Friday, 24 August 2012

The Brain—a 100 billion-neuron puzzle?

I had the pleasure of listening to a Charlie Rose program, which displayed the opinions of learned doctors, including a Nobel laureate, analyzing the workings of the brain. Charlie is good. He managed to put together a team of people who in smiling unison chose to present an abundance of ‘what’, but not a single ‘why’.
Just imagine. A group of distinguished specialists in the field of neurology, with a good dose of Ph.D.’s, all sharing with us their years of study, years of research delving into the mystery of our brain.
The human brain. The same structure as the brains of other mammals, a bit larger (of course, elephants leave us far, far behind), more convoluted perhaps? We have larger bodies than most primates; hence we need a larger, more complex operating system. Squashed in our skulls are 80 to 120 billion neurons. The learned doctors didn’t really know. Perhaps a few more billions of dollars for research and they will buy an abacus to find out. 
It is a very complex structure, they said. Very complex. The most important part, the cerebral cortex, takes care of executive functions such as self-control (this doesn’t work so well for me), planning, reasoning, and abstract thought (these don’t seem to work for most other people). The scientists even know which parts are connected to which specific roles, such as languages, or seeing, and listening, and even remembering, though they weren’t quite sure about that last one.
“It’s sort of flexible. Malleable? Adaptive?” they marveled.
Marvelous, they all agreed. So did I. The most marvelous, complex biological computer. It’s all there. It does everything… we don’t know how, yet, but, well, let’s face it, we only got down to it, in earnest, about thirty years ago, when we could peek inside. When we could observe what’s there. When we could scan the neurons.
“Give us more money and you’ll see what else we can do. It’s expensive, you know,” they agreed in unison. “Very expensive.” 

I listened spellbound. For an hour.
Let me explain.
In all this time not one, not a single one of the learned scientists—not even the Nobel Laureate—even suggested, even implied, never mind asked—who is the operator of this magnificent computer? Who operates the cerebral cortex? Who gives it instructions what to think, what to work on, and when?
I prefer not to ask. After all, we have ten times as many viruses in our body as we have cells. Who can tell who gives the brain instructions? They sounded like a group of technicians discussing how the engine of the $10 million Formula One racing car had won the race—not once mentioning the driver.
Still, someone or something must give instructions. 
Judging by Charlie’s program, it couldn’t have been any of his illustrious guests. They only looked at the results, never bothered about the cause. Otherwise, surely, wouldn’t someone have asked?  
Surely, they all must have suffered from some DELUSIONS

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