As often discussed here, the mind’s MEMBRAIN keeps information in and out of the mind and passes information in and out of the mind. These four functions must work together to keep information in the mind clear as to its origin from the body, from the environment, or from within the mind itself. Not as easy as you might think.
The New York Times Science Page ran a story about a research effort with weak electric fish. These fish passively sense electric currents around them as a way of foraging. They also send out an electric pulse in the electronic version of sonar. The challenge here is to discern what they sent out from what is actually out there and they evidently solve that with what the scientists call unipolar brush cells. These receive a neural copy of the electric pulse a moment after it was sent out and then use that information to cancel out perceived information that matches it. In the article’s words, the fish’s brain uses a negative image that cancels out the parts of the received positive image from the environment that correspond to its pulse. Here is our friend.
(Wikipedia reports that this fish has the highest brain to body weight ratio of any vertebrate. Really?) Truly impressive science, I think, and an important view of what will turn out to be a very complex and important function of the MEMBRAIN, keeping information from within segregated from information from without even as we take it in and pass it out.
Mammals, especially those more advanced neo-mammals like us, empathize with one another, perhaps facilitated by mirror neurons that replicate the emotion perceived in the other’s expression. The challenge here, then, is to keep one’s own emotions separate from the other’s. Assuredly this is done at a basic level by the neurovegetative expression of emotions, so that we sense our own feelings in our own guts, but our empathic capacity is so robust and our ability to deal with displaced (in time and space) and then symbolic information is so powerful that we can throw ourselves into another’s shoes, so to speak, or better, our MEMBRAIN allows the emotional situation behind their empathic information in and then the self takes it personally.
Consider this observation: A mother playing with her infant or young toddler receives a phone call with bad news and begins to cry. Shortly thereafter her child begins to cry with no other stimulus than the mother’s expressed sadness. Or consider the common example of psychological projection, in which a person mistakes another’s feelings by projecting their own onto them. This can become pathological when the person is unawares of their own feelings in the matter, i.e., has repressed them, and instead sees them in another. Some psychiatric disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, are marked by such confusion between their emotions and those of another. How their MEMBRAINs came to malfunction in this manner often involves disrupted attachment and early emotional trauma.
The MEMBRAIN’s four functions must be integrated in order to maintain the integrity of the mind and the means for meeting this necessity have evolved as we mammals have evolved into the highly social and intellectual animals that we are and the roots of this can be seen in the weak electric fish’s brain. It will be a long, arduous and delightful journey to understand this better.