Brainless

From a recent essay by the paediatric neurosurgeon Michael Egnor:

I watched the CAT scan images appear on the screen, one by one. The baby’s head was mostly empty. There were only thin slivers of brain – a bit of brain tissue at the base of the skull, and a thin rim around the edges. The rest was water.

Her parents had feared this. We had seen it on the prenatal ultrasound; the CAT scan, hours after birth, was much more accurate. Katie looked like a normal newborn, but she had little chance at a normal life. She had a fraternal-twin sister in the incubator next to her. But Katie only had a third of the brain that her sister had. I explained all of this to her family, trying to keep alive a flicker of hope for their daughter.

I cared for Katie as she grew up. At every stage of Katie’s life so far, she has excelled. She sat and talked and walked earlier than her sister. She’s made the honor roll. She will soon graduate high school.

I’ve had other patients whose brains fell far short of their minds. Maria had only two-thirds of a brain. She needed a couple of operations to drain fluid, but she thrives. She just finished her master’s degree in English literature, and is a published musician. Jesse was born with a head shaped like a football and half-full of water – doctors told his mother to let him die at birth. She disobeyed. He is a normal happy middle-schooler, loves sports, and wears his hair long.

Some people with deficient brains are profoundly handicapped. But not all are. I’ve treated and cared for scores of kids who grow up with brains that are deficient but minds that thrive. How is this possible?

[https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/reconciliation/science-and-the-soul]

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I wrote along similar lines in Genesis and the Big Bluff, my critique of Genesis and the Big Bang [available on this website for download]. Here is an excerpt from the essay:

On page 147 of Genesis and the Big Bang, Dr. Schroeder touches on the human brain:

The shapes of the interiors of fossil skulls indicate that even the three-layered structure of our brains has existed for at least hundreds of thousands of years… What appears to be the oldest part of our brain is a mass of nerves at the top of the spinal cord. In this region, referred to as the stem, or brain stem, automatic body functions such as breathing and heartbeat are controlled. Overlying the brain stem is the reptilian part of our brain, where the instincts for territorial control and for fight or flight are seated… Above the reptilian brain lies the limbic system… The most recent part of the brain to evolve is the cerebral cortex… The very fact that the brain is layered, with each successive advance in intellectual development literally placed on top of its predecessor, indicates a pattern in development of brain morphology…

Knowledge of the human brain has been completely transformed by the progress made during the Decade of the Brain. This was a designation for 1990-1999 by U.S. president George H. W. Bush to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research. The main engines driving this progress were the new technologies known as PET scanning and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) which enabled researchers to scan the working brain of volunteers as they conducted various mental tasks…

The next era in brain research was characterised by the computer metaphor, in which the brain was likened to a massive information-processing machine. It yielded useful insights, but had to be abandoned eventually. One reason was that the comparison stretched the imagination. Communications expert Charles Jonscher writes:

We don’t just have the power of a single computer in our heads. The true comparison would be a figure more like twenty billion computers. The complexities involved are genuinely difficult to imagine. [Charles Jonscher, Wired Life: Who Are We in the Digital Age? Bantam 1990. It is estimated that the human brain has the potential to perform a quadrillion computations per second, which far outstrips the capacity of even the most sophisticated supercomputers.]

Another reason why the computer metaphor was abandoned is the discovery of astonishing neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to rewire itself. Let us examine some examples. The first concerns a fifty-five-year-old lorry driver who was involved in a motor accident and subsequently underwent a brain scan (see below). The scan revealed a massive congenital cyst which occupied much of his skull. And yet, the lorry driver was a normal individual, whose condition was never suspected until he underwent a scan. The reason for this is that during his childhood, his brain (what there was of it) reallocated a whole variety of functions to different regions of its real estate. [Leonard Yuen, British Medical Journal, 2003, volume 327, page 998.]

The second example is even more astonishing:

There’s a young student at this university who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain. [Roger Lewin, Is Your Brain Really Necessary? Science, 210 (12 December 1980): 1232.]

The student’s physician at the university noticed that the youth had a slightly larger than normal head, and so referred him, out of interest, to a neurologist:

When we did a brain scan on him, we saw that… his cranium is filled mainly with cerebro-spinal fluid.

This may seem to be a cover story from The National Enquirer, but it is in fact research reported by John Lorber, a neurologist and professor at Sheffield University.

