Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Review and Some Other Thoughts

One of the beauties of presenting learning material in blog form is that blogs can be interactive and the presenter can adjust the presentation on the fly depending on that interaction. For instance, after the opening three posts of this blog I got some valuable feed back. One reader had some very good questions that gave me some valuable insight into how the material I'm presenting is being perceived and another reader felt that the “basics” in Neuroscience 101 were pretty advanced. So now I can adjust my “course” accordingly. In my opening post I said I was a good teacher and gave the reasons. 

Bearing in mind some of my feedback, it's probably a good idea to review some of the key points of the previous post before we go on.


The brain is made up of a few key components which we looked at in the previous post. Neuroscience doesn't refer to them as components but we'll use that term for now for simplicity's sake. I'll also refer to them as the “ABCs” of neuroscience, or in other words the basic building blocks of the common language we need if we are going to learn and discuss the brain and human behaviour. I said in my introductory post that there is much that is known about the brain and there is much yet to be discovered and understood. The following is of the known variety. This is all beyond any shadow of a doubt. The key components are:

  • Neurons (brain cells in common vernacular): We'll say for the time being that neurons encode information, or “data” as I'll refer to it. We'll examine in more detail what this data might be and how it gets to a neuron and how that data gets utilized or not. (that “or not” is no doubt the source of many of your frustrations – like when you're in an exam and can't remember a certain math formula that you were sure you knew or you can't recall the name of person who's standing in front of you and who you'd been introduced to many times and so on. We'll also examine how the brain organizes and accesses this data and what might “block access” to that data (often at the worst possible time)).

  • Wiring: wiring carries data between neurons (“local”), between the various brain regions, and between your brain and various parts of your body (“long distance”). Actually, we could break long distance down further by saying between brain regions would be like between states or provinces and between your brain and your body would be like “overseas” long distance. These are the axons and dendrites we looked at in Neuroscience 101 though axons do all the long distance work and dendrites are more just the receiving end of the wiring. Much fun detail on this to follow.

  • Individual brain regions: There are three major brain regions as you'll recall; the brain stem, the limbic region and the neocortex. These in turn subsist of highly specialized sub regions. The brain stem has the fewest and most basic, the limbic region has more and slightly more advanced regions and the neocortex is where all the highest and most advanced cognitive functions exist. It is homo sapians' highly evolved specialized regions in the neocortex that make us what we like to call “human”. The wiring (and perhaps other factors that we'll look into) is what connects all these regions and is how these regions work in concert (or not as we'll see).

  • Glia cells: These are the “new kids on the block”. Until quite recently they were thought to be just “filler”, kind of a scaffolding, the job of which was merely to hold neurons and their networks in place. That notion has been thoroughly thrown out the window (see how science works? New vital discoveries happen all the time) and it is now known that the various glia cells far outnumber neurons and furthermore they are an ultra critical component in how the brain functions. We'll be looking at some eye popping details about these little guys.

  • Electricity, neurochemicals and synapses: I'm going to lump these together for now but we'll see they are quite different things (though also sort of not). I put them together because they basically are how communication takes place between neurons, between the different brain regions and between the far flung regions of your body and specialized brain regions dedicated to those body regions.

  • Hormones: hormones are a powerful component, capable of shutting down essential brain regions at the snap of a finger, calling dormant regions into action within the blink of an eye, sending life saving messages to body parts and so on. They can save your butt or kill you (or otherwise get you into a lot of trouble you'd rather not have). We'll want to pay very special attention to how these work.

In our brain anatomy primer series we'll look at all these regions and components in a little more detail and learn more about what they do and how they're all cobbled together to make “you”. It is each our own individual arrangements of these six components and how they interact that is responsible for all of our behaviour (or the behaviour of any animal as we'll see when we look at basic brain structures and what they do).

How all these regions develop themselves and function depend on two other basic things; genetics and environment. Genetics are, basically, the DNA code you were born with. Environment is everything your five senses detect from the time you were in the womb. As you have zero control over the former and next to zero control over the latter, you kind of have had next to zero control over who you currently are. I qualified that statement with “currently” so that you'd not lose hope that you have at least a smattering of input into your “destiny” (1). Trust me, you'll be very interested in the amount of “control” you do have so you're going to want to pay rapt attention as we go along. Knowing what you cannot or potentially (much emphasis on potentially) can control will save you and others a lot of grief, frustration and wasted time and energy. I'll be sure to let you know when we get to those points so that you can stop snoozing, sit up straight, sharpen your pencil and take some notes (no, as much as you'd like to know these things now we're not ready to get to those just yet. Trust me, it would do you little good if you didn't understand how the ABCs work).

