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By Blanca de Lizaur, PhD, MA, BA, Content specialist.


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THE WAY OUR BRAIN WORKS, AND HUMAN EXPRESSION. Implications for Literature, Media and research

Read Time:21 Minute, 48 Second

1. Introduction

They say that Chesterton and his brother Cecil enjoyed such good and lively intellectual discussions, and they became so absorbed in them that they would stop in the middle of the street talking, and it could rain down on them or the sun might set, before they would quit their enjoyable and productive intellectual sword-fights.

People who ran into them in the street, went around them, since it was impossible to pass between or separate the two stout gentlemen, who on the other hand were very well-loved by all –even by their enemies–. At the end of the day, and after having taken care of the day’s tasks, some would return to ask how they had resolved the dilemma. Thus, in fact “the daily discussion” was beneficial to others too, …as long as they had been intelligent enough to carry on with their daily tasks meanwhile.

Regardless of one’s occupation, sooner or later we all come up against untouchable intellectual dogmas or pointless controversies or debates that –in spite of their unquestionable importance– exhaust and pit experts against one another, trapping them in dead-ends and preventing them from progressing with their work. If a few of them deal with them, that will suffice; the rest of us need to make sure the world keeps turning…

This might appear simple, but it is not. What should one do when one can see the solution to their research, lies beyond such obstacles? If we try to confront them, we will be swept up in controversies that –frequently– become weapons used by opposing political factions, closed off to any new perspectives or contributions…

Let me provide an example: Our lifestyle has caused us to flood the world with molecules that are not hormones, but the shape of which is so similar to hormones, that living creatures’ cells confuse them. And as you know, hormones delicately regulate our metabolisms, detonating actions that are fundamental to our survival (in very, very small and precise amounts…), so the confusion can lead to –and does lead us to– extremely serious side effects.

We could argue endlessly about the lawfulness and advisability of giving hormones to our livestock; about the social changes achieved through hormone based birth control, and their advisability; or about the adaptability, durability, beauty, efficiency and low cost of petroleum based products –all of these being disputes that, due to their caliber, concern all kinds of activists–.

But this does not change the fact that hormones for livestock, for human beings, and petroleum based products, have negative effects on the environment which must be dealt with immediately, when the passionate debates they engender are resolved.

Or in other words: How can we progress with our research, while the polemicists resolve the challenging issues they are dealing with?

Turning to other sciences and specializations that have shed light on the issues we are studying, in my experience, enriches us professionally, and resolves many of these issues with equanimity and elegance. And that is precisely what I have come here to share with you today: How, looking to Neuroscience (and several other sciences), has allowed me to circumnavigate the debates that hold philology hostage nowadays –my original area of study–, and to progress with my research, while the various political currents resolve their very respectable differences.

2. How our brains work

Regarding how our brains work, Steven Pinker, neuro-linguist and author of the magnificent collection on Computational Theory of Mind: How the Mind Works, defines intelligence as

∙ “rational thought” –following the innate rules for processing information, of cause and effect (innate since it has been possible to prove its use even in infants only a few weeks old)–

∙ “of a human kind” –brain matter of all animals is quite similar, especially in mammals, but produces different behaviours and information in each type, based on each species’ needs and characteristics: The spider is born with it pre-programmed to spin webs, and we with it pre-programmed for a series of tasks we need to survive, and which neuroscientists have inventoried with great effort over the years–,

∙ “truth obeying”…, such that –as biologist Bruce Lipton says (recently invited to speak at the Royal Society of London)– were we “programmed” to be born, grow, behave in a certain way, and die at pre-established intervals and pre-established places, we would be unable to survive, since we are immersed in an ever-changing environment, forcing us to confront circumstances almost impossible to predict. The cells have receptors in their external membranes to know when there is food or poison nearby –for example–; as well as to detonate the various reactions needed in every specific situation, so that they can survive. If the cell receptors cease to function (and this has been proven in laboratories), the cell dies –…because it became disconnected from its environment, because it ceased to recognize it for what it is (the way it is), and because this way it ceased to respond in a timely and appropriate way, as was needed at each particular moment–. In the same way, we need credible, truthful information about the world we are immersed in; and the more accurate this information is –the more “truth obeying” it is–, the more appropriate our responses to our environments will be, and the more feasible our survival.

