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The Brain: Our Universe Within

TV Series Host: David Suzuki

Review Essay by Sally Morem

In 1998, Discovery Channel presented The Brain: Our Universe Within, a


good basic introduction to some of the latest discoveries in neuroscience. It
featured real life stories of people suffering from various brain diseases. It
also featured terrific computer graphics of neurons, synapses, and neural
pathways, which clarified some difficult scientific concepts for the viewer.
Dr. David Suzuki hosted the series just as he had for the critically acclaimed
PBS series, The Secret of Life, in 1993.

Paleontologists uncovered remains of Neanderthals in the Shanidar Caves in


the Middle East. Here was early evidence that ancient humans mourned
their dead. Skeletons were found with wildflower pollen covering them.
The mourners had dropped flowers on the body of the loved one during
burial ceremonies. One elderly man had been physically disabled for years
before he died. Clearly, his people cared for him when he couldn’t care for
himself. All of this is evidence of the existence of ancient human
community and the ability of people to engage in highly abstract thought
long before any of the ancient Middle Eastern civilizations came to be.

Evolving consciousness in humans corresponds to the evolving physical


brain. Evolutionary processes over hundreds of millions of years added new
parts of the brain to the old, creating new capabilities and new species. This
process began with primitive sea creatures. They possessed a simple neural
tube connecting organs to a primitive processor of sensation and response.
This neural tube much later evolved into a tiny brain, very similar in form
and function to the human brain stem. Eventually, this tiny brain became
very big indeed as it developed 100 billion neurons with up to 50,000
different connections per brain cell, creating trillions of neural networks,
which created detailed internal representations of the outer world, which
permitted ideas, thoughts, and finally, a sense of Self to grow. This brain is
also known as the human brain.
Neurons are overproduced in the fetal brain. Half of them die off when the
child is very young. As neurons ‘compete’ to handle specific sensory inputs,
the child’s brain continues to develop physically well into the teenage years.
This dynamic system of ever-changing synaptic networks continually shapes
and reshapes itself. The environment actually changes the physical brain,
creating “neural maps” to handle sights, sounds, language, and perception.
As it does so, neurons grow new connections to handle these specific inputs
and prune neural circuits that aren’t used. This combination of growth and
pruning creates human individuality. No two brains, not even those of
identical twins, are the same. Since we all experience the world in different
ways, our brains develop differently in response to the differing stimuli. We
are not predestined by our DNA. Our genes permit the growth of neurons,
but they don’t specify the exact interconnections between each cell.

An MRI scan shows the brain in action. Brain activity levels are indicated
by false colors—white for the most activity, warm colors for a lot of activity,
cool colors for less, and finally black for no brain activity. We can see color
changes in parts of the brain in response to finger movements or a change in
scenery. By studying the activity of the brain in this way, neuroscientists
have mapped the specialized parts of the brain.

How does the brain work? A combination of electrical and chemical signals
sends messages from neuron to neuron in a fantastically complex dance of
neural activity. Chemicals called neurotransmitters mediate the quantity and
quality of transmissions. Billions of such signals allow the brain to build
mental constructs of the outer world.

Our conscious selves do not apprehend the world directly. The brain filters
the avalanche of sense data so that the conscious mind need not be
overwhelmed by minutiae. Each of us sees the world differently. Thanks to
the differences in how our brains are wired, we create subtly, and sometimes
radically, differing mental constructs of our environment. Our brain
deconstructs then reconstructs impressions of the outside world.

When the brain doesn’t work the way it should, filtering the unending
barrage of sensation from the conscious mind, the mind suffers from the
onslaught. This is what happens to autistic people. Sensory overload
overwhelms thought processes. Autistic people withdraw because
everything seems much too much. They fear touch because the touch
sensation is so strong. They prize regularity in their surroundings because
this means less threatening additional change that must be processed by the
deluged brain.

Information on the visual world is gathered by the eyes from light patterns
and is processed successively by many strata of neurons in the visual cortex.
Images are flipped, split up and segmented by these processors, and parceled
out to various brain centers for further processing. The cerebral cortex
receives the processed information, allowing the conscious mind to finally
“see” the image.

The principle of the division of labor is fully utilized by the brain. Columns
of neurons that analyze aspects of an image—the direction of lines, the size
and orientation of shapes, the brightness and hue of colors—then
communicate with one another, rebuilding the image as an internal mental
construct.

