What’s the Brain?

One thing that we all have in common is our brains.  We all have these immensely powerful computers in our heads.  For perspective, the total of humanity’s computing power (including things like cell phones) is probably a little more than one brain.  Understanding the brain is important to operating it, so today’s post focuses on the brain.

Let’s start with an exercise.  The word brain.  Your eye falls across the word, sending the pattern of shapes into the brain.  Inside your brain, neurons search for a pattern they recognize.  They pass that information to other neurons which are looking for other patterns.  And so on.

What results is a kind of thunderstorm of activity, with many neurons firing in several discrete parts of the brain.  Some of the patterns are discarded, others are highlighted.  Finally your conscious mind is awash in a set of believed-good patterns:

  1. The recognition of the word brain in the environment.
  2. The associations, including possibly a mental picture of the human brain’s physical existence as a folded mass of neurons, also including similar words like brian, rain, etc.
  3. The relative physical location of your own physical brain behind your eyes and between your ears.

Your brain is pulling up patterns constantly.  It is analyzing your visual field for movement, color.  It’s listening for patterns and breaks in the auditory environment.  It’s pulsing out to your body and receiving feedback like an itch on your nose or weight distribution on your feet.  It’s balancing you upright (when you’re standing).

The brain is a pattern recognition wizard.  And it improves with practice.  That’s how chess masters earn that name: through repetition of action, their brains rewire themselves to match chess patterns quickly and see the game as a sequence or cascade of questions (ie, a decision tree) rather than as a single move at a time.

Your brain may not be a chess master’s, but you have pretty good reading skills.  Your brain is matching patterns as you read this, deriving meaning from the shapes and sequences.

Your brain also has the concept of reward.  The neurons that match patterns well, or that quash invalid matches result in different chemicals released in the brain.  Indeed, the brain tries to make success occur, tries to be rewarded.

But the brain is mostly operating below the conscious level.  And it’s doing a ton of work to keep recompiling itself into a more useful and more functional device in reaction to your environment.  One of the primary tools the brain uses to that end is sleep.  A good night’s rest allows your brain to improve its efficiency and keep the patterns coming smoothly.

One thing you may notice is, upon learning a new videogame for example, you may be better the second day, after you have slept.  Your brain will optimize its pattern systems to the particular controls, physics, and visual and auditory stimuli of that game.  Or if you’re learning to cook, your brain will do the same for chopping onions or estimating cook times.

Buddhists meditate because of neuroscience.  The meditation process is initially about feeding the brain white noise.  A completely placid input, which results in the pattern matchers growing very calm and quiet. That’s because over time in normal use the brain’s pattern matchers throw all sorts of patterns up the chain that should be suppressed.  They’ve become overactive, due to the pace of life and the abundance of stimuli.

Meditation allows the matchers to sort of reset, but they also let the higher-level matchers to perform functions similar to those during sleep.  The brain rewires itself.

At some level of pattern matching, the brain uses higher level beliefs to suppress or highlight patterns.  That’s why rival football fans, watching the same game, actually see different outcomes throughout.  Their brains are suppressing what the other side sees, due to higher level beliefs about their team and the other team.  It’s the equivalent to a color filter, which highlights clashing colors and masks similar colors.

The brain would normally satiate itself on certain inputs.  For example, if you play with a dog with the same toy in the same way over and over, it will get tired of it.  However, usually it won’t because there’s enough natural variation (and social feedback) to keep it interested.  That’s why football fans don’t stop watching: there’s enough variation (and they have their brains tuned to find certain patterns interesting).

Music.  Your brain likes music.  It likes new music for the novelty of the patterns.  It likes old music for both the dependable patterns it evokes and the various memories/associations that music has.  It likes its own music, too.  Studies have shown the brain produces an internal music during sleep, likely to help with the bookkeeping that goes on.  Studies have also shown that insomnia can be partly alleviated by recording the brain’s music and playing it back when someone is trying to fall asleep.

The brain is damned intriguing.  I think I’ll stop here for now as my brain seems to have exhausted its current thoughts about its kind of system.  There’s a lot more to say, though.