Perhaps when it comes to helping us understanding how our custard-like brain works, how mind and brain relate, what an odd phenomenon consciousness is and so forth, the brain is just being shrewd . . . crazy like a fox . . . intuitively sensing just how bizarre this whole subject actually is. To my knowledge, no one has made this “bizarreness business” more entertaining than science fiction writer Terry Bisson. One of his Omni Magazine stories contained this exchange between an alien explorer who has just returned from a visit to Earth and his commander. Apparently, several versions of this dialogue have shown up on the Internet, but this is the one I like best:

[Explorer] They’re made out of meat.

[Commander] Meat?

[Explorer] There’s no doubt about it. We picked several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.

[Commander] That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars.

[Explorer] They use radio waves to talk, but the signals can’t come from them. The signals come from machines.

[Commander] So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.

[Explorer] They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.

[Commander] That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.

[Explorer] I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they’re made out of meat.

[Commander] Maybe they’re like the Orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.

[Explorer] Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take too long. Do you have any idea of the life span of meat?

[Commander] Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the Weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.

[Explorer] Nope, we thought of that, since they do have meat heads like the Weddelei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.

[Commander] No brain?

[Explorer] Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat!

[Commander] So … what does the thinking?

[Explorer] You’re not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat.

[Commander] Thinking meat? You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat?

[Explorer] Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?

[Commander] Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.

[Explorer] Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out meat. And they’ve been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years.

So Archie Bunker turns out to have been a sharp-eyed neuroscientist, after all!

What is the bottom line, the moral, if you please, for this clever piece of sci-fi dramaturgy? How about this one: whether you are on the outside looking in (Sisson’s alien) or on the inside looking out (us Sisson meatheads), the brain is always central to understanding what’s happening, no matter discombobulatingly circuitous the route between what’s out there and what we actually conclude is happening. It may be meat but as Dr. Steven Hyman, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, observes, it’s a choice cut. “The human brain,” he says, “is probably the most complex structure in the known universe.” Its one hundred billion neurons are, or would be were they to be struck end to end in a continuous thread, more than two million miles long.

Neuroscientists suspect that each neuron is directly connected to an average of about ten thousand other neurons. Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, notes that this makes the brain home to about one million billion of these links. “The number of possible ‘one-off’ patterns of neuronal firing is immense, estimated as a staggering ten times ten one million times (ten to the millionth power),” he marvels.

More than that, we’re stuck with the brain’s “my way or the highway” centrality to what’s going on. Edward O. Wilson, the renowned pioneer of sociobiology and biodiversity, reminds us, “Everything that we know and can ever know about existence is created there.”

Wilson continues, “The human brain bears the stamp of 400 million years of trial and error, traceable by fossils and molecular homology in nearly unbroken sequence from fish to amphibian to reptile to primitive mammal to our immediate primate. In the final step the brain was catapulted to a radically new level, equipped for language and culture. . . . The result was human nature: genius animated with animal craftiness and emotion, combining the passion of politics and art with rationality, to create a new instrument of survival.”

Thinking about how best to help you perform in dolphin-thinking waters, we need to do a reality check on our views about human nature. Older theories about human nature are proving tenacious in the pre-dolphin-thinking mind, but in the minds of people paying serious attention to what we are rapidly learning about the way the world really works already know better. One of our key assignments as dolphin-styled thinkers is to utilize the full powers of our new ways of thinking about human nature becomes second nature.

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