Brains ‘R’ Us (or are they?)

brains photo

I’ve been thinking about brains.

Well, to be honest I’ve done a whole lot of thinking about brains over the years, so this is not exactly a recent development. But brains have been, umm, on my mind, as it were, even more than usual lately.

I think what started it, I mean this latest bout of cerebral preoccupation, was an article about a scientist getting a very large grant from the European Union, like a billion dollars large, to develop a complete virtual model of a human brain.

Now the idea of artificial intelligence is nothing new, of course – we’ve had blockbuster movies about it, after all… And the idea of AI has always been to explore the workings of the human brain by modeling various aspects of it in software, as it were… So the idea of a complete virtualization is not exactly revolutionary. Arguably the concept is foundational, at least since a brilliant young scientist devised a kind of ‘test’ for artificial intelligence that bears his name….

But this is not an article about artificial brains per se, and truth be told it’s real, organic brains that interest me more – and not just brains either… But brains are where we’ll start, for now.

Special Powers

I’ve been fascinated, in a lay observer’s sort of way by the neurological and cognitive sciences for a number of years now, and anyone who shares this interest will almost certainly have come across the work of Oliver Sacks. (If not, go and find as many of his books as you can find, or start with his excellent Ted talk…)

One of the many remarkable characters Sacks has profiled over the years is Stephen Wiltshire, sometimes known as the ‘human camera’ for his extraordinary feats of visual memory and recreation. This extraordinary presentation is where I first became aware of him, and it’s been ‘viral’ for a good while now so there’s a good chance you’ve seen it too:

Somewhat less well known is this wonderful video of Stephen’s musical counterpart, as it were, Derek Paravincini (known, probably in reference to Mr. Wiltshire’s nickname, as the ‘human iPod’, though I find both of these sobriquets a bit troubling as I feel they drastically underestimate the real creativity involved in both cases, emphasizing the admittedly more unusual abilities of memory and perception):

Abilities and Limitations

Now both of these young men are considered  to be on the autistic spectrum, which leads many to surmise that their extraordinary abilities in one mode of mental activity to be somehow related to their lack of ‘normal’ development in other areas, often social or linguistic.

This has always seemed a little odd to me, since the are plenty of examples of ‘extreme’ abilities or unusually gifted individuals in many fields, including visual and musical, without accompanying autism or related issues.

However, the fact remains that there are many such examples, remarkable gifts or abilities that transcend our normal experience and defy our intuitive understanding of what the brain is capable of. And yes, they are sometimes accompanied by limitations in other areas, so there is perhaps something to the notion that there is a relationship there; I’ll leave it to Oliver Sacks and other neuroscientists to explore that more cogently than I am able to.

It’s All Connected

No, the thread I want to explore is a little different, and to get there I’m going to use one more example. This one floated by and caught my attention in the way these things do, and as a musician I couldn’t help getting caught up with it: The Mindtunes project, in which a DJ and star of Britain’s electronic music scene, a computer scientist with some brain imaging equipment, and three guys who love dance music but are variously paralyzed or severely physically limited, get together to make a dance track (or, in Mark Rowland’s words, a “big, fat, dirty, epic Dubstep tune”):

The result is pretty amazing and uplifting, even if it also functions as a great big ad for Smirnoff. There are worse ways to advertise, so more power to them for doing something special that probably changed some lives in the process. It’s not really my kind of music, but I am very intrigued by the project nevertheless for various reasons, not least of which is the possibility of creatively empowering people with profound physical limitations.

So what’s the connection here? What’s the pattern that links these very different examples of brains at work? How are they different from a giant computer running insanely complicated software designed to mimic the way our human brains work? And what can it teach the rest of us about creativity?

The answer, my answer, is that all these brains are attached to bodies.

And that means more than I think it seems to at first glance.

Brains, Bodies, and Senses

Stephen Wiltshire’s extraordinary brain is connected to a pair of eyes and a pair of hands. Yes, the brain controls the eyes and the hands, but this process is far more complex and subtle and non-linear and organic than any computer controlling a camera or a printer. We know this intuitively, but I don’t think it can be overestimated.

