Sunday, August 18, 2013


YOU ARE NOT YOUR BRAIN, DUMMY!  The brain is only the managing system, the dashboard!  Your consciousness is the dials of feedback system (speedometer, oil level, etc.), but what the brain is managing is your body!  Your WHOLE body -- guts and all.  Skin, five classic senses plus many others, some subconscious like beating your heart and digesting your food and healing your cut.  The brain is constantly gathering, sorting, and prioritizing information from the body and deciding what to do about it.  The main goal is survival.  There are 86 TED talks in the category called “brain.”  This particular one is the closest to what I’m trying to say.  (But I’ve watched only a few of the other 85, so . . .)  I’m right there with Wolpert when he says that the difference between inanimate and animate (living) things is that the latter move.  The fact that they can move for their own purposes, either to approach food and sex or to avoid trauma and poisoning, means that they are alive and have intentions or at least reactions.  In the early moments of evolution, like bacteria, there is only a one-celled animal, but it has both kinds of movement: approach and avoid.  No brain, no skeleton, no muscles, but it can move.

Wolpert says that movement can account for everything a body does except sweat.  I think he should broaden his category to “secrete.”  In the bacterium, that would mean managing the permeability of the cell boundary to let certain molecules in and push other molecules out.  The brain cells must do something like that, because every cell does that, but that’s not interacting with the world.  Still, bodies excrete as well as secrete.  Muscles are involved in excretion.  We even speak of a bowel movement.

People who get all hung up on a person being the same as a brain are thinking of consciousness, which is a late evolution.  I would describe emotion as the response of the body that is both voluntary and involuntary, but both are the movements of organs or molecules circulating (movement) in the solutions of the body.  Some of it is conscious and some of it is not.  Training and practice can move the boundary back and forth.  If the brain isn’t functioning properly, it will be demonstrated to others through aberrant movement.  That movement might originate in a failure of sensory systems, like problems with sight and hearing.  

There is a more mysterious and recent development in the positive function of the brain which is “mirror cells,” which means that if some one else moves, as in dancing or playing tennis, the person who is watching will “ghost” the movement in their own brain and muscles.  It’s possible that this is the beginning of us evolving a more intense empathy -- feeling what other people feel -- that someday might amount to mental telepathy. 

History seems to show that the more we understand each other, the more likely we are to be doing things that help everyone survive.  So how do we get that understanding now?  Art.  Expression.  Story.   This is the eventual conclusion of the following TED TALK.

Damasio is in pursuit of consciousness.   We have seen that the work of the brain is to manage the body, taking in “a flow of sensory images” both inside the flesh and outside the skin -- the environment we cannot access except through our senses even though it is what we draw sustenance from..  In the process of sorting and weighing these sensory information systems, we spontaneously create “a “self”  which is the consciousness.  These are managed by the construction of a map or grid in our brains, that is actually graphed on the cerebellum as memory in the language of the senses.  Electrochemical impulses, coordinated by rhythm (not the heart’s rhythm but one like it), travel along the axons of the neurons in what is called “the connectome.”  

This shuttling has two goals:  first is the maintenance of homeostasis in the molecular fluid system of the body: water, salt, sugar, hormones of all kinds, and the like -- even the “drugs” like adrenaline or cortisol.  The second is the homeostasis of the body in the environment, achieved by movement which is part of what separates animals from vegetables.  Animals can change location, can alter their environment, can change their relationship to the environment.  The concerns here are food, shelter, freedom from trauma and more, particularly in relation to the part of environment that is other people.

The body is an instrument controlled by the brain:  the self is the music, all of it that is conscious.  Because of writing or video or even actual music or other art, the self can persist apart from the person’s body as memory and emotional response in other people.  A body can exist without a brain if it has support -- person as oyster or what is called a “vegetative state.”  A brain without a body cannot do anything and will not support identity.  People who think the brain can be kept in a jar to preserve identity are wrong.  There will be nothing for the brain to manage.  All dashboard dials would show zero. 

Damasio says the molecular fluid system is the most important set of parameters to keep consistent.  If molecules that are misshapen, missing or entirely alien are floating around in the fluids of the body and brain, the self will be lost.  In addition, the top of the spine  (brain stem) is the earliest part evolved and formed in utero.  It controls the most basic functions of the body.  One half allows consciousness and the other one does not.  If the half that allows consciousness is undamaged but the unconscious half is damaged, the “self” will be trapped in a non-responsive body, a parked car.  This is probably what makes people think they can just remove the brain and have the person. The only part that is missing in a nonresponsive body containing an otherwise functioning brain is the movement part.  The molecular fluid system, the sensory signaling throughout the body must persist in order for there to be consciousness, but that can go on without movement if others supply the basic nutrients and air, so on.  

The cerebral cortex, in Damasio’s words, “conducts the great spectacle of the mind,” the score for the self’s music.   Once produced by an individual, one’s instrument is playing in concert with many other instruments who are “conducted” by sociocultural regulation, the homeostasis of culture.  Just like the homeostasis of water or sugar, the culture keeps behavior within the parameters that sustain life.  (We might call it morality, which is not necessarily conventional since the conditions of society are sometimes outside the usual parameters and demand a new morality for survival.)  The culture can be very wrong about that, which will mean many people will not survive.

An over-rigid culture endangers the curiosity and wandering that allow the exploration of new ways and spaces, perhaps at great cost or perhaps with great rewards, and often identified as art.  It is this force, in my opinion, that takes us closest to what Damasio calls:  “True happiness and the possibility of transcendence.”   We call this "religion", but that implies an institutionalized, bureaucratized capture of beliefs and practices.  

In truth, when the brain is skillfully playing a gorgeous symphony of the senses, perhaps with other people, it is capturing holiness.  It is participating in the cosmos, which is music.  If the brain-body instrument is just sitting in church, that may be playing a tin whistle in a tune that is merely noise.

No comments: