table of contents


Stuart Edelstein on the Human Brain

Stuart J. Edelstein received a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of California (Berkeley) in 1967. Following a post-doctoral year at the Pasteur Institute in the laboratory of Jacques Monod, he joined the faculty of Cornell University in the Section of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology, where he became Professor in 1977 and served as […]

download transcript [vtt]
[ Music ]
This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
We're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
[ Music ]
[ Music ]
You're brought a brother, crystal pie and something like a mamba,
got your legs on the floor, and bets my poison, but I'm far and not.
In preparing for today's show on the human brain,
I came across a new book by VS.
Ramachandron called the Tell Tale Brain,
a neuroscientist's quest for what makes us human.
If you want to learn a lot of great stuff about the brain,
read this book.
If you want to find out about what makes us human,
well, you better stick to entitled opinions.
I can't remember the last time I cringe so much.
For example, I didn't know that gulls have a propensity
to be attracted to anything with a big red dot on it,
since mother gulls have such a dot on their beaks.
But do I need VS.
Ramachandron, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition
at the University of California, San Diego,
to explain the appeal of abstract art on this basis.
In his own words, "I suggest this is exactly what human
art connoisseurs are doing when they look at or purchase abstract works of art.
They are behaving exactly like the gull chicks."
Come on VS, you cannot be serious.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again.
We live in an era of virulent scientific reductionism.
We are in the midst of a full-grown epidemic of reduction
of the mind, to the brain, of thinking, to computational processes,
of psychic turmoil to biochemical disorder,
of human behavior to genetic programming,
more generally of culture to nature.
Why do so many neuroscientists, geneticists, evolutionary biologists,
analytic philosophers, seek to explain the oceanic depth and cosmic reach of the human phenomenon
by reducing it to the most narrow, naive, and Neanderthal-like paradigms?
Are they motivated by a deep fascination with our species' cultural, psychological,
and spiritual lives?
Are they trying to account for what they don't understand by reference to what they think they understand?
I wish I could believe that, but I fear that the motivation is often more suspect than that.
I believe that the reductionists have the most casual disregard
if not contempt for what belongs to the realm of spirit.
Perhaps they fear it, perhaps they loathe it,
or perhaps they are merely terrified by it.
Why else would they presume to reduce it to such primitive explanations,
and why else would they be so smug about their reductionist antics?
Reductionism is driven by a desire for control,
a desire for domination at any cost,
and more often than not, the cost is bankruptcy.
I doubt many reductions listen to entitled opinions,
but if they did, I would tell them this.
Your desire for domination, sir,
is itself dominated by forces you are not even aware of, let alone in control of.
You see what you want to see by looking away from the thing itself.
Your edifice before is encounter with Tyreseus.
Those of us who make it our mission to resist all forms of reductionism,
who seek to restore opacity, complexity, and density to phenomena,
who wonder about the manifold mysteries of our being in the world,
we have to be very careful not to confuse the reductionists
with the matter to which they reduce their explanations.
It's the genetic determinists not genes themselves
whom we take issue with.
That's why I would not answer the genetic determinists by saying,
"Gines are nothing but this or that."
It's also why I would not answer the AI ideologue
who reduces thinking to computational algorithms by saying,
"Artificial intelligence is nothing but this or that."
Likewise, while I resist the neuroscientist
who seeks to reduce everything that makes us human to operations
that take place within our brain,
I have no grip with the brain itself.
On the contrary, the more I learn about it,
the more I stand in awe of its mysterious uncanny vitality.
I may not believe that the human soul is located within it
or is an epiphenomenon of it,
but I marvel at the brain nonetheless.
It's true also that I often wonder how Satan,
who has the biggest brain of all the sinners in Dante's hell,
indeed he has three of them,
can also be the most stupid creature in the realm he lords over.
Today's show about the brain marks the second time
a title of opinions has devoted an entire program to an organ of the human body.
Some of you may recall that we did a show about the heart a few years back.
The heart and the brain are two organs I hold very dear,
if only because of their intimate connection to the organ that I,
like most men of my own gender, hold even dear.
One day maybe we'll do a show on that one as well,
but today we're here to talk about the appendage that more than any other
is bound up with what we associate most closely with our very selfhood.
I mean our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, sensations,
and even our dreams.
To help us understand some of the fundamentals of the human brain,
I have with me a special guest, Stuart Edelstein,
who was a biologist and neuroscientist.
Stuart received a PhD in biochemistry from Berkeley in 1967.
From 77 to 85, he was a professor of molecular and cell biology at Cornell,
after which he moved to Geneva as professor in the Department of Biochemistry.
He is a member of the French Academy of Sciences and has published a great many articles and seminal books.
