are responsible for human thinking. Even though neurons represent only about 10-15% of the human brain, that Doctrine has been in place for more than a hundred years and it has greatly influenced our approach to both neuroscience and human intelligence. When people study the brain, they study the neurons. Lately, however, that one-sided approach has begun to shift. Scientists are beginning to grasp and explore a much more active role for the other 85-90% of the human brain. What once was thought of as little more than glue, is now being recognized as the stuff that makes us truly human. If that sounds intriguing, and if you don’t mind learning some new words, then this is the Provision for you. Enjoy.

LifeTrek Provision

First, I want to thank the many readers and friends who responded to my call for resources and perspectives into the workings of the human brain. Apparently, I am not the only one who is interested in this subject! The growing body of knowledge is not only fascinating it is also relevant to how we care for ourselves and others through the journey of life and work.

In last week’s Provision, It’s Not All In Our Heads, I wrote about the development of the human brain through three phases: the Reptilian Complex, the Limbic System, and the Cerebral Cortex. These three phases can be observed in both the evolutionary record and in the process of fetal development. First comes the Reptilian Complex, as the autonomic nervous system comes together. Then comes the Limbic System and Cerebral Cortex.

The latter systems are not fully developed at birth, especially in human beings. That is why infants need so much TLC. No animal is so helpless for so long after birth as human beings. Nine months is just not enough time to grow those big, sophisticated brains. Fortunately, human beings have developed elaborate and extensive structures to support our offspring through infancy and early childhood. With houses, baby minders, and toys we continue to protect and stimulate those developing minds, hearts, and bodies.

It wasn’t always clear how those components worked, let alone what would be best for them, and many things are still being discovered. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, thought the heart in the chest, not the brain in the head, was the seat of intelligence and thought. People like Paul Pearsall, a psychoneuroimmunologist who died in 2007 of an intracerebral hemorrhage, was not far away from Aristotle in this regard. He, too, saw the heart as a locus of integrative life energy and cellular information.

Pearsall was, however, the exception to the rule. Although the brain in the head got off to a rough start (ancient Egyptians used to throw away the brains while mummifying a body, whereas they would carefully preserve the heart and other internal organs), it has been long elevated to a position of primary importance when it comes to human intelligence and thought. In the early 19th century, before the advent of electricity and computers, the brain was compared to a master cylinder. Today, it is more often compared to a Central Processing Unit or CPU. Either way, the brain is seen as exercising executive functions over the rest of the body. It has been given the place of highest position.

On that basis, then, neuroscientists have delighted in being able to study the brain, in real time, with the advent of first Positive Emission Tomography (PET) and Computer Tomography (CT) scanners, in the 1960s, followed by the latest functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanners and other neuroimaging devices, in the 1990s and beyond. Through tracing electrical and neurochemical changes, the focus has been on figuring out what is happening with our neurons both in sickness and in health.

The word “neuron” simply means “nerve cell,” of which there are many both in our brains and throughout our bodies. The point of last week’s Provision was to observe the interconnected and distributed character of those neurons. The brain is certainly not all in our heads. It is a whole-body experience that processes things on the level of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Each represents a form of intelligence and each is being studied with the help of those neuroimaging devices. As a result, new light is being shed on how things work and how to help things work better.

Ironically, for all the sophistication of modern medicine, the focus on neurons has temporarily blinded us to other possibilities as to the underlying mechanisms of not only human disease and health, but also to the core processes of human learning and unlearning. If we think it’s all in our neurons, then we are neglecting the neuroglial structures that make up 85% of our brains and that course throughout our bodies.

If you have never heard of neuroglia, or “glia” for short, then you are not alone. The term has not yet become an everyday word, like fMRI or neurons, but I predict it will become increasingly important because of the work of R. Douglas Fields and other researchers into how these structures interact with, influence, and perhaps even control the functionining of our entire nervous systems, including our brains. When scientists see those neurons lighting up in brain scans, it relates to what the glia are doing.

Glia themselves are hardly new discoveries. In the brain, they represent the White Matter upon which the Grey Matter of the Cerebral Cortex, as well as other brain structures, are splayed. Seeing these structures is easy; know what they do is the hard part. Over time, at least four categories of glial cells have been identified with the following traditional descriptions:

  1. Astrocytes: Providing physical and nutritional support for neurons.
  2. Microglia: Providing protective and reparative support to neurons.
  3. Oligodendrocytes: Providing insulation (myelin) to neurons in the central nervous system.
  4. Schwann Cells: Providing insulation (myelin) to neurons in the peripheral nervous system.

The traditional understanding of the function of glial cells has relegated them to the role of supporting actors in a play that stars the neurons. While neurons do the thinking, it was assumed that glia (from the Greek word for glue) hold the neurons in place, provide nutritional sustenance, keep the neurons from shorting out (much as electrical wires would do if they were not insulated with protective coverings), prevent neuronal damage from toxic invaders, and repair damage from injury or disease.

