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The Nature of the Brain | briancapleton.com

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Sprituality & Transpersonal

The Nonsense Play

The Nature of the Brain

From the book The Nonsense Play
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There are billions of brains, but there are not billions of brain principles. Rather, there is one principle, uniquely instantiated in each instance of a brain. As far as modern neuroscience is concerned the human mind arises as a construct of brain function. It arises through the brain. Which is a unique, single instantiation of the one principle of the brain. Essentially, therefore, nature produces billions of minds that are each a unique instantiation of the one principle of the mind. Essentially, beyond the individual, personal idea of "who I am", there is one mind in nature, of which each individual human mind, is a uniquely configured instantiation.

As the entire human race, we are a network. We live in a world in which there is a global network called the Internet, and the idea of a network, or a network of networks - an idea that once we didn’t even have - is now easy to grasp by most people.

So it’s relatively easy now to talk about us being a network of human brains. Especially now that we know the brain itself is a super-complex neural network, and that we literally change each other’s brains just by communicating with each other, through the network of human brains. 

In society, the spread of ideas, and the function of repeated messaging, from political propaganda to advertising, is literally about changing the brain. And when strategists talk about changing hearts and minds, what they’re actually talking about, is quite literally, changing brains.

The networks that we exist in, the networks we exist as, are mechanisms of that change. The connectivity between our brains through our interactions with each other, is now a network of connections that has never been so densely connected, so directly connected, and so efficiently connected. The existence of the Internet has literally changed the topology of the network we are all a part of. 

Neuroplasticity is a most remarkable feature of the brain, as we now realise. It is the brain’s ability to constantly change its functioning and its "wiring". It changes its actual, physical, anatomical patterns of connectivity in its complex network of neurons. 

Even before this "rewiring" takes place, change establishes itself in functional ways. Our brain function changes with our experiences and thoughts, and with our interactions with each other. Repeated experiences, repeated thinking, actions or exposure to ideas and perceptions, always work towards changing the brain. Even if that change is to increase resistance to the embracing of new ideas. Changes in brain function eventually become physical changes in the network connectivity of brain. They become anatomical changes in its material network.

There is a window of opportunity that can be opened up, in changing the brain, where it becomes more rapidly and more easily changeable. Neuroscience calls this a "critical period", and we know from neuroscience that critical periods can be opened, and closed. We all know that there are certain things children learn more easily than adults. That’s because of a critical period in the relevant learning part of brain function, that is especially "open" in childhood. 

Those involved in advertising or political propaganda know that messages can be absorbed and learned more easily if their input is associated with emotional excitation. So there is a lot of emotional excitation in the world that is deliberately associated with the spreading of "messages" where one group or network is trying to influence the whole. Because emotional excitement can open up a temporary critical period.

Sometimes, whole networks of human minds can be changed relatively rapidly, when the network activity involves emotional excitation. Powerful narrators, such as those involved in rapid political change, are implicitly aware of that. And part of the evolutionary way in which the mind functions, is to find safety in numbers, and therefore to follow the crowd. The formation of networks, and the powerful way in which networks themselves influence and change the brains that are connected as these networks, is a prominent feature underlying the dynamics of the human world.

So in terms of modern neuroscience, a change in the mind is a change in the brain and its functioning. And one of the most powerful mechanisms for changing brains, is to address the network, to change what is going on in a network of brains, into which brains are connected. Which is basically what social engineering amounts to. Especially by addressing what is going on that network, as emotion. 

Our brains are now changing faster than ever before, due to the new connectivity in the human network into which we are all connected. It is a kind of evolution, literally, a continuing evolution of the brain, a continuing change that is sometimes referred to as non-Darwinian evolution.

In the evolution of the human brain, the brain has not only changed its structure and developed its connective configurations due to genetic mutations or survival advantage - the basic mechanisms of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolution. Rather, the brain significantly changes its structure and functional connectivity constantly through non-Darwinian means. The "response time" for the brain to change itself in terms of its network connectivity, due to neuroplasticity, can be tiny compared to Darwinian evolutionary timescales. 

Neuroplastic changes can take place over wide networks of brains and across generations, faster than processes of procreation and gene transmission. They can happen on the timescale of the transmission and establishment of ideas and thought. 