Who “you” are or who any individual is – for better or worse – is sort of a “more than the sum of the parts” of how those basic components came to form and function (as dictated by genetics (nature) and environment (nurture). Yes, there is something to the nature versus nurture debate after all. While the debate still rages, we'll see that neuroscience is providing all the answers once and for all. All the six components I listed operate autonomously, quite beyond your “conscious” control (and we'll see why this is a Good Thing. We'll also see why this can sometimes be a Bad Thing). These are parts of the “zombie programs” as neuroscientist David Eagleman calls them. Also, as we go into more detail about these autonomous systems, we'll understand what “subconscious” currently means. Neuroscience has a different way of looking at it than did the pioneers who first discovered the concept and gave it that name (Freud, et al).

ALL human behaviour originates in how these brain regions were formed and function together (or not function together). This will be very exciting so be sure to put on your Sherlock Holmes outfit. There'll be many mysteries solved here.

The human brain (or any brain for that matter) did not just pop out of the oven as is. It evolved to be what it is (and is of course still evolving. It's not like there's an “end point” to evolution. Well, that's not true either. The sun will burn out in a few billion years and that will be the end of that (unless we master inter-galactic travel and living by then)), a process that took billions of years and a lot of what we'll call “trial and error”. Knowing this, it is impossible to learn and discuss neuroscience without delving into evolutionary biology and the various disciplines of evolutionary science. Human behaviour, the brain, and evolution are so tightly wound together that is it literally not possible to understand “us” without examining the three all together almost as a single entity. So yes, I'll be weaving the facts of evolution into our look into our Inner Galaxies. No worries! It'll be fun! (no drab, dry lessons in my classroom)

Again, I said that some things about the brain were known and some not so much. Everything I've listed and told you here is very – and I do mean very – on the known side of the ledger. Yes, I know how distressing it is to learn that you have next to no control over who you are and what you'll do in life but … well, hang on.

The big question in neuroscience (and philosophy) are the twin notions of “free will” and “consciousness”. These are on the not completely known (or agreed upon) side of the ledger. What is known and quite widely agreed upon by the top neuroscientists and related philosophers (we'll see that there's actually quite a bit of crossover) the world over is that if either exist (and many firmly assert that neither do and not, as we'll see, without very solid evidence), it's not very much. We'll see that the “conscious you” - the you that opens your eyes and “sees” the world and experiences “thought” - is more or less a passenger (or perhaps the captain) on a very large biological ship (IE: your brain) that navigates through what will be your time on planet earth. Hey, I did warn you that this trip through your inner galaxies would at times be scary (and by scary I mean disturbing and distressing). But don't worry, there's an “app” in your brain to deal with that (which has already been put on alert and spun into action without you needing to give it any direction. We'll be looking into what we sometimes call “bullshit detectors” in fascinating detail and why, if yours is firing now, it's wrong. It's often wrong so don't worry. At any rate, it'll help deal with any distress you're experiencing). Like you, I believed in “free will” and consciousness and soul but once I understood how a brain works and what's understood about brains, I could see that my previously held notions had nary a leg to stand on. So I get how you feel.

I also touched briefly on “reality”. It is necessary to tie this concept into free will and consciousness. It is also extremely well studied, understood and agreed upon by neuroscience that your unique brain (remember, there's only one like it; not only on the current planet, but in the history of the planet) constructs everything that you perceive as “real”. By real, I don't mean whether a tree is a tree or a rock is rock and all that other nonsense that people get into splitting-of-hairs debates about. We can measure those things with instruments and objectively agree on what they are. However, reality as you perceive it is a very fuzzy concept but about which we must all understand more. So, as your brain is the only one like it in history, your “reality” will be the only one like it in history. Cool, eh?! But here's the fly in the ointment – it's all of these individual homo sapians' different realities that give rise to all human conflict. So, as you can well imagine, it's kind of important that we understand this concept. But don't worry, there are ways we can get our realities to converge more and, as we'll see, how they at times spontaneously converge (a very cool concept known as “collective consciousness”). 

I need, before we go too much further on in our series of lessons, to further establish and defend my position that neuroscience is the best tool we have for understanding human behaviour but I am approaching my word limit for a single post and I can see your attention span is wavering for now.

Again though, this is the beauty of blogs. We don't have to tackle too much at once. We can take them in bite size pieces one or two times a week. And yes, I know, some of you will be swallowing these bites easier and for some these bites are going to require quite a bit of chewing. For the latter, it'll all be worth it, I can assure you (but don't worry, if you let it, your brain itself will do most of the chewing for you without “you” having to do anything! Just wait until you learn how this works!).

(1) – the whole concept of “destiny” is one we're going to thoroughly turn on its head. For now, just know that everything you've likely learned about this concept (unless you're already highly advanced in neuroscience or related philosophies) is all rubbish, the stuff of past mythology, and needs to be set to the curb (or kerb depending on where in the English speaking world you live). Yes, I understand how dear these myths likely are to you and to whatever culture you reside in, but trust me, you'll thank me for this. It's all part of understanding “human nature” and reducing our conflicts so this will be highly worth it as well. 


