Where to Look to Understand the Brain?

One of my messages I feel strongly about is that all this emphasis on the "mechanics" of the brain -- this focus on what neurons fire when, what anatomical structures are connected to other anatomical structures, what drugs we can take to fix our brain function  --  is terribly misplaced.

So imagine my delight when I come across other writers and researchers who say similar things... I love the feeling that I am not alone! ;-)

Some of my posts here will be to share these other viewpoints with you - partly to show it's not just me ;-), partly to give you other doorways to explore to enter into another way of viewing and understanding the brain.

Today it will be a visit with Douglas Hofstadter, author of Godel, Escher, Back, and also of a book I am immensely enjoying right now: I am a Strange Loop. Dr. Hofstadter is professor of Cognitive Science at Indiana University and writes in a wonderfully relaxed and readable style -- like having a conversation with an old friend about Things That Matter.

In this book, he is exploring what we mean when we say "I". What is an "I"? Where does it come from? Who's in charge when we say "I" am?

What I want to extract from his book for you here are his views about where we need to focus to try to understand the brain in a meaningful way we can apply to our lives. (I've added the bolding for emphasis):

Let's start with his observation that car buyers aren't thinking about the chemistry of alloys, but about the functional components of the car: maneuverability, fuel efficiency, safety, appeal, etc. He uses this common experience to point out that understanding what a car we intend to use is all about takes us away from the neurochemistry and individual neurons of the brain:

...."the bottom line is simply that the microscopic level may well be -- or rather, almost certainly is -- the wrong level in the brain on which to look, if we are seeking to explain such enormously abstract phenomena as concepts, ideas, prototypes, stereotypes, analogies, abstraction, remembering, forgetting, confusing, comparing, creativity, consciousness, sympathy, empathy, and the like."

So where do we need to look?

"Just as many aspects of a mineral (its density, its color, its magnetism or lack thereof, its optical reflectivity, its thermal and electrical conductivity, its elasticity, its heat capacity, how fast sound spreads through it, and on and on) are properties that come from how its billions of atomic constituents interact and form high-level patterns, so mental properties of the brain reside not on the level of a single tiny constituent but on the level of vast abstract patterns involving these constituents."

He quotes neurologist Roger Sperry as further support:

..."if one keeps climbing upward in the chain of command within the brain, one finds at the very top those over-all organizational forces and dynamic properties of the large patterns of cererbal excitation that are correlated with mental states or psychic activity...."

And then Hofstadter takes us to a delightful comparison with thermodynamics (the patterns, behaviour, and evolution of energy systems) and statistical mechanics (relating the behaviours of atoms and molecules to the larger thermodynamic patterns).

He tells us: Thermodynamics is explained by statistical mechanics (we can try to explain the larger pattern by inspecting its tiny bits). True enough for certain kinds of systems. But then he turns it around -- the same sentence and relationship of the parts, but what a difference!:

Statistical mechanics can be bypassed by talking at the level of thermodynamics.

That simply means that we can talk about the thermodynamic patterns, can understand them, use them, live with them...without having to talk about or understand the statistical mechanics underlying them.

What's this got to do with the brain?

Here's the fun part ;-)

Hofstadter has created a parallel notion in terms of thinking and the brain...what he calls "thinkodynamics" and "statistical mentalics".

Thinkodynamics is analogous to thermodynamics, focusing on  the patterns of behaviour and evolution of activity in the brain.

Statistical Mentalics is the parallel to statistical mechanics, looking at the smaller-scale "parts" that make up that larger activity: neurotransmitters, how cells are wired together, activity of cell assemblies and other cell "modules" all averaged across the specific instances of this kind of behaviour.

So now we're ready to play with these two concepts in the same way as the physics played out:

Thinkodynamics is explained by statistical mentalics.

Statistical mentalics can be bypassed by talking at the level of thinkodynamics.

I just love this!

And that's a large part of what this website is all about. Let's talk about the brain at the level of "thinkodynamics" -- what's the "dance", the patterns that are happening. When and how  can we influence those dynamics and when do we need to accept that they Just Happen without feeling we need to control everything?

It's my sense that focus on the statistical mentalics is a focus on control. If only we could understand how those little components create what they do, we could tweak them and become amazing super-people. But no. We can't entirely control them or even the ripple effects of trying to control them. And we don't need to become super-people.

But that's another post ;-)