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The Brain Is Fascinating

September 16, 2010

I’ve spent all of tonight studying neuroscience and the brain.  I find it to be the most fascinating thing in the world.  I love Physics but I have to say my true passion lies in studying the brain.  I spend so much time wondering what thought is, how we abstract information, how sensations are brought about, what we are as living conscious beings, how the brain processes sensory information and forms perceptions of objects, how it organizes information in various ways (including time sequences), how it generates feelings of guilt and moral sentiments, how it plans various courses of action, how beliefs are formed, and on and on.  We live our entire lives within our brain.  It impels us to every action we take.  To be human is to have a human brain.

As I sit here writing this blog post, it’s my brain processing the information and is allowing me to do it.  If I had various lesions in say Broca and Wernicke’s areas, I couldn’t write this post, or understand the letters on the screen.

When I listen to music and find it beautiful, or enjoy the starry sky at night, or admire a painting, it’s all the work of my brain.  My body itself is a sort of vehicle for my brain.  My very identity and all of my memories lie within my brain.  Any skills and abilities I possess are ultimately rooted in my brain.

How does the brain store memories?  How does it access them?  In what format?

I want to know so bad, but I always get pulled in to the day to day grind of existence.  I pull out the books and start studying but then I have to do this, or that.  I have to worry about earning money, doing some project, or running around like a chicken with my head cut off.  I just want to be left alone for a few years.  Let me figure this stuff out!  Then later I need an expensive laboratory, test brains and equipment to experiment with!  *devious grin*  mwwhahahahaha!

This makes me think about how people don’t understand how their brain works.  Take drugs, happiness, and morality for instance.  You know, people hear about drugs and how they alter your mood by messing with the reward uptake systems in your brain.  We’ve all heard about drugs, and their workings is pretty much common knowledge.  The thing is, not many people have thought out the consequences of what that means.

Take my grandpa the other day.  He knows that alcohol and drugs can alter your behavior and give you a temporary high.  Many times I’ve heard him go on and on about how people who are depressed need to snap out of it and make themselves happy.  They’re almost failures in life if they let themselves stay down too long.

But what he and so many others fail to consider is the fact that studies show that some people can bounce back after a troubling experience much faster than someone else.  Why would that be?  Hmmm.

People so often equate happiness and joy with morality.  You’re a bad person is you’re grumpy, depressed, or dissatisfied with life, whereas you’re universally admired if you’re happy and easy going.  People don’t realize that it’s all reward chemicals and how they’re programmed to fire off – and everyone’s brain is different.  Our species has evolved over millions of years and different survival strategies are in place within our genes.

This thinking even finds itself in intellectuals.  Just the other day I was with a literature professor and he was talking about William Wordsworth.  Apparently Wordsworth was a grumpy old man in his later years.  He spoke of him in a condescending manner, almost like Wordsworth failed to see the deeper truths of life because he was grumpy in his later years.

In my opinion, virtue and happiness are two very separate things, and I think the smarter you are, the more difficult it is to be care-free and blissfully happy.  This world is a crazy place, and who knows what sorts of changes might have went on his life since his younger days.  If happiness is virtue, well, I’ve seen some very happy people out there, and many of them were as dumb as fenceposts.  Anyone who delves deep into the truths of this world and the stupidity of humanity is bound to get a little bitter.  Others have to endure such heartaches and troubles, they just get tired of it. It can get to people (it gets to me all the time), and that certainly doesn’t make them bad people.

This same professor doesn’t seem to think much of scientists either (surprise surprise).  He wondered how they could possibly enjoy life never reading fiction.  He also slipped in a few jabs about how dull scientists can be.  To him, the humanities have it all.

The guy is quite a character.  People take pride in the strangest things.  He was almost teary-eyed as he told us about his trip to see John Keat’s gravestone.  Oh, he told us about the trip in detail (and I was looking for any and every excuse to politely slide out of the room).  He just couldn’t help it; he’s so in tuned with his literary emotions that he just had to tell us all about his experience there.

I just don’t know about people like him.  Literary “scholars” are something else.  I have a thick book here and it’s a collection of literature from all over.  Since we’re speaking of John Keats, let’s take a look at Ode to a Grecian Urn, and one of the comments found in the footnote,

….

