Posts Tagged ‘brain’

A stroke of insight

February 25, 2017

It’s said that a key to happiness is gratitude for what you have. I am extremely grateful for my brain. Not that mine is so special; all human brains are. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 2008 book, My Stroke of Insight, is a good reminder of this.

Jill and her brain

Jill and her brain

Jill, 37, single, awoke one day with a bad pain in her head. She had trouble with normal morning routines. Something was very wrong. A congenital malformation of blood vessels in her brain had suddenly blown, flooding it with blood, which is toxic to neurons. In short, a stroke.

Jill was a neuroanatomist – a brain scientist. She, if anyone, was capable of understanding what was happening. And she knew well that with a stroke, time is of the essence; the faster treatment begins, the better the outcome. Yet her detailed chronicle of that morning is agonizing to read. It took her quite a long while to connect the dots and decide to get help, because the stroke was wreaking havoc with her mental functioning. And that worsened with every passing minute as the hemorrhaging continued.

Still, it seemed puzzling that she didn’t act right away, while she still had most of her wits. I was reminded of Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who got cancer; he too delayed getting help, rationalizing his severe symptoms as just due to the stresses of his intensive medical training. But he should have known better. When he finally got himself checked out, it was too late. He was 37 too, when he died.

imagesBy the time Jill at last grasped the situation, she was so incapacitated that taking action was becoming increasingly difficult. She sat immobilized in front of the phone. The part of her brain responsible for  numbers had been particularly hard hit. In intermittent moments of relative lucidity, she somehow managed to locate a card with her doctor’s number, and even to dial it. But then could not speak.

The doctor figured out who was calling. “Go to Mount Auburn Hospital,” she said. That was all. I was appalled. Jill couldn’t even talk.

Eventually, she also managed to dial her office. A colleague, alarmed, went to her apartment, and got her to a hospital, probably saving her life.

But here is a fascinating point. One reason for Jill’s delay is that she was loving what she was experiencing.

images-1Very generally, our two brain halves differ; the left is considered to be the rational side, housing our cognitive skills, while the right brain is the artistic, creative, intuitive side. Note that while normally, one cannot really separate the two, experiments cutting the connection between them (e.g., to control epilepsy) reveal that in some ways there really are two separate personalities inhabiting the one skull.

The stroke ravaged Jill’s left hemisphere – so, she says, it “no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly” like what Buddhists call nirvana. “I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.” (My emphasis)

unknown-2Buddhist meditation practice also aims for a kind of annihilation of the self, and this too Jill experienced. She even writes of losing proprioception – the brain’s monitoring of the body. The boundary between one’s body and what’s outside it is something second nature to us, but for Jill that melted away. She describes it as feeling fluid rather than solid (a feeling that didn’t go away for years). I was reminded of the Buddhist asking a hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”

Proprioception is only one element of our sense of self. How the self is created is something we don’t yet truly understand. (For an excellent discussion of that problem, click here.) But as a brain scientist, Jill sheds some light by describing how she lost her self. unknown-3She talks of the brain constantly engaged in reminding you who you are, what your life is about, how you fit into the world, etc. – an unremitting effort like that of a performer keeping a row of plates spinning atop sticks. Jill’s brain stopped doing it, and her very selfhood dissolved away.

She recovered, but it was a tough eight-year slog. Much of her mind had to be rebuilt, reprogrammed – she was like an infant needing to learn the most basic things about life and the world. The hardest, she says, was reading: “I had no recollection that reading was something I had ever done before, and I thought the concept was ridiculous. Reading was such an abstract idea that I couldn’t believe anyone had ever thought of it, much less put forth the effort to figure out how to do it.”

images-2Her mother moved in to help her. Another challenge was the total loss of her number sense. When her mother asked her, “What’s one plus one?” Jill pondered before responding: “What’s a one?”

Motivating herself was hard. Nirvana still beckoned. Jill had to constantly consciously decide to exit from the “enticing and wonderful” right hemisphere “la-la land” of “divine bliss,” and engage her recovering analytical left mind. And she says she wondered how much of her “newly found right hemisphere consciousness, set of values, and resultant personality” would have to be sacrificed in order to recover her left-brain skills. In fact, she now recognized aspects of her past personality – egotism, argumentativeness, meanness, and various hang-ups – that she’d rather leave behind.

images-3And the way she saw things now, those characteristics reflected her left brain having exercised dominance over the right brain; but that dominance was not beyond her control. She says her stroke revealed that it was actually up to her to decide the relationship between the two sides of her brain in shaping her personality. This may be easier said than done, but Jill seems to feel she has done it, and that it is possible for anyone to do it.

