Tuesday, June 3, 2008

How the brain works, part 1

[ The following is a blog entry from a previous blog which no longer exists. I'm moving it here. - raj ]
I want to investigate a topic which I find very interesting and which I firmly believe a large number of people are rather confused about. It's a rather large topic, so it will probably take a while to investigate it fully, but we'll see. I'll give it a start tonight (on the evening of my birthday). 

There seems to be a common belief that human emotions and "feelings" are one of our most prized possessions. We've all heard statements such as, "you should follow your feelings," and "love is what makes us human." Well, I'd like to challenge this notion. 

First of all, I think many people are confusing two different things here. Many people tend to use the word "feelings" to describe both emotions as well as intuitions. The first quote I mentioned above, "you should follow your feelings," is talking about intuition. It's saying you should pay attention to the unconscious part of your brain; that background processor you have which is constantly trying to analyze the input from your senses, trying to fit things together, make sense of patterns, etc. This is good advice, by the way. The unconscious mind is like free CPU time on a background processor. It can give a lot more thought to events, etc., because it doesn't need to bother with all of the day-to-day thinking which we do. (It's also intimately related to dreams, but more on that later.) 

The second quote, "love is what makes us human," is actually talking about a purely emotional response and this is the statement with which I have problems. I simply do not believe that "love" makes us human. I believe that all animals with any higher brain functions at all have emotions. Anyone who has had a pet dog or cat can see this clearly. 

Conversely, to what many people seem to believe, I firmly believe that emotions are produced by the lower level reptilian brain and not the higher level ape/human brain, and I have anecdotal evidence. For example, people will sometimes get mad about something and then immediately afterward say something like, "I don't know where that came from." People will also say, "It's like anger just took over and he became like an animal." We've all had experiences where we have suddenly become overwhelmed by emotion, love, anger, fear, etc., and couldn't really control it. Why is it that we don't seem to know where these emotions come from? I'll tell you. We don't know where they come from because they're coming from our lower-level reptilian brain. The response to input is coming from there and then rushing into our higher level brain functions, overwhelming us, and it takes us by surprise. 

So, if emotions from our lower level brain, then it would stand to reason that other animals would only have emotional reactions since they lack the higher level reasoning ability of humans, right? Well, look around you and you'll see evidence of this all over. Take some time to study the reactions of various animals and see if you can put yourself into their situation. Try to see the world as something which you don't understand but can only approach using terms as "scary", "friendly", "mad", "happy", etc., and you will suddenly realize that you're reacting in basically the same way as your pet! 

Cats and dogs have a very small ability to figure things out but mostly they mimic (learn) what they see. They're reactions to world events are almost purely emotional. This is why we hear about a family dog suddenly turning on someone and biting them, for example. Their brain suddenly produced an emotional reaction which said, "fight!" and they did just that. There's no reasoning going on there. (Right now, my wife is asleep with our cat curled up right beside her. When she leaves the house, the cat gets upset. When she returns, the cat is overjoyed to see her. Those are perfect expressions of "love" and "attachment". Emotions.) 

So, my first point in what will hopefully become a long investigation is that, far from being "what makes us human," it's the ability to think and reason which makes us human. Emotions are ALL the lower animals have. We have reasoning ability in addition. Reasoning is what makes us human. 

Over the next few days, notice when you suddenly feel some strong emotion and try to figure out what would have triggered it. In most, possibly all, cases you will find it was triggered by some conjunction of experiences of which you are probably barely aware. You will find that the emotion comes to you from somewhere and you can't really pin down exactly why or from where. It seems to arise of its own from deep within. (All of these terms have been used to describe the experience. I'm suggesting that there's a really good reason why. Deep down, we all know that emotions are a simpler, more basic, way of viewing the world and they come from a more primitive part of our brain which has almost nothing to do with our higher brain functions.) 

But don't confuse emotions with intuition. There are definitely NOT the same. Animals don't have intuition. They DO have emotions. It's ALL they have. 

(So, maybe we need to think again about what we value most as "human", eh?)
 a lot of scientists would agree that animals have emotions. (Notice in this article that even the argument "against" agrees that animals have emotions, but simply argues against attributing them with a human-like experience. 

After re-reading this article, I think I would change the statement that animals don't have intuition. They do seem to have a form of intuition as well as having an emotional response to what happens around them. What they don't seem to have is higher level brain functions such as logic and reason. Of course, some primates seem to have some of these higher level functions to some degree, but point of the article was simply that emotions come from the lower level parts of the brain, not the higher level parts.