Brains Are Lying To Us

So I’m reading the April Harper’s, a review of Oliver Sacks’ new book The Mind’s Eye, and the reviewer, Israel Rosenfield, starts discoursing on the nature and meaning of brains:

There is a simple fact about evolution that, although rarely mentioned, is very revealing: plants don’t have brains. Only animals—even very primitive animals and insects—have brains. Brains evolved because moving creatures, no matter how simple, are confronted by ever-changing, unpredictable surroundings. Plants don’t have brains because they don’t need them; they don’t move from place to place. For animals, motion creates a world of visual, tactile, and auditory sensations that are unorganized and unstable; in short, the world is constantly changing. What the brain must do—it’s probably the principal reason brains evolved—is create a stable, coherent sensory environment for the individual organism to understand and use. The brain does this by “inventing” a range of perceptions: a series of constructs that we “see,” “hear,” and “feel” when we look, listen, and touch.

The creation of a coherent environment out of chaotic stimuli is one of the brain’s primary activities. There are no colors in nature, only electromagnetic radiation of varying wavelengths (the visible spectrum is between 390 and 750 nanometers). If we were aware of our “real” visual worlds we would see constantly changing images of dirty gray, making it difficult for us to recognize forms. Our visual stimuli are stabilized when the brain compares the variation in the different wavelengths of light; the consequence of these comparisons is what we perceive as “color.” The brain creates a sense of “color constancy”; no matter the lighting conditions—bright sunlight, filtered sunlight, or artificial lighting—colors remain more or less the same. This phenomenon is not fully understood. But colors themselves are not in our surroundings. Brains therefore create something that is not there[.]

Great, I think. Brains are no better than the rest of the canard players. They just make shit up. Bunch of mendacious buggers—can’t trust anything they tell you. Because if they’ll lie even about light, jeebus knows they’ll lie about anything.

And suddenly I understood why I have always preferred black-and-white photography: because it is more reflective of the Real. Something inside me knew all along that these alleged “colors” were phonies, and was trying desperately to route this knowledge around the lying forgeries of the brain.

Then I realized I had actually named this blog after one of those so-called “colors.” And desultorily accepted that I am probably ingrainedly addled.

My next brainshower involved something I had read earlier in the day, in this piece, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, a reformed vegetarian, who describes therein how she began gnawing on bones once she arrived at the inescapable Shivaite conclusion that all life sustains itself through the taking of other lives, regardless of what one eats.

Anyway, in that piece Yoon writes:

[P]lants can do any number of things that we typically think of as animal-like would. They move, for one thing, carrying out activities that could only be called behaving, if at a pace visible only via time-lapse photography.

So when Rosenfield constructed his entire theory on the nature and meaning of the brain on the notion that brains evolved for “moving creatures,” he did so because his brain was lying to him. Because, according to Yoon, plants do indeed move. And yet, or at least so it is said, at any rate by Rosenfield’s lying brain, plants don’t have any brains.

Or maybe Yoon’s brain is lying to her, when it moves her to assert that plants move: because maybe they really don’t.

In any event, I am not the one to decide which brain is lying, Rosenfield’s or Yoon’s. Because I also have a brain. Which, according to Rosenfield, is ceaselessly engaged in churning out mendacity. So the thing can’t be trusted.

Yoon’s brain instructed her to inscribe lines that indicate plants may indeed have some sort of brain. Just not of the type that our own brains are either able or willing to recognize as a brain.

[J]ust like a chicken running around without its head, the body of a corn plant torn from the soil or sliced into pieces struggles to save itself, just as vigorously and just as uselessly, if much less obviously to the human ear and eye.

When a plant is wounded, its body immediately kicks into protection mode. It releases a bouquet of volatile chemicals, which in some cases have been shown to induce neighboring plants to pre-emptively step up their own chemical defenses and in other cases to lure in predators of the beasts that may be causing the damage to the plants. Inside the plant, repair systems are engaged and defenses are mounted, the molecular details of which scientists are still working out, but which involve signaling molecules coursing through the body to rally the cellular troops, even the enlisting of the genome itself, which begins churning out defense-related proteins.

Plants don’t just react to attacks, though. They stand forever at the ready. Witness the endless thorns, stinging hairs and deadly poisons with which they are armed. If all this effort doesn’t look like an organism trying to survive, then I’m not sure what would.


