Namibia: Brain Units, Consciousness and Mental Health

THE human brain consists of three functional units. The renowned Soviet neuropsychologist, Alexandr Luria, who studied the brain for many decades, maintained that these were the attention-arousal, the perception-memory and the planning units.

For Luria, our behaviour is an outcome of these functional brain systems working together, instead of only being the consequence of unitary or discrete regions (localisation) of the brain.

Connectivity and integration are indispensable to grasping the Lurian framework.

The attention-arousal unit regulates our state of attention and cortical arousal. It adjusts our motivational state according to the environment, and is located in the brain stem and the reticular activating system.

Impairments in this unit could give rise to mood and anxiety disorders, but also attention problems, insomnia, loss of consciousness, disorganised memory, etc.

The perception-memory unit represents the environment through the senses. It is a sensory reception and integration system which obtains, analyses and stores information.

This information about the environment is received through the temporal (auditory), occipital (visual) and parietal (general sensory) lobes, and can be coded simultaneously and successively in the various memory systems.

Deficiencies in this brain structure might lead to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but few developmental psychopathologies are connected to this.

The action selection or planning unit is engaged in the programming, monitoring and regulating of conscious activities.

This takes place in, for example, the prefrontal cortex. Deficits in this unit could cause avoidance behaviour, compulsions, poor impulse control, hallucinations, delusions, anti-social behaviour, etc.

The uniquely human or complex forms of behaviour (including consciousness) take place by and large in the planning structure.

Consciousness is a continuum from higher to lower awareness, and is characterised by an uneven (and combined) disposition.

The higher and lower forms of consciousness comprise qualitatively different modes of mental processing, and are likewise situated in relatively different areas of the brain.

The major distinction between such advanced and simple mindfulness is that complex consciousness requires a working memory and cognitive ability, while uncomplicated awareness does not.

This developed consciousness (or secondary mental processing) encompasses inner speech (verbal thoughts), is silent, slow, abbreviated, language-based, sequential and reflective. It supervises the mind and makes possible the higher cognitive functions and advanced emotions.

This secondary mental processing occurs largely in the prefrontal cortex, but inner speech is predominantly located in the left hemisphere for most people, i.e. right-handed people.

Subdued consciousness (or primary mental processing) is fast, automatic, non-verbal, parallel and associative. This includes the managing of basic emotions – which suggests an essential role for the limbic system. The limbic structure in turn facilitates memory storage, including auditory memories, but multiple memory systems are implicated.

This dominant processing style of the brain, however, is sometimes referred to as the whispering mode – which similarly indicates a notable function for auditory memories. A separate pathway from hearing to the emotional centres in the brain does exist.

Uneven consciousness also impacts on our sleep. The vivid dreaming of rapid-eye movement sleep is linked to lower awareness because sophisticated mindfulness vanishes when we snooze. Although the firing rate of the neurons are the same as when we are awake, the firing is less complex, random and more localised in the brain while we have a siesta.

In terms of mental health, uneven (and combined) consciousness could also contribute to confusion, inner conflict, dissociation, etc.

Shaun Whittaker is a mental health worker.

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