The brain is undoubtedly the most complex form of matter in the known universe. When one considers the abilities of this three pound wonder it becomes even more fascinating. After all, here the mystery of consciousness and matter comes to a head, if you will excuse the pun. Do you remember This is Water recommended in Our Kitchen Table Conversation? One fish swimming by asks another ‘how’s the water?’ to which the fish replies, ‘what is water?’ How easy it is for us to become completely oblivious to whatever our environments habitually present to us. Consciousness is in the center of our every experience and it is exactly like that. Unless you are involved in a contemplative practice chances are good you have no regular time set aside to try and get to know the human mind on its own terms. Isn’t it rather strange that you have intimate access to this most complex manifestation in the entire known universe, yet typically find yourself too busy to spend any real quality time with it?
We use consciousness to accomplish the million and one tasks and chores of our daily lives. We use it to lie, cheat and steal on our way towards getting ahead at any cost. We use it to create stories and art and all the other artifacts of culture, not to mention the buildings and roads, electrical lines and water delivery services, food supplies and all the other factors our physical survival requires.
Poor brain. Used and abused then blamed for every manner of ills without first getting to know it hardly at all. If it were a sexual partner, well, the word for such encounters is not flattering. Or to use Martin Buber’s useful terms; instead of an I and Thou relationship with our own minds we deal with things as if it were I and It.
Perhaps we are overlooking something of great importance in our hurry to pursue our own agendas at the expense of a more vast view. There is a balance between personal and cosmic that when found, provides a space in which life can be enjoyed; we can feel comforted, safe, creative, loved and loving. We can come to experience directly that consciousness is like the contents and the environment it finds itself in is the container and they are fundamentally congruent, like a lock and key. Part of each extends back through billions of years of evolutionary time, a reality that can become our ticket into the vaster inheritance that is ours for the asking. Another approach is to appeal to your proper self-interest and point out that that the quality of your whole life will depend directly on the quality of your consciousness. The types of thoughts and feelings that dominate your days and nights will determine, more than any other factor, whether your life is basically a happy one or otherwise.
I have already addressed how this is not the same as the New Age teaching that your mind creates your reality. This is more along the lines of the Stoic comprehension of the role of the mind in the human experience.
These poetic words are offered in the hope that they inspire a desire to learn more about the brain and consciousness. A craftsman is willing to spend years learning the proper use of a tool, which is why it is said that it is a poor craftsman that blames his tools. It is also true that the skilled craftsman knows there is a right tool for the job. Skill in living seems to consist in selecting the right cognitive tool for the job at hand. We all laugh at the nerd who applies Calculus and probability theory to affairs of the heart, yet we don’t blink an eye when quarterly business ethics are used to weigh the value of all potential future human generations. Applying the endless growth paradigm of economics (and cancer) to the ecological features of our planetary life is like the unskilled craftsman who owns only a hammer. You know the old saw – everything looks like a nail.
Perhaps knowing something about the workings of the human brain can aid those of us struggling with the issues of our times. With a little of the right kind of knowledge we can exponentially become more skilled in helping both ourselves and others through life’s more challenging moments. And ultimately there is that balance that was mentioned as a goal worth working towards; one less selfish, angry, confused, dangerous person in the world.
News Flash: There are multiple modules in the brain.
The brain, as it is understood by current neuroscience, consists not of a single, amorphous mass but a number of highly differentiated modules, each functionally unique; a set of information processing tools. To the untrained eye a brain looks to consist of all the same material, ‘mental Spam’ to use Steven Pinker’s colorful phrase, but to the neuroanatomist there are striking differences that were first noted in ancient times. The cellular architectures are diagrammed in a convenient anatomical reference which has remained valid a century after Korbinian Brodmann’s studies were first published in 1909. These are not the functional modules, just the cellular distinctions, although later research did find a few are closely correlated. Those are highlighted in the version of the graphic reproduced below. For those of us without a need for detailed neuroanatomical knowledge, this mapping provides a simple way to be familiar with what varieties of cellular structure are involved in brain physiology and how they are laid out.
