Many of us tend to live in our heads. We are a brain, being carried around by a convenient host called a “body”. We often identify our “self” almost exclusively with our intellect. Where does intelligence actually reside? For that matter: what is it? This is a question of some controversy in the scientific community.
There is no doubt that cognition is a function of the brain, and more specifically, of its frontal lobes. We know, however, that various forms of intelligence, ways of explaining and understanding the world and our experience of it, can be located in other regions of the brain as well. Scientists at Caltech have quite recently mapped the brain for intelligence, publishing their findings in February of this year; they determined that general intelligence can be found in distinct regions throughout the brain, forming a network, or distributed system. This supports the earlier “parieto-frontal integration theory”, which states that our intellect depends on a variety of mental functions and brain regions simultaneously. Incidentally, similar findings were recently published for the phenomenon of consciousness.
“Emotional Intelligence” is a skills set which primarily uses the limbic system, a much more primal region of the brain, in conjunction with the frontal lobe. But what about the rest of the human body? Does intelligence reside anywhere else? And how do mind and body connect with one another? That last question represents a major area of research in the study of consciousness, and to date, little progress has been made.
Let’s begin with a look at “body intelligence”. Some of the basic intelligent processes of our bodies are known to all of us, yet we seldom think about them. Hunger receptors within the stomach lining tell us when to eat, while the pancreas monitors and adjusts the glucose-insulin ratio which also indicates hunger. Thirst is signaled to the brain by way of various structures in our bodies which monitor both fluid levels and the concentrations of osmolites (such as salt).
We sleep when we are tired, and while the brain can also become fatigued, and the pineal gland within the brain responds to light cues, the circadian rhythms of our bodies are the greatest determinant. These 24-hour internal clocks represent biochemical, physiological, and behavioral processes, the molecular structure of which can be found contained within a single cell; these rhythms are also a byproduct of communication among cells. They govern not only sleeping and feeding patterns but also body temperature, brain wave activity, hormone production, and cell regeneration, among others – and the latter is directly related to our aging process.
Fear and other arousal can signal our autonomic nervous system, found along the spinal cord, to take action based on the survival instinct – and, when at rest, to allow for digestion. Similar stimuli result in the production of adrenalin, cortisol, and other neurotransmitters from various glands within the body, which then inform the brain. Pain receptors throughout our bodies, typically just below the skin level, provide a warning signal to our brains that there is something wrong, some threat or injury to be addressed. Our immune systems, diffuse throughout our bodies in the form of T-cells, leukocytes, and a multitude of other biological structures and processes, possess an innate intelligence which permits recognition or familiarity – and when a microbe, tissue, or other structure is not recognized, this system begins an assault on the invader in order to protect the host – us.
Receptors in the urinary bladder inform us to urinate, while similar structures act in the colon – and neither of these is a direct function of the brain’s intellect. Our bodies sweat, and shiver, in order to adjust temperature. And then of course, there is the phenomenon of “gut instinct”, an extremely common experience of “knowing” something in our “gut” or area of solar plexus, typically experienced quite physically, for which we don’t have conscious (i.e. brain) knowledge – and which proves to be correct.
(to be continued; see next post)