Most of his recent work is in the field of neuroscience.
This past winter quarter, he was invited to join Stanford Center for Mind, Brain, and Computation
to work with the chairman of Stanford Psychology Department,
Jay Mclealand. Stuart, welcome to the program.
Thank you Robert, it's very nice to be here.
I would like to start with the last paragraph of a review of the Ramachandron book I referred to
in the New York Review of Books written by Colin McGinn,
about whom we'll have something to say later in our program, I believe.
And after giving a very thorough review of the contents of Ramachandron's book,
he ends by saying the following.
Neurology is gripping and proportion as it is foreign.
It has all the fascination of a horror story, the jekyll of the mind bound for life to the hide of the brain.
All those exotic Latin names for the brain's parts echo the strangeness of our predicament as brain-based conscious beings.
The language of the brain is not the language of the mind and only a shaky translation manual links the two.
There is something uncanny and creepy about the way the brain intrudes on the mind as if the mind has been infiltrated by an alien life form.
We are thus perpetually startled by our evident fusion with the brain as a result.
Neurology is never boring and this is true in spite of the fact that the science of the brain has not progressed much beyond the most elementary descriptive stages.
How do you react to that story?
Well, it's a very nicely written little text and I think the last sentence though is a bit cynical because we do have to recognize that in the last ten years or less two decades there's been an enormous amount of understanding about fundamental aspects of the brain.
So we know a lot about each kind of neuron that's in the brain. We know roughly that we have a hundred billion neurons and we know many of the chemical elements, the receptors.
I worked myself quite a bit on nicotinic receptors.
We know that particular form of nicotinic receptors that we can eliminate in mice if we eliminate that form.
The mice will no longer be addicted to nicotinicating if they had been put in an environment where they could have access to nicotinic.
So it's kind of unfair to say that we haven't really progressed.
Now, the past what you're talking about, some people might say we haven't really understood consciousness or some very high level cognitive function.
That may be true.
So to go back to your initial comments, I think I can't really defend the entire reductionist program, but in essence all progress is a form of reductionism.
The problem is how do you take the understanding from the reductionist approach?
For example, the structure and properties of receptors in the neurons and then put that into a context where you can emerge to the back up to a higher level and see how those
phenomena actually construct what we know of as different kinds of experiences of the brain.
So that's really the challenge.
Of course, people like Rama Chandra may have over-exaggerated in their enthusiasm for the importance of the reductionist approach.
And I'm not going to defend his particular arguments, but the real challenge is making progress in science at the molecular level because we are only molecules.
I don't dispute that too. What bothers me invariably is the fact that when these scientists or neurologists or geneticists are dealing with their own subject matter, they're not reductionists at all because they appreciate the huge complexity of the phenomenon with which they are in daily contact and in touch.
And I can learn all sorts of things by reading them on their own terrain.
The problem is that they have such an impoverished view of the complexity of human cultural phenomena that when they try to reduce their reductionist when it comes to the realm of the spirit or what we might call the humanities if you want to use a kind of narrow term for it.
And so, yes, I appreciate the fact that they know a great deal about the complexity of their own field of research.
If they only would have the same accord, the same sort of respect for what let's call it the humanities or the cultural life or spiritual life, then that would be fine.
But the reductionist move, the hermeneutic move, to reduce that level is something that I still find a lack of respect for the phenomenon itself.
When the phenomenon under description is our cultural, spiritual, psychological life.
Well, I agree with you. I think you touched an important point.
And the issue is really what kind of books people want to write and the scientists themselves usually when they're publishing their scientific articles are very rigorous, but when they get into the realm of kind of popular books, then they kind of let go and it's hard to control.
Yeah, so, or I'm a chandron, I mean, if he spent years studying abstract art and realizing that abstract art is a lot more than just, you know, a dot on a canvas, then maybe he wouldn't make a statement.
I have the fact that the art conussor, well, you know, I can read it again. It's like the art, I submit that the art conussor is doing exactly what the gold chick is doing when he looks at and purchases works of art.
Now, an art conussor looks at and purchases works of art. Those are two different activities. When he purchases the work of art, he might be personally on a basis of a speculation because it has a market value because it's just that.
Or when he's looking at it, he's trying to see what the differences between, you know, one artist and the other or whether this, in other words, he's doing a lot more than the gold chick is doing when he's looking at the looking at the dot of his mother's beak.
I agree with you completely. I think if you look at the history of art, you can see that the kind of Renaissance interest in the face and the image of the body is something that pertains very much to neuroscience, that we have an enormous capacity to look at subtleties in the face and subtleties in the gestures of the body.
And that's an important element in understanding the brain. And other neuroscientists more recently have shown that part of the visual cortex is particularly sensitive and even at the level of individual cells, the certain angles, the certain movements, the certain forms.
