Note: Whilst I slog away at masters applications and postpone new blog posts, here’s something else to hopefully occupy your attention. I wrote this piece back in 2012 for the Wellcome Trust science writing competition. I didn’t win but I’m still very proud of it; this was the beginning of my love affair with neuroscience.
Radiohead inadvertently gave me an insight into my own mind. Our brains naturally seek to organise the information we receive from the outside world, but science, and scientifically-inclined minds like my own, take this a step further and look for underlying truths. “Everything…in its right place”, Thom Yorke repeated over and over in the song of the same name. From microscopic protozoa to the origins of the cosmos, we seek to explain everything, to find its ‘right place’. The universe is astounding and there is so much yet to be explained but what amazes me above all is my ability to question it in the first place.
Neuroscience is providing astonishing insights into how exactly the brain works, from mapping specific neurons and areas of the brain to specific pieces of sensory input, to experimentally disentangling consciousness and attention. However, a problem lies in being both the subject and the observer; it is easy to get lost in a self-referential loop. Imagine Alice wandering around the world as we know it, as blissfully ignorant as a tree or a cat. She then falls down a rabbit-hole into self-awareness. The earth is no longer simply a place she inhabits, it is a wonderland that she can question, along with her place within it. An apple is no longer just a source of food, it can be explained in terms of plant reproduction, it has origins and purpose. When Alice comes to question her own sense of being, she makes an interesting discovery, assisted by ideas outlined in Daniel Hofstadter’s “I Am A Strange Loop”. The brain’s ability to assign symbols to patterns in the world extends to this very ability; hence the idea of self.
Hofstadter points out that understanding the machinery does not explain the process itself, with scientist Stephen Pinker suggesting that the brain inherently cannot understand how subjective experience arises. The human experience is profoundly complex, with science attempting to explain the processes involved and art more so exploring the feelings. Our ability to connect with characters in countless works of literature is one example of how human nature is expansive yet deeply interconnected. Although every individual is unique, this shared experience arises from the constraints of our evolutionary history. We are the culmination of everything and everyone that has come before us but it is so easy to forget this and revolve around the ‘I’. Even in the term human being, we indicate our self-awareness. Our lives are constructed around this idea of self, a sense of subjectivity which behavioural neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says lies at the heart of consciousness.
The question of consciousness was not one seriously considered by scientists until quite recently. Cognitive neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms underlying mental processes, only emerged as a field in the late 1970s. Knowing which questions to ask is in itself a complexity, with philosophers such as Daniel Dennet suggesting that consciousness needn’t be explained as it is simply a result of information processing in the brain. On the other hand, neuroscientist Christof Koch expands the idea of consciousness to a fundamental property of the universe, based on the capacity of a system to connect and use information. His pioneering collaborative research involves setting up brain “observatories”, critically examining and manipulating neural networks in mice in order to deconstruct how experience is actually created. Whatever the case may be, it is undeniable that humans evolved a sense of awareness unparalleled to any other species, and it is our brains that set us apart.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” The defining characteristics of humans have been investigated in many fields over many, many centuries. In searching for the genetic differences between Neanderthals and modern humans, biologist Svante Pääbo suggests that the restlessness, or perhaps madness, that drove the latter to venture over the oceans was a key evolutionary milestone. This idea of searching for the unknown, the terra incognita, underpins the emergence and progress of science. While anatomically modern humans appeared around 200,000 years ago, our cultural evolution has progressed rapidly, particularly in terms of science. One hundred years ago, facts we take for granted now, from the existence of other galaxies to the structure of DNA, were largely unknown. Breakthroughs in neuroscience that deconstruct how the mind works could not only be instructive to the treatment of mental illnesses and nervous system disorders, but bring us closer to understanding what defines us as human. It is imperative that we maintain Alice’s child-like curiosity, as complacency for such ‘beings’ as ourselves is a kind of death, a rejection of who we are. To wonder is in itself a wonder.