The key to such control, she says, is to recognize when she’s hooked into a negative thought loop. She lets it run for about 90 seconds, then consciously asks her brain to knock it off. This must be done with intensity, Jill says, and she tries to get her brain onto different, better thoughts. (I believe I myself do a lot of what Jill prescribes; but click here for a counter-story.)

All this is an ultimate argument for free will; and Jill does provide some powerful evidence for it.

I will end with this quote from the book: “our minds are highly sophisticated ‘seek and ye shall find’ instruments. unknown-4We are designed to focus in on whatever we are looking for. If I seek red in the world then I will find it everywhere. Perhaps just a little in the beginning, but the longer I stay focused on looking for red, then before you know it, I will see red everywhere.”

This is highly relevant to our political lives.

Mind, Memory, and Movies

June 15, 2014

UnknownThe human brain has about 85 billion neurons, most connected to thousands of others, making for trillions of connections – the most complex object known. I’ve written before about what wonders it performs.

Recently in a newspaper I came to a page full of text of no interest, and quickly turned the page. Unknown-1But I said to myself, “Did I see the word breasts?” With scientific curiosity, I went back and searched; sure enough, there it was, buried amid thousands of words. How could my brain have picked it out in that fraction of a second? Why? (Well, one can guess why.)

We imagine memory works like a video camera. Not so. The brain does hold such information, but only briefly, then discards it. What it retains is only a bare thematic outline. Unknown-2When you later “remember,” what the brain does is to refer to that outline and to fill in the details by, basically, making them up. Really! And those confabulations change over time. (This is why “eyewitness testimony” in courts is often specious.)

This was brought home to me when I wrote an autobiographical memoir. I thought my memories were fairly accurate. But checking against diaries written when events were fresh showed how differently I remembered them years later. And when, years later still, I re-read that autobiography, I was surprised yet again to find that my memories had further changed.

And yet the brain does have an uncanny ability to file away information. Recently my wife told me someone said she reminded him of Sheila Miles.

Sara Miles?” I said.

“Maybe. Who’s that?”

Unknown-3“Actress; I think she was in a film – something about an Irish girl and a soldier? I can’t recall the title. Must’ve been 1970, since I do remember the girl I saw it with.” (And I could recall just one scene in that movie. Guess what? Breasts again.)

Next morning, while coming awake (a good time for this), the word “daughter” entered my mind. In another moment, I had it: Ryan’s Daughter.

Now, I’m no film buff, and had you asked me, “Who was in Ryan’s Daughter?” I doubt I could have answered. Yet given the name Miles – even with the wrong first name – my brain made the connection. The information was still there, buried, unthought of, for 44 years.

Then there was the time I greeted my wife with, “Good morning, old man.”

She gave me a quizzical look. “What made you call me that?”

“Why, I have no idea! It just popped out of my mouth.” I’d never said it before.

imagesWell, that night we watched The Third Man, having ordered it from Netflix. I had a vague recollection of having seen it on TV as a kid, nearly half a century earlier. If asked, I couldn’t have told you a thing about that film. Maybe that Orson Welles was in it. Maybe. And seeing the movie again now, nothing seemed familiar.

So I was gobsmacked when the Welles character calls the Joseph Cotten character “old man!”

That tiny detail wasn’t even significant in the film, but somehow, my brain had squirreled it away, and half a century later, unconsciously prompted by our Netflix order, put the words into my mouth, without my even realizing why.Unknown-4

Now if only I could remember where I left those keys . . . .

How the Mind Works (Or Can It?)

December 3, 2012

UnknownYou’re parachuted onto an alien planet. Of course, the language is unlike any you’ve ever heard. In fact, imagine further you don’t know any language – or even what language is. Yet your mission is to decode the language, just by listening, so you can understand and speak it.

One more thing: you’re two years old.

Of course, we all do this. That’s amazing. Seemingly impossible, if you think about it. And what does “think about it” really mean?

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s 1997 book, How The Mind Works.* My main conclusion: it can’t.

Though I must admit I don’t understand all of the book. And, to be sure, nobody truly does understand how the mind works. Pinker gives us the best scientific insight.** We do understand a lot, in schematic terms. But I’m the kind of guy who wants to know on a nitty-gritty mechanistic level how the neurons actually carry out the processes and encode the information they’re supposed to. I want to understand how my mind carries a picture of my mother; and nobody can yet really tell me.

imagesIn my own last book, I cited the language example above; another was hitting a baseball. As the ball is pitched, the brain has a fraction of a second to gauge its speed and trajectory – a particularly difficult problem because remember that you’re seeing it from the worst possible foreshortened head-on perspective. Then you must calculate the exact mid-air spot where the bat will have to be to intersect with the ball, a window of opportunity lasting milliseconds; then calculate the exact arm movements needed to get the bat to that rendezvous, at the right angle, at exactly the right moment; and finally transmit the requisite instructions to the muscles. All this has to happen in a second or so.