So you could make some correlation with abstract art in relation to how we perceive complex images, but you can also say that some famous artist like Kudinsky, on one hand, or Jackson Pollock, that they've actually kind of penetrated the neuroscientific mystery and they're voiding some of the stereotype structures that we kind of respond to automatically and they're kind of stimulating us by the kind of
providing images that we don't really have access to easily. So it's kind of a stimulation of the brain in new ways. So I think you could look at art in that respect and then it becomes more interesting.
I like that. That's very nice. So if we could talk a little bit about this, the extraordinary complexity of the Oregonian question here, you said that we do know that there are about a hundred billion neurons.
Forgive the naive question, but can you tell our listeners exactly what a neuron is and how the neurons communicate with each other?
Well, the neuron is a living cell and every living cell has a kind of a life of its own. It doesn't exactly resemble any other cell because it's in a dynamic state and it has numbers of molecules and things going on that we can't absolutely ever predict.
That's a place to all set up.
That applies to all cells. Now, neurons you might think of as very gregarious cells. They're very curious about what their neighbors are doing.
So on one hand, they've developed structures that receive information that are called dendrites and these are organized into huge dendritic trees.
So they set out these processes to be able to capture information coming from other neurons and they also want to express their information by sending them to the other.
So they have only a small number of axons, sometimes just one, and they send this axon out and will be able to deliver information to other neurons somewhere.
And this is how everything works. It's little signals going, electrical signals going down axons and then captured by other neurons as electrical signals.
So everything we perceive, whether it's music, art, literature, smells, ultimately in the brain, is just little electric signals going around the brain.
Can I take it then that there's a lot more reception involved in the life of a neuron than actual emission of signal?
I think that's a good idea. There's only one axon you said.
That's a huge network. That's right. And the dendritic tree is capturing information from lots of other neurons.
And it's not really though just like a telephone network because the actual capture takes place at little synapses where a neural transmitter is diffusing across a little gap.
And whether the signal can pass will depend on how recently there's already been a signal. You can't pass signals too fast.
So there's an incredible amount of precise timing going on.
And this is an issue that I think people in artificial intelligence haven't really captured. They're trying to represent the brain as a series of switches in a computer.
But it's really much more complicated in the human brain.
And what does that complication involve? I mean, the...
Well, the fact that there's timing differences that you can only activate a synapse if it hasn't been activated that recently.
And you have a huge dendritic tree. Now, each little signal that comes on a synapse is not enough to trigger this neuron into having firing a message down its axon.
It's only going to fire a message down its axon when it's accumulated quite a few signals on different parts of its dendritic tree.
And whether the signals come on the same branches or different branches, whether there are branches that are close to the main body of the neuron or farther away, all those things contribute.
So it's extremely difficult to have a view of exactly how it's all working.
So it's just that one other complication, there are also electrical fields that each neuron is generating.
And these will also influence whether the synapses are going to respond or not.
So the situation at the local level is extremely complicated. And we're very far from understanding that.
Now, Stuart, is that why you say that the brain might be a machine for which the word machine takes on new meanings at far?
So any conceivable metaphor I'm quoting from your text here?
Yes, well, that's what I think that people talk about artificial intelligence, machine learning.
So that's kind of a branch. It's a very useful thing to study machine learning.
And I think that computers are getting smarter and smarter.
But the kind of implicit understanding of many people is that if we understand machine learning, this will tell us something about the brain.
And my view is that it may not tell us much about the brain at all. That the brain may be learning in entirely different ways.
And even though we understand a moderate amount about the brain, we might not really have yet figured out the essential elements.
So even people who say, well, we're making computer programs that kind of resemble the human cortex.
It's a fine thing to do, and I encourage it, but we have to recognize that there's still maybe such strong overriding principles involved that we don't yet understand that we may not really even be on the right track yet.
Right. Well, I think maybe that's, again, was trying to get to that in that less statement that you took issue with that brain.
So, the neurology has not advanced very far beyond the most elementary descriptive stages.
Now, obviously, you say that it's advanced beyond elementary descriptive stages, but there's a lot more that has yet to be learned about the actual workings and operations of the organ.
Oh, absolutely, especially for higher cognitive processes. And I think, again, is one of the people who has tried to emphasize that when we talk about consciousness, which is kind of a very hot topic because we all recognize that this state that we feel when we wake up in the morning is something special.
We kind of localize it in our body and our brain. We know that it's an intimate part of our sense of identity, but it's very hard to say, where is it in the brain? How is it created by these neurons which themselves don't have conscious identity at all?
So, he's been one of the people among the main philosophers who are active in the field of consciousness. He's one of the people who has proclaimed that it's virtually impossible to solve the problem of consciousness.
