Can the Brain understand the Brain: Incompleteness, Uncertainty and Strange Loops

To make the human brain better, humans first have to understand how the brain functions.  However, that task is much more difficult than what it seems like on the surface.

Besides the great difficulties in investigating higher mental functions, which are common with all epistemology, we are faced with some unique challenges when the brain tries to study itself.  These difficulties have more in common with investigations in mathematics and physics, where problems of measuring and describing a system while being within the system itself have been studied in more detail.  These difficulties are – 1) Is it possible for an observer within the system to study and understand the system wholly and accurately; 2) Is it possible for an observer in the system to study the system without changing it; 3) How can a system reflect upon itself?

Kurt Godel described the limits of a logical system to fully understand itself in his Incompleteness Theorem: a system with self-evident assumptions (axioms) will always contain unanswerable questions if consistent and if all questions can be answered, some of the answers may not be accurate and the system will be inconsistent.   In the case of the brain, by definition, any starting point of investigation regarding the brain about itself is a  ‘self-evident’ property.  Therefore, even questions about its basic functions may be unanswerable.  This may be a reason why even the salient properties of the brain such as volition, consciousness, emotions, self-identity, and abstract thinking are so difficult to conceptualize and study. Despite decades of research, very little is known about mechanisms behind these functions.  Keeping Godel’s theorems in mind, the only way a true understanding of brain function may arise is if something outside the system would study the brain.  At present, there are two possible candidates to conduct such an investigation – an artificial entity or an alien life force. In the case of an artificial entity, the limitation would be that the artificial entity is likely to be developed by humans and so may suffer the same limitations of logical accuracy and consistency as the human brain itself.  The case of an alien life force is purely speculative and assumes that even if such an entity exists it has some interest in studying the human brain.

A second limitation of the brain studying the brain arises from the principle of physics that an observer while studying a system changes the system.  Also known as the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, this phenomenon becomes very pertinent to the brain even if the investigation is merely thinking about itself.  Descartes’ “I think therefore I am’  is not entirely accurate if as soon as somebody starts thinking about themselves, they induce a change in the ‘I am’.  Furthermore, the current methods of conducting human brain research are so intrusive and uncontrolled that the investigator or observer changes the system dramatically.  A common method is to study brain function is to use a brain scanner, e.g., a PET scan or a structural or functional MRI scan.  At present, the technology of obtaining neurochemical and physiological measures of brain function is primitive in nature and most images are noisy and distorted.   Beside brain imaging artifacts, scan testing is usually anxiety provoking, and it is difficult to translate findings from a person while lying in a scanner to a person while going about in real life.  Ethical issues of studying living human brain function lead to further confounds of subject selection, adequate controls, and confounding factors such as medications or drug use.  In this scenario, obtaining objective knowledge regarding brain functioning free of observer bias or effect seems to be quite impossible.  Quantification and statistical analyses of these images have been unable to provide any deep understanding of higher brain function in health and disease despite decades of research.  The Uncertainty Principle is difficult to get around by definition, so all that can be done is to reduce its impact as much as possible.  This requires an exponential increase in the technology to study the living brain so that information can be obtained with minimal artifacts and with the least amount of disturbance to the system.

Finally, the very process of brain delving deeper and deeper into itself, parsing its functioning and physiology into smaller bits and then coming back to how that knowledge determines behavior, identity and consciousness seems like very strange endeavor. Douglas Hofstadter has coined the term – ‘strange loop’ in which delving deeper into levels leads to coming up to the starting level again.  At present, a strange  loop seems to exist in neuroscience research between system-level neural circuit oscillations as the basis of human behavior and reductionist-formulations of a single gene or molecule determining behavior.  Brain function is thought to arise from neuronal firings which are then related to subgroups firing, then to membrane electrical potential changes, then to molecular changes such as protein changes or gene expression changes. However, this reductionist approach has not yielded any particular molecular or gene expression abnormality related to higher mental function.  Therefore, it has to be postulated that a pattern of interaction between genes or molecular changes may explain the behavior.  To test this out, dynamic pattern of changes at the molecular level need to be looped back to neuronal firing and oscillations and group of neurons firing.  Most of neuroscience research at present follows one arm of the loop: from behavior to single molecule or brain region abnormality. Even though this reductionist approach has not led to any major findings in terms of the basis for higher level mental function, it remains the dominant paradigm in neuroscience investigations.  This may be due to a stubborn reductionist philosophy in science, a byproduct of how funding mechanisms reward research into the identification of single discrete findings, and publication bias which also caters to the same biases. The other arm of the strange loop – starting from dynamic relationship of molecular changes and working up towards neuronal level firings and networks changes has not been pursued as much. Whether following the full loop will increase our understanding of the brain or such scientific investigation will meaninglessly keep on looping back on itself remains unclear at this stage.