Various Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins over the years

My circle of dear neuroscientist friends on Google Plus and Facebook who ever so kindly hear my questions and either direct me to various sources or answer my questions outright and who constantly stimulate my mind

Various neuroscience research papers too many to mention

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Neuroscience 101

Neuroscience 101:

    This will be a very basic primer into the physiological systems that makes a brain - IE: "you" - tick. It will seem quite lengthy, for which I apologize, but there is a lot to get to. Human behaviour is, as I briefly demonstrated in the previous post, extremely varied and complex, not to mention seemingly incomprehensible, and if we are to begin better understanding our complex selves - or even our simple selves - it is basic brain functions as understood by current neuroscience that we need to better understand and be aware of. It is my hope that this post - and following posts that will explore these basics in more detail - will serve as a) a reference for us to refer back to as we go along, b) a reference for your future use and more importantly, c) an impetus and inspiration for further curiosity and reading on your part (if not, I will be doing my best to provide as comprehensive an understanding as possible in the easiest way for us layman to utilize). 

    So here we go, let's dive in.

     First of all, you have in the neighbourhood of one hundred billion of these:

    That's a neuron and according to renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman, each one - all one hundred billion of 'em - is as complicated as a major city (there's an astonishing level of activity that happens in all of your cells, it's just that brain cells take that to a new level). Neurons "encode" stuff. The details of all your thoughts, memories and all your knowledge are encoded in various neurons (for example, there's a "Jennifer Aniston neuron". Honest! The discovery of this is detailed in neuroscientist Sebastian Sueng's book, The Connectome. Whether you have a "Jen neuron" or not depends, of course, on whether you've seen her or not and whether a certain other brain region has "decided" if this person is important to you or not). They pass that encoded stuff (to assemble bigger pictures or ideas or memories) along to other neurons via these:

    Those are axons (sending) and dendrites (receiving), AKA "the wiring" (though technically more the former than the latter). While brain cells are more or less permanent, the wiring is not. (By the way, contrary to popular belief, you do not "lose" brain cells ... no, not even after a bad bender, but yes, it can feel like that. And we're going to look in much detail at what happens when you abuse that poor brain of yours by consuming various substances, or "food" for that matter, and why it "feels" like we lose brain cells. It won't be pretty). Axons, dendrites and synaptic connections grow and "prune back" all the time, creating new connections (and thus memories, learned behaviour and the such) or trimming them back (if a certain memory function falls into disuse for example). As you can see by the number of dendrites, there are many, many connections between neurons (as many as ten thousand according to some counts!). Dendrites and these multiple, multiple connections are a big part of our mental puzzle. A more realistic depiction of what these connections look like appears like this:

    That bright green blob in the centre of the image is a neuron. Yup, you've got one hundred billion of those, each one with enough activity within it to be compared to a major city. Imagine the activity of one hundred billion cities going on in your brain (though not exactly all at once - more later). 

    Communication between neurons is sent along the axons in electrical pulses not unlike Morse code. At the point of connection between an axon and a dendrite we have a synapse and at this point the electrical pulse triggers the release of a neurochemical which will pass the message from axon to dendrite and thus onto the next neuron. The details of this transfer, and the synapse itself, look something like this:

    This happens to be for the system involving the neurotransmitter dopamine. You may notice opiate receptors as well, along with endorphins. We'll be coming back to opiates and the brain later. As you can see, there's a lot going on there. There are receptors, "uptake pumps", there's a system - not shown - for whisking away excess neurotransmitter material and so on. This operates on a ridiculously delicate balance (we're going to come back and examine this in more detail in a future post). There are something like one hundred known neurotransmitters, all of which perform inter-neuron communication in various regions of the brain and all of which are responsible for various functions that drive "you". Look again at that tiny detail (and you may recall that it was a description of the function of a synaptic connection that first drew me into neuroscience). Much of who you are and what you do depends on that infinitesimally small chemical transaction. Now get this; your brain has somewhere around one hundred and fifty trillion synaptic connections at any one time all performing those little chemical transactions. And to put that number in perspective, in just a few cubic centimeters of cortical tissue you have more synaptic connections than there are stars in the Milky Way (David Eagleman's Incognito). Now stop reading. Stop and really imagine - again imagine those hundred billion cities between your ears. Now imagine enough transportation connections between them that the numbers dwarf several major galaxies. Yeah, I know, pretty awe inspiring. And quite beyond the capacity of the imagination of most of us. 

    The dopamine system and pathways happen to be one of the most studied and well understood. The dopamine pathway looks roughly (and I do mean roughly) like this:

    As you can see, the seat of our emotions, a small part of the brain called the amygdala, is included in the loop. And hey-ho, what's this? Our "planning and judgement" centre is a destination? Yuppers. A lot of what you "think" is "good planning and judgement" may well be just your primitive brain reward system sending an emotion generated "good feeling" message to your "command centre". And this diagram just represents the dopamine pathway. Remember, there are over a hundred different neurotransmitters at work throughout your brain all governing - way below your conscious control - various functions going on in all those billions of cities in your brain. 

    Let's return to the "wiring". There's "local" and "long distance" wiring. Local wiring in the mammalian neocortex looks something like this (and this is a greatly simplified drawing). It works in layers and each layer performs a slightly different level of function (from Sebastian Seung's The Connectome). 

