A Brief History of Human Interpretation of the Mind and Brain
It is inherently suggested that everything we know about psychology can be false. Metacognition is a tricky thing and it opens us up to all kinds of errors. Think of our brain as a drill, a drill is fantastic at drilling holes but it can be used for so much more, a quick look at any sort of arts and crafts website will show you that a drill can do an amazing variety of things, just like our brain, but a drill is not necessarily the best tool for taking apart another drill and finding out how it works. Similarly, our brains provide us with a very specific view of the world. We can, and have, pushed these boundaries in order to accomplish incredible things, but the mind may not be suited to examining itself.
Despite this, humans have always noticed the difference between ourselves and animals, and have pushed to uncover the reason behind this. To truly understand the human brain, we not only have to go through the biological function of the brain, but the history of how humans have viewed the mind and soul. To begin, we need to understand how the brain formed. Billions of years ago organisms on earth began to compound into complex, multicelled organisms. These larger organisms needed a fast way for cells to communicate, and so the nerve cell was formed.
These specialized cells use sodium and potassium to generate electrical currents which can then be diverted into nearby nerves to communicate. Neurons are elongated into a barbell shape with long, tree-like projections sprouting from either end. It is worth noting that sodium and potassium, the elements used by nerve cells to make signals, are both light elements made in the early life of a star. These nerve cells are clumped in long strands branching out through the organism. as the nerve cell became ubiquitous, organisms could become bigger and bigger. With this increase in size came an increased need for coordination.
A haphazard net of neurons was no longer cutting it and a centralized control center was needed. Neurons began to cluster to form primitive brains. These simple structures allowed for information to be coordinated and processed. This new organ proved to be so efficient that it soon spread across the world, allowing for an exponential amount of variation and evolution on our planet. From this rough beginning the biological evolution of the brain began. As the brain evolved the key conduit between ourselves and the world was formed, our senses.
All of our senses are quite similar, each takes a different input and compares it with a built up database of associated knowledge. Our sense of smell allows us to gather information from particles in the air. Our olfactory bulbs read gathered information on particles in the air and determine whether the chemicals floating around are helpful or harmful. This sense diversified further to allow us to detect a variety of useful factors, such as types of food that cater to the body’s current needs. A similar sense is taste.
Receptors on the tongue determine the presence of chemicals and send signals to the brain to give us information on what’s in our mouth. For example, many poisons contain similar chemicals, so when these common chemicals are read by our taste buds a negative signal is sent to the brain, creating our sense of bitter foods. These senses are very specialized and useful, and the change throughout our lives. As children we seek sweet tastes because this is a sign of high caloric value, and bitter tastes are rejected to save us from poison. As we grow and eat more bitter vegetables, like kale, our body realizes that that these foods contain valuable nutrients and compensates for the negative signals from our mouth by releasing positive chemicals like dopamine, building up a greater positive association than a negative one. Although we usually think of the brain as a structured clump of neurons near the head of the organism, it is worth noting the stranger brains that have formed on our planet.
The leach, well known as one of the most detestable creatures on the planet, has five pairs of eyes, three hundred teeth, and thirty two brains, all working to coordinate these slimy creatures. A slightly less disgusting example is the ring-shaped brain of the giant squid, shaped so because the esophagus of the animal goes directly through the center of the brain. Not to be outdone, the last creature to be noted is the Sea Squirt. This sedentary marine filter-feeder produces larvae that mirror the anatomy of a tadpole, but as these small organisms latch onto nearby coral and transition into their sedentary, sac-like adult forms they no longer need their brains, and consequently digest them for energy. Out of biology and into anthropology, we look at how the human brain in particular has developed and changed.
In an organism nothing there is nothing superfluous, as we have seen in the sea squirts that eat their own brains, and everything developed for a reason. In the case of the human brain, many of our defining features can be traced to our ape ancestors. Our hands and feet formed to grab branches and climb. Our stereoscopic vision developed to allow us to collect accurate information on depth, and our large brains were needed to process that information, as well as help us forage for food. These tools proved to be useful for much more than intended (much like our brains) and allowed us to branch out in our food sources.
Shortly after our ancestors left the trees they began to develop tools and hunt. This became a defining point in human history. Tapping into this new and abundant food source supplied us with an influx of energy, allowing our brains to grow exponentially. Because of this growth homo sapiens became anomalies in nature, we had an abundance of brainpower where everything else had just what they needed to get by. Many anthropologists would argue that it is our overpowered brains which allowed us to grow and change so quickly, becoming the kingpins of the planet that we are today.
