Carefully Predicting Our Next Catastrophe
A Review of Lisa Feldman Barrett's Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain
By Lisa Feldman Barrett
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2020
What is a brain?
Whatever you think you think about that topic, the thought is actually a prediction made from past experiences of how that word “brain” has worked for you, in hopes that what you “think” about it now brings the right payoff for you in this current situation.
The brain, after all, isn’t actually for thinking, suggests Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University, author of the magnificent How Emotions Are Made. Instead, most of what the brain does (during all hours, waking or sleeping) is regulate the various processes of the body in order to maintain balance. This balance is achieved via a process called allostasis, in which all manner of hormone, chemical, glucose and more are distributed throughout the various systems of the body, which in turn communicate with the brain.
In fact, system is the right way to think about it. According to Dr. Barrett, “Your Brain is a Network,” in which information is quickly delegated to the most efficient stations, as each individual part deftly switches in between tasks according to whatever information is being fed to it. The result is this miraculous organism we’ve come to know as ourselves, beings existing through time who continue to marry memory with prediction in a magnificent phenomenon called “experience.”
That last idea is mine (although it certainly is not original to me), but I do believe it is implied by the depths of Dr. Barrett’s text. For the beauty of this work is that its brief, deceptively stark statements of seven (and a half) basic facts provoke contemplation. If the brain isn’t it for thinking, it is astounding just how much thinking it does, and it is fascinating to consider what that implies. This book, full of clear-headed anecdotes and examples, helps us begin that process in there here and now, starting as we are.
To ground that phenomenon in an even more astounding context, we are asked to consider what are the evolutionary conditions that gave cause to the birth of our brains in the first place? It would seem that the advantages that first gave organisms the opportunity to prosper in the primordial ooze were the abilities to feed and to avoid being fed upon. Over oodles of time, this led to increasingly sophisticated beings such as amphioxi, brainless serpentish proto-fish who had eye-like organs allowing them to sense the difference between light and dark, without being able to actually “see”. More and more organisms emerge over time in different ways creating both threat and competition for these beings, and the ones who earned success tended to be those which were able to discern what sense data was coming to them, as well as how best to efficiently manage their metabolism of energy to move quickly when needed, and not exhaust themselves when unnecessary.
More time, more environmental pressure, and you begin to see biodiversity, multitudes of organisms all with different styles of addressing these varying sorts of problems. And increasingly, you begin to see various examples of sensory organs, and eventually brains, to interpret the data these organs acquire.
Again, the purpose of all this is to eat, and to avoid being eaten. As the brain organs continue to evolve, so do their abilities to interpret and predict based upon the incoming sense data.
Eventually, you have full on function like memory, consciousness, self-identification, abstraction, and so on. These are some of the incredible capabilities which we as homo sapiens enjoy. But Dr. Barrett wants us to know that just because these capabilities really are remarkable, that doesn’t reduce the awesomeness of other sorts of brains which function in other ways.
Indeed, as suggested above, this slender volume contains much food for thought, however that thought pertains to our own personal allostasis. As we are taken through seven and a half cut-and-dry assertions about the basic way that the brain functions, we are brought to many sophisticated considerations requiring beaucoup brain power.
Take, for example, the concept of “volition,” which Dr. Barrett uses to work with what would be classically called the “problem of Free Will.” How does one think about such a challenging topic once we’ve begun to consider ourselves as vulnerable organisms attempting to learn from the past in order to predict likely future outcomes, so that we might thrive and avoid being destroyed? You can imagine that this might give you pause as you wish to intuit a proper response. When she compels us to think about how a metaphor functions, the experience grows ever richer.
For not only are our brains themselves networks, they are also networked to other networks. In a brilliant section that explicitly describes how “Little Brains Wire Themselves to Their World,” Dr. Barrett considers the implications of our long infant periods, and just how much is at stake. How we parent baby brains affects those brains’ abilities to adjust to additional environments going forward, and ultimately decides the health and well being of our entire culture, and the world’s.
If, indeed, we are precious prey perceiving via a glass darkly, imagining our environment in such a way as to best adapt to it, such a circumstance is a very fertile condition so as to prompt meditation. Indeed, one might “think” of old words like “spiritual” or “religious.” There’s no such talk in this book, but there are suggestions throughout as to how we might live -- and all of them founded in science, this modern way of “looking” at the world, which we’ve only begun doing in the very recent past. Remembering that might prompt sounder predictions.