Humanity as the sum of hardwired circuitry

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2003, 12:00am

Airheads that we are, we compare the human brain to whatever technology has the gee-whizz factor at that time. The history of neuroscience abounds with analogies.

One likens the brain to a wax writing tablet, another to a hydraulic system of pipes and valves, and another to a telegraph or telephone system. The digital age casts the brain as a computer. Doubtless, this will in turn give way to the brain-as-Internet matrix theory.

All the same, the dominant wetware personal computer concept has resulted in the compelling, if chilling, appropriation of a word which once merely meant hooking up electronic components: hardwiring.

In the sphere of neuroscience and, increasingly, general discussions about the structure of human identity, hardwiring means the deterministic etching of human behaviour in the species' cerebral circuitry.

Human drives such as the capacity to experience sexual attraction are hardwired. When you spot someone you fancy and feel somewhat dizzy, this is not because Cupid has just pierced your heart but because the sighting automatically triggers a rush of naturally produced amphetamines.

In addition to these drives, human capabilities may be hardwired. Take your ability to do mathematics. Sure, the poets among us may proudly claim they have zero mathematical ability. Nevertheless, in all probability they can still count their change for the bus.

Everyone can count or tally up small collections of objects and can carry out simple arithmetical operations, whether they are Cambridge graduates or tribesmen in the remote highlands of New Guinea. So writes Brian Butterworth, professor of cognitive neuropsychology at University College, London, in What Counts: How Every Brain is Hardwired for Math.

Professor Butterworth goes on to refute the assumption that maths is essentially something we learn, such as playing the piano or pirating software. Drawing on history, animal studies, infant learning and an array of other disciplines, he argues the case for the existence of circuits in the brain devoted to identifying what he calls 'numerosities' - the number of objects in a collection of things.

Apparently, these are the bedrock of numeracy. Beyond numbers, all the senses have hardwired components, Professor Butterworth says. So does control of movement. We can tell that some aspects of thinking are hardwired because some people are unable to do them. Think the inability to perceive certain wavelengths in the spectrum (colour blindness).

Taken fatalistically, hardwiring means that we amount to pre-programmed robo-schmucks with zero free will. But, of course, this outlook is ridiculous.

The mind is constantly rewired by experience. These days one can even measure the extent of the rewiring.

Thus, we know that certain parts of the brain are more developed in musicians, other parts in taxi drivers, yet other parts in people who can read Braille, the professor says.

A study of Braille proofreaders based on brain-scan maps has shown that the part of the brain devoted to this activity grows in size after just six hours of work (which could become a new method of measuring whether worthies sentenced to management
training have been knuckling down).

The dark art of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) keys into this notion that nobody (except those in a vegetative state) stagnates and that the brain can be deliberately moulded. If you read the literature, any nightmare can apparently be reframed and perceived as a growth opportunity.

Say you open an attachment containing a virus which knocks out the office computing system, resulting in the loss of your job, your marriage and your sanity. No problem. Through harnessing the power of NLP you can learn to subvert the normal, hardwired negative response to the inconvenience and look at your challenging new predicament as a chance to acquire street survival skills.

Despite the intransigence which the word seems to imply, hardwiring is happily negotiable.

If life is an adventure, it means that we are all independent travellers in our own 4x4s rather than package tourists stuck in assigned seats on the tour bus.

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