Having traveled about as far as seemed profitable in exploring the ideas of philosophers ancient and near concerning human cognition and perception, I recently turned my attention to learning a bit more about the present state of neuroscience. I think I should have skipped the philosophers and started with Eagleman’s book. In prose so clear and lucid and eminently readable that I’m assigning the book to my high school age kids, Eagleman shook the foundations of my understanding of what it is to be a human. I had to stop every other intellectual endeavor (mostly a memoir of the experiences with my son’s two bone marrow transplants) in which I was engaged to ponder the ramifications of Eagleman’s explanations of the inner workings of the brain and how it conjures reality for our consciousness.
The gist of the matter is that we aren’t much aware of anything going on around us; we are incognito, except in so far as a confederation of neural processing systems decides to allow into our conscious minds the information it deems necessary for us to know in our relentless drive to survive. Even then, this neural confederation adjusts and calibrates the information derived from sensory inputs before revealing it, in order that the information may be made more useful in the survival and propagation premises. We see only what something deep within us decides we need to see. We feel only when it is deemed necessary by the inner workings of our neural infrastructure to feel. Almost everything going on in our brains happens without our knowledge. Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg of neural activity.
As Eagleman describes things, our stream of conscious thoughts are akin to us reading the headlines of a newspaper whose job it is to report on the inner workings of our mind and our body and the relationship of each to the environment in which they exist. The metaphor seems apt. Just as a national newspaper, such as the New York Times, necessarily carries only snippets of the activities of the several hundred million souls with which it may be concerned, its headlines summarizes those events even further. The stories behind the headlines reside in our subconscious; they comprise the information collected by our internal and external “reporters”. The information makes it into the newspaper only if the editorial staff deems it newsworthy, and the headlines are usually all that is revealed to the population which they concern, and even then, on a need-to-know basis only. And our newspaper of consciousness operates like a yellow journalist, shaping and forming the stories it reports and highlights in the manner best suited for accomplishing its purposes, which in our case, is the continuation of our existence in space and time. Discard all the nonsense about the human brain being like a computer. If you want to understand how it really deals with information, study the copy room (or whatever they call it these days) and editorial meetings of the New York Times. A newspaper processes information and reveals it to the public consciousness in much the same manner that our brains process information and reveal it to our private consciousness.
Sometimes the reading public (the consciousness) gets an inkling of all the activity going on behind the scenes that lead to the information revealed in the headlines. Eagleman relates that James Clerk Maxwell, progenitor of the fundamental equations unifying electricity and magnetism, revealed on his death-bed that “something within” had discovered the equations, not him. That “something” was the furious calculations of his subconscious resolving the puzzles of electricity and magnetism using sensory inputs which his conscious mind had been only vaguely aware of, if at all. He was incognito as to the inputs and processes; he was only privy to the outcome. Maxwell wasn’t the only creative genius that knew not from where his creativity arose, but I’ll leave the rest of the examples for the reader’s discovery.
Eagleman covers a host of deceptions our brains contrive in presenting what it considers is a useful picture of “reality” to us, from the curious way in which ballplayers (generally) arrive at the same place as where a hit into the outfield falls (quite circuitously, it turns out), to the manner with which the brain can make it seem to appear time is traveling backward. In an experiment where a light flashed with a slight delay after a button was pushed, once the timing of the delay was conditioned into the test subjects, their brains adjusted to present the information to the consciousness without a delay (brains have a bias for simultaneity). When the delay was eliminated so that the light flashed simultaneously with the button being pushed, their brains, taking some time to adjust, would make it initially appear that the light had flashed prior to the button being pushed. In other words, we all have the capacity for time travel, and it doesn’t require a modified stainless steel car. All that is required is to use the brain’s own propensity to simultaneity in displaying closely-timed events to trick it into presenting the future as the present and the present as the past. To imagine, the physicists thought it was only our subjective experiences that tricked us into thinking space and time were of fixed dimensions. Turns out, not only are our experiences subjective, they are also not even real, at least not in any objective sense of the word; what we perceive of the world is by and large just a figment of our imagination. In a footnote, Eagleman relates what Einstein thought of our perceptions of time through a letter he had written to the relatives of a close friend at her passing, “Michele has preceded me a little in leaving this strange world. This is not important. For us who are convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” And apparently an illusion our minds help create for us.
Eagleman discusses how the brain can be taught to see by dint of electrical stimulation calibrated according to images on a video camera, giving the lie to the idea that seeing is done with the eyes; conscious vision is nothing more than a brain phenomenon anchored somewhat to the photons detected at the back of the eye by the retina (except in its infamous blind spot) during wakeful consciousness. Unconscious brains and the blind can vividly “see” images; the unconscious during dreams, and the blind by manipulating the brain appropriately (by electrical impulse delivered to the tongue in the example cited by Eagleman).
But without the brain, there is no mind. Though our perception of reality may be nothing more than a figment of our imagination, it is a figment that is created by the brain to be usefully employed in our quest to survive and propagate. As Eagleman points out over and again, the brain and all its neuronal hardware is responsible for producing everything that we sense, think or feel. Sometimes it employs sensory inputs from the environment in creating our thoughts and feelings; sometimes it just creates them on its own; but without the brain, there would be no mind, no consciousness to ponder the nature of it.
