“We think better about complex abstract ideas when we can engage with them in a physical way or see a graph or picture of them, rather than just hearing about them.” -Rebecca Schwarzlose PhD
In today’s episode, Jill has a fascinating conversation with Dr. Rebecca Schwarzlose about the amazing and complex maps in our brains. Dr. Rebecca Schwarzlose is a postdoctoral scholar and cognitive neuroscientist in the Psychiatry Department at Washington University in St. Louis. She received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience at M.I.T. and has served as the chief editor of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, a cognitive and neuroscience journal. At Washington University, Dr. Schwarzlose studies neurocognitive development in children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as typically developing children. She is the author of the new book, Brainscapes: The Warped, Wondrous Maps Written in Your Brain – and How They Guide You. The book was recently praised in the New York Times as “enlightening and ambitious . . . a book that travels into rich terrain, charted by a smart and eager tour guide.” It was supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Program for Public Understanding of Science and Technology. You can find more information about Dr. Schwarzlose and her work on her website (www.rebeccaschwarzlose.com) and blog (www.gardenofthemind.com), as well as on Twitter (@gothemind)
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Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran
Please enjoy the full transcript below
Jill: We think better about complex abstract ideas when we can engage with them in a physical way or see a graph or picture of them rather than just hearing about them.
Jill: Hello, and welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. We’re so glad you’ve joined us today, because we are going to take a little bit of a dive into our brains, and particularly brainscapes, what it is, how it helps us understand the way that we think and show up in the world. And we’re really excited to be joined by the perfect guest to help us explore this. It is Dr. Rebecca Schwarzlose, a cognitive neuroscientist. In her work at Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Rebecca Schwarzlose studies Neuro Cognitive Development in Children. She is the author of a new book called Brainscapes: The Warped, Wondrous Maps Written in Your Brain—And How They Guide You.
The book was recently praised in the New York Times as “enlightening and ambitious,” a book that travels into a rich terrain charted by a smart and eager tour guide. And, of course, the book’s creation was supported by a grant from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation Program for Public Understanding of Science and Technology. Rebecca, thank you so much for joining us. So, we can talk about the maps in our brain and brainscape states in particular.
The first question is kind of one of the most basic, but it has to do with what some people might consider a misunderstanding about brain maps, because brain maps are not just locators in our mind of which area of the brain handles which kind of function or certain kinds of thinking. It’s different than that, can you give us an understanding of what brain maps are?
Dr. Rebecca: Absolutely. Thank you for having me, Jill. If you look at the entire brain, we know that there are different portions of that brain that specialize in doing different things. But if you zoom in on particular regions of brain that specialize in doing a particular thing, you actually often find that these areas have their own internal organization that literally creates a map of the sensations and actions and locations around us, that we are then able to process to use to guide our lives. And so by looking at these maps, as neuroscientists, we can both help understand how our brain does all the amazing things it does, but also help to understand why we feel and act and do the things that we do.
Jill: You talk about brain maps being the ways that neurons in our brain are interconnected to represent data about the outside world and how these maps affect your perceptions of the world around you. And that was one of my big takeaways from the book, is I’m thinking of my brain is just taking information as data and then processing in a factual way. But the brain maps are all about really how we uniquely perceive all of these different things in the world. Can you talk a little bit more about perceptions and why brain maps are important for us to understand our own views on things, if you will?
Dr. Rebecca: Absolutely. When we think about something like our sense of sight, or what we’re looking at, at any given time, it feels like what we experienced visually, is just a vertical reflection of what’s out there in the world. But in fact, it’s not. What we know of as our sense of sight, or what we see is generated by these maps inside of our brains. You can really see how that happens, because if you damage one of these maps, you can create a hole of blindness in a person’s visual field, even though their eyes still work perfectly fine. Or if you were to take a little electrode or magnetic field and artificially stimulate a part of this map, you could see a flash of light that doesn’t exist in the real world. These maps are conduits through which we experience the world. They’re not normal representations of the world. They are actually, as the title of my book says they’re very warped. They don’t represent everything equally.
For example, when your maps of vision, they greatly over represent the part of the visual field where you’re pointing your eyes. You have this wonderful vision right where you’re looking, and then off to the sides, you actually have really pretty terrible vision. And we don’t even realize that because that’s how we’ve always known our vision to be.
Jill: One of the things that you write in the book that relates directly to that is, I’m quoting you, “A brainscape is the landscape that a brain map depicts. It’s the distorted version of reality as it is mapped inside of our heads.” It took me a second and gave me metaphorical brain blisters for a second as I was trying to think that through. But it also really helped me to understand the layers of that perception, if you will. Can you talk a little bit more about the brainscape as you talk about it and how it gets warped, if you will, and what that means for us?
