Is the brain a soul, a computer, or something more?

More than 2,000 years ago, the half-mythical father of Hippocrates medicine from Kos puzzled the thinkers of his time with a bold statement about the nature of human consciousness. In response to a supernatural explanation of mental manifestations, Hippocrates insisted that “nowhere else, except from the brain come joys, fun, laughter and rivalry, sadness, depression, grief and lamentation.” In the modern era, Hippocrates could express his thoughts in one message in “Twitter”: “We are our brains.” And that message resonates perfectly with the latest trends in all blame the brain, revise mental disorders as a disease of the brain and, already in a futuristic world, imagine the improvement or preservation of life by preserving the brain. From creativity to drug addiction, it is hardly possible to find at least one aspect of human behavior that is not related to the workings of the brain. The brain can be called a modern replacement of the soul.

But somewhere in this romantic perception of hiding the most important and fundamental lesson that should be taught neurology: our brains – it is solely a physical entity, conceptually and causally built into the natural world. Although the brain is needed for almost everything we do, it never works alone. Its function is inextricably linked with the body and its environment. The interdependence of these factors is hiding under a cultural phenomenon that Alan Yasanoff, professor of bioengineering at MIT, calls “cerebral mystique” – a pervasive brain idealisation and its exceptional importance, which protects the traditional ideas about the differences between the brain and body, freedom of the will and nature of thought itself .

Mystic, this is expressed in a variety of forms, from the ubiquitous images of supernatural and super complicated brains in science fiction and popular culture to more balanced and reasonable scientific concept of cognitive functions that explain the quality of inorganic or enter into the thought processes in the nerve structure. “All ideas are born in the brain.” “Thought forms reality.” “The moon does not exist until you look at it.” This idealization is very easily given to both mortals and scientists, and fits perfectly with the point of view of materialists and confessors. Cerebral mysticism fuels interest in neuroscience – and this is good – but also limits our ability to analyze human behavior and solve important problems of society.

Is the brain a computer?

We say that the brain is a computer, to some extent. Or a computer is a brain. The widespread analogy of the brain and computer makes a powerful contribution to cerebral mysticism, as if separating the brain from the rest of biology. A striking difference between mashinopodobnym brain and soft, chaotic mass ( “meat”), which is available in the rest of our body, conducts the dividing line between the brain and the body, which was noted by Rene Descartes. Having proclaimed his eternal “mind, therefore exist,” Descartes placed consciousness in his own universe, separate from the material world.

And while the brain reminds us of a car, we can easily imagine its separation from the head, preservation in eternity, cloning or sending into space. The digital brain seems so natural as the separated Cartesian spirit. Perhaps, it is no accident that the most influential inorganic analogies of the brain were represented by physicists who, in their old age, hit the problems of consciousness in the same way that older people go to religion. This was John von Neumann; he wrote the book Computer and the Brain (1958) shortly before his death (1957), revealing to the world this strong analogy at the dawn of the digital age.

The brain is definitely something like a computer – after all, computers were created to perform the functions of the brain – but the brain is much more than the intertwining of neurons and electrical impulses that spread through them. The function of each neuroelectric signal is to throw out a small amount of chemicals that help stimulate or inhibit brain cells in the same way that chemicals activate and suppress functions such as producing glucose by liver cells or immune responses by white blood cells. Even the electrical signals of the brain themselves are the products of chemicals, ions that enter and leave cells, causing a tiny ripple that spreads through neurons independently.

Also from neurons it is easy to distinguish relatively passive cells of the brain, which are called glia. Their number is approximately equal to the number of neurons, but they do not conduct electrical signals in the same way. Recent experiments in mice have shown that manipulating these boring cells can have a serious effect on behavior. In one experiment, a team of scientists from Japan showed that directed stimulation of glia in the cerebellum region can lead to a response similar to the changes that occur during the stimulation of neurons. Another noteworthy study has shown that the transplantation of human glial cells into the mouse brain improved the learning ability of animals, in turn demonstrating the importance of glia in altering brain function. Chemicals and glia are inseparable from brain function, like wires and electricity. And when we realize the presence of these soft elements, the brain becomes more like the organic part of the body, rather than the idealized central processor, which is stored under the glass in our skull.

