Your Brain, Mind & Sense of Self

Although there is vast information now known about cancer, the average person –including those diagnosed with the disease– know little about it. A recent survey of 2,500 Americans published in the journal Genetics in Medicine shows that despite 75 per cent knowing about actress Angelina Jolie’s preventative double mastectomy, most remained in the dark about the risk of breast cancer. Fewer than 10 per cent of people had an accurate understanding of the BRCA gene mutation that Jolie carries. And as Christie Nicholson reports in Scientific American, Jolie’s story has left the public with an inaccurate knowledge of breast cancer.
It is important to note that all women carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 human suppressor genes, but fewer than 1 per cent of all women have any mutations in these genes.
Those women who develop the mutations have up to an 80 per cent risk of developing breast cancer by the age of 90. About 55 per cent of those women with BRCA1 and 25 per cent of women with BRCA2 mutations will also have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Of the total number of breast cancer cases, fewer than 13 per cent are linked to BRCA mutations. Epidemiological studies also show that there are more breast cancers diagnosed in women with no family history of the disease, than there are in women with a history of breast cancer in the family.
Found in all humans, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human tumor suppressor genes found in breast and other tissue. They are caretaker genes that repair DNA so that when a cell replicates it does not duplicate errors. If these genes cannot repair the DNA, they make the cell commit suicide (apoptosis).
If BRCA1 or BRCA2 themselves become damaged by a mutation, they will have increased chances of not being able to repair the DNA, nor make the cell commit suicide. This increases the risk for these cells forming a mass within the breast. It is the mutation to these genes and not the genes themselves that are linked to breast cancer.
While a woman can be born with faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2, it does not mean she will automatically develop breast cancer. She will have to be exposed to specific environmental influences which then alter the DNA of her breast cells. These then require the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes to repair them, and because they are faulty, they may not be able to successfully do this (or make the cell commit suicide). The major influences that cause mutations to these genes are emotional stress, lack of quality sleep, food with specific plant lectins, superantigen viruses, as well as certain poisons and toxins.
Thus a woman can be born with damaged BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes and never develop breast cancer by living a lifestyle that avoids any mutation of the genes. So while Angelina Jolie’s story may have helped raise awareness of breast cancer as a whole, it is important that people seek their own understanding of the risks of the disease and don’t limit their knowledge to Hollywood media reports.
Neuropsychology allows us to appreciate how our experiences and the way we interpret them greatly influence our minds through the hard-wiring of our brains. Experiences generating the negative emotions of sadness, anger, fear, shame and anxiety create unwanted neuron firing. This shapes the wiring of your brain and forces you to continually focus on similar negative experiences. The reverse is true for the positive emotions of love and joy. By understanding neuropsychology you can understand how to refocus and put new meanings on situations to break some wiring and build new pathways to reflect a mind-state of love, joy and contentment and a more spiritual sense of self.

The mind and brain continuum

There are many people who are constrained within the logic of science and have formed a limiting belief that the brain is a nervous and hormonal system shaped by genetic evolution, biology and culture, and the mind is simply a product of this. With a material focus, they logically interconnect the brain to mind and the mind to brain. The mind and consciousness then simply become the flow of neuro-chemical communication through the nervous-hormonal system of the body. Science has not however, been able to prove or dismiss the existence of consciousness, nor the metaphysical concept of universal consciousness— a God or Gods. Science does however acknowledge these metaphysical concepts as a possibility—the brain is the causal condition for the mind to manifest these.
Science acknowledges that every type of mental state can be correlated with a brain state. As the brain changes, the state of mind changes, and vice versa. With continued co-experience the brain hard-wires circuits to produce lasting neuro-hormonal structures. Mind activity is like waves and wind moving around the particles of sand on a beach—the brain nerve cells. With storms and tide surges, the beach forms into distinctive patterns and shapes that reflect the environmental conditions in that part of the coast. As we age our brain is hardwired in relation to the things we focus on, our thoughts and the meanings we place on these—our character. How we define ourselves becomes hardwired as our brains.
When we continually stimulate the same regional neural circuits they become more complex and efficient, they dominate, attract more blood-glucose, more oxygen and the nerve synapses become more complex and coat with myelin sheaths for efficiency. Synaptic highways begin to form in your brain during the early weeks of gestation and they will forever wax and wane until you die. Until this time you can use your conscious thoughts to change your brain, to build, rebuild or dismantle neural structures to form the sense of self you desire.
The human brain weighs about 1.5 kilograms and is composed of more than 1 trillion cells. About 100 billion of these are nerve cells—neurons. Each neuron literally has thousands of connections to other neurons. These are called synapses. Although the brain is composed of specialised regions, each is highly interconnected to the others in super complex ways. It is also extremely complex in its operation.
The left hemisphere is typically considered the logical part of the brain while the right hemisphere the creative side. But this is too simple. The circuitry of the brain is very complex and shared between the hemispheres. Circuits dissolve, reform, loop, harmonise, disharmonise, and become parallel in stimulation and resonance. These changes to brain circuitry can occur because neurons fire from 20, to more than 100, times per second. It almost appears chaotic in its performance, yet it is rhythmic waves of ionic activity we call brainwaves. That is, the EEGs monitor—the alpha, beta, gamma, delta waves. When you are not conscious and are in your deepest sleep your brain is still very much active—it does not sleep. You, your consciousness, are the collector of experience through your sense perception, you apply meaning and you think about events. When you sleep, most of the work occurs to create your sense of self, your identity, your character, your life story.

Meditation and Daydreaming

During meditation, sleep and daydreaming, where there is no conscious external focus, several regions of the brain resonate together to form your character, the story of who you are. One of these parts is called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a region that integrates focused attention to link motivation to achieve emotional desires, needs, goals and wants. It assists with linking the meanings you apply to situations with emotions. The cingulate cortex integrates the brain default mode network for integrating your sense of self.
Another region that develops with meditation is the insula cortex which is associated with perception, motor control, and cognitive functioning. The insula cortex also allows you to consciously feel emotion within your body (your gut feelings), and it heightens your ability to empathise with others in intimacy, trust, kindness, and compassion to stimulate love and joy.
Meditation is probably the most researched mental activity. Science has demonstrated that long-term meditators have less cortical thinning with aging and less chance of developing brain diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s syndrome, and multiple sclerosis if they contemplate, pray or meditate daily. In meditation, if there is a focus, it is on spiritual intentions with higher purpose. Even sleepy meditating is better than no meditation at all. As we practice more and more, there’s more integration and coherence in optimal brain hard-wiring. Specific traditional techniques, such as those from raja yoga, assist the growth of an optimal sense of self.