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Our Brains

'The Answer to the Great Question... of Life the Universe and Everything...' 'Is... Forty-two', said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm... 'I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is.' [36]

One of the problems for humans is that we may be just smart and knowledgeable enough to understand that existence is a mystery but not to be able to solve it.

Because we (or something) are here, it could be that we already have the answer but don't understand the question. This is maybe to do with the way our brains work or because of the words we use.

 

head contents

 

Most of this essay is about ideas and things that happen in our brains. But I started out by making the point that most, if not all, of this happens because of the animal (machine) that we are. We cannot forget our bodies.

Indeed, our bodies obsess many of us. This may be with good reason. Our body allows us to participate in the world. It helps to attract a mate and to influence others, it helps us to earn our living and to engage in activities that give us pleasure, it collects information gives us our experiences. If we suffer serious ill-health many of these qualities of life also suffer.

As you and I know, our brain is the centre of our intelligence; the place in which our thoughts arise. But it may surprise you to know that right through the middle ages until the period of enlightenment, many people still believed Aristotle's view that the heart is the centre of intelligence; or sometimes the spleen. Although some medical and scientific authorities realised the importance of the brain as early as the 11th century, and a significant dissenting view was published in the 16th century, the prevailing view in the Church and many universities remained with Aristotle.

It really was not until the 19th century that developments in microscopy and neurology finally put paid to the Aristotelian view.

When you appreciate this level of ignorance it is much easier to understand how intelligent people were mystified as to the source of human intelligence and thought. It is easy to understand why some believed that these functions must be independent of the body, possibly mystically located heaven. This might be an independent 'soul' that exists separately to the body; that is in some way on a temporary visit to a body; or involved in a 'trial of strength' on earth.

Modern medicine demonstrates that if I give you a new heart, kidney, face or leg, you will still feel like you. You will have had a new experience and maybe have some new abilities but you will feel like the same person. We know this because this sort of operation is commonplace and we can talk to people who have had it done. But we know that even a small physical change in the brain can give people a totally new personality.

It seems that your personality, what you feel, what you believe, how you react; everything about you; is stored in (and expressed by) the physical arrangement of (and relationship between) cells in your brain and to a lesser degree by nerve cells in the rest of your body.

If I take the hard-drive out of this computer and put it into similar machine its entire content, settings and appearance are transferred and the other box becomes this computer. Because two machines are physically similar, all I have to move to change a computer's identity is to transfer the information stored on one machine to another.

Many dislike using the computer analogy or metaphor in relation to the human brain; we need to remember that there are very significant differences despite interesting similarities.

But as I have already discussed; analogies, similes and metaphor are fundamental to ideas and thought.

No two people are physically identical but we can be confident that if we transplanted a brain and related nerves from one person to another their personality, their sense of self, would move to the new body.

Suppose the brain (with linked nerves) was from a champion tennis player. Then initially they might feel like someone who had suffered a serious injury or a mild stroke; unable to hit the ball as well with muscles that won't respond. But given a good healthy body and with some intensive practice they might soon be back at the US Open, whereas the same body with its original brain may have had no aptitude for tennis. Their sense of 'me' would go with the brain.

Our brain apparently evolved from the brain of the very first crawling things. We still have a primitive brain at the base of ours. Our brain is built of structures called 'neural networks'. Neural networks are a system that has evolved to allow biological organisms to learn by experience. Ours is the most advanced neural network we know about.

Neurons are special nerve cells connected together so that they trigger, like the flash in a camera. When other nerves in an organism sense something neurons 'fire' in a particular sequence so that they cause the organism to do something (like run or change direction). Each neuron grows long strings to others that look like roots and branches growing on a seed. One type is called axons and the other is called dendrites. They work like wires connecting by sockets called synapses. Neurons are like little batteries and send electrical signals when they are activated. When these reach the synapses they produce chemicals that cause matching sockets to send a message to adjacent neurons. These are the chemicals that are interfered with by mind-altering drugs (like morphine and heroin).

