Thoughts on the Human Brain

(Note: There is a discussion on the Socialistdiscussion e mail list about a review of the film “Lucy”, which led to a discussion on the workings of the human brain. Below are a few random thoughts on the question by Julian Silverman.)

Under capitalism science made amazing, stupendous discoveries that have transformed the world and vastly increased man’s capacity to harness nature. But – especially now in its degenerate phase – it tends to reduce nature to a series of measurable quantities – objects to be ‘consumed’ – commodities to be bought and sold rather than continuous ever-changing processes.

Life is a process of destruction and construction. It comes and goes. For example every day your body will kill off and rebuild 300 billion cells!. Life is a process like keeping a candle alight  in a storm [and in animals its energy is the product of a slower version of the same oxidation].

Life is a material process. That is to say it uses quantum subatomic ‘random’ processes to extract energy in the form of electrical impulses…..Conscious life is a part of the whole. It has a material basis but it is not preprogrammed. It has been reckoned that there are, say, 100 trillion neuronal connections in the human brain. It makes no sense to talk of ‘using 10% or 20% 40% etc. of the brain’ since what counts is not only the number of connections but what they represent. For example without language even 1000 trillion neuronal connections won’t give you much more knowledge. Language, number, then reading/writing, printing, radio, computers etc. have expanded the symbolism available [ = culture: the main factor in present-day human evolution]. The important thing, at this level. is not how many neuronal connections but how much they mean and here there is no intrinsic limit.
A Scientific American article goes:

A single neuron sits in a petri dish, crackling in lonely contentment. From time to time, it spontaneously unleashes a wave of electric current that travels down its length. If you deliver pulses of electricity to one end of the cell, the neuron may respond with extra spikes of voltage. Bathe the neuron in various neurotransmitters, and you can alter the strength and timing of its electrical waves. On its own, in its dish, the neuron can’t do much. But join together 302 neurons, and they become a nervous system that can keep the worm Caenorhabditis elegans alive—sensing the animal’s surroundings, making decisions and issuing commands to the worm’s body. Join together 100 billion neurons—with 100 trillion connections—and you have yourself a human brain, capable of much, much more.

That tiny-brained arch reactionary self-satisfied dogmatist, Steven Pinker, says:

We are not the same as cats, so it follows we must have some innate circuitry that allows us to talk and to be self-aware. All our behaviours are a result of neurophysiological activity in the brain.

But the contrary can just as well be proved: i.e.  that neurophysiological activity in the brain is the result of our behaviour [For example, in one experiment, rats were given an ‘enriched environment’ .i.e 20 minutes free run-around out of their cage and then killed and their brains opened. “Through studies conducted since the 1960s, it’s been revealed that rats raised in enriched environments have larger, more substantial brains than those raised in impoverished environments”. The report goes on:“…enriched rats display quicker thinking and higher intelligence, performing problem-solving tasks better than impoverished rats. They display better memories and are less likely to display depressive behavior. [This is the substance of Engels’ point]

Of course we have ‘innate circuitry’ that allows us to do crossword puzzles, fly rockets to the moon, make jokes, do somersaults, come up with evolutionary psychological theories etc. . but the capacity to do all these things is not ‘written in’ to the circuitry. There is no drug or computer programme etc. which will create these abilities. They have been learned. they are our cultural inheritance.

Regarding computers, I like  the quote from Picasso; “computers are useless. All they can give you is answers”. How one sees, depicts and represents the world is something learned and struggled for – not without difficulty. Looking at a picture or watching a film is an invitation to share that difficult experience. But the current phase of failing capitalism calls for minimum brain-labour power on our part. It encourages infantile demands that everything be available for immediate consumption – including complete knowledge of the world[?!], untold-of brainpower etc. Commodity fetishism has gone so far as the idea of seeking ‘immortality’ by downloading one’s life experiences on to a hard disc!

Categories: science

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