Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

16 NOVEMBER, 2012

Are We Nearing the Maximum Capacity of the Human Brain?

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How “the cleverest organ in the known universe could suddenly become one of the dumbest.”

“If you ever feel lazy or dull,” neuroscientist David Eagleman wrote of the human brain, “take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.” But are you, or at least are you for long?

Much has been said about the perils of information overload and what we can do about it. But what if the issue was not simply one of will over wiring? In The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating look at the science of “chunking” and how pattern recognition fuels creativity — Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor turns to the potential hard-wired limitations of our human brains as they grapple with the rapidly proliferating influx of available information:

Human eyes have around 100 million photoreceptors, each of which can pick up about ten visual events every second, so our eyes are effectively receiving a billion pieces of information each second. If you include the information pouring in from our other senses, that’s a staggering quantity of data for our brains to sift through every moment of our waking lives.

[…]

If we had an infinite resource of energy by which to crunch the numbers, and an infinitely fast brain by which to make the calculations, then there would be no problem, as we could analyze every scrap of data to its fullest capacity and never miss an opportunity or be caught by a threat. But, of course, in reality, it takes time to process anything, and human brains consume a frighteningly large proportion of our body’s total energy resources.

Computing pioneer Charles Babbage's brain

Public domain image

Then, Bor adds in a footnote:

Even though the human brain is a mere 2 percent of total body weight, in newborns this single organ requires a staggering 87 percent of the body’s total energy. A five-year-old has a brain that greedily guzzles nearly half of all the energy the child consumes, and even in adults this figure is at least a quarter, though that proportion can rise dramatically if we’ve had a mentally taxing day — for instance, when studying for exams. In fact, some biologists have suggested that the energy demands and complexity of a human brain are nearing the endpoint of what is biologically possible and that if you started trying to cram even more neuronal wires into the brain, the additional miniaturization that this would entail would turn all brain signal into random noise — and the cleverest organ in the known universe would suddenly become one of the dumbest.

Of course, for those of us who believe it’s less a matter of what machinery the skull houses and more a matter of how we use it, this is merely of curiosity rather than of concern.

Babbage’s brain image via Public Domain Review

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03 OCTOBER, 2012

The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc, Animated

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What cortisol and oxytocin have to do with a 19th-century German playwright.

From Future of Storytelling summit and neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, comes this short film on empathy, neurochemistry, and the dramatic arc, directed and edited by my friend Kirby Ferguson and animated by Henrique Barone.

Zak takes us inside his lab, where he studies how people respond to stories. What he found is that even the simplest narrative can elicit powerful empathic response by triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin, provided it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag 150 years ago.

Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature.

Complement with Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

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19 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Science of Orgasms and Your Brain on Porn

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Inside the complex tangle of biology and behavior that shapes our relationship with and experience of sex.

We’ve already explored the origins of sex, the neurochemistry of heartbreak, and how drugs affect desire. But what, exactly, happens in the brain when the body belts out its ultimate anthem of sexual triumph? Count on creative duo Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, better known as AsapSCIENCE — who have previously explained how music enchants the brain and what science teaches us about curing hangovers — to break down the body’s response during orgasm:

But what about sexual experiences that don’t involve direct contact with a partner? What happens inside the brain then is arguably even more intriguing. In this talk from TEDxGlasgow, physiology teacher Gary Wilson peels the curtain on the complex scientific processes that accompany, and perpetuate, the world’s addiction to pornography. Specifically, he looks at how the Coolidge effect fuels internet porn:

For more on this ceaselessly fascinating tangle of biology and behavior, see the recently released The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction by neuroscientist Larry Young and journalist Brian Alexander, who take us inside the living brain to explore how its neurotransmitters, hormones, and circuits shape the very behaviors we find ourselves most invested in.

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30 AUGUST, 2012

How Consciousness Evolved and Why a Planetary “Übermind” Is Inevitable

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“There is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy.”

“These new media have made our world into a single unit,” Marshall McLuhan observed in 1960, when he made the case for the emergence of a “global village”. Meanwhile, in the half-century since McLuhan’s meditations, scientists and philosophers alike have become increasingly occupied with the study of consciousness — what it is, how it works, and how it shapes our sense of self.

In Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (public library), neuroscientist Christof Koch“reductionist, because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic, because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky about us and deep within us” — explores how subjective feelings, or consciousness, come into being. Among Koch’s most fascinating arguments is one that bridges philosophy, evolutionary biology and technofuturism to predict a global Übermind not unlike McLuhan’s “global village,” but one in which our technology melds with what Carl Jung has termed the “collective unconscious” to produce a kind of sentient global brain:

The ever-increasing complexity of organisms, evident in the fossil record, is a consequence of the unrelenting competition for survival that propels evolution.

It was accompanied by the emergence of nervous systems and the first inkling of sentience. The continuing complexification of brains, to use Teilhard de Chardin’s term, enhanced consciousness until self-consciousness emerged: awareness reflecting upon itself. This recursive process started millions of years ago in some of the more highly developed mammals. In Homo sapiens, it has achieved its temporary pinnacle.

But complexification does not stop with individual self-awareness. It is ongoing and, indeed, speeding up. In today’s technologically sophisticated and intertwined societies, complexification is taking on a supraindividual, continent-spanning character. With the instant, worldwide communication afforded by cell phones, e-mail, and social networking, I foresee a time when humanity’s teeming billions and their computers will be interconnected in a vast matrix — a planetary Übermind. Provided mankind avoids Nightfall — a thermonuclear Armageddon or a complete environmental meltdown — there is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy at large.

The rest of Consciousness traces Koch’s groundbreaking work with physical chemist Francis Crick (who, along with james Watson, discovered the double-helix structure of DNA) and explores how science has attempted to reconcile the hard physicality of the brain, the most complex object in the known universe, with the intangible world of awareness, populated by our senses, our emotions, and our very experience of life.

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