Away from the scientific and into the historical. While we love to hear how smart we are, it is just as easy to laugh at some of the crazy things we have believed in the past. Humans have always wondered what makes us different from the rest of the animal kingdom, and these ponderings usually result in early cultures developing some idea of a soul. It is popular to think of these early ideas of a soul as the beginning of neurology and psychology. Over time we grew as a culture and began to catch on to the idea that one part of our body is responsible for thinking, but we didn’t always think it was our head.
The ancient greeks believed that the stomach was responsible for cognition, and that your diet directly affected your intelligence. Luckily, we outgrew this fast and greek surgeons began to associate nerves with the passage of information. The greeks believed that nerves contained “vital fluid” which held the soul and carried information. This belief lasted until an 19th century english surgeon discovered that he could make the leg of a frog twitch by stimulating a nerve with electricity. This made us to catch on to the idea that electrical signals play a part in body function. Though this may seem small, it launched us into new aspects of neurology and proved to be an incredibly useful breakthrough.
Once we began to learn how our brains really work, a new field of science appeared to fill a strange role. The care of those with mental problems usually fell to the church, and asylums usually had more priests than scientists. With a rise in the popularity of psychology the church began to surrender the mentally ill to science. With this influx of cases to study there was a boom in the field of psychology which allowed it to progress as quickly as it has. Of all the sciences, psychology is one of the most controversial. Proving theories of psychology is rather difficult and opens the field to ridicule, but it gives us the only insight we have as to how our brains work.
We have created a very different environment for ourselves than nature intended, and if some individuals are put under the right series of stressors their brains can start to work funny, we call this mental illness. An interesting anomaly of the modern world is the sociopath. Sociopaths are born, or end up, without a respect for the personal rights of others. Sociopaths seem to be unable to realize that when they look at another person, that person is looking back at them. They don’t feel empathetic and see others more akin to objects, rather than equal beings of self-aware consciousness.
This causes these people to fail to respect laws, lie often, and rationalize any harm that they have cased to others. This sort of disorder can be caused by damage to the prefrontal cortex, lack of exposure to others at a young age, or an inability to reconcile past actions. This shows us how incredibly fragile our minds is, and just how hard it will work to keep us alive, if we do something in our past that we can’t deal with our brain will destroy its own sense of moral alignment in order to perpetuate your survival. In many ways our brains are by far the most powerful part of us. There are many cases in which people overpower their own bodies with sheer willpower.
We have seen how hard our brains will work to keep us alive, but what we trick our brains into thinking that the world isn’t real? Among the variety of dissociative disorders that exist a particular branch stands out as especially brutal, and especially interesting. Escapism is a rough road traveled by people whose lives are incredibly awful. Found commonly in children with abusive parents, the patient begins to escape their real life by inventing an imaginary world to escape to. As they spend more time in this world their brain begins to fail to recognise which world is real. When the patient eats in their fantasy world their brain cannot dictate that the body has not actually eaten, and tells the body that the patient is full.
Over time, the mind will begin to attach itself to the fantasy world, and decides the real world is the fantasy. Actions taken by the patient in the real world are thought to be dreamt up, so the patient doesn’t feel full unless they eat in their dream world, and critical chemicals like dopamine and adrenaline are not released and cause the real world to feel unfulfilling, leading the patient to spend more time in their fantasy world. This can end with the patient slowly learning to discern the real from the fake, pushing their brain back to normal function, but those less fortunate either slowly starve to death or enter a coma that they may never come out of. This grim disorder sheds light on just how much power our brains have over our bodies, and what our minds will do to try and get us away from danger. At the end of this long road, we see what we truly are. Our bodies have become simple machines to carry our brains, an incredible organ that uses sodium and potassium to invent the airplane and destroy entire cities.
The history of the brain is so unique, in that it cannot be told from a simply scientific view, but also from it’s own view. We need to ask ourselves, how has the brain viewed the brain? This tool has changed from a cluster of cells to an organ that would rather kill its morals than deal with past actions. As we discover the incredibly power of the brain we begin to think forward. While psychology and neurology are both fairly new, it’s tempting to think towards the future. Recently neurologists have experimented with sensory interception. We have found ways to convert digital information from a camera into electric signals that can be understood by the brain.
With this technology some blind people have been able to reclaim vague forms of sight. As we begin to understand how we can artificially supplement our senses a plethora of possibilities appear. Can we construct whole bodies for ourselves, bodies that can live forever? And pushing into even more controversial round, can we make our own sentient consciousness? And will it make our current, naturally developed brains obsolete? Bibliography Hughes, Glyn. “Glyn’s Stuff.” : The Little History of the Mind-Brain. N.
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