Monday, May 4, 2015

The Neuroscience of Optimism and Pessimism

If you've been following along, I think you're beginning to get the idea that Who We Are - all our dreams, ideas, plans, personality and character traits, ambitions, fears, loves, the whole shebang - is a result of how the dizzying array of brain regions and inter-region communication all sort of comes together to present "you" to your own seat of conscious awareness and the world. Your entire assembled "you" depends a great deal on a) what brain regions you were genetically predisposed to be more prominent, b) how those were subsequently developed or suppressed through environmental factors starting from your time in the womb, through your two "rapid growth" periods (one roughly from 18 months to sixty months and another during your mid-teen years) all through your adult years. Environmental factors include an enormous variety of possibilities ranging from parenting, nutritional and educational availability, sleep quality, cultural pressures or freedoms and much, much so on. 

Today we're going to take a look at two very key foundations of "Who We Are". A very interesting paper came across my desk recently that very carefully examined the neuronal basis for optimism and pessimism. The recurring theme of this blog is that we have many "drivers" that steer us this way or that way through life or react to any given situation and the "hardware" involved in these two traits are going to play massive roles in how you get through life so when I got a chance to read through and study this paper carefully, I became quite excited (well, I do with almost any good neuroscience paper). "This is going to make great material for my blog", I thought (then my dopamine system, anticipating a juicy reward, made sure I knuckled down and got to it). 

Before we proceed, however, we need a little lesson in some basic brain anatomy. We're going to start with the biggest and clearest "division of neuronal real estate" there is in the brain - the two brain hemispheres, left and right respectively. Strictly anatomically speaking, they look like this:

[actually because the front of the brain is at the bottom, the left hemisphere is on the right side of the image and the right hemisphere on the left]

One of the basic principles of how brains work is that there are great divisions of labour that are spread throughout the brain and one of the biggest divisions is the left-right split (and from there it subdivides down into crazily tiny little "labourers" with different tasks). There are some myths, however, regarding this left/right division of neuronal labour and no doubt you've read or been told something along the lines of "right brained" and "left brained" people. This will be roughly akin to logical, methodical and analytical people being "left brained" and creative and artistic people being "right brained" but that has thoroughly been debunked, never really having had any solid scientific basis in the first place so you can toss that out of whatever bag of ideas you had about how brains work (and how you work). Nonetheless, it is very well known through enormous amounts of real world study (particularly the study of brain injuries or stroke damage) or clinical research (clever laboratory experiments) or through animal research that there are many specific tasks that are handled individually by either of the respective hemispheres. 

Divided as they are both anatomically and in task assignment, the two hemispheres work very closely together, rather like two separate computers running different software that work together to solve a single problem. As there would be with two separate but simultaneously and harmoniously working computers, there are communication "cables" that link them together and between the two hemispheres of our brains there is a massive "trunk line" of axons called the corpus callosum. There are several high traffic volume trunk lines in the brain (bundles of axons that carry major brain wide signaling) and the CC is probably the busiest because of the enormous amount of activity that must go on between the two hemispheres (I hope to get to the brain's connectome, which I introduced in Neuroscience 101, and get into this "trunk line" traffic in more detail in the not too distant future).

Now that we have an idea of what brain hemispheres are (I always try to get my posts to pull double duty), let's move on to this business about optimism and pessimism. 

First of all we have to clear up the common misconceptions of what these two terms mean. The natural tendency is to consider optimism as a "positive virtue" and pessimism as a "negative disadvantage" but this is not very accurate. We are generally inclined to view "optimists" as these positive, happy people always looking on the bright side of life who are great to be around and pessimists as these negative Nellys who are miserable to have in one's company and while these general impressions are not exactly inaccurate, it's not so simple as that. 

It is also widely believed that we have some sort of "choice" in the matter of optimism and pessimism and that to be happier one merely has to "choose" to be more positive, more optimistic and to be less negative and pessimistic as if we can just flip from one to the other like flipping a light switch but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. As with anything to do with how we consciously experience our outlook on life and experience life itself (our inner perception of "reality"), there is actually little conscious control over this (and I will get to this brier patch of a question of free will and conscious choice at some point) but is instead all determined (I will avoid the equally thorny issue of determinism, however) by what goes on "beneath the hood". 

So let's start off by better understanding what these terms mean.

