YOU ARE YOUR BRAIN
David L. Goldin, J.D., M.B.A.
Late in his career, Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate who was one of the co-discoverers of the molecular structure of DNA, announced what he called his "astonishing hypothesis" of the brain and mind: "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." Others have since commented on Dr. Crick's hypothesis, some of whom, such as the evolutionary biologist Edwin O. Wilson, describe a genetic basis for a predisposition to religious belief. But there need be no conflict between the religious and secular positions. Simply stated, whether the gift of a brain comes from God or nature, or both, there can be no doubt it is the brain which processes all of the input and output making us who we are. See comments at the end of the article.
Like our star--the Sun--a healthy brain is central to your life on Earth. Your brain is a galaxy of nerve cells and their connections constituting your entire world.
Weighing only about three pounds, the consistency of jello or avocado, and requiring at least 20% of the oxygen going to your body, your brain is estimated to have 100 billion nerve cells (neurons). The longest living cells in the body, sometimes surviving for a person's lifetime, each neuron is estimated to have an average of 5,000 to 10,000 synapses; accordingly, there are 500 to 1,000 trillion connections or synapses between and within the nerve cells in your brain.
The synaptic connections are how your brain processes all of your senses, thoughts and memories. All of the information coming into and leaving your brain does so as patterns of electrochemical activity. Your brain is a black box; there is no light, sound or even feeling, such as pain, in the brain tissue itself. What you see, hear, think and feel is caused by the electrical signals passing along fibers, called axons, extending from the nerve cells. The electrical messages are carried across the microscopic synapses to neighboring cells by chemicals known as neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin. See video of signals in brain. http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/videos/humanbody/brain.html
How you perceive and act in the world, as well as how you form thoughts and memories, is determined by the sequences of patterns of the electrochemical activity of the neurons in your brain. Patterns of activity of neurons in your brain are strengthened or weakened by your life experiences. The patterns are more readily recognized in your brain as they become more familiar. From conception throughout life, cells that fire together, wire together. Your individual wiring pattern is what makes you who you are. Because of the unimaginable number of possible combinations and connections of neurons, no two persons are the same--not even identical twins. You, and any brain injury you may suffer, are unique. To lose who you are, no matter who you were, can be a devastating loss. This is the tragedy of Alzheimer's and of other brain diseases and injuries to the brain.
Memory is described in the National Geographic cover story in the November, 2007, issue (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/2007-11/memory/foer-text.html):
"What is a memory? The best that neuroscientists can do for the moment is this: A memory is a stored pattern of connections between neurons in the brain. There are about a hundred billion of those neurons, each of which can make perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 synaptic connections with other neurons, which makes a total of about five hundred trillion to a thousand trillion synapses in the average adult brain. By comparison there are only about 32 trillion bytes of information in the entire Library of Congress's print collection. Every sensation we remember, every thought we think, alters the connections within that vast network. Synapses are strengthened or weakened or formed anew. Our physical substance changes. Indeed, it is always changing, every moment, even as we sleep."
The National Geographic estimate of 500 trillion (500,000,000,000,000) to 1,000 trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000 or one million billion or one quadrillion), synapses or connections in the brain defies comprehension. If you were to count one connection each second around the clock, it would take almost 16 million years, based on the "low" estimate of 500 trillion connections, to almost 32 million years, based on the higher estimate of 1,000 trillion connections, to just count the number of connections in a single human brain. (For those who like math: 60 seconds x 60 minutes x 24 hours x 365 days = 31,536,000 seconds per year; 1,000 trillion/31,536,000 = 31,709,792 years.) V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, offers the following perception to help us visualize the size and activity of cells in the brain: A piece of brain tissue, the size of a single grain of sand, contains 100,000 neurons, two million axons, and one billion connections.
Gerald Edelman, who won a Nobel prize for his work on the immune system, is the founder and director of The Neurosciences Institute, a nonprofit research center in San Diego devoted to the study of the biological basis of higher brain function in humans. Dr. Edelman describes the "awe-inspiring" complexity of the brain in his book, Second Nature: "The number (one million billion) of possible active pathways of such a structure (a human brain) far exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe."
This is an MRI
No wonder, as described in several of my articles on the website, brain injuries often cause "invisible" microscopic damage which cannot be seen on standard structural neuroimaging studies such as CT and MRI scans.* In some instances, especially in "mild" traumatic brain injury, these scans simply do not have the resolution necessary to show damage to infinitesimally minute neurons and their connections spread diffusely over various areas of the brain. In fact, CT and MRI scans of brain structure can appear "normal" for a period of time after death.
*Of course, structural neuroimaging scans, CT and MRI, are critically important because they pick up larger scale damage to the brain (that is not microscopic). The standard of care for anyone treated at a hospital with a head injury is to get a CT scan on an emergency basis. For example, the tragic death of Natasha Richardson in 2008 would almost certainly have been avoided if she had been taken to a hospital shortly after her fall while skiing in Canada. The bleeding within her brain would have shown up on a CT scan and likely could have been removed before the pooling blood crushed her brain tissue within the confines of her hard skull.
Functional imaging scans, such as fMRI, PET, SPECT, MR-DTI, MRS and MEG, picture changes in brain electrical activity, metabolism or chemistry, as the brain undertakes various tasks. The functional imaging sometimes shows the existence of microscopic brain damage due to trauma not visible on the structural studies.** The limitations of current neuroimaging studies, whether structural or functional, to show traumatic brain injury, does not prove such damage has not occurred.***
**The admissibility of the functional scans in court to prove trauma to the brain is sometimes uncertain. As the technology improves, the use of functional scans will likely become more commonly admissible in evidence.
