If you live in Acadiana, you should check out a current-events talk show on KRVS, ‘Bayou to Beltway‘. The host, Pearson Cross, was the Department Head of Political Science here at the University for some years, and if you keep up with Louisiana politics you have seen him quoted in papers nationwide. He has become one of the go-to guys on understanding the circus that is Louisiana high governance.
Or in Pearson’s case, maybe ‘honky-tonk’ would be a better term than ‘circus’. Not many people know it but Pearson is a successful Jazz/nightclub pianist.
And ‘honky-tonk’ is a better description than ‘circus’. If you think about it, a circus may look wild, but it is a tightly scripted and carefully rehearsed performance. I would guess Pearson’s experiences with the unscripted spontaneity – not to mention the lack of sobriety – of south Louisiana nightlife provides interesting insights into the culture and mindset of state government. Louisiana politics give a whole new meaning to the old state motto, ‘Sportsman’s Paradise.’
It occurs to me that the piano may help Pearson in his analysis of government. I was talking with him one evening as he was playing, and as all nightlife pianists are able to do well, he carried on a thoughtful conversation as he shuffled the ivory. His brain was doing two things at once.
Or maybe he has more than one brain.
One of my concerns with medicine and biology – and really, all of human analysis – is that we allow too-convenient definitions to define our thinking, and therefore to restrict our thinking, which produces problems in analysis. For instance, we say that people have one brain, because the tissues are gathered in one nice, compact, easy-to-visualize unit.
But it really isn’t ‘one’ unit. In school we all learned there is a smaller part of the brain, called the cerebellum, but it’s really a separate entity. And the spinal cord represents yet another brain: when the doctor taps your knee, you are surprised that your leg jerks. The surprise is because the spinal cord made a decision without notifying the big brain about it.
But even within the larger brain there are other brains, there are all sorts of decisions being made we aren’t aware of. Simultaneously playing the piano and talking make it clear that at least two separate brains are functioning. We all do something similar when we drive and talk; and I occasionally find myself thinking about something else while I read to my children.
One of my more interesting brains is the smart guy who lives in the back of my head. I’ll be talking to a patient who is reciting a long litany of minor complaints, bored out of my skull, and all of a suddenly the smart guy pops up and says “Hey, dummy! Why don’t you check his such-and-such??!” On a few occasions he has been absolutely brilliant, pulling out a rare diagnosis with very little data.
More often, however, he simply sends me a vague feeling of unease, a sensation that something is not right: I am overlooking something, I need to go read more, I should look at the patient again. Usually it’s a false alarm, but on occasion he has saved a patient from great harm (and me from a big fat lawsuit).
The smart guy helps me in other ways, too: if you have found my comments here interesting, you can thank him. He’s the one who, when I am reading or thinking about something, sends me a signal that there is something wrong, that the problem needs to be reconsidered. That’s how I get most of my ideas.
And then he helps me identify the solution. Sometimes an insight appears (and where do new ideas come from, do we really know?) and I just know the insight is valid, even before I know why it is valid. For one major paper I published, it took me over a year to come up with a credible explanation to justify my gut feeling.
Multiple brains can also be seen in many athletic activities. A particularly good example is basketball. One brain is moving the body around the court; another brain is handling the basketball; another brain is analyzing the game and searching for obstacles and openings; and finally, one brain may just be talking smack.
And we have brains operating that we don’t know anything about. Above I mentioned knee reflexes. But 80% of the vagus nerve, which winds all through the chest and abdomen, is carrying information to the brain. Where is the information going in the brain? What are the internal organs telling the brain? What is the brain doing with the information? We’re not quite sure.
And although we can tightly map some of the things that go on in the brain – the homunculus here represents a mapping of the areas of the brain dealing with sensations – often the analysis occurs over a region, or involves multiple regions of the brain. If you think about it (pun intended) some aspects of brain activity resemble cloud computing more than a desktop CPU.
Returning to the opening thesis, the reason that the piano, particularly nightlife piano, may help Pearson in his scholarly analysis, is because government is so complicated. (Doubly so in Louisiana.) There are way too many moving parts in government, all the branches, all the rules, all the ideologies, and then all the skill of the various actors. Being able to consider and analyze multiple systems simultaneously is what is needed for any insight. As systems become more complex, as there are more and more independent actors, to understand what is going on it helps to have many brains working together. It’s more like parallel computing than serial computing.
Which is true of a lot of real life. And it is particularly true in the modern world, and as we have seen here, in modern government. When systems become complex, to have any chance of understanding what is going on we need to analyze a number of disparate systems in something approaching real time.
And as we will see in future posts, one brain just can’t do it alone.
Pearson Cross courtesy of Stephen Handwerk and the Louisiana Democratic Party via YouTube.
Homunculus sculpture courtesy of Dennis Jarvis on Flickr.
Homunculus map courtesy of Wikimedia.