segunda-feira, 30 de agosto de 2010

Brain Evolution: The Accidental Mind


The Accidental Mind is a book by David J. Linden. It seeks to explain how brain evolution has given rise to those qualities that most profoundly shape our human experience.

Neurons have hardly changed from those of prehistoric jellyfish. "Slow, leaky, unreliable," as Linden calls them, they tend to drop the ball: at connections between neurons, signals have a 70 percent chance of sputtering out. To make sure enough signals do get through, the brain needs to be massively interconnected, its 100 billion neurons forming an estimated 500 trillion synapses.

Just as the mouse brain is a lizard brain "with some extra stuff thrown on top," Linden writes, the human brain is essentially a mouse brain with extra toppings. That's how we wound up with two vision systems. In amphibians, signals from the eye are processed in a region called the midbrain, which, for instance, guides a frog's tongue to insects in midair and enables us to duck as an errant fastball bears down on us. Our kludgy brain retains this primitive visual structure even though most signals from the eye are processed in the visual cortex, a newer addition. If the latter is damaged, patients typically say they cannot see a thing. Yet if asked to reach for an object, many of them can grab it on the first try. And if asked to judge the emotional expression on a face, they get it right more often than chance would predict especially if that expression is anger.

The brain stem is the oldest and smallest region in the evolving human brain. It evolved hundreds of millions of years ago and is more like the entire brain of present-day reptiles. For this reason, it is often called the 'reptilian brain'. Various clumps of cells in the brain stem determine the brain's general level of alertness and regulate the vegetative processes of the body such as breathing and heartbeat.

It's similar to the brain possessed by the hardy reptiles that preceded mammals, roughly 200 million years ago. It's 'preverbal', but controls life functions such as autonomic brain, breathing, heart rate and the fight or flight mechanism. Lacking language, its impulses are instinctual and ritualistic. It's concerned with fundamental needs such as survival, physical maintenance, hoarding, dominance, preening and mating. It is also found in lower life forms such as lizards, crocodiles and birds. It is at the base of your skull emerging from your spinal column.

The basic ruling emotions of love, hate, fear, lust, and contentment emanate from this first stage of the brain. Over millions of years of evolution, layers of more sophisticated reasoning have been added upon this foundation.