***That brain injuries may be "invisible" does not mean they do not exist. Absence of proof is not proof of absence--it may simply reflect the lack of sensitivity or specificity of available technology. Before the Hubbell telescope, multiple galaxies about which we now know, had never been seen before and were "invisible." The galaxies always existed: Not seeing them before certainly was not proof they did not exist. Similarly, before the invention of the microscope in the 17th Century, no one had ever viewed a living cell. See "Mild" Brain Injury Litigation: Making the Invisible Visible. http://www.headlaw.com/Articles/brain-injury-litigation.htm
I would like to offer an analogy between your brain and the universe, not to suggest one explains or even relates to the other in any significant or scientific way, but to illustrate the magnificence and complexity of both.
Here's a picture of a slice of the heavens above.
[The Sombrero Galaxy - 28 million light years from Earth - was voted best picture taken by the Hubble telescope. The dimensions of the galaxy, officially called M104, are as spectacular as its appearance. It has 800 billion suns and is 50,000 light years across.]
[This is the Milky Way galaxy, the one in which we find ourselves. It is actually a giant, as its mass is probably between 750 billion and one trillion solar masses, and its diameter is about 100,000 light years.]
Imagine the immensity: Light travels186,000 miles or 300,000 kilometers per second; each year light travels 5,865,696,000,000 miles (60x60x24x365x186,000), or 9,460,800,000,000 kilometers. The Milky Way, with 750 to 800 billion, or even one trillion stars, is but one galaxy among an estimated total of 125 billion galaxies in the universe.****
****There may "only" be an average of 100 billion stars per galaxy when all of the billions of galaxies are considered together. So the estimated number of stars in our universe is calculated as 125 billion galaxies multiplied by 100 billion stars per galaxy, equals 125 followed by 18 zeroes (125,000,000,000,000,000,000), stars in the observable universe.
Imagine the complexity: Three pounds of brain tissue, consisting of more than 100 billion nerve cells (neurons), each neuron with 5,000 to 10,000 connections, resulting in 500 to 1,000 trillion or more connections in your brain, in each brain of every human being on our planet (with a growing population of 6.6 billion people).
Both are true estimates of the enormity of the wondrous mystery within each of us, and surrounding all of us, which we daily take for granted in our lives.
And, of course, we are now learning there may be multiple universes.
You are your brain.
Each of us is given only one brain; there are no brain transplants. When you suffer a brain injury, it may change who you are whether the injury is "mild" or severe. If it is necessary for you to bring a legal action to recover for your losses and damages, please consider this approach: Be completely candid at all times from the outset of your case to its completion. Who you were and who you are now is what matters most.
Judges and juries want to learn about the brain. They want to know why and how your brain is injured and how and why that affects you, the brain injury survivor. Your job is to be honest and truthful; your credibility is the foundation of your case.
It is your lawyer's job to teach those who will decide your case about the brain and to help them understand and appreciate the reality and severity of your brain injury. Once the jurors learn about the brain and appreciate your credibility, they can empathize with you; they will truly know what it feels like to be in your shoes.
It is up to your lawyer to inspire the jury to do justice. Justice for those injured by the fault of another means fair monetary compensation. That is the law. Justice, in the form of a money verdict for you, is the only way to make up for the harm caused to you. Civilized society does not allow revenge or "an eye for an eye."
No matter how unsatisfactory, all that justice can provide for you is money. There is no way to return you to the person you were before your brain injuries.
And by helping you, the jury in your case can also protect the safety of the community, requiring those responsible for your condition to be fully accountable in money damages. It is up to your lawyer to impress upon the jury that, as the voice of the community, full justice for you makes all of us safer.
Those who will decide your legal case can be trusted to do so fairly when they are educated about the brain and understand and believe the great loss each of us would suffer if we had your brain injuries.
End Comments from page one, above:
There is a seemingly opposite way to look at this: You are not your brain. http://bigthink.com/think-tank/you-are-not-your-brain (Its like trying to find the value of money in the chemical composition of a dollar bill; or trying to find the dancing in the musculature of the dancer.) If this view is more appealing to you, there is still no denying a healthy brain is a prerequisite for everything you do, think or feel.
Should the dichotomy be of interest to you, here is a discussion of the two positions. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/apr/29/neuroscience-david-eagleman-raymond-tallis. Even those who do not believe the neuroscience tells it all, basically agree to the underlying reality of the central importance of the brain:
Yes, of course, everything about us, from the simplest sensation to the most elaborately constructed sense of self, requires a brain in some kind of working order. Remove your brain and bang goes your IQ. It does not follow that our brains are pretty well the whole story of us, nor that the best way to understand ourselves is to stare at the neural substrate of which we are composed."
My article attempts to explain some of the workings of your brain and compares the unimaginable complexity of your brain to the unfathomable enormity of the cosmos in which you live. You only have one brain and one planet to live on. All of life on Earth is grasped by you through sequences of patterns of electrochemical messages firing and wiring in your brain. Regardless of how culture, religion, or other forces in society affect you, your experiences are processed by the 500 to 1000 trillion connections (synapses) in your brain. The mystery of how the brain does this may be no more understandable than is the origin of the universe. Both mysteries are worth your attention. From a litigation perspective, damage to the neurons in your brain, whether visible or invisible, may change who you are, a frightful loss for anyone.
The Brain is wider than the Sky-
For put them Side by Side-
The one the other will contain-
With ease- and You beside
The Brain is deeper than the sea-
For hold them Blue to Blue-
The one the other will absorb-
As Sponges- Buckets do -
The Brain is just the weight of God-
For Heft them Pound for Pound-
And they will differ if they do-
As Syllable- from Sound.
(Emily Dickinson, c. 1892)