Firstly, science looks at these terms quite differently than we do in the day to day world. In guiding your conscious you and your body through life, your brain has a tremendous number of jobs to do and virtually all of these jobs are handled by "behind the scenes" machinations within the brain (your conscious you would literally "crash" and/or melt down if you had to consciously deal with all these things) and one of the greatest of these subconscious jobs, or systems, is what I'll refer to here as "risk-benefit assessment" and what we term as "optimism" and "pessimism" are simply your brain running massive numbers of brain wide calculations and coming up with "odds" of being successful or not at any given choice presented to you. 

These choices might be big life decisions about whether to go to college or to learn a trade or something as mundane as what to have for lunch at the deli. It might be about whom to date or not or it might whether to turn right or left at a fork in the road. We generally make these decisions seemingly quickly because "we" are not making them at all but instead the "decisions" that consciously flash into our heads have been determined by vast numbers of subconscious systems running certain calculations and/or having certain "pre-sets" (in programming parlance) that steer our seeming "choices" one way or the other. And one of the most pre-eminent systems in steering our "choices" and thus guiding us through life is the hardware involved in risk assessment. 

Therefore, in strict risk assessment terms, "optimism" favours the odds of a good outcome in a given situation and "pessimism" does not favour the odds of a good outcome. Or "optimism" plays down the odds of a bad thing happening and "pessimism" plays up the odds of a bad thing happening. As life is full of peril and reward, victory and defeat, a balance of optimism and pessimism is actually critical in risk-benefit assessment. However, both optimism and pessimism are prone to cognitive errors and as such may result in either overly risky behaviour or overly cautious behaviour. 

Risky behaviour might range from being overly optimistic, throwing caution to the wind and entering a financially ill advised business venture, for example, or perhaps entering a disastrous marriage because you were so "sure" it would work out, or something like attempting to dash across a busy street or even becoming a gambling addict (who are famously prone to overestimating, or being too optimistic, about the odds of winning). 

Having a pessimistic bias, on the other hand, will result in being overly cautious and missing out on many otherwise good opportunities for gain and joy and thus perhaps living a very limited life where the specter of "defeat" lies around every corner. Possible great careers therefor may be avoided or loving relationships not entered and all manner of possible rewards missed. But it could also save one from entering overly risky ventures, making unwise purchases, getting into poor relationships and so on (and thus often saving your bacon).

So in properly understanding these two halves of our mental makeup, you must disabuse yourself of the notion that optimism is necessarily "good" and pessimism is necessarily "bad". Risk-benefit assessment that views a given situation towards a pessimist bias may well guide one away from danger or poor life decision and the ensuing trouble. On the other hand, optimistic risk-beneifit assessment may encourage one to go forth with a good opportunity that may have otherwise been missed. 

It is also a commonly mistaken assumption that one is either optimistic in every area of their life or pessimistic or that one is either optimistic or pessimistic all the time. One could well be overly optimistic in some areas (pursuing the opposite sex for example) and overly pessimistic in others (such as job prospects) and almost all of us will be feeling a little more of one or the other on any given day. 

There are other aspects of life decisions and directions that are affected. A consistently overly optimistic evaluation of one's abilities may keep one fruitlessly chasing a career path or business dream that one simply isn't equipped to achieve or, conversely, if one is too prone to pessimistic risk assessment bias preventing one from pursuing a job, career path or dream for which one is perfectly qualified or able. 

Successful and optimal living, therefore, requires a balance between optimism and pessimism. 

Proper risk-benefit outcome and abilities assessment - this balance between optimistic assessment and pessimistic assessment - is therefor going to be a huge factor in determining one's success in life as well as one's basic personality and vulnerability to mental health disorders so it behooves us all to best understand exactly how this system works and either achieves balance or not. 

With that in mind, let's take a look at what's "under the hood" and the "apps" - or brain hardware - that are responsible for each of these risk assessment biases, how they work and why and which will determine whether you're more an optimist or a pessimist (or perhaps a nice balance of both) and why. 

Back to our separate brain hemispheres and the division of labour between them, it turns out that optimism is mediated by the left hemisphere and pessimism by the right. 

Brain Regions Involved:

There are two small regions involved which are located in the frontal lobes and they are: the right inferior frontal gyrus (selectively encodes pessimistic information) and the left inferior frontal gyrus (selectively encodes optimistic information). The image below shows the right IFG and some of the other regions it's tied into (in reality, the wider network circuitry would be far more complex).