Neuroplastic changes that are widespread (effected through the human network in ways such as "culture", education and teaching), mean that there are changes that come about that are not determined by the passive Darwinian process of natural selection, or through genetic mutation. They are changes that can be passed "horizontally" (in terms of a "time tree") between brains. They can also be passed down generations (straight across generational gaps) by means other than the Darwinian survival principle.

The changes are passed on, for example, through ideas, and teaching. Cultural behaviours, beliefs, thoughts, and ideas, can be passed on across generations just through the process of brains communicating with each other. 

Brains across several different generations in people who are are alive at the same time, can communicate with each other, and change each other, without dependence on procreation for the transmission of that change.

Maybe tempting to say that these changes or changes in the mind, rather than evolutionary changes in the brain, but in terms of modern neuroscience, materially, the mind is the brain.

The paradigm for the human brain used to be one of "localzationism", in which its different anatomical areas were thought to be immutable in their function, like parts of a car engine. It was thought that the brain functioned as a connected collection of separate parts, like the way the parts of the car engine make the engine work as a whole. 

Because the adult brain is almost (but we now know not entirely) incapable of producing new cells, it was thought that in the case of brain damage, the brain’s functioning was therefore irreparable. We now know that this paradigm is incorrect. 

We now know that the brain can repair its own functioning, even while the brain material may remain damaged. This is due to the neuroplasticity principle.

So we can think of the brain as a complex neural network, whose connections and functioning are created as much through the principle of neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to change itself - as they are through "genetic blueprint". 

In the analogy of the car engine, this would be rather like an engine whose parts are made of material that can change its own functioning, according to requirements. This ability to change isn’t unlimited, and takes time. But in principle, in the analogy, part of what was a dynamo, could change its function to that of say, a speed detector. We know that the brain can recruit areas of brain material for purposes other than their original function.

As we learn, the brain rewires itself to accommodate the learning. If we do not continue to use what we have learned, the functioning corresponding to that learning can be lost, and recruited by the brain for some other purpose. This is the so-called "use it or lose it" principle.

What is going on in the brain is super-complex. Mindbogglingly so. And as far as we know, the brain is one complete, connected network. Every part is connected to every other part, not mostly directly, but indirectly, through other parts of the brain. And what constitutes what we call our "conscious experience", or our ability to do anything, including thinking, involves the high-level integration of many "layers" of complexity.

This ability of the brain to change itself means that our thought tendencies, experiences, ideas, and behaviours, can change and become established in new ways. Survival advantage, for example, can be learned. Without being part of genetic change being passed on through procreation. 

However, plasticity isn’t the same thing as flexibility. It means the stuff of our mind and behaviour can be changed, in a way that is more like the way in which say, a plasticine model can be changed. 

Even a changeable plasticine model can remain fixed. And not being perfectly flexible, it has a certain resistance to change. Each time you successfully change it, it tends to remain fixed in its new shape. Even though its very nature is that it can be changed or moulded. Brain plasticity is somewhat like this, and so it is also the reason people can become set in their ways. 

The structure and form of the brain is a mix of genetic and neuroplastic configurations. It still contains the representation of what we conventionally regard as its "evolutionary history". So in evolutionary terms the "earliest" part of the brain is the brainstem, whose structure is most arguably the result of principles that are in line with the basic ideas of Darwinian evolution. It deals with fundamental bodily functions, such as breathing. Then, a "later" part, in evolutionary terms, the next part "up", so to speak, has sometimes been called the "reptilian complex". 

This is the inner part of the brain that has something in common with reptile brains. Then, "next up", is the "limbic system", which has something in common with mammals in general. Because it is where emotional responses arise, it is sometimes called the "emotional brain". 

Then, "next up", is the cerebral cortex, a "later" part of the brain, in evolutionary terms, the surrounding outer area of the mammalian brain. And the "latest" part of this, is the frontal lobes of the neocortex.

All these parts of the brain are still connected, and as far as its giving us our experience of being is concerned, the brain still works as a whole, as a high-level integration of the parts. It regulates and interacts with the body on which depends. 

From our so-called "conscious mind", associated with the neocortex and frontal lobes, we can control our breathing and pulse rate, once we have learned how, whose functions are associated with evolutionarily earlier parts of the brain.

What about the way in which genetics determines the kind of mind and self that we are being? Rather than being a method for "setting in stone" aspects of our characteristics, and merely reproducing long-term evolutionary past, we now know that genes themselves can be "switched on" or "switched off" in certain functions, through the processes of gene expression. 

