The idea of the brain

The search to under­stand who and why we exist goes back as far as the idea we have of our­selves. When and how the human being became con­scious of him­self, when and how the rest of nature equipped itself with mech­a­nisms for appre­hend­ing real­i­ty, we know very lit­tle about it.

Read­ing Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain, the ques­tion remains unan­swered. It is still all about pos­si­bil­i­ties and dis­cov­er­ies. The book tells us the sto­ry of this nev­er-end­ing search for the real­i­ty of the brain, how this organ was pre­sent­ed through the cen­turies, how entire books have been and still being writ­ten about the brain of a fly lar­va, already com­plex to make us believe that we will nev­er be able to climb the slip­pery walls of our own cere­bral dimensions.

Each era has its own metaphor, from Descartes’ machine to the Manichean pis­tons of the 19th cen­tu­ry, to the sup­po­si­tions that the brain is a super­com­put­er endowed with immea­sur­able pow­ers. The book tells us how, like blind men, we seek to grasp the way thoughts and sen­sa­tions are cre­at­ed, formed, invented.

If we have dis­cov­ered den­drites and synaps­es, con­nec­tomes and pro­to-this, pro­to-that, if we can see the light­ning bolts com­ing out of the cor­tex fog, noth­ing yet allows us to affirm where our soul or con­scious­ness is real­ly locat­ed. For a while, it was believed that psy­choses could be cor­rect­ed with more or less potent dos­es of chem­i­cal sub­stances, pulling on the strings of sero­tonin or dopamine. How­ev­er, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sci­ence no longer invents any­thing, and mad­men remain mad­men. We return cau­tious­ly to elec­troshock therapy.

The book tells us a series of suc­cess­es and fail­ures, and although long to read, it describes a fas­ci­nat­ing reality.

It was pub­lished in April 2020, I can­not judge the accu­ra­cy of all that is said. How­ev­er, it makes all oth­er books that claim to speak with cer­tain­ty about left-brain and right-brain peo­ple sus­pect. It is true that if by acci­dent, or by surgery, the cor­pus cal­lo­sum that unites the two hemi­spheres is rup­tured, the indi­vid­ual devel­ops two very dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties. How­ev­er, this lasts a while. In its intel­li­gent plas­tic­i­ty, the brain tends to restore order. Con­scious­ness returns to itself, in the good gela­tine that it is. The right brain receives help from the left, and the left ends up under­stand­ing the emo­tions that were, ini­tial­ly and in prin­ci­ple, the sup­posed ter­ri­to­ry of the right.

What is held in bal­ance above our shoul­ders is a light­house whose foun­da­tions dip into a more mys­te­ri­ous ocean of evo­lu­tion than the cru­ci­fix­ion, the illu­mi­na­tions or the sac­ri­fices of any mystic.

How then can one con­tem­plate one’s life if one does not know on what sub­stra­tum it rests, how can one inter­pret it ? How patient are the men and women who spend their lives dis­sect­ing fruit flies ! Cobb gen­tly reminds us that despite our dig­i­tal fin­gers we are still mov­ing for­ward, grop­ing, through a mist that becomes opaque as the day dawns.

The author con­cludes his book with hypothe­ses that clash with each oth­er. One day we will find out, for we are made of flesh and bones. Still, until then, the brain con­tin­ues its exis­tence, jeal­ous­ly guard­ing its mys­ter­ies in its frag­ile, decep­tive, and unpre­dictable jel­ly. The adven­ture is mar­velous, yet one must have the humil­i­ty to know that we may nev­er see the end of it. At least until the next metaphor.

The Idea of the Brain. The past and future of neu­ro­science, Matthew Cobb, Basic Books, New York. 2020.