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The Weird History of Ideas About the Brain
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You may not have heard of Hilary Putnam, his is not a household name. In view of certain arguments raging between fans of science and devotees of religion and between different branches of the sciences about the composition of our universe and the questions of how we relate to it, the Harvard philosopher's work on the nature of reality and human perceptions of it we may be due for a revival of interest in his work. To date Putnam's fame has not extended far beyond the academic community but one of his thought experiments is familiar to millions of people: What it would be like to be a brain in a laboratory jar? Reason, Truth, and History (google books) published in 1981: (free download of Reason, truth and history, Kindle, Epub, PDF): "Imagine that a human being has been subjected to an operation by an evil scientist. The person's brain has been removed from the body and placed in a vat of nutrients which keeps the brain alive. The nerve endings have been connected to a super-scientific computer which causes the person whose brain it is to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. There seem to be people, objects, the sky, etc.; but really, all the person is experiencing is the result of electronic impulses travelling from the computer to the nerve endings.”
experience emotions and where creative impulses arise although more advanced medical thinking recognises there is much evidence to suggest the brain and the mind are different things. and emotions are encoded in electrical impulses in the brain and therefore it is the body's control room. There is no reason at all why anybody would think a living heart driven by technology was interesting. indeed such devices are already being experimented with as I write. And yet the idea that a scientist could create a full-fledged experience for someone in their brain remains plausible. Hollywood made billions from the idea by making it the basis of he Matrix franchise. an indispensable aid is the Google Ngram Viewer. Different versions of the brain in a bottle theme featured in Star Trek and Doctor Who episodes. . memories. the story exploded. the hormones maintain subconscious lines of communication and manage responses to changing conditions. it's also absurd to think that a human brain could be kept alive in a vat the brain is the most complex and least understood organ. It accords with how we think about the brain and with the misconception that the brain and the mind are the same thing. the number of times the theme appeared rising like a rocket into orbit. The most important aspect about the success of the brain in a vat and its many derivatives is that the idea only makes sense if the organ involved is a brain. The story circulated in obscure philosophy journals for over a decade before Putnam laid it out in his book and has also featured in novels and movies. Results show that Putnam' speculative account of the life of a brain in a bottle certainly resonated in the mindset of the late twentieth century. If Putnam had suggested you imagine an evil scientist had removed your heart. This article does not intend to journey to the outer limits however (I'm building up to that). Descartes imagined a satanic genius. where the body's chemical messengers. Starting in the 1960s. causing you to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. and connected its veins and arteries to a computer. Plato imagined people looking at shadows cast by a fire in a cave. philosophers began to muse about what it would be like to be a brain in a vat.Philosophers have considered for thousands of years how we can be sure that what we're experiencing is a common reality or some shadowy deception. The conventional wisdom also suggests it is where we store memories. This would strike a reader or viewer listener as remarkable. with reality supplied by a computer. To examine the evolution of the "brain in a vat" idea. He put your heart in a vat. rather than your brain. We all know that the brain is where we receive and process sensory information and generate commands to the limbs and organs. Given the current state of technology. a web site that can search for any word or phrase you supply in Google's digital library of millions of books and magazines. for now we will work on the basis that all those sensations.
for example. when the patient is pronounced brain dead the life support system can be switched off. It also has the consistency of custard.). Aristotle. and if it could receive the right electrical impulses. Many of their explanations feel weirdly alien today. which was cold by nature. For all the cognitive power we now assume the human brain contains. and the rest of the body. the brain. believed that the heart was responsible for perceptions and actions and the brain was something like a refrigerator. and what he could see for himself. Who could ever think that in that goo could be found anything having to do with the complex and highly individual psyche that makes us who we are When early anatomists examined the heart. There were no microscopes that could reveal to him the intricate filigree of neurons in the brain and the nervous system. By the time the anatomist had sawed open the skull." This may seem crazy now but More was not an idiot. How could the man hailed as the founder of Western biology misunderstood the brain so completely? Aristotle was working from what was known at the time. he might well be looking at nothing but blush-colored goo. they came up with explanations for what each organ did. most of us can agree it is the center of our world. then logically the person whose brain had been removed would go on having the same experiences as before.Were it possible then to keep a brain in a bottle alive. Instead of seeing it as an . It was made of phlegm. and so its coldness could flow down to balance out the raging heat of the heart. such a low view of the brain was eminently sensible. No one even suspected that nerves existed. After all we live in a world where the death of the brain is equivalent to death itself. If an ancient anatomist decided to investigate the organs of a cadaver. Society did not always think of the brain in this way. But after death. Given the philosophical and medical traditions in which he was educated. he would have had no trouble pulling out the heart and manipulating its rugged chambers and valves. the brain's enzymes demolish its exquisite delicacy quickly almost as if some higher power had decreed that humans were not permitted to decode its working processes (you can argue among yourselves over what I mean by that. Although we have no direct evidence from experience of how the brain works. Henry More. Others in ancient Greece took a more sympathetic view of the brain. it also made up largely of fat and water as is suet. an English enlightenment philosopher wrote in 1652 that the brain "shows no more capacity for thought than a cake of suet or a bowl of curds.