Stereotypes about the complexity of the brain also contribute to the mysticism of the brain and its separation from the body. A famous cliche calls the brain “the most complicated thing in the known universe”, and if “our brain would be so simple that we could understand it, we would not be able to understand it.” This opinion is due primarily to the fact that the human brain contains about 100 000 000 000 neurons, each of which forms about 10 000 links (synapses) with other neurons. The dizzying nature of such numbers makes people doubt that neurobiologists in general will ever be able to unravel the mystery of consciousness, let alone the nature of the free will that hides in one of these billions of neurons.

But the huge number of cells in the human brain is unlikely to explain his extraordinary abilities. The human liver has about the same number of cells as in the brain, but it produces quite different results. The brain itself is of various sizes, and the number of cells in it also varies, somewhere more, somewhere less. Removing the half of the brain sometimes allows you to cure epilepsy in children. Commenting on a cohort of 50 patients who underwent this procedure, a group of doctors from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore wrote that they “were horrified at the apparent retention of memory after removing even half of the brain, as well as maintaining a sense of personality and humor in children.” Obviously, not all brain cells are sacred.

If you look at the animal world, a large range of brain sizes is absolutely unrelated to cognitive abilities. Some of the most cunning animals – crows, magpies and jackdaws – have a brain that is less than 1% human in size, but still show much more advanced cognitive abilities in some tasks even compared to chimpanzees and gorillas. Behavioral studies have shown that these birds can make and use tools, recognize people on the street – this is not even possible for many primates. And animals with similar characteristics also differ in the size of the brain. Among rodents, for example, you can find an 80-gram brains capybar with 1.6 billion neurons and a pygmy mouse brain weighing 0.3 grams with less than 60 million neurons. Despite such differences in brain size, these animals live in similar conditions, exhibit similar social habits, and do not demonstrate obvious differences in intelligence. Although neuroscientists are just beginning to grope for brain function even in small animals, this clearly demonstrates the popular mystification of the brain due to the abundance of its components.

Talking about the machine qualities of the brain or its incredible complexity removes it from the rest of the biological world in relation to its composition. Separation of the brain and body exaggerates the remoteness of the brain from the body in terms of autonomy. Cerebral mysticism emphasizes the reputation of the brain as a control center, which is connected with the body, but is nevertheless isolated.

Of course, this is not so. Our brain is constantly bombarded by sensory inputs from the senses. The environment transmits many megabytes of sensory data to the brain every second. The brain does not have a firewall against this onslaught. Studies of brain imaging show that even subtle sensory stimuli affect brain regions, from low-level sensory regions to frontal lobes, a high-level brain area that is increased in humans compared to other primates.

The brain depends on nervous stimuli

Many of these stimuli are directly controlled by us. For example, when we look at images, visual details often attract our attention and make us look at certain patterns. When we look at the face, our attention automatically switches to the eyes, nose and mouth, subconsciously highlighting them as the most important details. When we walk down the street, our attention is controlled by environmental irritants – the sound of a car horn, flashes of neon lights, the smell of pizza – each of which directs our thoughts and actions, even if we do not realize this.

Even lower below the radar of our perception are environmental factors that affect our mood slowly. Seasonal periods of low illumination are associated with depression. For the first time this phenomenon was described by the South African physician Norman Rosenthal shortly after moving from sunny Johannesburg to the gray northeast of the USA in the 1970s. The colors of the environment are also influenced by us. Despite a lot of hoaxes on this subject, it is proved that blue and green colors cause a positive emotional response, and red – a negative one. In one example, scientists have shown that participants are less likely to pass an IQ test with red marks than with green or gray ones; another study showed that tests for creativity are best given with a blue background, rather than with a red one.

