Thinking about thinking is mind blowing
Published 6:00 am Sunday, August 7, 2016
EDITOR’S NOTE: The last paragraph of Mr. Ray’s column on Friday was mistakenly omitted. Here is the column in its entirety.
Of late the Lester Pithfroggle Laboratory has been thinking. While that in and of itself is not unusual, what it was thinking about was. The subject was thinking itself.
Consider for a moment this explanation of thought from MIT: “The human brain is composed of about 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) interconnected by trillions of connections, called synapses. On average, each connection transmits about one signal per second. When you read these words, the photons associated with the patterns of the letters hit your retina, and their energy triggers an electrical signal in the light-detecting cells there. That electrical signal propagates like a wave along the long threads called axons that are part of the connections between neurons. When the signal reaches the end of an axon, it causes the release of chemical neurotransmitters into the synapse, a chemical junction between the axon tip and target neurons. A target neuron responds with its own electrical signal, which, in turn, spreads to other neurons. Within a few hundred milliseconds, the signal has spread to billions of neurons in several dozen interconnected areas of your brain and you have perceived these words.“
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Can you imagine sitting in a lab with a clicker in hand and counting all 100 billion neurons connected by the trillions of synapses? Wow! That had to be a tiring chore.
But my thoughts on thinking are more basic. Consider that a jet airplane just flew over. The first word that has hit my brain in recent years after such a flyover is “million.” Some months ago, I was trying to pinpoint some event that must happen a million times. For some reason, the turbines spinning in a jet engine came to mind. So now my brain thinks “million” when I hear a jet. I don’t even have a mental picture of a plane.
Think about numbers. When I think “seven,” the arabic numeral 7 appears. If I then think Roman alphabet, the 7 is replaced by a capital V and two capital I’s. I’m not sure why they’re usually capitalized, but they are.
If I think of a cat without any prompting, the image of our last family cat flashes on the screen. Why that white and grey face stares out at me, I can’t fathom.
Many words are less specific as far as a visual impression is concerned. If “mother” hits my billions of neurons, my mother’s face appears but in a sort of generic form, not being definite as to age, locale, or dress. Folks I’ve only known for a short time pop up in vivid detail. Perhaps as in time their image will become more generic.
Maybe, just maybe, the scientific brains will find a way to look into a human brain and retract the images floating there. Frankly, I hope not. Part of the wonder of simply being human is the surprise when an unexpected stimulus causes a long-buried face to be displayed, regardless of how many neurons fired behind the split second in between.
TJ Ray, a retired professor of English at Ole Miss, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.