Tag Archives: Behaviour

What’s a brain even for?

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.

120px-Inn_brainetworks 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.

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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. Laurel_&_Hardy_dancing

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In Our Head Facts- Brain Dominance

In an age where a 140 character message can spread around the world like the wildest of wildfires or a pizza-slice can transform into a bikini model with the artistic flare of a photo-shop engineer, we should be adept at closing our ears to hearsay and tattle and all sorts of false truths. Every now and then however the intuitive appeal of certain ideas tend to seep through even the most stringent of BS filters, making their way into a common garden of popular misconceptions.

One such idea is the weed of a notion that one side of our brain is more functionally dominant than the other resulting in individual differences in traits such as creativity, analytic ability or orderliness.

With Facebook statuses sharing results from BuzzFeed brain-dominance tests, professional write-ups detailing the personality traits of those who use one hemisphere of their brain more so than the other, even guidance counsellors basing career recommendations on tests of brain-sidedness, this myth just wont die.

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To slice the ever-growing misconception at its stem, it is simply not true that one side of the brain does reason and analytical thinking and the other emotion and creativity. Simply not true. It is not true that the left-hemisphere is 100% responsible for language, or that the right-hemisphere is entirely in charge of creative thought.

Not. True.

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When The Brain Stops- Aaron Freeman

B0002295 human skeleton - skull, neck & shoulders

I’ve emphasised again and again how critical a functioning brain is for human behaviour and, of course, life. While there’s still very little known about the root and run of the conscious mind, ideas purposed by leading theorists, many findings from the cognitive sciences, even the very title of this blog, strongly suggest that personality and consciousness are products of the functioning brain, that all there is to us is the neural cogs, wheels and connections residing inside our head.

When considered in light of the inevitable brain death waiting at the end of our days this makes for rather morbid reading. When our neurons stop signalling, our neural structures start shrinking, when our cerebral cogs quit connecting and our cognitive wheels stop spinning…mustn’t our presence on earth also end?

Not so. And the following speech by American comedian and journalist Aaron Freeman eloquently conveys why this is the case.

Freeman’s words about why you should have a Physicist speak at your funeral, make up the most moving piece of pros I’ve ever read, or heard, relating to the world post brain activity. No matter your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, this piece will move you, it will reassure you, it will teach you that not only did your very presence change the world, but it will continue to do so. It will enlighten you as to how you, your family members, your friends, your favourite musicians, poets and playwrights, how we all continue to be when the brain no longer speaks.

I couldn’t but share…

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Four Reasons Why Suarez Bites

Under exceptional stress-inducing circumstances the neural circuits responsible for our “fight or flight” response work to override our conscious feelings and thoughts leading us to act in ways in which we have no sensible control.

With that in mind, this wonderful account of Luis Suárez’ biting behaviour by Prof. Ian Robertson is well worth the short read. The post provides a greatly accessible, tremendously interesting insight into the workings of a brain wired to win and how such a brain might be the cause of aberrant, even abhorrent behaviour.

It is also a reminder that while the brain does allow us to do everything, it cannot itself do everything at the same time.

Thus, at the end of the day, as the post concludes, it is important to remember that Suárez is a human being with a human mind, playing at the top of his game. “To unleash his genius” as Prof. Robertson put it, “Suárez has to enter a mental zone of relative mindlessness”. It just so happens that in his case Suárez’s unconscious mind sees biting as the way in which to, quite literally, reach his goal.

Only our own unconsciousness knows what you or I might have done under the very same conditions…

The Winner Effect

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Why did Luis Suarez sink his teeth into Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder? – Is he a victim of child-like impulsivity or could he be a vampire? Neither of these is the case, so let me review four possible reasons for his extraordinary behaviour.

  1. The Internal Robot

Anyone who watched Suarez seize the moment to score when England’s Steven Gerrard headed a long goal kick back towards his own goal, was amazed by the speed-of-light response of Suarez to an unpredicted – nay,  unpredictable – event. Here was near-instantaneous judging of an unfamiliar situation and the execution of a brilliant, complex set of bodily responses to it. Here was a sort of genius at work.

To engage in this sort of cognition at lightning speed, you must rely on parts of the brain which function far too fast to be consciously monitored.  This includes regions called the cerebellum and striatum, where…

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