Resources for Recovering Resilience: The Secret Lives of the Brain

I’ve just read the most delightful book on brain science and can hardly wait to recommend it to you: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by neuroscientists David Eagleman. (David was one of the keynoters at last weekend’s Being Human conference: 12 outstanding TED-like talks, available on www.beinghuman.org.)

Not a book of tools but one of amazingly clever writing and illuminating factoids about the brain. Two examples:

Take a close look at yourself in the mirror. Beneath the dashing good looks churns a hidden universe of networked machinery. The machinery includes a sophisticated scaffolding of interlocking bones, a netting of sinewy muscles, a good deal of specialized fluid, and a collaboration of internal organs chugging away in darkness to keep you alive. A sheet of high-tech self-healing sensory material that we call skin seamlessly covers your machinery in a pleasing package.

And then there’s your brain. Three pounds of the most complex material we’ve discovered in the universe. This is the mission control center that drives the whole operation, gathering dispatches through small portals in the armored bunker of the skull.

Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia – hundreds of billions of them. Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city. And each one contains the entire human genome and traffics billions of molecules in intricate economies. Each cell sends electrical pulses to other cells, up to hundreds of times per second. If you represented each of these trillions and trillions of pulses in your brain by a single photon of light, the combined output would be blinding.

The cells are connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessitates new strains of mathematics. A typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighboring neurons. Given billioins of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy….So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.

Ours is an incredible story. As far as anyone can tell, we’re the only system on the planet so complex that we’ve thrown ourselves headlong into the game of deciphering our own programming language. Imagine that your desktop computer began to control its own peripheral devices, removed its own cover, and pointed it webcam at its own circuitry. That’s us.

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Incredible the lodging, but limited the guest. – Emily Dickinson

In 1670, Blaise Pascal noted with awe that “man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.” Pascal recognized that we spend our lives on a thin slice between the unimaginably small scales of the atoms that compose us and the infinitely large scales of galaxies.

But Pascal didn’t know the half of it. Forget atoms and galaxies – we can’t even see most of the action at our own spatial scales. Take what we call visible light. We have specialized receptors in the backs of our eyes that are optimized for capturing the electromagnetic radiation that bounces off objects. When these receptors catch some radiation, they launch a salvo of signals into the brain. But we do not perceive the entire electromagnetic spectrum, only a part of it. The part of the light spectrum that is visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it. (emphasis added) The rest of the spectrum – carrying TV shows, radio signals, microwaves, X-rays, gamma rays, cell phone conversations, and so on – flows through us with no awareness on our part. CNN news is passing through your body right now and you are utterly blind to it, because you have no specialized receptors for that part of the spectrum….Even though it’s the same “stuff” – electromagnetic radiation – you don’t come equipped with the proper sensors. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to pick up signs in the rest of the range.

What you are able to experience is completely limited by your biology. This differs from the commonsense view that our eyes, ears, and fingers passively receive an objective physical world outside of ourselves. As science marches forward with machines that can see what we can’t, it has become clear that our brains sample just a small bit of the surrounding physical world.

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Chapter 6: Why Blameworthiness Is the Wrong Question is a thought-provoking foray into the need to revise our legal system in light of what we now know about the brain, motivation, and responsibility.

Again, not tools, not answers, but a stimulating evocation of deep and timely questions. Enjoy.