I don’t really like people, so I’m not really interested in humans. I’m also a cat person, so I’m not really interested in humans. I don’t think chimps are cute either, so I’m not really interested in humans. I’m also not a fan of babies… which I’m told have brains (a controversial idea in itself) and occasionally act like people. Despite all of these reasons why I shouldn’t care about people parts, I find myself suddenly obsessed with people brains.
Sometimes, I just get obsessed with things. This isn’t an exaggeration. Recent examples include ambigrams, taxi cabs, leather bound books, lavender, space, and drops of dew that form on the leaves of plants.
Brains are gross and gooey, and from what I’ve read, terrifying. In the last four months I’ve read a number of novels and a lot of papers about brains. Having never taken a neuroscience course in my life, I’ve reached a monumental conclusion. Half of the time that gooey, foldy, grey massive lump up there, balancing on your spinal cord, is working for you, and the other half of the time it’s working against you.
This is the story of why I don’t trust my brain, or it might be my descent into paranoia; my brain hasn’t quite decided.
What you want? Your brain doesn’t care.
To understand the unconscious brain, we need to first know what the conscious brain is. Consciousness is difficult, if not impossible to define, and I doubt any two scientists who study it would give the same definition of what it is to be conscious. I personally like to think of it by an image that came into my mind while reading Jay Ingram’s Theatre of the Mind. I think of it as the constant inner dialogue you have with yourself that allows you to reflect upon the world around you. This also makes me feel better about talking to myself. But consciousness is perhaps more easily illustrated in instances when you are not, in fact, conscious. For instance, when you are asleep (not dreaming), or when you are knocked out cold by a blunt object, or perhaps by a wayward, fat pigeon attempting to land on a windy day.
Your brain is a highly complex sensory organ and as such much of its duties are done unconsciously. In other words, you’re unaware it’s doing them. This makes sense. You don’t want to consciously remember to breathe. You certainly don’t want to forget to tell yourself you’re hungry and starve to death, but there are other processes the brain controls unconsciously that you’ve probably never considered.
Consider your surroundings, feel the chair against your legs, the weight of your clothing on your shoulders, the brightness of the computer screen, distant echoes in the background, the mouse beneath your fingers. These aren’t feelings we are conscious of at all times, but we are nonetheless aware of them. This is where my paranoia sets in.
What else do I perceive that I am unaware of?
I am a woman of few talents. I can’t lick my ear, dislocate my knees at will, and although I have been known to occasionally put my foot in my mouth, I am relatively uninteresting. My only talent is the ability to readily locate exact pages within books. Seriously. I think my unconscious brain has a knack for unconsciously remembering the sensation of the proportion of pages in my right hand as opposed to my left.
I think we have the ability to perceive a lot more than we normally do in our day-to-day interactions. To test this I’ve been challenging myself to try to be more aware. I’ve started analyzing my friends. I watch their body movements, hand position, eye movements, and intonations. Don’t think I’m not watching you. The jury is still out on whether this will prove detrimental to my personal relationships, but so far it seems to be turning out quite positively. In fact, I think I make people less uncomfortable because of it.
Free Will? More like free NOPE.
Not ten minutes ago did I get up from my chair, walk up two flights of stairs to my cat, pet him for five minutes, and then come promptly back to my chair only to ask myself when I made that decision. I have no idea of when this occurred. I don’t believe that I consciously made that decision. I think my brain was just like “woah. I’m sick of writing about Southern Blots, let’s pet the cat. I like cats.” Then again, perhaps my cat has some kind of telepathic control over me. (Very likely.)
A very controversial experiment performed by neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet piques my interest in this area. He used electrodes to monitor a subject’s brain function, and asked them to move their hand whenever they liked. He found that pulses in brain activity, which he correlated to decision-making, were recorded before the subject reported consciously deciding to move their hand. There are numerous potential deficiencies raised by other scientists about this experiment (they are summarized in detail in Chapter Eight of Theatre of the Mind). However, the idea of awareness and decision-making in the brain is certainly something worth puzzling over. For instance: did I decide to eat that entire cheese pizza, or did my brain decide for me? I’ll let you consider that one for a while.