And here we have dodged the first obstacle: The question of the “truth”, about which philosophers and philologists have argued for centuries, and about which they continue to argue to this day…

3. But as a result, another hurdle is coming our way, of no less importance: The Deconstructionism dominates the academic world today, stating that “we cannot know reality” –extrapolating Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to other sciences (remember what happened to the cells that lost their receptors…?). What’s more, it also maintains that anything we know about reality is innately flawed, since “language is a construct created to exploit us, and distort and bias our thinking such that said-exploitation may continue”–.

What does Neuroscience have to say about this?

Through truly ingenious studies, and using magnetic resonance equipment and positron emission tomography allowing it to map brain activity from one moment to the next, it was able to show that our minds create the image we have of reality, using our perceptions –which are numerous, fragmented, and based on different points of view–, to bring them together in a single one –filling in missing information based on what we already have–.

That is: Truly, as Deconstructionism maintains, our image of reality is an intellectual construct, a mental fabrication…,

…but not one created for deceitful exploitation by a few individuals (in spite of how each of us unfortunately distorts it according to our wishes and needs)…,

…but instead produced:

by our inborn neuronal networks,

which react to this planet’s (not others’) circumstances (like the algorithms that allow us to decodify the colours comprising an image, in spite of varying degrees of luminosity/brightness and the particular characteristics of light that exist on Earth),

in order to resolve precisely those problems we might be confronted with here, for survival, like distinguishing faces, recognizing foods, and building tools and shelters useful on this planet –not others.

As Pinker says (citing another author): The masterwork of our mind is the image it gives us of reality –true–. Butwe would expand on this– the masterwork of this image, is our survival… –which means that the image really correlates with the environment we are immersed in–. The greater the degree of correlation, the more useful for life.

Ergo, also: The fact that we are in contact with reality, and that we interact with it to survive (or not); implies that it exists in-and-of itself, that it does not originate in us, and neither do we create it –make it exist– with our perceptions, expressions and articulations. We merely know it.

4. Our minds are composed of specific modules (Chomski calls them “mental organs”), each one born, either to respond to a particular type of problem we are likely to encounter in our species’ natural environment, or to collect information on specific subjects that might be useful to us (also in these circumstances). And each mental module, in turn, is composed of numerous sub-modules, and these in turn, of still more; which suggests a functional, organized, harmonic hierarchical organization of them, in order to achieve our objectives.

For example: We are born with a mental module that allows us, as infants, to acquire a human language by simple immersion.

Just as nightingales do not take classes to learn to sing, infants do not take classes to learn how to react to the verbal stimuli in their environments, but rather arrive “pre-programmed” for that. How…?

The infant’s brain provides him with a number of mental switches that he must activate one way or another, as he listens to other humans around him talk (is he/she hearing a tonal language, or not?, is it synthetic, or not?, are adjectives placed before or after nouns?, etc.).

And once the infant has activated them, a map of the language’s basic structures automatically forms in his/her mind… …After which the finishing touches are added:

(a) vocabulary acquisition, at such great speed it cannot be replicated again later; and

(b) the “final polish” on the language, learning the exceptions to each rule –exceptions no human being would have created, by the way, if he/she had decided to create a language, as the exploitation theory presupposes…–.

And just like that”: they learned their mother tongue this way…

Without our mental organs’ inborn pre-programming –of the modules and sub-modules specific to language–, it is impossible to explain or artificially replicate such an amazing achievement.

5. The existence of specific modules, with sub-modules, and sub-sub-modules…, brings another question to mind: Our brain operates in a coordinated, heirarchical and cooperative fashion: The modules operate “modularly” –if you’ll forgive the repetition–, distributing tasks amongst them; and substituting for each other when necessary, without the need to re-learn what the original ones learned how to distinguish.

For example: When we learn a word in a book, we do not memorize its photograph –its frozen image–, but rather the way it was formed (with specific lines). This later allows us to recognize it even if it is written using a different font, in a different colour, or on a different background, etc. Which shows that we do not process texts using the same algorithms (and brain modules) we use when processing other kinds of images.

If furthermore we were unable to write the word using one of our hands for some reason, we could write it using a foot, say it aloud, or sign it with our hands, without having to re-learn its meaning –we must only change the “exit module or channel”, but the rest of the information remains stored and available in the other brain modules, remaining in us with amazing persistence in memory–.

Not only this: The message travels from one neuron to the next in the brain, being translated again and again –that is, changing format: from electrical to chemical, from chemical to electrical…, etc.–. And although the form changes, the message remains the same. In terms of biology, this demonstrates the superiority of content over form, of the intention to communicate over the channel used for transmission, which has so tormented philosophers and philologists over the course of history, let alone since the emergence of electronic media, (Would “Othello” cease to be “Othello” if we transmit it via television, in an adapted version targeting a particular audience, for example…?); …and that today –in the midst of the Digital Revolution– acquires renewed importance.

