Richard G. Petty, MD

Your Biggest Adventure


“The biggest adventure you can ever take is to live the life of your dreams.”

–Oprah Winfrey (American Television Personality and Philanthropist, 1954-)

Vision and Method

“The Magic Of Believing” (Claude M. Bristol)

“The person with a fixed goal, a clear picture of his desire, or an ideal always before him, causes it, through repetition, to be buried deeply in his subconscious mind and is thus enabled, thanks to its generative and sustaining power, to realize his goal in a minimum of time and with a minimum of physical effort. Just pursue the thought unceasingly. Step by step you will achieve realization, for all your faculties and powers become directed to that end.”  

–Claude M. Bristol (American Writer, 1891-1951)   

Ancient Behavior

Your humble reporter has had a longstanding interest in human evolution. Not just in terms of understanding where we came from, but also where we may be going. There is also the fascinating question of re-capitulation: do children in a few years go through the same kinds of developmental phases that our ancestors went through over thousands of years?

One of the Big Questions has been “When did early humans begin to think and behave in some of the same ways that we do?”

This is often called “behavioral modernity” and one of its measures is in the appearance of objects used purely as decoration or ornamentation: items that are widely regarded as having symbolic rather than practical value. Their visual and symbolic impact are greatly increased if they are displayed on the body as necklaces, pendants, earrings or bracelets or attached to clothing. The appearance of ornaments like these may well be linked to a growing sense of self-awareness and identity amongst humans. Presumably any symbolic meanings would have been shared by members of the same group.

Amongst the oldest known symbolic ornaments in Europe are perforated animal teeth and shell beads that have been dated to the Upper Paleolithic era, that is no more than 40,000 years ago. These finds are associated with both modern human and late Neanderthal sites. Together with cave paintings and engravings they offer the strongest indications that European societies of those times were capable of abstract thinking. They began to be able to symbolize their ideas without relying on obvious links between a meaning and a sign. But there is now a growing body of evidence to indicate that symbolic cultures consisting of engravings, personal ornaments and systematic use of beads had emerged much earlier in Africa.

In a recently published paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences archaeologists from Morocco, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, have shown that some of the earliest examples of bead making may date back as far as 82,000 years ago in North Africa.

The evidence is in the form of deliberately perforated Nassarius marine shells, some still smeared with red ochre, that were found deep down in the Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt in northeastern Morocco. A multidisciplinary team has been working in this massive limestone cave for the past five years. The finds come from a sequence of ashy deposits that have been independently dated by scientists at Oxford and in Australia using four different techniques that allow them to make accurate age estimates for the layers containing the shells.

The shell beads have been studied by experts in France who have confirmed that they are a shallow marine species gathered from the beach, which even in the past lay more than 30 miles from the cave. Once collected, the dead shells were then probably perforated, painted with ochre and used as personal ornaments. Some of the beads show microscopic wear patterns that would suggest they were suspended from a necklace or bracelet. The application of red pigment may have been intended to give them added visual symbolic value. There’s not much doubt that this was part of a very deliberate cultural practice.

This finding suggests that forty thousand years earlier than anyone knew, there were people on this planet who could think in symbols, and engaged in rituals that were meaningful for them.

Time to re-write those history books again!

“Why is it so painful to watch a person sink? Because there is something unnatural in it, for nature demands personal progress, evolution, and every backward step means wasted energy.”
–August J. Strindberg (Swedish Dramatist, Novelist and Poet, 1849-1912)

“What we usually call human evolution is the awakening of the Divine Nature within us.”
–“Peace Pilgrim” (a.k.a. Mildred Norman, American Peace Activist, 1908-1981)

Memory is a Key to Visualization

Most of us have been told something about the potential benefits of visualizing an outcome, and I know from working with many athletes, chess players, dancers and even surgeons, that most are very good at visualizing exactly what they want and where they are going to be.

I have recently talked about the ways in which encoding of memory for faces and the crucial role of memory in creating images of the future.

There is some important confirmatory research from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College in London. A study led by Dr Eleanor Maguire has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It involved five participants with dense amnesia caused by damage to the hippocampus on both sides of the brain.

The researchers asked the participants – and a control group without amnesia – to imagine several future scenarios, such as visiting a beach, a museum and a castle, and then to describe what the experience would be like. They then analyzed the subjects’ comments sentence by sentence, scoring each statement based on whether it involved references to spatial relationships, emotions or specific objects.

All but one of the people with amnesia were worse at imagining future events than people with normal memory. Their visualizations of future events were more likely to be disorganized and lacking in emotion.

Here is a quotation from one of the subjects:"It’s not very real. It’s just not happening. My imagination isn’t…well, I’m not imagining it, let’s put it that way."

The hippocampus does not simply relive past experiences, it also supports our ability to imagine any kind of experience including possible future events.

This is yet more evidence against the idea that memory works like a kind of video camera, passively recording your life. It is a far more dynamic process that include your own beliefs, emotions and expectations.

