Monday, 21 November 2011

Body and brain: one system

Neurological research is uncovering new mysteries about our thinking and consciousness.

A sense of self, emotions, language , mathematical thinking, mental tendencies, willpower, rational thought and intuition all are associated not just with the brain but with the body. The associations and information transfer mechanisms are extraordinarily complex and many time-synchronised neural impulses in different parts of the brain-body system seem totally unconnected by neural pathways.

It is not, in my view, possible to understand the overall reality of what is happening when a person interacts with the surrounding world, in a reductionist way, considering various subsystems in isolation. Each subsystem interacts with innumerable other subsystems in a miraculously complex way to result in one system  - a human being - which itself is related to other systems, including other people, the myriad living systems of nature and perhaps the whole universe.  (I hold the belief that our ultimate self is the soul: transcendental and beyond science and beyond mind.)

Nevertheless, some of these subsystems within us are fascinating. Here are some examples from a recent article in the New Scientist (Your Clever Body by David Robson, p.35-38, Oct 15, 2011).  

  • A basic map of the body appears to be located in one part of the brain (the right temporoparietal junction). Sensory data from the body enters two different centres in the brain – the parietal cortex and the premotor cortex.  Each centre also receives data from the body map and compares the two types of data. The processed data from these two centres then stream into a 4th area called the insular cortex and it here that a feeling of embodiment is somehow generated.

  • The insular cortex is also responsible for interoception, which is the ability to become aware of bodily processes such as the heart pulse and intestinal activity. Emotional processing also occurs here.

  • Creativity and lateral thinking are affected by certain bodily movements, e.g. extending your left arm in front of you or bending your right arm at the elbow, or moving your eyes from left to right across the field of vision.

  • We associate experiences of loneliness and friendliness with feelings of coldness and warmth.

  • The physical sensation of smiling can cause a feeling of happiness, as well as vice versa.

  • Walking backwards or tensing muscles can increase your will power; and folding your arms can make you more persistent at a task.

  • When people are asked to think of random numbers they think of smaller numbers when looking down to the left, and vice versa when looking up to the right.

  • People learn and remember better when they play-act or are encouraged to gesture while reading. It is thought that movements somehow activate an implicit understanding of the material.

There is also the  fact of mind over matter in healing or overcoming apparently impossible tasks in athletics. There is absolutely no doubt about this. The placebo effect is as much a fact in medicine as helping bones to heal by using plaster. Even more startling is the recent research which shows that neural impulses associated with, say, raising our arm, occur before we are conscious of the decision to do so.

The more we find out about the workings of the brain-body system the more mysterious it becomes and I thank the Lord for it.

Author, 2077 AD