Cerebral mysticism: the brain is the soul, the computer, or something more?

Cerebral mysticism: the brain is the soul, the computer, or something more?


More than 2000 years ago the semi-mythical father of medicine Hippocrates of KOs has puzzled thinkers of his time a bold statement about the nature of human consciousness. In response to a supernatural explanation of the manifestations of the psyche, Hippocrates insisted that “from nowhere else but from the brain come joy, fun, laughter and strife, of sadness, discouragement, sorrows, and lamentations”. In the modern era of Hippocrates could Express their thoughts in one message on Twitter: “We are our brains”. And this message resonates perfectly with the latest trends blaming the brain, to revise the mental disorders as diseases of the brain and, in the futuristic world, to imagine improving or preserving our lives by preserving the brain. From creativity to the drug of affection, one can hardly find at least one aspect of human behavior not associated with brain function. The brain can be called the modern replacement for the soul.

But this romantic perception hides the most important and fundamental lesson that should teach neurology: our brain is a purely physical entity, the conceptual and the causal embedded in the natural world. Although the brain is necessary for almost everything we do, he never works alone. Its function is inextricably linked with the body and its environment. The interdependence of these factors is hiding under cultural phenomenon that Alan Jasanoff, Professor of bioengineering at the Massachusetts Institute of technology, calls a “cerebral mystery”, the all — pervading idealization of the brain and its exceptional importance, which protects traditional ideas about the differences between the brain and body, free will and the nature of the thought.

This mystery is expressed in various forms, from the ubiquitous images of the supernatural and sophisticated brains in science fiction and popular culture to more balanced and scientifically justified concepts of cognitive functions that explain the inorganic quality or enter into thought processes in the neural structure. “All ideas are born in the brain”. “Thought creates reality”. “The moon does not exist unless you look”. This idealization is very easy as mere mortals and scientists, fits perfectly into the view of the materialists and the clergy. Cerebral mysticism ignites interest in neuroscience — and that’s good — but also limits our ability to analyze human behavior and solve important problems of society.

The brain is a computer?

We say that the brain is a computer, to some extent. Or computer is the brain. The widespread analogy between brain and computer is making a powerful contribution to cerebral mysticism, as if separating the brain from the rest of biology. A striking difference between mashinobudivny brain, and soft, chaotic mass (“meat”), which is available in the rest of our body, holds the dividing line between the brain and body, which said Rene Descartes. Proclaiming his eternal “I think, therefore I exist”, Descartes placed the mind in its own universe, separate from the material world.

And until the brain resembles a car we can easily imagine its separation from the head, save in eternity, cloning, or sending into space. Digital brain seems so natural phenomenon and separated by the Cartesian spirit. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the most influential inorganic analogy of the brain was presented by physicists, who in his old age, plunged into the problem of consciousness as well as older people leave the religion. This was John von Neumann; he wrote the book “Computer and brain” (1958) before his death (1957), open to the world this strong analogy at the dawn of the digital era.

The brain is definitely something like a computer — after all, computers were created to perform the functions of the brain but the brain is much more than a tangle of neurons and electrical impulses that spread them. The function of each neuro-electrical signal to throw a small amount of chemical substances that help to stimulate or suppress brain cells as well as chemical substances that activate and inhibit the functions like the production of glucose by liver cells or immune responses of white blood cells. Even the electrical signals of the brain are the products of chemicals, ions, which enter and leave the cells, causing a tiny ripple that travels through the neurons independently.

Also neurons are easy to distinguish relatively inactive brain cells, called glia. Their number is approximately equal to the number of neurons, but they do not conduct electrical signals in the same way. Recent experiments on mice showed that manipulation of these boring cells can produce a major effect on behaviour. In one experiment, a group of scientists from Japan have shown that targeted stimulation of glia in the cerebellum can cause response similar to the changes that occur during the stimulation of neurons. Another remarkable study showed that transplantation of human glial cells in the mouse brain improved the learning ability of animals, in turn demonstrating the importance of glia in changing brain function. Chemicals and glia is inseparable from the functions of the brain, like wires and electricity. And when we realize the presence of these soft components, the brain becomes more like an organic part of the body, rather than on an idealized CPU that is stored under glass in our skull.

