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Monday, May 21, 2012

Intelligence: Muscles of Thought

When I watch a hand pick a piece of fruit, I marvel at the intelligence exhibited.  It doesn't matter if it's a human hand or the hand of another primate.  I find it exquisite to watch the coordination of countless neurons carefully controlling a huge number of individual muscle fibers within the numerous muscle groups of the fingers purposely grabbing the fruit, exerting just enough force to remove it from the tree, but not so much force as to crush it.  The movement is purposeful, controlled, and coordinated.  In other words, it's intelligent.

E-mails are dispatches without the physical form of mail. Somewhat analogously, e-motions are dispatches or signals without the physical motion, and in fact emotions are often coupled with actual motion (fear->fight or flight, happiness->smiling, anger->violence, etc.).  As the brain processes get more and more decoupled from motion, those processes are less emotional and more what we think of as thoughts.  Even these thoughts are generally coupled, at least loosely, with emotion and sometimes motion.

When I look at the numerous theories (all unproven) of how the brain is fundamentally structured, I personally find the analogy of the brain being the muscle of thought the most compelling:
...that cognition is a phylogenetic outgrowth of movement and that cognition utilizes the same neural circuitry that was originally developed for movement.

Movement relies on the deliberate, smooth, properly sequenced and coordinated, graded, contractions of selected ensembles of discrete muscles. Therefore, the neural circuitry of movement was specialized for this purpose. Soon, a new design possibility emerged: the elaborate neuronal machinery of movement control could be applied to brain tissue itself. In particular, discrete brain structures, modules, emerged that could be controlled exactly like individual muscles. ... By manipulating these modules in properly coordinated 'movements' (thought processes), valuable information processing (cognition) could be carried out – thereby further enhancing animal competitive success and diversity. 
From this point of view, intelligence in thinking is little different than intelligence in controlling motion.  In other words, it's the ability to coordinate the actions of different muscles groups, but in this case, without the muscles.


Jeff Shattuck said...

Super interesting, but what's doing the controlling? How, for example, do I tell my goddamn cerebellum to get with the program or call for a bit of help?

My POV on the human brain is more conventional: it's all built for thought, but the left side handles sequential thought and the right non-sequential (serial vs. parallel). Because of the left's dominance in Western culture, we judge intelligence by looking at problems that can be solved sequentially; other cultures put more value on a holistic, less precise right-brain approach.

I'm no expert, though, so please take all of this with a grain of salt. Or two. And if you're interested, here's the TED talk that convinced me of all this:

Bret said...


That's quite a TED talk. Nobody really knows how brains work, even the really simple ones in insects, but I think her description of brain function and what she experienced is more a metaphorical story than an actual description of what happened to her and her brain. While I'm not going to claim any direct knowledge, I can say that she coulda saved herself a lot of trouble and yet had a very similar experience if she just skipped the stroke and instead ingested a heavy dose of mushrooms. :-)

The general right versus left brain thing is probably not correct (at least my left brain thinks so :-). Here's a quote that I think reflects current thinking: "Based on these and many more scientific findings, scientists nowadays think that while there are some functional asymmetries, the two brain hemispheres do not work in isolation, but rather together in every cognitive task." The foundation upon which the serial versus parallel processing concept for the different brain halves is shaky at best.

As far as controlling and control goes, it's an emergent property. There is no center of the control, it's all very Hayekian, really, quite decentralized and distributed.

Advanced brains have this odd artifact called consciousness, which itself is also emergent, and it confuses things by creating an illusion of a center of control, a core, a singularity from which all feelings, actions, thoughts, etc. are directed. I think it's probably the exact opposite. The neuron groups are always saying, "Listen to me! Listen to me!" with varying degrees of enthusiasm based on stimulation from sensory input and other parts of the brain and when various groups align, you get the sensation of a thought or a feeling (or rather that IS the thought or feeling) as it becomes the dominant brain activity for that instant.

Lastly, I've been reading your blog for years now and it seems to me your "goddamn cerebellum" IS getting with the program. It seems to me that you've made a lot of progress in the last few years. Is that not right? Jill Bolte took 8 years to recover. I think you'll be good as new one day (well, 43 if not 22 :-).

Hey Skipper said...

Years ago, back when Scientific American was a reputable magazine, I read an article on the brain entitled (near as I can recall) "Ballistic Motion".

The point of the article was that there are many things your body does that it can't control in real time.

For instance, ALL the muscle actions for a pitcher to throw a baseball are "pre-loaded": the entire process unfolds without any further input from the brain.