As with any brain regions, they do not of course work in isolation and will be part of various complicated "loops" (this happens to show a bit of what's involved in attention).

As with all collections of neurons that are involved in performing particular tasks along with the wiring that connects them to wider brain networks or "hubs", we are not created equal and so it is with the right and left inferior frontal gyrus respectively. As with any brain region, it's going to be a matter of hereditary (read: genetic) factors whether one region is stronger than the other along with environmental conditioning (and this topic of genetic factors and environmental conditioning is going to have to be something I go into proper detail elsewhere).  So depending on the luck of the genetic and environmental conditioning draws, your right inferior frontal gyrus (pessimistic region) might be more "robust" and dominant, or your left inferior frontal gyrus (optimistic) might be or it's entirely possible that you're blessed with a happy balance between the two. 

The thing with brain regions is that we almost never have any conscious idea what any of them are up to and if one is weak or another is dominant we will be unable to consciously know the difference. We'll be so used to those regions filtering information and creating "decisions" a certain way that we'll have no idea what any other way would be like, that's just our perception of reality. And even if we did, our brains would default back to their "normal operating state" without our awareness. 

This is roughly what is meant by "selective information processing". 

To quote our source paper

It was demonstrated in experiments where participants estimated their probabilities for experiencing a wide range of positive or negative events (e.g. having a happy marriage, winning the lottery, or suffering from cancer, Alzheimer's disease, etc.). Later, they were informed of the real probabilities of these events occurring to them, based on actual statistical records segmented by demographics, location and other characteristics. 

When asked to give a second estimate about their chances of experiencing the same events, the participants tended to update their knowledge mainly when the new information favored their previous position (i.e. when the positive events were statistically more likely to occur, or that the probabilities of negative events were lower than previously estimated). 

However, when the newly learned facts did not support their previous position, the participants tended to ignore it and at the second round they forgot to correct and update their estimations.

So you see what's happening here is that if people display an optimistic bias, it's because their incoming information tends to get routed through their more dominant left inferior frontal gyrus (optimistic region) and not so much through the right inferior frontal gyrus (negative region) and vice versa for negative biases. People (or we) don't try to do this. This is all very subconscious "data processing" and creations of mental outcomes. If the neuronal circuitry (among numerous other factors) is dominant for one or the other, that's just the way information is going to get routed, processed, outlooks created and "decisions" made.

Now, does all this mean we're locked into either being hopeless pessimists or foolishly risk taking optimists? Not at all. The brain, as we'll learn, is "plastic" and any region in the brain is able to be remolded and its function either enhanced or toned down. Through cognitive re-appraisal techniques, learned critical thinking skills and conscious and mindful effort (and there are various mental exercises that can be done to learn these skills and techniques), one can retrain these brain regions - in time - to achieve a better balance between optimism and pessimism. One can learn to better apply the right brain "pessimist" side to dampen down the inclination towards overly risky behaviour and one can learn to bring their "optimist" hardware on the left side more into play when evaluating life's choices. It does take daily conscious and mindful effort for any new behaviour to become habituated and for it to come more naturally to you. The neuroscience of patient effort is one we'll have to address another time, however. 

In the two decades I spent living in Asia or within Asian culture (which I did in my native Vancouver, BC), I learned a great deal of respect for Chinese philosophy and thought systems. And perhaps the best one that would apply here is the concept of yin and yang. Yin represents the darker side and yang the brighter side (to put it extremely simply). This philosophy states that you cannot ignore or favour either and that proper life is a balance of each.

I can think of no better area to apply that philosophy and life goal than to your right inferior frontal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus brain regions. :)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Consciousness Explained - Part One

Consciousness Explained
Part One

Okay, one of my favourite subjects about the brain – consciousness! There are a couple of reasons I want to talk about consciousness.

Firstly, and most importantly, I would like my dear readers to at least somewhat understand what consciousness is because understanding that is important for understanding the subconscious and I strongly believe that better understanding the subconscious is very useful (actually, I think it's critical but it's okay if you just find it useful) to understanding “you”. When I write “you” in quotation marks like that, by the way, I am indicating the “consciousness” you experience during your waking hours. But I'll come back to this later. I think sleeping hours are at least somewhat significant as well, but not in the sense most people do (the meaning of dreaming and dream content) but that falls outside of what I want to talk about in this series.