Baruch de Spinoza was perhaps the first of the early Enlightenment philosophers to resolutely discard the notion of an immaterial soul that existed separately from the body (Ethics, Part II). He rejected his contemporary Descartes’ mind/body dualism for the simple assertion that the human mind and body are inseparable; without a body, there is no mind. But Spinoza went further, and explained that the human mind, which is a product of and concerned with the human body, also only rarely knows and understands the body to which it belongs and other bodies and things which it comes in contact with (id., Propositions 27-29). For Spinoza, “mind” roughly equates to consciousness, so he’s effectively describing reality just as Eagleman, et al’s, research has discovered; consciousness is only the tip of the mental iceberg. Eagleman notes that another of Spinoza’s contemporaries, Gottfried Leibniz, also postulated that our conscious minds only barely scratch the surface of what is going on in totality of the neural system in his New Essays on Human Understanding. Like his discovery of the calculus more or less contemporaneously with Newton, Leibniz’s ideas on consciousness seem to have mostly been ignored. His book was not published until almost half a century after his death.
This idea that our brains present our consciousness with a distorted view of reality, and one that is only revealed after a confederation of neural systems has battled for supremacy in making the revelation, has implications for the notion of culpability under the law. Eagleman uses the example of the August 1966 Austin, Texas clock tower shooter, Charles Whitman, to explain the point. Whitman, was a high IQ young man with a wife and a job as a bank teller. But he had seen a doctor several months before his shooting rampage to discuss an overwhelming impulse to violence with which he had become recently plagued. Because the feelings had seemingly arisen from nowhere, he sensed something had gone wrong with his brain; in the suicide note he left the day of the shootings, he asked that an autopsy be performed on his brain. When his skull was cracked open, a nickel-sized tumor was discovered beneath the thalamus that was pressing on the hypothalamus and amygdala. The amygdala is heavily involved in emotional expression, particularly of fear and aggression. Indeed, Whitman was correct. Something had gone terribly wrong in his brain, and that something likely caused his violent rampage. The legal question is whether Whitman, had he lived, should have been held liable for his actions if it could be proved that the tumor likely caused the violent outburst? Assuming Whitman’s behavior would not therefore have been modifiable by punishment, what should be done with him? What if the source of the problem could be easily resolved with surgery, would it then be okay to allow him back into mainstream society?
The greater becomes our understanding of the brain, the more refined must be the manner with we treat behavioral disorders arising from neural defects, and a vast percentage of criminal behavior could be probably traced to neural defects, if only our ability to understand the brain was more robust. Eagleman proposes, justifiably in my view, that punishment be reserved for only those behaviors that are deemed modifiable. Had Whitman lived, there would have been little point to punishing him. There was already a person living within him that deeply regretted what he felt compelled by forces beyond his control to do. He wrote in his suicide note, after explaining that he had killed his wife, “…I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this”. For others, whose mental condition is neither treatable nor modifiable, Eagleman rightfully concedes that incarceration is the only answer, if only to protect society.
Eagleman ends his titillating romp through neuroscience with a warning on the dangers of reductionism and scientific materialism. Reductionists believe that all complex systems can be understood by reducing them to their simplest components, but the brain is so complex and so interconnected that attempts at reductionism much lower than at the sub-system level will undoubtedly yield confusion. Knowing how a neuron fires will not likely get one anywhere along the path of understanding how a chick-sexer (an agricultural worker paid to determine the sex of newborn chicks) can know the sex of a newborn chick without being able to describe how he does it. The chick-sexer subconsciously comprehends something that tells him whether a chick is male or female, but all that his conscious mind is privy to is the conclusion. The trick of understanding the brain with the brain (if such a thing is possible) surely lies in understanding its emergent qualities.
A final note to aspiring science writers: If you are pondering penning a novel explaining the processes through which present-day science in a particular field developed, you would do well to read this book and take note of Eagleman’s elegant ability to weave a meaningful narrative of discovery without slinking into the baneful practices of scientific citation and the jargon-laced prose generally used by science writers to identify them as a member of the particular tribe of scientists to which they belong. It doesn’t matter who discovered what as much as it matters what was discovered and when, and no one outside of the scientific tribe much cares about the writer’s status within it. When writing a book for consumption by the general public, the writing should be tailored for the general public. Cite the names and studies as necessary, but keep to the story line, and don’t go into any more detail (e.g., the institution in which they labored during their studies; the implications for the research on fields only tangentially related to the topic; whether the individual garnered a Nobel prize for his research) than is necessary for weaving the tale. In his explication of the history of neuroscientific discovery (the initial chapters), Eagleman’ narrative reads just as it should—like a detective’s tale, or perhaps the opening argument during trial, which is not surprising, as Eagleman later reveals that he is deeply immersed in the nascent field of applying neuroscience to notions of culpability in the law. If understanding is the aim, Eagleman’s prose splendidly hits the mark.