    Long distance wiring is longer axons that form "bundles". This wiring connects the different brain regions. It is believed by some neuroscientists, such as Sebastian Seung (linked to above), that it is the unique wiring we each have between our brain regions - or "connectome" - that is responsible for much of "who we are". A basic "wiring harness" looks something like this:

    The brain and its wiring is not, as once thought, "set" once full neurological adulthood is reached (about age 25). As mentioned, axons and dendrites grow and prune back depending on the demands, or lack of them, put on a region at any one time. This falls under the general heading of neuroplasticity, a term that describes the malleability and changeability of our finest (and we're talking very fine) and even major brain structures. We'll come back to this important concept in much more detail in future posts but right now it's important to know that this plasticity can be good (the brain changing to adapt to a major change such as blindness) or bad (adapting to a harmful behaviour or practice (brought on usually through negative experiences or environmental conditions)). And that wiring? You have, in that small space between your ears, enough wiring to wrap around the world - twice. 

    But the wiring does not end there. The wiring includes the central nervous system and connects every square centimeter of your body to your brain, something like this:

and this:

    These are not only to send messages to muscles to move and to receive information in return or to receive and send pain signals (and we'll learn that this is a two way street) but are also part of a "full systems" monitoring program that is constantly testing what's going on in, as the latter diagram shows, your major organs. We'll be examining this in more detail as well when we learn more about the mind-body connection and how, for example, what goes on in your stomach may affect your mental health. For that matter, what goes on anywhere in your body is going to affect your brain in some way.

    Aside from neurotransmitters, there are also hormones involved, such as the stress hormone cortisol. Its pathway looks something like this:

    The stress response system is based on our primitive brain "fight or flight" response to perceived danger (and the term "perceived" is very pertinent here. How we perceive danger is one of the things that gets out of wack in our brains outside of our conscious control. Phobias fall under this category, among many others). This system is essential to our survival and we'll explore this crucial system in more detail later but what's important to understand now is that this system evolved for fairly simple dangers like a saber-toothed tiger eyeing you for dinner. In our modern wacky world the concept of "danger" and our response to that is way, way more complicated and this system is often put under extreme duress. We'll be returning to this a LOT as we try to understand this system's effect on our behaviour and physical and mental health.

    There are of course numerous hormones that greatly influence our behaviours and "who we are". Some are quite familiar to most of you - testosterone and estrogen for example - but we'll look at others as well and more importantly look at better understanding the roles these play in what we do and why we do them (or not do certain things). 

     And in among all those neurons and wiring are glia cells. Neuroscience is just scratching the surface of the essential roles these play. One critical role is in supporting the growth of the myelin sheath, a protective coating on axons (the breakdown of myelin is thought to play a role in MS). As well, they are involved in supplying nutrients and oxygen to neurons along with various "clean up" duties. Recent research suggests that among the reasons we need to sleep is that glia cells need the brain to be in a resting state for them to perform many of their functions (most critically, it appears, the essential house cleaning duties they perform). Glia cells look something like this:

    Isn't this just the funnest stuff?! I love this stuff! Let's carry on. 

    Reptile brains, then higher brains followed by the mammalian brain, then the early hominid brains and finally the modern human brain evolved over millions of years. Each was basically bootstrapped off of the more crude and ancient reptilian brain. (Yes, I know how sophisticated you think you are, but at your core you are exactly the same as your average frog.) The limbic system evolved next and then, as mammals came on the scene, the neocortex evolved (or mammals came on the scene as the neocortex evolved I suppose). Thus our basic brain outline looks like this:

    That big reptilian brain blob at the back of the brain is the cerebellum. That's where body movements are coordinated, where your abilities of balance and body posture are held and equilibrium is controlled (yup, the most graceful ballet dancer or gymnast in the world shares the basic hardware responsible for what they do with a lizard). If you're not super graceful, blame this region, not yourself. The limbic system is where a number of major control centres reside, including, but not limited to, the aforementioned amygdala, the hypothalamus (the control centre for many autonomic functions), the hippocampus (involved in memory forming, organization and storing) and the basal ganglia (or basal nuclei; involved with a variety of functions, including voluntary motor control, procedural learning related to routine behaviours or "habits" such as bruxism, eye movements, cognitive and emotional functions).

    Finally, we have the neocortex. This is divided into major regions that look something like this:

    If you'd like to know where "you" are - the seat of human consciousness and awareness - that's in the frontal lobe. We'll have much fun examining how much - or how little, perhaps I should say - that part runs your life. And do you see that part called the occipital lobe? That's where you "see". Our eyes merely collect light. That live action movie that takes place when you open your eyes gets produced, edited (yes, whatever you may think, a lot of editing takes place of what your eyes take in) and assembled in your occipital lobe and which then presents the final cut to "you". 