Furthermore, understanding consciousness is very useful for understanding the mind which again is very useful (critical, I believe) to understanding “you”.

Now there is much to be said and explored about dualism and free will but I'm going to leave those aside as well today. For now I just want to establish the model I use for consciousness and subconscious so that my regular readers can better understand where I'm coming from when I talk about these two concepts.

Furthermore, when it comes to understanding who “we” are, it is important to understand our various mental states and any given mental state of mind is generated by the brain so the better we understand the brain, the better we understand the mind, and thus the better we can understand what's going on in “us” To clarify and establish my meaning of “mind”, I actually use “mind” and “conscious experience” more or less interchangeably because it is my position that they are more or less referring to the same mental experience.

To study conscious experience and subconscious it is now necessary to study neuroscience (anyone who does not study neuroscience and understand it at a high level does not belong in the discussion on understanding and defining consciousness and subconscious, in my not so humble opinion). I don't say this to be exclusionary, it's just that whatever consciousness is, it exists in the brain or is manufactured by the brain (I am of the latter school of thought), and it is necessary to study, understand and keep abreast of the latest neuroscience in order to understand the latest understandings of the consciousness/subconscious conundrum.

The question of consciousness and how to define it is not a new question of course. It's plagued science and philosophy since the dawn of those two disciplines. Many theories and models have been proposed, none of them providing any kind of basis for satisfactory consensus. Whatever you know about it, I'm going to ask you to put that aside and look at it differently. The reason I ask you to do this is because I strongly believe (and the road to this conclusion is too long and winding to briefly recount here, but it is based on very high understanding of neuroscience and discussions held within that field) that past models are a large part of the problem as to why we have so much trouble understanding “us” - we homo sapiens – and all of our various (generally hard to understand and deal with) behaviours. The various disciplines charged with our brain health (psychiatry, psychology and medical practitioners) simply have outdated and outmoded understandings of elementary concepts such as consciousness and the subconscious and since we generally turn to those fields if we seek to understand what's going on with ourselves, this would appear to me to be a bit of a problem. So please, set aside all other models that form the basis for your understanding of consciousness/subconscious.

This is what I refer to as the subconscious -

That is the human brain and all of it, everything you see there – and that represents all the hundred billion neurons and tens of thousands of kilometers of axon circuitry and countless glia cells as presented here in the introductory Neuroscience 101 post - operates below our “conscious” awareness or control. All that biological matter hums away without any conscious effort on our part at all. We – our “conscious selves” - have virtually no control over anything that goes on in there. There's a modicum of control that can be attained and there are times we can give it certain “commands” that certain parts will respond to to some degree, but I'll get to that as we go along in the series. I'd hate to try put an exact percentage of control we have over what goes on in that three pound mass you see pictured above but it'd certainly be well below 1%.

Once I studied neuroscience and understood it to a certain level, I understood that all the old Freudian and psychological models for subconscious and all those subsequently bootstrapped off of them – are inaccurate and muddy. They flail around in the dark because those that make them don't understand neuroscience (nor want to – because that would threaten their models, and thus careers, reputation, etc). It is only through the study of neuroscience and neuroanatomy and neurobiology and everything else involved in processes of the brain that one can even begin to approach the problem.

So it is this kind of model and approach to it that I firmly believe needs to be jettisoned:

So when I use the term “subconscious”, I am not using the term in the sense most people are used to thinking about it but am instead referring to the biological brain that hums away 24/7 from the latter states of fetal development till the day your vital organs shut down and the screen of your consciousness permanently fades to black.

The question of consciousness is one of the Holy Grails of all of science. The brain has been poked, prodded, scanned, dissected, sliced, diced and examined to the nth degree with some of the most technically advanced tools in human history. The brain has been mapped and its wiring laid out and the centres identified for all kinds of functions and circuits involved in various actions, thoughts and reactions. Amazing progress has been made in just the last five years to a decade in understanding how the brain works.

But nobody – and I do mean nobody – who studies the brain (as opposed to those philosophical theorists and psychology sorts) can say where – or even what – consciousness is. When science pokes into the brain – and as I said, this has been done to astonishingly minute detail – you cannot see where “consciousness” is. There's no “thing” or part to point to and go “ah-haa! That's where consciousness is!”. It's generally considered to be in the frontal lobes as that's where the neuronal centres for our higher executive commands and higher human functions are based but defining consciousness as being “there” runs into problems as well.

