374. Brain Talk

December 4, 2014

Brain talk is full of words like data, information, computation, processing, knowledge, and other terms of that noble family of academic abstractions. But seldom do we live up to the expectations of the scientists and engineers who treat the brain as if they had designed it themselves by rational means, which they didn’t and never could.

Such terms are descriptors of what neuroscientists want to find, not necessarily of what’s there in the brain to discover. That is, neuroscience is salted with metaphors meaningful to those who study the brain, but many of those same terms are wide of the mark set by instinctual users of particular brains as tools for conducting life as a work-in-progress at every stage.

Most of the mass of the brain is made up of axons (connectors) that lead from one nerve cell nucleus to its terminus, not the nuclei, cortical columns, and synapses that actually perform so much of our mental work. It is the chemical flow between nerve cells that brings minds to life, as facilitated by the travel of ionic potentials from cell bodies to their extremities.

The flow of neurotransmitters across synaptic gaps between nerve cells at myriad points of connection enables those chemicals to get to the right place at the right time to activate or inhibit a comparison in synchrony with other signals so that simultaneous connections are sustained between different regions of the brain, furthering the coherent neural traffic we experience as mind, awareness, or consciousness.

Mind is not confined to the brain but reaches through skilled action to the outer limits of the body and, beyond that, via traffic through nature, culture, community, and family, to the cascade of energy impinging on our sensory organs.

Our minds acquire language and numbers because they are born to language and numbers as two of the cultural media in which they are immersed. They acquire a genome and genetic heritage by being born to particular parents who, at conception, consist of one man and one woman who inhabit a particular niche (nest) in the physical world.

Mind is a collaborative function of brain, body, nature, culture, community, and family. It is the seat of our organic intelligence together with  the many situations and active engagements that make up our lives. I think that to call it a computer or data processor is to miss the point of what the mind actually does and how it operates.


(Copyright © 2009)

If it is true that there is no little homunculus in our heads enjoying the passing parade, it is equally true that there is not even a parade. As for representations of a parade, there are a great many (on the order of at least a 100 in any given brain), all dealing with different aspects of the parade, but there is no one street corner or theater where the float of Humpty Dumpty, say, passes by drawn by six white horses in living Sense-Surround.

Mr. Dumpty is represented by action potentials, ions streaming through membrane channels, neurotransmitters flowing across synapses, some degree of synchrony between neurons firing in different brain modules, and so on, none of which can account for the representation (or illusion) of reality, much less for reality (the parade) in-and-of itself.

Yet we keep talking about the brain as an “information processor,” as if information from the world somehow gets into our heads and forms a representation that can be taken for the world itself. Ionic or chemical signals (suggestive of patterns of energy), yes; information, no. As for interpreting such signals, each and every brain is on its own in that regard. Those signals mean to us solely what our respective minds take them to mean. Our surroundings provide patterns of energy, we map our understanding of what they might mean on those patterns.

We interpret patterns of energy from our surroundings as clues to the situation we are in at the moment, then interpret that situation as meaningful from our point of view based on our investment in that situation. Which varies, depending on how we choose to regard it. Our minds deal in the currency of conjecture and speculation, not information (as if the meaning were determined beforehand by an unidentified agent who is not in our head).

Which is not what we commonly assume or even read in some neural science textbooks. It is easier to assume information enters the brain through the senses, is coded in terms of patterns of neural activity, and is magically “represented” in one form or another, then interpreted by the mind—interpreted to have the same meaning it had on the far side of any sensory apparatus, without giving an account of how such a miracle could happen.

Energy is not meaningful in and of itself. And it is energy, not information, that impinges on our senses. Interpretation requires a context—some sort of situation within which energy takes on meaning in reference to relationships characterizing that situation. And it is no easier for situations to enter consciousness through the senses than it is for information or “reality” to make the same journey. For us, situations exist in terms of relationships between traces of brain activity, which means we derive them from ionic and molecular flows in various modules in our heads. A pretty neat trick.

Yet everyday wisdom has it that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what goes on in the world and what goes on in the minds of those who live in the world. It would be far more accurate to reverse that depiction and say that the world has no existence other than that extended to it by the minds in which it lives. For the world, in fact, does live in us and not vice versa. When we die, our versions of the world also die. Based on a few selected patterns of energy flow impinging on our senses, we project our hypothesis that the world is in such-and-such a state onto those patterns—voila! the “real” world.

That is, contrary to our naive assumptions, the world reflects to us representation we concoct in our minds consistent with the few patterns of energy flow we take the trouble to interpret. What is real is the world in our heads, the subjective (meaningful) world that guides our behavior. That other (outer) world is largely a mystery to us. We inform it according to our preferences at the moment. Information flows outward as mapped onto energy flows which are inherently meaningless until interpreted; interpretation takes place in the mind (ours or others’), not the material world.

What I’m trying to get at is how we can seemingly rise above our own consciousness to observe ourselves interpreting the world through the medium of the energy flows in which we are immersed—and which we narrowly interpret to suit ourselves. That is, I’m out to show how Michael Gazzaniga’s postulate of the left-brain interpreter provides an explanation for a great deal of human behavior that causes so much trouble in a world we can’t see very clearly for what it is.

What I’m after is ways of doing better by that world than we have done up till now. Since the world conforms to our ideas of the world, doing better by ourselves means doing better by the world, and every one of its inhabitants. We’ve had it backwards all this time. It is time to straighten the world by straightening ourselves, an approach so ancient it seems almost new to us. I think we can do it.