The foundation of personality
Although brain research is in its infancy, we know that the brain consists of several distinct regions and that each of these regions serves two functions; the first is biological, in that each region plays a lead role in managing aspects of our physiology; from regulating oxygen levels in the blood to sending the messages to our muscles that enable us to move. The second function is psychological, with each region possessing a distinct style for the way in which it processes information.
In human brains the frontal lobes perform a very clever function; in addition to processing information themselves, they also distribute information for processing to other parts of the brain before considering the different results. You will have experienced this yourself when you have had an idea and immediately challenged it by considering it from a different point of view, almost as though there were two people inside your head having a discussion.
These different perspectives arise from the contrasting processing styles of the major regions of the brain, with a continuum of styles existing between each extreme.
Between the left hemisphere, which processes information in a sequential, step-by-step style and the right hemisphere, which processes information in a more relational style, there exists a continuum of processing styles. For example, when you listen to someone speaking it is your left hemisphere that will be comparing the words they are using to your knowledge of language, but it will be your right hemisphere that is processing the information on body language, facial expressions and the tonality of their voice.
A similar continuum exists between the frontal lobes and the lower brain. Since the frontal lobes provide our more theoretical and conceptual thoughts and the lower brain our more instinctive thoughts, we term this the perception continuum.
When a person is 'thinking' about something, what they are actually doing is utilising the contrasting processing styles of different brain regions to consider the subject from different perspectives – in much the same way as if they were listening to the opinions of different people. Their eventual conclusion is therefore the result of this 'internal debate'.
This ability has been important in the advancement of the human race as it enables us to both challenge our own thoughts and ideas as well as being able to comprehend the thoughts and ideas of other people. This allows us to consider alternative courses of action, learn from other people, plan ahead and develop strategies. It has enabled us to construct buildings, develop medicines, cross oceans and even put a man on the moon!
Knowing how the various regions of the brain process information is only part of the story; to understand why we are all individuals, with our own unique thoughts, ideas and personalities, it is necessary to understand the way in which we use these various brain regions. This is as a result of the synaptic network; the electro-chemical 'wiring' that connects cells in one part of the brain to those in another.
The synaptic network within every brain is unique. At the start of our lives it is entirely the result of the DNA we inherit from our parents. Thereafter it develops on a 'use-it-or-lose-it' basis in much the same way as our muscles develop – those synaptic connections that are used the most grow stronger while those that are not used at all waste away and disappear.
Who we are as a unique individual is therefore the result of the way in which our synaptic network and our frontal lobes utilise the different processing styles of the various regions of our brains. As the eminent neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux put it "you are your synapses"1.