Another question solved, thanks to Neuroscience.

6. Furthermore: The way our mental modules operate leaves an imprint, reproduces itself, in the theories we develop and the systems we use to process differing kinds of information. Thanks to this, in spite of our limited resources, we can carry out an endless number of tasks, and deal with an equally limitless number of messages.

That is: The mind’s modular operation explains why we use “discreet combinational systems” for almost everything –which means that with just a few sounds we can “make” many different words; and with a certain number of words, we can produce an infinite number of different phrases and speech; or that with a small series of numerical symbols (0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9), we can make an infinite series of numbers, and with them perform an equally infinite number of different calculations regarding different aspects of reality.

How? Through the codification of the meaning we give to each one, depending on where they are placed in a sequence –that is: establishing arbitrary but useful rules, which give a different meaning to each and every symbol (letter, number, word…), in a way that is both systematic and predictable for those familiar with them–. And notice that the mere fact of giving meaning to the placement of each letter, number, etc. implies a necessarily linear practice when reading, as well as “correct”, “legal” or “permitted” ways of reading, in the same way that a novel must be read in the same order as the pages of the book containing it.Were this otherwise, these few symbols would not provide us with an infinite array of possibilities. In addition: Our minds achieve all this, without losing the human ability to personalize concepts (and even interpret them) –without confusing them, but rather recognizing them as unique and different regardless of the number of associations existing among them–. This ability –and brain module– is crucial, by the way, for recognising the people we deal with (John Smith is not John Sanders), or the fruits, animals and plants that contribute to our survival… (the fact that we do not give a different name to every apple, does not alter the fact that every apple is different and unique…), to give a few examples.

Furthermore: The brain’s modular workings are recursive, just like our language and works. This means we can nest or lodge one phrase inside another, and this one in turn, inside another, and so on; and we can likewise lodge one task inside another more complicated one, and then a third even more complex one, always following –of course– certain rules so that anybody could figure out exactly what we mean… That is: Recursivity is what allows us to subordinate and coordinate sentences and other elements with one another.

This is reflected in the following way:

In that all knowledge that is acquired or developed by human intelligence – be it music, like using one’s voice, be it language, be it maths, etc., since each uses discreet combinational, recursive systems, that can be personalised–;

in the same way as all works of our intelligence –this explains everything from arithmetic to analytical and fractal geometry, on the one hand; as well as the use, on the other hand, of interchangeable modules in folktales, as Vládimir Propp noted –as well as in all of world literature (narrative motifs and formulas, recurring characters, etc.)–.

Allow me a few more specialized words, but which the philologists in the room will understand: syntagmatic (structural, grammatical) and paradigmatic (establishing categories, and types of categories) relationships, simply would not exist, …if there were no discreet combinatorial systems…

How then can contemporary literature disqualify or discredit popular works only because their action sequences are logical and linear, or push us to reach for absolute originality as our goal, when it is impossible to achieve in a discreet combinatorial system like the one which allows us to create and enjoy our narratives?As Wellek and Warren state in their Literary Theory: Absolute originality is impossible and indecipherable by definition.

…Yet another question we can pose thanks to Neuroscience.

7. Our minds store and process information –how beautiful!– in our imagination. The imagination is a mental chalkboard on which we represent and deal with reality, according to what has been shown using equipment able to monitor mental operations. And the symbols we use on our mental chalkboards, detonate voluntary and involuntary behaviours –like the hand we reflexively raise to wave away a fly–.

Medicine has confirmed that we can make a person ill using the imagination (ask Platonov, Pavlov’s disciple, the Behaviourists…, Milton Erickson or any other well known psychotherapist of the last one hundred and fifty years, or Hahenmann, the founder of Homeopathy!).

And it is also possible to use our imaginations to cure ourselves –“words can heal” is an old medical catchphrase associated with, among others, Dr. Hernando, Dr. Marañón, and Dr. Francisco Guerra, to name 3 important Spanish doctors (cfr.: Guerra). It is impossible –in keeping with good scientific practices, to ignore that the therapeutic effects of medicine are supported to a high degree by placebo (and negatively affected by nocebo) effects, which clearly shows that ideas can also impact our health (cfr. Bruce Lipton).

