Your brain is not your brain.
As is often true of elegant scientific equations, this simple statement is actually the result of at least a dozen or so graffiti-covered bar napkins. But what in England’s green and pleasant land is it supposed to mean? Come… follow me. Just a little further. At mindgarten, we leave at the end of our journeys and arrive at the beginnings, unpacking our things along the way.
Human beings, especially in the west, are heavily conditioned to seeing themselves as unique individuals. On a physical level, this is quite true. In fact, the differences in your body chemistry may be so different from mine that we cannot swap organs and blood, or even take the same medicines.
But psychologically, is there any measurable difference?
That’s actually sort of a trick question.
The notion that anything can be measured at all in the psychological realm is of course a physical impossibility. Yet each of us, every day, are taking virtual rulers and measurements against that fragmented funhouse of mirrors we call ourselves. Our images of ourselves that is. Comparing ourselves to others. Our careers. Our possessions. Our positions. Our tastes. Our patriotism. Our ideas, values, philosophies and political perspectives. And we see this as a perfectly normal and natural human activity.
In this regard, we are all exactly the same. We are all engaged in this activity of psychological measurement. It doesn’t matter what we try to measure, or how. It only matters that we measure.
In science, we also measure. But in science we like to measure real things. Physical matter, that is. In fact, trying to measure anything else isn’t viewed as science at all. For the longest time we’ve been very confident that when we measure the physical world using the scientific method we take away something approximating an objective result. These days scientists are not so sure.
As it turns out, even in science, what we try to measure is influenced by the presence of the observer, the person trying to record the measurement, thus calling into question the very notion of a privileged perspective from which true objectivity is possible. And if science is beginning to lose its grip on the physical world, what hope is there for us humans placing rulers up against shadows and phantoms?
The point of all this is, if there is one, is that psychologically speaking, none of us are as real as we think, even though we may be very convinced that we have a self that is real and unique, psychologically. To stave off any doubts, we’ve adopted the language of material progress in describing our psychological selves as ascending to and attaining higher levels of consciousness, or becoming better people, or evolving, or being spiritually guided by the astrology entry in the local paper. But is that identity real in the same way that a tree is real?
Trees have evolved over millions of years. So have human beings. But the movement of thought in the human brain does not evolve. It’s the same as it has been for as long as humankind has thought and worried and wondered. Like a goldfish swimming in a fish bowl, we retrace our own well-worn thoughts and associations, or our familial and cultural affirmations, an activity which exerts no influence whatsoever on the evolution of our physical brains and bodies. If anything, it is an activity that generates loneliness, stress, anxiety, fear, hope, jealousy, anger, guilt, and so on. All of which are much more likely to have a deleterious effect on our physical bodies than an evolutionary one.
As the project called civilization shows stronger signs that it may have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque, we are seeing evidence of this in the form of reduced life expectancy and higher rates of suicide.
When it comes down to it, no matter how hard we may strive on an individual level to assert ourselves and ‘make the world a better place’, the reality may be that we’re just along for a fantastic cosmic ride, waiting for the human story in the larger sense to unfold. And none of us are in charge or in control of this process which began several billion years ago. Not even the financial, political and military elite really know what to do besides double down on the existing discredited world views.
Ummm… ok… but what does all of this have to do with brains and how mine doesn’t belong to me? Just a little further dear traveler. Keep apace. We’re making good time.
The medium is the message
A guy named Marshall McLuhan was famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message”. Some fifty years later he’s largely been forgotten, but this phrase continues to resonate for many people.
What it means, at least what seems true enough, is that the physical characteristics of any medium and the manner in which it operates is far more consequential in its influence over our lives than any content that might be delivered through that medium.
Television, for instance, is a medium. Radio and printed text are also mediums. Twitter is a medium limited to just 140 characters per communication. That influences how we write (on Twitter). Television is a medium characterized by one-way communication. Mediums shape and convey information in a specific format, each with its own strengths and weaknesses and intentions. The very nature and structure of the physical technology is the totality of the message. No matter what is broadcast over TV, the nature of television remains the same.
Things they didn’t teach us in biology class
Let’s for a moment entertain the notion that our biology is also a medium. The medium in this case is electrochemically charged living tissue in the form of human beings. Biology is a medium far more complex and sophisticated than any ever devised by a human being. In fact, the human brain is literally the most complex object in the universe that is currently known to us, and the way it works is still barely understood.
One of the more recent developments in biology concerns new insights into the function of human memory. The popular assumption since time immemorial, and one still advanced by many who study such matters, is that all memory is stored locally in the brain. But today there are good reasons for biologists to question this long-held belief.
For instance… in experiments where mice learned to complete a maze in the United States, mice in Britain learned the same maze faster; consistently. This may seem rather incredible, but brace yourself. This was even true when selecting for the least intelligent mice in the second group, suggesting that brain intelligence is not a particularly dominant factor. Now strap yourself in extra tight. This phenomena was also observed in slime molds; an organism that doesn’t even possess a proper brain; and non-biological crystals. When a crystal is grown for the first time in one part of the world, it becomes easier to grow the same crystal elsewhere. It is as if the fabric of the universe itself retains information once it’s experienced, like a kind of universal memory.
The results suggest that a great deal of information may not be stored locally, but in an element not bound by the limitations of time and space. The boundaries between your brain and those of others may not be so securely firewalled as we once assumed they were. The brain, like a magnet with gravitational fields emanating from it, may have the capacity to extend beyond the boundaries of the physical organ. And this phenomenon may not be special to human beings, but a byproduct of simply being alive; a biological manifestation of the same laws which apply to light and energy.
If one can accept this, and indeed it approaches the miraculous, then it’s not much of a stretch to view the human brain as a kind of neutral transceiver; a medium, like television, but with a many-to-many architecture, like the internet. And if we are a medium in that regard, let’s apply MacLuhan’s observations and entertain the notion that the content of your local mind is of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. It’s the brain itself and its very structure and function that is the star of the show. Not your brain, or my brain, but THE brain. It is as much a concrescing floret at the bleeding edge of a very long biological journey as a dynamic tool for keeping us individually alive. And who knows the true nature of the content expressed therein?