So there appears to be no physical basis or seat of “consciousness”. The brain just seems to somehow produce it and we somehow experience it. Therefore, you'll hear a lot of flailing away on theories of consciousness and it drives scientists batty because they like to be able to see something before they declare anything as “proven” or “factual”. And so far nobody has been able to do that, to “see” or detect with instruments where it is (it's such an enticingly intriguing Holy Grail of a scientific endeavor that even the quantum mechanics physicist folks have jumped into the fray with great enthusiasm).

So I'm certainly not going to claim that I've discovered the secret to defining consciousness. But I do think we need at least a common understanding and basic working model for our purposes in this blog and that's what I'm going to do here. The ideas I present here may not be “the answer”, but they are based on the latest and most advanced – not to mention the elementary basic - neuroscience I could find. So I didn't arrive at my model blindly or without solid basis.

When I use the term “consciousness”, then, I refer to the phenomenon we experience when we awaken each day and that screen we “see” in our “mind's eye” flashes to life. I don't view finding a “hard” definition that stands up to scientific rigor that important. I mean it's nice for the brain nerds who have to put food on their tables chasing grants to do that kind of neuronal navel gazing but it really makes no difference to us regular folks in the real world. On the other hand, I do believe it's important to understand what the most up to date knowledge of what the subconscious is so I just want to to split our understanding of consciousness and subconscious for the sake of understanding how much control we have over what's going on in “us” once our mind's 'eye' goes to work each day and that stream of thoughts inner dialog starts to assault us.

And just to further clarify what I mean by “consciousness”, we can think of “unconscious” states. “Unconscious” refers to something quite different than subconscious. Unconscious refers to times when we are having no conscious experience at all. This may be while we're in deep sleep, or when we've suffered a concussion and are “blacked out” or when we've become inebriated enough by substances (usually alcohol) to lose consciousness for various periods of time or when we've been rendered unconscious by an anesthetic. In these states we are not aware of anything around us and we do not form memories during these states (there may be some but very likely they'd be a) very difficult to recall and b) they'd be very unreliable).

Conscious awareness then is how much, and how, we understand what we're seeing on that “inner screen” when we are a fully awake, fully aware state. I think understanding this is very useful for understanding what we experience when we're trying to understand others' or our own behaviours, actions, decisions and so on.

So here is how I'll present consciousness to you, which I hope you'll start to use as your own working model for understanding your conscious experience, how to define it and – it is my hope – give you a better basis for working to improve your daily conscious experience and moving it towards something that works better for you. I am adamant that knowing where you have control and where you don't have control over your mental functions, levels of cognition and your “conscious experience” is critical to optimizing your life outcomes with the brain you have.

To present the model I wish to use I'm going to revert to a tried and true model for explaining the brain and consciousness/subconscious divide – the computer. And the Internet.

When you fire up your computer and the screen comes to life and starts to present you with information brought to you through a cable (or wifi but even that gets its signal from a cable), three basic components are involved in creating your experience.

  • The Internet cable or wifi connection

  • the computer hardware and software programs and stored data (IE: memory)

  • the screen

- the cable brings in data, just raw data as represented in digital code. This code, in the raw, means nothing. You could open up a live data cable and you'd see nothing. It's meaningless. Even if you could see all the “bytes” of the data, it'd mean nothing to you. It's just a meaningless string of zeros and ones. To make sense of blizzard of meaningless incoming data you need:

- the computer hardware. The hardware makes sense of all this input data. It runs the data through various bits of hardware and software within the hardware and assembles the raw data into something you can understand on:

- the screen/speakers. It is here where you can experience all the data as represented in zeros and ones in something you can understand and see and/or hear. It is here where all that incompressible raw data comes to life in words, pictures, sounds, movies and so on.

Take any three of these basic legs away and the experience dies (yes, I know, there are still speakers/headphones for the auditory experience but I'm going to take the liberty of putting sight and sound together as one experience so when I say take away the screen, I mean the speakers/headphones as well).

Now, to further my computer metaphor of our conscious experience, I'm going to break down and define these three basic legs further. We'll start with the computing hardware and software.

