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But Consider The Source

June 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm

In the immortal words of the brilliant Emo Philips:  "I used to think the human mind was the most amazing, awe-inspiring thing in all of nature.  But then I realized... well, look what's telling me that." 

This sprang to mind today while I read this article about a pair of conjoined twins who are believed to share sensory information, and possibly even thoughts, through a neural bridge between their brains.  Amazing, fascinating stuff.  Touching, too.  I'm particularly stricken by  the musings over whether the twins will become more or less individual as they age.

Our consciousnesses are the most private things we have.  Our senses of self are forever insulated from direct inspection by any other living being.  Self is a strange thing, lonely and solipsistic.  The thought that these twins just might have the completely unique distinction of not being subject to that universal truth of the human experience... wow.  It's amazing.

There might be an alternate universe—or a whole family of them, an entire branch of the multiverse—where I pursued a career studying neurology, the mind, and consciousness.  I'm endlessly fascinated by these things, even though I barely understand them.  The brain is like some kind of strange, intricate, devious puzzle box.  We don't know how it works, we don't know how consciousness arises, and yet…those phenomena are us.

Some of Oliver Sacks's books have driven home for me the sheer weirdness of the brain.  I hadn't realized just how complex the workings of the brain were, and just how detailed and specific the tasks of various bits of tissue could be, until I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars.  These books even freaked me out a little bit.  To think that my mind could lose all concept of color—not just the sensory phenomenon, but the concept of it—by a bonk on the head... or that I could lose the ability to walk not though physical injury to my muscles or nerves or bones, but because my brain could lose the capability to track the orientation of my body in space... or that I could lose the ability to form new memories... or that I could lose the ability to distinguish between inanimate objects and human beings... Well, it makes me want to wear a helmet 24 hours per day.

The article linked above mentions the weird things that can happen to people with a split corpus callosum.  (Imagine, for instance, that your left hand suddenly takes it upon itself to start tearing up money.  And you can't stop it.)

All of these medical and psychiatric case histories just parade around the boundaries of the central question: what is consciousness?  What does it mean when we perceive our "self"? 

There's some fantastic science fiction that studies these and much deeper questions.  Peter Watts's phenomenal Blindsight is one such book.  True hard SF, a nougaty center of neurological hard SF wrapped inside spaceship hard SF.  Even though I probably understood less than 50% of parts of this book, I found it a very compelling and thought-provoking read.

Comments

DMS June 2, 2011 at 6:30 pm
The first place I encountered split-brain was in a Stanislaw Lem novel. Light and fluffy (especially compared to Blindsight), and yet still an excellent seed material for nightmares fifteen years later.
Steve Halter June 3, 2011 at 8:25 am
This whole area has always been a big interest of mine. The new results and studies that seem to be coming out quicker and quicker are fascinating. Many things seem to point to consciousness being much more of a passenger along for a cool ride than the driver that it appears to be (to us as consciousnesses). That twin article is very interesting. Thanks for pointing it out. As neuro studies map more and more deeper levels of the brain/mind, I wonder how long we will continue to be insulated from direct inspection. Lot's of possibilities both fascinating and scary there. Blindsight is great. It's chock full of ideas--nougaty goodness as you say. Peter Watts posts interesting links to this stuff on his blog periodically. That, along with pictures of his leg--what's not to like? :-)
Scott Denning June 3, 2011 at 12:05 pm
I am ongoing impressed with how the brain is both amazingly fragile and amazingly durable and flexible. It sometimes seems that the least little thing can disrupt the smooth workings, like a piece of paper blown across a roadway can cause a ripple of braking that brings the traffic flow to a stop. But the brain is also almost-unbelievably able to re-route, re-channel, and repair itself, able to get working again after significant damage. There seem to be new discoveries about the brain weekly -- active imaging of brain processes is changing many of the assumptions. For me, some of the most remarkable new information is that what we do, and *how we think about what we do*, physically alters the structure of the brain -- the more we think about doing something, the more we build the "brain muscle" dedicated to that task. This has fascinating implications for imagery and the practice effect, but also gives pause when we think about things like video games and kids walking around with earbuds firmly in place every waking hour. Are they channeling their brains to not only adapt to, but *require* such input? The latest research would support that (as does my own informal observation.) They told us way back that we were born with a certain number of brain cells, developed more, then at a certain age started down a slippery slope to senility as they started bursting like popcorn. Fascinating (and hopeful, for us old geezers) new research suggests that new brain cells are forming all the time; they look around for something to do and, if they do not find a challenge/need, go dormant again. This supports the idea that to learn all one's life is to stay young. Fascinating stuff! Have not read "Blindsight" -- I'll give anything you recommend a try.
Ian June 7, 2011 at 3:25 pm
Gosh, I really need to give Stanislaw Lem another try. Was that in a novel or one of his shorter pieces? I tried a collection of his shorter fiction a long time ago, 15 or 20 years, but at the time didn't get into it.
Ian June 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm
Many things seem to point to consciousness being much more of a passenger along for a cool ride than the driver that it appears to be (to us as consciousnesses). That notion of consciousness-as-byproduct both fascinates and terrifies me. In a huge way. What if I'm not what I think I am? What if I'm not really conscious at all, but just a meat puppet driven by biology and unknowing sensory feedback loops?
Ian June 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm
Fascinating (and hopeful, for us old geezers) new research suggests that new brain cells are forming all the time; they look around for something to do and, if they do not find a challenge/need, go dormant again. This supports the idea that to learn all one's life is to stay young. This is my greatest (and, perhaps, only) hope for beating the senescence lottery.
DMS June 10, 2011 at 8:42 am
It was a novel called Peace on Earth. I enjoyed it at the time, but I don't know what I'd make of it now. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub is the only Lem I've read recently. That I enjoyed quite a bit.
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