Thursday, March 12, 2020

What's the brain? What's the mind? A journey told through quotations

The purpose for which the brain evolved

"...the very consciousness that enables us to probe the workings of our cells may have been born of the concerted capacities of millions of microbes that evolved symbiotically to become the human brain. * * * In a sense we are "above" bacteria, because, though composed of them, our power of thought seems to represent more than the sum of its microbial parts. Yet in a sense we are also "below" them. As tiny parts of a huge biosphere whose essence is basically bacterial, we—with other life forms—must add up to a sort of symbiotic brain which it is beyond our capacity to comprehend or truly represent.
Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan. Microcosmos. California: University of California Press, 1986, 1997. pp. 34, 152.

Human brains continue to develop after birth

“The simplest means [to evolve larger brains while still giving birth through a narrow pelvis] was to give birth while the baby’s head is still small, then let the head and brain develop outside the womb during a period of intensive neonatal care. This is in fact the solution that humans developed. Whereas the newborn brain weight of a nonhuman primate is already around 42 percent of its adult weight, a human child’s is a mere 29 percent. The human infant continues its basic cerebral development for eighteen months after birth, during which time the rapidly growing brain is not held in by a firm case. Fusion of the cranial sutures is greatly delayed. The downside is that the human baby is far less physically and mentally autonomous... the development of the baby-sling removed the crucial factor limiting the efficiency of postnatal care and allowed hominid females to bear underdeveloped babies that, with postnatal brain growth, could subsequently catch up and—crucially—overtake australopithecines in brain development.”

Timothy Taylor. The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture. New York: Bantam, 1996. p 47-8.

When last year's Nobel prize for chemistry was awarded to the discoverers of green fluorescent protein, the pages of newspapers (this one included) lit up with photographs of 'brainbows.' ... Dr Lichtman hopes to use his brainbow mice to answer questions about neurological development, such as why the nerve cells of babies have far more connections than do those of adults.”
"Wired." The Economist. April 11-17, 2009. p. 82.

You can look at a picture of a brain...

"Researchers are now trying to better understand what constitutes a "normal" brain by studying a newly compiled atlas that contains digitally mapped images of 7,000 of the organs. A decade in the making, the brain mapping project quietly debuted this summer. ... Dr. Arthur Toga, says the plan is to quantify the differences between brains. Understanding the variations should provide "a good index between normal populations and a diseased population." This brain atlas — freely available to registered users over the Internet — maps the brains in multiple dimensions. It charts brain activity, pinpointing the seat of functions such as speech, memory, emotion and language and highlighting how those locations can vary among individuals and populations.
"Brain atlas to help define what's 'normal': Thousands of brains digitally mapped to aid researchers." CNN. August 6, 2003. [URL no longer works]

...but no one can understand the way you think just by looking at a picture of your brain

“Moreover, if it were suggested, as occasionally it is, that the body itself or the brain is that substance [which has the two aspects of brain and mind], and that mental activity IS brain activity, but ‘viewed from within’—from the inside instead of the outside—then the appropriate comment would obviously be that the word ‘inside’ as so used really means nothing at all. For, if one wishes to observe what goes on literally inside the brain, what one must do is simply to open it up and look. Such an operation might, in a then facetiously etymological sense of the word, be termed ‘Introspection,’ but would anyway be something radically different from what in fact is denominated Introspection.”

C. J. Ducasse. The Belief in a Life After Death. p. 73.

“I can imagine a time when, after getting an answer to a question from your Web browser, neither you nor your computer will know for sure where it came from. After all, do you know where the letter A is stored in your brain?”
Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life. New York: Plume, 2003. p. 158.

“I have often encountered motifs which made me think that the unconscious must be the world of the infinitesimally [physically] small. Such an idea could be derived rationalistically from the obscure feeling that in all these visions we are dealing with something endopsychic, the inference being that a thing must be exceedingly small in order to fit inside the head.”
C. G. Jung. Aspects of the Masculine. (Collected Works.) Translation by R. F. C. Hull. New York: MJF Books, 1989.p. 147-148.

The brain is busy even when it's not working on an assigned task

"During early functional MRI studies, researchers noticed that a certain set of brain regions would activate together whenever subjects were not performing the task they were assigned. Originally this was assumed to be some sort of daydreaming or rest network, but eventually, scientists realized the network was involved in thinking about the self, thinking about others, remembering the past, considering the future, and making social evaluations.
That brain network, now known as the Default Mode Network, is associated with creativity and imagination. If you think about it as a light switch, it comes on whenever your task-oriented networks shut off. So if you and the internet are constantly performing “productivity” together — it stays dark."
Jacqueline Detwiler. “How to Think Without Googling.” Forge (Medium). October 22, 2019.

