We Are Our Brains

Essay by Dan L. Monroe

Commonsense ideas regarding our brains, our relationship to the external world, and the nature of Self shape how we broadly think about ourselves and the world. Most people believe our brains acquire information from the external world through our senses and then process this information to create an accurate representation of reality. Most further believe we are fully conscious of this reality, and we primarily make conscious decisions to navigate it.


These ideas derive from many sources. Some are thousands of years old. Yet, compelling as they may seem, they are pure fiction.


The reality we experience is not an accurate representation of the world "out there" Take a simple example. We have a blind spot in the vision of each eye that wipes out 12 degrees of our visual field. So why don't we experience this blindness? Our brains borrow visual data from outside these blind spots and fill in the blind areas. Consequently, we believe we see a seamless visual field, though a significant part of what we see is an illusion.


While eyes are necessary to see the world, visual experience is not created by our eyes. Instead, our eyes collect light from a very narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our brains convert this information Into electrochemical data it uses to construct what we see. In truth, we see with our brains, and the world we see is highly abstracted. It emphasizes elements that may be of particular significance to our survival- such as sudden motion by a large animal in dense bushes. Yet what we see is riddled with illusions and heavily influenced by our interests and even what we think.


Our other senses are likewise incapable of providing us with comprehensively accurate representations of the external world. The notion, then, that our senses and brains create a highly accurate representation of the external world is very simply untrue.


The feeling that we are consciously aware of most of what is going on in the world around us is equally fallacious. Our brains process 11 million bits of information per second from our senses while also taking care of other business, like carrying out complex regulations of our bodies. We are completely unaware of these activities. Our brains constantly make innumerable fast and non-conscious decisions for us. If this were not the case, we could not survive.


Conscious thought, while powerful, is slow. We can consciously process 50 bits of information per second compared to the 11 million bits of information we unconsciously process per second. We would never be able to act or react to the world around us with adequate speed if we relied on conscious thought alone.


Moreover, we can only consciously focus on one thing at a time- multi-tasking is not possible. Also, we can keep only a few things in mind at once. Conscious thought is, then, very limited in many ways. To keep us alive, our brains automatically and rapidly take care of myriad tasks and activities. These include regulating all of our bodily functions, coordinating all the movements we make, and determining complex decisions entirely outside our awareness. The latter choices reach far beyond what we might imagine. They include, for example, such fundamental decisions as who appeals to us as a potential life partner. Some people are 'our type, and
some are not.

Studies of identical twins separated at birth demonstrate that the powers of genes and unconscious decision-making are vastly more significant in our lives than we recognize. To illustrate, two identical twins, separated at birth at 4 weeks of age, were reunited at 39 years of age. Both were married to a woman named Betty and divorced from a woman named Linda. Both named their first sons James Alan. Both named their pet dog 'Toy, worked part-time in law enforcement, vacationed at the same beach in Florida, suffer tension headaches, and are six feet tall and weigh 180 pounds. Contrary to what most of us believe, a far greater number of crucial decisions that shape our lives are determined outside our conscious awareness and control.


Fortunately, conscious thought enables us to learn many things that our brains eventually  take over and do automatically. Driving a car, playing a musical instrument, and playing a sport are only a few examples. After extensive practice, one does not need to think about placing one's fingers on certain guitar frets to create a given chord. It happens automatically. Likewise, we do not have to think about every action we do when driving a car. This extends to the way we think.

Have you ever thought about the way you think? How, for example, do we construct an idea or a stream of thoughts? We do not predetermine every word we use before using it in a thought. Nor do we outline every sentence in a stream of sentences before unwinding them.


It would be Impossible to function if we predetermined every word before using it in a thought or outlined, in advance, every thought in a stream of thoughts, We would be caught in an Infinite regress if we had think about every word or thought before we think it.

 

While we can learn to think in new ways, the unconscious part of our brains always plays a fundamental role and largely hidden role in our thinking. We are the owners of our thoughts, but we are certainly not the conscious author of all of them.

 

This reality is further illustrated by an experience most of us have had. If, after working unsuccessfully to solve a complex problem, we let it go for a while, the answer often suddenly appears to us out of nowhere. This happens because our brains are constantly working on issues and problems outside conscious awareness.