Derek Paravincini is more than a powerful computer connected to a perfect microphone and a player piano. The process by which his brain processes sound and pitch, and *experiences * sound and pitch, is more than computation. I know this because I have a bit of an inside track on this one – my brain and ears and hands do that too, though my natural abilities are nowhere close to his.

I felt a chill of recognition as I watched this presentation – I know that landscape of pitch and pattern intimately, and I can tell when I see and hear someone exploring it the same way. The musicians I work with every day know it too. There is something subtle, almost magical about what happens at the nexus of brain and ears and fingers and instrument, a kind of intimate knowledge that depends on, but also utterly transcends the theory, the ear training, and the manual technique that underlie it. A whole that is far more than the sum of its parts…

The Landscape of Possibility

That’s what I’m interested in exploring with music, and my hunch is that some version of it is what most people are exploring in their creative work: the subtle connections of the brain, the body, the senses, the tools and the space that the work takes place in. And the infinite landscape of human communication that forms in this nexus.

Hell, let’s go further: this mystery underlies our whole experience as human beings, as sentient beings even. And it’s why I think the AI people, as fascinating and important and transformative as their work may be, are a long way from replicating what our embodied brains can do.

Let’s take another example, from a very different angle: a series of videos, also making the rounds ‘out there’, called People Are Awesome. (Aren’t they? Aren’t we?)

These might seem more like bodies attached to brains than the other way around, since the extraordinary feats are by and large more physical than mental or creative at first glance, but to me it’s the same thing: people with wonderful brains attached to wonderful bodies doing things that fill us with wonder, by creatively exploring the the landscape of what’s possible at the nexus of senses, brains and bodies.

Could you be more specific?

And here’s the crux of the matter: this is not an abstract thing. I think this is a common error. It’s not about showing what any of us could do with our brains and bodies if only we worked or practiced hard enough. It’s much more specific than that. It’s what each of us can do with our particular set of senses, brains and bodies. Each of us has our own incredible and unique landscape-of-what’s-possible to explore. And when we share the results, there’s just enough commonality to make the results relatable, and let us experience the wonder of discovery vicariously, and be inspired to see what we can do with our own brains-connected-to-bodies.

So when Mark Rowland uses his brain, connected to his ears and to a computer, to help create music in the Mindtunes video, I know why he’s smiling like that. I can’t know what it’s like to be him, but I know that joy and where it comes from. No matter how ‘limited’ our bodies or our senses might seem, we all have our personal landscape of possibility to explore, and the exploration is a beautiful, joyful thing, and so is the sharing of that wonder and joy.

What I’m trying to say here, to sum up, is that intelligence and creativity and the importance of art and music and science and technology and all the amazing creative things we do are not, or at the very least not exclusively, the result of processing. No amount of processing power can replicate it or replace it or make any of it, or any of us, irrelevant (though certainly, as with the Mindtunes project and in a million other ways, it can enhance it and enhance the sharing and appreciation of it).

No, intelligence and creativity are not just the result of extraordinary processing power, they are physical too – the result not just of big brains but of big brains attached to bodies. Specific brains attached to specific bodies. It’s the result of exploring what our specific brains and our specific bodies can do, no matter how ‘limited’ or how ‘extraordinary’ they may be. And sharing it and inspiring each other to explore some more.

It’s All About Touch

Since this has been a post full of examples, I’ll leave you with one more… one of the most amazing, and famous, examples of someone overcoming extraordinary obstacles to develop and share her remarkable mind with the world. I’m talking, of course, about Helen Keller.

Here’s a video, which I also stumbled upon randomly the other day, of Helen and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, demonstrating how this remarkable and gifted teacher found the way to unlock her pupil’s prison:

It was through touch. She took what she had – practically the only sense Helen had available – and explored with her the landscape of what was possible for her, with her brain, attached to her body.

And look what was possible, as it turned out!

That video touched me to my core, and I suspect I’m not alone. Every example I’ve used has filled me with the wonder of what’s possible, what our brains and bodies can do. And there are a million more out there, a billion more stories or more.

What’s yours? What’s possible for you and your brain and body? Are you exploring it? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments section, below…