photo by Lynn Woodward
photo by Lynn Woodward
From the second of your birth to this very moment, your brain has been rewiring its connections, based on what you see and hear, smell, taste and touch.

Human brains are basically the same in their general organization and distribution of their 100 billion nerve cells. But at the microscopic level – varying on the strength of 1,000 trillion individual connections prompted by sensory input – each of us is unique.

And thus, says Dr. Bob Collins, each brain builds a “mind” as individual as it is subjective. In the last two decades, neuroscientists have actually found where and how the brain uses consciousness to create the mind you call your own.

Dr. Collins will speak at The Belfry on Tuesday, May 7, for the final lecture in the 2018-19 Frontiers in Science series, sponsored by the Sisters Science Club.

“The details are disturbing,” Dr. Collins says. “By the end of this lecture, you will be in a state of agitated denial by discovering who you are, compared to who you think you are.”

Seventy years ago, Dr. Collins explains, electron microscopes revealed the structure of a synapse, that minute gap between the neurons that transmit and receive the signals controlling how we think and move.

Today, researchers can see the functional activity of billions of synapses in action in a human brain and have learned that we actually live in a world without color, sound, aromas and taste. Our brains create the rainbow colors we see; the symphony we hear; the coffee we smell and savor.

But we still think we are in charge. Not so, Dr. Collins argues. Researchers have shown that brain activity for an act of alleged “free will” begins unconsciously half a second before the act itself, followed quickly by consciousness stepping up to take the credit. You have even less time to change your mind before you act, but it can be done, as illustrated by a batter who checks her swing or a teenager who swallows a swear word in front of his grandma. In other words, you might be able to stop that act, but you can’t consciously start it.

If free will is an illusion, how can human beings shape their experiences to guide the subconscious toward conscious behavior that is moral and good for the species? It’s a complicated question, and Dr. Collins plans to thoroughly engage the audience in seeking some answers.

Dr. Collins was an academic neurologist for 35 years. A graduate of Cornell University Medical School, he completed an internship at Massachusetts General Hospital, research training at the National Institutes of Health, and neurology training at Cornell-New York Hospital before moving to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was Professor of Neurology and of Anatomy and Neurobiology.

In 1987, Dr. Collins was named Frances Stark Professor and Chairman in the Department of Neurology at UCLA, where his dedication to the academic pursuit of scholarship in research and education was the hallmark of his tenure. He retired in 2004 and co-founded the Sisters Science Club in 2011.

Dr. Collins’ lecture, “The Brain Makes the Mind,” starts at 7 p.m. at The Belfry.

Social hour begins at 6 p.m. with light fare, beer, and wine available. Admission is $5; teachers and students are admitted free. The Belfry is located at 302 E. Main Ave., Sisters.

For more information on this topic and on the Sisters Science Club: www.sistersscienceclub.org; scienceinsisters@gmail.com.