Stereotypes about the complexity of the brain also contribute to the mystique of the brain and its separation from the body. Known cliché calls the brain “the most complex thing in the known Universe”, and if “our brain would be so simple that we could understand, we would not be able to understand it”. This opinion is due primarily to the fact that the human brain contains about 100 000 000 000 neurons, each of which forms about 10,000 connections (synapses) with other neurons. The dizzying nature of these numbers makes people doubt that neuroscientists will be able to ever solve the riddle of consciousness, not to mention the nature of free will, which is hiding in one of those billions of neurons.

But a huge number of cells in the human brain is unlikely to explain his extraordinary ability. In the human liver about the same number of cells as in the brain, but the results it gives are quite different. The brain itself can be of various sizes, and the number of cells also varies, somewhere more, somewhere less. Remove half of the brain sometimes allows to cure epilepsy in children. Commenting on the cohort of 50 patients who have gone through this procedure, a group of doctors from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore wrote that they “were horrified by the apparent preservation of memory after removal of half the brain, as well as the preservation of a sense of personality and humor in children”. Obviously, not every brain cell is sacred.

If you look at the world of animals, a wide range of brain sizes absolutely nothing to do with cognitive abilities. Some of the most cunning of animals — crows, magpies and jackdaws — have a brain which in size is less than 1% human, but still demonstrate a much more advanced cognitive abilities in certain tasks, even compared with chimpanzees and gorillas. Behavioral studies have shown that these birds can make and use tools, to get to know people on the street — not even a Primate. And animals with similar characteristics also differ in the size of the brain. Among rodents, for example, you can find 80-gram brain of a capybara with 1.6 billion neurons and the brain of the pygmy mouse weighing 0.3 gram with less than 60 millions of neurons. Despite such differences in size of brain, these animals live in similar conditions, exhibit similar social habits, and do not demonstrate obvious differences in intelligence. Although neuroscientists are just beginning to find brain function, even in small animals, this clearly demonstrates the popular hoax of the brain because of the abundance of its components.

Talking about the engine qualities of the brain or its incredible complexity and remove it from the rest of the biological world in its composition. The separation of mind and body which exaggerates the distance of the brain from the body from the point of view of autonomy. Cerebral mysticism emphasizes the reputation of the brain as the control center, which is associated with the body, but still detached.

Of course, it is not. Our brain is constantly bombarded with sensory inputs of the senses. The environment sends many megabytes of sensory data to the brain every second. The brain has no firewall against this onslaught. Imaging studies of the brain show that even the subtle sensory stimuli affect the brain from low-level sensory areas to the parts of the frontal lobe, the high-level region of the brain that is enlarged in humans compared to other primates.

The brain dependent on nervous stimuli

Many of these stimuli directly manage us. For example, when we look at images, visual details often attract our attention and be forced to look at certain patterns. When we look at the face, our attention automatically switches to the eyes, nose and mouth, subconsciously highlighting them as the most important part. When we walk down the street, our attention is controlled by the stimuli of the environment — the sound of a car horn, flashing neon lights, the smell of pizza — each of which guides our thoughts and actions, even if we are not aware of this report.

Even lower under the radar of our perception are environmental factors that affect our mood slowly. Seasonal periods of low light levels associated with depression. For the first time this phenomenon is described by South African doctor Norman Rosenthal, shortly after moving from Sunny Johannesburg on gray the North-the smell of the United States in the 1970-ies. The colors of the environment also affect us. Despite the many hoaxes on this subject, it is proven that blue and green colors evoke a positive emotional response, and red — negative. In one example, the researchers showed that participants worse on the test on IQ with the red marks than green or grey; another study showed that tests of creativity are better with blue than with red.

