Cheltenham U3A

Science & Technology group

Talk – Brain pt 1 jmj 11 07 2008

What are we humans?

I am going to talk about 'what are we humans'. All of us have what we might call a 'common sense' or intuitive understanding of ourselves and other humans, and how we function. The trouble is that 'common sense' or intuitive views of things are not always correct. Neuroscience is revealing just that: that many of our common sense understandings are in error. So some of what I am going to say is likely to be at odds with your common sense or intuitive view. It will seem counter-intuitive or even impossible.

This is not a small subject so I estimate my talk will last about three and a half months. Luckily, the talk is sub-titled 'some neuroscience issues', so I am going to focus on what is characterised as 'The brain - mind problem' , which will shorten proceedings by a month or so.

Let me emphasise immediately that I am not a neuroscientist. In my early career I was an engineer, but through a series of morphs, for the last 25 years I have been researching and consulting with the OU on learning, creativity and other associated subjects and studying particular aspects of the brain - mind problem.

The brain-mind problem is bewildering and what I am going to say will be my view of 'where the story is now'.

There are hundreds of thousands of researchers in the field. And the field has many sub-divisions and links to other arenas. Neuroscience, neuropsychology, neuropsychiatry, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, robot engineering, cybernetics, and even philosophy of mind - and each of these is highly active. Although much neuroscience research is directed at medical issues, there is also a great deal of interaction with what might seem unlikely fields - artificial intelligence and robotics.

Back to this common sense view of humans. It is probably along the lines of:

'I am an intelligent being. I know who I am, I am conscious of my environment, I know why I do things, I take decisions to do things, and if I choose, get on and do them, in fact ' I ' am in charge of me. I can command my 'body' to do things, including to say things. I can also remember past events and make comparisons between the past and the present'

"Alice laughed: 'There's no use trying,' she said; 'one can't believe impossible things.'

"'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'"

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

I am going to introduce at least six impossible things before lunch.

What makes us humans very special is our brains. Although the human brain is only 2% of the weight of the body, [about 3 lbs] it is fabulously complex and unimaginably powerful. And it has evolved according to Darwinian principles - it has not of course been designed. It's structure, components and functioning have evolved from what went before, so our brains have elements of the reptile brain, the pre-human mamalian brain and so on. But - a point of principle - all the bits of the brain and the way they work may not be the most effective way of doing what they do - they do what they do and we are the results of their functioning. [see recent book 'Kluge: The haphazard construction of the human mind' by Gary Marcus ]. Neither the brain or the mind can really be said to be haphazard - rather both are the result of evolution which of course introduces some apparent randomness of mutations.

A. Complexity

1. Time - It is difficult [if not impossible] to comprehend the length of time that evolution has been going on. Let me invite you to draw a line in front of you, to represent the time period from the beginning of the Christian era until now - say 2000 years. [say 2 inches]

Humans with exactly the same brain capacity as us have been around for 100, 000 years - perhaps 200,00 years. That is 50 to 100 times the length of your first line - say 8 to 16 feet!. But evolution has been ongoing for 4,000,000,000 years. Now think of a length of line which would represent the total time that evolution has been going on. On a scale of 1 inch = 1000 years, that comes out at c. 66 miles. Say the distance from Cheltenham to Cardiff.

If we think of 24 hours as representing all the time since the beginning of evolution, then this last 2000 yrs is less than 1 second, the 100,000 years since intelligent humans like us were around is less than one minute.

2. Number of signalling permutations

First the number of neurons: 100,000, million cells. If you were to spend every second of every day counting these neurons in your brain at two per second how long would the job take? About 1600 years. But there is more. Each neuron is in contact with up to 10,000 other neurons so the total number of potential connections is astronomical – somewhere between one hundred, and one thousand, million, million. If you were counting them it would take millions of years.

And there is more. Inside neurons there are many chemical neurotransmitters which alter signalling probabilities, and each of the neurotransmitters can interact with several [perhaps many] different receptor proteins - again modifying signalling - so the number of signalling permutations of each brain is on such a massive scale that it can be considered to approach infinity. . . . . . .

So my talk is about this difficult matter: the brain - mind problem.

B. What the brain does

The brain can be said to have five associated functions: [important! all these functions are inter-related and should not be envisaged as separate]

Visual 1.

1. to manage the physical body.

2. to process sense data

3. to manage emotional processes

4. to carry out cognitive processes such as learning, information processing, comprehension, decision making, analysis, and ‘rational’ thinking.

