Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between

Little grey cells

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Last week I saw inside my brain.

I’d signed up for a research study on aging which involves various questionnaires, tests and scans. My replies, actions, charts and images become anonymised data; points for the researchers to plot and analyse so that what they see might perhaps become a tiny percentage of the beginning of an idea about how the brain ages and changes.

My data will become anonymous, but with this MRI scan you can still tell that this is me, even to the stubble of my beard and the shadows under my eyes. Great, even on an MRI l look tired. And I appear to be suppressing a smile – in fact just a squeeze of my cheeks caused by the plastic frame I wore to keep my head still. And then that strange wood-effect on my skin, as if by slicing me in half like that you could count the rings to tell my age.

Then the brain itself. It is impossible not to feel a tinge of existential wonderment when you see your own brain. This strange curly cauliflower, this incredible machine that is who I am, individually constructed and rewired over 36 and a bit years, but collectively prototyped and developed over billions of years of evolution.

In the test room before I had the MRI I was given various tasks that involved pointing at a screen with a stick. For a moment I felt like a chimpanzee in a laboratory: as if these tasks of reaction, memory and recognition were connecting me with much more ancient parts of my brain than the one that had carefully read and signed the consent form.

Then, like those apes at the beginning of 2001 encountering strange advanced technology for the first time, I was led through into the MRI room and fed into the cylinder. Inside, with a mirror reflecting a coloured screen at me, and the hum and pulse of the magnets, it felt closer to being in one of those pods at the end of that film, with the researcher’s calm, procedural voice in my headphones like the voice of Hal 9000.

But no mystical star-gate for me. Instead, an eight minute edit of an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents shown on the little mirror screen – presumably to detect and measure my brain’s response to threat and suspense via fMRI. Being from 1961 it was pretty tame, but there was something about being confined in that small space, cut off from the outside world, the machine thudding and humming and vibrating, that heightened the experience. Before I knew it my brain was running away with me, playing an image in my head of an imposter in the control room, turning a comedy dial up to ‘maximum’ that would somehow make the machine turn from being a scanner to something from Scanners.

But my head was only exploded virtually.

“Here is your brain,” said the researcher afterwards as she handed me the envelope with the image in it.  I took it out and examined it, and there in the lower right hand corner were the letters HAL.

I cycled home feeling lightheaded and in a slight trance, suddenly super-aware of all the stimuli pouring in through my senses, being decoded by the magical cauliflower and being played back to me as experience.

I find thinking about cognition a bit like trying to comprehend cosmic distances – as if my brain is not advanced enough to take in its own existence.

As Christopher Hitchens said, I do not have a body; I am a body. But even the most ardent materialists (in the non-shopping sense) can’t help but wonder why the brain seems so often such a non-functional device, producing thoughts and ideas and impulses so above and beyond the necessities of survival and reproduction. In fact, scratch that, I think the ardent materialist should wonder more. If you can take refuge in the idea of a human as a created being not an evolved one you don’t necessarily have to worry about how the brain makes us what we are. You can bring in abstractions beyond the physical. But I happen to believe that whatever makes me me, and you you is all there in that twist and turn of the little grey cells.

Which makes me glad that I live in a world where the brain has created neuroscience, biology, psychology and so on to attempt to answer this. They are not there yet, not by a long shot. But they’re closer than the clerics and philosophers of old.

When it comes to why humans engage in fictional storytelling – and story-listening – science has some interesting theories. Some point to adaptive advantages that it might confer, others suggest it is more of a bi-product of a brain complex enough to handle the technical – and crucially social – complexities that we have faced over evolutionary time. Is it an extension of the factual storytelling (i.e. gossip) essential to keep tabs on our complex social worlds? Is it a simulation engine to help us practice tricky situations in the safely of our own minds? Does it have a role to play in sexual selection? Or is it just a way of creating order and meaning out of the chaos of existence? A defence mechanism that our brain has developed to help us deal with all the sensory and cognitive noise.

Reductionist biological explanations for cultural behaviours are to be treated with caution, particularly as it’s very hard to tell when in evolutionary time humans might have started telling stories. Evolutionary biology cannot explain Shakespeare. You couldn’t stick Dostoevsky in an fMRI and somehow deduce his genius by watching the flows of blood to different areas of his brain.

But what is certain, is that the strange impulse and ability to make up stories must necessarily come from that crenulated mass in the skull.

Personal instinct suggest to me that storytelling is a form of coping mechanism – an attempt at ordering and exploring thoughts that are too intangible to pull together outside of a narrative.  As Graham Greene put it:

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in a human situation.”

For Orwell, writing was the disease rather than the cure:

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”

I joke that the writing itself should be characterised as a form of mental illness. It is certainly a strange set of behaviours:

‘So, you sit in a room on your own and you lie about things?’

‘It’s not lying.’

‘Well, it’s making things up. I call that lying. And then you send those lies to someone, who has to judge how convincing those lies are. And if they do think they’re convincing lies, they’ll print them in books and sell them to other people who want to be lied to.’

‘You have to be interesting as well as convincing. Something believable can get a bit dull.’

‘So you mean you have to lie in a semi-patterned slightly outlandish way? Like the delusions of a conspiracy theorist? And who are you talking to anyway?’

‘Oh, just the cauliflower.’

So of course I can learn little about my mind from that picture of my brain. There can be no resolving the enigma of this fever chart. But it’s good to glimpse the thing that allows me to ask the question.

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One thought on “Little grey cells

  1. Pingback: Based on a true story « Oliver Francis

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