And that it's a view that's called the "Mysterion" view and quite different from most of the other philosophers who have tried to plunge in and come up with a theory.
The difficulty is that the other main philosophers have theories that don't agree. So, if the neuroscientist is looking for help from the philosophers, it doesn't seem to be very fruitful.
You mentioned that there are four main, what you call them, the horsemen, or let's say the axes north, south, the east and west. So, McGinn represents one of the...
Well, it's kind of a little figurative way of putting it, but because when we say it's somebody who go north, it sort of means like, you know, it's hopeless.
And so, I put McGinn at the north, and because he says that it's impossible to understand consciousness. And the other extreme is a philosopher who's written extensively named Chalmers.
Chalmers actually lives in Australia. So, it's a kind of geographical metaphor as well, that to go south. And his view has been that consciousness must be something special in matter.
So, it must be something that's in all matter, and that in one of his quotes he even says that, therefore, a thermostat must have consciousness.
That's kind of the extreme view that I think not that many people would recognize as neuroscientists, nor would most people accept McGinn's view.
So, the more common axis is a kind of east-west axis, which I frame between Denit on the east coast.
Denit. Denit at Tufts. And his view is that consciousness is a kind of illusion that really we don't even need consciousness.
We can kind of forget about that as an important concept. And at the other end of that axis, I put John Cyril at Berkeley, who is a kind of naturalist, and says,
"Well, consciousness is just a typical function of the brain." And so, the brain, you might say, secretes thoughts the way the stomach secretes acid.
And he wants to kind of make the problem feel like it's basically easy to solve.
And so, I find that none of these views are really that satisfying to me. And mainly because I think the philosophy has tried too hard to just dive in headfirst to the problem of consciousness.
But consciousness is something that we as human beings have evolved, and we know that we're closely related to chimpanzees.
So, whatever we have, we may have improved on it a lot from chimpanzees, but there must be rudiments of it in chimpanzees.
And of course, we can go farther down to earlier primates or other animals. And the only way we can really understand that I think is from a more biological approach through evolution and an approach that studies the brain at simpler levels and tries to see how some additional functions are added.
Well, here can I enter into some philosophical debate with you on this question because if you have a naturalistic understanding of consciousness as something that is integrally based on neurophysiology, then yes, you have to look at for an evolutionary story that will tell you how it arose, naturally,
or evolutionarily. If on the other hand you were, let's say an existentialist, a lassat, who for whom consciousness is what he calls the pooswa, which is not a thing at all, but is actually an opening, a kind of rip or tear in the fabric of the existence,
anything that has a body is un-existent, that it's this uncanny revelation of a nothingness at the heart of things that is distinctive to the human experience, which maybe even using the term consciousness is too reductive to even call it that.
But he goes to great lengths to say that what he understands my consciousness is not a thing at all. It's a no thing, and high-digar as well says that unless we start from the assumption that design or human existence is thrown onto its own death and it's somehow as access to that which is not a thing in any sense of the term, then we do not have intelligible,
even linguistic access to the phenomena themselves. Where does this nothingness come from? How does it erupt into the human experience? Who knows? But this is not to deny that take the brain away from the occasion from the equation and we would not have this opening onto the nothing.
Nevertheless, it's not something that the brain naturally secretes as Suril, as Suril who says, yeah, Suril says that consciousness is just secreted as an almost an organic function. This is philosophically not decided, I believe.
Well, we should like me to comment on it. Yes, to get more specific, consciousness you say is something that we wake up with and we say that it's something that's in us and we feel that it's somewhere in us and we can't actually locate the place in us where it is. And here again, I just want to go back to the phenomenological tradition that says that no, well, it's again, and high-digar or agreed on this point that existence is always outside of itself before it's inside itself.
And that what we call consciousness, it's probably a misnomer because it assumes too much interiority, whereas existence in the sense of standing outside of oneself would be a better term for it.
So how do you understand consciousness as an organic function or do you understand it in another way?
Well, I like those texts that you're referring to and I think I kind of agree that ultimately there will always be a point that we cannot explain in consciousness.
But to reach that ultimate point, there's still a lot we can learn because you mentioned our linguistic sense of self and we know that there are regions of the brain that are involved in linguistics and we can.
So we can understand some of the inner narrative consciousness probably that we experience as individuals.
But I think there probably always will be some essence. We can kind of narrow the window and explain certain things about how we perceive color, how we perceive sound and how we generate language.
But that very intimate sense of what consciousness is for ourselves as an experience will probably never actually come to a full description of.
I think that's you mentioned the continental philosophy tradition and I think we can also look at even the eastern philosophies and perhaps even the Buddhist type meditation, the idea of a state of Nirvana, which is a kind of opportunity to have a personal experience of the essence of consciousness.
