Monthly Archives: August 2002

Mysteries of the Brain Part – 3


He who would study organic existence ,
       first drives out the soul with sheer persistence ,
       then the parts in his hands he may hold and class
       but the link with the soul is lost alas

       Today’s VERITAS is inspired by an article from the Scientific American which Sakharwade gave me to read. There is very little I know about this topic… there is very little that anybody knows about this topic. I wanted to post this as a part of “MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN” series because this IS the ultimate Mystery of the Brain.

       The brain is a collection of cells that communicate with each other, perform some brain operations(storing data, telling the body what to do etc). Is that all? No! There is a basic thing missing from the above picture: consciousness…. being aware, to feel, the concept of self. Why am I sitting and writing this VERITAS mail?
I have a purpose. A picture of self that would not be complete if I do not do this. This is consciousness. The separation of self from the external world. We can create machines that process data, store information but are still so incomplete! They do not have a sense of I.

      How does this feeling of consciousness emerge from the collection of cells that we call the brain? A lot of research is being done to find an answer to this question. But this is not easy. The author of the Scientific American article  Antonio Damasio says: “But declaring defeat even before we make the attempt defies Aristotle’s observation that human beings are infinitely curious about their own self”. Well said!

Go wonderous creature, mount
where Science guides…

   Demasio’s proposal is break up the consciouness problem into two parts:

a) The “movie-in-the-brain” b) The “self”.
The “movie-in-the-brain” is the sum total of all the sensory experiences we have: the sights+ the sounds + the smells + all that we experience. The self refers to the sense of ownership we give to the “movie-in-the-brain”. This is what I see, this is happening to me etc.

 Solving the “movie-in-the-brain” part is easier and much has been achieved. The work of mapping different areas of the brain to different functions began over 150 years ago when Broca and Wernickle suggested that different parts of the brain are involved in different aspects of language processing. We have achieved a lot in this area. Scientists can today study the activity of a single neuron and relate the activity of the area it is in to a specific mental state. For example scientists have been able to figure out what brain circuits are involved in the recognition of different shapes. Edges oriented in different angles trigger off different neurons… Wow!

  But solving the “self” part of the problem is more difficult . Demasio has a theory that I will now explain. The main idea is that the cells in the brain are unique because they are about other parts of the body. Cells in any organ of the body (liver, kidney) etc just work to perform their own organ roles(that of liver or kidney etc). However the cells in the brain are , at every level of the nervous system, supposed to represent other organs or events occurring to other organs. For each part of the body there is a corresponding mapping in the brain. Demasio says “Evolution has crafted a brain that is in the business of directly representing the organism and indirectly representing whatever the organism interacts with”.

  The brain is also responsible for maintaining the internal chemical and electrical balances. So EVERYTHING that happens withing the body is mapped in the brain. But most of the work done by the brain is automated. The brain does not want to disturb the body with the mechanics of the internal process management. The brain just wants the body to take care when it faces an external stimulus. So it creates a second order
representation of the outside world in which the body’s sole aim is self preservation. So the self is a second order representation of what we must do when we are in the midst of the external stimulus: we must think about ourselves… we must be conscious… we must be aware. The part of
the brain that controls our intelligence is just given a picture of the “self” and that the “self” is the most important thing. So all our intelligence puts the self at the core of our “movie-in-the-brain”. Only the self aware organism has the ability to react to alarm signals from the “movie-in-the-brain”. Evolution demands consciousness!

  Have we explained the mind? the soul? No! we have just started. Would you like to participate in this quest?
A quest that may last a lifetime… but what a lifetime it would be! Or are you just happy playing with the silly little toys that you have “invented”??!! And you call such childish games creativity??? 🙂 . There was only one moment of Creativity. We humans can just draw His lines after Him.



 Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
 Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
 Correct old time and regulate the Sun;

Limits of Reason

It is very rare that we have a joint “session” of MHFL and VERITAS. We have it today because we discuss a poem about man’s quest for knowledge.

       The poem being posted below is a short part of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man. The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem written between the years 1732 and 1734. This poem is written in heroic couplets and can be pretty inspiring.

      The part that I post below discusses the relationship between man’s need to know(Science) and his need to love (his passions). Pope argues that man is more a passionate animal than a reasonable one. Man’s intellect is limited by his desires. Pope places limits on man’s power to reason and search for knowledge: This is something we discussed in our last VERITAS(Why Complex Numbers).

     Parts of this poem are pretty inspiring. And parts make us think if Science shall soon reach its limits. I do not believe in all that Pope says but he does have a point. I have added my own analysis after each paragraph.      

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,

The proper study of mankind is Man.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise and rudely great:

With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,

With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;

In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast;

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;

Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,

Whether he thinks too little or too much;

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall:

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

[ Analysis: In this paragraph Pope argues that man is placed somewhere between God and beast. He desires to know but he cannot let go of his old knowledge.

Pope says “Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;” that man is a curious mix of thought and passion and he is unable to decide which path to take. A beautiful line “Created half to rise, and half to fall:”. Pope argues that if man could understand just himself … that would be enough]

Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides;

Go measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;

Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,

Correct old Time, and regulate the sun;

Go, soar with Plato to th’empyreal sphere,

To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,

And quitting sense call imitating God;

As eastern priests in giddy circles run,

And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule–

Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

[ This is a most beautiful paragraph. The first four lines are very inspiring. Note that this poem was written when Newtonian PHysics was making great progress. Pope first says that ” go man do your Science , discover stuff… but in the end you shall realize how little you know”. In the last part of this paragraph Pope compares Scientists with priests from the far east who run around in circles and turn their heads to imitate sun’s motion.


Superior beings, when of late they saw

A mortal man unfold all Nature’s law,

Admired such wisdom in a earthly shape,

And show’d a NEWTON as we show an ape.

Could he, whose rules the rapid comet bind,

Describe or fix one movement of his mind?

Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend,

Explain his own beginning or his end?

Alas! what wonder! Man’s superior part

Uncheck’d may rise, and climb from art to art;

But when his own great work is but begun,

What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.

[ In this paragraph compares the relationship beween God and Man to the relationship between Man and ape. Just as man may show the ape a thing or two, God sometimes (out of amusement) may show Man a thing or two. Man thinks that he has discovered something but actually it is just a small part of the larger whole. Pope says ” how can man who cannot fix the motion of his own mind… fix the motion of celestial bodies???”. The last four lines have a sobering effect:” What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone” ]

  Readers, can we have Science with reason alone? Or do we not need passion for learning to be able to do Science.

Is passion always opposed to reason or can it be a guiding force to study, to understand, to “mount where Science guides”.

Can we accomplish ANYTHING without love?


All thoughts all passions, all delights

whatever stirs this mortal frame,

are but ministers of love ….

that feed his sacred flame


THis is not true?




  Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:                 

  Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:                 

  Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,                           

  Correct old time and regulate the Sun;