Brain Science and Identity

On 1 July 2009, Professor Ernst Poppel gave a presentation at my workplace  titled “Who am I – who are we?  A brain science view towards identity”.  Professor Poppel is a brain researcher, Chair of the Board of Directors at the Center for Human Science, and Director of the Institute for Medical Psychology, University of Munich.

Ernst opened with the statement that brain science is interesting and he certainly made it so.  He stated that the brain is continuously thinking without conscious control.  Rather than the phrase “I think”, we should consider it as “It thinks”.  Hence, when you get an insight of sudden understanding, the brain has actually already been thinking about it for a while beforehand.  This part of tacit knowledge (right hemisphere, implicit, intuitive) is like a giant ocean compared with just small islands of explicit knowledge of the words that are represented primarily through the left hemisphere.

Half of the human brain is dedicated to visual analysis and only 40% dedicated to decision-making and self-monitoring.  Each of the brain’s 100 billion neuron cells is a separate entity that interacts with others.  There are three kinds of brain cells

  • 500 million receptors that sense the external world.  We need to be modest about how selective to the world out there.  For example, we are blind outside light frequencies of certain band. 
  • We have motor neurons that serve as the output from the brain and help us talk and act. 
  • In between is the great intermediate net and within this,
    • Every nerve cell sends info out to 10000 others, and receives information from 10000 others in a process of divergence and convergence.
    • The brain always acts in a mechanism for complexity reduction based on the normal process of cellular excitation and inhibition.  Many brain diseases are caused by an imbalance in excitation and inhibition.
    • There is only a maximum of four steps before information from one cell connects with any other brain cell.  There is no independence of brain cells but there is very high interconnectivity.  Every mental act is embedded within an emotional part of the brain.

Connections between brain cells are not predetermined.  There is no one who speaks another language without an accent if they learn that beyond 10 years age.  To be truly bilingual or tringual, you need to study the language in early years using native speakers – similar for imprinting movement.  The matrix of the brain is fixed in that first 10 years which underlies the importance of being embedded in a culture.  Early learning is critical to cultural identity as it becomes a structure of the brain.  Other areas of the world are imprinted in a different way.

The notion of complexity reduction means that every human being must have prejudices.  This trap of the human mind causes stereotypes.  While we simplify in respect to intercultural communication, we need to take care that we must not simplify too much.

 He showed a number of images that trick the brain.  Some such as the Necker Cube cannot be flicked between their states at a frequency less than half a second due to the brain’s conscious construction latency.  Similarly, with various eye exercises, an image is constructed in the eye which is superimposed on the image in the brain, tricking us into seeing something that is not actually there (although it was there).   Likewise, colours are constructions of the brain.  The brain constantly checks and rechecks what is going on out there, what is going on out there every two or three seconds.

Our brain is always testing itself against how it makes sense of the world.  The brain’s representation of the world is an active construction of world outside and determined by our hypotheses of the world out there.  Rather than there being a straight connection between stimuli and responses, the stimulus is a function of our hypothesis (what we deign to perceive) and our reaction is a function of the stimulus.  We always have hypothesis testing going on.  Importantly, there is a short temporal window of just 2 or 3 seconds in which we make decisions.  Likewise, with music, our brain activates more with music run at a three second tempo.  In all domains, there is this temporal stage which is 2 or 3 seconds – this is a basic machinery of our brains.

We create a memory of our own past – our episodic memory.  For example, if we recollect a memory of ourselves as 10 years old, we will get a picture in our minds that will be place based and it has a strong emotion attached to it (which helps with the imprinting).  We see ourselves in the image of our old memory system as a third person.  This is a basic mechanism to construct our own personal identity; to double yourself.  With Alzheimer’s the problem is not so much losing memory as losing one’s sense of identity.

The picture we recollect may not be an accurate representation of reality but one that fits in with our own personal life history and makes it consistent.  We define ourselves when we duplicate ourselves meaning that there are two kinds of reality; our reflection of world and our interpretation of that reflection. All brains function according to this identity principle.

We define personal identity in both personal autonomy as well as belongingness.  These are complementary and underlie the importance of empathic relationships in communication to the construction of identity.

Some other points from his presentation:

  • Our circadian rhythms are such that we should not teach between 12 and 3 pm as these are meant to be periods of rest. 
  • Patients who have suffered strokes often need to practice and learn each day in order to function.  Some people are late learners.  Best protection against dementia is to keep your brain active. 
  • One third of entire health budgets come from diseases of brain (Alzheimers, Parkinson, etc).  In Europe, this is 100 billion Euro per year and is the fastest growing health market.
  • We need to develop improved Human Machine Interfaces to use technology better. 
  • His own research is completely globalised and interdisciplinary. 

I found this presentation quite enlightening, particularly around the notion that brains constantly think beyond what we are consciously aware.  I knew about self-monitoring of body functions but the insight for me was around active thinking beyond consciousness.  This helps me understand where insights come from;  those moments when you suddenly realize something new and now I know that your brain has actually thought of it before you have!  Also, the whole notion around how we recall long term memory in pictures was informative and how that needs to be consistent with our own story. 

Professor Poppel’s presentation got me to go back to my book of Steven Pinker – How the Mind Works.  Note that Pinker talks about the mind rather than the brain.  Pinker mentions that understanding is a complex interaction between (1) genes, (2) brain anatomy, (3) its biochemical state, (4) family upbringing and (5) treatment by society and (6) external stimuli that impact on the person. 

But Prof Poppel does not just consider brains but also the mind.  In answering questions, he spoke eloquently about how brain science links with philosophy and psychology. 

Also, Pinker adds that the human brain uses at least four major formats of representation; Visual, phonological (a string of syllables which we use for short term memory), grammatical (nouns, verbs, etc in arrangements) and mentalese which is the language of thought of conceptual knowledge that captures the gist of a concept and also embraces story structures.   These match quite closely with those of Poppel but the addition of the conceptual knowledge and mentalese is critical to including narrative as an important representative element, particularly for longer term memory.

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One Response to Brain Science and Identity

  1. […] View of Insight Following on from my post on the talk by Prof Ernst Poppel, I was directed by Richard Hames through my Facebook site to look at some of the recent work of […]

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