Sunday, October 13, 2013

The lightbulb

"So this question, like any other about neurology, turns out to be both simply mechanical and monstrously complex. Yes, a hormone does wash through men’s brains and makes them get mad. But there’s a lot more turning on than just the hormone. For a better analogy to the way your neurons and brain chemistry run your mind, you might think about the way the light switch runs the lights in your living room. It’s true that the light switch in the corner turns the lights on in the living room. Nor is that a trivial observation. How the light switch gets wired to the bulb, how the bulb got engineered to be luminous—all that is an almost miraculously complex consequence of human ingenuity. But at the same time the light switch on the living-room wall is merely the last stage in a long line of complex events that involve waterfalls and hydropower and surge protectors and thousands of miles of cables and power grids. To say the light switch turns on the living-room light is both true—vitally true, if you don’t want to bang your shins on the sofa sneaking home in the middle of the night—and wildly misleading."

That passage is from an interesting article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker on neuroscience.  Yes, lots of New Yorker postings over the last few days.  I have been sitting on buses back-and-forth to New York, so I had some magazine reading time.

The passage above reminds me of a point once made by my brother Harry, who studied Chemistry (neuroscience, and also Religion) about the human ingenuity of the brain in shutting off all of the sensors across our body to the world that we touch.

My body is clothed in denim and cotton; I am sitting on a bus seat of soft polyester fur. It is only through the mind's sheer complexity that the brain can make the body oblivious to every point in which my skin sensors touch some foreign material.  The mind literally makes the nerve cells oblivious to the millions of sensations points it could be feeling at any given moment, so I can conduct my business unimpeded by an overflow of sensations.

An exercise Harry taught me is to stop and think, to feel, every point of which your body is connected to the seat you are sitting in, and be concious and cognizant of every point where your body is interacting with a foreign object.

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