In recent years, however, glial scientists have the started to challenge the priority and predominance of neurons in thinking, feeling, and learning. Glia are increasingly seen as playing a much more active and even starring role. Perhaps not insignificantly, there was no discernible difference in Einstein’s brain at the level of neurons from other brains. His glia, however, were dramatically more plentiful, with more than twice as many glial cells than average. This was especially true in that part of Einstein’s brain where abstract thinking, visual imagery, and complex thinking take place. Perhaps glia, more than neurons, laid at the root of Einstein’s genius.

Now that’s a radical thought that scientists have only begun to tease out and develop. In some ways, it illustrates further the point I was making in my last Provision. Not only is the brain not all in our heads, it is also not all in our neurons. There is a complex interaction between the electronic and chemical parts of the human brain. At every point, the nerves in the brain, the heart, and the body are being not only supported and but also induced by the nonneuronal cells known as glia. That’s why glia are now thought of as far more than just glue. They are seen as responsible, regulating agents in attention, cognition, emotion, imagination, and the acquisition of complex skills.

The longstanding roles of “The Neuron Doctrine,” which gives neurons a place of primacy in human thinking, may, in fact, be backwards. Perhaps it is the neurons that support the glia, rather than the other way around. Whereas neurons are clearly the go-to cells for rapid cognition in response to sensory input, that is clearly not the kind of thinking that distinguishes human beings from other animals. What makes us uniquely human is the capacity to think deeply and slowly, to weigh pros and cons, and to dream creatively, imagining things that have never been.

That kind of thinking is the kind for which astrocytes are well suited, communicating, as they do, with slow-moving calcium flows rather than fast-moving electric charges. What scientists are measuring with their colorful fMRI scans may look like a measure of neural activity. In reality, however, that activity may be a byproduct of a much more fundamental and heretofore hidden process managed by the glia themselves.

Coaching Inquiries: What kind of thinking describes your most characteristics thoughts? Are you more reactive or proactive? Are you more spontaneous and in-the-moment or are you more reflective and long-term? How could you strengthen your creative capacities? What would assist you to become more attentive, emotive, and imaginative? What’s one new skill that you could learn in the next year?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Good morning! I haven’t finished reading your Provision yet, but I was so excited to learn about your recent interests in neuroscience. As you may remember, I’m traveling back and forth to Chicago for my Muscle Activation Therapy internship and learning a great deal about the brain and nervous system and how it interacts with the muscular system. Fascinating stuff and I wanted to be sure you were aware of the book, The Brain That Changes Itself. I just ordered one for myself, per my teacher’s recommendation.

You are probably already aware of The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. I read that a few months ago and much of it reminded me of things I’ve read in Provisions over the years. I’ve also been reading From Brain to Mind: Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education by James Zull. Good luck with your writing! I look forward to seeing what emerges.

Another terrific article. I like the way you recognized the limitation of brain research and its overemphasis on “just” the brain without attending to the “brain” function of our other organs.

Thomas Moore has been a critic of neuroscience for some time. He said in Care of the Soul in Medicine: “Brain talk especially irks me. It’s popular today to explain experience by pointing out which parts of the brain ‘light up’ in certain situations. In many places, neuroscience has the frisson of modernity, being up-to-date, and irrefutable. I have no problem with brain studies in themselves, and I’m sure they help many people who have brain injuries or illnesses. What I object to is reducing human experience to the activity of the brain. This tendency is just one more way in which we sink into the apparently benign materialism of the times.”

I’ve been strongly influenced by another book, The Heart’s Code by Paul Pearsall. In this remarkable book the heart is elevated to its proper place as not subservient to the brain, but has its own memory functions as well as an ability to radiate outside of our physical bodies. 

I wanted to respond to this Provision. I’m not a teacher, I’m a production team leader, added to your list through my wife who is very involved in your program. Your Provisions provide me with coaching tips and skills I can be apply in my job. Back to this Provision, I don’t have any “favorite articles or books,” just day to day experiences. You hit home with Paul of Tarsus’ quote, “I do what I don’t want to do, and I don’t do what I want to do.” Working with direct reports and even managers, through all of our coaching training and skills there are still times when the “Reptilian Complex” takes over and we forget the coaching and revert to the “fight or flight” response. As soon as we do this we know it was not the best response and have to either own up or try to continue to justify (not usually the best). Sort of like the old saying, “Open mouth, insert foot.” What makes it even more challenging is when you get this same type same of reaction directed to you from above or below and you have to learn how to content with it without falling in to the same response. Makes for constant learning. 

It was fun to read your reference to the book I sent you in Provision. When I cam to that part, I shouted to my husband, “I am in Bob’s Provision!!” and performed a dance 🙂

What an encouragement you are to read! Your enthusiasm is not just conversational, it is interestingly refreshing. It seems you’re having a form of unabashed fun that uplifts the reader as well. To be sure, it is what makes Evocative Coaching such an engaging and powerful read. Kudos! I await The ABC’s of Leadership.   

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 • Fax: (772) 382-3258
Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
Subscribe/Unsubscribe: Subscriber Services