“I don’t smell a soul anywhere near you”
First: a brief history
I started this blog back in March 2010 with the post We’re all doomed, and have since written on average one or two posts a month. However, as can be clearly seen in the visitor statistics graph below, I didn’t really have much of an audience for the first 18 months or so. In fact, by late summer last year I was considering packing the whole thing in due to lack of interest – after all, what’s the point of writing if no one’s reading*?
But then something happened. I was reading a post on the Bloggess awesome blog where she quoted someone called Lisa Galaviz. It was a hilarious collection of one-liners and quirky observations that had me completely hooked. In my innocence, I tweeted some of the quotes (I think one of them was “Don’t ever google how they extract squid ink for black pasta when having black pasta. I thought perhaps they milk them or something. This is not the case.”) and lo and behold: Lisa responded! Not only that, she tracked down my dusty old blog and went through every post, leaving clever and funny comments everywhere. In addition, she tweeted about it to all her followers.
This had some immediate consequences: firstly, having read all my posts, Lisa kept bugging me to write some more, which sort of made it impossible for me to kill off my blog. Secondly, the visitor stats went through the roof! Within weeks my blog was full of comments by lots of cool, funny and intelligent people. And finally, it introduced me to a wealth of clever bloggers and made me realise there was a whole community out there.
But most of all, Lisa’s interest in my writing made me believe there actually was an audience for my dry, quasi-scientific posts on humanity and the universe. So for this reason (and for possibly having phoned her in my dream a little while ago and dedicating this post to her (although I don’t really remember that last part..)), I dedicate this post to you, Lisa. After all, it wouldn’t have been written if it wasn’t for you.
Now for the actual post. I read the other day about a weird type of neurons that was discovered in the 1920s by the Romanian scientist Constantin von Economo. They were weird because they were big – very big. They were also not of the usual branching pyramidal shape but rather long and spindly. In fact, they were so different from regular brain cells that he thought they might be diseased.
But without any modern tools for studying the activity of the brain, not much more could be done about it and the discovery was soon forgotten. It took more than 80 years for them to be rediscovered, and another decade to figure out what their purpose might be.
von Economo neurons (VENs for short) are very rare, making up less than 1% of the neurons in areas in our brains used for social awareness and monitoring. They seem to light up when a person is exposed to social cues, like a frowning face or a baby crying. They also activate whenever we see (and recognise) ourselves in a mirror, suggesting that they are important for our awareness of self, the basis of consciousness. In addition, they are central to our ‘salience’ network, which subconsciously keep track on what’s happening and direct our attention to where it’s most needed.
So what are those VENs actually doing? Well, since they are big cells they are probably fast signal transmitters – perhaps a super-highway of a sort for information that is essential to make important social decisions on the fly. You know that gut-feeling you sometimes get? Those quick almost subconscious decisions would most certainly help us navigate the political landscape of our highly social world.
All combined, the VEN rich centres in the brain keeps a continuously updated sence of how we feel right now. In other words, it makes us conscious.
The smelly truth
But that’s not the end of the story. The two areas in the brain that contain VENs originally evolved to combine and monitor smell and taste. This would have given us the ability to instantly determine if something was edible or not. And from there, we evolved a sense of empathy which would have been vital in a small group of hunter-gatherers, where food-sharing could be the difference between life or death.
Morality and our sense of smell and taste is therefore related, something that can be shown by our reaction to foul-tasting food – it is almost identical to our reaction to something morally disgusting. It has also been shown that we tend to be harsher in our judgements when subjected to a foul smell; if you ever happen to end up in front of a judge and jury accused of an immoral crime, make sure to wear a pleasant perfume – preferably something food-related, like cinnamon or cardamom – in order to increase your chances of getting a less severe sentence**.
The evolution of the VENs in our brain seem to be linked to the evolution of our consciousness. First it was a smell and taste supervision system, constantly on alert to guard us from food poisoning. Then it evolved into a social monitoring system, keeping track of social cues and guiding our attention to focus on the most pressing events. It later evolved into a center for morality and empathy and by constantly and continuously updating the picture of ‘how I feel now’ it – accidentally – gave rise to a continuous sense of self, a consciousness. ‘It’ became ‘I’.
To summarise: our consciousness has come about as a side-effect of us being able to determine if food’s gone bad. So much for the divine spark. We’re really just over-glorified garbage disposers.
* This is a somewhat controversial subject. Is the only point of writing to have your text read by someone else? Or is it more of a solitary exercise, something we indulge in for our own amusement and satisfaction? I don’t know. I do know, however, that for me personally it is rather important to get some kind of feedback from other people.
** Do not try this at home. Or rather: do not try this at court. By that I mean don’t commit crimes thinking you can get away with them just by smelling nice. This is real life, not Perfume, and you’re not Grenouille.