Emergent Properties of the Brain

Often, scientists don’t recognize what they’re looking at. Recent research illustrates the point.

It’s not news that our nervous system does its work using electricity that is created through chemical reactions. Neurotransmitters release energy at a synapse, the joining of one nerve cell to another. Inside the nerve cell, calcium ions carry that energy to the other end of the nerve cell where neurotransmitters there are energized and released to transfer energy to the next one or more nerve cells.

Conditions such as epileptic seizures are created by powerful electric fields generated by the brain itself, fields that disrupt the normal electric flow among nerves by synchronizing them. What was not known was whether weak electrical fields existed and whether they had an effect on nerve function because there was no way to measure those fields. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) have now devised such a method.

There’s no surprise that nerve cells generate a weak electrical field nor that many overlapping and interacting electrical fields are created. The startling discovery by the CalTech researchers is that these fields cause communication between neurons that are not physically connected. So communication in nerve tissue happens in two ways: direct communication through the physical contact of synapses and indirect communication through the electric fields that connect neurons that are not in physical contact.

An obvious question raised by the researchers and by people in the electrosensitive community is whether external electric fields affect these internally generated fields and the work they perform in nerve cell communication, particularly in the brain. The answer, in principle, is yes: weak electrical fields generated by nerve cells can be affected by external fields. But the specific answer rests on what part of the nervous system is exposed and the state of the neurons when they are exposed.

So there’s an immediate message in this research, even though the CalTech researchers don’t see it. Although people who are electrosensitive know well that they are affected by electrical fields, this research points clearly to the mechanism and supports the experience of those sensitive people. It also raises significant public health issues regarding exposure to electrical fields, as if we needed more. What we really need is for technophiles, commercial interests, and public health institutions to acknowledge those health effects.

Something else significant is in this research that isn’t discussed at all. The researchers hope that their line of research “will lead us to address how biophysics gives rise to cognition in a mechanistic manner—and that … is the holy grail of neuroscience.” This is an example of reductionist science. I hasten to say that I have no objection to reductionist science as such so long as we recognize that understanding the physics of nerve cell communication that manifests itself as thinking should not be confused with thinking itself. This is a common and widespread confusion, both among scientists and among civilians.

In contrast to the reductionist or mechanistic perspective is what is sometimes referred to as holism or systems-level properties or emergent properties. The idea here is that a mistake in thinking itself has occurred when a phenomenon such as thinking is viewed as reducible to synaptic impulses and electric fields. One dimension of the alternative view is that something such as thinking must be viewed at a higher level of biological organization, so that it is a creature that thinks, not a clump of neurons called a brain.

But the most important dimension of the alternative view is that it is not possible to account for all the things a creature does by examining the physics of its cells. As cells organize, properties emerge that could not be expected or predicted from the way a cell by itself works. So the nerve cells organized into the hippocampus, for example, are the biological mechanism for emotions and memories. In turn, the hippocampus joins with other nerve tissues to form the brain, an organ. Understanding the biophysics of the nerves that make up the hippocampus is not the same as understanding emotion or memory.

What we have in the CalTech experiment is a demonstration of the principle of emergent properties. Collections of nerve cells not only communicate directly with other nerve cells through physical contact and electrochemical signals. Collectively, they also create innumerable electric fields that enable nerve cells to communicate without physical contact and participate in the communication process. The communication supports the work of the nerves and with it a tissue like the hippocampus and with that the work of the brain as a whole and with the work of the brain the work of the entire creature and, finally, with the work of a creature the work of the ecology in which the creature lives and breaths.

Understanding the mechanism that contributes to nerve cells talking among themselves helps us understand how electromagnetic radiation created by the technological marvels that inundate us affect individual creatures like us and the ecologies we inhabit. But understanding the mechanism isn’t the same as understanding the danger.