The compelling complexity of the mind

I’ve been accessing online courses for a while now. I like that I can learn as much or as little as I wish about any subject out there, with no mandatory tests, essays, or lab reports. And without any direct cost.

The most recent course that I’ve been following is “Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life,” by Dr. Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago. This is not the place to go to find sophisticated presentation or innovative instructional methodology, but there sure is a lot of detail.

So much detail, in fact, that I come away from each session with two fundamental thoughts. First, we sure are a smart bunch of primates to be able to figure out all of this stuff. Second, the brain — and the mind it creates — is one damned complicated place.

In fact, the brain and its associated nervous systems are so complicated that it would be easy enough to claim that the complexities of our neuronal systems are in and of themselves sufficient evidence to prove the natural origin of the mind. God did it? Come on. Was the big guy so bored that he tasked himself with cobbling together the most elaborately over-engineering project he could imagine?

And then there all the quirky faults that flesh is heir to, from synesthesia and Parkinson’s Disease to the really strange, like developmental topographical disorientation.

Ever heard of it? I hadn’t, either.

People with DTD are unable to orient themselves in space efficiently. Their brains map their environments, but the maps don’t update correctly, leaving sufferers in a world that is unfamiliar even when it’s familiar. Forget losing your keys — imagine getting lost in your own house!

This kind of disorientation is exactly what happens to a woman identified only as “Sharon” in an article on the New Scientist webpage. (New Scientist likes to tease, so if you aren’t a subscriber the article likely will have disappeared behind a “pay wall” by the time that you read this.)

Sharon describes her condition as living in a world that feels as if “someone had turned the universe a quarter turn.” Her cognitive maps don’t update, and she finds herself trying to navigate a world that is different in her mind than it is in positive space. How does she cope? One thing she does is what she calls her “Wonder Woman” trick. Diana Prince could turn herself into Wonder Woman by spinning around, and this is what Sharon does. She spins rapidly, and somehow (no one knows how) her cognitive maps reboot, and her world looks normal. For a while, anyway.

What’s going on here? Surely, some circuitry isn’t working correctly. Like others with DTD, Sharon has normal intelligence and normal brain anatomy. Some wires are crossed, or some connection has shorted out.

The brain pulses with activity of such speed and scope that none of our brilliant electrochemical descriptions do it justice. Complicated systems are susceptible to mysterious-seeming anomalies.

And that takes us back to the two claims that I made at the start.

(1) We sure are smart to be able to understand as much of this as we do; and

(2) Boy, is the mind a complex place to live.

And that’s why I keep reading and reading and reading about the brain and the amazing things that it does.

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