    The neocortex is where the responsibilities of our higher functions lie. The neocortex is divided into a dizzying array of specialized functions. This is a short list but all areas of thought and cognitive functions will have a corresponding brain region that looks roughly (and again, I do mean roughly) like this:

    These represent just a small handful of examples and are only roughly located in this diagram as the areas are presently understood (neuroscience is making new discoveries all the time so none of the exact specifics of these locations are set in stone but the basics are well understood and agreed upon). How "good" you are at any particular activity will basically depend on a) how well developed a particular region is (say the Brodmann and Wernicke areas of language, for example (roughly "speech production" on the chart) or something more rudimentary like your cerebellum as we saw), b) how well the wiring is developed between your regions and c) how your particular neurochemical pathways perform. It's somewhat more complicated than this but these three are well understood to be the basic components. I earlier compared a graceful ballet dancer or gymnast to a lizard. It is in the neocortex where we can find the answers as to why the former can take the same basic muscle-skeletal system and brain component - the cerebellum - and perform quite a bit more complex body movements with them. Or why any mammal can physically outperform a lizard for that matter. There are of course some physical differences between, for example, a chimp and a gecko, but most of the reasons involve the differences in brain structures between them, the most important being that a chimp has a neocortex and the lizard does not. That you have the most evolved neocortex on the planet is also why you're more sophisticated - most of the time we'd hope - than a frog (to which I also compared you). But, well, we'll see. When we really start comparing you to a frog (or any of the other creatures with which we share basic brain hardware and functions) you're going to find it quite humbling. 

    That our brain regions and the connections between them are all different puts a whole new meaning on "smart" or "talented". "Smart" or "talented" is just a blessing of various regions being better proportioned and wired for a given task and you accidentally discovering the use of these regions (or more likely having them discovered for you). If you're a math "genius" and make a living from that, for example, you can climb down off your high horse and thank your lucky stars that you were gifted (and we'll see what "gifted" really means ... nothing to do with "you" I can assure you) with highly developed regions specific to math tasks (nature) and that they were discovered and developed (nurture, which strengthens the connections, or wiring, between these regions and the rest of your brain). Many people may be similarly gifted but tragically never discover these gifts (and we'll see that undiscovered geniuses may be at this very moment living in the slums, for just one example, of Lagos, Nigeria). Others may not be so gifted but are cursed with high desire (or being driven by well meaning but ill-advised parents) and thus tragically beat their heads against the wall (and beat up on themselves) trying to do something they were simply not endowed to do.

    All of this, the billions of neurons, the trillions of synapses, the dozens and dozens of specific brain regions, the hundreds of thousands of kilometres of wiring that tie it all together and the more than one hundred neurotransmitters, hormones and proteins that make it all communicate, harmonize to make up this - your brain:

   The brain from any healthy adult will look like the one pictured above but here's something to consider, and is the essential foundation to what we will learn about brains - no two brains are alike. They are as unique as fingerprints. All those regions are connected slightly differently between us as well as some regions being better developed or activated and some not so much (which can be long term or short term), the wiring is slightly different between us and so on. This is, as I've pointed out, determined by genetics and environmental factors, with a strong emphasis on environmental factors. Even identical twins (of which I am one) who start out genetically identical will develop quite different brains (as a twin myself, and because twin studies are so fascinating, we'll be returning to twin studies quite often).

    The brain collects "data" through the five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell), runs this data through various brain regions and creates the "reality" we perceive in our minds. Because our sensory organs and brains are all genetically different (with the exception of twins) plus are wired and developed slightly differently, we will all have different "versions" of "reality". This is why we find it hard to agree even when we're both looking at the exact same thing (like two people seeing a spider for example. One may look on with fascination and curiosity, the other will have a phobic melt down).

    This is going to be a critical part of our examination of human nature and the brain. Remember how I said we needed to better understand brains if we as people were going to better learn to co-exist and cooperate with each other? Obviously our differing views of realities - and we have very, very little conscious input into what these are (or exercise very little as we'll see) - are major sticking points. "Reality" is one of the great philosophical questions of all time and, as it turns out, crucial to understanding the human brain and our inward and outward "selves" and, most importantly, how all our widely varying "selves" get along with other "selves". It is, as the Chinese say, quite "複雜 " (complex). We'll be examining this a lot and how we might better agree on "reality" (hint - science).

