Is the Brain Really All We Are?
TV Series ‘Breakthrough’ – Christian Review
Episode 3, “Decoding the Brain, ” premiers Sunday night, Nov. 15, at 9/8c. More info here at the official site.
Directed by Hollywood veteran filmmaker Brett Ratner (The “Rush Hour” franchise, “X-Men: The Last Stand”) and narrated by Adrien Brody (“The Pianist,” “King Kong”), Episode 3 of National Geographic’s “Breakthrough” series takes a look at the exciting revolution taking place in neuroscience.
Ratner sums up the episode this way: “Your brain is an incredible piece of organic machinery that produces something far greater than its component parts. Breakthrough science lets us study these parts as never before…uncovering the hidden processes that form our identities.”
The episode opens with a series of questions: “What makes us who we are? Are you just a robot following a program? Can we change or should we change the traumatic memories that ruin lives? The answers lie in the electric impulses in the brain.”
We learn that the brain is an electrical system, and our introduction to this amazing electrical system begins at the George Washington University Hospital and its epilepsy center where scientists are working on a cure for epilepsy by placing electrodes permanently in the hippocampus of the brain.
However, before we hear if the innovative solution works or not, the episode moves on to more controversial technology:
The Controversial Breakthrough of Memory Manipulation
At one point, a scientist at MIT states that our identities are built on memory. “Without memory we become stuck in time and we’ve lost our identity,” as he says. The episode then takes an unexpected turn: scientists are discovering that memories are far less stable than previously thought. In fact, every time you recall a memory, the act of recalling it changes it — usually a small detail. But those changes add up over time. It made me think of how scientists try to observe an electron with a microscope, but it’s impossible because the microscope itself changes the position of the electron.
As one person says in the episode: “Memory is written in sand, not stone.” According to one scientist, our memories are 40% of the time wrong, but we believe they are right 100% of the time. When we try to remember how our emotions were at the time, we’re wrong 60% of the time. The reasons why are fascinating (though you’ll have to watch it to get the full explanation). The instability has to do with the way our present moment influences our perception.
Of course, there are deeply wounding memories that utterly transform a person’s brain. Soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a classic example. And the MIT scientist, named Steve Ramirez, is asking this question: “What if we could separate the pain from those memories?”
What is he talking about exactly? He’s talking about something very controversial.
Ever see “Inception?”
Optogenetics: ‘Inception’ Come True
Optogenetics — using tiny beams of light through fiber optic cables to activate switches in brain cells — have recently been used in a potentially world-changing breakthrough: the ability to switch the emotions that fill a memory or even erase memories.
It’s both terrifying and fascinating. You can’t really look away as you watch.
They’ve even taken this new technology into cinematic territory: using optogenetics, they have successfully inserted a false memory into a test mouse. The particular memory they inserted was a negative one. They were then able to modify it: switch the false memory from negative to positive. There’s far more to it than that, and it’s intriguing, but you just have to see it for yourself.
The science fiction of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” has now become reality — though without the need to enter somebody’s dreams and shoot off pretend dream machine guns at enemies in dramatic Hollywood fashion. To insert a false memory, a scientist need only insert a fiber optic cable into your brain and make use of optogenetic technology.
The episode then states, rather calmly, that there are “obvious ethical concerns.” Um, you think? It points out that a “frightening new form of brainwashing” could be created from this. Just when you thought humanity has contrived more than enough ways to torment one another, we have now armed ourselves with the capability of stealing or changing the memories of others — or inserting false ones.
I think I’ll invent a time machine and go back to the 1980s where we didn’t have to worry about people stealing or changing our memories. Good grief. (All I had to worry about was watching “Thundercats” during Saturday morning cartoons. Or was it “Duck Tales?” I can’t remember.)
Granted, the technology is still in its infancy. Nothing has been tested on humans. But to think it’s gotten this far already is astonishing.
Science’s Version of the Predestination vs. Freewill Debate
Neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes is also conducting controversial research. In his research, he has uncovered a “problem” that has led to the scientific version of the Free Will vs. Predestination debate that has so vigorously raged in Christendom for so long.
Basically Haynes discovered, using MRI scans of brains, that the brain has subconsciously made its decision up to 7 seconds before a person makes a conscious choice. It begs the question: are we ever really consciously making decisions or is the subconscious network in our brains running on autopilot and making all the decisions for us? If this is true, then criminals everywhere will rejoice: “My subconscious network of misfiring neurons in my brain made me do it, Your Honor! I had nothing to do with it!”
This discovery has sent both the scientific, philosophical, and theological communities into various degrees of tizzies. I’ve actually seen some of this in other news stories. Certain groups of people who see the elimination of free will as something very convenient to their agenda sort of salivate at the idea of finally ridding humanity of the “illusion of free will” as some of them h
ave called it.
