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Stomach .vs. Brain (reposted from original)

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Joined: 17 Mar 2006
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Location: Oregon

PostPosted: Sun Mar 19, 2006 11:08 pm    Post subject: Stomach .vs. Brain (reposted from original) Reply with quote

I've drawn the text below from postings to our sister-site, That site will be undergoing construction and will be unavailable soon.

Missing (for some reason) is your original quotation. It was something along the lines of
I recently posted the sentence: "we have a more complex view of our stomachs than we have of our brains".

The following are the replies to that original post.


I hope you will forgive me if I take a critical stance to your post. Your sentence is provocative, but I wonder if it is true.

My first impulse is that it is to believe that it is not true. My second is to wonder what you mean. Since I know you are interested in memes (from knowing you and a little of the context), I think that you must be reflecting one or both of 2 kinds of evidence: physical or metaphoric. It seems reasonable to me that we might have an easier time in identifying the sensations surrounding the actions of the stomach, the various gurglings, queasinesses, and pains coming from our stomach than from whatever sensations we receive from the operation of our brains.

One way to look at this is to think of what each organ does when it is functioning well: the stomach digests food and the brain generates and processes thoughts. If you accept, for a moment, that sensations or feelings are in a way more basic than thoughts, then we could have feelings/sensations about digestion, and we can have feelings/sensations about what is going on in the brain. These feelings about what the brain does (thinking) would be distinct from what thoughts the brain has about what it is thinking. So, if you are talking about the ways we have to perceive sensations about each organ, then maybe your statement could be true, or could be demonstrated to be true, or disproved. I fear I am unconvinced.

Secondly, you may be speaking metaphorically, as in Lakoff's "Metaphors We Live By," and here I have suspicion that you may be misled. I haven't kept up on the current debates on memes, but I think it fair to say that memes, and Lakoff's notion of metaphors share a lot in common. The stomach is so primal to our lives and evolution that it would not be surprising to find our use of language to be profoundly influenced by applying it to a wide swath of human experience. There are too too many examples here, but consider when we walk we "eat up the miles", and I won't even go beyond mentioning the distaff side of digestion. It should not surprise that these metaphors are quite apt when discussing the brain and what it does: we do not swallow every lie, we chew it over, digest new ideas, etc.

I think it fair to say that Lakoff's thesis is that these metaphors do not merely reside in catch phrases, but basically determine the nature and the kinds of thoughts we have. They determine the pathways of our thoughts. So, it seems likely to me that there are more, or stronger metaphors describing the brain in terms of the stomach than the other way around. In fact, it seems distinctly strange to describe the stomach in terms of the brain. "*part of my stomach argued that..." "*my stomach remembered that day back in Boise..." Still, I'm not sure this is what you meant.

Finally, taken at face value, and without any evidence given, your sentence seems patently false. There are whole libraries filled with speculations on the brain and it products, while the products of the stomach fill the bloodstream of their owners with nutrients, or have been long forgotten once past the porcelain. I look forward to hearing your clarification and elaboration as to just what you mean by such an enigmatic statement.



Joined: 01 Mar 2006
Posts: 6
Location: Kent, WA USA
Posted: Thu Mar 09, 2006 5:19 am Post subject:

You have to forgive me...I guess I took too much out of context for where this sentence originated ( in alt.memetics ).

All of your arguments are brilliant, of course, but here's what I was meaning to say. Think of how we now view the stomach. We put food in to our mouths and it travels down to the stomach. It then becomes energy for the body...right? Ok, but we also know, if we take any high school biology, that the food doesn't stay as is in the stomach. No, it goes through a long, process of transformation, being broken down, reconstituted, mixed, de-energized, energized and so on. So, it's not like we're breaking down "turkey molecules" directly in the final energy stages, but some transformed product. Ok, now take how people talk about the brain. We say that we put thoughts (or memes) in our head. We have this paradigm built around an overconceptualized digital computer viewpoint. We see a sentence as directly stored on the brain ("disk") and then retrieved at some later date. That is our complete view of "learning". And, to me, just based on all the complexities of all other body systems, totally wrong! My guess would be more along that whatever form a piece of information comes in as, through our senses, is transformed a myriad of times before it is useable, and a myriad of times before it produces some type of "output". There could be layers, upon layers upon layers of transformation going on. The visual cortex alone is now known to have 10 layers just related to vision, and specific cells for images such as faces, hands and so on. So, to think of the brain as a digital computer is just ridiculous. And more to my argument, to think of a "thought" or idea or knowledge as just "stored" in the brain as if it were stored in a book, on, I can't buy it.
John Bailo Kent East Hill


Joined: 28 Feb 2006
Posts: 5
Posted: Thu Mar 09, 2006 4:12 pm Post subject:


Thanks for the kind words. Perhaps I should wander off-topic more!

