Brain & Mind Systemic issues of India

Neocortex: The (un)real Brain behind the Rajpath war

By the time you are reading this, a strange fever that had gripped the town may have subsided.

It was a mere election to control a minuscule territory, but it made us witness a new low in social discourse. A war in which every social institution, from personal relationships to professional ethics, was abused and sacrificed on the altar of electoral success.

It was not only an opportunity to reflect on the changing standards of public life (where democracy is expected to be governed by familiarity than merit), but, also to muse over a unique aspect of human brain.

We are proud of our brain. It is a rational machine, superior to that available to rest of the animals. And yet, a lizard or a deer won’t be seen responding to a rat by imagining it to be a tiger, but humans are capable of turning an insignificant event (like this election) in to a matter of life and death.

What drives the brain of perfectly normal people to respond so disproportionately?

One of the most popular answers to this question I received was “Ego.”

It made me realise that “ego” is a word that even layman on the street understands, or rather misunderstands; because it is a scientific term that has lost its original meaning (assigned to it by Sigmund Freud) due to overuse in popular writing in wrong context.

Freud’s ego (!) was not the arrogant self that responds to bruising aggressively (as most assume) but a servant that “serves three severe masters: the external world, the super-ego and the id.” (For the uninitiated ones, “id” is the baser self, a creature of instinct within all of us). So, Freud’s ego was just a mediator that tried to find balance between what id desired and what was possible in real life while staying within the moral bounds of super-ego (a part of us aligning us to socio-cultural rules).

This forces us to look beyond and at the physical structure of brain.

If neurologists (and evolutionary biologists) pardon my over-simplification, human brain appears to have evolved in three stages i.e. “reptilian” brain of spine and brain-stem, “mammalian” limbic brain (hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus) and the “human” brain of neocortex. The first two are shared assets with our animal-cousins but the last one is (more or less) uniquely human, and may contain the answer of our question.

Neocortex is a recent overgrowth around the older parts of brain that fills our cranium with its bulbous shape. It is big, new and has recently arrived, and like any new arrival, it is trying to wrest control from the older “brains” and that it does by the process of interpretation. While the sensory and other information received are processed by both new and old brains, it is the neocortex that looks “beyond” and interprets the inputs within a bigger reality that it constructs using modern tools like imagination and association.

Armed with neocortex, we humans now transcend sensorial reality (that we see, hear, smell and feel) and respond to an abstract model with added attributes that we construct through interpretations. It is an extremely useful process that provides us a deeper understanding of cause-and-effect relationships that we use to predict what will happen next.

But, it is also a tricky mechanism that, if allowed to run amok, can also lead us to respond to things that are imaginary and not real. It is this “interpretory” mechanism that makes us see ghosts in the shadows and camels in the clouds and often fools us into imagining that a club election is a matter of life and death.

But, its more interesting quality is that, being interpretory in nature, neocortex’s “reality” changes rapidly. From one frame, winning club election may appear end of world, from another it will suddenly become one more mundane landmark not worth the effort put behind it.

When neocortex goes into overdrive, it is a snowballing process. From a small seed of a notion, it fabricates a monster and demands allocation of all available resources to confront it. Under the spell, even a sensible man will lose sense of priority and spend lacs in mailers or demands you to call up strangers for his cause.

The real wisdom for humans is to understand that our imagination is the greatest tool available to us, only till we can keep it reality-bound.

If we let it run free, it will make us run…. Often for a meaningless election!

DNA: 21/3/15

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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