Damage to any part of the visual cortex can cause strange effects. One
woman couldn’t see motion. Changes in the world around her manifested
themselves in her mind in “freeze frames.” A man couldn’t recognize his
own photograph taken several years earlier.

Tactile sensations are sent to a thin strip of neurons that act as a tactile map
of the body. Sound is received by the ears and transformed progressively
into signals to the auditory cortex. Some neurons specialize in the analysis
of pitch, tempo and loudness. A blind, mentally retarded man could replay
any song after one hearing. Apparently neurons were compensating for what
was lacking in the damaged part of the brain.

The sense of smell is our first evolutionary sense, and in many respects the
most basic sense. Often, specific scents and odors bring back very specific
memories. Babies react to the precise smells given off by their mother’s
breast. Olfactory neurons translate smells into neural transmissions, which
spread in waves throughout the brain. There are special links that
communicate directly to the limbic system, the seat of our emotions. Smell
augments the simple taste sensations—salt, sour, bitter and sweet—picked
up by taste buds on the tongue. Food preferences can be remembered for a
lifetime as tastes are stored by the brain.

Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix of DNA, is now studying


the workings of the visual cortex, the place in the brain where visual inputs
are broken apart, analyzed and put back together again. He discovered that a
series of neurons fire simultaneously while the subject was looking at
something. This simultaneity may explain a crucial aspect of consciousness
—many parts of the brain dealing with aspects of a thing being considered at
the same time. Various groups of neurons—brain centers, if you will—
interact with one another in such a way as to create “more than the sum of
their parts.” I suspect this means that when enough subsystems of the brain
are thus engaged, the visceral sense of Self we all experience is triggered.

Where does all this information get assembled? There may be no one
particular place, no central processing unit in the brain. Our coherent view
of the world may come together throughout the brain, linked by pulsing
neurons times to synchronize together. So, we see the specialized centers of
the brain constantly sending, receiving, and processing information about
the internal state of the body and the external state of the environment, while
the cerebral cortex “thinks” about it all. A continually self-organized, self-
correcting “information superhighway” reflecting upon the world.

One of the most crucial aspects of the brain, which gives us a continual
sense of Self, is memory. Scientists have tracked the activity of the brain as
subjects engage in memory tests. Information gathered by the senses is
gathered and stored in the temporal lobe, specifically in the hippocampus. If
the hippocampus or the pathway to it is blocked or destroyed, the mind can
no longer lay down new memories. Short-term memory is gone. One man
with short-term memory loss must keep extensive notes so that he may keep
track of his life minute by minute. His long-term memory is still there,
allowing him to retain a sense of Self, but the sense of time passing,
learning, and growing is gone.

Long-term memory—repeated signals that strengthen neural connections—


is built up over several hours to several weeks. Permanent storage is
accomplished when the hippocampus finishes processing the memory and
sends it to the neocortex. Memories are broken down into pieces and stored
in various parts of the cortex, interlinked with related pieces of other
memories. The triggering of one memory can set off a chain reaction of
memories. These memories can be thought of as “chains with many links”
or “idea networks.”

Memories of skills can be retained by amnesiacs because these are laid down
in the brain differently than ordinary memories. In fact, the man with short-
term memory loss can learn a skill and keep it, yet not remember how he
learned it.

Alzheimer’s Disease does more than destroy memory; eventually it destroys


all brain functions as the brain is riddled with more and more tangles of
diseased neurons in a cheesy mess of proteins. These shred vital
interconnections that allow the mind to work and makes it human.
Normally, when we lose brain cells, others can take up their work. Rich
connections are continually being made. When we develop our mind and
maintain a high level of mental activity, we may be able to avoid
Alzheimer’s altogether or at least mitigate its effects. Other parts of the
brain can take over the functions of damaged parts.

Advanced Alzheimer’s patients suffer from the virtual destruction of their


personalities. PET scans reveal very little brain activity in these patients as
compared to activity in a healthy brain. A substance called beta aneloid
seems to speed up the disease process. Four faulty genes may be involved in
the excess production of this substance, allowing it to build up in neural
pathways.

Strokes are also severely disruptive of brain processes. One woman suffered
a stroke and was near death. Her right side was paralyzed because the left
side of the brain was cut off from vital blood supplies carrying oxygen to the
neurons. Her neurons died in massive numbers. We see a computer graphic
revealing the destruction. The left hemisphere of the brain is virtually empty
of activity. But even after the damage, other neurons in the right hemisphere
were able to take over the work of those destroyed.