Doors of Escape – Open or Closed: Substance Use and the Brain

Doors of EscapeSince time immemorial, humans have used substances to alter their brain function – but it has been mainly to get high.  In a 2015 review paper, researchers from Spain described that the earliest alcoholic drink dates back to nearly 7000 B.C. in China while coca leaves have been chewed since 8000 B.C. in South America.   Tobacco was being smoked from 2000 B.C. while opium has been found in skeletal remains since 600 B.C. and even prehistoric art shows use of poppy seeds in religious ceremonies.  Beside these obvious pleasure-inducing substances, hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus use has been suspected since 8600 B.C.  and mescaline, a psychedelic, use has been dated to at least 500 B.C.

Most substance use has been directed towards enhancing either emotions, thought or behavior – which usually works in the very short-term but in the long-term may actually make the brain more out of balance.  Alteration of the brain so as to lead to a more harmonious function for the betterment of society has been less of a focus of attention.  Are there any substances that can make the human brain better in terms of harmonizing emotions, thoughts and behavior?   This question has been seldom asked.

One of the characters in Kurt Vonnegut’s  book Galapagosstates – “Why so many of us knocked out major chunks of our brains with alcohol from time to time remains an interesting mystery.  It may be that we were trying to give evolution a nudge in the right direction – in the direction of smaller brain.”    Vonnegut in his half-humorous way seems to be implying that the size and workings of the brain may be too much for the brain to handle. The brain is an organ which is constantly working – producing thoughts, emotions and motor behavior that may be too exhausting or anxiety provoking and it’s functioning may need to be decreased or slowed down.  Even when there is no scarcity, humans still suffer from existential angst – a state of anxiety and lack of fulfillment that seems to be part of the human condition.  Substance use may help in decreasing this inherent state of human suffering.

Aldous Huxley chronicled his experiences under the psychedelic mescaline in the book –Door of Perception.  He was so impressed by the vivid and profound perceptions of trivial things such as a tree, the folds in his clothes, that he became a firm believer that drugs such as mescaline could lead to a state of transcendence.  He also talked about developing a substance, which only produced ‘good’ effects such as increasing our perceptions, thinking and sense of contentment but no side effects.  However, in his more famous book – Brave New World, he described a dystopian world in which the dictatorial regime made such a substance called Soma available for free use for everybody as a means of societal control.  A recent  (troubling) trend is the return of the acceptability of use of psychedelic drugs such as marijuana, ketamine and psilocybin, not only for their medicinal properties but also as lifestyle drugs in healthy individuals.

Arthur Koestler in his book ‘Ghosts in the Machine’(https://betterhumanbrainnow.com/2015/05/04/ghosts-in-the-machine/) disagreed with Huxley that drugs like mescaline and LSD can lead to some kind of Nirvana when the inherent architecture of the brain continues to remains faulty or may actually get more damaged. In the book, Koestler, gives a detailed exposition about why the faulty brain architecture may be the cause of most of humankind’s problems including the possibility of future extinction.  Next he asks –  what can be done about the situation and whether some kind of substance induced manipulation could make the thinking and emotional parts of the brain work more harmoniously?   According to Koestler, a substance that can cure the paranoid streak in mankind without other potential side effects may be the only way mankind could be saved. Koestler acknowledges that even the idea of this kind of tampering with the brain may seem fantastic and not acceptable but he states that humans would readily accept such a substance because they would see its positive effects in themselves in terms of feeling healthier.   Eventually society will see its benefits and it may even  be added to the water supply such as chlorine is added at this time.  Koestler’s hope of finding such a substance seems to be wishful thinking.  Moreover, though he used terms such as harmonious working or cooperation of brain areas with each other – he left these concepts vague.  What exactly would feeling more ‘healthy’ mean if such a state was achieved?  Koestler says that effect in an individual may be difficult to perceive but  communities will see beneficial effects such as decrease in crime rates and suicide.

Though many new psychopharmacological agents have been introduced since 1967 when ‘Ghosts in the Machine” was first published, most have been developed to treat psychiatric illnesses.  Even though the mechanism of many of the mood regulating, anxiolytics and antipsychotics is purported to be better coordination of the cortex and the limbic system – no clear cut evidence exists that these medications actually have such an effect.  Furthermore, these medications have significant side effects and administering them to healthy subjects or adding them to the drinking water seems to be out of the question.  So does any evidence exist for a substance which can change brain architecture so that the dissonance between the new cortical thinking areas and the old emotional areas can be decreased and adding it to the drinking water can lead to a decrease in society’s ills.