As research during the Decade of the Brain progressed, it turned out that the properties of the mind can be programmed onto any part of the brain. This emerged dramatically in the early 1980s when paediatric neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center sought to treat children with intractable epilepsy by means of a last-ditch operation of excising the affected half of the brain. They anticipated that this would cause paralysis or loss of speech. To their delight, the results proved extremely encouraging:

We were always amazed. Here they are running, jumping, talking, doing well in school… able to lead a normal life. The worst they suffered from losing half a brain was some impairment of peripheral vision and fine motor skills on one side of the body. [James Le Fanu, Why Us? Pantheon Books 2009, pages 191-192.]

In its August 2003 edition, Scientific American published an article on the cerebellum entitled Rethinking the “Lesser Brain”. The article reviewed research into this baseball-sized, bean-shaped brain tissue and its functions. The authors note that:

What is even more confounding is that people can recover from cerebellar injury. Although total removal of the cerebellum initially disrupts movement coordination, individuals (particularly young ones) can, with sufficient time, regain normal function to a considerable degree. Such plasticity is a general characteristic of the brain…

In the overview, the following point is made:

Removing the cerebellum from young individuals often causes few obvious behavioural difficulties, suggesting that the rest of the brain can learn to function without a cerebellum.

The September 2003 edition of Scientific American was a special issue dedicated to the brain. In the introductory article (page 27), the magazine noted that

The most important realization to emerge during the Brain Decade is that the organ being feted is more changeable than we ever thought. Even in maturity, some areas of the brain can renew themselves – a fact astonishingly contrary to a century of neurologists’ dogma.

One key lesson here is that one cannot conceive of the brain – as does Dr. Schroeder – as a simple assemblage of Lego-like, discrete modules tacked on by natural selection over millions of years. This research also refutes the notion that a gradual increase in brain capacity over eons transformed primitive hominids into intelligent homo sapiens. The brain is an integrated whole.

This is how Professor David Hubel summarises the conundrum raised by the latest research:

This abiding tendency for attributes such as form, colour and movement to be handled by separate structures in the brain immediately raises the question of how all the information is finally assembled, say for perceiving a bouncing red ball. It obviously must be assembled, but where and how, we have no idea.

[END OF EXCERPT]

Dr Egnor continues:

How does the mind relate to the brain? This question is central to my professional life. I thought I had it answered. Yet a century of research and thirty years of my own neurosurgical practice have challenged everything I thought I knew.

The view assumed by those who taught me is that the mind is wholly a product of the brain, which is itself understood as something like a machine. Francis Crick, a neuroscientist and the Nobel laureate who was the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, wrote that “a person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them.”

This mechanical philosophy is the result of two steps. It began with Rene Descartes, who argued that the mind and the brain were separate substances, immaterial and material. Somehow (how, neither Descartes nor anyone else can say) the mind is linked to the brain – it’s the ghost in the machine…

In the middle of the twentieth century, neurosurgeons discovered that they could treat a certain kind of epilepsy by severing a large bundle of brain fibers, called the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain. Following these operations, each hemisphere worked independently. But what happened to the mind of a person with his or her brain split in half?

The neuroscientist Roger Sperry studied scores of split-brain patients. He found, surprisingly, that in ordinary life the patients showed little effect. Each patient was still one person. The intellect and will – the capacity to have abstract thought and to choose – remained unified. Only by meticulous testing could Sperry find any differences: their perceptions were altered by the surgery. Sensations – elicited by touch or vision – could be presented to one hemisphere of the brain, and not be experienced in the other hemisphere. Speech production is associated with the left hemisphere of the brain; patients could not name an object presented to the right hemisphere (via the left visual field). Yet they could point to the object with their left hand (which is controlled by the right hemisphere). The most remarkable result of Sperry’s Nobel Prize­–winning work was that the person’s intellect and will – what we might call the soul – remained undivided.

The brain can be cut in half, but the intellect and will cannot. The intellect and will are metaphysically simple.

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Most evolutionary biologists are reductionists, viewing biology as reducible to chemistry and chemistry as reducible to physics (at least in principle). But there is a vast body of evidence that suggests that not all phenomena are reducible to elementary particles. In particular, the human brain resists all attempts to reduce its wonders into a kludge of goo, a la Francis Crick. There is every reason to believe – on scientific grounds alone – that there is something beyond mechanistic, blind processes going on inside the most complex known object in the universe.

 

 

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