And So Say All of Me

Our brains are very peculiar systems. Unlike a computer, specific tasks happen in particular locations. Computers usually have a Central Processor Chip and a few extra microprocessors for special tasks like graphics. The brain has dozens of specialist areas and no obvious centre. Brain damage may knock out one particular function and leave the rest of the brain working fine.

Most politics and philosophy assume that each human is a unitary individual. But we actually seem to function as an ensemble, a mix of differing functions.

“Typically neuroscientists who run imaging experiments are trying to pinpoint the brain region that gives rise to a given perception or behaviour…

“Neuroscientists had never thought of these regions as a system in the way we think of a visual or motor system – as a set of discrete areas that communicate with one another to get the job done…

“The symphony orchestra provides an apt metaphor, with its integrated tapestry of sounds arising from multiple instruments playing to the same rhythm…

“But the brain is more complex than a symphony orchestra. Each specialized brain system … exhibits its own pattern of SCP [slow cortical potentials]. Chaos is averted because all systems are not created equal. Electrical signalling from some brain areas takes precedence over others. At the top of this hierarchy resides the DMN [default mode network]… the brain is not a free-for-all among independent systems but a federation of interdependent components…

“The brain continuously wrestles with the need to balance planned responses and the immediate needs of the moment.” [The Brain’s Dark Energy, Scientific America, March 2010]

From Newsnotes, April 2010.

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