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The Accidental Mind

Kendra's picture

In almost every piece of literatureon the brain that I have encountered during my short time as a neurobiologystudent has described the design of the brain in a rather organized manner,implying that the brain is a perfectly systematic entity. For the bookcommentary assignment, I decided to read The Accidental Mind: How BrainEvolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams and God by David Linden, a scientific novel that contests the idea of thebrain as a perfectly organized entity and how its evolving design overthousands of years lead to certain phenomenon of the brain that cease to amazeeven to this day. Linden proposes the idea that the idea that the brain is ofimmaculate design is “…pure nonsense. The brain is not elegantly designed byany means; it is cobbled-together mess, which amazingly, and in spite of itsshortcomings, manages to perform a number of a very important functions” [1].It is interesting to see how Linden made this strong assertion known early onin the book and how this assertion ultimately sets the stage for the rest ofbook.

            Inchapter one, entitled The Inelegant Design of the Brain, Linden furthersupports his assertion that the brain is a ‘cobbled-together mess’  by eluding to examples of the mind andof blindsight, a phenomenon we discussed in class. Linden makes the claim thatbecause many think of the mind as being located in the brain and because themind is seen as “a great achievement, the design and function of the brain mustthen be elegant and efficient” [2]. This chapter attempts to dispel this veryclaim by suggesting that the mind is separate from the brain and that the braincan ultimately be defined as a kludge, or a design that is inefficient andinelegant [3]. Besides being a kludge, Linden expands further on his claim thatthe human brain’s design is imperfect by making it known that the brain issimply made up of parts that have developed over an evolutionary time, namelyit was not always perfect, certain parts of the brain specialize at what theydo because of thousands of years of ‘practice’. An experiment that was done toilluminate the phenomenon of blindsight was used by the author to support thisclaim that parts of the brain that were developed earlier do their part despitethe presence of  the more advancedfunctions of the brain.

            Inthe experiment, patients with blindsight were asked to point out the locationof a penlight and although they were unable to actually see the light, theywere able to locate the light about 99% of the times that the test wasconducted. Linden claims that the explanation for this is that the “ancientvisual system in the midbrain is intact…and guides their reaching, yet becausethis region is not interconnected with the higher areas of the brain, thesepeople have no conscious awareness of the penlight’s location” [4]. Thissuggests that certain parts of the brain are able to perform without anyconnections with evolutionary newer parts of the brain, exemplifying that thebrain is an inelegant design, that somehow works really well.

            Anotherpart of the book that really interested me was the chapter entitled Sleepingand Dreaming and how it ties into our class’ theme of getting science ‘lesswrong’.  In Chapter 7, Lindenraises the questions that most people have about sleeping and dreaming—what istheir overall importance? One theory is that sleep serves as a time to restrictan animal’s activity to those times when activity is productive while anothertheory explains that importance of sleep in terms of the REM stage. In lookingat the alternating stages of REM and Non-REM sleep are of high importance inthe initial stages of development of the brain that they continue to beimportant in adulthood to “integrate and consolidate memories” [5], which iscrucial for the brain to make sense of the day’s residue. Although Lindenoffers some insight into getting ‘less wrong’ the reason why sleep is importantfor humans, the chapter addresses the importance of dreaming by simply statingthat researchers do not yet know the true meaning of why humans-or evenanimals-dream and “what’s more important about dreaming is that it allows youto experience a world where the normal waking rules don’t apply, where casualand rational thought and our core cognitive schemas melt away in the face ofbizarre and illogical stories”[6].

            ReadingThe Accidental Mind by David Linden hasreally made me think twice about my perception of dreaming, sleeping and eventhe overall design of the brain. Although my views have not completely changed,I have definitely considered what Linden wrote about as being ‘less wrong’ thanwhat I had originally believed on these topics. I enjoyed learning about otheropinions concerning the brain and sleep and was not disappointed when Lindenwrote that there is no clear reason as to why we dream. I like the elusivenessof the meaning of dreams, for they could be something that we just don’tunderstand, and probably never will. 


         Works Cited

[1] Linden, David. TheAccidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given us Love, Memory, Dreams and God.Harvard University Press: 2007. 3.

[2]  5.

[3]  6.

[4] 150

[5] 165

[6] 170