How the Brain Serves the Mind
More sophisticated than any computer, the brain runs many background tasks to aid and assist our conscious choices.
Surprise discovery in the blink of an eye (Science Daily): This article says, “We probably do it every day, but scientists have only just discovered a distinct new way in which we move our eyes.” To find a new kind of eye motion after centuries of study on the eye was big news. And what a motion it is: it’s your eye’s image stabilizer.
The movement they discovered helps to reset the eye after it twists when viewing a rotating object. It is like avoiding tiny rotations of a camera to stabilise the image we perceive. We don’t notice the eye resetting in this way because it happens automatically when we blink.
The motion is not only synchronized to the blinking reflex, but to the other eye, which must stabilize the same way at the same time. “To discover such a ubiquitous phenomenon in such a well-studied part of the human body was astonishing to us and we’re very grateful to the volunteers who took part in the study,” one of the researchers commented.
Biomedical research sheds light on the mysteries of vision (Medical Xpress). Other unknown aspects of vision are being studied at the University of Arizona. In particular, the scientists want to understand how your retina adjusts to sudden changes in light intensity, such as when you leave a theater into the bright sunlight. Calling the process “light adaptation” hardly explains it. The researchers are finding complex switching of retinal neurons to on-and-off stages so as to increase visual acuity and contrast as the light intensity changes.
As it turns out, retinal neurons communicate in many directions and along many neural signaling pathways. The photoreceptors and other retinal neurons may be in an excitatory (on) or inhibitory (off) position, creating dynamic push-pull and feedback among neurons and neural circuits.
Minimizing irrelevant visual information (Medical Xpress): When you try to remember something, do you ever stare off into the sky or look at a blank wall? There’s a reason for it, say scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Experiments with visual interference showed that subjects had a harder time recalling even simple objects when there were distractions in the visual field. “These results provide a hint of why we might do this: By minimizing irrelevant visual information, we free our perceptual system to help us remember.”
Inner Brain Service
Your inner mathematician (Medical Xpress): “The brain performs feats of math to make sense of the world,” this article says. Experiments at Princeton revealed processes requiring calculation behind the common-sense narratives we form as we negotiate our surroundings. You may not be good at math, you think—but your brain already is. It serves you up a simplified representation of a complex set of inputs, so that you can focus on the important things.
Princeton University researchers show in a new study how our brains combine complicated observations from our surroundings into a simple assessment of the situation that aids our behavior and decisions. This boiled-down representation also is flexible enough to account for new information as it becomes available. The researchers found that our brains can accurately track the likelihood of several different explanations for what we see around us. They traced these abilities to a region of the brain located just behind our eyes known as the orbitofrontal cortex.
The brain’s thermostat found (Science Daily): “Finally,” this article states, “the brain sensor that turns down the heat” has been discovered. “Despite decades of research into the internal temperature sensors in the brain responsible for this well-orchestrated effort, scientists have not been able to identify a molecular temperature sensor underlying it.” It’s an important function, because core body temperature needs to be maintained in a narrow range. Specific cells in the rat hypothalamus were observed to be “uniquely activated in response to warming at temperatures above the physiological set point of 37°C.” These neurons activate an ion channel responsive to temperature, triggering physiological responses to prevent overheating and inflammation.
Your navigational tracker (Medical Xpress): We’ve all had the experience of finding something interesting, and then wondering how we got there. Our brains have an “instant replay” function that can help us find it again next time, this article says. Experiments with rats showed how this works. “If there’s a ‘reward’ at the end of the trip, like the chocolatey drink used in their study, specialized neurons in the hippocampus of the brain ‘replay’ the route taken to get it, but backward,” neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins found. “And the greater the reward, the more often the rats’ brains replay it.” Chocolate sounds like a pretty good reward, indeed.
Brain’s internal compass also navigates during imagination (Science Daily): Your brain’s navigation system comes into play even when you are only imagining going places, this article says. We have “grid cells” that help us form mental maps. They not only work when moving about; “the brain’s navigation system also plays a role in our capacity to imagine future events and construct them in our mind.”
The symphony of recall (Science Daily): Speaking of recall, say you want to remember things in order. Scientists at New York University found that the “ode to recall” is downright philharmonic. “To remember events in the order they occur, the brain’s neurons function in a coordinated way that is akin to a symphony,” they say. How does that work? “We’ve known for some time that neurons increase their activity when we encode memories,” their prelude states before the first movement. “What our study shows is there’s a rhythm to how they fire in relation to one another — much like different instruments in a symphony orchestra.” This could be a key to remembering items in a list. Experiments showed that memorizing a list of items produces a pattern of coordinated brain waves. On recall, those patterns will match if recalled correctly.