It's still something that is only recognized for the deep, meditating Buddhist when he returns from that state.
So even there, there's always a mystery about trying to jump out of our everyday experience to isolate what it could be that actually constitutes the essence of consciousness.
I think that will always remain a mystery.
Well, that's great. I also will subsequently ask you about whether consciousness exhausts the as a word, exhaustive phenomenon under consideration because there is a lot more to what I consider to be our psychological, spiritual and cultural lives than consciousness.
There's this strange hole called the soul. I'm quoting Robert Muzied in the Man Without Qualities where the strange hole called the soul.
And whether the soul is identical with consciousness, I have my own doubts about that.
But before we raise the question of the soul, you say that there's great promise you believe in the concept of emergence for going to the soul.
So, it's a sense of emergence for going from one level of organization which would be in the brain at the physiological, neurological level that you can imagine higher forms of organization, none of which is predictable necessarily, or necessarily consequential to the earlier one.
Can you explain why you believe the concept of emergence might be a very promising approach here?
Well, I think it's an idea that's been around for a while. I think D.D. Hoe, then he detroll in some of his early writings was one of the first to entertain this notion that matter can only express complex function in respect to its new organizations that it can develop.
So, I think that exactly is the heart of the challenge that we know we have neurons. No one is disputing that, and we know that the neurons communicate with each other.
So, the challenge is to say, well, when you put neurons together, what sort of properties emerge, and then we say, well, we'll get to a level where we have circuits.
So, it's maybe that the circuits are the key, not really the neuron so much, but some circuits are retaining memories, some circuits are involved in other functions.
Well, that's interesting, but that still is in consciousness. So, then how are the circuits organized together?
And then we know we have regions of the brain, we can do functional MRI and see that in the certain conditions, major portions of the brain are activated.
So, we know that there's a regional functionality, and then we know that beyond that, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere are very specialized, and that emerges at a higher level.
So, all these factors have to be considered, but every time we go up from one level to the next, we're struggling to see how the facts from the previous level are used to generate something new.
But something new is happening in every level. Even something as simple as water, we know as much as we can imagine knowing about the H2O molecule, and we can do lots of simulations in dynamics,
but it's still virtually impossible to predict without truly introducing some specific variables, how to predict what the boiling point of water would be.
So, it's a complexity there that arises beyond the actual reductionist approach of molecules, and in the brain I think it'll be, it's a bit the same thing that we have a long way to go to establish step-by-step,
and we re-clim up this emergent ladder.
Well, that, I like hearing that because it sounds to me like you're also making a case against reduction, which would take those higher levels of organization and understand them in terms of the lower level, or understanding the properties of water through the H2O molecule, that's one way in which you reduce something down, no?
Well, it's a dilemma. I think you'll never explain the higher level if you haven't reduced down to the lower level, but reducing to the lower level doesn't really guarantee that you're going to be able to get back up to the higher level, but that's the goal.
So, probably, we know in genetics it's been fairly fruitful. We kind of understand how we understand quite well how information is stored in DNA, and we can see how in some cases one change of information,
one change in one base is sufficient to give molecular disease, but most diseases are more complicated than that. So, we still have a lot of work to do to figure out how they work, but the principle is more or less valuable, valuable.
So, on the question of emergence toward the, I'm going to quote you back again to yourself that the neurons emerge from the ensemble of molecules within them, then you have elaborate patterns of interaction, so I guess you're referring to this as a circuits, and so forth.
And then you have these functional circuits for specific skills and emotions that emerge from these patterns, and then the circuits for decision making, they emerge from the interaction of lower level circuits and then the specialization.
So, I'm recapitulating what you were saying, but then in, I want to read this back to you about climbing the ladder of emergence is vaguely reminiscent of Plato's ladder in the symposium, and I did a show on the symposium with Andrea Nightingale here, so my listeners know what that ladder is all about.
So, each level requires passage from the previous level, bring something new and unanticipated, and then you say that at the top of the hierarchy is consciousness, but it's nature is very elusive, and in Buddhism near Vana can be fully realized upon the return to consciousness, and in the same process, the fullness of consciousness is realized by this top-down approach, but because it's of its emergent properties, the fathoming of consciousness by a bottom-up,
approach will always be fraught with difficulty.
Now, is the bottom-up approach, the reductionist approach?
Well, the bottom-up approach is taking what we learned from reductionism and trying to reconstruct by emergence what we now want to understand at the highest levels.
And I do I understand you correctly to say that you were actually recommending the other procedure which is a start-top-down?
Well, I'm not exactly recommending it, but I'm just pointing out that it's actually a two-way street that, for example, some very simple phenomena that I've been studying lately where you can have images that are by stable.