The pattern of connections in an animal's brain records memories or experiences or determines behaviour. Julia and I have built a little robot with just two circuits each equivalent to a group of three or four neurons that runs towards a light. Spiders have many thousands of neurons. Human brains have about ten thousand million neurons[37].

A spider might run away when it sees your hand but might run towards a fly in its web. This is because its neurons have been set (by survival of the fittest) to run away or hide if something might be big enough to eat or squash it but to run towards food that might get away. All spiders with the same genes will react in much the same way because in small short-lived creatures their genes mainly program their neural network. Bigger animals with bigger brains and longer life spans may need to learn to recognise the difference between a hand and a bird.

Some informed people still believe that it is impossible for a machine to think (to reason or to have a soul). But a majority now supports the observation: 'I'm a machine and I think'. It is not that a machine can't do it; it is that the machines we presently build can't.

 

playing possum

 

There are more neurones in your brain than grains of sand on a moderate sized beach. Nevertheless this number is not out of reach of modern electronic technology. We can model simple neural networks in a computer to see how they work. These models already have some uses like recognising speech or handwriting. But as they get more complex even our biggest fastest computers (similar in design to the one that I am using now) can't match their speed and ability. If we want to match a large neural network like our brain we will have to use a differently designed computer.

If I show you the picture of a cat and ask you what it is, you can tell me instantly. Suppose I give you a ball and ask you to throw it at any cat picture you see as I put it up, but not at any other picture. Not only can you do it for lots of different cat pictures you have never seen before, but as soon as you throw the ball you can tell if it is going to hit the picture or miss it. To you this is simple. Your brain does it easily. But a present-day computer can't do this. If I ask you to multiply 234 by 567 you will take some time and might get it wrong. You might think that people who can do sums like this very quickly are very 'brainy'. But a computer can do it almost instantly.

We know that in many ways our brain is limited by having evolved from animals that only needed to survive. We have trouble trying to imagine more than three dimensions, our brain is quite slow and we see only a limited number of colours. If it was any faster or we saw more colours we would not be able to see movies, television or computers; they would be an annoying series of poor quality pictures.

All mathematical relationships within a given number set are derived a priori from the (usually limited) initial assumptions.

Suppose you had a brain like a present-day computer (you don't your brain is quite different) then if I asked you 'what is the cube root of 578?' the answer would pop into your head instantly, just as it does in this computer when I click the mouse button.

This would be because all the mathematical relationships springing from the initial assumptions would seem just as obvious as a cat does to you now. More interestingly, it wouldn't matter which way you went across the equals sign. It would be equally instantaneously obvious that the cube root of 578 is 8.329954, as it would be that the cube of 8.329954 is 578.

It seems that the language of mathematics can describe lots of things in the universe. But a lot can't be described this way because a lot of the Universe appears to be random; including some numbers; and it also seems that knowing some things prevents us knowing others. Heisenberg first proposed this in relation to sub-atomic particles but it seems to apply to a wide range of things and to be to do with how much information is allowed to be carried by an object.

We can use computers (artificial brains) for more than just solving mathematical problems. We can use them to test scientific hypotheses. I have already used the example of testing evolution by natural selection. This suggests that if we only had the right kind of brain a lot more things might appear obvious to us.

Some time, probably in your lifetime, the first thinking computers will be developed and then we (or they) may know more about this.

Evolution has resulted in larger and more complex neural structures that still allow innate knowledge/ experience (like the spider's) to be passed on from one generation to the next but also allow animals to learn to react differently; to learn by experience in their own lifetime.

Animals, including us, use a combination of instinct and experience so that we can decide quickly on basic or limited information. Research into how animals make decisions suggests that they don't even attempt to weigh-up all the evidence before making a choice to run, attack, eat or mate. Innate knowledge or experience particularly relates to survival, to finding food and to reproduction. It often governs seemingly complex relationships with others of the same species.

Humans are particularly good at learning from others. In addition to the behaviour programmed in by our genes and that learned by experience, we are excellent copiers (mimics) and have evolved many methods to learn from the experience of others; like talking, mimicking, drawing, writing, music and mathematics.