 

As a consequence of this phenomenon, we have learned it is best not to rely entirely on conscious decision-making processes when dealing with complex issues. Instead, it is far more effective to wrestle with the problems for a time, take a break for several hours or longer, and then make a decision based on what feels correct. This method gives one's brain a chance to work on complex issues outside of conscious awareness. The result--consistently better decisions.

 

Discovering our brains work in radically different ways than we have assumed through most of our lives can be an exciting and, at the same time, disturbing experience. The way one's brain functions takes on a far more compelling set of feelings if one finds, like David Thomas, that one's brain is not functioning normally.


David, an artist, an educator, and a Vietnam Veteran, learned several years ago that he has Parkinson's disease, most likely due to his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Parkinson's disease affects the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that enables messages to be sent between nerve cells.

 

Too little dopamine, which is characteristic of Parkinson's disease, produces wide-ranging effects, including muscle rigidity, tremors, changes in speech and gait, and deteriorating cognitive processes. Unfortunately, there is no cure for Parkinson's disease, although symptoms can be relieved to some extent.

 

Through his Parkinson's disease, David has discovered that his Self exists at the pinnacle of an incomprehensibly complex set of interconnected neuronal networks and other structures and processes. If any of the core elements of this inconceivably vast system ceases to function normally, then the Self is changed. As a result, the body no longer works as it should. Neither does the Mind. The brain and the Self it creates must then adapt to its own malfunctions. Understanding and then dealing with these changes takes tremendous courage because adapting to physical, emotional, and cognitive malfunctions profoundly disrupts one's world views.

 

David, like most people, gave little thought to how his brain worked before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's led him to essentially restructure his understanding of himself by realizing he is his brain. It also forced him to understand that many things regarding his Self are entirely outside his control. This is, of course, true for all of us. But it is painfully and terrifyingly evident when one's brain malfunctions, especially when it is impossible to predict how these malfunctions will further develop in the future.

People respond to the news that they have Parkinson's disease in many ways. However, David has reacted in a highly unusual way by using his Parkinson's disease as a source of creativity and creative expression.

 

Fascinated by MRI images of his brain's activity centers at a given time, David has fused these brain images with pictures of his face. These images powerfully fuse internal and external views of David's Self reacting to its own uncontrollable dysfunctions. The impact of these images is haunting.

Through these works, David wants to share information about Parkinson's disease and what it led him to discover. He also wants to share the probable reasons he has Parkinson's disease and the collateral experiences that have shaped his life and values. During the Vietnam War, his unit, stationed in the highlands of Vietnam, dispersed vast quantities of Agent Orange to deprive the enemy of vegetative cover. Soldiers were told Agent Orange is harmless to humans.


This was a monumental lie. It is a highly toxic defoliant that has devastating effects on plants and other life, including humans. During the Vietnam War, the United States sprayed 20,000,000 gallons of Agent Orange over 20% of Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia, Agent Orange caused and continues to cause many severe or fatal disorders, including birth defects, numerous forms of cancer, and other conditions, including Parkinson's disease. As a result, millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians and tens of thousands of US soldiers have been and continue to be harmed by this form of chemical warfare.


In spite of the Army's assurances, David questioned how Agent Orange could so effectively kill plants and be harmless to humans. He also wondered what the United States was doing fighting in Vietnam soon after his arrival. Nonetheless, he served faithfully and bravely, driving an Army Major many miles through enemy territory for most of a year in a single unaccompanied Jeep.


He was especially moved by young Vietnamese children. On his return from the War, he created many images of Vietnamese children, men, and women. In addition, he discovered a great deal about Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese leader who ultimately defeated the United States. He illustrated a book on Ho Chi Minh's life that revealed Ho Chi Minh's complexity and his ironic admiration of the American Constitution.


Art has been an essential part of David's life as an artist and as an art educator. Faced with a debilitating and incurable brain disease, David has chosen to share his experience, his new discoveries, and his convictions through art. David's response to Parkinson's disease is a testament to the realization that even though we are our brains and our brains work in mysterious and surprising ways, these facts in no way compromise the creativity and courage of the human spirit.

Dan L. Monroe

Retired Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO, Peabody Essex Museum

Past Chairman, American Alliances of Museums

Past President, Association of Art Museum Directors

Founder of the Neuroscience Initiative at the Peabody Essex Museum