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Tag Archives: brain

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When I last used Hotmail (and I’ll admit it’s been a while), the service had recently added a feature that allowed you to categorize your email into separate folders. I wasn’t terribly impressed by this, because by that time I had already started using Gmail, and it was pretty obvious that Gmail’s system of “Labels” was way better than Hotmail’s folders. You can attach several labels to the same email in Gmail, but you could only put an email into a single folder in Hotmail. Well, it should be easy enough to see that some things don’t fit well into separate, non-overlapping categories.

I was recently reminded of this fact by a friend’s reaction – or perhaps more accurately, her reaction to my reaction to – the picture above, which I liked so much that I set it as my Facebook cover photo, along with a short description:

“Micrograph of stained hippocampal tissue. The hippocampus is the component of the brain that’s primarily responsible for the formation of new memories (Leonard Shelby, the guy in “Memento” developed severe anterograde amnesia after sustaining damage to his hippocampus – and yes, that can really happen). The pink parts are the neuron cell bodies, the blue fibers are axons, and the green fibers are supporting glial cells (which outnumber neurons 9 to 1).”

My friend pretty much told me that it was a pretty picture, and that was cool, but that it was pretentious and unnecessary to see it as anything more. Well, I disagree, but not entirely – because I do think it’s a pretty picture, but it’s also fascinating because of what it represents.

When you look at that picture, you are looking at the hardware that lay behind what was once a human mind. It’s easy to forget this, but everything that matters to you only really exists within the confines of a tiny region of the universe that you perceive as your skull. We forget this because we forget that there is hardware behind human minds. The universe is made up of various types of waves and particles – there are no sights, sounds, or smells, let alone emotions or experiences. Those things are “virtual” constructs; created by the hardware of the brain and handed on a silver platter to your consciousness – which is also, of course, created by the brain.

Every beautiful piece of music you’ve ever heard, every exhilarating game of football you’ve played, every romantic experience you’ve had, is an outcome of the (currently) mysterious interactions between billions of neurons like those in the picture above. Somehow, somewhere in that mess of molecules are things like a picture of a human being that you recognize as yourself; records, or “memories”, of the activities of entirely different groups of molecules that belonged to you a few years ago; and a whole lot more. It’s an amazing, awe-inspiring thought. And the picture up there is so much the prettier for the fact that it evokes these thoughts.

As a little bit of a contrast, take a look at the picture below, a diagram showing the structure of an animal cell.

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Beyond all doubt, the ways in which cells go about their jobs is absolutely fascinating, but this picture just isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the one above, is it? So, by thinking about the two pictures, we can conclude that things that are intellectually stimulating are a separate category from things that are are aesthetically pleasing, but that the two sets are not mutually exclusive.

In short, we should’t be forced to put awesome things into non-overlapping folders like “Aesthetically Pleasing Pictures” and “Sciency Stuff”; instead, we should be able to attach both those labels to an experience, and see it as even more awesome!

Could "Minority Report" become reality?

Well, it’s probably not terribly likely that things’ll go that far, but consider this:

“There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.”

That’s from a paper published in Nature Neuroscience (you’ll find it here) in which the authors used functional MRI scanning to peer into subjects’ brains as they were making the (rather simple) decision of whether to click a button next to their right hand or their left hand. And as they say in that quote from the abstract of the paper, the researchers could predict which hand would be used, up to 10 seconds before the subject himself became aware of his final decision.

That’s a little scary isn’t it? I mean, what if there comes a time when there are remote fMRI scanners that can be pointed at anyone to see what they’re about to do in the future? What if you’re snatched out of your bed and thrown into prison for a crime you don’t even know you’re about to commit (a la Minority Report)?

Admittedly, there are a few ameliorating factors to counter the scariness of that vision. Firstly, there’s the fact that predictions can only be made about actions to be undertaken in the next few seconds; not minutes, days or weeks. So if you’re planning to assassinate a high-ranking government official, or something like that, don’t worry, they don’t have any chance of catching you until you’ve already got his head centered behind your rifle’s cross-hairs, when it’ll probably be too late anyway (good luck with that, by the way).

Secondly, the accuracy of prediction isn’t terribly impressive right now, to be honest. It was about 60% in the experiments performed for that study. And finally, decisions in real life may be infinitely more complex than “right hand button/left hand button” – and that may make them impossible to predict using brain scanners.

But this research does still raise some very interesting questions about free will. Don’t be too alarmed, though – just the fact that you’re subconscious makes a decision long before you become aware of it doesn’t in itself preclude the possibility of free will’s existence. After all, from a non-dualistic (visit this link for more on dualism) point of view, your mind is simply the firing of a whole lot of neurons, so it’s not like your neurons are holding “you” hostage.

But what if there are physical reasons (maybe something about the particular patterns of neural interconnections in a person’s brain, for instance) for why all of us make the kinds of decisions that we do? Does this mean that there may be limits to what we can think? Or what we can feel?

I hope we do find out some day.