There Are Times I Just Hate The Brain

Your brain does this; your brain does that;
Your brain does other stuff.
Your brain controls your body, and
(If that was not enough)
Your brain makes all your choices, and
Your brain dreams all your dreams—
So much of what you are is in
Your brain… or so it seems.

I’ve learned about neurology,
Psychology, and more;
I’ve learned about the brain, its parts,
And what each part is for;
My books, and journal articles,
Have overflowed my shelf
And still, I’ve never found a brain
That did it by itself.

Your brain is in your body
And your body moves around,
And you interact with others
And to others you are bound
And the world is full of stimuli
Which influence your brain—
Your brain is not the cause, but just
A link within the chain

Of course the brain’s important, but
It isn’t where things start.
It relies upon your kidneys; it
Relies upon your heart.
It depends on your environment,
And everything you do…
The thing that does such wondrous stuff?
It’s not your brain. It’s you.

Dammit. We got rid of Cartesian dualism, and still I can’t swing a dead cat without hitting seventeen examples of a de facto brain-body dualism that maintains the same annoying tradition. I swear, today I saw it in blogs, in newspaper articles, and now sitting down and watching “Through The Wormhole” with Morgan Freeman (in particular, the episode on “did we create God?” or some such–“the brain sees patterns”, “the brain makes connections”, “the brain blah blah blah…”

No. The brain does not see patterns. The brain is a major part of how we see patterns. The brain does not do so without the eyes, and it does not do so without two very important sets of environmental histories–the individual’s interaction with the environment (literally beginning with the environment in the womb, in development), and the interaction with the environment over millennia that is reflected in the genes. The brain is not magic (which Descartes’s concept of “mind” was, technically); it is part of how we gather information from the environment and act upon that environment. Other parts include our eyes & ears, our bones and muscles, our teachers and histories, our communities and our cultures.

As one of my commenters (sorry for forgetting your name) said a while ago, the brain is necessary but not sufficient. In context, that meant “for consciousness”, but it’s pretty much true for the rest of what we do, innit?


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    At last, the perfect occasion to attempt to introduce you to A. Lee Martinez’s novel, Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain.

    Though woefully deficient in verse, this epic contemplates the problems faced by the Evil Tentacled Alien Warlord after he has conquered the Earth, and must defend it against multiple-layered gambits by other supervillains.

    Those who already have one of everything in our esteemed host’s cuttlefish collection may want to complement their wardrobes with Martinez Mollusk merch.

  2. Johnny Vector says

    Maybe you should stop swinging dead cats.

    Sorry. Maybe your brain should stop swinging dead cats.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oops indeed @ my # 1 – I intended to say, Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain.

    Not to missed by any fan of Evil (but misunderstood) Tentacled Overlords!

    PS: Traditionally, the swinging of cats alluded to the behavioral-correction therapy applied by the British (& other) naval forces, in which the cat had nine tails and the limited space available pertained to the requirement that all members of the crew join the corrector and correctee on deck to witness such treatments.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    I did not know that! (about the swinging of cats, that is).

    Is it wrong that my initial reaction was relief that it was not feline abuse, but rather sailor abuse?

  5. Snoof says

    “The brain doesn’t see patterns, it’s a major part of how we see patterns.”
    “The heart doesn’t pump blood, it’s a major part of how we pump blood.”
    “The gallbladder doesn’t store bile, it’s a major part of how we store bile.”

    Are these equivalent statements? I’m still struggling with the concepts in this post, but it seems like using this method it’s basically impossible to ascribe any specific functionality to any particular parts of the body. Pretty much every part is interdependent on pretty much every other part, but that doesn’t mean specific organs don’t have specific functionality.

  6. Cuttlefish says

    Except that, when compared to the heart and the gallbladder, the brain is considerably more plastic, far more dependent on the experience of the organism. Researchers have found, for example, specific neurons that fire in response to pictures of Paul McCartney. Mind you, if they found the topologically identical cell in your brain, the likelihood it serves the same function is infinitesimal; that cell’s response is a function of the specific learning history of the individual, that individual’s social interactions. The brain is uniquely sensitive to the entire body, its surroundings and its history, in a way that other parts are not (although, to be fair, “the heart is a major part of how we pump blood” would be quite accurate, given that the systemic pumping of blood is also dependent on the elasticity of arteries, the valves in veins, the contraction of muscles other than the heart [note how difficult it is for quadriplegics to maintain blood pressure], the oxygenation in the lungs, and more…but of course, a given heart does not learn to pump blood). “The heart pumps blood” is true, even if it is (as the previous parenthetical notes) incomplete; “the brain sees patterns” is not literally true. “Seeing patterns” is learned, and that learning is something done by whole people in the presence of external stimuli (including, importantly, social stimuli). Heart tissue will beat on its own, in a petri dish; even the intact brain tissue of an infant must have quite a bit more specific experience before we can detect that the baby detects patterns. A brain will not learn to detect patterns in the absence of interaction with the world (to the best of our knowledge at this point, it goes without saying).

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