David Linden: The Brain is a 'Freaking Mess'

David Linden:  There are a lot of things that are created accidentally in evolution.  There are a lot of side effects.  So you can evolve a pleasure circuit for adaptive things so they will eat food and drink water and have sex.  And you can evolve social cognition and then you can connect up your social cognition center with your pleasure center.  And then you can take pleasure from positive social evaluation, which is something that you can imagine would promote group cohesion and in hunter/gatherer societies would be adaptive.  But then you’ve built a machine that can be operated on in all kinds of ways in terms of culture and behavior.

And we shouldn’t fall into the trap and think that all those ways are adaptive or useful just because they’ve evolved.  Evolution is a tinkerer and not an engineer as Francoise Jacob famously said.  And when you’re a tinkerer, you throw things together to solve the problem at hand.  You don’t build elegantly and you don’t build the way an engineer would build to try to consider all the possible contingencies.  You’re just solving the one problem that circumstances have dealt you at this moment.

There’s a tendency, particularly when looking at brain function to be over awed by the brain and, well, this is understandable.  We say, well, human consciousness is manifest in this two-and-a-half pounds of tissue in our skull and that’s amazing.  You say, that’s amazing, but that doesn’t mean that when you lift the hood and look at how its built, either anatomically or electrically or genetically, that what you see is well-engineered.  No.  It’s a freaking mess in there.  And it’s a freaking mess both at these biological levels and a lot of times it’s a freaking mess at the behavioral level.

We have two visual systems in our brain, a subconscious one and a conscious one.  We have two auditory systems in our brain, a subconscious one and a conscious one.  No engineer ever would have designed it like this.

And then, the information from these two streams have to be fused to create our behavior.  It’s a total kluge, it works pretty well.  Our brains are pretty impressive in what they can do.  The engineering behind it is completely insane.  It never is what anyone would have designed given the chance, with all the time in the world on a blank sheet of paper.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

 

As François Jacob famously said, evolution is a tinkerer and not an engineer. When you're a tinkerer, you throw things together to solve the problem at hand.

Adam Gopnik on the rhinoceros of liberalism vs. the unicorns of everything else

Torn between absolutism on the left and the right, classical liberalism—with its core values of compassion and incremental progress whereby the once-radical becomes the mainstream—is in need of a good defense. And Adam Gopnik is its lawyer.

Think Again Podcasts
  • Liberalism as "radical pragmatism"
  • Intersectionality and civic discourse
  • How "a thousand small sanities" tackled drunk driving, normalized gay marriage, and could control gun violence
Keep reading Show less

You weren't born ‘to be useful’, Irish president tells young philosophers

Irish president believes students need philosophy.

Personal Growth
  • President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins calls for students to be thought of as more than tools made to be useful.
  • Higgins believes that philosophy and history should be a basic requirement forming a core education.
  • The Irish Young Philosopher Awards is one such event that is celebrating this discipline among the youth.
Keep reading Show less

Fascism and conspiracy theories: The symptoms of broken communication

The lost practice of face-to-face communication has made the world a more extreme place.

Videos
  • The world was saner when we spoke face-to-face, argues John Cameron Mitchell. Not looking someone in the eye when you talk to them raises the potential for miscommunication and conflict.
  • Social media has been an incredible force for activism and human rights, but it's also negatively affected our relationship with the media. We are now bombarded 24/7 with news that either drives us to anger or apathy.
  • Sitting behind a screen makes polarization worse, and polarization is fertile ground for conspiracy theories and fascism, which Cameron describes as irrationally blaming someone else for your problems.
Keep reading Show less