Here’s an interesting story about me.
When i was very young, my brain was full of spindle neurons and mirror neurons. This wasn’t the result of some deviant Boys From Brazil experiment, you understand – everybody’s brain start off this way – and these neurons had some very interesting and particular uses. Human neural development works through stages, you understand; we all start off with these spindles and mirrors that help us form the structures that will go on to be the basis of our adult behaviour. Mirror neurons are designed specifically to capture the behaviour of people around us, so that right from our very first day out of the womb we are beginning to copy the facial movements of our parents. As an interesting side note, some child psychologists believe that babies learn to smile not as an expression of joy but because they learn the connection between pleasant behaviour and positive attention, making babies grade-A manipulators of their parents. Spindle neurons, on the other hand, are cells with a high degree of plasticity that act as a sort of scaffolding for neural pathways the brain sees as being important. This is why, if you learn a second language or to play the piano at an early age, that ability will stick with you for life: the spindle neurons will hold it in place as effectively as bamboo canes while the brain cements the connection.
Spindle neurons and mirror neurons are designed to melt away as we grow up – the last of them disappears between the age of seventeen and twenty-five, it is believed – leaving behind a mature brain. Unfortunately for some -including your humble narrator – they don’t disappear completely. Like a party guest you can’t manage to shoehorn into a taxi at 3am, the spindle neurons hang around, firing randomly and interfering with normal brain processes. If they exist in the right temporal lobe, they can cause seizures and schizophrenic episodes. In the left hemisphere they can, it is theorized, precipitate a deep and abiding love of language. In the centre of the brain – specifically, the Fornix, Medulla Oblongata and Amygdala – they can cause all sorts of anxiety disorders, shorting out the normal pathways that deal with things like fear and situational awareness. Incidentally, that’s what I have a problem with.
I mention this not to gather sympathy in warm armfuls but to illustrate a couple of points: one, the brain (any brain, from an earthworm to a killer whale) is a truly miraculous object, and none more so than the human brain, and two, that the process of existing is truly ephemeral – a real Ontological Quandary, if you’re interested in the big words for these sorts of things. The story of the development of a human brain is indicative of the real problem at the heart of consciousness – that being aware, as we are, is a continuous process, even though the device responsible for that process is changing.
Imagine a car you’re driving along a straight road. While you drive, enjoying the scenery and the billboards and the prospect of a REST STOP – 25 MILES, bits of your car are failing and, without you being aware of it, being replaced by invisible helpful gremlins. After a couple of thousand miles of this desultory travelling, every part of your car has been replaced, even the furry dice hanging from the mirror, and yet you have been blissfully unaware of the whole thing. The question is this: are you still driving the same car?
Tiresome old farts in philosophy departments call this the Philosopher’s Axe problem – a philosopher has an axe to chop wood, and the handle needs replacing, and then the blade – and it’s one of the big questions of being: what constitutes an uninterrupted existence? Of course there are lots of differing opinions on this score, and I had long ago thought this matter pretty well tidied up, and yet I read today that when a Fruit Fly goes into its cocoon for the long and, one assumes, disgusting transformation from pulsing maggot to spiky fly, every single part of it changes. In one of the strangest examples of the old edict to put away childish things, a Fruit Fly’s brain undergoes a staggering transformation from that of a grub to that of a flying thing. It had never really occurred to me – boob that I am – that the brains of metamorphosing creatures must change dramatically, too. If flies were conscious, say, they would go into their cocoons as one personality and emerge as another. The ontological question that raises is – is it really one being, or two?
Genetically, you’d think, this is straightforward – the genes of one Fruit Fly are distinct from another and don’t change. A fly and the maggot it was are the same if their genes match. A geneticist would see it differently: a gene is only really a gene if it’s active, if it does something, codes a protein or engages meaningfully with the rest of the cell. We all carry thousands of genes that do nothing and therefore aren’t really part of us. Or, to put it another way, if we removed those pointless genes, you wouldn’t be any less you than you were. Take away an important gene, however, and you’d very quickly notice it.
If you go down another level, to the molecular stage, what’s the difference between a maggot and a fly. Everything, it turns out. Metamorphosis involves such radical changes in structure and morphology that it’s hard to believe that one thing was formerly the other. Funnily enough, the same thing is going on with you and I. Atoms and molecules move through us at an astounding rate. There is that old adage that every atom in our body has a lifespan of about 8 years, before it goes off to do something else. While the timescale varies, it’s not untrue to say that the you of a decade ago is not the same you as now.
Because, if you look at it from this perspective, human being engage in a lifelong and, it has to be said, less dramatic metamorphosis than that of a maggot. A human being is defined by its abilities, its foibles, its weaknesses and personality. We like to think that our personalities are more or less static. I am the same person, more or less, that I was yesterday, and the day before, and I remember puberty and before that being three years old (I’m conflating time here a little) but the truth is that my brain, my personality – hell, even that contentious and much-argued idea of a soul – has existed for a brief time. I, like everybody else, am locked in the perpetual human mystery that is becoming, a lifelong process with no definite end.
It’s not much consolation to think that I carry a little more redundant hardware around than many people (after all, they don’t have panic attacks in supermarket car parks) but it does give a sense of being half-finished, which is something we could all do with a little more of. If we accepted that everybody is half-complete, still on the drawing board and prone to adjustment we might find it easier to forgive each other our little foibles.
More rewarding than that is to think, when you wake up, that you are not exactly the same person you were when you went to bed and reflect that, in comparison to many things around you, you are brand new.