By Stephen Gislason MD
Everyone needs to know something about neuroscience. The brain has become a popular topic in all media, but confusions arise when the brain becomes an abstract fantasy in the minds of journalists and product promoters. While it is true that brain is the organ of the mind, our language makes it difficult to speak correctly at different levels of meaning. Neuroscience notes will give the intelligent reader and understanding of how the brain actually works.
Neuroscience is the broad inquiry into the structure and function of animal nervous systems. Neuroscience begins with the deep sense that all creatures living on planet earth share common properties. Nervous systems allow organisms to sense, decide, act and remember. These properties begin as simple devices and evolve into sensing strategies that are increasingly complicated, more accurate and more effective. A complex device such as the human eye is easier to understand if you already understand a simple device such as light detecting pigment spot in a snail. Thus, it makes sense for a neuroscientist to study all animals and to assume that principles learned about older, simpler animals can be applied to newer, more complex animals such as humans. Bodybrainmind is an open-ended, self-regulating system, highly responsive to the molecular determinants impinging on it through food and the environment. Life is an expression of cells, tiny containers of molecular codes and metabolic processes. In system terms, a living cell is a self-regenerating, recursive system that can reproduce itself through cell division.
Preface to Neuroscience Notes
There were several influences that converge and changed me from a student who was mostly interested in physics and chemistry to a budding scientist interested in life and especially in the relationship of brain to mind. While science is the right path for exoteric studies, scientists can be naïve about the nature of mind. I become aware of Tibetan Buddhism after reading Heinrich Harrier’s book, Seven Years in Tibet. Later, I met Tibetan Lamas and undertook the study of the Buddhist esoteric view of the mind. In practical terms, anyone who is committed to understanding what the mind is and how it works must examine the brain in great detail and at the same time examine his or her experience through daily self-observation, meditation and interaction with others.
Humans are complex, unstable creatures who are always changing. At the source of prolific variations in group and individual expressions is a collection of abilities and tendencies that we call Human Nature. There are too many collections of knowledge and too many disciplines that claim ownership of human nature for one person to master all, so that anyone who aspires to understand human nature will need to be selective, retaining only the best insights that each collection has to offer. Humans can make sense of things going on out there, but humans also have a remarkable ability to generate nonsense. The study of human nonsense may turn out to be more important to human survival that the study of best case cognitive abilities.
My medical school friend, Rich Austin, introduced me to paleontology and the study of human evolution. He worked with Jim Anderson, a bright entertaining professor of anatomy at the University of Toronto and a physical anthropologist who knew all about the African discoveries of hominid fossils. I had considered continuing studies in neurology and neurosurgery, but instead left city life after graduation and internship and moved to British Columbia to live close to the ocean, practicing medicine in a rural community. Many years later I undertook a study of brain-mind and recorded my discoveries in notebooks that evolved into this collection of notes. I have had years of close contact with other animals, especially marine mammals who have more sense and more stable societies than humans have. The ocean today continues to manifest the evolution of life from cyanobacteria to the magnificent Orchas who always thrill me when I encounter them. The birds are also marvelous creatures who are constant companions. I have enough sense and knowledge to appreciate the exceptional abilities of bird brains. All these creatures are my friends.
In this book, I have selected topics that are representative of neuroscience inquiry, retaining brief references to a larger context that includes the study of neurology, anthropology, paleontology, computer science and philosophy. There have been several attempts to develop a “theory” of brain function that incorporates a large collection of observations, experimental results and a growing understanding of the innate features of human nature. I doubt that a single theory is a realistic goal and suggest that the real goal is the integration of knowledge from diverse disciplines into a comprehensive understanding of who we are and why we are they way we are. I encourage the reader to join me and continue his or her inquiry into the human mind by reading other books in this series.
Stephen Gislason MD