PREFRONTAL CORTEX

Source:Hermit Musing

We humans (I’m presumptuously assuming that it’s only humans who might be reading this) possess something no other creatures have: a bulging forehead that encases the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain. We have the biggest brain (relative to body size) of any living creature on Earth. We are unique. What’s more, the PFC has exploded in size, the last few million years of our evolution. It’s grown six times bigger, while the brain itself has grown only three times. The growth of this forehead bulge is, in fact, almost out of control.

Science still is not certain what the PFC is and what it does. Most basically, it seems to act as the brain’s conductor, or as its executive function. It is in constant touch with various areas of the brain, coordinating and guiding their activities—often without our conscious involvement. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our higher cognitive abilities, such as planning, discerning right from wrong, moderating social behavior, abstract reasoning, the use of symbols, making choices, and creating (often imperfect) memory.

The PFC integrates the two halves of the brain—effectively balancing the left brain’s analytical and denotative capabilities with the right brain’s intuitive, connotative, and emotional capabilities. When we chew on a problem, the PFC, like the conductor of an orchestra, draws upon various parts of the brain, seeking harmonious answers. It knows best which corners of the brain to probe. It even creates new connections, if need be.

The PFC plays the lead role in the creation of insights—those moments when we have an Aha! experience; when we leap from the bath water, exclaiming, “Eureka!” Many of humanity’s breakthroughs in understanding followed an individual’s long period of puzzling over a problem, with no progress. Stuck. Then, following a period of relaxation or of mundane distraction (while the PFC continued its background search), the answer popped into mind… as if on its own.

Newton, Einstein, and numberless other scientists had such sudden insights. Many saints on the spiritual path experienced similar breakthroughs about ultimate truths. Sophisticated brain research is showing that the PFC, in its conductor mode, literally creates the insight—as it searches diligently and patiently around the brain. Suddenly the symphonic answer comes blasting forth in one glorious trumpet blare.

What is curious about the insight process is that when it comes, there is no doubt but what it’s true. The person having the “Aha” experience is certain the problem is solved. The answer is there. It is simple, elegant, and right. (Note: this is very different from answers we get by dogged analysis. We may reach a solution that way, but we know that it requires thorough checking out, before we’re really sure it’s right.)

The other curious thing is that the “Aha” solution cannot be forced; it cannot be arrived at by a purely intellectual effort. We cannot will the insight to come—it’s as if it’s somewhere in there, waiting to be discovered, but we must let go and open up to it. It is readily available to us, but it will not be manipulated or ordered around. In fact, if we try to bull our way through it, a mental block will be met. It’s fully within our reach, but not our control. It’s grace.

So, does the insight come from solely from within our brain, or must we open to the universal consciousness to receive it from without? Does it come from us or from God?

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