The signals of the body can influence behavior as much as environment, again calling into question the idealized concept of the superiority of the brain.

A surprising finding of recent years was the fact that the microbes living in the internal organs, also take part in determining our emotions. The change in the population of microbes in the gut by eating bacteria-rich food or a procedure known as fecal transplant may cause anxiety and aggression.

This demonstrates that what is happening with the brain in many ways intertwined with what is happening with the body and environment. There is no causal or conceptual boundaries between the brain and its environment. Aspects of cerebral mysticism — idealized representation of the brain as inorganic, highly complex, self-sufficient and Autonomous collapse when we study close to how it works and what it is made of the brain. Integrated involvement of the brain, body and environment — that’s what separates the biological from the mystical consciousness of the “soul”, and the consequences of this distinction are quite significant.

Most importantly, cerebral mysticism promotes the misguided notion that the brain is the main engine of our thoughts and actions. As we seek to understand people’s behavior, mystery compels us to think first about the causes related to the brain and then outside the head. This leads us to overestimate the role of the brain and to underestimate the role of contexts.

In the arena of criminal justice, for example, some authors believe that crimes need to blame the brain of the perpetrator. Often cite the case of Charles Whitman, who in 1966 made one of the first mass shootings in the United States, at the University of Texas. Whitman talked about psychological disorders, which manifested a few months before the crime, and an autopsy later showed that near the amygdala in his brain grew a large tumour which has affected the management of stress and emotions. But though the prosecutors of the brain can talk about what to accuse of a crime have the tumor Whitman, the reality is that the actions of Whitman was due to possession and other factors: he grew up with an abusive father, divorced parents, he was frequently denied employment and had access to guns to the rights of the military. Even at a high temperature in the day of the crime (37 degrees Celsius) could affect the aggressive behavior of Whitman.

Blaming the brain to criminal behavior avoids the outdated principles of morality and retribution, but it still does not take into account a wide network of influences that could contribute to any situation. In the current debate on cases of violence in the United States has become very important to maintain a broad perspective on the multiple factors working against an individual, mental health issues, access to weapons, the influence of the media and society — it all contributes. In other contexts it is also worth considering addiction to drugs or childhood trauma. In any case, an idealized version of the brain that are supposedly to blame for everything, would be short-sighted. Working combination of brain, body and environment.

Cerebral mysticism is of particular importance to how our society tries to cope with the problem of mental disorders. Because a wide consensus mental disorders are defined as disorders of the brain. Proponents of this theory argue that the way psychological problems are placed in one category with a fever or cancer — diseases that do not cause social reactions that are usually associated with psychiatric diseases. There is even a view that the definition of such diseases as “disorders of the brain” reduces the threshold at which healthy patients will seek treatment, and it is.

In other respects, however, the reclassification of mental problems such as disorders of the brain can be very problematic. Patients linking mental problems with internal neurological defects already get the stamp by themselves. The idea that their brain is not perfect and damaged, can be devastating. Biological defects more difficult to fix than moral, and people with a mental illness are often seen as dangerous or even defective. The attitude of the schizophrenic and paranoid is not improving from year to year, despite the growth of methods for easing the flow of their mental States.

Regardless of social consequences, blaming the brain in creating mental illness can be scientifically incorrect in many cases. Although all mental health problems include the brain, the main factors of their occurrence can be anywhere. In the 19th century syphilis is transmitted sexually, and pellagra caused by a deficiency of vitamin B, were the main reasons for the increase in patients in hospitals in Europe and the United States. A recent study showed that 20% of psychiatric patients have physical abnormalities that can cause or worsen mental state, among them problems with the heart, lungs and endocrine system. Epidemiological studies have revealed a significant relationship between the manifestation of mental problems and factors such as the status of ethnic minorities, birth city and birth at a certain time of the year. Although these relationships are not easy to explain, they emphasize the role of environmental factors. We must heed these factors, if you want effective treatment and prevention of mental disorders.

