Perspective

My friend Russell shared this piece of writing with me:

“Our nervous systems are composed primarily of biological cells called neu- rons, which pick up chemical signals from other cells and then transmit that information down a long, thin arm of the cell, again releasing chemi- cals into the gap, or synapse, between cells. The neurochemistry of these transmissions is what is behind much of the revolution in the pharmacol- ogy of how to affect mental states and emotions, such as the treatment of depression with prozac. But such pharmacological treatments are rela- tively crude in comparison to the complexity of brain organization, the brain being the most complicated object in the known universe. Paul Churchland (1989) put the issue of its scale into perspective: We each have about 100 billion neurons, each of which has synaptic connections with an average of about 3,000 other neurons, so even an individual neuron can be a fairly complicated processor. This makes for about 100 trillion synap- tic connections. If each connection has even as few as ten different activa- tion levels, the total possible number of distinct brain states is on the order of 10 to the 100 trillionth power. Although this number represents only a realm of logical possibility, it is a very large number, given that the esti- mates of the total number of elementary particles in the universe is about 1087. Even if only 0.1 percent of those states are functional neural states, and only 0.1 percent of those functional states are conscious, that would still represent 1099,999,999,999,994 possible conscious states. Such an under- standing of scale makes it easier to imagine that this “piece of meat” might actually be what makes mental and spiritual lives possible, what is shaped by and subsequently generates the stories, narratives, and myths by which we make sense of our lives.”

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