Information arrives in pieces

"Nothing enters consciousness whole. There is no direct, objective experience of reality. All the things the mind perceives...have been assembled piece by piece by the processing powers of the brain..."
Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. p 36.

Thought occurs in pieces

"Who or what within the brain monitors all this activity? No one. Nothing. The scenarios are not seen by some other part of the brain. They just are. Consciousness is the virtual world composed by the scenarios. There is not even a Cartesian theater, to use Daniel Dennett's dismissive phrase, no single locus of the brain where the scenarios are played out in coherent form. Instead, there are interlacing patterns of neural activity within and among particular sites throughout the forebrain, from cerebral cortex to other specialized centers of cognition such as the thalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. There is no single stream of consciousness in which all information is brought together by an executive ego. There are instead multiple streams of activity, some of which contribute momentarily to conscious thoguht and then phase out. Consciousness is the massive coupled aggregates of such participating circuits. The mind is a self-organizing republic of scenarios that individually germinate, grow, evolve, disappear, and occasionally linger to spawn additional thought and physical activity."
Edward O. Wilson. Consilience. p. 110.

We are aware that we're thinking...

“Like it or not, we humans are flawed spiritual creatures peering from biological brains. By ‘spiritual’ I mean self-contemplating and/or self-loathing. I think that our spirituality is best defined as our awareness of our own consciousness. Rats, mice, amoebas, and planets aren't self-contemplating and/or self-loathing. We're different. So there is a tension between what we are, material beings living in a material universe, and how we feel about ourselves. We feel that we are more than the sum of our parts. We try and bridge this spirit/body gap. We look to religion, science, faith, psychology whatever [sic] to answer the question: Why are we self-observing, or, to put it another way, who am I?”
Frank Schaeffer. Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism). Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2009. p. 4.

...but chemical signals direct our thoughts without our awareness of that process

“‘You're probably 99.9 percent unaware of dopamine release,’ says Read Montague, a professor of neuroscience at Baylor University. ‘But you're probably 99.9 percent driven by the information and emotions it conveys to other parts of the brain.’”
Jonah Lehrer. How We Decide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. p. 41.

”Why People Gamble: It's an old idea that levels of dopamine in the brain rise when gamblers win, giving them a rush and pushing them to gamble more, but it turns out things are not quite as simple as that. David Zald of Vanderbilt University found that while this is part of the story, losing also causes a drop in dopamine levels--something never seen before. Part of compulsive gambling may be an attempt to restore lowered dopamine levels after losses.”
Stephen Reucroft and John Swain, Fast Facts, Boston Metro, July 28, 2004, based on Discover, August 2004.

”The dopamine system is a kind of accountant: keeping track of expected rewards, and sending out an alert — in the form of lowered dopamine levels — when those rewards don't arrive as promised. When the pack-a-day smoker deprives himself of his morning cigarette; when the hotshot Wall Street trader doesn't get the bonus he was planning on; when the late-night snacker opens the freezer to find someone's pilfered all the Ben & Jerry’s — the disappointment and craving these people experience is triggered by lowered dopamine levels.
The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls the dopamine system the brain's ‘seeking’ circuitry, propelling us to seek out new avenues for reward in our environment. Where our brain wiring is concerned, the craving instinct triggers a desire to explore. The system says, in effect: ‘Can't find the reward you were promised? Perhaps if you just look a little harder you'll be in luck — it’s got to be around here somewhere.’”
Steven Johnson. Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. pp. 34-35.

A human individual is both body and mind...

"And actually man is not a pure spirit at all, nor a sage; man is not, as Spinoza said, an automa spirituale, or, as we would prefer to say, a "rational automaton." Man is a psycho-somatic amphibian, that is to say, a symbiosis of soma and psyche, which is to say, a mixed being."
[Vladimir Jankelevitch. (1903-1985). Forgiveness. Translated by Andrew Kelley. University of Chicago Press, 2005. Originally Le Pardon, 1967. p 82.]

...or does the mind consist of the physical brain?

