Though the title of this very blog may lead one to suppose that the processes of human thought, feeling and behaviour are “All in Our Head” this, in fact, couldn’t be further from the case. The human brain is directly and intimately connected with the body of the human organism. We think what we think, feel what we feel, we are who we are and do what we do both because our brains are wired up in a particular way and because our bodies are configured and composed in a unique manner.
The recent discovery of direct, previously undetected connections between the human brain and the immune system is just one example of the reciprocal relationship between the mind and the body, suggesting the significance of the concept of the “embodied brain”…an idea that will be explored in much more depth in a series of upcoming posts…
Courtesy of University of Virginia:
In a stunning discovery that overturns decades of textbook teaching, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist.
That such vessels could have escaped detection when the lymphatic system has been so thoroughly mapped throughout the body is surprising on its own, but the true significance of the discovery lies in the effects it could have on the study and treatment of neurological diseases ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis.
“Instead of asking, ‘How do we study the immune response of the brain?,’ ‘Why do multiple sclerosis patients have the immune attacks?,’ now we can approach this mechanistically – because the brain is like every other tissue connected to the peripheral immune system through meningeal lymphatic vessels,” said Jonathan Kipnis, a professor…
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Consisting of at least 60% fat, the human brain is the fattest organ in the whole body.
What’s more, the fat contained in the brain cannot be metabolised for energy. The brain does not contain “fat cells”, such as those in our belly that mercifully shrink when energy is scarce, but rather fatty acids known as “lipids”.
Lipids form the “myelin sheath” which insulates the wires leading to and from neurons. In this way “brain fat” functions to insulate brain wiring allowing electrical messages to be carried effectively and efficiently throughout the nervous system.
So next time you’re having a good think, you can thank fat for that.
The human brain is a sneaky little organ. It is constantly carrying out processes relevant for both perception and function without letting you know a thing.
In the 1930s Sigmund Freud popularized the notion of the conscious versus the unconscious mind. According to Freud the conscious mind consists of all the mental processes within our awareness. The unconscious mind on the other hand, houses all sorts of things that we have no conscious awareness of.
Freud’s work on the unconscious mind was primarily based on patient analysis and personal insights and, as such, had no true empirical foundation. Flashing forward to the technological and methodological advances of contemporary neuroscience however and much evidence has been produced revealing silent workings of unconscious processing.
Just one example of the unconscious mind at work is seen in cases of blindsight. Blindsight refers to the capacity of certain blind individuals to accurately guess the identity, movement and location of visual stimuli even though they cannot consciously see anything at all.
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.
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