What About My Prefrontal Cortex?

Human BrainI’ve been pretty concerned about my prefrontal cortex.

I guess most of the time my brain works well enough. I successfully plan and complete simple projects around the house—things like painting a room, running the snow blower, and even putting in a little stone patio. And I often manage to write a whole poem or short article for “Spirited-Thinking.”

But sometimes my brain gives me difficulties. When I try to solve a problem that is a little complicated, my mind fills with static, kind of like the old tube style TV sets did when they lost their signal and all you could see on the screen was sparkly dots.

I’m pretty sure that the static in my brain is caused by problems in my prefrontal cortex. You know—the part of our brain that evolution put in our skull to make us smarter than animals…uh…I mean smarter than other animals. You see, animals don’t always make smart decisions because  they aren’t able to factor in all the factors. The prefrontal cortex is where humans get to do that. I’m pretty sure anyway.

I figured that learning how the prefrontal cortex works might help me improve my thinking skills. If I could figure out how it hooks up to our lower brain, maybe I could connect all the good stuff I know is in my head somewhere with the part that is trying to make use of it all. So I started reading. No—not a big book on brain function—I read the “prefrontal cortex” entry in Wikipedia.

A little way into the article, I found this: “In mammalian brain anatomy, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the cerebral cortex which covers the front part of the frontal lobe.” I understood that…sort of.

Next were some long sentences with hard words that I skipped. Then I came to this: “The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is executive function.” Now I was getting somewhere.  Executive function is just what I needed more of.

That was followed by,
“Executive function relates to abilities to
(I will list them so you can write them down if you like.)
– differentiate among conflicting thoughts,
– determine good and bad,
– better and best,
– same and different,
– future consequences of current activities,
– working toward a defined goal,
– prediction of outcomes.…”
There were more great things that the “executive function” functions at, but you get the idea.

I was sure that all that differentiating and determining would help me.

So, eager for more, I scanned past things like “granular frontal cortex” and “the projection zone of the mediodorsal nucleus” until I found these mystically beautiful comments on a big study by Fuster and Goldman-Rakic (their real names!):

“Fuster speaks of how this prefrontal ability allows the wedding of past to future, allowing both cross-temporal and cross-modal associations in the creation of goal-directed, perception-action cycles.”

I thought “wedding of past to future” sounded very cool—like time travel, and romantic too—but it seemed pretty advanced for a guy who just wants to think better. And the rest of that sentence—well, it seems obvious that English is not their native tongue.

All these words from people much smarter than me were making me wonder about where I started—with the idea that the prefrontal cortex is what makes us human—and smarter than other animals. So I did the obvious—I went to Google and typed “do other mammals have a prefrontal cortex?”  I think chagrined is what I felt when I found an article that said, “The prefrontal is found in all mammals.”

(It seems like I read that somewhere. Was that in some Wikipedia article I read a long time ago?)

I read on, but after that sentence came another bunch of incomprehensible words. About then, my mind started to lose its signal. But before it could fill up with sparkly dots, you know what I did? I gave up! I don’t know why. I guess it was just a Buddha moment. I just let go.

That turned out to be a good thing to do because mind felt much better…relaxed, actually. In fact, I didn’t even go back to that problem!

Another complicated problem came along soon enough and, somehow, I just let it sit there without even getting my mind involved. I admit that I also quit caring much about it. I kind of took a breath and just looked at it. Pretty soon some parts of the problem just seemed to just float away. Maybe that meant they were irrelevant. What remained looked almost manageable. It was still difficult, but I did what I could with it. And that seemed to be enough.

Then one thought came to me as clearly as if it was on HD television: the best thing to do with the prefrontal cortex is to not work it so hard.

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