Lithium is a monovalent ion like sodium which is naturally found in water and in some geographical areas it is in higher concentrations compared to others.  It has been used since the early sixties in psychiatry when John Cade in Melbourne, Australia discovered that it could be used for the treatment of Bipolar Disorder. It can relieve depression, decrease manic symptoms and can also lead to mood stability.  It is one of the most neurotrophic substances known to man in that it has been shown to lead to an increase in the growth of neurons.  Beside mood stability, it has also been shown to decrease impulsive behaviors such as violence.  The only limitation for its widespread use is that in higher concentrations it is highly toxic and can lead to brain damage, cardiac arrhythmias and kidney failure.   However, in very low doses, as that are present in drinking water, it hardly has any discernible effect.  Several studies have reported lithium concentration in drinking water to  be inversely correlated with population suicide rates, homicide and crimes.  Therefore, it would seem that lithium, in low concentrations would come closest to the substance that Koestler was thinking of.  Unfortunately,  at this time the mechanism of action of lithium is not known. It also remains the only substance in its class and no other substance has yet been found which has a similar effect as lithium on mood regulation.

Even if a substance like lithium was found to have properties, which could better an individual’s mental life and decrease societal ills, it is unlikely to have a major effect in adults in whom the brain is fully formed and has limited capability of change.  So the doors of escape seem to be locked in this regard unless such a substance is shown to have an effect on children’s developing brain or even on the fetus soon after conception.   How can such an effect be studied remains an open question.

 

Should Humans Colonize Mars (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brain)

An argument to colonize Mars had gained considerable strength recently with some prominent scientists and business leaders expressing interest and drawing up plans to do so.   Mars, we are told, is very similar to Earth because of its similar diurnal cycle, existence of atmosphere, presence of water and even the possibility of life.   People however lament about the distance, the difficulty of aligning a spaceship towards Mars and difficulties of communicating with earth from so far away. But for the continuity of mankind, it is argued, it is essential to colonize another planet because a catastrophic event can happen anytime on earth – an asteroid hit or a war which leaves earth a nuclear wasteland.

Except that these two catastrophic scenarios are not the same. The first is a cosmic event over which mankind has little or no control. Humans themselves, however, will cause the second.   Despite the dangers of a full blown nuclear war being known now for nearly eight decades, mankind’s appetite for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction continues to increase unabated. Even if the existing nuclear stockpile was used in the event of a third world war a nuclear catastrophe on earth is assured. So the question arises that even if the humans were able to escape the nuclear catastrophe on earth and colonized Mars, will this scenario not replay again there. And if they escaped Mars and the same self-destructive event happened there they will need to go to another planet, then another planet and so on.   If mankind continues to develop technical abilities to develop more and more sophisticated weapons but at the same time continues to survive by hopping on to other planet(s) then in time the destructive capabilities of these weapons is bound to increase exponentially. It will then become just a matter of time whether humankind’s ability to find newer worlds can keep ahead of its capability for destroying itself.   And we will be back to the situation that we are at at present.

So before we colonize Mars, humankind may have to first confront its self-destructive tendencies, which lie deep in its brain make up. Otherwise the effort to colonize Mars may be a futile effort.   Business and scientific leaders and organizations who are focused on the technical (Musk, Enriquez, SETI etc.) aspects of colonizing Mars may want to first focus their efforts on how to make the human brain more capable of survival in the long run. Even if we do not get to Mars, such advances may make life better and more sustainable here on earth.

Ghosts in The Machine

In 1949, #GilbertRyle introduced the phrase – ‘#Ghost in the Machine’ to critique the notion that mind is distinct from the body.  The word ‘Ghost’ was used to mock the concept.

In 1967, #ArthurKoestler wrote a book with the title – ‘#GhostInTheMachine’.  Written at the height of the cold war it focused on mankind’s movement toward self destruction.  In this book, the ‘Ghost’ referred to the primitive structures in the brain that have remained preserved despite an explosive growth of the cortex which is involved in thinking.  Is this design mistake the cause of mankind’s path to self-destruction, he wondered.  He referred to #PaulMclean’s (1966) concept of the triune brain which divided the brain into a reptilian primitive brain, the emotional mammalian brain, and the thinking cortex.  Importantly, drawing on neurophysiological investigations Mclean concluded that these three brain could work independently from each other with their own inputs and outputs.

Koestler noted that other parts of the body have not evolved like the brain.  For example, the hand has evolved with little trace of the primitive claw or hoof seen in reptiles or mammals.  What if our hand had evolved like what Mclean and Koestler thought about the brain.  Here is a photoshopped picture of what the hand may look like.

Though this picture may look scary, such a hand may actually be quite useful in terms of what each part would be able to do – the claw would be very useful when to scratch or tear something apart, the hoof useful in hitting things but at the same time being warm and nice to touch and the fingers and thumb would still be available to do complex tasks.

It might be troublesome though if the three parts started working independently.  For example, the claw may scratch somoebody just when you were going to give them an outwardly warm handshake or the twisting and spasming of the claw and hoof may interfere with the fingers delicate fine movements.

Can we develop a better brainscape than what Koestler and Mclean conceptualized or is there no way out from the hand that evolution has dealt us with?