“A rock-pile ceases to be a rock-pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.”
–Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (French Aviator and Writer, 1900-1944)

“All acts performed in the world begin in the imagination.”
–Barbara Grizzuti Harrison (Italian-America Journalist, Essayist and Author, 1934-2002)

“I visualize things in my mind before I have to do them. It’s like having a mental workshop.”
–Jack Youngblood (American Football Player and Member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1950-)

How We Plan the Future

One of our most remarkable abilities is our capacity for creating a mental picture of events that have not yet happened. It certainly appears that many animals can do something similar, but the human ability to wait and to plan seems to be almost unique. Though with all the recent advances in our understanding about the emotional and cognitive skills of many animal species, I am wary about making too many claims about human specialness.

There is some fascinating research in today’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Investigators from Washington University in St. Louis, have performed a set of experiments that will not only help us better understand what goes wrong in some diseases, but may ultimately help all of us to become better at visualizing.

They compared the functional MRI scans of 21 healthy volunteers when they were asked either to vividly imagine future events or to recollect past memories.

The images showed clear differences between imagining a birthday already experienced and a birthday yet to come.

In particular, when looking ahead, there were three particular areas of the brain that became activated – the left lateral premotor cortex, the left precuneus and the right posterior cerebellum. These areas of the brain are already known to be involved when we imagine executing body movements, suggesting that when the brain is thinking about the future, it does so in terms of distinct movements and actions that will happen at that point.

The research provides powerful support for the idea that memory and thought about the future are highly interrelated and may help explain why future thought may be impossible without memories.

Other research has shown that when volunteers are asked to think about playing baseball they activate the part of the brain involved in swinging the arm. You will now see the link with the item that I posted yesterday about learning to tango!

These findings are consistent with observations on people who have sustained damage to these regions of the brain: they lose the ability to think ahead. There is a small amout of data to suggest that some of these same regions do not function properly in some people diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, most of whom have a reckless disregard for the consequences of their actions.

People with depressive disorders often find it very difficult to generate a positive image of the future, in part  because their memory is impaired by the depression.

In classes we have also found that if people maintain complete stillness while visualizing it is quite different from moving and doing the physical actions as you visualize.

Try it for yourself and see what I mean.

“Man can only become what he is able to consciously imagine or to “image forth.”
–Dane Rudhyar (a.k.a. Daniel Chenneviere, French-born American Composer, Theosophist and Astrologer, 1895-1985)

“I am thought. I can see what the eyes cannot see. I can hear what the ears cannot hear. I can feel what the heart does not feel.”
— Peter Nivio Zarlenga

Our Unique Brains

One of the fundamental tenets of the old self-help movement is that we all have the same brains and so we all have the potential to become a Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein or Michelangelo.

But is this really true?

I’ve talked a lot about the way in which genes in the brain do not so much determine your behavior, but instead predispose you to respond to the environment in certain ways. If asked the question, “Why has she got depression? Was it because of the abuse as a child, or because her grandmother had depression?” The answer is “Yes.” All of the above.

I’ve examined many hundreds of brain scans, and one of the most striking features of them is their variability. It’s a strange paradox: when we look at the nerves running to your fingers or your toes, they are pretty much in the same place in everyone. The veins and arteries are often in different places, but those peripheral nerves tend to stay put.

Yet when we get to the brain, things are very different. I’ve never seen two brain that look the same. This has been a big problem in research: how do you compare the brain of someone with depression with a healthy volunteer? We usually end up doing all sorts of sophisticated computer modeling to be able to compare two very different brains. This is also why we are a bit skeptical about people who claim to be able to diagnose illnesses based on brain scans. There is just so much variability.

This came up last week, when Grigory Perelman turned down a prestigious honor for his extraordinary work in mathematics. Here we have someone who’s brain works quite differently from other people. He has a very remarkable gift, but I doubt that anyone else could simulate what he has achieved.

I knew a woman who was employed as an air traffic controller by the Royal Air Force. Like all air traffic controllers, she had to have an amazing ability: to be able to tell – without instruments – where every plane was in the sky. With planes flying in different directions at 300-500 knots, the variables are staggering. Yet Veronica and her co-controllers could do it easily.

One of the reasons that I landed in the United States was that I was given a problem to solve. It had to do with measuring an inaccessible region of the brain that is mind-bogglingly important. World class investigators had been trying to solve the problem for four years. After years of playing chess, I have a reasonable ability to visualize things in three dimensions. That was all that it took to solve the problem. Within three weeks we started cranking out data that changed the way in which we think about major mental illness.

Could anyone model Grigory Perelman, or Veronica the air traffic controller or my modest efforts in brain imaging? Is that something that everyone can do?

The answer is almost certainly not.

Although we are forever being told that we can each be whatever we want to, that is not what the evidence says.

I am in no doubt that most people have the potential to perform far above their accustomed level.

But I’m just as sure that not everyone can do everything.

There is often a subtle subtext here: if you have not achieved everything that you want, it is because you have failed. And that’s wrong. Human potential is magnificent, but there are almost certainly some neurological constraints on what each of us can achieve. The key to much of our work is to see how we can expand beyond those neurological limitations.

There’s a terrific discussion of some of these issues by Steven Pinker from Harvard.

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