So, sometimes you look at it and you see what kind of one perspective, and sometimes another, like the famous Wittgenstein, a rabbit and duck.
Now, you can measure in the lower brain functions where the images are created at the back of the brain and the visual cortex.
You can measure that there are cells there that respond to one or the other and not both.
But this may be because at a very higher level of cognitive understanding, there's been kind of a feedback sent to those lower levels.
So, it's a very tricky process to decide for any particular phenomenon, whether you're going up the emergent ladder from bottom to top or coming down from the top and seeing an influence, because we know that if we have a thought, we can induce a kind of a fear in our own bodies or we can induce joy by having the right kind of thought.
So, that's a top-down approach that's affecting our whole nervous system. The trick is to keep these two avenues in mind at the same time.
That's great. Yeah. In the middle ages, there was a certain branch of radical Aristotelian philosophy that believed that the individual mind is not what is thinking that we are being thought by something that was called the universal intellect.
And that this idea that perhaps it's not inside our own minds at all, but that there's something that's thinking us and gets interesting versions in modern literature.
Borges is great at representing some of these things.
But to get back to our...
Yeah, go ahead.
I think that touches an interesting concept as well, that as we grow up, as individuals in the world, we're assimilating an enormous amount of information from our culture, from our families, from everything around us.
So in a sense, we are not individual minds. And it takes a long time, I think, as you go through life to recognize even how much of what you think is your true inner identity is actually things you've just assimilated and start taking for granted.
So that's one point I would make.
And another point I would make is that we really haven't talked about how the brain is integrated in the body.
I think this is another issue that needs to be emphasized that the brain is embodied.
And what sometimes neuroscientists exaggerate is how a part of the brain is responsible for this or that emotion or this or that idea.
But it really always has to be viewed in the context of the body and that our sense of identity, our sense of individuals, is totally related to how we feel in the body, how the body moves, how we go through the world and go through space.
The brain, of course, is capturing all this information and storing it, but it's all integrated in relation to the body.
Also, speaking about the way in which there's all this, all the voice of the other is always in my head without my realizing it.
Ramachandran's book exposed me to the existence of what I take to be very fascinating neurons that are called mirror neurons, which seem to be the basis of possible sympathy between people and connected to mimicry and imitation and...
What are these mirror neurons? Well, it was a fairly recent discovery in Italy and the group was studying monkeys that were just a simple psychological test and they were instructed to grasp for food and their brains were being probed with electrodes and they were doing the experiment and then they would give the monkey a little rest and somebody came in the lab and was...
was eating something at the same time and going through a gesture that resembled what the monkeys were supposed to do and just...
allowing the monkeys to watch this gesture, they discovered that the same region of the brain that was used for grasping to eat was firing its neurons.
So the idea developed that individuals, when they perceive something, they actually experience it by kind of simulating in their own minds what it would feel like to do the same thing.
I think this is a very powerful aspect of how we relate to each other emotionally, how we respond when someone is smiling or frowning.
We basically trigger the kind of muscular sensation that we would experience if we were smiling or frowning ourselves, but it's just simulated.
We don't actually necessarily smile and this creates in us an emotion that corresponds to the emotion of the person that we're looking at.
That's at the emotional level. But even in physical things, I noticed myself having played tennis quite a lot that...
If I happen to be watching it sport, I'm usually fairly relaxed about it, but when I'm watching tennis, I kind of feel it in my body.
It's like I can't help but imitating the backstroke and the forehand.
It's almost like I'm getting a workout just by watching.
I know what that feels like because I'm a tennis player also and sometimes I can watch a player and just going through it in an imaginary way through my mirror neurons.
I can tell that that ball is going to be out before it actually is struck just by the way the body, the tennis player on the TV screen, you know, just set up and a little.
Yeah, and of course, I was reading that these mirror neurons are so active and sometimes hyperactive that they have to be suppressed sometimes in order to create or preserve the boundaries of an individual so that we don't get lost in this complete chaos of the
the mimetic contagion.
And I guess our colleague here at Stanford, Honejidad, who built a whole theory, anthropogenic theory of based on the imitation, probably would be very excited about the role that mirror neurons play in human relations and social relations.
And the way they might be connected even to desire, which according to Gerard, is invariably mimetic that we desire what others desire.
There was an interesting experiment done with monkeys that I thought I would send to one time.
Two monkeys next to each other in cages were, ultimately given cucumbers for tokens that they had accumulated and they were very happy they would do this all day long.
But then one of the monkeys was given grapes, and which they, the monkeys like much better than cucumbers, and the one who was still being given cucumbers, he just refused the cucumbers.
