Talons Philosophy

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The Brain is Plastic and Knowledge is too- Emma F.

The ‘mind’ is a word that is thrown around on the daily. However, in its colloquial use, we often don’t pin it down to a single definition, but rather vaguely refer to it as a center of thoughts, reason, and cognition, among other things. When it was proposed in class that the mind could be described as our personal body of knowledge, it seemed logical enough, but my troubles came along when the mind was also described as completely separate from the brain. Perhaps due to the everyday use of the word ‘mind’, I’ve been operating under the assumption that the biological brain and the mind have a substantial overlap, and I don’t think I am the only one who thinks so (think about how people even gesture to their head when referencing the mind). So the question for me was, how can knowledge not exist in the mind? Isn’t that where our individual experiences are manifested into strengthened neural pathways and new connections? So here goes the attempt to prove philosophically (with a bit of help from neuroscience) that knowledge can truly live in our own skulls.

P1: We gain knowledge from all experience.

P2: The human body is altered through experience.

C: Therefore, knowledge exists in the human body.

Perhaps not an airtight syllogism, but we’ll keep it tidy just for clarity’s sake.

Maybe it is cynical to say so, but I believe that parts of this proposition cannot be answered by philosophy alone. I was first inspired to defend this stance after having a discussion with my dad about brain plasticity, a phenomenon described in Dr. Michael Merzenich’s book. Although I am only a portion of the way through the book myself, it explores the human brain’s incredible ability to change throughout our lives, under our own control. The predominant scientific agreement in the early 20th century was that our brain’s were hard-wired, and reached an immovable maturity by around 2 years of age. Everybody was thought to be in a sort of cognitive lottery; in terms of your grey matter, our future was predetermined by the unchanging capacity of our intelligence, proficiencies, and attitudes. But Merzenich argues that this notion could not be further from the truth:

“We are in the early stages of a Brain Plasticity Revolution. The revolution begins with a clearer understanding the brain machinery is being continuously rewired and functionally revised, substantially under your control, throughout the course of your natural life. You have the remarkable ability to strengthen and grow the person that you are at any age.”

That’s the gist. But more applicable to my philosophical proposition is the fact that Merzenich proves that these changes occur through experience, which brings me to my first premise. We can put brain plasticity on the back burner for a sec, and come back to it in Premise 2.

Soft wired

 

P1: We gain knowledge from all experience.

This premise is a basic scaffolding for the proposition. For my purposes here, I am not too concerned with knowledge gained through rational thought, and will mainly focus on experience. I’ll define ‘experience’ here as an interaction with something outside of oneself. As Kant might explain it, interacting with the world around us provides diverse sets of input from which we can draw knowledge; however, all of this knowledge is coloured by our own impression of the world, and we cannot truly know the ‘true’ version of our physical world. This fits nicely into my proposition because it recognizes that the brain (operating as a repository of knowledge) is subjective. The inputs it receives throughout its senses are imperfect, and yet it can change and adapt to serve us astonishingly well.

P2: The human body is altered through experience.

This is the big one- Merzenich writes about life-changing ways in which brain plasticity has allowed for certain abilities to develop or redevelop. But, we experience brain changes on smaller level, every day. When we are learning to solve a certain mathematical problem for example, we may stumble through it the first time. But as we repeat similar types of processes that activate the same machinery and processes of the brain, we eventually gain proficiency. As the real neuroscientist, Merzenich says,

“When our brains sense a sound, a feeling, a sight, or a smell, then our eyes of skin sense or ears or nose translates it into patterns of electrical impulses that engage the brain. Those patterns of electrical impulses travel through the brain on incredibly thin transmission wires (axons), and are complexly conveyed in the brain from one cell to another. As a skill is developed (such as whistling, or doing a pirouette, or identifying bird calls) the specific neural routes that account for successfully performing this new skill become stronger, faster, more reliable, and much more… specialized for the task at hand.”

We’ve all experienced this same process. I think back to learning tap; when learning a new dance, the precise combination of small muscle movements in the foot and complicated rhythms were often flummoxing. But as I practiced, the movements were easily recalled, and I could perform a continuous flow of tap dance without actively trying to recall the next step. Yes, we call this ‘muscle memory’, but really the memory, and the strengthened neural pathways, exist in our head.

Conclusion: Therefore, knowledge exists in the human body.

The brain physically changes through experience, this seems very clear to me. Because of this, I feel that I can say that these strengthened pathways represent knowledge itself. Yes, we cannot literally look at the physical brain and read a line of fine print that says ‘I can read’, or ‘I can tap dance’, or ‘I can solve a trigonometric math equations’. But these ‘neural routes’ are in fact representing these statements, just in a different language; the plastic changes of our brain are direct evidence that we have encountered a certain experience, or have repeated one. With the correct observational tools, we could even view these changes, view knowledge, in the folds of our fatty brain masses. Knowledge must be a physical thing because our physical body must access it and use it to perform activities, make decisions, and build even more connections in the brain.

But if this is true, and knowledge inherently exists throughout this evidence, we must have varying degrees of knowledge in some areas. Merzenich even uses the word ‘strengthens’, which denotes continual growth, not something like and on-and-off switch. As such, my knowledge of a tap dance can begin as weak knowledge and grow into strong knowledge, like a gradient. I may need to do some more research on this one, but I think this could even apply to recalling facts. As we repeatedly recall facts from our brain, the neural routes to retrieve them could also strengthen, and recall speed could increase.

And just as our knowledge can be strengthened through brain plasticity, it can also weaken. When we don’t activate neural routes regularly, our ability to perform certain activities can decline. As we age and our biological material naturally loses its elasticity and strength, our brain can deteriorate to the point where it resembles something closer to our infant brain, before it has undergone critical brain-plasticity-driven development. So, we can also draw another conclusion from this. If our brain is plastic, then our knowledge must be too. It is only permanent as long as we exercise it.

The way the proposition stands, I think a few questions still remain:

What about a dead brain?

When a person dies, and the cells in their brain starve from lack of oxygen, the electrical activity eventually ceases. For my proposition, I think I must clarify that our brains contain knowledge only as long they can communicate within themselves and with the body. My proposition emphasizes the presence of knowledge in the connections between parts of the brain, and if there is no electrical activity in these parts, then the connections could be considered void. And thus, the very physical components of knowledge would be lost.

But can we translate our knowledge to paper? To art? I believe we can, but our knowledge would remain only that. A translation. We can attempt to help people understand things the way we understand things, to know the things we know, but we can not transplant the same brain machinery into their heads. This is not to say that art or communication in general is useless- we just have to understand that our knowledge of a thing, or of how to do a thing, is unique to our own brain.

Well, I thank and congratulate you for making it this far through the post if you did. Even as I write, it seems that the premise of knowledge-within-matter begs many more explanations.

The most ~certain~ thing I can say for now is that I believe that there is indeed knowledge between our two ears. And if our mind contains our knowledge, than our mind must include our brain in there somewhere.

 

One Response to The Brain is Plastic and Knowledge is too- Emma F.

  1. bryanjack says:

    Thoroughly enjoyable reading and thinking here, Emma. The plasticity of our brains (and by extension our minds and selves) is an inspiring thought. I love this idea: “You have the remarkable ability to strengthen and grow the person that you are at any age.” You present a clear and well-supported proposition of knowledge, and yet still leave room for further understanding (or perspectives) to be included in the discussion; you even invite a few of these questions in your conclusion. Nicely done!

     

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