In addition: It has been proven that if we program computers so that they can learn “by example”, “by observation”, they become more efficient. …There is a reason why humanity has spent centuries producing stories that both entertain and teach us using parables, anecdotes or “exampla” –created specifically to serve as models of behaviour, and not necessarily to indoctrinate, based on our society’s and culture’s collected life experience …–.

How, then, is it possible that Literature reject its responsibility to train more efficient readers –experts without being indoctrinated–, or regarding the importance of creating and praising works of massive pro-social impact –positive from an Anthropological, not political, perspective; that is: fitting the dominant values, ideas and beliefs of a given society–?

Literature –amongst its many social functions– feeds our individual and collective “imaginaries” –fills our catalogues with possible actions, accompanied by their likely consequences, so that we can make decisions that are more sensible, ingenious and non-destructive in order to survive. Nothing less.

…It should also teach us to manage our emotions –which are so important for our survival, that we have a specific mental module to manage them–.

For these reasons, and several more, Anthropology teaches us that Literature is a fundamental social institution –present in all human societies, the mission of which it is to disseminate and emotionally justify and validate those behaviours that experience has shown favour our survival.

8. In addition, and of particular importance: We have a mental module Pinker calls “the cheater detector”.

We have already seen that the truth –the truest possible understanding of reality despite our limitations–, is fundamental for our survival. It makes sense then that we have a specific brain module to protect us from false, mistaken, dishonest, distorted information…

And because this module is inborn, over the course of history, authors, genres, Communications media and institutions that “lie through their teeth”, or that advocate agendas hostile to each society’s values, ideas and beliefs, have ultimately been spontaneously rejected by society. Society is a living body, and instinctively tends toward survival.

That is why human nature produced pedagogical stories to make us aware of the usefulness of truth and credibility, like “Peter and the Wolf” (in the Spanish folk tradition: A tale of a young shepherd who lies until villagers stop responding to his calls; the day the big bad wolf truly hit his flock, the shepherd cried for help, but nobody helped him).

Converging tautologies or redundancies, distortions, comparisons and confrontations with other information sources and with reality (“reality checks”), as well as “filters” (ideological, for example), comprise some of the mechanisms used by our “lie detector module” to defend us: Given that human communication is a multi-channeled phenomena (we make sense of information based not only on a person’s words, but also on the intonation of his/her voice, his/her way of expressing himself/herself, the context of the talk, etc.), the presence or absence of consistency and relevance are crucial.

Its efficiency stands out in situations in which defence is most challenging: When dealing with powerful individuals. Indoctrination is, in my experience as a scholar of both Literature and media, one of the mechanisms used for the falsification of reality that our brains reject, even though they may not always appear to react clearly and directly to it –openly opposing power conflicts with the mental module that works toward social homeostasis, or tribal and familiar cohesiveness, to give two examples…–.

So our minds take their time, but sooner or later, they manage to free themselves of the lies that have been imposed on them, and that make survival difficult or impossible, and they react against them –statistics regarding sales, consumption and credibility show that society’s self-defence is biologically pre-programmed–.

And this is inevitable, because the information we receive regarding reality is so abundant, and comes from so many channels, that although the liars work together to form a united front, and repeat their slogans ad nauseam, they cannot stop the information-that-they-don’t-control, from being far greater, or from repeatedly pillorying them.

So…: Deconstructionism is correct –but once again: only partially–; and we can state this having the support of various sciences, and without getting into partisan, abstruse, obscure arguments overflowing with confusing and awkward terminology.

9. Conclusions. Our society today is transitioning from a paradigm with a Rationalistic, Mechanistic, Materialistic, etc. mentality, to a new one.

Finally, after centuries of dogmatic and indisputable hegemony, we can admit that human reasoning is limited and fallible –that it can in no way be considered the sole measure of things–. That said, this does not invalidate its tremendous achievements or its great value.

The better we understand how the brain works, the better we will be able to protect ourselves from its pitfalls, overcome its limitations, and take advantage of its extraordinary powers.

And this demands, not only a greater understanding of Neuroscience –which as we have seen, has much to contribute to the Humanities–; but also a greater understanding of them, which our century has arrogantly and ingenuously postponed.

We are referring to Epistemology, Logic, Philosophy, and of course Philology, Linguistics and Literature, which are, not only necessary, but indispensable for our survival.