He just couldn't stand that anymore because the neighbor was getting grapes and eventually would throw the cucumbers back at the handler.
And this is the kind of typical example of mimetic desire.
Yes, and it's related to our topic in this regard that for Honejidad, what we consider our own most, the core of our selfhood, which is our desires, especially romantic, sentimental, erotic, that they're always mediated by the other, and that therefore there's nothing more, let's say, borrowed than desire.
And this, you know, the idea of the autonomy of desire is put into question.
And likewise, if we have thoughts in our minds that we think are really our own most thoughts and belong to a kind of intimacy of the self, then we discover that we're actually pre-inhabited by others and the voices that we've heard, not only of the living and our social relations, but the voices that we read in literature and philosophy,
and the voices of the dead in many ways, that then the brains, you know, starts looking like a repository for all sorts of things that have been out in the world and have been circulating outside of my own body, and that have found their way somehow, I don't even like the word in, but let's say they found their way to this locus that I consider myself,
that it's precisely the index of my relationality to the world, and my standing outside of myself already in this oomve, this high-degree call, you know, the surrounding world where I am always in relation to that which lies outside of me.
Well, I think there's one point that relates to that that we haven't really discussed, and that is that the brain is always working full speed, basically.
So we kind of experience a little bit of what's going on in our lives, but it's a very tiny fraction of what the brain is actually capable of taking in, and we're only aware of that small part.
So when people say they're measuring some activity in the brain with a scanner, they can see a slight increase in brain activity in some region, but by and large, the brain is always working all the time, and it's always maintaining these circuits, it's always kind of testing the water, it's always planning for things that's always changing its perspective because in a biological sense, we always have to be kind of aware of what might happen, what could be going on, always making new hypotheses.
So whatever we're doing, the brain is already anticipating what might be next, what hypotheses are useful in case x, y, or z occurs. All this is happening all the time, and that's why I think that some of you said-
You've been in our sleep?
In our sleep, it's similar things are happening, but those are the dream stays.
But basically, I think this is what you're getting at, that we kind of have the feeling that we're just participants in some process that's going on that we can't fully control, we can control a little bit, but that's part of the mystery of life that we're going through it on the one hand as the pilot, but on another hand just as the passenger.
So could it be, that the ego or what psychology calls the ego this self which is, considers, is individualated or considers itself individuated, is actually a little fortress that defends itself against this whole excess of that constant activity that's taking place at the neurological level so that if I, if otherwise I would drown in the sheer excess of it, and that therefore there's a little,
there's a little sort of fortress where I can maintain the illusion of being an individuated, being that maintains a margin of distance from others and from the world and therefore can operate.
I think illusion is a very good word for that. I think we all live in an illusion of what we can control and what we are perceiving.
So the brain is a huge filter. It's not that we could be overwhelmed with this information because at every stage it's being filtered and filtered so what we actually are left with is a very concentrated and extracted form of what's available.
And then we kind of think that we're making decisions based on that but probably it's largely an illusion that somehow the decisions are kind of pre-formed by circuits that are already programmed in the brain.
Well, I'm going to have to ask you or neuroscientists why I have a kind of brain where that synapses take huge leaps because I see what we've just been discussing in terms of Nietzsche's theory of the origins of tragedy believe it or not where you have the Apollonian principle which is the principle of individuation associated with restraint form and above all illusion.
And therefore it's the illusion that I am an individual in control. Of course, the horrible truth underlying this is the Dionysian kind of ecstatic where everything dissolves into a kind of primordial chaotic promiscuity associated with the rights or orgastic.
And that Greek tragedy brings the Apollonian and the Dionysian together and then gives us a revelation of the fact that if we were to see the real in its Dionysian frenzy, we wouldn't be able to stand it.
In fact, you have the tragic downfall but that thank God for Apollo who comes to the rescue by putting the veil of illusion back on the world so that we can go on thinking that we are autonomous individuals that
maintain a healthy sort of regimentation in our relationship to the others in the world and nature and so forth.
It sounds like the brain has a Dionysian sort of frenzy of activity although I hear what you're saying that it's not chaotic because it's always organizing itself.
But it seems to be such a receptive organ. I understand that it's very active but it sounds like it is receiving an over-noted stimuli and messages all the time.
Well, to follow up on this idea, I think I wouldn't want to defend this when I'm going to say entirely now but there are some ideas that what you're talking about is a difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere.
There you go and I think that's an interesting thing to think about.
Two halves of the brain are definitely highly specialized and perhaps part of the conflict that every individual feels between desire and constraining, etc.
could be related to a perpetual conflict between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere.
The left hemisphere is more devoted to language and the right perhaps more to spatial relations.
But that's just one aspect of it. I think there are other aspects that get to more emotional issues as well.