Not only that, but we know that experience itself, is one of the things that can do this, by affecting brain cells and contributing to lasting changes in the brain that can be genetically passed on in procreation. (Gene expression controlled in specific brain cells is also now part of the new science of optogenetics).

The result of all this is that what we might conventionally consider to be the "evolution of the human mind", is far from being something that Darwinian evolution theory is not capable of coping with. Even conventional neo-Darwinianism concerned specifically with gene transmission, is not capable of it.  

In the "old view", with "modular theory", the evolution of life forms on Earth, through principles such as genetic mutation and consequential survival advantage, produces life forms leading to the human body and brain, and hence the human mind. 

In the "new view", the way in which the brain, as a neural network, structures itself, is based on neuroplasticity, as well as on genetics and survival advantage. 

Genetics still provides a "blueprint" based on the past, in order to "build" each individual brain organ through the procreation process. But once there is such a thing as a brain in existence, even a relatively simple one, even though it starts out with whatever the genetic "blueprint" is at any point, the most salient thing about its functionality is neuroplasticity. Its ability to self-change, in other words, its ability to undergo self-morphism in both its functioning and its actual structure.

When this is applied to a brain through which what we might recognise as experience of being arises, then this self-change also refers literally to change in what is experienced as self.

The brain is adaptive. Different parts of the brain often share functions. It has been shown that rodents can learn to see, using parts of the brain that according to the genetic "blueprint" were never developed for seeing, but rather, for hearing. 

In humans it is possible for the occipital lobe at the back of the brain - which is normally devoted to processing vision - to process alternative sensory input, from hearing and touch. This happens in blind people. 

As we mentioned a little earlier, in brains in general, human and otherwise, when a specialised part of the brain is no longer available, due to damage or disease, it is possible for other areas to take over at least some of that function. If a part of the brain becomes little used, then adjacent parts may take over that part of the brain for their own functioning. This is known as the "use it or lose it" principle. 

There are of course limits to what is possible. Because the very existence of the brain, the existence of neuroplasticity, still rests on millions of years of evolution (to use that model of understanding). 

At a fundamental level, brain function is a "universal" principle, able to become "specialised" in whatever way is necessary, with adaptivity. Including brain cells themselves, becoming specialised types of brain cells. This is one reason why neuron stem cell research is now so promising. 

Basically, in the brain we are talking about principles. The way brains biologically work, is a principle, whereby what is already functioning in terms of networks of neural networks, can be biologically improved by the brain "rewiring" itself through neuroplasticity. 

This in turn then changes the actual connective anatomy of the brain. So the anatomy of the modern human brain can be considered somewhat as an anatomical arrangement arising from its own functioning, just as much as something that just functions as a consequence of what its anatomical arrangement already is. Essentially, whilst the human mind is tied to the brain, the mind has its own means of evolution.

The basic principle determining how a brain "wires itself", how it modifies its own functioning, and then modifies its actual anatomy in line with that functioning, is neuroplasticity. What neuroplasticity enables, is the changing of the brain according to experience, of all kinds, including thought, and emotion. Not just bodily behaviour. 

In short, the structure of the brain is the result of the immaterial, experiential things that have had a hand in determining that structure, such as experience and thought and learning. To think that this scenario can be fully understood on the basis of bodily or genetic evolution, without understanding how material brain function equates to mind experience of being, would be a mistake.

There is a two-sided coin here, so to speak. The coin of "mind versus matter". The immaterial is on one side of the coin, whilst there is the material, as the material functioning of the brain, on the other side of the coin. The "coin" itself is the brain, and brain function.     

These things that change the brain, in themselves, are as much about mind and experience, as they are about the material and the behavioural. Our human mind is arising through brain function that is not separable from the material, but is not the same thing as the material alone. We don’t experience our mind and experience of being as material brain function. We experience it as mind and experience of being. 

In much the same way, the experience "I am" at the core of all our sentient experience, arises through the material, but is not in itself material. At the core of our being as a human being is the immaterial - our actual experience of being.

In nature there is the evolution of the principle of the brain. There are billions of brains, but there are not billions of principles. Rather, there is one principal, uniquely instantiated in each instance of a brain.

As far as modern neuroscience is concerned the human mind arises as a construct of brain function. It arises through the brain. Which is a unique, single instantiation of the one principle of the brain.