Vesalius pushed anatomy in a new direction. they drew absurd atlases of the insides of the head. He waited for the wax to cool. picked up on the discoveries and published an account in his 1543 masterpiece. And to understand the structure of the brain. so that they could remain a channel for the animal spirits that he assumed gave life to the body. muscle and organs. Christian thinkers in medieval Europe demonstrated the danger of too much thinking and not enough empiricism. leaving the ventricles to collapse like a ship's sails on a windless day. with the Inquisition very active. and then opened up the ox's skull. Leonardo wanted to see for himself. The wax.De Humani Corporis Fabrica that the true anatomy of the brain was finally understood. In the sixteenth century. that the ventricles looked nothing like the medieval chambers. such a proposal could have raised the ire of the church and led to an early and very unpleasant death. In one of his notebooks we can see what Leonardo observed in his wax impression of an ox's brain. even going so far as to question Leonardo's assumptions about how the ventricles workings worked. inflating them like string-shaped balloons (not all that far removed from modern String theory . was set in motion by animal spirits. It somehow didn't matter that no one could ever see such chambers in the brains of cadavers. Even Leonardo da Vinci was in its thrall. He filled notebooks with revelatory sketches of bone. having filled the ventricles of the brain. The body. Bayes? What a genius Da Vinci was). they brought together the Bible with ancient Greek philosophy including this view of the brain. and it was the job of the brain to squeeze down and push them along. The spirits flowed through cavities in the head. Whereas previous generations of anatomists might simply consult the work of an ancient Greek writer. After having an ox slaughtered.they're both totally bonkers). But we can also see how Leonardo grafted onto that anatomical discovery his medieval ideas about how the brain worked (Baysean inference 300 years before Rev. This vision of how the brain worked held sway over many great minds. the animal spirits departed the body. dominated by three ventricles linked by channels in a row. Anatomists had an explanation at the ready: Post mortem. would preserve their structure. Various distractions prevented Leonardo from completing his work and it was not until a younger anatomist. However he stopped short of proposing an alternative explanation. They swept up through the brain like hollow horns or wriggled between the hemispheres. In their books on anatomy. they believed. Leonardo injected hot wax into its skull. . Andreas Vesalius. which coursed through the nervous system. he devised a brilliant experiment. He created links between the ventricles where none existed. they viewed it more like a pump.air conditioner.
he argued. Damage to different parts of the brain. This synthesis led Willis to a radically new picture of the brain and its functions. like all dogmas. led to different kinds of disorders.' It was the first book to contain accurate anatomical drawings of the brain in full. subject to the laws of physics and chemistry.Anatomists who followed him gradually began to publish their own research. discovered how to preserve delicate organs like brains in alcohol. Willis and his friends and colleagues combined their insights with observations of thousands of patients. The term natural philosophers may seem unfamiliar now but we must remember the terms "science" and "scientists" is a modern and very inadequate word to describe the cast range of subjects and methods of studying them that were formerly grouped under the umbrella of philosophy. It was not until a century after his death that Luigi Galvani discovered that electric current could travel down nerves. were mere infoldings. which had once been assumed to channel the animal spirits. Natural philosophers recognized that the same kinds of chemical reactions that turned grape juice into wine were operating inside the human body. Willis now had the luxury of time to examine the brain in detail and with another friend. Galvani's Frog . Willis argued that energies travelled through paths inside the brain to carry out different functions. Science. as well as careful experiments in which he injected ink into the cerebral arteries to trace their paths. The scientific revolution replaced the four humours of the body with atoms and molecules. often thought of as the father of modern chemistry. and so he could not guess that the phenomenon he witnessed in a lightning storm was taking place in his own head. He knew nothing about electricity. The ventricles. Willis' friend Robert Boyle. can be learned by rote. philosophy is a lifelong and all consuming quest for understanding. The philosophical revolution of the enlightenment era went on at an ever quickening pace in many areas. Willis was still enmeshed in his age. not just on the structure of the body. Willis' success was to some extent due to the company he kept. His assistant Richard Lower (later the pioneer of blood transfusions) was able to dissect brains that had been completely removed from the cadavers skull. not least in the quest to understand the human brain and mind. In 1664 the English physician Thomas Willis published the first book dedicated to the organ: 'The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves. but also on its function. Like any scientist. Christopher Wren to take care of the intricate illustrations of the brain knowledge and understanding of the organ's physical properties advanced vastly. finally banishing animal spirits from neurology.
