Can Our Minds Ever Completely Understand Our Brains?

A long history of human effort to understand how we think, began with believing the heart was responsible for thinking. Serious research began with the discovery of electrical impulses traveling between the brain and nerves. Next came discovery of specific functions like respiration and executive thinking governed by different brain regions.

The ultimate question is how thoughts form, and how detected?  

An Article in the New Yorker describes how better use and interpretation of brain scans is yielding results. For example, an observation that imagining walking in your home and playing tennis elicited activity in different parts of the brain led to communication with a vegetative patient. Yes or no questions were asked and the patient successfully imagined one activity for yes and the other for no.

For examples, brain scanning can discover depression and mastery of subject matter— assessed by comparing with experts. Particularly revealing, movies have beeen used to simultaneously plot emotions of many people where the movie is manipulating the feelings.

Mathematics inspired viewing a thought like a point (x, y, z) in 3-D space except that the number of dimensions is larger. For example recognition of a face might involve (face length, face width, length of nose, … size of eyes.) The “coordinates” of a thought may not be numbers but involve other “dimensions” such as colors, smell, taste, sound, with relevant coordinate sets for different situations.

Psychologists have recognized the importance of remembering scripts and scenes to our thinking. The first time one flies it’s distressful. However, after a few trips, we know the script: 1. Check in & deposit bags 2. Go through security 3. Locate gate 4. Wait to board. Even if the scene is a new airport, the script guides you. (The first time my aunt flew,she sat in the waiting room & missed the flight, exclaiming she didn’t know what she was thinking. Someone would come and get her?)

If you somehow woke up from sleep in an aisle with flour & sugar on an adjacent shelf, you’d associate the scene with a grocery store. (Click to see the wonder of a one-year old in a grocery cart for the first time because he’d been home safe from the pandemic all his life.)

Becoming familiar with various scenes and scripts allows the brain to focus on the essentials and filter out distractions. A book on autism describes how the autistic brain gives equal weight to all of the stimuli in a scene as if every scene were new. Consequently, autistics easily become overwhelmed and can end up like my aunt. One view of our brains’ absorbing new situations is that they either associate the new with a familiar scene or script or create a new one.  

Brain scientists are enthusiastic about the promise of incorporating brain scans to uncover much more about how we think.

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