As the brain spins: It takes incremental growth to build toward monumental growth

I've gotten very into the brain recently. I'm not really sure why — it's just one of those things that popped up in my life and I decided to roll with it.

I was listening to Steven Kotler on Joe Rogan's podcast and decided to go to the library and take out Kotler's book The Rise of Superman.

The brief backstory on Kotler is that he got Lyme disease, it was misdiagnosed and he was in bed for three years. Eventually a friend convinced him to go surfing and his body started to heal. "Hmm," he thought. "Surfing is not a known cure for chronic autoimmune diseases."

So he did some research and discovered that action sports with a fair bit of risk get us into a state called flow, a state that not only helps with decision-making in high-pressure situations, it's that state that gets us writing, conversing, coding or whatever for hours with a high level of correctness and efficiency.

Kotler figured out for himself while writing a book that he could get himself into flow reliably with a specific bit of exercise he would use any time he was blocked and trying to solve a problem. If you've ever sat down with a friend and started talking and all of a sudden four hours have passed, you've been in flow.

Anyway, Kotler was so fascinated with flow he started a business around it.

In The Rise of Superman, Kotler outlines some of the neuroscience behind flow. Meanwhile, I was taking another one of my random walks through the library stacks and Kayt Sukel's The Art of Risk jumped out at me.

She was a badass when she was younger. A climber who, after getting divorced, took her one-year-old son and backpacked around Europe. She got in an MRI machine and had an orgasm for a book and went around the country talking about it.

But she found herself taking fewer risks as she got older and wondered why, so she set out to figure out what goes on in a risk-taker's brain.

And fuck if she wasn't writing about the same bits of the brain that Kotler wrote about.

Somewhere in there — and I have absolutely no idea how I came across this — I stumbled upon a study of gamma brain activity and Parkinson's.

We'll come back to this later, but gamma activity is a signifier of flow.

Crazy. It was a sure sign that I needed to know a little more.

Here are some things we know about the brain. While I've been reading a lot here and there, the most succinct source for the historical stuff in this section is The Great Brain Book by HP Newquist.

Several thousand years ago, the Egyptians, in the mummification of the dead, were the first people to cut open bodies in an effort to preserve them.

They thought the brain was trash.

In the mummification process, the organs were removed so that the body could dry. The heart was returned to the chest. This is the organ the Egyptians believed handled thought, emotion and everything else, and that it would be useful in the afterlife to have it inside the body.

The lungs, kidneys and other stuff that sits in the torso were placed in jars and left nearby the body in the tomb (the Egyptians also left toys and tools and other things they thought the body could use in the afterlife).

Then they shoved a chisel in the nasal cavity, stuck a hook up there and yanked out what they could of the brain. They would later scoop out whatever was left.

They didn't leave the brain in the body. They didn't even put it in a jar. It just went out with the garbage.

Things go that way for about 1,400 years, until Herophilus, the "father of anatomy," cuts open cadavers and finds that the brain does connect to the rest of the body. This is around 300 BCE.

Four to five hundred years later, Galen posits that the brain actually handles a lot of functions, including moods. He gets the mechanism so wrong it's not worth discussing, but there's at least the understanding that the brain controls a good bit of what makes us people.

We're at about 1,900 years ago now.

Over the next, oh, 1,750 years, we get detailed drawings, but no real new science.

Then, in 1848, a railroad worker named Phineas Gage is clearing some space to lay track. He puts dynamite in a hole, tamps it down, and BLAM! — the explosive blows before he can get out of the way and his tamping rod goes up through his jaw, behind his left eye and out the top of his head.

As he's laying on the ground, the rod still stuck in him, workers come over and collect what they assume is the body of their late colleague. Instead, they help Gage up, and he's walking around and talking just like normal.

Well, as normal as you can be with a tamping rod sticking out of two holes in your head.

Gage lives another 12 years, with the only real noticeable side effect being that he turns into a really grumpy dude.

Doctors, of course, started examining him right away, and they studied his brain long after he died.

The biggest discovery early on from Gage's examinations was that different parts of the brain handle different things.

In 1861, a French physician named Pierre Paul Broca meets a patient named Louis Victor Leborgne. Leborgne could only say the syllable, "Tan." He seemed perfectly normal otherwise. His body language suggested that he understood everything that people said to him or asked him, but he couldn't say anything but "Tan."

Broca postulated that Leborgne had damage in the part of his brain that handled language, and, sure enough, when they opened his head upon his death, one part of his brain was badly decayed.

In the 1870s, a pair of doctors figured out that the right side of the brain handles the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls the right — in other words, the two sides of the brain work independently.

Over the ensuing half-century, we learn that the brain sends out electrical signals, and in 1924, we get the EEG, which worked then pretty much the same way it works now (we of course now also have the MRI as a more comprehensive way to look at brain activity).

In the 1950s, Wilder Penfield discovers he can get physical reactions by stimulating different parts of the brain.

And that's it, until very recently. Quick review:
1700 - 300 BCE: We go from throwing out the brain to learning that it's connected to the rest of our inside.
Around 100 CE: We start thinking the brain controls our feelings
Around 1500 CE: Anatomists start drawing things
1848-1950s CE: We learn basically everything you and I learned in science class about the brain.

More on innovation timelines: Rambling thoughts on innovation »

We That covers about 3,650 years.

In the 60 or so years that have passed since then — and we all know people who are way older than that — we've learned so much more. We've developed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines that can read what's going on in the brain. We know what each part of the brain does, at least to some extent. We know about neurotransmitters. We know about brain waves.

And we've been manipulating pieces here and there, with more and more accuracy. With the development of earlier drugs like fluoxetine and sertraline (Prozac and Zoloft, respectively), we figured out how to do things like block some neurotransmitter receptors. More and more specific drugs have been developed as well, and a current fad is over-the-counter nootropics like Alpha Brain and lion's mane-and-chaga mushroom "coffee" (both of which I'll recommend, but the Alpha Brain much moreso than the mushroom coffee).

Kotler also recommends a recipe for getting into flow predictably, though I won't post it here as (a) he put the work in, (b) I haven't tried it to be able to recommend it and (c) it might not be legal everywhere.

We're only going to get better at manipulating our brains, too, and the speed of information gathering is going to continue to increase.

Exciting stuff, huh? And what amazing creatures we are!

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