I traveled back and forth across America in the last few days so I was pretty tired this weekend. Being tired tends to make me irritated, whiny and slow-witted. My superego has no problem needling me, my id just wants to eat ice cream and drink beer, and my hapless ego shuffles around with its hands in its pockets. But I don’t want to talk Freud right now (I bring him up because I spent a vegetative hour watching James Fox’s show on Vienna, 1908. You might like to, too. Brilliant Lights Brilliant Minds on Netflix). Instead let’s discuss two recent scientific projects on the physiology of the brain.
The Times reported on a couple of articles published last week in the journal Science about inquiries into the purpose of sleep. They focussed on a new explanation: that we sleep to forget.
Here’s how it works. Our brains are made up of 100 billion neurons and each one is networked into many others. We have some seven hundred trillion synaptic connections that allow signals to pass back and forth. Every day, we are bombarded with information and experiences, all of which rewire our brains. Literally. Every experience causes these synapses to grow like topsy and, this new synaptic homeostasis hypothesis says, when we sleep, our brains prune those connections to preserve important memories and lessons and ditch the rest. It’s vital — wIthout enough sleep, our memories get inundated and fuzzy.
This certainly makes sense to my bleary brain.
I have also been perusing a book by Sebastian Seung, a professor at MIT, who believes that this immense thicket of connections is the source of our identity, that we are who we are because of how we are wired. He’s part of a project to map these connections (sort of like the human genome project) to create a “connectome” and show that we are shaped by the brain structure we inherit and by the transformations the world make on it — nature plus nurture.
I’ve been looking at neural maps like the one above and I’m struck by how beautiful, delicate and deeply complex they are. We are each the sum of these deep networks and each one is unique. Sure, we come out of the box with certain structures set up, but every minute our brains are sprouting new filaments and plugs, then reorienting them, pruning and shaping ourselves. Every brain is constantly changing in special ways that make us each who we are.
It’s a powerful endorsement of the importance of authenticity, that we can’t and shouldn’t aspire to sameness. Mass culture and capitalism want to move us in that direction, to make us cogs in the machine, but our brains will never be happy trying to fit in. Instead, we need to understand, embrace and express our individuality.
That’s a key purpose of art, to show how we are similar and different, that we process the common experience through unique neural networks, that we are each the sum of inevitably different experiences. Sharing our perceptions allows us to be confident in the uniqueness of our selves and yet secure in our connections to all those other connectomes out there, all sharing our common experience of being different.
Chew on that. Meanwhile, I’ll be taking a nap.