I say it can’t be done. The mathematics are beyond complicated. But, you say, your beer-soaked loser brother-in-law does it regularly? Hmm . . .

Now, leaving aside physical feats like that, you might suppose that pure thought is pretty simple business. You’d be wrong, as Pinker’s book makes clear. Ever the careful analyst, he dissects down to its nitty-gritty what a “thought process” must entail. Suppose you have a bunch of information about a family and want to figure out whether X is Y’s uncle. Simple? Pinker takes us through the logic steps – for images-1pages and pages before you get to the answer. (Reminded me of Principia Mathematica wherein Russell and Whitehead sought to ground mathematics in pure logic and after literally 362 pages finally proved 1+1=2.)

So no thought process is “simple,” not at all, when you really, er, think about it.

And how ‘bout them eyeballs?

Here’s where it gets truly hairy. To begin with, the problems of interpreting what is seen are immense. Remember that baseball coming straight at you. Figuring out what you’re seeing when you see a three dimensional object, with two eyes each seeing a slightly different image, the two having to be collated, with a foreground and a background, together with a whole mess of other objects, some of them partly in front of others, under variable lighting conditions, that may be right side up or upside down, near (and seemingly large) or far (and seemingly small), and moving at great speed besides – whoa!

Nobody has ever been able to program a computer that comes remotely close to sorting this out.

images-2But that’s only the beginning. The really hairy problem is how the results of such visual interpretation are seen by the mind. No, there isn’t a little man in there viewing images projected on a screen. Now, as I sit here writing this, I “see” a rather complicated scene. You could render it into language – there’s a vase of a certain shade of blue, of a certain shape, with a bunch of a certain kind of flowers in a certain configuration, in front of another one . . . to actually get in all the details would take quite a lot of verbiage, that could fill a book; and it all could be encoded into ones and zeroes, like a computer does with pixels. And the brain could process that. But what I’m seeing is not a welter of ones and zeroes. I see an image. How can that be? Without a little man?

Pinker actually suggests that at least part of it involves literally physically mapping a picture across the brain. He cites an experiment with a monkey viewing a bull’s eye target, with a brain scan of neural activity showing a similar bull’s eye pattern. Well, maybe. But I can’t be convinced that such a mechanism accounts for the finely-grained complexity of what I’m seeing right now.

And this all concerns seeing what’s in front of us. But we can see other things. Things we remember (like that picture of my mom). And things we only imagine.

images-3Dreams of flying are common. In mine, I can swoop at high speed over a landscape of great intricacy, changing by the millisecond. How does my brain create that imagery? Sometimes I wonder whether it’s as simple as a program instructing me to imagine I’m seeing a complex landscape. But how would my imagination comply, supplying what is certainly experienced as detailed visual imagery?

It’s a chicken-and-egglike conundrum. I can accept that visual information goes from eye to brain, and the brain can know what’s being seen. But, again, how do we experience it not as information but as a picture? There’s got to be a little man in there! (And of course a little man inside his head . . . )

That’s why I say this too can’t be done.

But, to be serious, the point is what a fantastically advanced, profoundly subtle technology the human mind is – far more than anything Apple has come up with. And I haven’t even mentioned consciousness! Siri is one smart cookie, but doesn’t know she exists, and that’s a giant chasm between us.

Unknown-1Religious believers look at all this and say it could only have been designed by a divine intelligence. I draw the opposite conclusion. I can’t see any single mind, no matter how divine and omnipotent, designing such a system from scratch. It could only have evolved stepwise over eons of time by an iterative natural trial-and-error process. And, of couse, if you do envision a divine intelligence capable of such a feat – who the heck designed that mind? As Pinker says, religion answers baffling mysteries with ones even more baffling.

* A little out of date, admittedly, but while our understanding of the subject has grown since then, it has not radically changed.

** And being Pinker, it’s not all dry and pedantic. One topic deeply explored is how the mind works in sexuality. He quotes an older hooker mentoring a younger one who can’t understand a rich handsome man paying for sex. “Honey,” she’s told, “he’s not paying you for the sex. He’s paying you to go away afterward.”