“When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in the midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” (8) — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Now let’s look at the footnote, written by one of these literary “scholars”,

(8) The quotation marks around this phrase are found in the volume of poems Keats published in 1820, but there are no quotation marks in the version printed in Annals of the Fine Arts that same year or the transcripts of the poem made by Keats’s friends.  This discrepancy has multiplied the diversity of critical interpretations of the last two lines.  Critics disagree whether the whole of these lines is said by the urn, or “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” by the urn and the rest by the lyric speaker; whether the “ye” in the last line is addressed to the lyric speaker, to the readers, to the urn, or the figures on the urn; whether “all ye know” is that beauty is truth, or this plus the statement in lines 46-48; and whether “beauty is truth” is a profound metaphysical proposition, an overstatement representing the limited point of view of the urn, or simply nonsensical.

That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.  Keats makes a trip to a museum, finds an urn, is impressed with it, and so decides to write a poem about it.  Several hundred years later, this is the sort of debate raging on about it.

There’s some university professor somewhere getting tenure because he knows petty details like this, and offers the most useless commentary imaginable.  Apparently this is a heavily debated issue.  “Critics disagree”.  What could the quotation marks mean?  We’re working on it.  Stay tuned for the next edition!

This same sort of thing happens in theology.  People take a simple book like the Bible and make it into something complicated.  Next thing you know, they’re debating how God exists in three separate yet identical forms, how Jesus somehow undergoes transubstantiation becoming the bread and wine during communion, and whether or not a person can be saved if they haven’t been submerged underwater.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading philosophy and many of the things which are typically lumped into the “liberal arts” category.  I can say that science is just as profound, and can have just as deep an impact on your life, as the arts.  If he can’t find any deep meaning in studying cosmology, or thinking about the origins of life from evolution and biology, or the multiverse, or quantum mechanics, I think he needs to broaden his horizons.  Scientists deal with fascinating things.

Scientists today are finally answering many of the questions which, back then, were only being speculated about and put into poetic form.  To try and drive this wedge between “science” and “the arts” is ridiculous.  When you read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, and others (all essential reading for any liberal arts scholar), scientists are still dealing with those same questions and learning more everyday.   They’re one and the same.

Keats wrote about an urn and how though he aged, the urn’s beauty would be around forever (assuming no one smashes it).   The same issues are dealt with by scientists when they study why we age and look into our cellular structure.  Both the poet and the scientist wonder, “Why do we age?  What should we think of our mortality?”  The only difference is that today our modern language is mathematics and research papers, not stanza and verse.  I can’t speak for others, but I’m just as moved by a good science paper as I am a great novel.  I’m with Richard Dawkins who said, “Science is the poetry of reality.”

You can look up at the starry sky and emotionally interpret it as a sort of mural painted on an immense dome, similar to the ancient conception of the celestial sphere.  It’s an awe inspiring feeling.  When I read poetry from the romantic era, they’re always writing an ode to the heavens and the stars, making the celestial mural into a poetic object and its apparent eternal splendor.  For me though, I think it’s more profound to think of the universe as a living thing, with stars coming into existence and later exploding, some transforming into inescapable black holes, and all of this happening at the center of twirling galaxies, like giant merry-go-rounds, bursting into existence and then fizzling out, like a carnival that comes into town for a few days and then moves off someplace else.

To think all of this takes place in those neurons firing off in our brains.  I find it so odd that I, a lump of dirt which evolved from this planet by natural processes, can now look up to the very stars that forged my body’s atoms and understand what’s going on.

I always find it intriguing to think about our evolution and how we have all these ancient primitive structures lying deep within our brains.  As Carl Sagan tells us in the video posted blow, down deep within our primitive brain lies something akin to that of a crocodile.  That sort of stuff is our evolutionary baggage, and may well lead to the extermination of our species if we don’t use our higher mind to suppress its urges.

A huge passion of mine is to understand how our brain processes space and the objects within it, and to compare that with the deeper reality of space-time talked about in modern physics.   Like most things, our brain’s spatial processing center is not independent of our other mental faculties.  You immediately see that that brain has multiple ways of processing routes (to navigate the world via landmarks), abstracting a conceptual “map” of an environment in the imagination, integrating the body’s movements and limb positions in specifically planned ways, and more.  To see how the brain works and how it evolved, and why it processes information the way it does, and comparing that to modern physics and seeing the bigger picture of quantum mechanics and relativity, and seeing the multiverse, just throws my mind in complete bliss.

I want to know how free will comes about in our brains.  I want to more fully understand the planning operations our brain uses to judge events, make predictions, and plan actions.  I want to more fully understand how beliefs are formed.

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