What Are You?
To a large extent, you are the culmination of activity in your neocortex. That’s the part of your brain that drives sensory perception, logic, spatial reasoning, and language, among other things. Without it, you’re pretty much an inarticulate lizard person (which I’m afraid is my disposition all too often in the mornings as I read recent newspaper headlines).
Anyway, neuroscientist Jeff Hawkins conceives the neocortex as a matrix of thousands of smaller brains. Amid this reticulum, each minibrain (my word, not his) stores many different models of the world. Somewhere in there there’s a mental model for your car, your house, your pets, your significant other, whatever politician you love to hate, that sweaty dude who walks that barky dog in the neighborhood every morning, and, well, everything else in your personal universe.
The minibrains are cortical columns, each quite intelligent on its own. Hawkins writes,
A cortical column occupies about one square millimeter. It extends through the entire 2.5 mm thickness, giving it a volume of 2.5 cubic millimeters. By this definition, there are roughly 150,000 cortical columns stacked side by side in a human neocortex. You can imagine a cortical column like a little piece of thin spaghetti. A human neocortex is like 150,000 short pieces of spaghetti stacked vertically next to each other.
Have Spaghetti, Will Reference
Okay, so you are largely the sum total of lots of cortical columns. But what does a cortical column actually do?
One of its primary purposes is to store and activate reference frames: oodles and oodles of reference frames.
A reference frame is where we access the information about what an object (or even an abstract concept) is and where it’s located in the world. For example, you have a reference frame for a coffee cup in various cortical columns. You know such a cup when you see it, and feel it, and sip from it. You also know where it is and how it moves. When you turn the cup upside down (hopefully sans coffee), the reference frame in your head also moves.
Reference frames have essential virtues such as:
- allowing the brain to learn the structure and components of an object
- allowing the brain to mentally manipulate the object as a whole (which is why you can envision an upside down coffee cup)
- allowing your brain to plan and create movements, even conceptual ones
Thanks to reference frames, just one cortical column can “learn the three-dimensional shape of objects by sensing and moving and sensing and moving.” As you walk through a strange house, for example, you are mentally building a model of the house using reference frames. This includes your judgments about it. (“Hate that mushy chair in the living room, love that painting in the study, what were they thinking with that creepy bureau in the bedroom!?”)
I Think, Therefore I Predict
You’re a futurist. We all are. Because we’re subconsciously predicting stuff every moment of our conscious day.
Let’s say, for example, that you pick up your cup of coffee without even thinking about it. Your brain predicts the feel of the familiar, smooth, warm ceramic. That’s what you get most mornings. If instead your brain gets something different, it registers surprise and draws your attention to the cup.
Maybe it’s a minor surprise, like a small crack in the cup. Maybe it’s a bigger one, as when one of your fingers unexpectedly brush a cockroach that then quickly crawls up your arm. Argh!
Either way, you didn’t get what you subconsciously predicted based on your reference frame. These tiny predictions happen all the time. Your whole life is spent predicting what comes next, even of you’re not fully aware of it. If something happens that doesn’t match your mental model, your brain gets busy trying to figure out what went wrong with your expectation/prediction and what to do next.
(“Roach! Need to swat it! Where did I put that crappy news magazine? Come on, cortical-column-based reference frames, help me find it! Fast!)
You Are Your Reticulum
In short, most of your brain (the neocortex is about 70% of its total volume) is a highly complex reticulum made up of cortical columns, which themselves are made up of dense networks of neurons that are in a constant state of anticipation, even when you’re feeling pretty relaxed.
Your consciousness doesn’t exist in any one place. Your singular identity is, rather, a clever pastiche fabricated by that squishy matrix in your noggin.
So, why does it feel as if you’re you, the real mental “decider” (as George W. Bush’s neocortex once put it)? Hawkins thinks that all your various cortical columns are essentially “voting” about what you should perceive and how you should act. When you can’t make up your mind, it’s because the vote is too close to call.
So, you’re not just a matrix. You’re a democracy! Which is great. Even if our increasingly shaky U.S. government descends into tyranny, at least our brains will keep voting.
Viva la reticular révolution!
Featured image from Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Bartleby.com: Gray's Anatomy, Plate 754