tenpastmidnight blog

Making hay while the sun shines

OK, lots of catch-up posts to make...

Firstly, I've come across a few things about the brain / consciousness recently. First there was the Channel 4 documentary 'Soul Searchers', then two articles by Bill Softky in The Register about Software Engineers being brain scientists. I found Bill's article interesting as he sets out the difficulties in understanding the brain, which is often ignored by the programming side of the field of studying the mind. The second part is out but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.

'Soul Searchers' was quite an interesting show, but annoyed me as it concentrated a lot on the idea of the left brain and right brain being very separate things, with innovation coming from the right side, with the left side handling language and scientific thought. It went through a tour of current scientific theories about the brain, including Roger Penrose's theory about quantum effects being part of the way the brain works, then concluded with looking at eastern religions and how they look at the brain, being much more right-brain centered.

Now, firstly, this annoyed me because although various parts of the brain have some distinct functions, they have the corpus callosum, a very thick band of neural connections, between them sending a huge amount of information back and forth all of the time. Now, people who have had had this connection severed for some reason (generally cancer or extremely severe epilepsy) could be said to have two separate brains, but there are other, smaller connections between the two hemispheres that have been shown to transfer various information of a more specialised nature. This connection makes the two hemispheres one.

There was various comments saying that the western world has been dominated by left-brain thinking, i.e. scientific thinking rather than more 'creative' right-brain thinking. This I also think is incorrect, as making the kind of scientific leaps that started the industrial revolution and have kept it going ever since takes creativity, it's just of a different kind than they were referring to. Engineering can be true art, but it has function as well. I think the large scientific advances in the west pretty much started because of our environment. If you lived on a small, cold, wet island, you'd be looking at ways of making your life more comfortable by using tools and materials, rather than seeking direct inner-thought fulfilment. We still seem to be surfing the wave of the industrial revolution, though most of us are now comfortable enough to be thinking about inner harmony, not destroying more of the environment (still working on that one) and various other philosophical things.

While Roger Penrose has the kind of intelligence that knocks mine in to a cocked hat, I can't agree with his theories about quantum effects being behind creativity in the brain. I think this is for two reasons:

1. I think the brain is so complicated, we're only on the fringes of getting a proper handle on what it's about, and it's going to be a lot of work to get anywhere in our understanding of how the brain physically works;

2. A long while ago, I did various reading around the 'mind-body problem' - whether the mind exists in the physical brain, or whether there is a spiritual element. During this I read about the idea that the consciousness can be shown to be a side-effect of other things happening in the brain. On various scans, the thoughts you have, the 'inner voice' inside your head that is 'you', actually happens slightly after the thoughts you think you're having with yourself.

A side-effect of this is the idea that creativity can happen outside of your actual consciousness. I 'file' problems or concepts off to let my sub-conscious work on them if I really can't think my way out of a problem, and find a full or partial solution to them 'pops' in to my head hours or days later. Having thought around this for a while, I don't really have a problem with the idea that bits of my brain I don't have 'control' over via my inner voice can be working on stuff that I don't realise they are working on consciously. It might be suggested that the practisers of eastern religions such as Buddhism featured in 'Soul Searchers' are investigating these unconscious parts of their own minds, or indeed they just might be quieting down their inner voice to nothing and gaining insight in to something else entirely.

Anyone interested in this kind of stuff might want to read The Myth of Irrationality by John McCrone, though I'd also suggest looking around for a better deal than the Amazon page the title is linked to as £30 is a bit much.
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