" is an error to use two different sets of words, concepts, and feelings when considering our brains (on the one hand) and our minds (on the other)....The brain and mind constitute an inseparable unity. * * * Thus we are portrayed as mindless brains or brainless minds, and never the twain shall meet."
J. Allan Hobson. The Chemistry of Conscious States: How the Brain Changes its Mind. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co, 1994. pp. 6-7.

“Neurologically speaking, then, the mind cannot exist without the brain, and the brain cannot exist without striving to create the mind. The relationship of mind and brain is so intimately linked, in fact, that it seems most reasonable to consider the terms as two different aspects of the very same thing.
Consider, for example, that the existence of a single human thought requires the highly complex interaction of hundreds of thousands of neurons. In order to separate mind from brain, it would be necessary to think of each neuron as something distinct from its function, which is a little like trying to separate the seawater that provides the substance fo an ocean wave from the energy that gives the wave its shape and motion. The existence of the wave requires both elements: without energy, the wave would fall flat; without water, the wave energy would have no expression. In the same sense, it is not possible to separate individual neurons from their functions; if it were possible, then a thought could be freed from its neurological base, and the mind could be seen as something separate from the brain, a free-floating consciousness that would be considered a ‘soul.’"

Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. p 33.

A human mind and body shares something with its community

"The idea of commonality between minds is not new. It is found in Jung (1964)’s collective unconscious; in transpersonal psychology’s transpersonal realm, and in Teilhard de Chardin (1959)’s noosphere, to name but three examples. Possibly group analytic literature take site concept of a common area of mind operating between and amongst individuals in a group more for granted than anyone else. Foulkes has designated this as the ‘group matrix’ (Foulkes 1964)."
[Isabel Clarke. “Psychosis and spirituality: the discontinuity model.” Printed in Psychosis and Spirituality: Exploring the New Frontier. ed. Isabel Clarke. London and Philadelphia: Whurr, 2001. p. 141.]

“...The thing called the human body is divided from other things in its environment by the clearly discernible surface of the skin. The point, though, is that the skin divides the body from the rest of the world as one thing from others in thought but not in nature. In nature the skin is as much a joiner as a divider, being, as it were, the bridge whereby the inner organs have contact with air, warmth, and light.”
Alan Watts. Nature, Man, and Woman (1958). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. p 55.

A relaxed mind can open up

“Maslow found that when humans have satisfied their basic physiological and social needs, they frequently have ‘peak experiences.’ These experiences are especially intense moments in which individuals are overwhelmed by the sensations of ecstasy, wonder, and awe.”
Robert C. Fuller. Spiritual, But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. Oxford University Press, 2002. p 139.

The way we train ourselves to think creates our possibilities

"The mystical experience itself is in part a function of what the mystic thinks can happen. No experience of transcendence ever happens to a person who inhabits no culture or thinks in no particular language."
Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody. Mysticism: Holiness East and West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 9.

"An entire academic field has its origin in the idea that we are computers. Further, the computer comes to represent an ideal, in light of which real thinking perversely begins to look deficient. Thus, when the postindustrial visionary reasons from the fact that complex systems involve 'the interaction of too many variables for the mind to hold in correct order simultaneously' to the conclusion that 'one has to use algorithm, rather than intuitive judgments, in making decisions,' he argues from the fact that the mind does not do what a computer does to an assertion about the incompetence of the mind. This seems to express an irrational prejudice against people. For, in fact, highly cultivated human minds can get to be pretty good at sussing out a burning building, playing chess, chasing down intermittent gremlins in a car’s electrical system, and who knows what else."
Matthew B. Crawford. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. p. 171.

"Under these conditions [of post-atomic attack], some high percentage of the population is going to be nauseated, and nausea is very catching. If one man vomits, everybody vomits. It would not be surprising if almost everybody vomits. Almost everyone is likely to think he has received too much radiation.”
Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961, p. 86 Quoted in Arthur Herzog. The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America. (1973) Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc., 1974. p. 90.

Our own consciousness is determined by the way we think about it

"...consciousness, like love and money, is a phenomenon that does indeed depend to a surprising extent on its associated concepts. Although, like love, it has an elaborate biological base, like money, some of its most significant features are borne along on the culture, not simply inherent, somehow, in the physical structure of its instances."
Daniel C. Dennett. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1991. p 24.

What have we learned?

"What does this mean concerning our personal lives, to which, at last, we now return? The microcosm of our consciousness is where the macrocosm of the universe is known. It is the fearful joy, the blessing, and the curse of man that he can be conscious of himself and his world."
Rollo May. Love and Will. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1969. p 324.