Tag Archives: cognition

The Embodied Brain

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 Heimgresad” 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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In Our Head Facts- Fatty Fatty Brain

Consisting of at least 60% fat, the human brain is the fattest organ in the whole body.

What’s more, the fat cimgresontained 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.

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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.


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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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


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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Are we living inside one enormous Brain?

I’ve always been struck by how alike microscopic images of the brain are to depictions of the universe. The pictures of neuronal connections and other microscopic brain images in biology books appeared to me to bear a striking resemblance to many of those portraying aspects of outer space in physics books and related media.

Having only what you might call a pop scientific education in matters of the cosmos, I never thought of this connection as anything more than a superficial coincidence. However, after recently coming across the following excerpt from a 2006 edition of the New York Times, I’ve been spurred into reconsidering the relationship.


The picture on the left is a microscopic segment of a mouses brain, the one on the right is a computer simulation of the structure of the universe.  According to the text written above the images, the picture of the neuron is “only micrometres wide” whereas the image of the universe is “billions of light-years across” and yet, as the text points out,  “together [the images] suggest surprisingly similar patterns found in vastly different natural phenomena.”

The fact this connection had been acknowledged outside the realm of my own imagination unleashed a whole swarm of ardent notions (it’s amazing what a bit of reassurance can do).

For instance, if a similarity exists between the connections of neurons in our head and connections between galaxies in our universe, what’s to say a similar connection might not be found between each and every individual in our world, or each and every world in any one galaxy.

What if, and this one’s going to sound particularly outlandish, humans are just the equivalent of a collection of neurons in one gigantic brain, one gigantic brain inside many gigantic brains even. What if, that is, we’re all living inside one enormous Brain. Consider it something of a “Russian doll theory of life”, a human brain, functioning within a world brain, functioning within a galactic brain…you get the picture.

Sure, it might seem a thing of the most far-fetched science fiction, but even at that, it is fun to allow the mind a boggle every once and awhile…



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