We notice that we occasionally use the phrase “…and the brain decides….” This makes it sounds like there’s a little person inside the brain going, “Hmmm—I just got some really helpful feedback. Maybe I’ll stop doing that stupid, inefficient thing and do this smarter thing instead.”
Well, of course that’s not true—there’s no little person in there. So what do we mean when we say “the brain decides…”?
In complexity science, we talk about complex adaptive systems (like the brain) having the capacity to self-organize. A related concept (closely related, but not exactly the same) is that these systems show the quality of emergence—that is, if you looked carefully at all the parts of the system, you could never predict how the whole system would behave. The whole has characteristics that can’t be predicted from the characteristics of its parts.
A great example of this is the flocking behavior of starlings: there is nothing in the observable nature of a starling that would let you imagine the incredible flocking behavior of a group (or “murmuration”) of thousands of starlings.
Do the starlings “decide” to interact in a particular way? Nope. Flocking is an emergent characteristic of starlings gathered in a group. It’s not the function of any individual bird or any sub-group of the flock. There’s no boss starling—the group self-organizes in this way. (And if you watch a murmuration of starlings in the video, you’ll see that it moves in one direction, and then suddenly shifts and moves in another direction—as a whole system, without a director.)
The brain is similarly self-organizing, and can suddenly shift from doing one thing to another. This is what we’re referring to when we say “the brain decides.” In response to the feedback that NeurOptimal provides, the brain self-organizes from doing one thing to doing another. When the brain has settled into an inefficient pattern, or one characterized by bothersome symptoms, the new emergent pattern is often experienced as better: insomnia gives way to good sleep, anxiety gives way to calm,depression lifts, distraction is replaced by the ability to focus, procrastination lessens.
We are not diagnosing a problem and programming the computer to fix that problem. The software is simply mirroring the brain’s activity back to the brain, and the brain uses that information to self-organize.