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"Mapping the Mind" and Finding Consciousness in Biological Architecture

Hannah Mueller's picture

Of all the improbable biological organizations in existence, the brain is perhaps the least probable. In her book Mapping the Mind, Rita Carter describes how everything we do, sense, experience, and are is processed through intricate interactions in the brain. Despite advances in the relatively new scientific field of brain mapping, the brain "is probably so complex that it will never succeed in comprehending itself"(10). However, in classes such as Biology 103, scientists with all levels of experience continually attempt to form a "less wrong" understanding of the brain not only by using it but also by imitating it. The brain itself is a scientist that tests hypotheses and is always inventing better stories to use to interact with the world around it. Through evolution, the brain has caused humans to emerge as "Story Tellers," conscious life forms with the ability to question and to create. Mapping the Mind asks many of the same questions about the brain that we have asked about science in Biology 103. These include the effects of architecture on life, the use of "seriously loopy science," and the rise of consciousness from matter.

Organisms exist at many levels of complexity, but all life has an architecture that serves a specific purpose. Atoms and molecules compose the brain just as they do any other substance. At the scale of microns, the brain's architecture is defined by nerve cells, which have axons and dendrites. The brain as a whole has different structures, including the cerebral cortex, the cerebellum, the brain stem, and the limbic system. All humans have these components, but each brain has a slightly different pattern of folds and bulges on the surface of the cerebrum. Because we all have basically the same brain architecture with slight variations, we are all human, but no two people see the world in the same way (20). Brain mapping has shown that specific parts of the brain are responsible for emotions, our sense of self, and other feelings that we do not often consider as arising from an organization of molecules and atoms.

The brain has evolved an architecture that allows it to be a scientist itself and allows humans to explore the world through science. Not only does the brain register and process input from its environment, but it can also spontaneously generate output. It then, in turn, registers the input created by this output and assesses the new situation. For example, a person might automatically smile to someone in greeting; this is a social smile (85). If the other smiles back, the brain might register satisfaction; if not, a mild sense of threat might be felt. The brain would run through its options on how to proceed depending on the result of this experiment. The kind of science practiced by the brain is more akin to "seriously loopy science" than to linear science because the brain is never finished experimenting. Instead of arriving at a conclusion, the brain considers the implications of its observations and continues to test new ideas. These can arise from stimuli or from internal thoughts; even in complete darkness, silence, and stillness, a person is able to think and invent. Experimentation does not cease in the brain because summaries of observations can always be reassessed.

Consciousness is not a property that every organism with a brain possesses. In humans, the neocortex is considered to be the seat of consciousness (183). This section is unique to humans and evolved with the evolution of language, perhaps because when we could give names to abstract ideas we could use them in conjunction with other people and understand viewpoints different from our own. Literally, then, when the brain became conscious it became a "Story Teller," above active inanimate life forms and model builders in the hierarchy of evolutionary emergence. By acting as a scientist, the brain tells the best story, not only to explain the circumstance in which it finds itself, but also to imagine new possibilities.

Mapping the Mind often describes mental disorders and unusual conditions in order to explain the way the brain normally works, and one example cited several times is that of Phineas Gage. He was a rail-worker in the 1800s who has become infamous for receiving a massive frontal lobe injury when a steel rod was blown through the front of his skull, rendering him incapable of controlling his own actions or planning ahead (25). His free will, and with it, perhaps, what most would consider his consciousness, was removed with the front part of his brain (206). Brain matter is clearly necessary for consciousness. Whether it is the sole source of what we consider "ourselves" is still debated, but to some scientists, the phrase "mind over matter" has become meaningless. Everything we do to control our bodies comes from our bodies, at least according to some stories that have arisen from observations made by the brain.

Obviously, when talking about the brain one must keep many ideas in perspective. The architecture of the brain affects how it interacts with the world. Each brain interprets the world differently, but every healthy brain has a complex system of testing hypotheses and telling new stories. This story telling ability is key to consciousness, which then must logically have arisen from the conglomerated architecture that allowed the brain to have an active exchange with the world in the first place. Mapping the Mind gives a physical look into the intricate and fascinating world of the brain by summarizing advancements in brain mapping. Biology 103 explored the way life is structured, the way it survives, and the way humans thrive through consciousness; all apply similarly to the brain as to life in general. In studying the book and learning from the class, one key concept that becomes clear is that the brain, like any animal or ecosystem, is greater than the sum of its parts.


Carter, Rita. Mapping the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.