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The Mind, Explained: The Tripping Brain

The news and opinion website Vox (owned by digital media company Vox Media) partnered with Netflix in 2018 to release a weekly show called Explained, which was based on Vox’s series of YouTube videos. Those YouTube videos were short investigative essays (on average, under eight minutes long), but in their Netflix incarnation they grew to become short documentaries (in the range of about eighteen minutes in length).

The first season of Explained consisted of twenty episodes. The topics ranged from K-Pop to Astrology, from Cryptocurrency to Monogamy, and, as the title ambitiously announced, the episodes aimed to explain these topics to non-experts and amateurs. Typically, after one of these encyclopedic crash courses, your average layperson walks away from an episode of Explained substantially less ignorant about the subject addressed.

Season 2 of Explained arrived on the 26th of September. But, two weeks prior, Vox and Netflix combined efforts to release a spin-off to the original Explained franchise – a short docuseries of five episodes centered around one topic: the mind. Actress Emma Stone provides the narrating voice on all five installments.

Aptly called The Mind, Explained, and maintaining the format of no more than twenty minutes in length per episode, the conceptual strategy of this captivating docuseries was to fragment the subject of the mind into five distinct dimensions: memory, dreams, anxiety, mindfulness and psychedelics.

Memory: the glue that unifies past experiences into a sense of self. Dreams: the mysterious realm of illogical imagery and narrative. Anxiety: the most common mental illness (it is estimated that 18% of Americans have an anxiety disorder). Mindfulness: the centuries-old method of taming the monkey mind (the monkey mind being human proclivity to endlessly ruminate about regrets and fears). And psychedelics: the potent shortcut to self-knowledge.

The Mind, Explained paints a coherent picture to make us realize how these five aspects are intricately connected. With expert testimony from prominent people in those fields, the series not only brings us up to speed on the latest science, but also educates us on the history of that science. Documented, for example, is the way in which the cultural perception and study of dreams evolved from the time of ancient civilizations until present times.

It is a fascinating arc: ancient Egyptians believed dreams to be messages from the gods; by early 20th Century, Freud and Jung had reframed our understanding of dreams; but the advances of neuroscience in the second half of that century made us aware of sleep cycles and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

All five episodes are entertainingly educational. Episode one (which, by the way, you can stream on YouTube) is dedicated to memory, and it reformulates the way the average person instinctively frames an understanding of what memory is. Neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps says: “We know about 50 percent of the details of a memory change in a year even though most people are convinced they are 100 percent right.”

Stone sets the tone: “Even our most significant memories aren’t perfect recordings: they can shift and warp over time. It feels like the whole purpose of memory should be to preserve the past. So why are memories so unreliable?” In fairness, that unreliability of memory isn’t all that shocking: we’ve all personally experienced its imperfection at some point.

But here’s where we’re persuaded into rethinking the utility of memory. Stone guides us through a breakdown of how memories work from a neuroscience perspective, leading up to neuroscientist Dona Rose Addis posing the question: “Why would we have a memory system that is so unreliable and error prone if it was designed to remember the past?”

The Mind, Explained offers a possible clue: the medial temporal lobe is a part of the brain that houses structures critical for long term memory. And people whose medial temporal lobe has been severely damaged lose memory of enormous chunks of their past. But, surprisingly, the cost of such a severe damage is not restricted to the loss of one’s past: people with severely damaged medial temporal lobes also can no longer conceive the future.

Addis tells us that one scientific experiment scanned people’s brains as they were asked to remember past experiences and imagine future experiences. It turns out that, as the subjects took turns recalling their history and hypothesizing about their future, the same brain network lit up identically on the scanner in both instances.

Stone: “The future and the past seem to be somehow linked in the mind. When you let your mind wonder, you switch back and forth all the time – remembering and imagining. Your mind is a time machine.”

She adds: “The same machinery that brings all those pieces together to relive the past can bring some of those pieces together with other pieces to simulate possible futures. Now, the flexibility that leads us to remember things that never happened, and that corrupts our most vivid memories, starts to look like a superpower: the key to our success as a species”

In other words, the ultimate purpose of our individual memories may not be to remember, but rather to consolidate a sense of identity in us as purposeful, temporal beings.

Episode two is about dreams, and it draws attention to the fact that, when we dream, the sections of the brain in charge of reasoning and logical judgment are basically inactive, while the emotional brain is cranked up. This capacity to venture into realms that are not constrained by logic is intertwined with our capacity for art. Keith Richards and Salvador Dalí are offered as examples of artists that dreamed works of art into existence.

On this topic, neuroscientist Robert Stickgold says that “it might be that part of the function of REM sleep dreaming is to identify wacky associations, connections that we would never discover while we’re awake.” And the correlation between these five dimensions of the mind in this docuseries starts to become evident: without memories we wouldn’t have subject matter for dreams, but also, recent research shows, sleep plays a crucial role in the consolidation of memories.

Episode three is about anxiety: how anxiety is an ancient survival tool, a remnant of our animal makeup, an equipment suited to assess threats from predators in the wild, adapted to the modern day realities of bills, obligations and stress. We’re also told about how the stigma around mental health counseling has declined in younger generations; what role social media plays as a cause of anxiety and depression in today’s world; and what are the effective ways to address the problem.

Episode four discusses mindfulness, the art of being present. It is a meditation technique that originated in the East thousands of years ago, and it is meant to help quiet the incessant chatter of the mind by shaking off the rigidity of the ego. This is achieved by the act of noticing your own thoughts as a detached observer. The episode talks about the history of mindfulness, its recent rise in popularity in Western countries, and its proven and measurable benefits.

But perhaps the most intriguing of all five episodes is the last one, the one about psychedelics. Because the topic of psychedelic drugs had been such a taboo subject for so long, it is amazing the drastic change in how these substances are starting to be perceived by mainstream science.

Research has shown that substances like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and DMT (known as the classic psychedelics), when used correctly under expert supervision, result in profound and positive changes, somewhat akin to the effects of meditation, but in an accelerated way.

We learn about a 2014 study in which researchers mapped the activity in the brain during a trip, and found regions of the brain, that usually don’t communicate, in lively conversation. Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University, says of the tripping brain: “One can’t help but wonder whether in this period of extreme interconnectivity there is a potential for rewiring and making new connections.”

Psychedelics seem to offer new avenues to eliminate unhealthy and ingrained behaviors that, up until recently, seemed like sentences people were resigned to live with. Finally free of the decades-long stain of stigma that stood in the way of proper research, psychedelics are now being looked at seriously for all the benefits that their responsible and informed use can provide.

The Mind, Explained is a competent and concise update on the scientific progress made in the fields of behavioral science and neuroscience in decoding how the human brain works. The concepts presented are complex, but the language is accessible, and the presentation engaging. You’ll walk away informed but also in awe: despite all the advancements made in understanding it, the mind still remains a miraculous mystery.

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