…But, esteemed colleagues, we need all of them as devoid of ideologies as possible,please. The cynical use of Neuroscience and the Humanities by political factions and ideologies, has caused society to lose faith in them. And we need to get them back, not only for our own survival, but because society needs them, too.

10. When a neuron establishes useful relationships with various other neurons and networks, human knowledge deepens and acquires relief, allowing us to eliminate distortions and irrelevant information, to make reasonable inferences based on ambiguous or incomplete data, and –by linking different combinations of data– produce intelligent generalizations.

…And also overcome obstacles like the convoluted discussions that hinder, due to their magnitude, the progress of knowledge –doing a great disservice to our sciences, and digging a grave for the institutions we belong to, and ourselves.

That is why I encourage all of you to deepen your understanding in areas other than your own particular field of study, allowing the hard and the soft, the theoretical and the applied sciences to establish sensible dialogues that enrich humankind, and save us from our own limitations.

One final reflection: Given that reflecting reality as truthfully as possible, favours our survival; let us actively work to provide society and ourselves, with truthful information. And let us do so amongst other reasons, to make ourselves more necessary, and thus biologically increase our chances for survival. …As well as the survival of the institutions that foster us.


ERICKSON, MILTON H.; SYDNEY ROSEN, comp. and ed.: My Voice Will go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton Erickson. New York and Londres, W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.

GUERRA, FRANCISCO: Las medicinas marginales (Marginalized Medicine). Madrid, Alianza Ed. (publisher) [“El Libro de Bolsillo” (pocket edition) #632, Science and Technology], 1993.

LIPTON, BRUCE; ÁNGEL LLAMAS, preface: La Biología de la creencia (The Biology of Belief). Madrid, Palmyra, 2007 –A seminal book, were it not for the fact that it contradicts itself in one fundamental issue: After stating that only information that faithfully reflects reality, enables our survival, he amazingly ends up defending that (…however…) reality is less important than obtaining a positive reaction to it (would a positive but wrong or inadequate reaction to reality, allow a cell to survive…?). After going through several works by this same author, we finally realized that the bias is ideological in origin, and may generate a radical gnostic mentality in his readers (that is: in favour of the systematic reversal/inversion of the values, ideas and beliefs held by the majority of society)–.

HAHNEMANN, SAMUEL; JORGE C. TORRENT, trans. (from the English edition by Dudgeon and Boericke): Organón de la medicinal [racional] (Organon of Medicine [rational]). Mexico, Ed. Porrúa (publisher), 1984

PINKER, STEVEN: How the Mind Works. London and New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

PLATONOV, K.: La palabra como factor fisiológico y terapéutico (The Word as a Physiological and Therapeutic Factor). Moscow, “Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras” (Foreign Language Editions), 1958.

PROPP, VLADIMIR: Morfologa del cuento maravilloso (Morphology of the Folktale), 7th ed. Madrid, Editorial Fundamentos (publisher) [21], 1987.

WARREN. AUSTIN and RENE WELLEK: Teoría literaria (Literary Theory). 4th ed.; Madrid, Gredos (publisher), 1985 [“Biblioteca Románica e Hispánica 2” (Romance and Spanish Library 2)].

Image source: by © Alekss



Blanca de Lizaur; “La operación de nuestro cerebro y la expresión humana. Implicaciones para la Literatura, los Medios y la Investigación” (The way our brain works, and human expression. Implications for Literature, Media and Research), in Cuartas Jornadas de Jóvenes Investigadores de la Universidad de Alcalá [Humanidades] (Fourth Conference of Young University of Alcala Researchers: Humanities);Cristina Tejedor, Francisco José Pascual, Germán Ros, Antonio Guerrero, Jesús Aguado y Miguel Ángel Hidalgo, eds.; UniversityofAlcala(U.A.H.) [Obras Colectivas (Collective Works)- Humanidades (Humanities) # 35]; pages 491-499.

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  1. No importa con cuál bando de esta cuestión simpaticemos, el hecho es que se ha perdido la deseable neutralidad científica…, lo mismo que la capacidad de escuchar al otro y de tender puentes entre sus opiniones y las nuestras –precisamente lo que la investigación científica, las Humanidades y las Artes deberían ofrecernos–. ///


    *** Esto lo digo en referencia a un análisis sobre la ideologización de las Humanidades, por parte de un catedrático de la Universidad de California: ///

    John M. Ellis: Literature lost; Social agendas and the corruption of the Humanities; Yale University Press, 1997.

    Enlace al libro ///

    Enlaces a comentarios y opiniones sobre este libro: ///


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