Know your brain? Possibly not.

“Exact knowledge is the enemy of vitalism.” Francis Crick.

On the face of it, I’m going to write about two totally disparate aspects of the brain.  Or are they?

I subscribe to Naked Capitalism and one of my favourite aspects of Yves’s daily email presentation are the Links.  They cover an incredibly broad range of news items.

So it was perhaps a week ago or thereabouts that one of those links was to an item in the British newspaper, The Daily Mail.  Here’s how the article started,

Power really does corrupt as scientists claim it’s as addictive as cocaine

More than a hundred years after noted historian Baron John Acton coined the phrase ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ scientists claim the saying is biologically true.

The feeling of power has been found to have a similar effect on the brain to cocaine by increasing the levels of testosterone and its by-product 3-androstanediol in both men and women.

This in turn leads to raised levels of dopamine, the brain’s reward system called the nucleus accumbens, which can be very addictive.

Across in the English paper The Daily Telegraph, Dr Ian Robertson writes on this subject and says,

Unfettered power has almost identical effects, but in the light of yesterday’s Leveson Inquiry interchanges in London, there seems to be less chance of British government ministers becoming addicted to power. Why? Because, as it appears from the emails released by James Murdoch yesterday, they appeared to be submissive to the all-powerful Murdoch empire, hugely dependent on the support of this organization for their jobs and status, who could swing hundreds of thousands of votes for or against them.

Submissiveness and dominance have their effects on the same reward circuits of the brain as power and cocaine. Baboons low down in the dominance hierarchy have lower levels of dopamine in key brain areas, but if they get ‘promoted’ to a higher position, then dopamine rises accordingly. This makes them more aggressive and sexually active, and in humans similar changes happen when people are given power. What’s more, power also makes people smarter, because dopamine improves the functioning of the brain’s frontal lobes. Conversely, demotion in a hierarchy decreases dopamine levels, increases stress and reduces cognitive function.

OK, moving on.  On April 29th., there was an article on the Big Think website with the intriguing title of You Are Not Your Brain! 

What’s the Big Idea?

“Contemporary research on consciousness in neuroscience rests on unquestioned but highly questionable foundations. Human nature is no less mysterious now than it was a hundred years ago,” writes philosopher Alva Noë in his book Out of Our Heads.

It’s a bold assertion in an age when fMRI has enabled us to see images of the brain functioning in real time, and when many prominent public intellectuals (Stephen Hawking, Eric Kandel) have argued, either implicitly or vociferously, in favor of reductionism. The “brain-as-calculating machine” analogy assumes that human thought, personality, memory, and emotion are located somewhere in the gray matter protected by the skull. In other words, you — at least, the waking you who gets out of bed in the morning — are your brain.

But you’re not, says Noë. Just as love does not live inside the heart, consciousness is not contained in a finite space — it’s something that arises, something that occurs: a verb rather than a noun. And since the publication of Francis Crick’s influential The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, scientists have been looking for it in all the wrong places.

That’s enough of me republishing the article – if it grabs your interest, do go and read it in full here.

And here’s Francis Crick with an extract from his DVD on the Scientific Search for the Soul

NOTE: This is an excerpt from the two-part, 60-minute DVD.

A noted scientist discusses free will, consciousness, attention and memory and their relationship to the human nervous system. In a wide ranging discussion, Crick points out that the hypothesis that the brain is the seat of consciousness has not yet been proven.

Francis Crick, Ph.D., received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery of DNA’s central role in the process of genetic reproduction. He is author of Life Itself, What Mad Pursuit and The Astonishing Hypothesis.

“Chance is the only source of true novelty.” Francis Crick

2 thoughts on “Know your brain? Possibly not.

  1. Paul: Thanks for finding this in Big Think… Now for my grain of salt:

    A few things are certain:
    0) Reductionism, in a Quantum world, the only world we have, has to be reconsidered. The nature of the Quantum is to refuse reduction, or even localization. That’s why it’s unpredictable, sort of. It will make any soul chaotic.

    1) Any deeper explanation of the brain and consciousness will have to incorporate Quantum Physics. However the latter is still a work in progress. Its foundations are in doubt, and it’s not clear how the transition from Quantum to its classical abstraction (classical mechanics) proceeds (as the adventures of the Quantum computer demonstrate).

    2) The brain is an open loop on the environment. The environment programs it so much that, just as it is difficult to separate classical and Quantum, it’s difficult to separate brain and environment. It may be the same problem. Thus Crick’s astonishing observation may be solved the hard way: the soul is the Quantum environment of the brain.

    One cannot be one’s brain, because one’s brain is also one’s (Quantum) environment. Free will is neither free, nor a will, if one is a fruit of the Quantum.

    3) Nobody knows what the soul is made of, or what that would mean that it exists. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly the case of the Quantum. Wave? Particle? Localized? Delocalized? Delocalized? In which space? What’s space?

    4) Thus the brain-soul problem is not just biological, it is about foundations of physics which are at the edge, or beyond, experimental reach… even in physics. The De Broglie versus Bohr confrontation is unresolved. But, if some of last year’s experimental results are confirmed, De Broglie’s suggestions are marking points, and the entire picture of what constitute the universe, hence the soul, changes.

    5) Consciousness is a meta-director. It’s in charge of choosing (that would make it intrinsically heretical!) among logical paths (Gödel incompleteness), but also among meta-worlds. In that sense, it does not just sense the world, but constructs it (as classical architecture supporting Quantum structures is real). Consciousness does not just need global awareness, it kneads it, as needed.


    1. Patrice, what an amazing addition to this Post. It’s the sort of stuff that I would love to discuss with you over many coffees/beers/wines/brandies because, one, it’s just on the edge of what I can follow, let alone understand, and I would love to improve my knowledge of such fundamental aspects and, two, it seems to offer to me a way of looking at our world in an entirely new, dare I say, philosophical light.

      And I have just realised that as a contribution to the world’s longest sentence, the above may be in with a chance. 😉 Seriously, thank you so much for sharing your ideas with us, Paul


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