    All this stuff is what's "under the hood" of our skulls. And this three pound collection of cells and wiring is, as any neuroscientist will tell you, the most complicated device in the known universe. When human behaviour goes wrong, there's something wrong - emphasis on something - "in there" ::waves a hand in the direction of all the diagrams outlining the ridiculously complex human brain::.  All that varying behaviour we looked at in the previous post can all be explained by understanding all that ::again waves a hand at all the brain basics we just looked at:: That's it - nothing mythical, nothing otherworldly, just how all those things are arranged in each of us. And here's the kicker; even neuroscientists will admit they don't understand the brain very well. And they don't. Neuroscience, like astronomy (and they aren't that different in terms of vastness and complexity), is very much a work in progress. We can study deceased human brains, but it's exceedingly difficult to study live human brains with instruments. This is why so much neuroscientific study takes place on animal brains (many systems are similar between us and animals, remember, so discoveries on mammal brains can be to some degree extrapolated up to the human level. Even neuron and axon structure on something as simple as a round worm are essentially the same as ours (and so form a basis for neuroscientific study). Human psychology is far more complex however (and this will entail a great deal of our exploration). Advanced neuroimaging technology is helping to a large degree in our study of brains and individual personalities and characteristics contained within them (and there's the technology that can even probe an individual neuron and detect that it only activates when presented with an image of Jennifer Aniston (as one example) and thus the "Jen neuron"). While great advancements have been made on the details (as exemplified by those breathtaking diagrams of neurons and synapses), how it all comes together and creates a "you" remains at least somewhat mysterious (or a lot mysterious, depending on one's confidence in today's theories and knowledge (knowledge that is changing all the time)). 

    And here's the big take away for today. All of that "stuff" runs a mind boggling number of subconscious "programs", what Eagleman calls "zombie programs" and it's your particular collection of zombie programs (we all vary in these though some are quite standard) that run "you". No, "you" don't run "you", all these automated zombie programs - programs that run through all those neurons, wiring via electrical pulses, neurochemicals and hormones (to put it very basically) - run "you". Zombie programs are all your daily routines that you don't need to think about in addition to all kinds of other little programs that push you forward through life. All those "conscious decisions" you make are almost certainly to be the result of various zombie programs spitting out, for example, the "decision" to buy a new car (which is just a glorified modern variation on ancient hunter-gatherer instincts) or take a new night class or pick a certain supermarket product over the others and so on. Then your dopamine reward centre gives you a "hit" of happy feeling dopamine to "reward" and "re-enforce" this behaviour. These are going to be a huge part of our exploration of what makes humans tick (or even your cat or dog if you like!).

    Phew! Wasn't that fun?! And that was just the very basics. In future posts we'll look at all these parts in more detail. We could think of all these parts as pieces of a puzzle that we are putting together. The completed puzzle is a biological computer of such dazzling complexity that human language is inadequate to completely describe it. For every second of every moment you are alive, your biological computer - your brain - will be performing an astounding number of functions, virtually all of which are outside of your conscious awareness, let alone control. In fact, as I've already alluded, we will see how astonishingly little control we have over who we are and what we do (though once we understand why that is it'll be far less astonishing and the only way we could possibly operate and get through life). 

    But perhaps more importantly, we'll learn more about just what kind of control we do have. And isn't that something we'd all like to know more about? But more than that, the answers to all the questions we looked at in the previous post can be found by better understanding how these amazing biological computers of ours operate.

Oh, and I hope you now better understand the meaning of "inner galaxies" in the title of this blog - you truly do have vast inner galaxies in your brain. Now is that cool or what. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013


This single little three letter word literally changed my life. It may well now be the biggest motivational force in my life. At the very end of 2013 I experienced a severe life threatening event. When I came out the other end of that event I found myself in a state of great clarity and in that state a single word popped into my mind - why?

The pursuit to the answer of this question has occupied almost all my industry and time since then. Hundreds of research papers and scientific articles and dozens of books have been read along with well over two hundred thousand words written all in search of the answer to this question. And it drives me still. To make a long story quite short, it started off as asking why a mental event happened in my mind, then why similar events happen in other people's minds and then to why people do any of the things they do. All driven by just that one question - why? And as I am not easily satisfied - you'll recall that I found all previous human attempts to answer this question inadequate (and they are) - I just keep asking. 

There is a long lecture within me about how people stagnate and lapse into dull comfortable lives because they stop asking questions (and this can be very dangerous as we'll see) but I'll stow that for now. Instead, I'll show you how my mind has worked since the end of last year. 


We all come into the world looking something like this:

This happens to be a Caucasian newborn born into a modern birthing facility but regardless of what race we are or where we were born, we all come into the world looking something like this. On the surface, we'd all appear equal at this stage. The number of neurons will be virtually the same, the various brain regions all in the same stage of development and the rate of their respective rates of growth will, at this very early stage, appear to be very close. One newborn brain will appear indistinguishable from the other even on very close inspection. (and yes, I know what some of you are thinking but we'll get to that in a later post) A newborn has no conscious awareness or thoughts or ideas or plans at all (and we'll later look into what might possibly be going on in a newborn's brain). Why then from this state do we diverge so much? No other animal species diverges so much starting from their birth state; why do humans?

For example:

Why do some of these newborns go on to feel a need and are driven to live in a place like this:

Yet other newborns will go on to feel this is perfectly adequate?

Why did one newborn go on to become this man,

who went on to do this to so many people?