5. to produce a conscious awareness of sense data and the results of cognitive activities. Note that there is a considerable problem in defining what the mind is.

C. Common sense view of humans

In a sense the increase in understanding in this field parallels the history of development of science itself and the ancient debates between science and religion. Our language and culture have developed over thousands of years and have embedded in them successive layers of confusions, meanings and understandings. The mind had been of interest to philosophers, artists, writers, religions for millenia before what we now call science developed. We all think about our minds in what might be called a 'common sense' way, that is, if we think about it at all. Mostly I guess, most people, just accept that they have minds without wondering too much about what it is or how it might work.

As I said earlier we all have what I have called a 'common sense' understanding of ourselves and how we function. Let me repeat that here.

Visual 2.

'I am an intelligent being. I know who I am, I am conscious of my environment, I know why I do things, I take decisions to do things, and if I choose, get on and do them, in fact ' I ' am in charge of me. I can command my 'body' to do things, including to say things. I can also remember past events and make comparisons between the past and the present'

As the brain is needed to do things and say things, this common sense view means that the mind can command the brain.'

I am now going to examine some of these common sense ideas. But note again: these problems are difficult to state clearly; most aspects of the brain-mind problem have uncertainties, yet to be resolved.

All these will be involved in what follows.

Problem1. Do our minds control our brains, bodies and our actions?

Dualism -Descarte held this view - says there are two kinds of stuff. Material stuff which everything in the world is made of including us and of course our brains. And this stuff follows the scientific 'laws' that have been discovered. The other kind of stuff is non-material, and science has failed to understand what this is or to delineate any laws or logic for it. Through history this kind of stuff has been called soul, spirit, and mind [and other things].

Our common sense view of the mind-brain connection is that the mind stuff has influence over the material stuff of our brains, and our bodies - mind over matter.

There are problems with this.

The neurons in the brain are acting according to principles of physics and chemistry: they have no choice in the matter. One important principle of science is that all events are produced by preceding causes. Now if the brain is the operating machine for thinking, when the thought 'I think I'll go into town' comes into your mind, it must have previously been processed by the brain, and after that, the thought is perceived by the 'I' in 'the mind'. So the brain has already decided the body wants/needs to go into town BEFORE you, the ' I ', has thought of it.

In fact the research indicates that the brain is at least 1/2 second ahead of the perceived thoughts at all times. Very recent research shows that in some situations the brain has made a decision 6-7 seconds before the 'I' is aware of it - in 'the mind'! This has been summed up as 'Hare brain; tortoise mind', by neuropsychologist Guy Claxton [see his book].

Visual 3.

Thus everything you see, hear, smell, taste, and have a tactile sense of, is generated in the brain before you have a sensation in your mind. Every cognitive activity - thought, decision, comparison, etc - has been processed in your brain before you are aware of it in your mind.

So how can the mind take decisions if the decision has been taken in the brain before the mind is aware of it?

The neurons are following physics and chemistry laws - which require events to be preceeded by causes. For the mind to act on the brain it would have to overturn previous physical and chemical events in the brain - which appears to be absolutely impossible.

Another problem: all the processing in the brain is chemical and electrical. And we - in our 'minds' - can never know how much of its processes the brain makes conscious. It is certain that much of the brain's processing never becomes conscious, is never perceived by the 'I' in 'the mind'.

For the mind to be able to effect the brain it seems there would have to b-

a) a 'reverse' translation of our thoughts in a natural language - say English - into brain processing language.

and b) an 'understanding' by the mind ['I'] of the relevant components of the myriad of brain processing components to influence.

Visual 4

Thus the dominant neuroscientific view is that the mind cannot influence the brain. This view is called monism [ie there is only one material - the mind is produced by material activity], or materialism.

All the scientific evidence confirms that the mind is being generated by the brain. Frances Crick, in his book 'The Astonishing Hypothesis' writes:

Visual 5

' You, your joys, and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules'

A number of difficult issues follow from this.

Problem 2. Is there a 'stream of consciousness'?

To be conscious is to have awareness, to have things going on in the mind. In short, consciousness is what a person experiences and is aware of at any given moment. When we are unconscious, because of for instance, sleep, anaesthetic or concussion, our minds do not exist. [note: there are several levels of consciousness, I am speaking here of total unawareness. During unconsciousness [most of] the brain is still processing normally.

Although metaphors always break down at some point, think of a P.C. with the monitor switched off - the electronics in the processing systems are working away but nothing is showing on the screen.