Not too long ago, scientists even reported evidence that plants could detect and grow differently depending on whether they were in the presence of close relatives, a level of behavioral sophistication most animals have not yet been found to show.

So. A plant struggles to survive when wounded, knows how to call for help, likes to hang out with its family, and employs juju to ward off Badness. Sounds pretty brainy to me.

Yoon’s brain further called into question Rosenfield’s brain by noting that, notwithstanding the canard promulgated by Rosenfield’s brain, not all animals actually possess brains.

Sponges are animals, but like plants they lack nerves or a brain. Jellyfish, meanwhile, which can be really tasty when cut into julienne and pickled, have no brains, only a simple net of nerves, arguably a less sophisticated setup than the signaling systems coordinating the lives of many plants.

Yoon also states that fungi “are more similar to us than are plants, as fungi are our closer evolutionary relations.” This made perfect sense to me, as I have, from time to time, encountered purported people who seemed to me to be composed of large amounts of fungal material.

I am now going to deploy my own brain to question the assertion of Rosenfield’s brain that brains were born out of movement. Because my brain knows that the slime mould certainly moves, yet has no more brain than the Scarecrow.

According to Science Men, the slime mould is not an animal, not a plant, not a fungi, but instead a “protist.”

Until this day, I had never encountered this “protist” word, and am somewhat wary of it. It seems sort of aggressive, and like it might be associated with teabaggers.

Under whatever vaguely ominous name, the slime mould infests all the world, where it feeds on microorganisms that in turn feed on dead plant material. Like a big chain of death, by Gumby. Slime mould, like all protists, are unicellular, or multicellular without specialized tissues. Meaning they don’t have brains, or much of anything else.

For most of their lives, slime moulds behave Normally. But when the food supply runs low, they go totally wild. They release signal molecules that allow them to find one another, and then they group together in swarms, creating a tiny, multicellular, coordinated, slug-like creature, that crawls like an animal to an open, sunny place, and there grows into what the Science Men call “a fruiting body,” releasing spores.

This is to me so strange and unusual that my brain remembered it for more than 30 years, for that is when I last wrote about it. When my brain was challenged by Rosenfield’s brain to come up with non-animal, non-brain-endowed creatures that move, the slime mould, even by name, fruited bodily in my brain.

So I suppose that brain is still good for something. Besides lying.


4 Responses to “Brains Are Lying To Us”

  1. 1 possum March 16, 2011 at 4:19 am


    This must be the week for ‘p’ words of unknown origin. First you have ‘plecostomus’ and now protist. The educational opportunities abound around here these days.

    How about one more, predestinarianism. Seventeen letters meaning belief in the doctrine of predestination, that the divine will has predetermined the course of events, people’s fate, etc.

    Words are wonderful. One more example of made up stuff our brains offer us in an effort to explain our world.

    We talk sometimes about color around the office. Radiographs and other imaging systems (ultrasound, CT-scan, and MRI) all use black and white for their presentation. The computer cares not one whit what colors are chosen. Humans choose black and white as opposed to for instance purple and green. There is something about our overall physiology or that of people who choose to be radiologists that makes black and white more definitive. Maybe you should have been a radiologist. Although I hear attorneys deal a lot in black and white in writing and gray in argument. 🙂

    • 2 bluenred March 16, 2011 at 4:46 am

      You are a very astute possum. Lawyers do indeed argue that statutes and case law are black and white, but they are really almost always subsumed in gray, which allows the judge to come to any conclusion s/he chooses. : /

      This Rosenfield brain claims that everything in the world is Really gray, so to my brain that makes your black-and-white radiology presentations more Real than if they were splashed with color.

  2. 3 Elva March 16, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    I wish I had gone to college in my younger days. Sometimes I find I must have my dictionary with me, when I read your blogs. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy each and every one.

    • 4 bluenred March 16, 2011 at 6:00 pm

      I didn’t go to much college, but I did go to the dictionary. And when assaulted with words like “protist,” I still do.

      You can also use the intertubes as a quick and dirty dictionary. Go to google and type the word you want defined, like, say, “munchkin,” and the word “definition,” and it will pop up sites that will Help you.

      In my younger days I used to just make up words—glowatom, heamblow, chingalo, hemorrhoidal mutant, etc.—and google wouldn’t help you with that. But I try not to do that anymore. : /

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