The Brain Eaters

June 9

This isn’t really about brain eating, but it is about brains and eating them makes a way better headline than the other one I thought of. Brain research is the second-last frontier. We are making great strides in brain research, it is fascinating, and we aren’t going to like the results.

There were two stories on the same (paper!) page in last Friday’s Washington Post, one about how the brain responds to stress, and the other about funding for the Obama brain research initiative. I could make a comment about Obama’s stress levels, but I’ll let it go. And I’d link to the stress story, but it begins with “Many of us find ourselves swimming along in the tranquil sea of life…” Tranquil??? The Sea of Tranquility exists only on the moon.

In any case, the new research on the brain is moving right along, and we’ve learned enough already that I can tell you how it’s going to come out. Ready? Here it is: The brain is a collection of semi-connected potential selves and behaviors (that are in some tension with each other) waiting to be deployed depending on external circumstances. The sense of a Unitary Self, while not non-existent is to a great extent an illusion of the brain’s need to explain its behavior to itself, and others, as more consistent than it actually is. Which behavior is triggered in a given situation is a result of a fluid set of evolutionarily-determined probability-of-success proclivities. These vary somewhat from person to person, which increases the likelihood that some individuals in a genetic family will survive regardless of circumstances. The rest is just details to be filled in.

This is all fascinating, but ultimately somewhat demoralizing, just like evolution itself. Sometimes the truth just isn’t as uplifting as we hope. We learned that Earth is not the center of the universe, we learned that we are descended from other animals, we learned that space is mostly hostile and empty, and any other earth-like worlds or life forms are nearly impossibly far away. And we’re about to learn that our minds are mostly instinct-based probability-calculating machines and our behaviors and attitudes are more a result of this than conscious mental activity.

We’ll survive this new knowledge. There is nobility to be found elsewhere. For example, in the historically provable expanding sphere of human empathy, from close genetic relatives to ever-larger groups. This has resulted in more prosperity, more peace, more friendships and more love.

I said brain research is the SECOND-last frontier. The last is Artificial Intelligence, which is going to dwarf everthing before it. I hope we have some brain module prepared to deal with that.

Tom Toles is the editorial cartoonist for The Post and writes the Tom Toles blog.
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