It looks like I walked in on the middle of some larger argument, apparently about whether memes are stored directly in memory, just like a computer would store something on a hard drive. I guess I can see the appeal of a simple notion of storing memes. I think of so many memes as being "catch phrases", or jingles, in which case it is all too common to be able to trigger another to say the last half of a jingle, for instance, by reciting the first: "plop, plop, fizz, fizz" elicits "oh, what a relief it is" amongst some of those carrying that meme. (speaking of digestion!)

Of course, someone triggered in such a way could respond in myriad ways, which I think is evidence for what I take to be your position of a greater complexity, that a simple model does not suffice to explain memetic behavior: the "layers" and "transformations" I guess part of the difficulty I have is where you conclude that:

So, to think of the brain as a digital computer is just ridiculous.

This seems particularly unwarranted, considering that if we had a reasonable model of cognition and its relation to memes, we could program it, and, plausibly, it could be both complex (based on layers, transformations) as well as simple (like a digital computer). I have to think that (and this is where my ignorance of the evolution of the argument you make hurts me) you must be talking about a particular instance of either computer hardware, or some simple operating system. So, is there a central processing unit in the brain? busses and pipelines? Of course, it might sound ridiculous, but aren't those constructs providing "layers and transformations"? I think it is fair to say that the mechanisms at the lowest levels of digital computers came from the metaphors we've used in describing the action of the brain. Think "massive parallelism", "simulated neurons", "pipelining", "conditional branch" [logic was a (inadequate) model of the brain before it was ever a model for computers].

It is interesting that you seem to be arguing that it can be inappropriate to turn this around the other way. And, fundamentally, I agree. A second-hand metaphor may not be as useful as looking directly at the source. On the other hand, even second-hand metaphors can do a lot of good work. I particularly like your example of the layers of visual processing.

My reading is way out-of-date on this topic, but I found David Marr's book on vision to be fascinating along those lines. What excited me was the idea that the way the brain processed visual stimuli was a solid and successful empirical/computational question. ...

(some closing comments were lost here...)



Joined: 01 Mar 2006
Posts: 6
Location: Kent, WA USA
Posted: Sat Mar 18, 2006 1:22 am Post subject:

I guess I am being influenced by the Alexander book -- which focuses on "life" as paradigm for good architecture. Right now I am reading his chapters on recursion...recursion in design, with variation at each level of recursion. Even for people who make the computer-mind analogy, they rarely, if ever mention one of the most complex and intracate aspects of programming, in, ascribing that ability to our minds. Certaily Godel, Escher, Bach spent a lot of time there, but then it was completely dropped and people went back to the idea of storing memes on the brain disk. It's almost disrespectful of what a human being can be or is! The stomach/brain analogy.

As terrible as it sounds, I go back to the original quote about us having a more complex description in our science of the stomach than of the brain. No biologist thinks of food as something that is "perserved" beyond even the very primary stages of digestion -- it's masticated in the mouth before it even enters the stomach and enzymes are added from the saliva. Then, the stomach is semi-permiable system. It does not "burn" food in the stomach, but it catalyzes and transforms it many times over and then it gets transferred to the small intestine where the results of that can permeate ... and so on and so on all the way through 6th grade biology and the mitocondria and so on. Layers and layers and layers of transformation after transformation, of processes interfacing many to many with each other.

Ok, now take our view of the brain. I went to a Princeton alumni "town meeting" recently, and a neurologist presented some sort of summary of his work. It was very cursory, and he seemed to be putting charts up about brain size being related to some feature or other. Geez, I mean, are we still that primitive when it comes to our understanding of the brain! At the very least, if we tried to make an analogy of the brain to the stomach -- which in and of itself is ridiculous -- then we'd be miles ahead of that guy and his charts. And we'd be parsecs ahead of the people who talk about the brain "storing information".
John Bailo
Kent East Hill
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PostPosted: Thu Apr 12, 2007 2:40 pm    Post subject: brain and stomach Reply with quote

Our concept of the brain is much more nuanced and contradictory because it is a much more nuanced and mysterious organ than the stomach. It is not true that we have simply the computer analogy for our understanding of the brain, we have entire branches of psychology (cognitive, personality, physiological) that deal with different aspects of the brain and how we process memory, thoughts, what we ate yesterday and whether we liked it.

From what I read of your exchange, I think that Jabailo was getting confused between explicability and devotion of time and resources into research. The stomach is much more explicable than the brain. But the brain has much more time and many more resources devoted to its study. The fact that we are less sure of how the brain works may be a function of its complexity.
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