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Aimee's picture

The Brain: A sophisticated organ?

 In recent weeks, our discussion has become very brain-focused. However, we have not extensively discussed the evolution of the brain as an organ. Of course, the "brain as storyteller" discussion has still been fascinating, and it has allowed us to explore the unique roles of our consciousness and unconsciousness. Paul has argued extensively that the bipartite nature of our brain is actually beneficial, since it can interpret and rationalize atypical external stimuli. For instance, Paul showed us an optical illusion of a graph superimposed over a starburst. The graphed lines were completely straight, but the unconscious mind adjusted the image so that the graph appeared curved. Paul explained that the unconscious mind distorted the image so that the conscious brain would see it as a 3-dimensional image, where the point of the starburst was farthest away from the viewer. So, the unconscious brain deceived the conscious individual; and this deception, Paul asserts, is helpful.

Certainly, the bipartite brain is useful - and perhaps, necessary - for the brain's current set-up. (As an aside: Unless I seriously zoned out in class one day, we never actually discussed the physiology of the brain). At best, the brain is rather unsophisticated. I once read a book titled The Accidental Mind, written by David Linden, a neuroscientist. Linden posits that the brain is actually "an inelegant and inefficient agglomeration of stuff," that works through some miracle of evolutionary luck (Linden 6). It is "...built like an ice cream cone...Through evolutionary time, as higher functions were added, a new scoop was placed on top, but the lower scoops were left largely unchanged," (Linden 21). Thus, humans have a brain that is both new and antiquated; we have the automatic functions of a frog, the social skills of chimpanzees, and unique higher level thinking skills. 

Yes, the human brain is special. We have language, symbolism, religion, a complex range of emotions, and exceptional reasoning skills. But our brains are NOT perfect. If they worked perfectly, I suspect we would not need an unconscious mind. Our brains would see the image of a starburst and a graph, and they would know automatically that it was a 2-dimensional image of completely straight lines. Our brains are smart, but not smart enough to know that.

Similarly, my classmates and I have discussed the brain's unclear role in emotions and attraction. We do not understand how we can consciously hope for one thing, yet unconsciously desire another. One individual was both disgusted by and attracted to a misogynistic male. Another person had a panic attack although she was unaware that she was upset. I am particularly perturbed by the brain's ability to hallucinate or form delusions. It is one thing for the brain to mistakenly interpret external stimuli...but it's another thing entirely if the brain completely invents what it is experiencing. 

Let me return to an earlier statement, in which I wrote that the bipartite brain is useful. The presence of the unconscious mind limits our understanding of the world around us. Everything is filtered and processed before we consciously know it. Yet, this limitation is note entirely bad. In some ways, our limitations are empowering. When we understand that our knowledge is limited, we seek further understanding. We question. We experiment.

Voila! Science! And, in many ways, questioning is what made this ESEM unique. We are evolving thinkers, exploring and creating stories in a literary and scientific context. 

We invented a creation myth.

We explored the origins of the universe.

We discussed the biological methods and modern implications of evolution.

We researched and envisioned the evolution of culture.

We studied the evolution of our story-telling brain.

In a sense, we have come full circle. And we've realized some important things. All aspects of life are a story. And inquiry is our guide.

Is it safe to say that inquiry is of the utmost importance? For this class and for education as a whole?

 

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