How are Brains Structured?
by Robert Lawrence Kuhn (9/27/10 10:09 pm)
My inner self, my private sense of “I”—of this I am more sure than I am of anything else. How to understand this consciousness, this internal mental experience of an external physical world? What possibly could generate, create, cause it?
We know to begin with the brain. Biological brains are the most complex form of matter in the universe (as far as we know), and the human brain, three pounds, 75 percent water, is the pinnacle. How brains make their magic is just astonishing.
How to understand the brain? I start with brain structure, and to do so, I return to my roots, the Brain Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, where more than 40 years ago I did my doctorate in brain research. Although my career went off in other directions, I’ve always followed advances in the brain sciences, and in my personal self-conception, if this means anything, I’ve always considered myself more as a lapsed brain scientist than an investment banker or writer.
I recently visited three of my former professors at UCLA, to whom I owe much: Carmine Clemente, a distinguished neuroanatomist whose research focused on central brain mechanisms related to sleep and wakefulness and behaviors like sexuality and feeding (he is also the editor of Gray’s Anatomy);Arnold Scheibel, a professor of neurobiology and psychiatry, and an expert in relating function and malfunction to the organization and structure of brain cells; and John Schlag, a neurophysiologist who has shown clear relationships between various motor behaviors and detailed electrophysiology of specific brain areas. It was wonderful seeing them again, and it made me realize once more how tightly brain and behavior are connected.
What is it about brain structure, I reflected, that can make all this consciousness and self and stuff happen? To oversimplify:
At the macro level of brain systems, it’s:
• symmetry and subtle asymmetries between sides—left and right brains are both similar and different
• specificity in function—different brain areas do different things
• plasticity in development—brains remodel and revise continuously.
At the micro level of brain cells, it’s:
• dozens of billions of neurons (nerve cells)
• trillions of connections between them
• incalculable permutations of electrochemical communications.
Christof Koch, a professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology, and a pioneer in investigating the “neural correlates of consciousness,” explains why the analogy of a brain to a computer falls off. In a computer’s central processing unit, the transistor equivalents are pretty much alike, whereas in a biological brain, there are many different kinds of nerve cells and different kinds of macro brain areas. This structure is a fundamentally distinguishing characteristic of biological brains.
And brain structure is not as rigid and inflexible as was once the accepted wisdom. New nerve cells are being created constantly in adults, and there is tremendous brain plasticity, as the fascinating work of Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco has shown, particularly in developing the basic science for cochlear implants, which enable deaf people to hear. (That the brain can learn to process input from artificial electronic signals and make them into meaningful sounds is remarkable evidence of the brain’s plasticity and adaptability.)
But our internal sense of “I,” believes Rodolfo Llinas, chairman of the department of physiology and neuroscience at New York University, is created by the cyclical waves of recursive feedback between the cerebral cortex (that covers the brain and accounts for the conscious registration of our senses, movements, and thoughts) and the thalamus (a kind of central relay deep in the center of the brain). Llinas calls this system the “I of the Vortex,” and he makes the claim that this is consciousness.
To understand consciousness, we know to begin with brain. The next question, to me, is as difficult to answer as it is easy to ask: Do we end with the brain? Most scientists, but not all, think surely so. Most theologians, but not all, think surely no. There is no compromise here.
I chose to study the brain because only by means of the brain can we know anything at all. Understanding the brain certainly brings us closer to truth. But, I wonder, will it ever bring us all the way to truth?
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With regards to the question, "How are brains structured?" we can say that human infants are born with some "hard-wiring" or structuring in their brains, but they do not have a sense or concept of self (as older people do)--so this is something that is developed and acquired over time. (This is profound because most people do not realize that their normal sense of self and reality is constructed or created over time--so the personal 'me' that you know as 'you' is mostly (or perhaps fully) something made-up or something created--although there can be found traces of the 'real' you in these constructs).
Object-relations theory (as per developmental psychology) describes the process of how an infant's brain becomes structured--or how 'knowledge' is created (including knowledge of or pertaining to a "self" and knowledge of or pertaining to "reality"). As object-relations theory describes, all knowledge (and its corresponding mental structures) is comprised of a "triad" consisting of (1) an impression or representation of a self, (2) an impression or representation of an object, and (3) an affect (or emotional or energetic link between the two). After the first few years of life (4-5 years) the child hopefully develops stable mental structures which contain (1) 'knowledge' or a sense of a self (comprised of all of one's representations of self via object-relations; and leading to a stable and cohesive sense of self), (2) representations of external objects (which units forms one's overall representations of reality), and (3) an overall sense (i.e. sensation or feeling) of self and reality (as per the affects embedded or associated with the 'self' representations and 'object' representations). At this point it can be said that the child's (or adult's) consciousness is now embedded and experienced within these mental structures, frameworks, or mental representations of self and reality; and this becomes the critical point, in that consciousness becomes structuralized and experienced mainly (or only) via these structures or representations (i.e. knowledge) of self and reality; and because they are only representations of self and reality, and not the real thing, we (as adults) get a biased and subjective experience of self, reality and consciousness as it gets filtered and processed by the mind (its programing).
From this perspective, it now becomes clear that to "move closer to truth (or reality)" one must have the consciousness or ability to move beyond one's subjective, mental programs or representations in favor of being able to comprehend, perceive and/or experience an objective self and an objective reality, i.e., a self and a reality that can only exist and be appreciated and experienced fully in the present (as opposed to being framed and experienced via 'old' and subjective representations via the past).
So, somehow one must learn how to move beyond (or transcend, if you will) these mental structures (or mental programs) in favor of a purer, more real, and present-oriented experience of self and reality. (It is my understanding and experience that there are ways to do this but it is too complex to write about here; but for those who have actually experienced this phenomenon of 'breaking this barrier' i.e. the barrier of the mind, only you can appreciate its profound significance and truly know that this is where real consciousness can be found, where one's ontological self and ontological reality can be perceived and experienced).
Posted 7:50 PM / January 15, 2013
When the brain ceases to exist on death, what is left of consciousness? During life, the coded electrical activity that accompanies consciousness is constantly transmitting an electromagnetic version of itself as a weak radio signal, spherically a wave-front moving at the speed of "light". Is that what remains of the "I" in the finite Universe?
Posted 6:19 AM / September 24, 2012
The physicalist conjecture that Laplace's demon's knowledge is the ideal theory of the world is wrong. A theory of the world has to explain "What is it like to be something" What is the world like for" "What it is like to be something" ...on planet earth there is no such theory available.
Posted 3:19 AM / August 06, 2012
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