Body signals can affect behavior as much as the environment, again questioning idealized concepts of brain superiority.

An amazing finding of recent years has been the fact that microbes living in internal organs also take part in determining our emotions. The change in the population of microbes in the intestines due to the eating of a food rich in bacteria or the procedure of so-called fecal transplantation can cause anxiety and aggression.

This demonstrates that what happens to the brain is in many ways intertwined with what is happening with the body and the environment. There is no causal or conceptual boundary between the brain and its environment. Aspects of cerebral mysticism – an idealized representation of the brain as inorganic, supercomplex, self-sufficient and autonomous – fall apart when we study near, how the brain works and what it is made of. The integrated involvement of the brain, body and environment – this is what separates biological consciousness from the mystical “soul”, and the consequences of this difference are very significant.

Most importantly, cerebral mysticism contributes to the erroneous understanding that the brain is the main engine of our thoughts and actions. As we seek to understand people’s behavior, mysticism prompts us to think first about the causes associated with the brain, and only then – outside the head. This forces us to overestimate the role of the brain and underestimate the role of contexts.

In the criminal justice arena, for example, some authors believe that it is necessary to blame the criminal’s mind for crimes. Often refer to the case of Charles Whitman, who in 1966 committed one of the first mass executions in the US, at the University of Texas. Whitman talked about psychological disorders that occurred several months before the crime, and autopsy later revealed that near the amygdala in his brain a large tumor that influenced the management of stress and emotions grew up. But although the brain accusers can talk about blaming Whitman’s tumor, the reality is that Whitman’s actions were conditioned by other disposable factors: he grew up with a cruel father, survived the divorce of his parents, he was often denied a job and had had access to arms as a military man. Even the high temperature on the crime day (37 degrees Celsius) could affect Whitman’s aggressive behavior.

Accusing the brain of criminal behavior avoids the outdated principles of morality and retribution, but it still does not take into account the wide network of influences that can contribute to any situation. In the current debate on cases of violence in the United States, it has become very important to maintain a broad view of the multiple factors working for an individual: mental problems, access to arms, the influence of the media and society – all contribute. In other contexts, addiction to drugs or childhood trauma should also be considered. In any case, an idealized view of the brain, which is supposedly to blame for everything, will be short-sighted. There is a combination of brain, body and environment.

Cerebral mysticism has special significance for how our society tries to cope with the problem of mental disorders. Because a broad consensus, mental abnormalities are defined as brain disorders. Supporters of this theory argue that in this way psychological problems are placed in one category with fever or cancer – diseases that do not cause social reactions, usually associated with psychiatric illnesses. There is even an opinion that the very definition of such diseases as “brain disorders” reduces the barrier at which healthy patients will seek treatment, and this is important.

In other respects, however, reclassification of mental problems like brain disorders can be very problematic. Patients who associate mental problems with internal neurological defects are already getting stigma in themselves. The thought that their brains are not perfect and damaged can be devastating. Biological defects are more difficult to repair than moral defects, and people with mental disorders are often considered dangerous or even inferior. Attitudes toward schizophrenics and paranoia do not improve from year to year, notwithstanding the growth of methods for alleviating the course of their mental states.

Regardless of the social consequences, accusing the brain of creating mental illnesses can be scientifically incorrect in many cases. Although all mental problems include the brain, the main factors of their occurrence can be anywhere. In the 19th century, sexually transmitted syphilis and pelagra caused by vitamin B deficiency were the main reasons for the growth of hospital patients in Europe and the US. A recent study showed that 20% of psychiatric patients have bodily abnormalities that can cause or worsen the mental state; among them problems with the heart, lungs and endocrine system. Epidemiological studies have revealed a significant link between the manifestation of mental problems and such factors as the status of ethnic minorities, birth in the city and birth at a certain time of the year. Although these relationships are not easily explained, they emphasize the role of environmental factors. We must listen to these factors if we want effective treatment and prevention of mental disorders.

