The Brain Speaks Out

Good Morning.

I’ll be speaking today about the basic functions of my department, Head Quarters. Many current descriptors of humans and their “mind”—”self-aware,” “highly intelligent,” “imaginative”—suggest common misunderstandings of how Head Quarters operates. My hope is that the Units we are responsible for will benefit from less lofty and more realistic notions of how Head Quarters coordinates their functions.

First, our Mission and basic operations. Head Quarters’ mission is to keep the Unit functioning and to prepare a replacement Unit to carry on after the present one becomes inactive. The various operations needed to carry out this mission are indicated on the diagram here of Head Quarters’ departments. Head Quarters continuously interprets streams of data coming in from around the Unit’s Network. It receives especially detailed data from the hands, mouth, and tongue. Data from external sounds and light sources arrive from the two pair of audio and visual receivers located adjacent to Head Quarters. Other data is handled routinely in round-the-clock monitoring of the Unit’s internal conditions, including levels of fuel, water, waste build-up, oxygen, and blood flow. Together with Lower Quarters, Head Quarters coordinates the processing of food intake.

Brain functions (AWMG.INFO)

awmg.info

The data is stored in Archives. Data that is retrieved often can be easily accessed. Older and background data can decay and become difficult to access accurately if at all.

Head Quarters is closed for business about a third of the time every twenty-four hours in order to perform such functions as offline consolidation, re-sorting of Archives, and resource replenishment.

Head Quarters implements certain Conditions—C-States—that bring on mild or intense sensations in the Unit for various lengths of time. Such Conditions trigger behaviors that are considered to support the Unit’s well-being in the short or long run. They are brought on by changes in the Unit’s surroundings, often by the presence or behavior of other Units.

Examples of common C-States include:

C-Joy, an energized state, short-lived but recurring, often activated by and reinforcing successful interactions with other Units;

C-Sadness, a low-energy condtion in which the Unit tends to withdraw from activity to recover from a setback;

C-Pain, a distressing state in part or all of the Unit that signals injury or dysfunction;

C-Arousal, the set of conditions leading to copulation; and

C-Anger, an energized state in anticipation of physical conflict with hostile Units.

A major portion of Head Quarters’ operations is the tracking of other Units. A few of these Other Units, or O-Units, have exchanged signals with Head Quarters since it first began functioning. They are labeled by generic indicators: mother, father, sister, parents. Archives contains full records about them. Other O-Units are encountered frequently but briefly and are less familiar.

All O-Units are continuously assessed for their probable assessment of this Unit, including its Head Quarters. Assessments in both directions are made as to whether an O-Unit seems friendly, trustworthy, indifferent, a possible sexual partner, higher or lower in status. For reasons of safety, O-Units are crudely classified as friendlies, neutrals, or hostiles. Head Quarters views the formation and preservation of alliances as an essential component of Unit well-being. To this end, the smile-expression and the laughter-sound are important but not fully reliable signals.

As for sound that the Unit can produce, Head Quarters is very skilled in their use to exchange information with O-Units. The foundation of the complex sound code is built in to every Units, though the specific signals vary widely. The sound code, an impressive achievement, is in almost constant use between Units. It enables a units to communicate about items that are either physically present or out of sight, in the past or anticipated in the future. Topics include strategies for food procurement, the expression of C-States, and the behavior of O-Units. The code is so compelling that it often runs silently as a default mode within Head Quarters. A visual version of the code is also in common use.

The sound code includes identification markers for all Units. Early in their functionality, each Unit receives a set of two markers, one that indicates its Unit group, the other indicating the Unit itself and its gender. An example is Petersen, a group marker, preceded by Mary, a female member. The Mary Petersen Unit identifies itself as Mary Petersen as well as I and me depending on the situation, and the Mary Petersen Head Quarters continually reviews the Mary Petersen past, the assessments of Mary Petersen by O-Units, and the plans and schedules for Mary Petersen.

