By Dr. Don Morgenson
Every introductory psychology student, or any well informed student, has heard of Phineas P. Gage and his unfortunate accident. In Vermont, 1848, a meter-long tamping iron rod sparked an explosion. The rod shot upward and penetrated the jaw and frontal cortex of railway foreman Gage.
The accident gave Gage a brand new personality and gave students of brain damage an iconic case. Transformed from an amiable and respon- sible foreman into a temperamental and irresponsible workman, the iron, according to Kathryn Schulz (The Nation) “…also drilled a hole in Cartesian dualism, that intuitive distinction we all make between our minds and our brains.”
While in the past we waited, some impatiently, for such accidents to occur so we could study the behavioral consequences, today, scientists have developed minimally invasive techniques for studying the human brain, and brain imaging is one very “hot” topic.
Such interest is quite understandable. The human brain, a fully portable “computer”, weighing a mere 1350 grams (1.5 kilos) has some of the following remarkable features: The ability to program its own reproduction as well its own destruction; a memory capacity for most stimulus inputs for 70 years or more; the discriminative capacity to distinguish between a Chardonnay and a vintage Bordeaux wine; can detect the difference between the scents of Chanel and Oscar de la Renta; can assist in refining our social skills; and can determine whether a small sphere traveling from the mound, thrown by R.A. Dickey is a knuckler or a slider. The human brain is just such a computer with its at least one hundred billion nerve cells reaching out to as many as 200,000 other nerve cells, into coordinating networks of stunning complexity.
All the while our brains are pulling out order from what appears to be a complex chaos, it is busy laying down memory tracts, tissue centers giving rise to lust and love, setting the clock for slumber, propelling movements which become ballet, imagining a Virginia Woolf novel, composing a Beethoven symphony or filling a van Gogh canvas.
And given the brain’s capacity, we are very willing to invest in brain studies. Our government has created a Canada Brain Research Fund whose millions of dollars will be matched by the Brain Canada Founda- tion. With a fascinated public fully on board it is a lucrative business,
as well. Just take a minute to peruse those related volumes on the book shelves – “How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed”; “Thinking: Fast and Slow”; “The Brain That Changes Itself ”; and “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife”.
It is commonplace how the mass media find a little something and then run with it, sensationalizing early as well as very modest findings. For example, an article which ran in The Wall Street Journal (owned by Rupert Murdoch!) trumpeted: “How Neuroscience Can Help to Find True Love” and argued that when you see “That very special person, your brain’s neurons go wild.” Of course most neuroscientists would eschew such a silly conclusion, but in that highly competitive neuroscience environment (finite number of research grants) some scientists share the responsibility, as they hasten to publish premature conclusions. But the mass press + social media are the main culprits in promising much more than can be delivered, given the current state of our knowledge regarding the human brain.
At the forefront are all of those fMRI (functionalMRI) studies reporting that when a part of the brain lights up, that part of the brain which “lights up” is solely responsible for the behavior being tested. In reality, the brain works as an orchestra with many different sections working to- gether to make a final harmonic contribution. Just one example – Robert Schulman (“Brain Imaging”) writes that we have this useful concept of a “working memory”, but the activity described by this construct is widely distributed across at least 30 contributing regions of the brain.
Still we hear that emotion is centralized in the amygdala; executive control centers and complex decision making are located in the prefrontal lobes, etc. All of which is very misleading to say little of how reductionistic such statements may be. While we might be tempted, reading Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” or marveling in front of Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch”, such an aesthetic experiences cannot be reduced to which parts of the brain light up or its many neuronal correlates. Our studies of the brain are indeed, in their infancy.
All told, what we now know about the brain is a long distance from any conclusive map of functional analysis of the human brain. A brain simple enough to be understood is much too simple to produce that human mind able to understand it. Of course the brain creates and ultimately controls the emergent mind, which in turn, influences the brain. That human mind seeking to understand the brain remains one of the great scientific challenges of modern times.
Our task is certainly not to ignore evidentiary arguments or scientific data, but rather to actively harvest the exciting gains made by neuroscience and what facts and data do exist, but at all times understanding the significant limits of science and those data bases. This makes the posture of humility in the face of that compelling mystery of the human brain, so vitally important.