Your kludgy brain (and how to use it – 3/2/11)
Seeing Without Sight
Ever wondered how congenitally blind people “see” what they’re reading? It’s because they’re using the visual processing part of their brains to decipher words.
It turns out your brain is a group of kludges – Rube Goldberg machines of tacked together parts that get the job(s) done.
Darwinian evolution never went to engineering school. Lots of parts within the brain work together to perform different tasks. So lots of tasks use many different parts.
That’s good news for those who have suffered the horrors of a stroke – or just too many drinks. An everlearning brain and body has the capacity to adjust even when some parts are knocked out.
Marvin Minsky is a famous artificial intelligence theorist, but he is not the only one to think of the brain as a series of ill-assorted, curiously connected pieces that combine to get stuff done, one sequential task at a time. Following World War II the great Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria was ask to look at tens of thousands of brain injured soldiers. Up to ten million Russian combat troops had died, and those who survived included many with horrifying injuries that created a literal encyclopedia of missing brain parts.
What Luria learned was that functions were not so neatly assigned to one or another brain area. Areas close to injured areas were often partially involved with whatever that part did – hearing, speech, vision. Some times, with hard practice they could take over the tasks of the knocked out injured regions.
A few clinical results were spectacular. One soldier had lost a hemisphere – half his brain. A musician by training, he eventually became a competent one handed pianist who played concerts of music written especially for him – and then “wrote” a concerto himself. Yet many brain injured soldiers remained deeply disabled.
Rebuilding the Dead Zones
Luria’s work was not forgotten. Over the last decade researchers at the University of Alabama, Birmingham decided to work on “hopeless” stroke cases. People who had lost all use of their had the other immobilized. They were forced to use their “useless” stroke damaged arms.
Many months later, they did. Parts of the brain not felled by stroke had learned to take over these new functions.
The Blind Who “See” to Read
Recent Israeli work described in Current Biology looked at congenitally blind people who read Braille. It became clear the brain area that they use to read is the visual word area – except they have no vision.
The “visual” area was processing words felt through their fingertips.
Many scientists feel the brain is task rather than sense oriented. Rather than just work on vision or hearing, parts get together to perform a job – like figuring out whether there’s a saber tooth tiger lurking outside the cave.
Nature is very practical. Somewhat similar processes can occur with the “evolution” of technology.
A car was once a transportation device. Then came radios. Telephones. Televisions for the back seat.
With the advent of the Net, cars are now becoming “information centers” which will provide full entertainment, business, navigation, and communication services.
Let’s hope somebody tells Detroit and Daimler Benz that one person should still be paying attention to driving the car. Talking on a cellphone “only” increases accidents four fold, while texting takes it up to yet another disastrous level. And what will happen when your luxury car rudely interrupts your web surfing and video watching with the notice a red light is ahead?
Similar problems can erupt from multi-modal media used simultaneously elsewhere (please see my “Your Overloaded ed Brain” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthew-edlund-md/add-symptoms_b_656590.html#s119834&title=Broken_Attention_.)
Your Kludgy Body
Biological kludges operate beyond the brain, of course. Many kludges are attached to the endocrine system, the immune system – pretty much any physiological system we can scientifically describe.
Of course body systems do not begin as dedicated and efficient engineering systems made purposefully to their task. They got to their present state in all kinds of roundabout ways. For example, Florida’s beloved and disappearing manatees evolved in the sea, moved to the land, and then evolved to live in the sea – eating plants that had made the same evolutionary round trip.
Our cells do a yet more awe-inspiring job. Our tens of thousands of different proteins often perform several extremely varied functions during any given hour.
Having bodies built of kludges has many advantages. There is diversity; redundancy; multivalency; flexibility; adaptability.
We keep learning until we die.
Regeneration does more than you keep alive – it’s quite a lot of fun.
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