The brain: How body makes spirit

We Westerners have traditionally viewed mind as separate from matter, spirit as separate from body. This assumption started with Plato and culminated in Descartes, who drew the sketch above. And the notion trickled down from the various philosophers into what we consider “common sense”. In the Graeco-Roman “leg” of our heritage, spirit and body were seen as equal in stature (hence Juvenal: “mens sana in corpore sano“). In the Judeo-Christian leg, body was seen as inferior. But the essential dualism between the two was mostly taken for granted.

Eastern traditions such as Hinduism, by contrast, have traditionally viewed body as arising out of spirit. So pure energy or collective spirit, Brahman, might take the form of individual spirit, Atman, and become the body of something, through the magic process of Maya. (Recall that the Sanskrit word Maya is the root of magic.) That magic could work in both directions, but the essential monism of spirit and body were and are mostly taken for granted.

Modern neuroscience lets us correct and refine both of these views. And this is the first of my tentative conclusions after studying the brain for the past year. We now understand that something as simple as a thought or an emotion or as complex as “consciousness” is an emergent¬†phenomenon from a pattern of physical events.

Those events are action potentials, electrochemical signals that propagate through one neuron and jump across synapses to other neurons. The mechanics of such propagation inside each individual neuron and of the “hop” (or the non-hop) across the synapses are fascinating. But the magic, the Maya, arises — or emerges — when those patterns of action potentials become self-aware. And not just self-aware but “happy”, “aroused”, “aggressive” and so forth.

Dualism, in other words, is wrong. Monism is right, but runs in the opposite direction. Not from spirit to matter and back, as in the Vedantic model, but from matter to spirit and back again to matter.

This insight, once one gets used to it, is merely the beginning of a cascade of radical questions. Such as:

  • What is “personality”? Why and how is your emergent magic different than mine?
  • Do we have “free will”? When, and how much?

Those have to wait for their own posts.

The brain: sources

For over a year now, I’ve been studying the brain. Why? Because neuroscience might be the single most exciting area of science — nay, of knowledge in general — today. Just the other day, I found myself in a conversation with an 18-year-old cousin and heard myself saying that, if I were to enter university again today, I would choose any discipline that might lead me to neuroscience. (One feels old when spouting such counterfactuals to the young.)

So, given that my own brain is now teeming with newly-acquired insights into the brain and — much more importantly — with newly acquired insights into what is not yet known about the brain, I might amuse myself with a few posts here on the subject.

Just to be clear: This has nothing whatsoever to do with my forthcoming book, nor with my day job at The Economist (where I cover very different things). It’s just one of my little intellectual hobbies.

In this post, I’d simply like to tell you about some of my main sources. The two big ones are:

Robert Sapolsky

1) Robert Sapolsky: Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality

This is a great course in 24 lectures by a very entertaining character, whom you’ve already met on this blog here and here.

Sam Wang

2) Sam Wang: Neuroscience of Everyday Life

Another good course, in 36 lectures, organized totally differently from Sapolsky’s (as you can easily see by glancing at the lecture titles). The two are very complementary.

I also seem to be reading about specific aspects of neuroscience everywhere these days. The articles are too numerous to link to.

Here is one, by David Eagleman in The Atlantic, on how understanding the brain might or might not affect our notions about criminal justice.

Here is another, by John Tierney in the New York Times, on “decision fatigue”. Like Eagleman’s, it looks at one of many, many topics covered in the lectures by Sapolsky and Wang.

That should give you enough infrastructure to hold me to account as I pen my indubitably outrageous and provocative posts on the brain. Bye for now.