Neurons and Short-Circuits: Solving the Brain Problem

“As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain will also be a mystery.”

― Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Words cannot even describe the amount of difficulty this post has been. If you look in my draft folder I started 5 times. And yet, here we are. It is somewhat ironic that after 3 exams and 6 weeks with minimal sleep, that my brain can apparently no longer function to a level necessary to explain itself. Wonderful.

Story of my life with this one.

Story of my life with this one.

But seriously, I sat down, thought slowly about it, and each time began backing myself in a brain-kids corner. Which I have no idea why I refute so heavily. I’m a modest cerebellum. Don’t want to take all the credit. I’ll let my brain take the fall for that joke though. So other than lead me to make bad jokes – what does the brain do? How does it do its magic, and at what point do I feel the “mind” or whatever else you want to call it, je ne sais quoi, come in?

The Tumblr account (here) is actually hilarious... and surprisingly efficient birth control.

The Tumblr account (here) is actually hilarious… and surprisingly efficient birth control.

Let’s start from the bottom. Literally. The lower brain, keeps us alive. It regulates heart rate, breathing, reflexes. The basic, uncontrolled, unconscious actions (and yes, I know you can hold your breath, thus you’ve got control right? Ever see a 5 year old tell their mom they’re going to hold their breath until they get their way? Biology -1, small child – 0). But that’s not all – I mean even organisms with a single nerve of sorts (think worms, and amoebas) can still “live” and move, and plants are technically living even if they can’t move on their own. But things broke down for me when I started asking myself how? How does the brain control these different functions?

Well that’s relatively easy no? Neural impulses. The answer to pretty much anything in human movement and life. And I know we have different nerves for different functions and speeds. We’ve got alpha, beta, and gamma nerves depending on mylenation (affects how fast) and how long they are; we’ve got motor and sensory neurons. But what about cognition. I have learned all about how different neurons respond preferentially to different neurotransmitters, and I’ve learned about different pathways in the brain for sensory input and integration. But I honestly can’t say I’ve ever had a professor tell me “this is the cognition pathway” or even explain to me how cognition and metacognition work, just that they exist. So basically, I feel like I have some fancy vocabulary that tells me nothing about anything. Like when I learned the GRE vocabulary this summer. Other than adding some flowery language just to feel like it wasn’t a total waste of my time, I have learned nothing.

So sum up? Brain keeps us alive, receives sensory information from the world. The mind does the interpretation? I mean I know there are billions of neurons, and thus an unimaginable number of pathways, but I don’t see how any of this can account for unique thoughts. And yet experience does make tasks easier to perform and facts and mental manipulations and calculations easier. Does lend itself to the idea that cognition actually lies somewhere in the neural pathway. And after all, what’s the use of having an insanely powerful system with such limited utility that it is unable to go beyond intake?

See back in a corner I am.

I'm not sure what was so fascinating about the corner

I’m not sure what was so fascinating about the corner

Does the fact that I have not learned how exactly the brain formulates thoughts preclude the existence of such a function? To dear heartargue this would be horribly illogical. But if the brain also gets the responsibility to rational and logical thought, then what exactly does it not do?

Emotions? Well where’s the use in that? Seems kind of odd to have this beautifully organized system of cognition only to muggle it up (yes MUGGLE), with such a potentially irrational and unpredictable system of emotions. This is my best and strongest argument against the brain exclusively. Is there an evolutionary advantage to emotions? Hypothetically in some cases yes – it helps us bind together socially, thus increasing odds of survival – strength in numbers. Yet, I dare you to name one person, particularly of the female variety, who hasn’t had emotions get in the way.

You know like when people say their “head and heart disagree” or that they need to stop being so emotional about things? Either we are fooling ourselves in how perfect our brain is as a system. Well we are. My brain is barely even functional without caffeine, I was so tired today that I was having difficulty standing, when I can’t remember something I tell people I’m having a “brain fart” (no idea what that means, Google it.), and occasionally when I completely zone out mid conversation or midsentence lose my train of thought, I tell people my brain short-circuited. So yeah, either I got the lemon, or the brain factory needs to upgrade the OS.

It is very interesting that I refer to the brain with so many computer analogies, but I think that is partially because that is how I see the brain. It is a giant computer, and we are in the process of making that a literal thing. I do see the brain as this massively powerful computing device though. It receives input from the world, and can create things to a degree, or else different manifestations and forms of the input. For example, typing – you press the letters on the keyboard, but really in the digital age, how to the letters appear on your screen? Some electrical signal. Don’t ask me to explain it. I took an hour to understand a type writer when I was a child and I could clearly see pushing the button leading to the letter stamp popping up. This is too much for me to understand at this point. Quite frankly it’s too much for science to understand I think. It watches the process, watches the fMRI light up as people do tasks and acts like they know how the brain works. I can watch a car drive down the street, doesn’t mean I understand the driver. Currently all we have done is realized that the car exists and figured out how to GPS track the car.

So for me, the brain takes in all of this information, puts it together into a bundle of meaningful information, and then our mind takes over and does it’s thing, sends it’s feedback to the brain and the brain carries out the instructions. Some may argue that the frontal lobe is the site of executive functioning, it weighs the situation and consequences, constructs the hypotheticals in a mental space, and makes decisions. The scientists have also found a home for emotions – the amygdala. But it all just seems so contradictory to me – I thought this was all a product of external stimulation. The brain received information, now it’s making things up too? How do we know it isn’t making EVERYTHING up and this isn’t some elaborate and unique fairy tale or nightmare? At which point, what is acting to affect the brain? Nothing hypothetically, the brain is constructing images of itself.

brain is the mostTerrifying no?

Now you see why I insist on the brain AND the mind. The mind allows me to conceive a inner and outer world, with the concrete and factual world and the imagined and hypothetical world including an ability to shift across time, away from the here and now to what has been and what will be.

If the brain truly had it all figured out – why do we have flawed memories? Because the brain short-circuits and has coding errors? Could explains why we don’t see things or experience things in the same way? But then why, particularly in emotional situations, does the retroactive error tend to occur in our favour? Because the mind. We love ourselves, so nevermind what the world says is out there.

2 am let's talkSo end game – what do I think the brain does? Big thing, is it keeps us alive by controlling our vital functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and the reflexes. All the brain stem functions –  the things they check for to make sure we’re still alive. I think it receives information from the outside world and integrates it into a meaningful image. I think that our brain can react to our surroundings to create action, it’s not totally passive, simply accepting information and leaving it to higher powers to do something with that information. So brain’s primary roles: keep us living, take information in, do something when our mind doesn’t need to or cannot attend to the information.

So I seem to have finally resolved this whole what does the mind do, but two problems continue to thwart me:

  1. How does the brain do it? How does the brain take the information from the outside world and convert it into a mental image?
  2. Where do the generalities lie? Do both the brain and mind have a set of generalities and predictive schemas that guide our lives? Is that why we sometimes feel conflicted? Why we have the gut instinct that sometimes makes no sense?
  3. In which system does consciousness lie?
  4. Does the brain tell the mind what’s going on or does the mind tell the brain?

This really is the theme of my education here. The answer to one question is another 20 questions.

Basically, an exercise in frustration.

Then again they say curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back.


“Wit and puns aren’t just decor in the mind; they’re essential signs that the mind knows it’s on, recognizes its own software, can spot the bugs in its own program.”

― Adam Gopnik


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s