Not so fast.
Haynes makes some qualifications: A) the 7 second discovery does not necessarily apply to longer, more complex decisions like selling a house or changing careers; and B) in his latest experiments he had discovered that the conscious mind can interrupt this subconscious decision-making and essentially “veto” the subconscious process that begins early in that 7 second timeframe. In other words, free will is still intact.
I won’t get into how he discovered all of this. It’s fairly mind-blowing, and like I said earlier, you just have to see it for yourself.
In the meantime, I have to give a shout-out to someone from my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, in a Nature.com article from 2011, added another reason that explains why these experiments don’t really shatter the “illusion” of free will (though at that time the “veto” power of the conscious mind had not been discovered yet):
Neuroscientists also sometimes have misconceptions about their own field, says Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In particular, scientists tend to see preparatory brain activity as proceeding stepwise, one bit at a time, to a final decision. He suggests that researchers should instead think of processes working in parallel, in a complex network with interactions happening continually. The time at which one becomes aware of a decision is thus not as important as some have thought.
A Cure for Epilepsy?
The episode then looks at two tragic stories in which epilepsy quite literally destroyed the memories and even abilities of two individuals. With each new epileptic episode, the person’s brain would lose some of its precious function — particularly in its memories. The personalities of these two people were eroding, and their families were gradually morning them while they were still alive.
It was heartbreaking, frankly.
But remember the scientist I mentioned who appeared at the beginning of the episode? They return to this scientist’s storyline and follow its astonishing conclusion that will bring hope to millions of people with epilepsy. It truly is a world-changing breakthrough. (Though I’ve given enough away as it is. You’ll just have to watch to learn the whole story.)
Is the Brain Really All We Are?
In this episode, we have statements like this from both scientists and the narrator: “80 to 100 billion brain cells are what make you you…The fires of the mind produce everything that makes us human: science, art, and emotion.”
I would have to strongly disagree with that statement because it is specifically Naturalist. I believe there is much more to an individual than simply their matter that our senses or our current instruments of science can detect. And, as I mentioned in great detail in my review of Episode 2, I don’t even find it that unreasonable to believe that there is an extra-dimensional component to who we are that transcends space and time (i.e. a soul). Compared to the wild theory of the multiverse (infinite number of universes that exist in dimensions external to the ones that compose our universe), the theory of a soul doesn’t even seem controversial. So, no, I strongly disagree; 80 to 100 billion brain cells are not the only things that make you you. There is much more. And there are greater, higher fires than the fires of the mind, and they influence us in extremely powerful ways.
The episode, however, ends on a note of awe and humility: “…but the unique capacity of the brain is its ability to look at itself in all of its mystery.” This truly is a wonder: that humanity can ponder its own inner workings and fate.
And then the scientist who worked on epilepsy says this stunning statement that really leaves you in awe about the vast complexity of the brain: “If the brain is a complex Swiss watch, the best scientists we have are like first graders.”
And if there’s that much more to learn about the brain, anything is possible.
Some interesting facts about the brain:
The brain is made up of 75 percent water.
It uses 20 percent of the blood circulating in your body and 20 percent of your oxygen.
It has no pain receptors.
Juggling has been shown to change the brain in as little as seven days.
Learning new things helps the brain to change very quickly.
To read my reviews on the other five episodes in the “Breakthrough” series, follow these links:
Parent Guidance Issues at a Glance for National Geographic Episode 3 of ‘Breakthrough’…
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: Scenes from actual brain surgery are shown, though there is only a little blood, and it does not involve the removing of the person’s skull. They do, however, drill into the skull, and this might make some viewers a little squeamish (depending on your tolerance of that kind of thing). Clips from 9/11 are shown, when the planes crash into the Twin Towers.
Sexual Content/Nudity: None.
Decoding the Brain Premieres Sunday, Nov. 15, at 9/8c
Brett Ratner is one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers. His diverse films resonat
e with audiences worldwide and have grossed over $2 billion at the global box office. Brett began his career directing music videos before making his feature directorial debut with “Money Talks,” starring Charlie Sheen and Chris Tucker. He followed with the blockbuster “Rush Hour” and its successful sequels. Ratner also directed “The Family Man,” “Red Dragon,” “After the Sunset,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Tower Heist” and “Hercules.”
Upcoming RatPac projects include “Truth;” starring Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett; “I Saw the Light,” starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen; the “Untitled Howard Hughes” project, written, directed and produced by Warren Beatty; and “Black Mass,” starring Johnny Depp for Warner Bros.
In addition to strongly supporting ADL, Ratner is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance and serves on the Dean’s Council of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He also sits on the boards of Chrysalis, Best Buddies and Do Something.