Is the human mind the strangest thing in the universe?

Philosophers and scientists have both said for a very long time that the mind is a confusing thing. I think a good place to start which agrees with this is Emerson M Pugh’s quote:

“If the human brain was simple enough for us to understand, we would be too simple to understand it” .

This brings to mind Zeno’s paradox about Achilles and the Tortoise, with the brain as the Tortoise and human understanding as Achilles, developing as fast as it can only to arrive at a great understanding and realise the tortoise was already there.

One problem with trying to figure out the brain is that it’s often illogical and in many cases self-contradictory. One of these contradictions is fragility, and how the brain is simultaneously very resilient and very fragile. While people can survive immense damage, they can also be irreparably changed from a small event.

A widely-known story is the experience of Phineas Gage, which demonstrates that the brain can still function after a lot of trauma. Although Gage had an iron rod blown through his brain by gunpowder, he was walking and talking within minutes of the accident. While Gage physically recovered from the accident, his personality reportedly changed completely; his doctor later said “In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage”” This provided evidence that the structure of the brain and its different areas were involved in personality. It also led to Psychosurgery, the idea of surgeon’s removing parts of patients brains to try and undo differences or mental health issues.

On the other hand, the brain doesn’t always recover easily; a rare condition known as Second Impact Syndrome means that if someone receives a concussion (the mildest type of brain injury) and then receives another before the first has healed, it can be fatal. Considering the amount of damage Phineas Gage took, this fragility is very difficult to understand.

Even weirder is that some injuries to the brain can enhance it instead of damaging it. One interesting case is Orlando Serrell, who was knocked unconscious by a baseball at age 10, and found afterwards that he could do calendar calculations (calculating which day of the week dates will fall on), and had an almost perfect autobiographical memory for every day since the accident. Because of this, some scientists believe that we could all have these “super-abilities” (also as savant skills or splinter skills) which could be unlocked in some way. (Please don’t try this at home though! )

Although advances in science and technology have made a lot more of the brain’s workings known, a big problem is its subjectivity; after all, even the best invention developed to understand the brain is itself created by a brain. In the same way as theologians debate whether God could create a rock bigger than himself, this opens up questions about whether the brain could create something smarter than itself.

Personally, I don’t think it can, and that the brain will be explored more but never completely understood. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Is the human mind the strangest thing in the universe?

  1. Thank your for your blog.

    Two stories came to me with this.

    Firstly, I read a story in Dale Carnegie's 'How to stop worrying and start living'. There was this story of a WW2 soldier who, after a head injury, lost the ability to sleep. Although the story was to highlight how to overcome insomnia, it's certainly an example of the brain losing a simple action.

    Also, I was listening (a while ago now) to 'Home Truths' on Radio 4 (with the great John Peel). An English bloke had brain surgery, and afterwards could only speak in an Italian accent. There's a name to this condition, which I forget, which seems to imply this has happened before.

    Keep on keeping on!


  2. I've always had the view that even IF we ever get a complete understanding of the human brain, it would only be a specific understanding (As in the brain of one specific person) as everyone's brain is different – if they were all identical, I'd assume we all would be too.It wouldn't surprise me if in the far distant future we have a solid understanding of how most of the brain functions and what all the different parts of it do both seperately and collectively, but I put it in a list of things that are simply too complex and vast to ever completely understand.

    As far as the idea of “super-abilities” go, I have no reason to doubt that there are many things that we are capable of beyond our “normal” ability, most of them we probably haven't uncovered yet. As I said before, the brain is so unbelievably complex and because of that there is no real way of telling just how much potential we have.That being said, there must be some kind of reason why we don't have the natural ability to access all of this potential. My remembering of psychological stuff is pretty vague, but I'm pretty sure I remember various studies saying we only usually use a small portion of our brain at any given point (Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!). If this is the case, my theory on it all is that if we used all that potential, our brains probably wouldn't be able to handle all of the activity and we would essentially overload and fry our brains by pushing them too hard.Based on that theory, I'd assume that people with “super-abilities”, particularly those that gained them through accidents and the like, got incredibly “lucky” (For lack of a better phrase) and accidentally triggered something that opened up a part of the brain that by normal process would be closed off to us. I could go on and on about my thoughts on this all day, but I'll leave it at that for now. :)


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