18 de May de 2022

Article by Alfredo Esteve

The physiological and functional assets of the brain

* Content curated by José Manuel Muñoz

It can be stated that the main function of the nervous system is to regulate the relationship of an organism with its environment, managing the information it receives from the outside in light of what it obtains from itself, from its internal state, concomitantly regulating the rest of the organs and systems that compose it with the help, where appropriate, of the endocrine system, in order to adopt an appropriate behavior. The information is transmitted into the brain, the directing organ, based on electrochemical impulses of the ‘all or nothing’ type, as Kandel likes to say. It is interesting to see how these impulses, always the same, are capable of generating such disparate experiences and behaviors. If the impulses are identical, why do they generate this diversity?

The transmission of these electrochemical impulses is not a leap into the void, but rather the organism has a prior asset, the nervous system, in which we can distinguish two dimensions. The most obvious is the physiological dimension, without which such transmission is simply not possible; a dimension that, in principle, is the same for all individuals of a species. However, not all the nervous systems of a species process the same stimulus in the same way: surely the mechanisms they use will be the same, but not necessarily the results. This is due to the functional asset, acquired from a link between the genetically orchestrated development and the dialogue established with the environment, which in turn reverts to the physiological structures. If the physiological asset is similar for all the individuals of a species, the functional asset will be different. It is a difference articulated around experiences and learning, which is more relevant as one ascends the evolutionary scale.

A brain free of functional assets, i.e. free of experiences, learning and memories, is not only one that could not exist—since all this happens necessarily in its maturation process—but also one that could not adequately manage all the information with it is supplied for the survival of the organism itself. Because what is transmitted is not mere energy, but information.

This information does not consist of mere energy signals, but rather they must be significant for the organism. This significance is essential for its survival. As Delgado recommends, it is opportune to distinguish the physiological fact of message transmission from its meaning for the individual, because the decoding of messages depends on the story of each brain and on the experience it has been acquiring since its embryonic origin, whichit has stored in the same neural structures that are now responsible for decoding that information. These neural structures, in turn, have been configured by those same experiences.

As Rof Carballo says, despite its well-differentiated parts, what characterizes every organism is the unity that underlies diversity, which is precisely what fosters its organic character. Every organism is the result of an amazing process of multiplication and differentiation of an original cell; any cell of any organ, no matter how different it may be from the others, has the same origin. Every cell is organically linked with the rest. The same happens with all the organs, organically linked to each other and whose activities are at the service of the organism to which they belong and which they configure. The same can be said about the brain.

In this development process, the body is hungry for both functional and energy resources. From its very biological beginnings, the brain configures itself in dialogue with its environment; without the contribution of these two components, the brain could not carry out its mission. Inadequate resources or unfortunate learning will prevent the neural structures from being functional enough to be able to convey a successful relationship with the environment. Otherwise, the organism will be able to transform physical events into significant information, a process that is enriched considering the complication provided by formalization in higher animals and, above all, “human hyperformalization,” as Zubiri calls it.

Every external stimulus and message must be interpreted within a previous functional asset, which will be different for each brain that is for each person. Without this prior functional existence, there is no message, because there is no brain. A brain is not possible without its functional assets, whatever they may be, acquired during its own existence. A blank brain is not possible; every brain is configured, it has a certain frame of reference from which it unfolds its activity—a frame acquired within its unfolding. Its biological development requires some resources that will contribute to creating that referential framework from which to manage external and internal information in order to safeguard the life of the individual. There is no already constituted brain which, at a given moment, begins to manage information, but its constitution depends on the information it manages, which configures it during its development. Physiology and functionality are two dimensions of a single process. And this occurs within the body of which it is a part.

Transmission of energy is not enough; if this is not managed in an adequate context, it is incapable of offering significance by itself. For this reason, physiological asset is not enough but functional asset is also required—a learned symbolism that is what gives meaning to the impulses that reach the brain. What meaning do neural codes provide? Well, it is very difficult to know since a brain does not (completely) work the same as another. Each brain does it according to its individual dimension, the result of its genetic endowment, and the encryption caused by its personal experiences. As Damasio amusingly says, our brains bear less resemblance to others than cars to an assembly line. The mode of transmitting messages through the nerve pathways is common to all; another thing is the interpretation of the meaning of these messages, which depends mostly on each brain. We may know how the transmissions work physiologically, but we know little of how the meanings arise from them. Our neurons do not have an understanding of the information they process, and our understanding arises through their activity; event better, in their activity and with their activity. This understanding is possible by this double physiological and functional asset in the joint development of the entire organism, and whose proper development is essential for a successful relationship with the environment, from the most basic to the highest activities.

About the author

Alfredo Esteve is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the Catholic Univerity of Valencia ‘San Vicente Mártir.’ He is also Academic Secretary of this Faculty, Executive Director of the journal Scio, Revista de Filosofía, and Principal Investigator of the research group ‘Emoción, Cognición, Acción.’