Dr. Rebecca: Our brain maps the way that they’re warped, as I mentioned, we have warped visual maps, we also have warped tactile maps that create parts of our body, like our fingers that are incredibly sensitive, and other parts of our bodies, like our backs that are not. That’s a combination of the properties of our skin and the receptors in them. We do have more receptors in our fingertips than our back. But then, in our brain, we even magnify those kinds of inequalities. The way that our brain maps are warped is, actually have the best reflection of our perceptual experience. When you measure what we can perceive, and you measure areas of the brain in the maps, they are related to one another. Those maps that are in our brains representing the world are actually the best depiction we have of what our experience of the world looks like, and how it is distorted by how our brain represents it.
Brainscapes is a name that I gave to this concept. It’s been an idea that psychologists and neuroscientists have thought about for a long time about how perception is distorted by our brains, and how the way that our brain represents information shapes that distortion. But I wanted to give a name to that distortion, because that’s where we live, we don’t live in reality exactly. We live in this kind of carnival funhouse mirror version of that reality that we have created in our brains with these maps.
Jill: Why do you think it’s important for us as humans, and maybe specifically for physicians who are listening to understand the concepts of brain maps and brainscapes as opposed to just in out computer model of data of stimulus in and then analysis out?
Dr. Rebecca: There’s a couple of reasons why I think it’s helpful to all of us to know, and maybe in some ways, especially for physicians, so I think, first of all, it gives us some insights into why we think the way we do, and also why we struggle with the things that we struggle with. Our brains, which are shaped by evolution, but also by our very early life experiences develop these maps. And these maps are extremely physical things. They are representing all these physical aspects of our world, what we feel on our skin, what we see with our eyes, how we can move our body and the locations of things in space around us. These, in fact, wind up being the things that we, even as adults are the best at thinking about. We think very well about physical, concrete things. And we struggle, because we actually don’t have the best brains for thinking about things that are very abstract, or things that are very complex.
I think that especially you can think of that in the context of science and medicine, because very often, we have to, myself as a scientist, or when a physician is trying to think about a complex metabolic system, there are so many moving parts, you can’t see all the moving parts, you have to sort of develop a model in your brain of what is happening, and how these things interact. A lot of that actually seems to rely upon when we think about these complicated things, we start using these physical maps. What I mean by that is that we often learn how to represent complex ideas or systems using these physical maps. Also, that we think better about complex abstract ideas when we can engage with them in a physical way, or see a graph or picture of them rather than just hearing about them. The ways that we can think about these things in physical sense gives us like a purchase, we really can grab it [chuckles] and makes it concrete.
Jill: Yes. I thought of it somehow as hooks in the past, but thinking about it as maps and landscapes. It helps me to think about it differently.
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Jill: I also want to talk a little bit, I like how you talk about the infant brain and how the difference between an infant brain that’s damaged recovering then an adult brain that has damaged, and you’ll have to correct me but is my understanding, from what I read that you wrote that if an infant brain is damaged in the visual cortex, for instance, it has the ability to recover differently than if an adult brain is damaged in that way. And so, the bad news is, it’s harder for adults to bounce back from brain damage, but I love how you said this. The crystallized organization of mature brains is not so great for recovering from brain damage, but it is very good for everyday life. So, why is it that you say that and can you explain that a little bit more?
Dr. Rebecca: One of the fundamental things, the reason we have brain maps to begin with, and the reason why we can’t perceive everything as it really is in life, is because we have to represent so much, think about so much, remember so much with a brain that is smaller than a soccer ball. If you think about it, the brain is pretty small for something that does everything it does. It’s actually quite limited, it can’t be much bigger for a number of reasons, including childbirth, and including our appetites, the energy required to feed these brains and our ability to run around and capture food. We’ve had this high evolutionary pressure to keep our brains reasonably sized, well wanting to make the most of them.
When you’re born, even though evolution shapes what and the different receptors you have, like in your eyes, and your skin, and in your ears, these are all shaping what information is going into the brain, and creating these maps. But if you alter the inputs at this time, for example, if a child has eyes that don’t function and is no longer receiving visual information, the visual parts of the brain that would normally process vision, aren’t getting their visual inputs. Therefore, they effectively look around and say, like, “Well, what else am I getting that I can process?” They dynamically the neurons do adapt in remarkable ways which can serve a child very well, if what they experienced in infancy is the same as what they’re going to experience later in life. The trade-off that I think you’re alluding to, is how babies, they can learn almost anything. From what we’ve seen a neuron and a baby brain could really just turn around and represent something totally different. And they’ve even done studies where a visual neuron, they can make it become an auditory neuron just based on the connections. That is not true, the adult brain.
The baby brain, babies do so little, they’re learning so much and they’re so plastic and malleable in terms of their brain structures, but they don’t have much capability, and we have to do a tradeoff, as we specialize. Our brain adapts to our environment and it specializes, we learn and harness the tools that we have in the environment we were born into, and do things like tie our shoes and walk upright. We jettison some of the ability, we make that easy, and we specialize and we jettison the ability to do some new things, are totally different things in a different way. I would describe it best as by having a specialized brain that is crystallized in infancy and stays in many ways quite similar into adulthood. We can’t do everything is easily, but we can do the things we need to do much more easily and more efficiently. For most of our uses, it’s a win-win.
