Mind vs. Matter: Animal or Human?
How can a bundle of neurons instinctively sense we are in danger?
Posted Dec 21, 2017
As freshmen in veterinary school, we were taught our brains were hard-wired, the window for change essentially closed many years beforehand. In spite of countless days spent scribbling notes in darkened lecture halls, late nights in bright-lit labs dissecting our cadavers, and most other waking hours at our desks and cubbies studying, we knew that we were up against a fate of being human. Facing the inevitable death of thousands of neurons every day, the long-term prospects for retaining all our newfound knowledge seemed abysmally bleak.
More than three decades later, we now understand our brains live in a state of flux, in which thousands of new neurons can be spurred into forming in a single day. Existing neurons sprout fresh branches to reach in new directions, framing and rewiring their synaptic links with other cells—new ones forming, others burning out. The simple act of learning stirs cells to strengthen their connections. These ties make it easier to send their messages and work as one. Their speed and efficiency become imprinted in their cellular memory, which, in turn, forms and shapes what we recall in our thoughts. This ability of the brain to endlessly refashion itself, what scientists refer to as neuroplasticity, allows us to adapt to an ever-changing environment. As the world around us shifts and evolves, in a very real sense, so do our minds.
Observing routine human behavior as much as I do from day to day, I find it interesting how often we treat our minds and bodies as if they were separate. From health insurers to friends and neighbors, I cannot help but notice how we tend to set apart mental illness as essentially different from other diseases. It is easy to think of our neighbor stricken with cancer as a hapless victim. Yet our colleague at work, struggling through years of depression, may bear a stigma.
This mindset is no different with regard to animals. A cat disfigured with gnarled, crusty ears and scabby, cankered lips from pemphigus (a disfiguring disease in which the immune system decides to attack the body’s own cells) is tenderly coddled by all in his family. Yet a cat with a bald, bleeding tail who manically chases and gnaws it for hours is watched by her family with a certain reserve and, not infrequently, even disdain. Listening to my client’s tales, a common theme arises. People, by their nature, identify with their animal’s behavior and often, in doing so, relate to it just as they do with humans.
Certainly, we can influence what happens in our bodies, but to a large degree, the functions of our cells and tissues are governed by factors beyond our control: genetics, physiology, and the environment, to name a few. In health as well as in disease, our cells follow their own destiny. Just as our hepatocytes can unwittingly go haywire, oozing streams of enzymes that run amuck inside our bellies, so can our neurons bungle how they communicate. When neurons and their connections malfunction, our senses, feelings, memories, and thoughts can wander, sometimes far off course.
In spite of all we now know, or think we know, about our brains, we still have yet to understand so many fundamental questions. How does a bundle of cells give birth to thoughts and feelings? How do tiny waves of chemicals transform into a cherished memory? Why can a swell of emotions sway what we perceive and think? How can a cluster of neurons instinctively sense we are in danger, in spite of everything our eyes and ears may tell us?
The brain, of course, is made from matter: atoms and molecules which make up cells and the sea of chemicals within and around them. In contrast, the mind is bodiless: enigmatic energy field made up of thoughts and feelings; hopes and fears; endless memories, wishes and dreams. How does matter manifest the abstract?
C. H. Vanderwolf, the esteemed neuroscientist, notes: “The conventional theory of the brain as the organ of the psyche or mind offers us the comforting illusion that we already understand the big picture.”
It is naïve to believe that the mind is nothing more than a cellular product. Without a doubt, our brain cells give rise to the energy fields of our minds. At the very same time, our thoughts, quite literally, mold and rewire our brain. Each unmistakably shapes and transforms the other.
As I make my rounds across the zoo, from The Tropics to Australasia, I must constantly bear in mind how the brain differs from species to species. The amount of space within the skull; the size of the centers for vision, smell, and hearing; the surface area of the cortex, including all the folds and grooves. Each reflects specializations in anatomy and function. These measurements tell me how each species has evolved and adapted from their perspective. When compared to the animals they hunt, carnivores have proportionally larger brains, presumably empowering them to craft strategies to catch their prey. Dogs have a pair of olfactory bulbs that, together, weigh four times those of humans, enabling them to smell secreted pheromones of fear from people. The area of the brain that integrates sounds is far more developed in dolphins than man, endowing them with the ability to know where they are and “see” by sound beneath the waves.
Although monkeys and moon bears surely differ, I am struck far more by their likenesses. From the thousands of synapses linking each neuron to the nuclei into which they cluster, the anatomy of our brains is remarkably similar from species to species. Even more striking to me are the likenesses between species’ behaviors. Regardless of species, we rely on our neurons—second by second—for our very survival. From humans to apes and dingoes to dogs, we all use our brains to make sense of the world. Lights, sounds, smells, textures, and what we notice others doing are received, sorted, processed, and interwoven into a picture. We respond to this image with our instincts, emotions, thoughts, and actions.
Though they may do so a bit differently from you or I, animals clearly perceive with awareness, think with reflection, and act with intention. As we do, they routinely take in their circumstances, as well as those of others, weigh their options, and consider consequences before deciding how they will respond. Doing so requires attentiveness, forethought, and consideration—all traits shared by humans as well as animals.
Vanderwolf, C. H. (2007) The Evolving Brain: The Mind and Neural Control of Behavior New York, NY: Springer Science.