Human Consciousness

Plants don’t have brains; they don’t even have nervous systems. Animals have nervous systems, but none of them equals those of human beings. The human brain is made up of 100 billion neurons, which is 14 times the population of the world. Each neuron is a marvelous universe within itself, made up of a trillion atoms. Each connects with ten thousand other neurons to be able to catalogue images and sensations and constitute an indexed decision-making memory system. Although the largest brains belong to elephants and whales, the cortex of the human brain sets it apart as the greatest miniaturized marvel of any organ anywhere. The ability to speak, perform, calculate, create, and interact socially make people unique in the universe. Our mind is a mystery that goes beyond the brain.

Language distinguishes humans from animals. Many animals, such as bees, communicate in interesting ways, but none of them exhibit all the characteristics of a complete language system. They just act instinctively. Different lists of criteria are used to define language, but all animals lack at least one of the qualities necessary to qualify their communication as a real language. Currently 6909 languages are spoken in the world, and English, by itself, has a million words. Add to that all the creative ways that words can be articulated or sung, and all the various genres of music. People are also able to create new words and languages as they need them, such as sign language and Morse code. Human language is dynamic and creative, rather than instinctive.

The central nervous system, that is, the brain and spinal cord, is connected to the rest of the body through sensory and motor nerves to perform amazing feats of coordination. Fish swim, birds fly, and horses trot instinctively, but people train themselves to figure skate, play on instrument in an orchestra, juggle, walk a tightrope, operate equipment, and perform surgery. Around ten thousand hours are required to build muscle memory and become proficient at a complex skill. Modern talent relies upon a combination of both training, to learn chosen skills from past experts. and the creative ability of performers to explore new areas of delivery. The brain expresses itself through the body.

While the right hemisphere of the brain is artistic, the left hemisphere is more logical and thus predisposed to math and science. Since most things in the universe can be described mathematically, the human brain is well adapted to discover and describe everything from quarks to supernovas. We could have been limited to interacting with our immediate environment. Instead, we can understand the farthest reaches of the universe. Newton’s laws of physics gave way to relativity. Today, Stephen Hawking dreams of finding a single mathematical formula that would describe all of physics. Our mathematical brain helps us understand a mathematical universe.

Creativity is the ability to imagine things that don’t exist, or least that we don’t know about personally. The mind paints virtual pictures and then analyzes them. Our best ideas, the ones we don’t throw away, become the art and inventions of the future. Whether it’s in the arts or the sciences, our brain is constantly producing new ideas. There are about 2.1 million US patents in force, without counting those which have expired or are pending. That also doesn’t count millions of books and songs. Without our imagination, we wouldn’t be able to consider different outcomes and make decisions. All we could do would be to react to our environment. The world we create around ourselves gives us our individual identity.

With 7.5 billion people in the world, the success of big ideas depends on our ability to convince others of their value. We communicate brain to brain, using logic and social skills, in order to negotiate alliances that promote our ideas. Governments then make laws that courts enforce. Our diverse, fluid society is a hugely complex house of cards that often crumbles from the destruction of war. Our ability to exchange and debate ideas is phenomenal. Brainpower is multiplied in society. Social media has proliferated the exchange of opinions. When a post on Facebook receives thousands of likes, it’s because a certain abstract idea is shared, with emotion, by thousands of brains. It’s difficult for anyone to make a decision without consciously or unconsciously considering the opinions of those around them. Our brain never thinks alone.

Religion is the ultimate abstraction. From the beginning of time, the belief in a God or in gods has been almost universally accepted in one form or another. It’s quite amazing that people in societies across the globe have been convinced that invisible forces and beings control their lives. While it makes some sense that people would have an abstract respect for fire and wind, that doesn’t easily explain the highly specific beliefs in named gods with very particular personalities. How could this be perpetuated so strongly and so widely, from the beginning of history to the present? Regional superstitions are tied to visible practices. We have yet to explain a universal delusion that focuses on invisible, unseen beings. Perhaps the brain has extended itself too far beyond reality? Or is there more to reality than meets the eye?

Has the mind changed so much since the dawn of history? Technology has changed enormously, but that’s not the same thing. Everything that we have now, we had in the beginning, only with simpler technology. When writing began, less than six thousand years ago, so did everything else. Education, commerce, laws, the arts, medicine, construction, and mathematics were all solidly in place in ancient Babylonia and Egypt. We marvel today at the ten-ton pillars of Gobekli Tepe, dated 11,000 years old. How did they do that? Imagine the brainpower and ingenuity it took to construct the pyramids without giant cranes and computer modeling. In 189 B.C., Hipparcus was able to calculate the distance to the moon, without a telescope. Think how much more inventiveness it took to create the first society without technology and without history. That’s real brainpower!

Is Artificial Intelligence really intelligence or just lots of information? Self-driving cars make reactive decisions, but the big question is whether or not man can create an artificial brain that is conscious of its own existence and thinks creatively. Can binary code duplicate neurons? Will man create a thinking machine better than the brain? It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s an awesome prospect that has many people both excited and fearful about its future. If robotic machines do someday surpass us, which is yet to be seen, it will be because of the amazing abilities of the human brain.

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