And the emotional side is on the right side.
Typically, the emotions are, it depends again whether we're talking about language or whether what kind of emotions, what kind of sensations we're talking about.
So it's a complicated issue and the results are not always that clear but there definitely are major differences and I think it's something that merits a lot of future attention.
Do you believe that moods have a neurological basis or are moods something different than emotions?
No, I think moods, we know that there are pathologies that change moods and we know that psychoactive drugs can change moods.
So there definitely is a very physical basis to moods.
So if you were to take a scan, a brain scan of a person who is in the midst of a high-degenerian kind of crisis of authenticity, which happens only very, very occasionally in a person's life where he's overcome with the
poor mood of dread, of angst, which severs all relations to others in the world and it's all of a sudden I'm faced with the nothingness of the nullity that is at the base of the way.
Do you think that moment would register on an MRI scan?
Well, let's write a grant to the National Institutes of Health that people will do that in an experiment.
We have those experiences.
That's very true.
But one thing is that functional MRI is not a super fast thing.
So it depends how long this state lasts for one thing.
But there has been work on very experienced Buddhist monks who are meditating and applying those techniques to people who have very trained brains.
And particularly a group in Wisconsin has worked a lot on this.
And they definitely have big differences compared to other people.
So there's no doubt that certain states of mind that we consider as peak unusual experiences can have a big influence.
And in the case of the monks, there's a kind of coherence.
We were talking about how the brain is always working and doing different things, but in the monks that are very highly trained in meditation, different parts of the brain are in
more coherent state.
So this is perhaps what meditation or other creative activities achieve is bringing together more parts of the brain to work together.
That's terrific.
I actually didn't realize this until I had spoken to you prior to coming on air that the eyes are actually parts of our brain.
Especially the retina, especially the retina.
And I always had this quote I read from McGinn's review about neurology.
It's this fascination of the horror story, but the jekyll of the mind, bound for life to the hide of the brain.
I always figured that the weird horror of it is that it's such an ugly nondescript.
I mean, squishy, grey organ, how can it possibly be the seat of everything that's so
individuated about identity and about emotions?
And how can it not correspond aesthetically on the contrary?
But then when I think that the human eyes are the face of the brain, if you want to speak ethnologically, then now all of a sudden the brain becomes very beautiful.
In the sense that as a poet, friend of mine once said, "A beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it's in the eye of the beautiful woman."
And what I'm seeing is that the brain, when I'm looking in the eyes of someone else, it's right in a certain sense, no?
That's right. And the eyes, the retina itself is already a very smart organ.
The recent studies have shown that if you're watching something move, and you know that it takes a while for the information to get into your brain, you think you'd always be have a lag in what you're actually seeing.
But the retina is smart enough that it's already correcting the position so that when you see the position, it corresponds to what it will be with the time correction for the time it took for the information to get into your brain.
So the retina is already doing a lot of work for us, not just capturing an image like a simple camera.
Right, that just confirms what a miraculous organ the brain is.
And as you say, it's not just the brain on its own because the brain is embodied in a larger network of other vital organs, and that it doesn't have an independent existence of its own.
And that in a certain sense is not even in that regard contained within the body since most of what it receives in terms of stimuli is coming from outside of the body from the environment as such.
And therefore it is this organ of radical relationality.
Well said.
Yeah, well, it's been a pleasure to talk with you Stuart about the brain because there's absolutely nothing reductive that I can tell in your approach on the contrary that the brain is not the brain.
You seem to want to embed this organ in the larger network of life where it actually belongs. So thank you for coming on, it's been a pleasure.
I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.
Remind our listeners we've been speaking with Professor Stuart Edlstein who is on visit here at Stanford and is a neuroscientist and professor of biology.
You can read his bio on our website if you just go to the web page of entitled opinions.
And there you can access all our previous shows over 120 of them, maybe even 130 by now.
I don't know, it's kind of accumulating this heavy weight is becoming a whole kind of brain of its own or archive.
So feel free to access those and we will be with you next week. Thanks again.
I'm Dr. Freud, I know you're Joe.
I can hear the baby in your cry.
You call it love, but what it loves is death.
That ancient taste of Jim on your mother's breath.
Come with me now, we're going down, we're going down, coming back around.
Let's take this road down in your soul.
Let's see the secret that's having home.
If the dragon broke it, a load of your ears.
There's the lion mother with her ears.
Come with me now, come on, let's go.
Come with me now, let's go to the door.
I'm Dr. Freud, I'm going down, down, down.
It's been a time for the dawn to snow.
It's hard to run down to the moon.
It's a little hero, I'm just a hero.
Come with me now, we're going down, we're going down, coming back around.
Come with me now, come with me now.