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7½ Lessons for the Brain, Barrett (2020)

Study notes for this short, pithy book about the brain, our relationship with it, and the nature of reality.

½ Your Brain is Not for Thinking

Your brain’s most important job is not thinking; it is to control your body – to manage allostasis – ie. predicting and preparing to meet the body’s energy needs (prediction beats reaction in nature) before they arise, so you can efficiently make worthwhile movements and survive. Your brain is the command center that supervises, regulates, and protects the systems and subsystems that comprise your entire body.

1. You Have One Brain (not Three)

Paul MacLean’s three-layered brain – neocortex (rational), limbic (emotional), lizard (survival) – is a modern myth that persists in popular culture because of its accessibility and our ego; the conflict between the rational and the emotional is based on this belief. However, this is not borne out by science – the rational/emotional dichotomy is a false one – there is only one brain, and its rational behavior consists of making a good body-budgeting investment in a given situation.

2. Your Brain is a Network

A network (a tree-like structure of neurons, synapses, dendrites, axons, etc.) is the best scientific description of a brain today – a physical structure that is capable of reconfiguring itself (often very quickly) to integrate vast amounts of information efficiently. The brain is considered a complex system, able to configure itself into an enormous number of distinct neural patterns. It is capable of degeneracy – almost like redundancy, instead of the same set of neurons being responsible for a certain action, different sets of neurons are capable of this task. Complex brains remember more, are more creative and adaptable, and are also more resilient to injury. Note that other species on Earth also have brains with high complexity.

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Self as Story

I recently read Conscious (2019) by Annaka Harris, a delightfully short, fascinating overview of the current state of consciousness research, philosophy and science, a field of inquiry relatively new to me. The following (and in all likelihood, quite unoriginal) random ideas came up.

The exact nature of consciousness is a topic for endless discussion; from my simple vantage point, I’ll just equate it to an awareness of being, which some might call the self. My initial, rather straightforward thought leans towards consciousness as an attribute of our brain, a hack or construct used to build a cohesive narrative (possibly including post-fact rationalization) around events – at their most basic level, sensory stimuli – for the evolutionary purpose of helping us remember and learn. “I” is the first building block of memory, letting us bring literal order to randomness through narrative capture. Stories harness space and time (the mnemonic method of loci comes to mind), and subsequent analysis and rumination, whether real-time or deliberate, facilitates “learning” – the generation of ideas and new behavior in the service of actual self-preservation. At a fundamental level, consciousness lets us process information, translate this into action, and create change. 

Over time, the advent of language helped humans shape this vague abstraction, conceptualize a self to construct narratives both individual and collective around, and create culture: inherited behavior. One could argue that language is critical for the very idea of our selves, indeed, for the voice inside our heads to be able to say anything at all. We are predisposed to narratives, convenient templates that wrangle meaning from chaos, a predilection that sometimes gets us in trouble – Tyler Cowen, in fact, cautions us about the unreliability of story – perhaps our propensity to create stories developed as evolutionary advantage and was the original purpose of self. Stories become history and memory, and it’s easy to speculate that beyond learning, memory also grants the self a persistent existence in a reinforcing virtuous cycle of sorts.

All this would imply that physical death is the termination of consciousness, as a property of the physical body. Consciousness as illusion and the role of emotions and our thoughts appear to be orthogonal issues – what matters here is that the presence of consciousness conveys a significant survivability benefit by allowing us to learn from past events.