The most common perception regarding the purpose of our brain is the major processor for all of our thought, that this is where an individual’s "mind" resides, along with their essence of self and identity. Certainly, brain damage can affect our cognitive abilities, substantiating the purely scientific stance that we are no more than biological entities without souls, but is that the full story?
A recent study that claims to be able to "switch off" brain activity suggests that the brain is ultimately controllable via external and internal sources, like a computer operating system.
The breakthrough is based on earlier research conducted in 2005 by Stanford scientist Karl Deisseroth, who originally developed a technique that became known as "optogenetics" , which involved the use of light energy to turn brains cells on and off.The technique has provided a foundation for subsequent studies on brain, heart and stem cell regulation via electrical signalling. Previously, light-sensitive proteins were successful in switching cells on but less effective when attempting to switch them off, and the latest advance by Deisseroth’s team has been made by re-engineering the proteins to become more efficient.
The results of the study are published in the journal Science, and have been well-received by experts in the field. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study, said that it will provide a deeper understanding of how brain circuits involved in behavior, emotion and thought responses.
Yet the brain is not the only organ in the body capable of responding and making decisions; research has indicated that gut responses often occur before brain activity in certain situations, instructing the brain on how to react rather than vice versa.
A review article published in the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition entitled "The brain-gut interaction: the conversation and the implications" describes the ongoing dialogue between the gut and the brain. The gut apparently has the ability to take the initiative and instruct the brain, and can even operate independently:
"The gut is the only organ that contains an intrinsic nervous system with an ability to mediate reflexes in the complete absence of input from the brain or spinal cord; it really does have a mind of its own" reads the article.
Via the gut, it seems that even the food that we eat can send messages to the brain; a recent study describes how fiber intake promotes satiety by sending neuro-signals in the form of acetate, the most abundant fatty acid produced in the gut, synthesised during the breakdown of fiber.
The team found that mice on a high-fat diet gained weight less rapidly if fibre was added to their food, and they used scanners to track the passage of acetate after the catabolism of fibre. It was previously thought that fatty acids only reached as far as the liver, where they are metabolised, but in fact the acetate was tracked to the brain where it appeared to act on the hypothalamus to curb appetite and induce feelings of satiety.
So is the brain the conscious power-house of the body, or merely a processor that receives instructions from a variety of internal and external stimuli?
"The brain is utterly alien to us, and yet our personalities, hopes, fears and aspirations all depend on the integrity of this biological tissue. How do we know this? Because when the brain changes, we change, " says David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and bestselling author. "Our personality, decision-making, risk-aversion, the capacity to see colours or name animals – all these can change, in very specific ways, when the brain is altered by tumours, strokes, drugs, disease or trauma. As much as we like to think about the body and mind living separate existences, the mental is not separable from the physical. "
His view is not shared by Raymond Tallis, former professor of geriatric medicine at Manchester University and author, who maintains that, whilst our minds are in some part dependent on the efficient functioning of our biological brains, they are also part of an immeasurable universal collective:
"Yes, of course, everything about us, from the simplest sensation to the most elaborately constructed sense of self, requires a brain in some kind of working order. Remove your brain and bang goes your IQ," says Tallis, yet he goes on to explain that this is not the whole story. "…we are not stand-alone brains. We are part of community of minds, a human world, that is remote in many respects from what can be observed in brains."
It is said that we only use a fraction of our brain’s capacity. Could the rest of it be used, then, to connect to this vast collective mind, downloading and storing emotions and data from a millennia of human experiences and collated knowledge?
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