Why have so many newborns - mostly males - gone on to do similar things to so many other people and on such grand scales? Why are people doing this still? Why in some areas of the world, but not in others? Why do so many of us do such harm to others? Why, for just one example out of thousands, did a bright, educated, kind and gainfully employed church going man one day tote several firearms up a clock tower and gun down forty-three people? Or why did a young man with no previous history of violence one day just slaughter his entire family (parents and all but one of his siblings)? Was it because they were "evil"? "Possessed"? If so, what makes these things happen? And furthermore, how do you know that you're not capable of doing horrific things to others? (hint - you don't). Why do we do any kind of "criminal" behaviour? Or why do we sometimes accept that behaviour and sometimes not?

Why do we sometimes follow and believe in others even though what those others are doing is clearly harmful? (as was the case with the masses of people who devoutly followed the man pictured above) What does it mean to "rebel" or to "fit in"? Why would we do either of those and why is it that sometimes either one could be beneficial at some times but harmful at others? How do we judge that? 

Why are some people driven to act in a group while others are driven to act alone? Why can the same person sometimes be group person and then a lone person?

What is "character"? What is "pride"? Why is pride one of the "seven deadly sins" yet we are constantly reminded to take pride in ourselves and our work? What is "sin" anyway? Is the definition set in stone? Speaking of stones, why in some places in the world are people stoned to death for some infraction while in other parts of the world that same human action goes on every day without notice?

Why are some people so driven and others so "lazy"? How do we define either of those? How can a person suddenly switch from one to the other? Why will two people working just as hard doing essentially the same thing get such different results? Or feel so entirely different about the same results? Or how can one person who appears to not be working hard get better results than the person who appears to be working extremely hard?

What is desire? What is sexual desire? What is a sexual impulse? Why, if sex is for reproducing ourselves, are our sexual pleasures so varied and so often seem to have almost nothing to do with reproduction? Why do some people prefer pre-pubescent children? What is sexual perversion and why is it potentially within us? Why was sex among teenagers once normal but now it's "wrong"? What is monogamy and polygamy? Are these right or wrong? Why are they "wrong" here but "right" there? 

Why are we so inconsistent? Why are we "up" one day and "down" the next? Why are we so motivated and full of energy one day and not the next? What does it mean to be "positive"? Or to be "negative"? Why do we sometimes feel positive and then negative about the very same thing? What does it mean when we're "depressed" and why do we get that way? Why do we "hurt" when we feel rejection? Or for that matter, why are some people so cold and hard? What are any emotions and why do we feel them or not feel them? Why do many of us have "love/hate" relationships with someone or something? What are "personalities"? Or why are there so many different personalities? Wouldn't it be simpler if we were all more alike?

What is physical pain? If pain is in, for example, your hand, why is it that people who had their arm amputated or lost it in an accident will feel pain in a hand that is not even there? Or feel an itch in that hand? Or feel that hand move? 

Why is that these people,

and these people,

react so differently when watching the exact same event? Why are some people in one group and other people in the other group? Why is the event concerned even important to either group? Or why do some people feel great pleasure and others disgust when listening to the exact same piece of music? We could say "taste" but what is taste? Where does it come from? Why does it change as we get older? 

Now that we mention getting older, what does it mean when we "mature" and how does this process take place? Is it strictly a chronological process? If so, why are some people so mature at such young ages and others so immature at older ages? Why do we become more "forgetful" when we get older? What is dementia and why does that happen?

What shapes our social circles? Why do some people stay together for their entire lives while others will marry five or more times? Why do some people stay single their whole lives? What is "attraction" anyway? Why do we "connect" with someone even though we are aware of the very real possibility that that person is going to talk us into doing something we know is not really beneficial to our goals in life? 

What are "goals" for that matter and why do some people feel a need to have them and be driven by them and others don't?

What does it mean to have a "heavy heart"? Or to be "lion hearted"? Or to be a "good hearted" person? Or to be "heartless"? Or to "have a change of heart"? What does a simple mindless blood pump have to do with our emotions and characteristics?

What shapes our choices? What shapes our decisions? Why do we sometimes make "good" choices and decisions and sometimes "bad" ones? How do we define "good" and "bad" choices and decisions? Why do other people feel our "good decisions" are "bad decisions"? Opinions? What then are opinions and what shapes those? Why can we sometimes make clearly bad decisions or choices but make up stories to make it seem like they were "good" choices or decisions? (which is apparent to everyone but you)

Why can someone do something that is clearly wrong and then deny doing it? Or deny that it is wrong? Why do some people drink a liquid then cannot stop drinking that liquid even though they know it's bad for them? Or some people will use a white powder then be incapable of stopping using that substance even if it means jail or worse. Or why will some people sit in front of a machine for hours a day for days on end and keep pumping their money into it even though they are losing all their hard earned money, or even money they don't have, and they know the chance of return is insignificantly small? Why will some people keep eating food that is bad for them and others keep inhaling the smoke of a plant based substance even though they have been made perfectly aware that these behaviours will lead to horrible disease and premature death? Is this the result of "faulty character"? If so, why does it happen to so many otherwise very good people?

What does "self control" mean? Why do some people seem to have it and others don't? Is this "superior character" or a "character flaw"?

What is soul? What is the human spirit? Do animals share these with us?