Brain can-do (Science Daily): The brain is “more robust than thought,” according to neuroscientists from the University of Amsterdam. By that, they mean that the brain is “well capable of coping with the erratic way individual brain cells transmit information.” The brain has a remarkable ability to tease out important information from the constant noisy whir and buzz of neurons firing. Detecting order in the chaos is actually an asset. “The activity of a single neuron in response to an image is variable and unreliable,” one spokesman said. “However, within the synchronised activity of a large number of neurons, patterns can be distinguished that seem to suggest the value of such variation.” Having noise to navigate gives the brain a more nuanced view of what is happening. The findings call into question the ability of unguided processes, working on random variations, to produce the coherent system described in the article by neuroscientist Guido Meijer:
The brain turns out to be organised in such a way that it minimises the risk of misclassification but is still able to ensure variability.’
The team’s findings offer further insight into the complexity of the brain. It appears that an understanding of the behaviour of individual cells isn’t sufficient to predict or understand the behaviour of the entire brain. ‘The brain isn’t a computer constructed from chips, which always process a signal in the same orderly fashion’, Meijer adds. ‘Nature is more chaotic, and is apparently also constructed to effectively manage this chaos. We have now found one of the underlying principles that ensures order arises out of chaos on the scale of large numbers of connected neurons.’
What’s next for brain research? Medical Xpress reports that a neuroscientist in Madrid is proposing a solution for navigating “The anatomical problem posed by brain complexity and size.” What paradigm shifts are on the horizon? “This discussion comes at an important moment for neuroscience, with potential impact on the hundred millions of funding devoted to the development of extraordinary technology inspired by biology,” the article says. But don’t expect it to be easy. The article begins with a well-known fact: “The most complex piece of matter in the known universe is the brain.”
Many of us are intrigued by the possibility of robots doing more and more work for us in the future. How about the robot inside your skull? Look at all these complex functions it does for you. The brain is not you. Your mind cannot be reduced to neurons firing. But those neurons come pre-programmed with solutions to many problems, helping you see, navigate, calculate, maintain the temperature, remember objects, and much, much more. It stores information you’ve gathered, making it accessible in usable form. It continues serving you in your sleep.
Based on the information your robot delivers, you can make decisions. You can decide to use your brain, or not to. You can decide to damage your brain with drugs and bad habits. Or you can decide to sharpen its skills, and take in the right kind of information to make wise decisions. Your brain won’t decide these things for you. That’s the function of your inner self and conscience. Choose to take care of your brain. Choose to take care of your body. Choose to think about eternity. The One who “has made everything beautiful in its time,” including your physical brain, which is perishable, has also “put eternity in [your] heart”—a longing for meaning and significance that transcends the physical (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Finding and following that meaning and purpose is your main job on this earth.
One story from the Olympics stands out in this regard. The 23-gold-medal Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps underwent a transformation two years before the Rio games. Despite his fame and achievements after the last Olympics, he was in a downward spiral toward meaninglessness and despair. Friends and fame left him feeling empty. Attempts to reform were fruitless. He got so low, he was even contemplating suicide. Everything changed when a Christian friend gave him a copy of Rick Warren’s best-seller, The Purpose-Driven Life. CBN News and Christian Times share what happened. He says in a YouTube video, that he learned from the book that “there is a power greater than myself, and there is a purpose for me on this planet.” Reconciliation with his estranged father ensued, and then his record-setting medal count in Rio.
It’s not clear that Phelps really embraced Christ as his savior and Lord. Perhaps he is on that path. He’s listed with 10 Christian athletes who won gold in Rio, but his testimony as stated seems incomplete. Some evangelicals criticize Warren’s book as an inadequate presentation of the gospel. It is, however, loaded with Scripture that can speak for itself. Suffice it to say for the purposes of this entry that we all can make choices based on information we receive into our brains. In this case, it was words on a page entering Michael’s brain through his eyes, with all those visual systems described above at work. His eyes and brain could not choose for him. As an eternal soul, Michael had to act on what he was reading. We’re glad for the turnaround and hope he will really get into the word of God, having fully repented of sin and trusting Christ, to live from now on for the purpose of loving God with all his heart, soul, and strength.