A concept grows in the brain like foetus in the womb

11th Nov 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD

By R Gopalakrishnan, Author and Corporate Advisor There was an amazing response to my metaphor of ‘concept in the brain’ resembling a foetus in the womb (BS, 14th October 2016). In both cases fertilization has occurred but existence has not happened.

11th Nov 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD

By R Gopalakrishnan, Author and Corporate Advisor

There was an amazing response to my metaphor of ‘concept in the brain’ resembling a foetus in the womb (BS, 14th October 2016). In both cases fertilization has occurred but existence has not happened. Conception happens as our brain neurons spew forth clouds of chemical messengers to adjacent neurons through connectors called synapses. This is quite plausible because we do say things like, “a concept got conceived in the brain”. When billions of chaotically firing neurons mysteriously fall into synchronous order, a concept is fertilized. However the concept has to develop further just like the foetus needs to before becoming a baby. The equivalent of the baby being born is the ability of the “conceiver” to articulate the idea. What are the examples?

The TED talk by Phillipa Neave, who is involved with public outreach on behalf of the United Nations. (https://itunes.com/apps/tedconferences/ted), is illustrative. She explains what it takes to explain ideas like elections and democracy to people who just don’t know such words, for example, in Afghanistan and Southern Sudan. She quotes the Aristotelian tautology, “if something does not exist, there is no word for it, and if there is no word for something, then it does not exist.” Her explanation of how her organization explains elections and democracy to people who have neither known the ideas nor known of them is instructive. The TED talk brings out how a concept we take for granted is developed for such people into an articulated idea, so that those people can understand. Here is another example.

We associate Leonardo da Vinci with paintings like Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. However he also sketched ideas on notepads, which have been preserved since 1519. For example, Leonardo da Vinci drew flying machines at a time when the idea did not exist. He would buy birds in the market, study their wing structure and shape and thereafter, set them free. He created one of his drawings by observing a small, agile kite and converting its skeletal structure into a flying machine. A sketch of a glider shows the outstretched wing of a bat with his noting of its proportions. There are interesting details, which suggest how his neurons might have fallen into order; in one device, there is a place for where a man would lie down full length into the machine and his waist would be in a ring just below the wings. Da Vinci did not have access to aluminium and synthetic cloth, but historians have tried to assemble the design he prepared with modern materials; with a few modifications, they found that indeed the machine could fly! Although we don’t have scan-images of what went on in da Vinci’s brain, it is reasonable to guess that when he saw these birds in the market, his neurons were firing and he developed a concept, but he could
not articulate it. The concept sat in his brain as he struggled to articulate the unimaginable—that man could make a flying machine. The close study and measurements of the market birds helped him to draw his concept and it was the drawing that became the “baby in the maternity ward.” But it took four centuries for that “baby” to grow up into an individual when the Wright brothers developed the first flying machines in the twentieth century.

Indeed another valid example is when Valmiki poetically described the Pushpaka Vimana. The question is valid: is there any science behind this idea of fertilizing a concept in the brain?

Science tells us that when electrical energy reaches the end of the long spaghetti-like neuron, a cloud of chemicals is ejected. Scientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang have described Otto Loewi’s dream (Welcome to Your Brain). German scientist Otto Loewi wished to prove how the brain signals the heart to speed up or slow down at a time when it was not known that brain cells talk to each other. Otto Loewi figured that a long nerve emanating from the brainstem and attached to the heart exudes some liquid stuff that instructs the heart.

But he could not articulate the concept. He connected two frog hearts to prove that a liquid is secreted when the nerve is subjected to an electric shock. On one night he woke up in with an insight of how to do the experiment, but the next morning, he could recollect little of what had appeared clear to him in the night. On three occasions the charade of insight and loss of memory continued. Finally he did the experiment at night when he got the dream. He could thus prove the existence of the liquid (acetylcholine) which comes out of the nerve. Loewi got the Nobel Prize for his work. Now science recognizes that acetylcholine is one of the neurotransmitters that neurons use to communicate with each other.

It is instructive to remember that the life cycle of an innovation begins as a concept in the brain (foetus in the womb). The concept becomes manifest only after it is articulated into an idea (baby in the maternity ward).

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