The Beautiful Brain explores the latest findings from the ever-growing field of neuroscience through monthly long-form essays, reviews, galleries, short-form blog posts and more, with particular attention to the dialogue between the arts and sciences.
In this month’s issue of Harper’s magazine, legendary biologist E.O. Wilson—the ant man who also authors books about the meaning of existence—takes on consciousness and the brain. The article, “On Free Will,” carries the unsurprising subtitle: “And how the brain is like a colony of ants.” He runs down the essential anatomical, functional, genetic and evolutionary information about the brain, defining the complex organ and its unique importance. Then, he relates the efforts of philosophers to find a physical basis for consciousness, which may or may not exist, and who knows where. Wilson is optimistic about research programs such as the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project, which seeks to observe neurons in real time and connect their activity to mental processes. He talks about animal consciousness, ant colonies, human perception, and internal storytelling. “Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive,” he concludes. “WIthout it, the conscious mind, at best a fragile, dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism. Like a prisoner serving a life sentence in solitary confinement, deprived of any freedom to explore and starving for surprise, it would deteriorate.”