Wednesday, November 14, 2012


"The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains our Insatiable Search for Meaning" by Daniel Bor  (2012, Basic Books) is the first book we discovered no library wanted to loan through Interlibrary Loan!  I figured this meant it was full of pretty valuable stuff, so I just bought it, used of course.  Now I don't want to loan it!

This is one of a barrage of books developing out of the neurostudy of brains made possible by information accumulated through the use of new instruments and theories. One small factoid would stick to another, then some indications fit into that and a theory would form, which was tested by other instruments, in a process that Bor calls "chunking" but I like to call "clustering," the pattern for how atoms form elements and how elements form molecules which in turn form creatures.  The form of the book is interesting:  274 pages of text, 31 pages of references, many of which are simply accounts of experiments and results, including some major landmarks which it is handy to have all on one list.  Website url's are included in footnotes.kkk  It's friendly writing, rather personal, quite clear, very well edited and nicely printed.

The two personal motors for Bor's work are his wife's struggle with bipolar disorder and, as he begins the book, his father's stroke which made one side of his brain silent.  The research for much of this work, like a lot of medical categories including psychiatry, comes from dealing with disorders, lesions, genetic aberrations, with consequences that might be profoundly disturbing (a baby born with no cerebrum) or merely interesting (synesthesia, for since, hearing sounds in colors.)  But it's not all gloom: his baby daughter makes a star appearance, full of joy and life as she develops in a protective and loving world.

The great value of the book for me is its order-creating, its pattern-making, its ability to show sequences and consider paradigms.  Of course, this is also the book's theme -- that the brain is ravenous for such information which is the source of meaning.

Dr. Bor is in the spotlight now.  He has a website:  His book begins by reviewing the “stacked-and-wrapped” complex evolved human brain that begins with a knob at the top of the spine and proceeds through the reptile brain, the mammal brain, and finally the prefrontal parietal network that is the most recent development.  He makes the point that even the delicate newly evolved cells behind the forehead are still dependent upon the support and function of all the other parts of the brain.  

Human brains are cumulative in their functions, as are their capabilities.  This is one of his main points: that the accumulation of coded information in one of the many reiterations of history (like the developing fetus seeming to go through the evolution of creatures as it develops) the brain acquires little bits of code, combines them into larger units, then combines them into still larger and more complex sequences.  This process can sometimes trigger interactions among the bits of code that result in emergent skills which make the senses better able to access coded information from the “real” world in either the realm of the body or the realm of everything outside the body.  At some point one emergence was that of consciousness, the ability to reflect on one’s management of code by using one’s mastery of thought code.  We call this “rationality,” the ability to adjust one’s thinking on purpose and consciously, rather than the unconscious assumptions that form all the time as soon as the brain is capable.  Bor doesn’t much like subconscious thoughts and systems.

The boundary between unconscious and conscious is not sharp, which is part of the problem.  Not only is there a continuum of awareness, but there can be changes in the KIND of awareness.  A brain manages the homeostasis of the creature by monitoring and sometimes affecting both what code enters or forms in the body and, subsequently and dependently, what code it sends to the other cells of the body through direct nerve filament (axon) contact, through molecular signals traveling in fluids like blood and lymph, and through electromagnetic wave signals.  It is not a computer, but it can interface with a computer enough to make a dot move around on a monitor screen.  Work is progressing on artificial limbs that can be operated by the brain.

One pressure for more information is coming from the realization that some brain-damaged people who have been in comas and are now in a “vegetative state” meaning that they open their eyes, maybe move around, but cannot respond to questions.  Some may respond to pain, like a pin stick.  We know that, depending on the damage, some of these people have consciousness but cannot move.  The idea of someone trapped in a body is a tormenting one.

Another motivation for research is that of anesthetics, many of which we don’t really understand and which sometimes cause death.  Brain lesions -- concussions, strokes, infections, swelling, and so on -- were, of course, the original impetus, much energized by the idea of the two-sided brain and how it works.  How is it that a person can function with only one side?  Are the sides specialized or overlapping or can they compensate?  Addressing genetic aberrations take a high priority.

This is all about the organic machinery that supports thought.  Emotion is information from the body responding to thoughts and other stimuli.  It gets woven into the other information somehow.  All thoughts appear to be “indexed” in the brain as patterns tied into the sensory information that first came in.  These form (evolve) into patterns that Bor calls “chunks.”  That’s not very elegant but it is expressive.  I’d rather call it “clustering.”

Coded information comes in as raw stimulation: sound against the ear drum, molecules floating into the nose, and feedback from muscles.  If a person is working on a new skill, then at first the information that can be gained will be small.  Maybe one is throwing and catching a ball.  One pattern will be learning eye-hand coordination, another for the way a ball travels responding to your force and the influence of gravity -- maybe wind.  Internally one must learn how to hold one’s hand for throwing, how to grab the ball when it arrives, how to turn one’s wrist to switch from one to the other.  Gradually, what emerges is the skill.  By that time the awareness of all the previously learned bits can recede into the unconscious, because it is part of a new “object” in which it is subsumed, included.  Now the consciousness is able to deal with other issues.

Emotions attach to this process of learning and also sensory information.  Maybe the brain is recording loving interaction like boys playing catch with their fathers, loyalty to fellow players in a softball game, and the sense impressions of small town summer competition with neighbors cheering in the homemade bleachers.  At a high level all this information, combined with the skill of a poet and writer like Donald Hall, produces a classic and acclaimed book like “Father’s Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball)”  (1984), available for a penny on the Internet.

What it all “means” depends on larger forces than one human mind, but rather on the larger and fairly unconscious patterns of the culture.

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