The computing hardware and software is your biological brain and all the “nuts and bolts” that make that up. We'll further break that down into the actual hardware and software.

The hardware is all the brain components that have been identified (and again refer to Neuroscience 101 for a primer on these). This is all the “hard” material that modern science can look at and identify.

Software starts to get harder to define because, like consciousness itself, the "software" - the "programs" in our brains - is not exactly something that can be seen with the naked eye or instruments. But it can be inferred from what happens between the hardware so we “know” it's there even if it's difficult to actually “see”. We'll come back to further understanding software in later segments of this series.

The Internet is going to represent the environment (when I use the word “environment”, I am referring to everything and everyone that you deal with on a day to day basis. Your living conditions and social world, in other words) and our sensory experience of it. The Internet signal is all the sensory information that's brought in by your five (presuming you have all five) sense organs – eyes for sight, ears for sound, skin for tactile touch, nose for smells and tongue for taste.

I'm going to abandon the internet cable metaphor and just use the wifi receiver in your computer. Just as your wifi receiver senses signals in the air and converts them to electronic signals your computer can understand, your various sensing organs do the same with light waves, sound waves, scent molecules, taste molecules and tactile sensations – they convert these into electronic impulses that are sent to various brain regions to be analyzed and “assembled” into something that will become part of your conscious experience.

In the computer, there is hardware responsible for processing different “senses” and there are only two – visual and auditory signals, which are processed by a graphics card and a sound card respectively. And these two processes are routed through other bits of hardware and wiring, along with various software differently used at various times to assemble the final picture and sound on the screen.

While vastly, vastly more complicated of course, our brains do essentially the exact same thing. Our “signal receivers”, our five senses, take in sensory data in the atmosphere around us at any one time. Just like your computer has a sound card for audio and a graphics card for visual, there are specific brain regions for processing each of the five senses. For example, your eye takes in light waves, converts these to electrical impulses which then travel along the optic nerve to the occipital lobe which will go through enormously complicated and various processing programs to assemble all those electrical signals that represent the light photons bouncing around all around you into what you consciously experience as “vision”.

Simultaneously, your auditory signal receptors – your ears – are converting sound waves into electrical signals and sending those along to various parts of the brain which assemble this “data” into what you perceive as voices, music, and innumerable other sounds. The visual and auditory centres work closely together to assemble both the final picture and what to “filter out” (IE: reduce the onslaught of sensory data down to what's most important at a given moment).

Now, among its hardware, your computer also has two kinds of memory – Random Access Memory, or RAM, which is a card, and long term memory on the hard drive(s). And the brain is remarkably similar – it too has two kinds of memory; a short term memory called your working memory and long term memory. They operate quite differently and separately in the brain and what makes it from working memory to long term memory is part of what's a major struggle for a lot of people. How your short term memory works ties in very closely to our “conscious” experience so we're going to come back to that in more detail later. It's VERY important.

Another computer metaphor for your conscious experience I'd like to introduce now is cloud computing. Cloud computing is when a number of computers work together for a single purpose or goal. I'm going to use it to represent our social worlds, or in other words, our relationships with other “brains”. We – or our brains to be more accurate – do not work by themselves or on their own. Some hermits do that but for most of us our brains must “interface” with other brains (or people).

In cloud computing, several or many computers must work in close concert with one another and to do that they have to be “on the same page”, or in other words, they must have very close and agreed upon working protocols. For computers, this is relatively easy if they're all running the same or similar software and responding to similar commands. But even with computers it's not so simple.

As in cloud computing, we humans must also work with many other “computers” - brains – (I have this habit now of seldom referring to people as people or individuals and referring to them as “brains”. This is because our thoughts, spoken dialog, and inner and outer behaviours are nothing more than the products of what our brains are capable of and do at any one moment in time). And just like in cloud computing, to properly succeed in any kind of cooperative effort, we have to “be on the same page” or have similar working/behavioural protocols to make that happen. How well we operate in life depends a great, great deal on how our brains interface and cooperate with other brains.

That's the end of Part One. In Part Two, I'll further explain and establish our working model for the understanding of your conscious experience and further use the computer metaphors for better understanding both your conscious experience and what's going on in the “hardware” and “programs” when your conscious experience is producing something like a bipolar episode or depressive episode or a crisis point meltdown and even the delusions of schizophrenia and so on.