Monday, December 06, 2004

Embodied soul

Last week CBS's 60 Minutes did a story on a 12-year-old musical prodigy named Jay Greenberg. Jay has been composing since he was two, and apparently his music is of a professional quality. He is now studying at Juilliard in New York, and his teachers compare him to Mozart.

"It's as if the unconscious mind is giving orders at the speed of light," says Jay. "You know, I mean, so I just hear it as if it were a smooth performance of a work that is already written, when it isn't."

He writes it down, right out of his head, symphonic compositions for entire orchestras, with no revisions.

Sometimes Jay hears more than one composition at a time. "Multiple channels is what it's been termed," he explains. "That my brain is able to control two or three different musics at the same time -- along with the channel of everyday life."

What's going on? Where do such prodigies come from.? What's different about their brains? It would be interesting to have a PET scan of Jay's brain as it was humming with music.

Some people have extraordinary gifts for music, mathematics, feats of memory, calculation. It's not the size of their brains that is relevant, although certain parts of the brain may be hyperdeveloped. It may have something to do with the sensitivity of synaptic connections between neurons -- more neurons are firing, faster, with greater coordination.

But if truth be told, no one has a clue. Maybe we will never understand the brain completely for the simple reason that consciousness is more complex than the cognitive instrument we have been given to understand it.

The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons, or brain cells. Each neuron has a central body and about 1000 tendrils reaching out towards other neurons, almost touching, like the fingertips of God and Adam in the famous painting by Michelangelo. The connections between tendrils are called synapses. There are about 100 trillion synaptic connections in the brain.

Each connection can be in one of about 10 different levels of activity. The number of possible states for the brain is 10 raised to the 100 trillionth power, a number greater than the number of particles in the universe.

There is not yet a computer on Earth remotely as complex as a human brain.

Which is not to say that computers can't do some things faster and better than brains. Complexity isn't everything. Brains have more to do than computers.

My guess is that what makes a Jay Greenberg is the right chemicals in the right concentration at the right places to create the right webs of neurons. And that is something he was born with. It was in his genes. Mozarts are born, not made.

But chemistry is chemistry. As we learn more about the chemistry of the brain it will be possible to enhance memory, creativity, mood, alertness, self-image, spirituality. It's already happening.

It fact, it's been happening since the dawn of time. Alcohol, coffee, chocolate, peyote, meditation, physical rigors: all have been used to modify and enhance consciousness. What is new on the horizon are designer drugs tailored for specific purposes, with minimal side effects.

How society will deal with this remains to be seen. If you are suffering from Parkinson's disease, or have a chronically depressed child, you will no doubt welcome the new chemical technology. But what about pills that give you an edge in school or on the job? Or pills to make your child better at math, or more like Jay Greenberg?

Descartes was wrong. We are not body and soul. We are body. We are colonies of cells who make music, write poems, remember experiences, invent gods, love, hate, build cathedrals, go to war. Most mysteriously of all, we are self-aware. Each of us is a chemistry set that knows it is a chemistry set -- a chemistry set unlike any other.

We may not like to think of our souls as tangled webs of 100 trillion electrochemical connections, each one mediating in some infinitesimal way our interaction with the world. But we better come to terms with it soon if we are going to negotiate the excruciating moral dilemmas that will confront us in the near future.

Jay Greenberg doesn't need to reflect on why he is a prodigy; the music just plays in his head. There is a music of sorts playing in each of our heads. It is called the self.

Further Reading

Recent years have seen many terrific books on consciousness. Here are a few of my favorites:

Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. Edelman surely knows as much about the brain as anyone on the planet.

Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works. Pinker's book is smart, funny, and eminently readable.

Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Dennett title may promise more than he delivers, but he delivers a lot.

Student Activities

  1. Look up the astonishing story of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.
  2. There are about 100 trillion synaptic connections in the human brain. Estimate about how many sets of the classroom encylopedia you would need to have 100 trillion letters.
  3. Computer guru Ray Kurzweil predicts that by the year 2020 your $1000 personal computer will have the processing power of the human brain -- 20 million billion calculations per second. Might such a computer be conscious?

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.