So, Let's Take a Look at My Brain

It would be impolite to take a look at just anyone's brain without asking them, so we will use an imaginary Jamie for the purpose. So let's have a look inside Jamie's Brain…

Imagine you've walked up to me and said: “Hello Jamie, do you mind if I take a quick peek inside your brain?” Now instantly freeze time around me. While we've got my body standing there, frozen in time, we may as well have a quick peek anyway since I will be none the wiser once time resumes as we will leave my brain quite intact when we are done.

Next, get a set of kitchen steps and stand them to my right and arrange your self so you can look down at my head from about a foot above my right shoulder. Ready? OK, stick your hand in my top right pocket and pull out my remote control (bet you didn't know I had one of those!) and find the transparency controls for my skull (they are right beside the hair colour knob, the one pointed at “ginger”). Got it? Ok, shove it up off of opaque right up to transparent.

Oh! Sorry! Take a second to get your breath! Yes I know, the sight of a brain with strands of ginger hair hovering in midair an inch above it can be quite surprising the first time you see it. Just hit the mute button beside the hair colour knob too and … there we go, it's disappeared giving us a fine view of my grey matter. Set the eyeballs to transparent while you're at it, I find them kind of creepy when not surrounded by sockets and half covered by lids…. thanks.

A couple of final adjustments now, stick the brain itself at 50% transparency and increase the brightness on the neuron and synapses. Set the neurons to blue and the synapses to pink. Now, isn't that pretty? We can see a rush of neurons firing out of synapses near the hearing centre (presumably containing the data the eardrum has received when the vibrations caused by the words “peek inside your brain?” hit it). There is what looks like a continuos flow of them coming from where we have made the eye transparent into the nearby Occipital Lobe- the signals generated by light that a moment ago bouned off of your smiling, innocent face then smashed headlong into my (now invisible) retina (retnas? retni?).

Lets watch what happens as these signals proceed through the brain. Down near the bottom of the remote control you'll find a jog wheel. As you turn it clockwise a step the neurons will move on for a nano second. Right bump it forward a couple… the hearing neurons have caused a chain reaction that is setting off some more signals (by means of neurons hitting synapses generating more neurons) in my upper cerebrum. Similarly those ones from the eyes are also causing something to occur over there and a stream of them have headed for the cerebrum too. A couple more bumps forward and… it's all become so chaotic we cant really follow where the train of neurons are going anymore. We can see a bunch of reacions happening across the cerebrum and it looks like a couple of signals are heading down towards the motor area next door.

The cerebrum is too complex a device to follow individual neuron paths but what it is doing is recognising the person stood in front of it (the Occipital Lobe has done a lot of this work already) and analysing the question it has just been asked. It has sent a couple of initial replies already, lets see what they do… Jog forward a full half second's worth (don't worry about my retina being invisible during this time, I imagine I will assume that I blinked as the word goes dark for a moment). Climb down and look at my face (you'll need to switch it back to opaque). Hm… certainly has changed but it looks a little odd… Bring the hair back in… Ah, right, I see – I've raised an eyebrow quizically.

Back to the brain. Ditch the hair before you climb back up there, one fainting fit is enough for this experiment thank you. Now lets take another look at how the cerebrum is tackling your question. We have already decided that following flows of neurons hitting synapses is way too complex so switch on the flow chart projector option on the remote. A stream of light shines in a cone up from my transparent skull apparently originating from my cerebrum (I bet you are wondering where I got this remote control, it's a great fun gadget, isn't it!?) and projecting a nice process flow chart hanging semi transparent in mid air. Neat.

Even the flow chart is quite complex, we can see the cerebrum has already used it's language section to interpret the question into terms that it understands(1) for analysis. Jog forward a little. Right the memory enquiry section has started, the cerebrum is having a glance through my memory to see if I have been asked the question before. Jog forward a little and we see the memory's reply coming back into the flow chart, it has found no instance of being asked this question but has turned up a vague memory of getting really drunk a couple of weeks back with the person doing the asking. Meanwhile another section has been analysing the supposed sub meanings of the question and is mulling over how the task being requested may be accomplished. A couple of requests get fired off to imagination over in the frontal lobe.

