This is my brain. There are many like it, but this one’s mine…

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

This is an interesting video about how our largely inaccurate beliefs about brain structure have profoundly shaped our culture and society. The video is from RSAnimate, which is sort of like a British TED talk, but with less insufferable tech boosterism and more whiteboards.

The video debunks the popular misconception of the division of labor between the two hemispheres of the brain–emotion, creativity, and whimsy on one side and logic and reason on the other, replacing instead with a loose model where the two hemispheres are dedicated to broad, expansive, and perhaps lateral thinking on one side and narrow, focused, detail-oriented thinking on the other. The video is worth watching jsut for the implications of this.

But what fascinates me more is how much we have come to depend on the wrong model to establish identities for ourselves, by way of excusing shortcomings. Can’t pass algebra? “I’m more of a right-brained person.” Ans so forth.

The reality is that there is no truly creative endeavor that is not also a feat of technical mastery, and no scientific or mathematical accomplishment that was not the result of an an impassioned, emotional pursuit.

When we compartmentalize ourselves, our children, and others in this fashion, we ultimately limit societies potential. We come to expect certain things to only come from certain kinds people, which largely excuses us from having to push ourselves to confront our deficiencies and overcome them.

In truth, there is no such thing as drawing on the right side of the brain so much as there is a conscious decision to alter our ways of seeing.

And that’s really at the heart of both this RSA lecture and the popular misconception. Science still wants to think of the brain as largely divided into two functional units because it physically looks like it’s divided that way based on the simplest, crudest observation.

But looks can be misleading. We have two eyes not so we can see a left filed of view and a right filed of view, but so that we can see one view of the world in three dimensions. The two eyes working together allow us to perceive depth, which neither can perceive on its own.

According to the latest neuroscience, the brain has two hemispheres, but it also has four lobes, and at least two areas (Broca’s and Wernicke’s). Those all provide for a multitude of sums that are more than their parts. And even this is misleading. Everyone on earth and everyone who has ever lived have had the same brain structures. And yet certain people used their brains to produce new and unusual thoughts, and certain cultures have used their collectively brains in radically different ways to perceive the same universe is different ways.

Perhaps the hardware–the brain–is never as important as the software–education and culture. Perhaps neuroscience divorced from psychology is just as imprecise as psychology without neuroscience. But the software evolves much faster than the hardware, can be rewritten in real-time, and is path dependent. And for that reason, it is harder to track, and more difficult to see.

Eventually, we will have MRI machines capable of resolving detail down to the individual neuron, and then we will not only be able to see the propagation of thoughts around the brain, but also the alteration of the pathways along which they propagate as the brain learns and perceives new things. At that point, when we can see behavior unfold in real-time in the brain neuroscience and psychology will meet. But until then, neuroscience and psychology are still gross anatomies–observations of blobs of matter and how they twitch when poked.

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8 Responses to This is my brain. There are many like it, but this one’s mine…

  1. pulchrifex says:

    “Science still wants to think of the brain as largely divided into two functional units because it physically looks like it’s divided that way based on the simplest, crudest observation.”

    Science has no such desire, as you point out later. Though it’s interesting that you mention Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, which are both language processing areas that are on the left side of the brain in about 97% of right-handers and 70% of left-handers; strokes to those areas render people aphasic, strokes to their right homologues don’t (although I think you can get more subtle deficits in pragmatic aspects of language processing). So let’s not dismiss the idea that laterality matters as mere popular superstition.

    More technical stuff: MRIs are not the only window into the brain, they’re just what gives you the nice high-res pictures in the NYT. People have been recording from neurons (in “real time,” providing data at a temporal resolution of about a millisecond) since before MR was a glimmer in anyone’s eye. EEG provides data with similar temporal resolution, but it’s so spatially diffuse that it’s hard to localize beyond front/back and left/right. This is important less to demonstrate my own alpha nerdery and more because you can’t isolate the problem to spatial (“resolving detail down to the individual neuron”) or temporal (“when we can see behavior unfold in real-time”) resolution (which BTW are not the same thing and tend, in fact, to trade off; 7T MRI can get you near-photographic anatomical detail already, but it takes a while). You really want both. But when you get it, you’re going to have a gigantic problem of how to deal with that much information. One of those little cubes you see visualized in an fMRI experiment, of which a brain has about 50,000, has about a million neurons and a billion synapses. So we’re talking about taking a measurement from 50 billion neurons (or, if we’re getting serious, 50 trillion synapses) 1000 times a second… I’m not saying it can’t ever be done, but right now you need a supercomputer to simulate a rat brain, and that’s without trying to parse anything.

    And, as perhaps an excessively obvious statement, the software in a meaningful way is the hardware. There are also meaningful ways in which it isn’t — I’m not saying brain-language is the preferred level of description for all cognitive and cultural phenomena in all contexts. But learning is built into the brain at the molecular level. When you rewrite the software, you do it through the hardware. And you’re never going to educate or acculturate a rat brain, in vivo or in simulation, so it’s a little hard to say that the hardware “isn’t as important.” Both are necessary for human behavior and cognition; neither is sufficient. (Come to think of it, I guess this is all true of actual computers as well…)

  2. Arno says:

    What does Pastabagel want to be true?

    • nick says:

      That God is real* and everything is the fault of white liberal college hipsters who don’t have the proper attitude to things.

      But the core of his attitude, like that of most Christians, comes down to homophobic panic. I assume he wants to blame his mom for not teaching him to be male enough, judging by his repeated hysterical outbursts against the evil that occurs when little boys don’t wear male clothing.

      *God is a stand in for him and the righteousness of American foreign policy.

      • Lopt says:

        What does nick want to be true?

        Cheap shots aside, are gross characterizations and an appeal to some imagined consensus that is suspiciously similar to your own belief system the sorts of things you expect to have a lot of rhetorical weight on a website dedicated to deconstruction? Really?

      • Guy Fox says:

        This is your weapon, that is your gun. No need to get personal, it ain’t no fun.

  3. RatB says:

    I agree that both popular neuroscience and popular psychology are both used as excuses for personal shortcomings and as “facts” to back up arguments based in sentiment. Who hasn’t been told, with great implications of significance, that “people only use ten percent of their brain.”

    I fear that the application of the concept of software vs. hardware to the brain may be one of these misconceptions. It stems, I think, from the desire to draw a line in the sand between nature and nurture. Nature gets called hardware, and nurture gets called software. Except in the grossest sense, I don’t thing that it’s fair to say that everyone has the same brain structures any more than it is to say that everyone has the same muscles (link).

    An examination of both development and inborn traits are necessary in our attempts to understand the brain. In the latter, we are no more equal than we are in the former.

  4. Guy Fox says:

    Was it inevitable that the Nature vs. Nurture ocean liner was going to wash up on the shores of Partial Objects, or have we all been having such fun in the pool that we didn’t notice we’ve been on it the whole time?

    Feral children provide some creepy leads in the case, but they also seem to suggest that nurture (software) conditions nature (hardware). Will tracking neurons one by one help to untangle that particular bowl of spaghetti/slime mould? A question wrongly posed?