Dear reader, I must word a short confession before getting into the meat of todays post. It has, I admit, been a matter of months since my last appreciable blog instalment. I can’t pretend I haven’t had some time to spare of a weekend to pen a few lines. Nor, as a psychology student, can I say I’ve had little incentive to write. No, paradoxically enough, what really impeded my pen was the vast amount I could write about.
After sitting down multiple times to settle on just one appropriate theme, it eventually occurred to me that I’d never truly explored something so fundamental as the reason we have brains in the first place. I mean sure, a hypothetical body that…didn’t wake up, without a brain and associated nervous system, wouldn’t take long to turn to stardust. As renowned philosopher Daniel Dennett once observed, a brain transplantation is the only such operation in which one would want to be the donor, not the recipient. Unlike the heart, kidneys and other vital organs of the human body, the brain gives rise to much more than human life, it gives rise to our very essence. But what, exactly, did we evolve such an all-important organ for? Considering certain insects, jelly-fish and multiple other living organisms get along just fine without any nervous system at all, what does the brain add to an animal’s survival? In short, the answer is movement. The main purpose of the brain is too allow for movement in the environment in a meaningful way. Consider the classic example of the sea squirt. This sea creature is born with a simple nervous system which functions to coordinate movements as well as a rudimentary eye spot with which to “see”. The sea squirt spends its early days swimming about searching for a place in which to attach itself and settle forever. As soon as it has found a suitable home however, the squirt promptly digests its nervous system, brain and all. In essence, the squirt no longer needs to move and so no longer needs a brain to coordinate its motion.
The humble sea-squirt, quietly eating itself.
Throughout human evolution the brain has allowed for adaptive movement in highly dynamic environments. It has allowed us to formulate the likelihood of achieving a specific goal given certain motions and enabled us to weigh up the pros and cons of acting in a certain way. As the hominin species evolved and began to move through increasingly diverse environments, the human brain also evolved allowing for more adaptive and useful movements within a given niche. The human brain can now do many more tricks than move and interact within its environment. Through exceptionally complex electrochemical networks the modern Homo sapien brain can engage in what are known as “higher-order” cognitive processes. Through these higher-order connections we humans can think abstract thoughts, memorise strings of meaningless numbers, imagine what-if scenarios from the past and even contemplate our very existence. In a future post I’ll take a look through evolution at how it is the interaction between perceptual processes within the brain and action upon the environment may have brought about such complexity of activity within a single mass of layered, convoluted matter. Until then however I urge you to appreciate your ability to move and adapt under different circumstances. It is movement you must thank for having a brain at all, and it is your brain you have to thank for your ability to move. Without either it’s very likely you’d be attached to a rock somewhere, digesting your innards.
When completely conscious the brain generates enough power to light up an entire room (up to twenty-three watts!)
Similarly, when sufficiently iced a slice of cerebellum endows enough quick-releasing calories to fuel a tribe of trick-or-treaters.
With that tidbit of the week I’d like to wish you all a happy Halloween! Hoping it was filled with all kinds of spooky, brain-based treats.
Place Cells; our inner GPS system and the stuff of Nobel Prizes
If you are at all interested in how the brain or mind works, for example if you study psychology, neuroscience or philosophy of mind, then you ought to know about place cells.
Images: Image 1 shows the path of a rat moving around a rectangular box (black line). Red squares show where a place cell fires. Image 2 shows the average firing rate of the cell at each location in the rectangular box – “hotter” colours indicate more rapid firing. Data from O’Keefe lab.
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Last night I took to the cinema to see the recently released action movie “Lucy”. I was well aware of the glaring falsity that made up the premise of the plot–the fictitious idea that we only use 10% of our brains at any one time–before even entering the cinema, but had convinced myself I could ignore this little annoyance and enjoy the action, acting and directing in and of itself.
And in fact I was enjoying it all for quite a bit. Scarlett Johansson (as Lucy) was as wonderful as ever, the music was great, the special effects were very cool, all was going well…
Until, Morgan Freeman.
Playing a college academic, Freeman utterly and unconditionally betrayed my faith in him as Hollywoods’ emblem of wisdom, insight, goodness and understanding. Somehow the words “imagine what we could do if we unlocked the full potential of our brains” were all the more excruciating when emanating from the knowing, dulcet timbre of Freeman’s voice.
For those of you who have watched or are planning to watch the movie, I urge you too to take caution, do not be fooled by Freeman’s worldly tones and sagacious presence, just concentrate on those special effects, the action, the direction and Johanssons abilty to kick-ass
Your reality is a subjective illusion.
We are wired to believe that what we see and hear and feel is what is out there in the environment, that we perceive our surroundings as they are, as a video camera might record a scene.
What the environment actually contains however is a collection of physical laws and properties and what we actually perceive is what our bodily senses have picked up and our brains have interpreted for us. In this way the brain functions as something of an internal video editor constantly chopping and changing the selective information it receives to create a unique view of the world.
One particularly beautiful example of how our brain creates for us the world we know is in the anatomy of the visual system. Visual information enters our eyes as waves of light and is focused onto the back of our eyeballs to be sent along to the brain for interpretation. Unbeknownst to the average individual however, not all the information impinging on the eyes is sent along to the brain. There is a blind-spot located at the back of each eye with no connections to the brain whatsoever, any information from our field of vision that hits this spot is lost to us. In this case our brain steps up to literally fill in the blanks based on the surrounding information, giving us the illusion of a complete picture.
We can also appreciate how different each of our perceptions must be when we consider the fact that each and every brain is distinct in its neural connections and structures, in the memories it holds and the way in which it interprets and integrates information.
The human senses also vary greatly between individuals. For example; the average human adult can hear sounds at frequencies of 20-20,000 Hertz. As we grow older we tend to loose the hair cells that pass the highest-frequency sounds from the environment to our brains, children can therefore hear tones up to a higher frequency of 25,000Hz and the elderly often cannot hear tones as high as 20,000Hz (you can actually try a few online tests to work out your own hearing age).
Thus, our understanding of the world is but a conjuring trick, a rough model of what is happening in the environment based on unconscious integration within the brain of fragments of perception, memory and supposition.
What is truly amazing and really worth taking away from this is how we all get around as well as we do considering how differently each of us perceives the world, considering we are each living inside our own uniquely edited illusion…