Jill: I liked the example you gave. We can’t totally rebuild things when they’re damaged, but we also remember how to brush our teeth every day, because there’s brain maps that exist already to show us how to do that, and that was like, oh, yeah, made me appreciate sort of the collected inputs as they come together to create those brain maps and how that adds to the richness of the human experience and a lot of different ways, but allowing those to build on each other. Anything else that you think is important for folks to know, based on your research, and that you think is helpful for us to understand when we think about brain maps and how our brains shape our perception?
Dr. Rebecca: Well, I can mention a couple of things that I think might also be of particular interest to physicians. One is coming back to the malleability of the infant brain. People who now work with very young babies are familiar with the fact that children are very sensitive to their very early life environments. Children, for example, who are hospitalized soon after birth, or for prolonged periods of time, they can be really impacted by all of the sensory experiences that they are having in a neonatal ICU. Of course, physicians who are working in that neonatal ICU are very much intent on keeping these children alive, and that is going to be their primary focus. But I think it’s helpful to think about to keep in mind, that the patient here is not just needing to heal physically, but that at the same time, the brain of that patient is learning how to represent the world for a lifetime.
There’s such an amazing process happening there when you’re dealing with child patients. It’s awe inspiring, but also, I think, a little daunting, because obviously, you want to think about if the child is next to the ice machine, [laughs] or the phone is ringing all of the time, and all of these things are influencing their development. It’s great that we have a growing awareness of the sensitivity of children to these inputs, even though obviously, in an ICU your focus has to be to keep a child alive. More and more we’re appreciating though how complex child development is, especially early in life.
Then the other thing that I spend a chapter of my book going into is specifically of the rise of brain computer interfaces, which I think is going to increasingly be something that we will be seeing and talking about, not just in the realm of medicine, but also in society at large. These interfaces take place via map. Usually, when you want a technology to read out information from the brain, or to place information into the brain, the most effective places to do that are on these brain maps that I described, because we know how they work, basically, and where to find them. Already, these brain computer interfaces can do amazing things and there are people who are using them to enable people who are paralyzed from the neck down to control robotic arms, to type things on computers with their thoughts, with just imagining taking a movement or action. Even though there’s a lot of remaining hurdles to getting these technologies to wide scale, commercial viability, long term safety standards, they are going leaps and bounds.
In addition, the ability to use these technologies to read from outside of your skull, to read the signals you can collect from your scalp, as in an EEG, there are various ways that you can collect brain information. This information, I think, is already being harnessed by many fields of medicine, and will increasingly be also, I think, harnessed by commercial enterprises. There’s going to be a lot of interesting interplay. A lot for physicians to have to navigate, not just in terms of their own use of these technologies. But in terms of how to handle patients who, for example, right now self-stimulating themselves with the brain stimulator, or maybe using some neuro technology that does or does not work or may or may not cause harm, so there’s going to be a lot to explore and navigate.
Jill: Such a fantastic, interesting, fascinating new frontier. You really explained it beautifully in the book with emphasizing a lot of the possibility and a lot of the challenges that will potentially come through with that as well. Dr. Rebecca Schwarzlose from Washington University in St. Louis, Neuroscientist Expert on Childhood Brain Development, as well as a host of other things. The author of a book I highly recommend called Brainscapes: The Warped, Wondrous Maps Written in Your Brain—And How They Guide You. You’ll read it, you’ll like it, you’ll see why the New York Times said it was so good. We really appreciate you taking the time to share these ideas with us and to invite us into further thoughts and conversations about how the maps are working inside of our brains.
Dr. Rebecca: Thank you so much, Jill. I really enjoyed it.
Jill: For all of you, thank you so much for listening. We love having you here. Share this with your colleagues, and make sure you join us next time on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Until then, I’m Jill Farmer.
Amanda: Hi, this is Amanda Taran. I’m the producer of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Please don’t forget to like and subscribe, and thank you for listening.
Coach Jill Farmer
Jill Farmer is an experienced physician coach who has been helping doctors live their best lives, increase their success, and move through burnout for well over a decade.
She has delivered keynotes, programs, and training everywhere from Harvard Medical School to the American College of Cardiology.
She has personally coached hundreds of physicians, surgeons, and other busy professionals to help them be at their best—without burning themselves out. Her coaching has supported professionals at places like Mass General Brigham in Boston, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University in Chicago and too many others to list.
Jill wrote the book on time management for busy people. Literally. It’s called “There’s Not Enough Time…and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” which debuted as a bestseller on Amazon. Her work has been featured everywhere from Inc. to Fitness Magazine to The Washington Post.
Nationally recognized as a “brilliant time optimizer and life maximizer,” Jill will cut straight to the heart of your stress to liberate you from its shackles. She has two young adult daughters. She lives with her husband and their poorly behaved dachshund in St. Louis, MO.