Biology: Perception and the Brain

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perception |pərˈsep sh ən|

noun

the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses : the normal limits to human perception.

• the state of being or process of becoming aware of something in such a way : the perception of pain.

• a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression : Hollywood’s perception of the tastes of the American public | we need to challenge many popular perceptions of old age.

• intuitive understanding and insight : “He wouldn’t have accepted,” said my mother with unusual perception.

• Psychology & Zoology the neurophysiological processes, including memory, by which an organism becomes aware of and interprets external stimuli.

I wanted to learn how we perceive and categorize things from a scientific stance. This led me to the Blue Brain Project where I discovered that everything we see is determined through decision-making.

The Blue Brain Project is an attempt to create a synthetic brain by reverse-engineering the mammalian brain down to the molecular level and is headed by the Institute’s director, Henry Markram. Using a Blue Gene supercomputer running Michael Hines’s NEURON software, the simulation does not consist of an artificial neural network, but involves a biologically realistic model of neurons. The projects overall goal is to hopefully discover the true nature of consciousness, which in itself is an immense aspiration.

The projects aim is to build a detailed, realistic super model of the human brain, which Markram justifies with three thought provoking reasons: 1) It’s essential to understand the human brain to get along in society 2) We cannot experiment on animals forever, rather we should embody all our data and knowledge into a working model 3) There are 2 billion people in the world that suffer with mental disorders that are treated with imperial drugs, rather we should form concrete solutions. Markram believes that by creating a super model of the brain, all mysteries of the human mind: mental illnesses, consciousness, perceptions and so on can be found, understood and solved. The idea of understanding the human brain in its entirety seems extremely ambitious and what if peoples’ disorders are dependent on the individual themselves and not just their brains?

Markram begins to explain one theory as to how the brain works. He describes how the brain builds a version of the universe, which is then projected like a bubble all around us. Markram uses human perception as an example to justify the theory. He describes how we cannot perceive the world around us beyond our perceptional bubble and everything we see and think is dependant on decision-making. What we compulsively have to do in order to perceive is to make decisions, ‘99 % of what we see is not what comes in through the eyes’. It raises issues of are actual existence and whether we can really trust what are brains allows us to perceive using Descartes infamous quote, ‘I think therefore I am’ for some relief. In relation to categorizing people by their sex and gender, it makes me question whether we can really trust the norms set out for us, which we perceive as right. Why do we believe that males should be masculine? Is it because anything other than this is beyond our perceptional bubble as Markram suggests? Is this the reason we all want to be considered either male or female as this is the platonic ideal within society’s bubble?

Markram than talks of how when you zoom into the brains neural cortex surface, it is made up of little modules similar to those in a computer only there are millions of them. As these modules were so successful, overtime and through evolution we began forming more and more until there was no room left in our skulls. As a result the surface began to fold to allow for more and more modules. This growth is still happening today.

In relation to disorders and perceptions Markram uses the successful example of the brains neural cortex being like a grand piano. Our reality and perceptions set off a stimulant in the brain; just like when you press a key on a piano it sounds a note. In life some of us know how to play our neural cortexes perfectly, creating a symphony whilst others do not, thus disorders etc are formed. We must first know more about the neural cortex completely in order to understand perception, reality and disorders, something the project has been working on for the past 15 years by dissecting parts of the neural cortex. Therefore, could it be suggested that people who believe their gender is different to their sex just be the result of a malfunction in the brain?

The neural cortex is made up of neurons, which link and network creating the fabric of the brain. The challenge in understanding the fabric, ‘the pattern in the carpet’ is that each neuron is unique. No neuron is the same to another neuron within one brain and each brain is different to another brain, even the order of the neurons are unique to each person. But the fabric of the human brain is the same. Neurons can be changed within the model without affecting the fabric.

The fact that each individual’s brain is different can suggest that there is no common denominator when making decisions on someone’s gender. As a result, self-awareness and self-perception and the way we present ourselves to the world are what I feel should be considered most important and influential. Our minds, our natures are changeable as is our gender. Everything we see is the result of decision-making and so our minds and own concepts become the main way in which we perceive and categorize things. But what influences our ideas and minds in regards to categorizing someone’s gender? Has nurturing factors influenced them? Or are the platonic ideals and gender ‘norms’ the only things we can comprehend due to human biology? Is everything biological?

References

TED (2009) Henry Markram: A brain in a supercomputer. [online] available from:<http://www.ted.com/talks/henry_markram_supercomputing_the_brain_s_secrets.html&gt;

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