We seem to have a 'stream of consciousness'. It seems to be something like: 'I feel as if I am somewhere inside my head looking out. I can see and hear and feel and think. The impressions come along in an endless stream: pictures, sounds, feelings, mental images and thoughts appear in my consciousness and then disappear again. This is my 'stream of consciousness' and I am the continuous conscious self who experiences it.' Quoted from Susan Blackmore, 2001.

But research is throwing doubt on the stream of consciousness idea. If you ask yourself several times a day 'what am I conscious of now', and attend carefully, you may be sure you are conscious at that precise moment. But you may be less sure whether you were conscious the moment before. It seems that asking the question itself seems to 'create' consciousness at that moment.

There are now many examples: one is called the colour phi phenonemon. A coloured spot [say red] is flashed on a screen followed quickly by a different colour spot [say green] a short distance away. Observers see one moving light which changes from red to green halfway to the second spot. But how does an observer know the colour of the second spot until after it has flashed?

[By the way, this scientific research was the result of a question posed by a philosopher]

This and other research is suggesting that the 'stream of consciousness' is an illusion produced by the brain

Problem 3. What is the 'I'?

Of course when I say 'I', I mean my body and its characteristics unique to me, plus all the memories, emotions, thoughts, confusions, meanings [etc] unique to me, which I have in my mind and my memory.

'I' seems to mean that I have a 'self'. And 'I' have 'agency' - that is 'I' [in my mind] can cause things to happen.

There can be no denying that every [normal] person has these kind of awarenesses.


the self is a slippery concept 

Self-concept is learned. As far as we know, no one is born with a self-concept. It gradually emerges in the early months of life and is shaped and reshaped through repeated perceived experiences

Self-concept is organized. Most researchers agree that self-concept has a generally stable quality

However, there are many problems here. Of course, the brain is not setting out to fool us; rather the ' I '' is an output brought into consciousness by the complex processes within the brain.

Problem 4. What can it mean to say 'I' have made a decision?

If the mind [the ' I ' exists only in the mind!] cannot influence the making of the decision then what?

How can the brain make decisions anyway? [It is now known that the brain is not a fixed entity; it is changing all the time. The body's sensing apparatus [eyes, ears, touch etc] are continuously receiving signals which produce a response in the brain, which is the actual experience. i.e. the incoming signals [light, music etc] are only seen, heard, felt etc within the brain. We see with our brains, not with our eyes! We hear with our brains not with our ears! The pattern of neuron firing which occurs is sometimes called a 'trace'. Once a trace has been established, that particular firing pattern is more likely to fire again in the future in response to a similar stimulus. This is the basis of habits - habitual ways of behaving - walking, speaking, reading, thinking etc, etc. However, the firing pattern is never exactly the same because the situation is always different, be it ever so slightly.]

From the moment our brains become functional - early in pregnancy - they are receiving signals which make firing and memory patterns which are growing the personality. Naturally, all dimensions of personality are produced by the interaction of genes and of experience or learning, and/or by chemistry in the womb - but note that most characteristics are produced by many genes acting together - for instance extra/intro-version, gender, degree of neurotic stability. Specially note it is not nature OR nurture; it is always nature PLUS nurture.

In a sense the brain has been 'brain washed' by the soup of experiences which it has had and which it has learned from, that is been altered by. This is very complex, and still far from being fully understood. Alteration of the brain continues every second of our lives - ie the brain is continually changing, including at this moment. So the brain is never the same. You can't use the same brain twice!!!

Problem 5. Is there free will

Visual .

Brain creates perceptions of


'The Self'


the 'I'

in the mind

Stream of consciousness

in the mind

The Will

in the mind

Cognitive processes -





Decision making

in the mind

F. So current thinking is Not yet totally conclusively:

1. Free will is in serious doubt.

2. The ' I ' is probably an illusion.

3. Decision making is done in the brain and the mind has nothing to do with it!

4. The decisions in the brain are probably made - without the 'I' being involved - on the basis of the experience traces accumulated over our entire lifetime.

5. Most if not all our behaviours and our cognitive processes are habitual - but changing slightly all the time. Changing habitual behaviours and cognitve proceses is extremely difficult: it can only be done through new learning and the development of new habits.

6. Almost all the time we are behaving on the basis of unconscious signals - to us - from the outside world i.e. we are not deciding to behave this way or that way, but are forced to behave as we do by our brains and the programming wthin them. We are not free agents

All this has difficult implications for society especially the justice system, but also social services, education, religions and beyond.

That's at least six impossible things!