Is reality just a hallucination we all agree on?

This was the essence of Anil Seth‘s TEDTalk (Sussex University); he’s researching consciousness. It’s worth watching as there are some demos which really hit home the point that we construct the world (reality) in our brains. The sound example gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘our interpretation of the world is reality’ or in NLP ‘the map is not the territory; respect others’ maps of the world’. Food for thought for my coaching, as is Damasio’s talk.

This awesome-ness of the brain has been reinforced with my latest reading. I decided I need to understand sentences like “We have used purified neuroendocrine dense-core vesicles and artificial membranes to reconstruct in vitro the serial events that mimic SNARE–dependent membrane docking and fusion during exocytosis” if I am going to read primary research papers. So I have two textbooks: Principles of Neurobiology and Foundations of Behavioral Neuroscience Although it means I am reading with a highlighter (to mark key themes), a pen (to write on the page what the big words mean so when I read it next time I’ll know what they are), my phone (to Google what the big words mean) and my Kindle (to take notes which I can store as Word documents). It doesn’t make reading easy and it is very slow as it hurts my brain reading this stuff. But I now have a routine which helps: a short break every 30 minutes and a one hour break every three hours. Currently with the first textbook, I’m 150 pages in on 600.

With some other articles though, I get frustrated that simple everyday words aren’t deemed good enough. Take the wonderfully simple word ‘large’. What’s wrong with that? Everyone gets it and I can easily read a passage with it in. But no, obviously it is not good enough for some people who need to use, or invent, the phrase ‘high-dimensional’. I was seriously tempted to work out how much extra paper and ink was wasted by using ‘high-dimensional’ rather than ‘large’ but pulled myself up as I thought I was probably getting a bit obsessed about it. But throughout the article I had to keep reminding myself that a ‘high-dimensional cavity’ was a ‘large hole’ and a high-dimensional clique’ was a ‘large cluster’ – give me strength, as if this wasn’t hard enough to understand. There could be a sequel to the book, “Why business people speak like idiots”.

And to make it worse, from reading the textbook, I feel as if I know very little and that I should have known this stuff ages ago. But in good coaching style, I’m reframing this to the fact that I am now ready to read this, and it is an exciting read. Exciting because I had not realised what went on inside a neuron. It’s a whole little world of its own.

(For the next bit, I just want to put in a disclaimer: I wanted to tell you a few awesome things about neurons and I have limited knowledge so the next section is to the best of my understanding using analogies. But it is written with my best intentions at heart as I was stunned at the complexity of a neuron and at the fragility of it as well.)

In very simple terms from what I understood (Chapters 1-3 of ‘Principles of Neurobiology’) – There are bits going in and out of the neuron cell’s nucleus. Some bits (cargos) are carried by proteins via ‘microtubules’ (tubes) along the axon or dendrite. At the ends, many thinner helix structures help distribute them to various points. Sounds a lot like a logistics set-up for many online shops! At the axon and dendrite ends a lot happens with one thing leading to another which leads to another. It reminded me of the game Mousetrap where you essentially build a ‘marble run’ composed of many different components: Once built and triggered, various parts flip, roll, spin or fall to trigger the next section and at the end a net falls down trapping the mouse. Well it sounds rather like that – a cell membrane receptor has a protein complex attached to it inside the cell. Outside a neurotransmitter, such as serotonin, attaches to the receptor which changes the protein complex. Part of the changed complex then affects an enzyme which releases a chemical messenger. This goes off to a store of Calcium inside the cell and opens a channel so the calcium comes out into the cell. The increase of calcium inside the cell does a lot of different things, one of which will be resetting the initial protein complex. So, a neuron has at its centre a factory which takes things in and makes new things to send out, a logistics operation using a tube system to distribute things and get stuff back, and many games of Mousetrap which are initiated by elements inside or outside the neuron – simple! I wish.

A final thought: Some neurotransmitters inside the neuron are in little sacs. These sacs are placed close to the cell membrane and are ‘held’ by ‘coils’. These connect to similar coils on the cell membrane. When triggered, both coils pull tight so the sac and membrane move closer together and merge (Fig 1 – B). Then neurotransmitters can leave the cell and go off to other neurons. One way a muscle relaxant works is to disable one of the coils so it cannot pull tight when triggered. Thus the neurotransmitter which signals the muscle to contract does not get released as it should, so the muscle stays relaxed. That is how subtle these chemicals are and this is how delicate or complex our brains are. With thousands of these mechanisms and others in our brains I can start to understand how just the tiniest change can cause major mental problems or alter what we think happened.

Re my Dprof: I now have 60 further level 7 credits for my R&D Capability Claim paper and have resubmitted my Research Proposal.