kägˈni sh ən
the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.
It seems science is well on the way to proving that, yes indeed, thoughts actually are things, but not in ways many like to consider them to be. Creative visualization for example, the process of wishful thinking that is said to have the power to produce desired results, could now be touted as little more than a molecule doing the backstroke in chemical soup.
It’s this article titled “Evolution of cognition might be down to brain chemistry”, in New Scientist that’s stirring the chowder this morning:
“Brain metabolism probably played an important role in evolution of human cognition,” Khaitovich says, “and one of the potentially most important changes was in glutamate metabolism.”
Glutamate is the “brain’s main energy metabolite”, he says. “And as the main excitatory neurotransmitter it is responsible for virtually every possible cognitive task, including learning and memory.”
Apparently glutamate is not thought, but rather the chemical that “that energises brain cells and ferries messages between them” — the grease on the wheels, so to speak — but there’s no doubt a search is on for the chemical … a combo of chems, perhaps tweaked with a jolt of electro-juice? … that is ideas and concepts.
How much of who and what we are is simple biology — not “simple” in an it’s-easy-to-grasp way, but will someday be a cinch to quantify — is a question I ponder often these days.
David Kingsley of Stanford University in California was not involved in the study, but his team recently revealed genetic differences accounting for humans’ larger brains. “It’s clear that humans have accumulated some interesting differences in the thinking regions of the brain,” he says. “It will be interesting to see how such differences arise from changes in our genomes and those of our closest relatives.”
Are we nothing more than a link on an evolutionary chain with reactions dictated by a dollop of this and a drip of that? Do we fall in love because the smell of someone trips a switch that floods our brain with a feel-good bisque? Is art created out primal dictates to pass along DNA? Are dreams just random spurts in some electro-chemical tango that hears sleep as a beat? Is thirst for knowledge simply an inner empty road we’re primed to navigate for the heck of it?
If this is all we are, biological beings at the mercy of meat and related juice, then … well … the point would be … ?
As meat au jus with glutamate, and whatever else has yet to be identified … My Self Glutamate sounds tenderizing … perhaps all these thought things are merely distractions; jingling keys that draw attention away from the tedious process of living only to eat, shit and reproduce, the true mandates if there is nothing more to us.
What we are has longed seemed to me a waste of evolutionary energy, however. If a hummingbird developed speedy wings and a long beak to fit a niche … if mandrills grew glorious asses because dense jungle habitat favored those who could keep track of others … if hibernation preserved life in cold climates (and, yes, all that did happen) … then why, oh why, did humans become so over-engineered in the thoughts/dreams/creation department instead of growing thicker hair and perfecting the art of arboreal living?
Why must the chemicals in my head put words into verse? What is the evolutionary benefit in concertos and cubism? Where does a broken heart fit into the picture? And why is there any picture at all?
If all this thought stuff is just a series of shiny objects grabbing our attention for a while as we plod, perhaps they’re what keep us plodding. Maybe the chemical for ego is the difference between offing ourselves out of sheer boredom and sticking around long enough to eat, shit and reproduce.
Given the state of the world, however, that prospect seems an evolutionary shot that backfired since just about everything else on our planet would be better off were we not so wrapped up in what we think are our thoughts, and may very well result in us doing ourselves in.
Awash in MSG as I am at the moment, I can’t help but go back to the combo of chemicals that has me asking again:
And the point would be … ?