On a deeper level first and foremost cultural conventions limit the notion of mental illness. Only 50 years homosexuality was classified as a pathology, a deviation in the authoritative compendium of mental disorders of the American psychiatric Association. In the Soviet Union, political dissidents were sometimes determined on the basis of psychiatric diagnoses that would horrify most modern observers. However, sexual preference or inability to bow to the authority in righteous desire is the psychological traits for which we can find the biological correlates. This does not mean that homosexuality and political dissidence — the problem with the head. This means that society, not neuroscience defines the boundaries of normality, which determine the category of mental health.

Cerebral mysticism exaggerates the contribution of the brain in human behavior, and in some cases also paves the way for the great role of the brain in the future of humanity itself. In tehnogennyh circles are increasingly talking about “hacking the brain” to improve human cognitive abilities. Instantly there is an Association hacking any smartphone or governmental servers, but in reality it’s more like breaking a lock pick. Early examples of “hacking the brain” included the destruction of parts of the brain, such as in existing procedures, inspired by Ken Kesey on the creation of “Flying over the cuckoo’s nest” (1962). The most advanced hacks modern brain include surgical implantation of electrodes for direct stimulation or by reading out the brain tissue. These interventions can restore basic function in patients with serious mobility problems or paralysis — and it’s an amazing feat, which, however, far off from the usual improvements the ability. However, this does not prevent entrepreneurs like Elon musk or DARPA to invest in technology, “hacking the brain” in the hope one day to create a superhuman brain and associate it with a machine.

Whether separation of the brain from the body?

This discrepancy largely is a product of the artificial division between what happens inside the brain and outside it. Philosopher Nick Bostrom from the future of humanity Institute said that “the best benefits that you can get through a brain implant, it’s all the same device outside that you can use instead of natural interfaces, such as those same eyes, for projection of 100 million bits per second directly into the brain”. In fact, such funds to “improve the brain” already stuffed in our pockets and stand on the tables, providing us access to improved cognitive function like a powerful calculator and more memory and not touching the neurons. We will add the direct connection of these devices to the brain, but irritation is one more question.

In the world of medicine the first attempts to restore vision in the blind through the use of brain implants has moved quickly to less invasive approaches and repair of the retina. Cochlear implants, which restore hearing in deaf patients rely on a similar strategy of interaction with the auditory nerve, not by the brain. And if we do not take quite restricted in the movements of patients, prostheses that restore or enhance movement, also working as interfaces. To give an amputee control over the mechanical prosthetic limb, the method is used “targeted muscle reinnervation”, which allows doctors to connect the peripheral nerves of the lost limb with a new muscle groups that communicate with the device. To improve motor functions in healthy people use exoskeletons, which are connected to the brain through indirect, but well-honed evolution of the channels. In each of these cases, the natural interaction of the brain with the human body help people use dentures, and form a direct connection of the brain and body.

The most extreme direction in futuristic technologies of the brain — the desire to achieve immortality through preservation of post-mortem human brain. The two companies already offer to extract and store the brains of the dying “clients” who don’t want to rest in peace. Bodies are stored in liquid nitrogen until the technology becomes sophisticated enough to recover the brain or “upload” a consciousness to a computer. This desire brings cerebral mysticism to its logical conclusion, fully welcoming the fallacy that human life is reduced to the function of the brain and that the brain is a physical manifestation of the soul, free from meat.

Although the desire for immortality by preserving little brain harm anything except the Bank accounts of several people, this persecution also underscores why it is so important demystification of the brain. The more we feel that our brains contain our essence as individuals, the more trust that the thoughts and actions simply stem from the piece of meat in our head, the less sensitive we become to the role of society and the environment and the less we care about the culture and its resources.

The brain is special because it represents the essence of us humans, but because it unites us with our environment so how could not have no soul. If we value our own experience, our feelings and emotions, we must protect and strengthen the many factors that enrich our lives both inside and outside. We are much more than just brains.