Cumulatively, these processes result in the formulation of, and the belief in, what are known as Mary Petersen’s self and her life.

In conclusion, the multiple and multi-level processes coordinated by Head Quarters are demanding. While every Unit operates in the present, it must constantly attend to the past and the future as well. Head Quarters is a forward-looking instrument—flexible, capable, in constant adjustment as the present moment changes and changes again. For the well-being of the Unit, no single time frame is secure or complete without consideration of the other two.

Thank you for your attention. I think we have time for a few questions.

Genes Are Like Sentences, Genomes Are Like Books

I lose track sometimes of exactly what the common genetic terms mean and how the genetic pieces work together. What’s the difference between a chromosome and a strand of DNA? A gene and a genome? What are those three-letter sets in a DNA diagram called and what do they do? I’m not a scientist, but since I was an English teacher, connecting the names of genetic units to the units of written language—words, sentences, and so on—makes the picture a little clearer.  Maybe it will do the same for the reader.

Let’s start small.  The spiraling rungs on diagrams of a DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule are each marked with two of four specific letters: A, C, G, and T.  The four DNA letters stand for the four nucleotides—Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine—that make up DNA. Like the letters of the full alphabet, these letters–or rather the four molecules they indicate–are the smallest building blocks of their language.

codons

moodle.clsd.k12.pa.us

In DNA, combinations of the letters for the four nucleotides make up the three-letter codons that are DNA’s version of words. Each three-letter codon/word specifies one amino acid. And most codons are “synonyms” in that several different codons refer to the same amino acid because there are many more codons than there are amino acids. The codons are “read” by a ribosome, a cellular reader/assembly-machine that produces the required amino acid and attaches it to the chain of amino acids that will form a protein.

Groups of these codons make up a gene, much as words make up a sentence. The genes/sentences are long because most proteins are complex; human proteins consist of anywhere from several hundred to several thousand amino acid molecules.  The gene/sentence for red hair says something like “Put this together with that and that and that….”

Genes also include a codon at the start that says “Start the gene here” and another at the end that says “Stop here; gene complete.” Within the gene, however, no actual spaces separate the codons, but since all codons are triplets, it’s always clear where codons themselves begin and end.  (Somewhat similarly, writing in the ancient world often lacked spaces between words.  As long as one could read slowly and figurethewordsoutspacesweren’tessential.)

chromosome (mayoclinic.org)

mayoclinic.org

So, to recap.  The four nucleotides are basic components much like the letters of our alphabet. Groups of three nucleotides spell out codons that can be thought of as words, which in this case are actual amino acid molecules.  And a sequence of codons/amino acids forms a gene that resembles a sentence in a protein recipe for some aspect of the organism.

Finally there are chromosomes and genomes.

A molecule of DNA is very long, a continuous strand of anywhere from a couple of hundred to more than a thousand genes, many of them about related aspects of the organism. Each molecule is a chromosome which, because its genes concern similar aspects of the body, can be compared to a chapter in a book.  But it is a strange book in that each chapter appears twice, in anticipation of the day when the molecule/chapter reproduces itself. Each human cell contain 23 such paired chromosomes, duplicate copies of the assembly instructions for an entire human being. Only the chromosome pair that determines sex contains chromosomes that are different from each other about half the time: females have two identical female chromosomes while males carry one female and one male chromosome.

Finally, our genome is like the book itself, the totality of all our genes on all our chromosomes. The book might be called Me And Us. Your genome book is almost exactly like mine except for about one tenth of one percent of our 20,000 genes that are different. That’s similar to two copies of the same long book that differ only in a few sentences.

Simplified though the comparison is, it’s startling what genetics and written language have in common considering that the second is a recent human invention and the first represents the formation of life almost four billion years ago. Both are composed of the smallest building blocks, then the groupings created from the building blocks, then the meaningful statements/instructions/recipes coded in the groupings, and finally the conversion of the code into organic construction/action/speech.