Whenever we learn a new thing it is stored in our brain as a pattern in the connections between our neurons. No doubt people with the same belief, information or skill have similar patterns in the cells in their brain.

Again using a computer analogy, when I store this paper on my hard drive, as actual physical changes in the magnetic state of the coating on the drive, it will be split up by the software and put into available spaces. These spaces depend on the other data stored and the things I have recently deleted or changed. So every single computer in the world stores the same paper differently. But the computers can all recover the data and reproduce the text without error because they can reverse the process.

Everyone with the same idea has made actual physical changes in their brain such that the idea can be expressed in future but those changes might not involve the identical neural connections. So a belief in the North Pole, understanding 2 + 2, or the ability to play cricket has an actual physical structure in your brain unique to you.

Our brain is remarkable. By comparison with other similar sized non-extinct animals it is very large and has more complex organisation. Anthropologists have found evidence of a number of other large brained hominoids that are now extinct. At least one of these, Neanderthal had a brain larger than ours. Large brains may not in themselves ensure survival as a species.

Modern humans seem to have coexisted with Neanderthal for many thousands of years.  When I originally wrote this last century, before the genetic mapping of both the human and Neanderthal genome, I said: "but genetic evidence shows that we did not interbreed (if interbreeding was possible, like lions and tigers, horses and donkeys, the children might have been infertile)[38]."

Now that a Neanderthal mapping has been done this turns out to be wrong [see also footnote 38].  The completion of the first Neanderthal genome has shown between one and four percent of early European and Asian ancestry to be in common with the Neanderthal; indicating limited interbreeding soon after modern humans first left Africa.  A lot of work followed over the next decade and by 2017 New Scientist was able to report on the work of three of scientists working on the discovery:

Neanderthals still control our genes

Andy Coghlan [New Scientist - 4th March 2017]

THEY may have been extinct for 40,000 years, but Neanderthals are still affecting the illnesses some people develop and how tall they are. This is thanks to the Neanderthal DNA inherited by people outside sub-Saharan Africa from ancestors who mated with our cousins some 50,000 years ago.
Evidence that Neanderthal control of human genes endures comes from an in-depth analysis of DNA from 214 people of European descent in the US. By comparing their DNA with that from Neanderthals - whose genome was sequenced in 2008 a team led by Joshua Akey at the University of Washington in Seattle identified which Neanderthal gene fragments had survived and were still active in 52 different types of human tissue. 
"Neanderthal sequences affect how human genes are expressed, including for height and health... Strikingly, we find that Neanderthal sequences present in living individuals are not silent remnants of hybridisation that occurred over 50,000 years ago, but have ongoing, widespread and measurable impacts on gene activity," says Joshua Akey.
"The results add to increasing evidence that these effects are often the outcome of changes to the genetic switches," says Tony Capra of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
"The implication is that these variants that came into the human gene pool around 50,000 years ago are still affecting human biology," says Sriram Sankararaman at the University of California at Los Angeles.

 

Some have even speculated that certain other 'outside sub-Saharan Africa' traits, like blue eyes and red hair, are remnants of Neanderthal DNA.

This cartoon from 1927, mocking 'Bright Young Things', turns out to be surprisingly prescient:

 

neanderthal evolution

 

Neanderthals had fire and tools, seem to have had language, and were artistic. They left grave goods and were probably religious. They were more physically robust than us but did not develop our high technological or cooperative social skills. Consider the social difference between chimpanzees, who hunt and defend territory as a group, and individualistic gorillas.

These social skills enabled us to learn to cooperatively herd animals and to grow crops, exploiting climate change at the end of the last interglacial, when Neanderthals were still hunting and gathering. But they may have been even better at hunting than we are. They certainly possessed some competitive advantages as they successfully coexisted with us in Europe for at least 10,000 years. 

Hunting and trapping, hominid-style, then herding and farming, requires big brains.  These activities rely on the ability to communicate complex ideas, to learn from our own and other's mistakes and successes, as well as individual imagination and mental dexterity. We can't naturally swim or ride a horse; or use a bow and arrow; or fish; or train a dog but we can be taught any or all of these things.