Stroke victims can recover more functions faster if their brains receive a lot
of stimuli. Children especially have strong recuperative powers. One child,
born with most of his brain nonfunctional, can walk, see, and hear because
that part of his brain, which is still working, took over most of the functions
of the whole brain. The child’s brain, with young neurons, is much more
elastic than an adult’s brain. Young neurons reconnect with others very
rapidly.

A boy with severe epilepsy had the left half of his brain removed to stop the
seizures. A few years later, most of the right side of his body is no longer
paralyzed. He can now speak, even thought the speech center is normally on
the left side of the brain. His speech center has migrated to the right side of
his brain.

How does the brain rehabilitate itself? We watch through an electron


microscope as two young neurons establish a connection. We watch again
as macrophages ‘eat’ damaged nerves and clear them away, leaving room for
healthy neurons to grow new fibers to take up the work of the dead neurons.

The left and right hemispheres of the brain work together to produce
meaning. The right brain handles emotions while the left brain produces
intelligibility. Without the right, we can only produce a cold recitation of the
facts. Without the left, we can only express highly emotional grunts and
squeals.

The brain stem controls basic bodily functions. But one small part is
connected with many parts of the rest of the brain. This part of the brain
stem signals the rest of the brain to stimulate production of noradrenalin, an
anti-depressant. The biological equivalent of willpower.

What do hallucinogens do to the brain and consciousness? The brain is a


chemical factory, turning out a hodgepodge of neurotransmitters. These
trigger electric impulses from neuron to neuron. There are special receptors
for neurotransmitters at the end of the synapses. Neurotransmitters modify
human behavior, convey emotions, control moods, increase or decrease
appetite, and reinforce or undercut learning.

Hallucinogens interfere with this activity, especially in the hypothalamus


where all sensory information is funneled before entering the neocortex.
Psychoactive drugs are similar in structure to serotonin and can bond with
serotonin receptors, triggering information overload and creating
hallucinations.

Exercise, fasting, and even deep breathing can affect the brain in similar
ways. A group of Japanese pilgrims fast and chant sutras high in the wintery
mountains. They engage in solitary meditations for hours at a time. On the
third day of their pilgrimage, they begin to experience vivid hallucinations.
The hallucinations grow in intensity thereafter. Blood samples were taken
during the pilgrimage. Doctors discovered that the pilgrims’ bodies were
producing serotonin in prodigious amounts.
Dopamine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It dampens the brain’s signals.
It helps the basil ganglia to produce smooth, controlled movements.
Damage to the basil ganglia or lack of dopamine can cause Parkinson’s
disease, the major symptoms of which are jerky, uncontrolled movements.

Schizophrenia may result from a lack of dopamine, also. Schizophrenia


consists of shattered, uncontrolled thoughts. Brains of patients reveal
decreased blood flow in the frontal lobes, the seat of reasoning. Dopamine
also produces feelings of bliss and regulates the perception of pain.

Dopamine and other endorphins mediate pain. They enter the opiate
receptors at the ends of the synapse. Extra endorphins can be triggered by
grueling physical activity, producing “runner’s high.” Dopamine also
produces sexual arousal and feelings of love. A surge of dopamine gives us
feelings of wellbeing. The limbic system takes over and sweeps us away
with infatuation. One endorphin, oxytocin, has been called the “cuddle”
chemical. It gives mothers the urge to hold and nurse their infants.

Does all this hard-edged scientific study of human emotions and neural
processes rob them of their value and importance—of their authenticity?
Are we engaging in reductionism? Do we reduce our emotions, our
thoughts, even ourselves to biochemical reactions? Will this diminish our
sense of Self? We are not merely our neurons and neurotransmitters.
Remember that the brain is an exceedingly complex system of messages and
chemistry. We are more than the sum of our parts. We are synergistically
elf-organizing entities composed of thousands of levels of chemical,
biological, and neural organization, each level building upon the organized
patterns of matter and energy that those below it have established, and
creating new and more comprehensive and flexible levels of organization
above themselves.

As we’ve seen, each one of us possesses a unique set of neural networks.


Our individuality, our very Self, is rooted in this vast interplay of
incomprehensibly complex electrochemical interactions. As such, each of
us, just as the ancient peoples of the Shanidar Caves, is irreducible to our
constituent parts and irreplaceable in the broader scheme of things.