Working out how the brain works

From time to time, I get into a groove — or a rut, depending on your interest level. This is one of those times.

My reading has taken a definite twist. A month or two ago, I was reading everything that I could find on animal behaviour, and for a while that focus was reflected in what I posted here. Right now, I’m most interested in how we process information and how what’s “out there” is perceived “in here.”

As a result, I’ve either recently finished or am still reading all of these books on subjects related to this “out/in” relationship:

The Believing Brain
Don’t Think of an Elephant!
The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
How Self Comes to Mind
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
The Information
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
The Tell-Tale Brain
Why People Believe Weird Things
Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind in the Novel

Some, like Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind and Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain, are fairly serious and scientific. Others, like Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! and Carr’s The Shallows, have pretty obvious political and social agendas. And Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction is a long overdue application of cognitive theory to literary criticism.

It’s a wide-ranging group, but in one way or another, all of these books centre on the idea that there are specific, physical mechanisms in our brains, and that their processes shape our ideas, beliefs, and emotions, which then motivate our behaviour.

Some people find this notion threatening, as if knowing how a DVD is made ruins the experience of watching a movie. If there’s no mystery, they believe, there’s no human dignity. If we know how we do what we do, they fear, we’ll lose our sense of independence, of  “free will.”

For some reason, for these people it’s OK to know how the blood circulates, but not how chemical signals animate our brain cells.

Of course, we know the reason — we don’t think of circulating blood as being “us,” but rather as simply a process within our bodies. Our feelings and thoughts, on the other hand, are “who we are.”

And if we are a mélange of electro-chemical relays, where’s the “self”? Where’s the ineffable part that makes us special?

These are questions that come up over and over, which is a good sign that they’re pretty fundamental. Asking is a kind of seeking, and I can’t imagine that there are many people who wouldn’t seek to be important, even central, in the scheme of the cosmos.

But to focus more productively on what’s real rather than on what’s desired, we are left with a working brain, a processor of such complexity and subtlety that to call it merely a “processor” produces a pathetically inadequate image, unworthy of an amalgamation of circuits that have more connections than we can  count. And these connections aren’t welded in place; they’re constantly altering themselves, shutting down some pathways, opening others, constructing and demolishing clumps and groups of neurons in a dynamic process so intricate that it beggars our ability to describe it.

And here’s where I am disappointed with the brain science deniers, those who want to preserve the unknowable entity of the “self”: It surpasses my understanding why anyone would want to downgrade the incredible spectacle that is the working brain.

Why, for all the world, would one wish to remain in the metaphysical dark, eyes closed, able only to imagine — and feebly so, at that — the wonders that exist before our eyes, if only we open them?

How much better it is to look, to see, to marvel at the greatest spectacle in our existence!

To declare the “soul” a mystery or the “self” an inviolable entity is to be like someone who travels to the seashore to watch the sunset through closed eyes. He knows that something is happening outside his eyelids, but he’s sensing just a few smudges of lighter and darker gray. He’s in Plato’s cave, by his own choice.

He has no idea what colours are really out there, because he’s afraid that he’ll be disappointed or lose his fantasy image if he looks.

How unfortunate!

– * –

I’ve already written reviews here of IncognitoThe Information, and Self Comes to Mind. (See SELECTED REVIEWS for links.) In postings to come, they’ll serve as background, but I won’t belabour them by repeating myself in any detail.

I’m very interested in Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, and an article combining The Believing Brain with Shermer’s earlier Why We Believe Weird Things seems warranted. The Shallows is another worthy candidate for a closer look.

So expect to see these books featured here in the coming weeks.

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3 thoughts on “Working out how the brain works

  1. I am very sympathetic to your general argument. I found my graduate program to be very resistant to thinking about the brain as it relates to human experience (unless it was TBA or psychopathology construed in a general sense). In order to supplement my graduate work, I attended psychiatry rounds at the nearby hospital and started a social-neuroscience study group. My professors would always say that talk about the ‘brain’ was moot as it related to social psychology and especially doing therapy. I disagreed and was very vocal about why I thought that attitude was wrong. I remember feeling very alone in my position. We should not have to feel ostracized for wanting to practice science from multiple angles. For me, understanding our neurobiology meant having another ‘map’ that could help us get closer to understanding what we are. So I agree – we need more people curious about the brain and less fearful in talking about it.

    However I am also aware of a growing number of academics and pseudo-academics who want to talk about the brain without having any real substantive background or training. I found myself (as I still do) getting irritated with the kinds of simplistic conclusions they would come to based on some ‘popular science’ writer with a background in a very narrow part of the neurosciences. Stephen Pinker comes to mind; his background is linguistics and his book ‘How the Mind Works’ is a disaster, yet popular with laypersons. The truth is, most of these popular science books are writing from a cognitive neuroscience background. This is only one paradigm or approach that we could take to studying the brain – it is popular at the moment and its assumptions are easily explained to laypersons (e.g. the brain works like a computer), which probably explains why people are writing so many ‘best-sellers’ from that theoretical paradigm. Based on my own reading, I seriously doubt all human experience can be explained by a reductionistic ‘the brain works like a computer’ explanation. I prefer to remain open-minded with regard to other scientific approaches. I see this new breed of ‘brain writer’ as close-minded (as most people are when they work within a particular paradigm) and potentially dangerous. They seem very quick to come to certain conclusions (e.g. ‘there is no free-will’) that could be harmful in how it is relayed to the general public.

    So in a nutshell, I would caution readers interested in studying the brain to study it broadly. Sure, read Damasio and Harris, but please also take the time and mental fortitude to read Panksepp, Schore, Seigel, Berridge, and others. More than that, please also take the time to understand the philosophical problems with taking particular research approaches to studying the mind (read Putnam, Searle, Nagel, Rorty, etc.)… you cannot study the link between human experience and brain without doing some philosophy of mind. Having studied these areas broadly, I find myself less willing to commit to certain positions… I do not think that is a bad thing – that is good science in my eyes.

  2. I am familiar with both Searle and Rorty from idea summaries and/or criticisms in other works and online. I have now acquired some primary material, which I will put into my pile of “Read This” books. However, access to works by most of the others you cite is too specialized to be found in either my local libraries or through the download portals I commonly use.

    As I hope was clear in my article, I agree with you that we can’t satisfactorily account for the entire human experience — the most powerful parts of which are intimately personal — solely in terms of a set of common brain mechanisms. Yet I think it’s important to stress and restress that we do share a universal cognitive engineering –among other things, it seems to me that this is a fact that lies at the heart of any truly natural species-wide morality.

    My primary objection to non-empirical considerations of “mind” is that, in the the wrong hands, they so often serve as either a cover or a gateway for entirely unsupported supernatural declarations.

  3. I agree with your primary objection, though I would again equally stress its opposite. From my position, all considerations of the mind start with non-empirical philosophical hypotheses… in the wrong scientists hands, the theory is treated as ‘true’ (in the Kuhnian sense), while the data is interpreted to fit with the paradigm. The ‘evidence’ is relative in these situations, though the religious like faith in ’empiricism’ push the theory along – no one is critical of the theory and everyone is quick to make ridiculous conclusions. This is dangerous for any science, but especially the field of psychology. I think we ought not to put all our faith in empiricism (for reasons argued by Quine and others) and when we do, we should be working broadly and with an open mind.

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