Why do we bond with animals and them with us? Why do animals sometimes bond with what should be rival species? 

And speaking of animals, why is it perfectly acceptable to eat the flesh of a particular animal in one culture but repulsive in a different culture? Or why do some people not eat the flesh of animals at all? Or why would some people not harm a fly but others are driven to kill animals purely for pleasure?

Why do we need to believe in things that are not true or at least are extremely implausible? (and yes, you are probably one of them)

Why will some people not stop even though defeat is already apparent yet others will give up even though victory is still attainable?

What is intelligence and why does that vary so much among us? Why are some people so good at something and others so bad at it?

What are the "terrible twos" and why do teenagers drive their parents so crazy and vise versa?

What's a "temper tantrum"? What's "road rage"?

Why are some people so stingy and some people so generous? Why do some people suddenly switch from being one to being the other?

What is prejudice and why are people like that? Is this a character flaw? Again, if so, why are so many otherwise good people like this? 

What is a "thought"? An "idea"? Where do they come from? What is happening when we "can't think straight"? Why sometimes can't we stop thinking? Why are our memories so fallible at the most critical times yet other times we can recall the most inconsequential information without effort or can't put a bad memory out of our minds? What are memories? 

What does it mean for something to “make sense” or “not make sense”? If something does or doesn't “make sense”, why isn't that universal? How do we “know” when something makes sense or not and why does this often change? What is "sense" anyway?

In fact, what does it mean when we say we "know" something? How do we measure that? And when we "know" something, how can we translate that to others and make them "know" as well? Is "knowing" universal? Why do some people feel so sure that they "know" something even though they lack the necessary education or information needed to know that something?

Why can one man claiming that he "talks with God" parlay that into being worth millions of dollars while another man claiming the same thing is considered mentally ill and put into a mental institution? Or why did a man considered to be among the most brilliant, respected and ground breaking mathematicians on the planet suddenly lose that ability and instead felt that aliens were giving him instructions to build a new world order and have his behaviour completely beholden to these instructions and then, years later, rediscover his math abilities? What is a "mental illness" anyway? Why do some people "see things" or hear people "talking to them"? Is it "wrong" to see things? Or "hear voices"? If so, why? Who decides that and why?

Why will some otherwise quite normal people just randomly blurt out obscenities?

What is "normal"?

How about some simpler questions.

How can our fingers float over a keyboard and "know" what to do without having our eyes guide them? How, after a few tries, can we "know" how to ride a bike? How can you know what these squiggly shapes on this screen mean? How can you know what 這些 奇怪 形狀 means? Or any of the other weird shapes that make up the world's languages? They're just shapes; how did they transform from simple shapes to being able to convey very complex bundles of information? How can some people be fluent in half a dozen languages while others seem barely capable in their own language?

How can some of us effortlessly perform the incredibly complex maneuvers and calculations required to guide a two ton machine among hundreds of other several ton machines going at very high speeds while carrying on a conversation with the person next to you while at the same time planning your day ahead while also dealing with some complex emotions while also being aware that someone is contacting you through a mobile communication device and furthermore probably having a good idea who that someone is without even looking all the while ignoring the very real threat of death or permanent injury if you do anything wrong?

Again, why, if we all start out so much the same are our capabilities, behaviours and lifestyles all so different?

I could go on and on and on (and do in my own time). There are literally endless questions about all the amazing things humans can do and the nearly endless variety to our behaviours. 

If many of these questions seem of the "why is the sky blue" variety, they are not. It is the quest for answers to questions like these that have given rise to philosophies, religions and myths, systems of astrology, fields of study and have been the theme to countless stories, poems and novels throughout human history. We often believe we "know" the answers to these questions and there's a good chance that you are, right now, intuitively thinking you “know” the answers (we'll at some point look at why you believe this) but I challenge you to try chase down the answers to any of these questions and nail down an objective universal truth that stands up to scientific scrutiny. Actually, no, don't do that. The effort would be so time consuming and require such a massive percentage of your mental resources that you'd have to give up whatever you do for a living and that would likely greatly disrupt your life. These are the kinds of questions that have stumped much greater minds than yours or mine since the dawn of human history. There are no simple answers to these questions. And as I alluded to in the previous post, no previous system of human thought or investigation has provided adequate - or even reasonable - answers.

Modern neuroscientific science does know where the answers lie though. They all lie in here:

We all have one of those and those that are healthy and anatomically normally formed at birth will all look exactly like that. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and it is into those details that neuroscience (and a few other cross fields of study we'll see) is poking every day and making ever more remarkable discoveries and insight. 

There are no, as I've said, simple answers to any of the few questions I listed, however. In many cases there are no answers whatsoever yet. This is because, as we'll see, the human brain is the most complex device in the known universe and furthermore, no two of them are exactly alike. 

If your curiosity and wonder has been aroused, excellent; that was my goal with this post. Now read along as we take that ride through the amazing inner galaxies of the human brain and see what we can find for answers or clues.