any internet. And for the pompous bell end who informed me not long ago that 'a computer scientist named Vint Cerf invented the internet. systems had been developed developed for using a digital system of ones and zeroes to carry out computations on data enabling the electro . By 1962 the system was global.mechanical telex switches to be replaced by computers. The telegraph's dribble of binary pulses was the origin of today's torrents of Internet communication. In 1844 Samuel Morse launched the first commercial telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. among a long list of other things. deeply embedded in internet datagram packets. Doubters would travel by the first available train to the destination interrogate recipients and independent witnesses in person to confirm messages had arrived. Messages transmitted from teletypewriters were automatically routed. combining flows of information to produce new outputs. At first people refused to believe that a message could fly down a wire. Imagine how those doubters might have reacted had they been told their experience of the telegraph was made possible by similar pulses of electricity travelling through their nerves and brains.In the time of Galvani and his rival Alessandro Volta. No one imagined that it would power industrial civilisation. . It may come as a surprise to the babbling science fans who insist that "the internet was invented by "scientists" in the 1970s or 80s that it's origins go back to 1844 but people who believe the universe was created in seven thought experiments by Albert Einstein in 1905 are really never going to have much chance of getting a grip on reality are they? The first true store and forward systems which can be said to be the true ancestor of the internet were the Telex systems which originated in the UK and USA in the 1930s. what Cerf did (or to be correct was part of the team that did it) was develop a digital version of the analogue RS232 or CCITT V24 flow control protocol which also evolved from Telex technology. stored if necessary and eventually delivered to another teletypewriter in a remote location. Many of the special non printing control characters incorporated in the telex code are still used today. electricity was an amusement. Nor could they imagine that electricity could deliver messages over great distances nearly instantaneously. Transistors sent signals to one another. the stuff of parlour tricks. Another science head recently and rather patronisingly told me when I was talking about the arrogance of scientists that were it not for scientists there would be. The true father of all automatic switching and routing electronic communication technologies was Almon B Strowger.
many operators sitting in long rows plugging countless plugs into countless jacks. in which sensations travelled into the brain as input. with many. neurons or transistors could do the job equally well in his view. In a way he was." It should be remembered here. It was this totally erronious line of thinking (but one that many science freaks cling to because they are so alienated from their own humanity and enamoured with the idea of humans becoming nothing more than programmable biological computers) that made the brain in a vat such an attractive idea for people to absorb. There was need for a break-through of some kind. telephone central offices grew more and more complex. As computers and digital technology developed it became increasingly clear that brains and electronics had a lot in common. Strowger went a long way towards providing it. Putnam was no neuroscientist and didn't care much about the details of how one neuron connected to another. The switchboards were something to behold. Strowger was an undertaker in Kansas City and in 1891. He had some good reasons for being disgruntled with his telephone service. Putnam was developing a computational theory of mind. As the telephone business grew faster and faster in America’s larger cities. electronics and the brain were seamless. was a scientist.So you might think Strowger. . he argued that the structure of thought itself showed signs of being the product of computation. inventor of the telephone switch. but in a geometric ratio. The cost of adding new subscribers had risen to the point foreseen in the earlier days. One large city general manager wrote that he could see the day coming soon when he would go broke merely by adding a few more subscribers. and Mr. It didn't much matter what carried out those computations. this must have been a thrilling development. because a lot of science freaks labour under the misapprehension that digital communications works by sending streams of 1s and 0s that in fact the digits 1 and 0 are simply the way we conveniently represent the positive (+) and negative (-) electrical pulses of binary information. To philosophers like Hilary Putnam. he decided to take the matter in hand and do something about it. his science was enbalming. and the brain then functioned like a computer to produce output commands. then surely it should be possible for "scientists" (but not natural philosophers who are much smarter) to have their wish and turn us all into unthinking droids controllable from a single command center. and that cost was continuing to rise. For he claimed to have invented the dial telephone system. here's a short extract from a Bell Systems document: "Mr. If experiments had shown. Instead. not in a direct. irritated beyond endurance because he thought potential customers were being given a rival's number by central office operators.
which allow us to control our and make conscious decisions. the brain does not create for us a mathematical model of reality of the world. and have evolved to depend on a continual interaction via the central nervous system between themselves and the muscles. but they are still and infinity away from being real possibilities. as recent discoveries have shown. It processes information in a massively parallel fashion. suppose our minds did behave like computers. If we humour the scientists who cling to the science of the 1950s for a moment. there is no personalised desktop waiting to serve us when we boot up. but only useful predictions based on input from the senses and memories plucked at random from a store we do not understand . we manage to cobble together enough information to navigate our way through the daily battle for survival.) Out of all that barely understood stuff and another human mystery. we are not machines. Human memory (data) does not exist like bits and bytes in a USB memory stick. rather than doing so sequentially. no one has as yet come up with a theory that makes any sense. as manmade computers do. consciousness. Nor do our brains as computers do. sometimes just plain whacky ways. instinct and emotion play a far bigger part in forming our thoughts and decisions than reason and logic. how our memories are stored is one of the greatest mysteries of the human mind. While many scientists are exploring the nature of consciousness and the human mind in sometimes inventive. is not computational.These are entertaining ideas to play with. The mind. Are we brains in a vat? It is as hard to prove we are or are not as to prove the existence or non existence of God. Our mental computations are just as mysterious. RELATED POSTS: Philo and Sophia Ian Thorpe's Homepage Computer Think Like Human Helping The Mind Cope With Stress In These Difficult Times People Need A Hobby – Like Splitting The Atom . that does not mean they resembles any computer humans have built or will ever prove capable of building. Brains are embedded in bodies. OK. organs. the stuff of science fiction and horror fiction. endocrine system and other bits (I'm not a biologists.
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