Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Eight Baffling Questions About Your Brain

George Dvorsky at io9 discusses eight things about the brain that we have no idea how to explain. Here are the eight with a sentence or two of elaboration. For more discussion of these perplexing phenomena check out the link.
  1. What is consciousness? The nature and origin of consciousness is perhaps the most puzzling problem in all of science and philosophy. How does brain chemistry produce awareness? How do chemical reactions in the brain produce sensations like taste, fragrance, and color? How can sensory stimuli generate a meaning or be about something? Where does meaning come from and how is it produced? It's a deeply perplexing mystery.
  2. How much of our personality is determined by our brain? This is the old nature versus nurture debate. Are we a product of our genetic inheritance or of the environmental influences that act on us throughout our lives?
  3. Why do we sleep and dream? We spend about a third of our lives asleep, but we’re not entirely sure why we do it.
  4. How do we store and access memories? Like a computer’s hard drive, memories are physically recorded in our brains. But we have no idea how our brains do this, nor do we know how this information gets oriented in the brain. What’s more, there isn’t just one kind of memory. We have both short-term and long-term memory. We also can distinguish between memories that are recent and memories that are temporally more distant. How can chemical processes do that?
  5. Are all aspects of cognition computational? Computer scientist Alan Turing argued that cognition can be translated into an equivalent computation. This has given rise to the theory that our brains are basically information-processors, but this is hard to credit since there's so much that brains can do that an information processor like a computer cannot. Computers don't doubt, understand, feel guilt, hold a belief, experience sensations, wish, hope, experience boredom, and a host of other things that our brains do all the time.
  6. How does perception work? A primary function of the brain is to convert our senses into experiences. Our ability to perceive allows us to organize, identify, and interpret sensory information in way that helps us construct and understand our world. But how, exactly, does our brain transfer this incoming sensory information into such vivid qualitative experiences? And how is perception organized in the brain?
  7. Do we have free will? If our decisions are the result of a chain of physical events and physical events are determined by physical laws where is their room for free will? But if we do not in some sense choose our actions in what sense are we responsible for them.
  8. How can we move and react so well? We do an incredible job moving our bodies through space and time. But how we so seamlessly coordinate our movement remains a mystery. Think of the dexterity required to thread a needle. Or to play a piano concerto. These accomplishments are all the more incredible when considering how slow, haphazard and unpredictable our motor nerve impulses actually are. Clearly, there’s something very sophisticated going on between our motor cortex and the cerebral cortex that allows for such smooth, efficient actions. But what is it?
It is these sorts of facts about the brain that have led many philosophers and scientists to abandon the materialist view that we are made up solely of material stuff. In light of these profound mysteries, mysteries which seem impervious to scientific scrutiny, the idea that we have an immaterial mind or soul has become much more plausible and much more respectable among philosophers than it had been since the 19th century.