Jog forward a little bit and pull up imaginations flow chart. As it springs into life next to the cerebrum flow chart, we see a line stemming from that first one waiting for the response. Imagination has come up with a couple of ideas, most of them are quite ikky and involve chainsaws but it has come up with CAT scan as being a viable option.

Forward a bit more and let this info sink into cerebrum. The flow chart is coming up to crunch time for a decision and action on the question it has been asked. It considers that you might be asking to cut the top of my head off with a chainsaw, you might be inviting me to have a CAT scan, possibly this is some running joke from that drunken party a week ago that I have forgotten, and that it has no previous response to this particular question. The flow chart (in this section – we are ignoring vast amount of it that is dealing with other background stuff unrelated to the question at hand) holds to get more information and has sent some commands off towards the Broca's area… looks like Jamie is going to say something!

Hide the step ladders, switch my skull back on and restore my hair and eyes. Stick my remote control back in my top pocket and stand exactly where you were before we started this exploration. You can be slightly off because, if you recall, I have perceived a blink and can assume you moved slightly during that time. When you are ready Restore the Flow of Time!

Jamie springs back into life, blinks puzzledly and asks “What the fuck are you talking about?”. You thank him very much for his time and that you will be on your way.

What have we learned about the nature of Jamie's Brain? That flow chart was very complex but appears to have been built up over a long period. Had memory returned a previous instance of being asking this question (suppose I was jumped by an axe wielding maniac once who asked just that and I only escaped unharmed by quick use of the all body invisible switch on my remote control) then the flow chart would have shot off towards a completely different direction, in the first instance replying “No.” before deciding whether to make a run for it or not.

After being asked the question once the brain will file it in memory for future reference so if asked again (assuming the axe wielding maniac didn't happen) might well arrive at the conclusion that it should ask “Is this some kind of joke?” or possibly “Why? Do you think there is something wrong with it?”

What we seem to see is that we can reduce the brain responding to questions to a relatively simple structure: Interpret Question. Check Memory for Similar. Imagine Outcomes. Decide on Action. Record actions to memory.

This sequence is happening continually, the Interpret Question bit simply being changed to “Input of Stumuli” (eg you see a cat in the road as you drive, memory reminds you you should brake, imagination puts together a squashed cat as possible outcome, a decision to break is taken, you brake, swerve and miss the cat and this is filed in memory.

Memory itself is structured in a very complex manner, it is usually pretty good at conjuring up recognition of faces and so on very quickly. Similarly the “decision to act” stage is very complex and deserves a much closer inspection of the flow chart in this area which I intend to do in a future blog.

The questions I wish to address next which have arrisen from all this inspection of my brain are thus:
How did the structure of my “flow chart” come into existence?
Is the uniqueness of this “flow chart” what defines me?
Is it the uniqueness of this “flow chart” that makes it think, gives it a mind or consciousness?

Think about that flow chart again. There are little decision making processes occuring all over the place, each affecting other parts of the flow of the decision making process. Reduce what this flow chart represents a bit and we quickly see that it is just extremely complex patterns of synapse and neuron firings.

The three questions above I will get straight onto in future blogs.

If you want to see a simple diagram of a brain, see here.

Suggestions for improvements to my model of consciousness greatfully received!

– Jamie

PS So it's 5:20am on sunday morning, but hell! If you had a question like this buzzing around your head would you be able to sleep without writing it down first?

(1) I will address the issue of what I mean by this in a later blast, meanwhile liken it to a theoretically artificially intelligent computer program that is designed to understand english. Were you to ask it “What is two plus two?” the purpose of the language section of it's programmed cerebrum is to translate those words into { 01 + 01 = x; return(x)}. Simple transistor circuits can answer this question. I am not suggesting a human cerebrum does the exact same thing but in the same way as the circuit board that can answer “2” without using or understanding english, the cerebrum need not necesarily by processing data in a way we conciously understand – I understand how it is that a ball travels through the air in a parabola and I can (in time) model it's journey mathematically but when catching the ball my brain does not (apparently to me) go through this analysis, it simply sends the right signals to the motor section to get my arm to reach out to catch it. The analysis has taken place but not in a way that I am party to or understand.