Assisted by our unprecedented language skills, modern humans can be extremely quick to learn to do some other extraordinary things. Almost all adults can quickly be taught to drive a car at speeds of over 100 km/h or to fly a plane or use a mobile phone. We cannot have evolved to do these things but obviously we have designed mechanisms, cars and planes and phones to match some extraordinary abilities that we have evolved as successive iterations of hominids learned to make tools and handcrafts for survival in otherwise hostile environments: clothes and shelter for the cold, weapons and traps and boats to hunt with and so on.

So we have evolved the abilities to design, make and assemble tiny clockwork mechanisms like watches or do fine needlework. Many of us can design, in our heads, complex mechanical devices of pulleys, gears and levers or know in advance what a billiard ball will do if it is hit a certain way. Many can mentally compose computer code or imagine new electronic circuits.

Frank Lloyd Wright held the three dimensional vision of complex architectural designs for buildings in his head. To the amazement of his colleagues, he translated one of his most famous designs[39] onto paper, without a pause or erasure (complete with dimensions in plan and elevation and with perspective views) while the client was driving to see him.

We have wonderful imaginations for story telling and myth-making honed by hundreds of thousands of years sitting around a fire telling tales and millions of hours, with only our own thoughts for company, waiting patiently for our prey to fall into our trap or an ambush; or to take a bait.

Mozart and Beethoven (and many others after) wrote their music in their heads, complete with complex orchestration, and transcribed it to paper, frequently without corrections, at one sitting. Beethoven wrote some of his greatest works after he was deaf.

When you start to program a computer you will realise that most of what you are telling it to do happens in its processor and memory. Only a few messages and inputs from the user ever appear on the screen. Like a computer, very little of what is happening in our brain comes up on 'the screen' of our consciousness.

Brain research reveals that a different part of our brain processes words that we hear from those that we read and when we listen to a song, the words are processed in one place, the tune in another and the rhythm in a third. Some parts of your body can continue to function even if no longer connected to your brain; they have a mind of their own.

Research into how humans make decisions shows that like other animals we make decisions quickly by using simple tricks or 'heuristics' like ignoring information that experience tells us is not much use or by recognising familiar patterns in events[40]. It turns out that recognising a pattern is often a much more successful way of making a decision than weighing up all the evidence.

 

 

change mind

 

 

Research tells us that if I make a decision to get up from my chair, my subconscious is already preparing for it before I am conscious of making the decision to do it. On the other hand it seems that some conscious thoughts anticipate a result that our unconscious brain hasn't even finished processing.

Even more interesting, if people are persuaded or tricked to do something unconsciously (for example by hypnotism or because of brain damage) their conscious brain will justify the action with some made up reason. They might then be quite convinced that this was the reason they did it; even though we may have seen a hypnotist place a bizarre idea their head, just to amuse an audience. It is as if we had a public relations department making up reasons for the actions of the organisation after the event. It seems that different parts of our brain are working independently of each other and most of this work is unconscious.

When Pooh is composing his song 'Sing Ho for the life of a Bear', he tries to let the song do the work before his brain works:

'Very well then', he said, 'I shall sing the first line twice, and perhaps if I sing it very quickly, I shall find myself singing the third and fourth lines before I have time to think of them, and that will be a very Good Song. Now then:'

Pooh's songs and hums usually come into his head without him thinking about them too much and we can guess that AA Milne is really talking about his own experience when he gives this quality to Pooh. A lot of artists say that this is how they work.

As humans evolved we leant to rely more on education and experience and less on innate knowledge and behaviour. But it is often these basic drives that give us a sense of purpose and achievement.

If we didn't share with all animals a basic instinct for survival then we would not be here today. Humans share with all mammals a strong, genetically programmed, drive to attach to our mother. This is quickly extended to a drive to affiliate with others. This means we want to join groups, have friends, be respected, be liked or even be hated; but never ignored.

Unlike most other animals we are sexually active at all times and care for our children for around twenty years. We have stronger and more prolonged sexual and child nurturing drives than most other animals.

 

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