Essentially, therefore, nature produces billions of minds that are each a unique instantiation of the one principle of the mind. Essentially, beyond the individual, personal idea of "who I am", there is one mind in nature, of which each individual human mind, is a uniquely configured instantiation.

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Basically, then, we are missing something that ought to be obvious, when we try to "explain" the nature of our mind and experience of being with only a material view of the brain. 

In other words, we cannot regard brain structure and function as just the vehicle of the immaterial that happens to be our experience of mind and being. 

In the mainstream of modern brain science, mind and brain function are not considered as two separate things. It is a scientific fact that the brain’s structure and functioning has everything to do with our mind and experience of being. However, not only that, but both collectively as human beings, over the evolutionary timescale, and individually, our mind and experience of being as it is now has had a hand in its very development. 

In the model of evolution, all the lesser life forms through which the brain is seen as having evolved, can be considered as being somewhere on the spectrum of mind and experience of being, a spectrum that extends from the mineral, or even the quantum, to the brain.

What in brains occurs as neuroplasticity, doesn’t even start with brains. Neuroplasticity, is just a supremely evolved, more complex version of principles that we are also now discovering apply even to the most primitive organisms, such as single-celled moulds (Much research into this has been carried out on the slime mould Physarum polycephalum). 

It is just that in our brains, these principles in their complex form arise as something that we know first hand as mind and experience of being. And we see the appearance of that also, in lesser brains, such as the great apes, and dogs, and cats, and so on. 

The immaterial or psychical - in our case, our mind and experience of being - is very much an integral part of the picture of how the brain comes into existence. Not only that, but in the light of what we are discovering about organisms without brains, such as Physarum polycephalum, it is sensible to regard the immaterial or psychical, as an evolutionary spectrum in its own right, and as part of how evolution takes place.   

Why would we regard the brain as having come about in the first place, from its earliest evolutionary roots, through principles separate from mind and experience of being? Principles that have nothing to do with mind and experience of being? 

That attitude is a hangover from the days of regarding mind in human beings as separate from matter, and scientists as "independent, objective observers" of a world that in itself has nothing to do with human beings, other than that we happen to have arisen in it.

In fact, quite obviously, the brain’s most salient feature is that through it arises our experience of being, as self, mind, thought, imagination, and experience of the world. It may well be that this gives us survival advantage. So we may well want to say that our "conscious experience" has evolved because it gives survival advantage. But that is not the point that should strike us.

We can say that the principle of the brain has evolved, if we wish. That’s one way of understanding it. So we don’t have to overthrow that model. But still the most salient point about brain function overall, is that it constructs what is both our experience of self, and what we experience as a material world. 

What we experience as the material world is a construct of brain function. Furthermore, all our scientific understanding of it, beyond what we actually experience through our senses, is also a construct of brain function.

By ignoring the latter fact of neuroscience and pretending that it doesn’t exist, or is something other than what it actually is, we completely miss the target. 

This is how we should look at it, rather than asking "how does the brain create consciousness" of a world that we take to be other than a construct of brain function.

We do not experience as our world, material or otherwise, anything that is other than a construct of brain function. That remains true, even if we group ourselves together in networks of ourselves, and start measuring things, and formulating laws that describe material behaviour. Which is what science is all about. This still all happens as a construct of brain function. 

As human beings, there is no intelligence in us, separate from this, that is "using" brain function as a means of observing and experiencing the world. A world separate from brain function. Our observations and experiences of the world are inseparable from brain function. Just as our experience of being this human self is inseparable from brain function. All of it is the construct of brain function.

This doesn't imply that there is such a thing as a material world, indeed a material universe, with all the glories of it that modern astronomy and cosmology is discovering, that exists independently of us, in the sense that it has nothing to do with us, other than that we happen to be in it. Rather, it means that you cannot separate the two.

Before any other consideration, this construct that brain function creates, is the two-sided "coin". It is what we experience as the objective material world, and it is the immaterial nature of our own self-experience. 

The material, and the immaterial, occur together through the principle of the brain. The material and our self experience are created together, as one construct. As far as our human experience of being is concerned, it is not the case that one is "prior" to the other. 

The principle of the brain, the whole principle, is not about the material as something separable from the immaterial. It is both material and immaterial, in the way we encounter it. Just as you cannot separate what we encounter, from our encountering of it.

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