24 March 2013

Musing on the mind-brain problem

Following a couple of recent conversations with friends and family I've written a short summary of my current views on the mind-brain problem. The dry jargon of scientific research reports is an obvious obstacle to a generally satisfying account of the conscious self, so I try to not be dry. This is just my current perspective, I'm not providing references and I reserve the right to be wrong.

I think it's important not to think of the brain as 'just a bunch of cells', but rather as a hundred billion individual identities that want to live and grow. The ancestors of the cells of the brain were free agents; swimming, creeping, crawling, swirling their way through the waters of ancient earth; feeding, resting, sensing, fighting, fleeing and multiplying. Now they're here, living together in this civilization we call brain; but they are still feral. In a very real way they rival and tussle every day to stay alive. The neurons of the brain do not grow old and die like other cells; you have almost entirely the same brain cells now as you had when you were a child. However, tens of thousands of them are wiped out every day - only the ones that form important constellations and alliances with other neurons receive 'neuromodulators' and grow; others shrivel and fade. Neuromodulators, what Gerald Edelman called 'value systems', are essential to the life and growth that brain cells seek. And here is the essential fact: neuromodulators are released in the brain in response to meaningful events of various kinds, happenings internal or external that bear on the interests of the body, the person, the brain as a whole, or one of its neural communities. The brain cells, seeking neuromodulators, seeking life and growth, are therefore in constant electrical communication and structural flux, seeking to bring about, probe and explore the meaningful, important aspects of the reality in which they find themselves.

What are these aspects of interest, of meaning, that allow neurons to survive and grow? What happenings attract the complexity and potential of a living human brain cell? To start with, every neuron is in constant electrical union with the sensing, moving body, and the neurons communicate and grow about this vital fact. The neurons share a common path through life, and so they explore and probe their shared memories constantly for nuggets of intrigue. Although their communities are often in tension as each continues the ancient will to live on and grow against the daily weeding out of the least relevant of them, they nevertheless share a common mouth, a common pair of hands and eyes, and the electrical urges of hunger, need, sleep and dreams reverberate across the neural fields endlessly. How could they not share a sense of I in this circumstance? From this seeking, seething, astronomically complex swirl of electric neural energy, membrane and will to survive and grow emerges pleasure and frustration, I and not-I, hopes, plans, dreams and distinctions. The astounding communities and constellations of living, electrified tissue that constitute each of these core features of the human experience are there for us to explore, by any method we choose - introspective, statistical, fictional, spiritual, communal - and it is our tremendous fortune and grace to be alive just as the technology to express and understand all this is finally beginning to become available.

At the heart of it all then, is a dynamic, inventive, persevering civilization of cells, seeking nourishment, excitement, love and force, in a never-ending myriad of ways. This is what it is to be alive, a conscious human being; a near-instantaneous sharing of memory, will and rich experience among the one hundred billion little lives within that one skull. It is in their nature to seek, like their cousins still independent in the sea; but the cells of the brain seek in communication and structural union with other brain cells. The subject of this electrical conversation is and feels like you.


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