The Brain Speaks Out

Good Morning.

I’ll be speaking today about the basic functions of my department, Head Quarters. Many current descriptors of humans and their “mind”—”self-aware,” “highly intelligent,” “imaginative”—suggest common misunderstandings of how Head Quarters operates. My hope is that the Units we are responsible for will benefit from less lofty and more realistic notions of how Head Quarters coordinates their functions.

First, our Mission and basic operations. Head Quarters’ mission is to keep the Unit functioning and to prepare a replacement Unit to carry on after the present one becomes inactive. The various operations needed to carry out this mission are indicated on the diagram here of Head Quarters’ departments. Head Quarters continuously interprets streams of data coming in from around the Unit’s Network. It receives especially detailed data from the hands, mouth, and tongue. Data from external sounds and light sources arrive from the two pair of audio and visual receivers located adjacent to Head Quarters. Other data is handled routinely in round-the-clock monitoring of the Unit’s internal conditions, including levels of fuel, water, waste build-up, oxygen, and blood flow. Together with Lower Quarters, Head Quarters coordinates the processing of food intake.

Brain functions (AWMG.INFO)

The data is stored in Archives. Data that is retrieved often can be easily accessed. Older and background data can decay and become difficult to access accurately if at all.

Head Quarters is closed for business about a third of the time every twenty-four hours in order to perform such functions as offline consolidation, re-sorting of Archives, and resource replenishment.

Head Quarters implements certain Conditions—C-States—that bring on mild or intense sensations in the Unit for various lengths of time. Such Conditions trigger behaviors that are considered to support the Unit’s well-being in the short or long run. They are brought on by changes in the Unit’s surroundings, often by the presence or behavior of other Units.

Examples of common C-States include:

C-Joy, an energized state, short-lived but recurring, often activated by and reinforcing successful interactions with other Units;

C-Sadness, a low-energy condtion in which the Unit tends to withdraw from activity to recover from a setback;

C-Pain, a distressing state in part or all of the Unit that signals injury or dysfunction;

C-Arousal, the set of conditions leading to copulation; and

C-Anger, an energized state in anticipation of physical conflict with hostile Units.

A major portion of Head Quarters’ operations is the tracking of other Units. A few of these Other Units, or O-Units, have exchanged signals with Head Quarters since it first began functioning. They are labeled by generic indicators: mother, father, sister, parents. Archives contains full records about them. Other O-Units are encountered frequently but briefly and are less familiar.

All O-Units are continuously assessed for their probable assessment of this Unit, including its Head Quarters. Assessments in both directions are made as to whether an O-Unit seems friendly, trustworthy, indifferent, a possible sexual partner, higher or lower in status. For reasons of safety, O-Units are crudely classified as friendlies, neutrals, or hostiles. Head Quarters views the formation and preservation of alliances as an essential component of Unit well-being. To this end, the smile-expression and the laughter-sound are important but not fully reliable signals.

As for sound that the Unit can produce, Head Quarters is very skilled in their use to exchange information with O-Units. The foundation of the complex sound code is built in to every Units, though the specific signals vary widely. The sound code, an impressive achievement, is in almost constant use between Units. It enables a units to communicate about items that are either physically present or out of sight, in the past or anticipated in the future. Topics include strategies for food procurement, the expression of C-States, and the behavior of O-Units. The code is so compelling that it often runs silently as a default mode within Head Quarters. A visual version of the code is also in common use.

The sound code includes identification markers for all Units. Early in their functionality, each Unit receives a set of two markers, one that indicates its Unit group, the other indicating the Unit itself and its gender. An example is Petersen, a group marker, preceded by Mary, a female member. The Mary Petersen Unit identifies itself as Mary Petersen as well as I and me depending on the situation, and the Mary Petersen Head Quarters continually reviews the Mary Petersen past, the assessments of Mary Petersen by O-Units, and the plans and schedules for Mary Petersen.

Cumulatively, these processes result in the formulation of, and the belief in, what are known as Mary Petersen’s self and her life.

In conclusion, the multiple and multi-level processes coordinated by Head Quarters are demanding. While every Unit operates in the present, it must constantly attend to the past and the future as well. Head Quarters is a forward-looking instrument—flexible, capable, in constant adjustment as the present moment changes and changes again. For the well-being of the Unit, no single time frame is secure or complete without consideration of the other two.

Thank you for your attention. I think we have time for a few questions.

The Body Electric

We are juiced. From head to toe, miles of membrane shuttle electric charges through the body. Impulses pour in to my brain from eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin as raw versions of what I see on this screen, the feeling of the keys at my fingertips, the tapping sounds; then out from the brain through the wires to the muscles in my hands and fingers to type the s e  l e t t e r s.

Simple nerve systems appeared in early jellyfish and other sea creatures about 500 million years ago.  Loose nets of nerves responded to light and the touch of other creatures as these swimmers captured smaller fish and dodged bigger ones.

Much earlier, in the first fully developed cells, neurons began to evolve from membranes. A membrane, in Wikipedia’s words, is “a selective barrier; it allows some things to pass through but stops others.” A cell’s membrane helped the cell manage the salt levels inside the cell as it floated through the salty ocean. And since the salts of sodium, potassium and calcium consist of atoms with a positive or negative charge, the pores in membranes became gates that opened and closed to control the electrical potential across the membrane itself.

As animals evolved, such membranes lengthened into neurons with conductive axons, the “wire” of the nerve cell. In us, the longest axon runs down the length of each leg, branching as it goes. The shortest axons, fractions of a millimeter, fill our heads by the billions.

Neurons in the brain (Wikipedia)

Neurons in the brain

The axons don’t carry an electric charge in the way that a wire carries electricity or a lightning bolt of electrons crashes to the ground. Instead, think of the wave at a sports stadium, where groups of fans stand up, throw their hands in the air, and sit down in a spontaneous sequence that moves through the rows. A nerve impulse moves down the axon in a similar way, charged atoms crossing through opened pores from one side of the membrane to the other and then quickly back again while the “wave” of the electric charge moves along.

The impulse never varies in strength. It is either on or off, either moving or only ready to move. There are no drops in the current, no power failures, no biological surge protectors needed. If a muscle must contract to move a load, the nerve signal, always at the same strength, simply repeats rapidly enough so that the muscle cells remain contracted.

At both ends of the axon, where the impulse begins and ends, devices of various kinds translate between the electrical charge and other structures. In the ear, sound waves cause small hairs to vibrate and set off the impulses that we hear as “hello.” In our eyes, light causes molecular changes that trigger the impulses to the brain to form the image we recognize as a chair. Where a neuron terminates at a muscle cell, the final “wave” triggers chemicals that start the muscle’s contraction.

We barely notice all this wizardry. Compared to the breath that we can feel and the blood we can see, our circuitry is undetectable. But if we’ve been shocked by a faulty toaster or we suffer from numbness or irregular heartbeats, we’ve glimpsed what can go wrong.

In another way, though, we are always aware of the electricity in us. Notice the faint tingle that is always present in our limbs and head. It’s a sense of animation, a potential, an ability to move a muscle, look around or think a thought at any time. That tingly readiness is, essentially, our neurons at the ready. It’s a reminder that we’re alive.