A deeply red oak leaf catches the rays of the late autumn sun. For a moment there is a deep sigh of wind. The leaf detaches from the branch, is carried along a bit and then swings down on the wind.
I must have been watching too many films and hear a deep bass thud as the leaf flattens itself on the earth. This is a small scene of seeing, of colour and movement and of an associated sound that comes from another remembered context. Reality perceived in my head and something more! A reality, two looking eyes and a memory. And everything is happening in my brain. And I, I am aware of that.
Our brain can be seen as the complex whole of the brain, the nervous system and the senses. If we think in evolutionary terms, the brain came into being and developed further because it offered the developing human being excellent chances of survival.
The brain has an inside and an outside. The inside is strangely elusive: who am I, the observer and thinker in that brain? The ‘I’ interacts with the outside through the brain and the wider body. However, the ‘I’ knows only a small part of the inside. It has itself originated as an emergent property – something that rises to the surface and transcends its origins – composed primarily in the processing of sensory input, on a second level in thinking about that input, processed or otherwise, and thirdly, in thinking about itself as a thinker. That’s quite a lot!
These three levels of information processing give rise to ideas such as: me and my body in a reality with the dimensions of space and time. And thoughts like: what have I done? And: I am such a fool. And: what can I do tomorrow to make my spouse happy? We think in the time dimension.
I experience myself as a potentially evolving continuity. That leads to questions like: why do I exist myself, and why does the reality I perceive exist? So my brain operates from the very concrete to the rather abstract.
How does the primary perception, the seeing, work? It is interesting to note that seeing is not a fixed given of light falling through a lens onto a ‘film’, but appears to arise from a development: as newly born beings, we make attempts to create a coherent visual story from seeing, moving – what we both see and feel from inside the body – and touching as feeling from the outside and sometimes also hearing or perceiving with the other senses.
A model of the world
From our earliest impressions, a model of the world is thus formed in our brain, with ourselves in that world. It is this model of the world that constantly evolves on the basis of testing the model, the topographic map, against the latest observations, the latest sensory input from the land beyond. The connections between the brain and, for example, the eyes, function very intensively in both directions. The brain sends information to the thalamus, the eyes perceive, the thalamus determines the difference between the information brought in from the brain and that which comes in from the eyes and sends a difference signal to the brain, the cortex, for processing. Seeing, the visual cortex, uses about a third of the brain volume and, like any brain activity, requires an enormous amount of energy. The brain exists to keep the whole organism of which it is a part alive as successfully as possible. Being successful means, among other things, using the energy we extract as chemical energy from food as efficiently as possible. Our stomach as a power station… The brain will therefore direct the process of seeing and observing in such a way that we acquire the maximum amount of useful information to be able to move safely through the environment. Hence the perception of the difference instead of a continuous full film recording. In the same quest for efficiency, the brain will also automate as many algorithms controlling the organism as possible, storing them as subroutines, as flow charts that can be used over and over again in different combinations. Think of the app in your brain for cycling. Conscious thinking, which requires a lot of energy, is hardly needed anymore. Professional athletes have, through intensive practice, stored routines to see, for example, a tennis ball approaching at a speed of 160 km per hour and to hit it back where the player wants it to go. Or in a Formula 1 race with 22 drivers to the next corner at 330 km per hour.
An interesting aspect of perception is the synchronisation of the senses, the handling of time. Information from the ears requires less processing time than information from the eyes; hence, sprint races start at the shot from a starting gun. When we snap our fingers, our brain synchronises the perceptions of movement, touch, sight and hearing, even though the signals arrive at different times. Synchronisation here literally takes place in the blink of an eye!
How do we see in colour? The world around us is a whole of electromagnetic fields, sources of radiation; either directly as a source or indirectly by reflecting some of the striking light. Of the radiation that hits the retina in our eyes, a very precise part, according to wavelength, can be converted into electrochemical signals that go to the brain, the visual cortex. This information, or the change in this information, is then used to superimpose the perception of the different colours on our world view. The next layer in the model of the world is then superimposed on this and contains the specifically interpreted perception of movement and position, processed in two specialised areas of the visual cortex.
I am in my head as a conscious observer of myself in the world. However, my world view is overwhelmingly determined by the information already stored in my brain from previous observations, from life experience. That storage is guided by the processes that instinctively indicate in the brain whether what comes in contributes to survival – reward – or, on the other hand, endangers survival – no reward. Think of the happiness hormone dopamine, which has a signalling function in this respect. Priority setting takes place.
We make choices based on our emotions. That is: perceiving, feeling the state of tension in our body, which arises in response to incoming information, usually before any thinking takes place. This emotional information processing takes place in the older, more primitive and faster parts of the brain. Their adage: first and foremost survival!
The impact of chemical/biochemical elements on information processing in the brain is interesting. A small variation in the chemistry of the blood, and thus in the chemistry of the brain, has a major impact on both our emotions and our perception. And thus on the image of me and the world. You can think for example of the sugar level in your blood – how clear is your head after a big piece of whipped cream pie? – or alcohol.
So far you have seen some elements of the-brain-in-action and inescapably subjective perception, with the main conclusion being that the ‘autobiography’ is very decisive and knits together the moments of perception. From that we derive a sense of self, an I-consciousness in the world.
That consciousness also uses its higher brain functions to think about itself in time and reality. Through cultural development, human beings have now reached the point where a number of individuals reflect on goals that lie beyond time and space. Human thought has developed into a spiritual dimension, and that spiritual dimension uses its own language that differs from scientific language. Spiritual language offers the possibility of thinking beyond borders. It starts from the physicality of man and specifically from the brain and the organisation of the head. But from there it moves higher in its thinking. Meanwhile, neuroscientists in their world of language and thought are diligently searching for the nature and the genesis mechanisms of human consciousness on an evolutionary basis, stubbornly denying any as yet unknown influence coming from outside the functional human head.
(To be continued in part 2)