Self-awareness

One of the largest barriers to our own understanding of ourselves is that we don’t actually understand what we are. The human brain is – at once – a ferociously complex, and an extremely simple thing. We understand how all the parts function individually, but that helps us understand the brain about as much as understanding a transistor helps you build a colour television.

We’re intelligent, certainly (or at least we think we are). We have self-awareness and free-will (or convincing facsimiles thereof). We don’t know what self-awareness actually is, or how it comes about. We don’t know what intelligence is, or how to measure it (instead, we measure tasks that we think might be associated with it – but the results are generally inconsistent).

We sort of understand how memories are tagged for storage and the circumstances required to retrieve them, but we don’t actually know how they’re stored or retrieved.

The echidna, of all things, has the most highly developed brain of any mammal, even surpassing our own – and we have no idea why. How much neural development do you really need to sneak up on an ant, a termite or a worm?

At least we think it is more highly-developed than our own. It is able to perform many of the same basic functions without a lot of the tedious and time-consuming mucking about that our own brains have to go through to do the same things.

Self-awareness, intelligence, emotion. Like Potter Stewart’s ruling on Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), we cannot intelligibly define any of these things, but we know them when we see them. Indeed, we’re somehow predisposed or configured to do so.

Every week, something new is learned about the functioning of the human brain which simultaneously increases our understanding and increases our confusion. Understanding and confusion are another two kinds of thing we observe but do not understand and have not yet been able to clearly define, except relative to concepts that similarly lack understanding and definition.

Oh, I can tell you marvellous things about how parts of the brain function. It is both an Aladdin’s cave of wonders and the most amazing bachelor pad ever.

Fifty years ago, the concept of neuroplasticity was considered outlandish, and contrary to conventional understanding. The idea wouldn’t die, however, because there was a wealth of evidence to support it. Eventually, after much resistance, the concept was adopted, and the acceptance of it has led to major advances in the treatments (and the recovery rates) of strokes. Previously, our treatments for stroke victims included essentially all the things that would actually inhibit full-recovery and none of the things that would promote it.

Today, we stop attempts at resuscitating the dead after a certain number of minutes have passed. Technically, most of the body and brain are still alive at the cellular level and theoretically capable of returning to organized function, but after a certain point, our attempts to restart the system as a whole are thwarted by metabolic changes in the cells themselves. In simplistic terms, the cells become allergic to oxygen, and actually do start to die en masse should the cardio-pulmonary system start to resume.

Even so, new resuscitation techniques are being trialled that might allow a body to be revived after hours or (with proper storage) a couple of days, making some quite extraordinary surgical techniques possible in the future.

We live and learn, and really aren’t all that sure of how either of these necessarily are going to be defined as in the next decade.

How little we understand our own selves, for all that we spend all our time in them.



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