The Problem of probability and why I don’t Like decisions.
It turns out our brains are inherently bad at judging probability and randomness. This may explain the popularity of the lottery. We have exceptionally poor memories when it comes to estimating frequencies (and as such probabilities) of events. Psychologists call it the availability bias. Basically, it’s easiest for us to remember important events, or events that elicit a particularly emotional response. Think about the last few times you’ve been to Tim Horton’s before class. Do you stand there and lament how long it takes to get a coffee and how, seemingly, every time you go it takes 10 minutes to get your French Vanilla? Is this the truth, or do you simply not remember the times that you’ve only waited a few minutes for your coffee very well?
The fact is a lot of our perceptions and judgments are based on how we internally calculate our chances. So how many times have you made the wrong decision because your brain is shitty at math? I’m bad at math even when I try; clearly I am completely unequipped for the real world. I am indecisive by nature, and ever since I learnt about the availability bias I haven’t made a single decision, which is also to say I haven’t made a single bad decision, either. The moral of the story is that next time you’re thinking about asking that hot girl in your physiology class out, take a minute and do the math. What is the exact ratio of laughs to eye rolls, smiles to gags?
The corpus callosum is the part of your brain that connects the right and left hemispheres. Most people know that these two hemispheres are relatively distinct entities. The left hemisphere is the center of “rational thought.” It’s also where the language center is, and the right is more a touchy-feely and emotional. These two parts Skype through the Corpus Callosum. This becomes really interesting in people who have their corpus callosum severed for various medical reasons. An example, taken again from Theatre of the Mind, describes a patient whose right hemisphere had limited ability to read, was shown the word “walk.” The patient stood up and was about to walk out of the room when the experimenter asked her, “why are you doing that?” and she replied (the left hemisphere replied, more precisely, as it is the language center) “I’m thirsty—I was just going to get a Coke.” There are a lot of examples of this sort of behavior in which the left hemisphere makes up a story to explain a phenomenon that it doesn’t entirely understand due to the fact that it isn’t properly communicating with the right hemisphere.
What contributes to my brain paranoia is that if the brains of these patients are busy making up stories, there is no reason to say that mine isn’t as well. Can I be certain that my left-brain understands everything my right-brain perceives in its weird unspoken electrical way? And if it doesn’t understand what the right is saying, does it just make stuff up? Perhaps I’m thinking about a deep intellectual problem, like where my car keys are, or if I put on deodorant this morning, and my right-brain is like, “Yo shut up bro! This is hilarious,” and doesn’t bother to send the image of my keys in the refrigerator to my working memory. This is why I do most of my serious thinking in the bathtub. I swear the bubbles distract my left-brain, and some profound right-brain fuelled genius sneaks out.
What I also wonder is if my right-brain and my left-brain always agree? Ive been looking for some studies, but haven’t been successful in finding any, that address this. You could take someone with a severed Corpus Callosum, show their right and left-brains independently a controversial question and have them point to cards that say for or against. Talk about getting to know a person’s true colors.
There are so many more reasons why I don’t trust my brain that I could probably go on for another few thousand words. However, I’d rather instill a healthy sense of paranoia into you, the reader. Therefore I’ve included a small list of concluding questions for you and your gross brain to think about yourself.
Why does brain time seem to slow down and speed up depending on what your doing?
Why do I regularly dream about being eaten by horses?
Are animals conscious?
How does my brain store information?
Why do I think best at night, or in the morning?
What does my brain do with the magnitude of seemingly inconsequential information it receives?
How does my brain perceive and correlate the timing of events? For instance, when a street light turns from red to green, it might appear that the light moves down to green, when in reality the red light turns off at roughly the same time the green turns on.
How accurate are my memories?
Why do I perceive time linearly? Is this inherent of all organisms?
Fun fact: when your body decomposes, your brain is the first to go! The oral bacteria of your mouth devour your upper palette, and enter your brain cavity where they feast on the spoils of their conquest!