The neuron is at the heart of the whole nervous system, brain included. It is critical to understand the role of neuron connections to appreciate why modern cognitive science is so sure information processing is a valid operational model of what it is that is happening at the cellular level when awareness arises within us. In Descartes Error Damasio makes the point about what is known as local circuits this way: The average neuron has about 1,000 synapses (though some can have five or six times as many). In the adult brain there are more than ten billion neurons and maybe ten trillion synapses. Select a few neurons and you will find that they are only connected to a few others, that is, even though the thousand synapses of an individual neuron sounds large, in the context of the total number of synapses in the brain, the work of neurons chained together is highly localized. Each makes connections with only relatively few others.
When we examine the brain perhaps the most obvious neuronal characteristic is the separation of the grey and white areas as seen in this cross sectional photo:
The grey matter is mostly the collection of neuron’s cell bodies and the white matter a collection of the neuron’s axions that emanate from the cell bodies. The grey color is due to the close packing of the cell bodies and the white is due to the myelin sheaths coating each nerve fiber, each bundle of axions. The grey matter can be found structured as a layer cake or in a bundled collection like nuts in a bowl. The layer structure is called a cortex, the bundle a nucleus.
There are a number of such nuclei scattered throughout the human brain both large and small. The amygdala, which was mentioned in an earlier post as a brain region related to emotional processing, is an example of one of the larger nuclei. It is found in the center of each temporal lobe. The thalamus is an example of the smaller nuclei; it is formed as a collection of smaller nuclei.
It is the cerebral cortex that has gained the lion’s share of attention in modern brain studies. It is this layer, only about three millimeters thick, which covers the cerebral hemispheres. The deep fissures that give the brain its crumpled appearance are part of the cerebrum. The cerebral cortex layer covers those fissures as well. Another cortex is the cerebellar cortex which envelopes the whole cerebellum. Damasio (1999) explains the higher order cortices “make up the ocean of cerebral cortex around the islands of early sensory cortices and motor cortices”, islands which can be seen in the Brodmann diagram above.
With these terms we can lay out the levels of neural architecture as it is found in the brain. This hierarchy of complexities with emergent properties at each level will look familiar to students of the system sciences. It is a model found throughout nature from biological systems to ecosystems. This is the model as it is applied to neuroscience. The following is from Damasio (1994):
Systems of Systems
What we have discovered is that the localized nature of neuron communications requires and explains the brain specializations. Such specialization, Damasio explains, “is a consequence of the place occupied by assemblies of sparsely connected neurons within a large-scale system.”
This post has covered a lot of ground. The take away points are that the brain is known to have the following, often counter-intuitive properties:
It is not amorphous.
It is organized in modules.
Its neuron connections though high in number are mostly a local phenomenon.
It is constructed as a super-system of systems.
Cognitive neuroscience is a detailed field of study with fascinations awaiting the student at every turn. One volume I found approachable is Cognition, Brain, and Consciousness: Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience by Bernard Baars and Nicole Gage. The first edition can be found at reasonable prices. Another reference I came across while doing research for this post is a set of videos on Neurology.
One of the first default ideas most of us bring to the study of the brain that needs to be jettisoned right from the start is the tendency to think in term of things instead of processes. This is a more general problem appearing whenever systems analysis is rejected in favor of a simpler, yet incomplete, static analysis of events. When applied to the brain, the static approach would like to pigeonhole certain brain features in overly simplistic terms. We already looked at the triune brain model as one overly simple model not quite capable of carrying the explanatory burden that was once asked of it. The right-brain, left-brain model that made the rounds through pop psychology and self-help books not long ago is another.
The Buddhist conception that there are not simple cause and effect relations in our interdependent reality but only causes and conditions in multiple, inseparable combinations serves us well in this area of study, as in so many others. It is a corrective to over simplification.
In the 1990’s when fMRI brain imaging was just getting started it was common to read about discoveries of specialized brain areas as if they embodied simple cause and effect relations. The same thing happened with the early advances in genetics when we used to read about a gene for this or a gene for that. The genetic communications turned out to be not at all as simple as that and the same thing was discovered in the brain sciences.
While this post has been at pains to point out the mass of material in the brain is not uniform, it is none-the-less remarkably similar across the bulk of the brain mass and even across species. How can the same basic nerve structures be representing skills as varied as spinning a web, tuning a bird call and designing the Hubble Space Telescope? Neural connections, it turns out, hold the difference that makes a difference. They embody the processes. They just might also hold the solution to the puzzle about how ethereal thought interacts with the material world. We will take this up next week.