At an even deeper level, first of all, cultural conventions limit the concept of mental illness. Only 50 years of homosexuality was classified as pathology, deviation, in the authoritative collection of mental disorders of the American Psychiatric Association. In the Soviet Union, political dissidents were sometimes determined on the basis of psychiatric diagnoses, which would terrify most modern observers. Nevertheless, sexual preferences or the inability to bow to power in a righteous pursuit are psychological traits for which we can very well find biological correlates. This does not mean that homosexuality and political dissidence are problems with the head. This means that society, not neurobiology, determines the boundaries of normality, which determine the categories of mental health.

Cerebral mysticism exaggerates the contribution of the brain to human behavior, and in some cases also paves the way for the great role of the brain in the future of mankind itself. Technophile circles are increasingly talking about “breaking a brain” to improve human cognitive abilities. Instantly, there is an association of hacking a smartphone or a government server, but in reality it’s more like hacking with a master key. Early examples of “breaking the brain” included the destruction of parts of the brain, as, for example, in the procedures that do not exist today, which inspired Ken Kesey to create “Flight over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1962). The most advanced hackings of the modern brain include surgical implantation of electrodes to directly stimulate or read brain tissue. These interventions can restore basic functions in patients with severe mobility problems or paralysis – and this is an amazing feat, which, however, is only a verst away from improvements in conventional abilities. However, this does not prevent entrepreneurs like Ilona Mask or DARPA from investing in brain-breaking technology in the hope of once creating a superhuman brain and linking it with the machine.

Is it possible to separate the brain from the body?

This discrepancy for the most part is the product of an artificial separation between what is happening inside the brain and beyond. Philosopher Nick Bostrom of the Institute of the Future of Humanity notes that “the best benefits that you can get from brain implants are all the same devices outside of it that you can use instead of natural interfaces, like the same eyes, for projecting 100 million bits per second directly into the brain. ” In fact, such “brain improvement” tools are already shuffled around our pockets and stand on the tables, providing us with access to improved cognitive functions like a powerful calculator and extra memory and without touching the neurons at all. What will be added to us is the direct connection of such devices to the brain, besides irritation, this is another question.

In the world of medicine, the first attempts to restore vision in the blind through the use of brain implants quickly moved to less invasive approaches, including retinal prosthetics. Cochlear implants, which restore hearing in deaf patients, rely on a similar strategy of interaction with the auditory nerve, and not with the brain itself. And if you do not take absolutely limited in the movements of patients, prosthetic, restorative or improving movements, also work as interfaces. To give the amputee control over the mechanized artificial limb, the method of “targeted muscle refinancing” is used, which allows physicians to connect the peripheral nerves of the lost limb to new muscle groups that communicate with the device. To improve motor function in healthy people, exoskeletons are used, which communicate with the brain via indirect, but refined evolution channels. In each of these cases, the natural interactions of the brain with the human body help people use prostheses, and form a direct link between the brain and the body.

The most extreme direction in futuristic brain technologies is the desire to achieve immortality through the posthumous preservation of the human brain. Two companies already offer to extract and preserve the brains of dying “customers” who do not want to rest in peace. The organs are stored in liquid nitrogen until the technology is sufficiently advanced to restore the brain or “load” the mind into the computer. This desire brings cerebral mysticism to its logical conclusion, wholly welcoming the logical error in the fact that a person’s life reduces to the function of the brain and that the brain is only a physical embodiment of the soul free from meat.

Although the pursuit of immortality by preserving the brain does little harm to anything other than the bank accounts of several people, this persecution also emphasizes why demystification of the brain is so important. The more we feel that our brains contain our essence as a person, the more we believe that thoughts and actions simply stem from a piece of meat in our head, the less sensitive we become to the role of society and the environment and the less we care about culture and its resources.

The brain is special not because it embodies the essence of us, people, but because it unites us with our surroundings in a way that no soul could. If we value our own experience, our experiences and impressions, we must protect and strengthen many factors that enrich our lives both inside and outside. We are much more than just brains.