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In Search of a brain in the body

In Search of a Brain in the Body

Sajjad Zohir


I have always wondered what my body would look like if it had no brain. Dr. Shahidullah’s prose piece on Human of the Future narrated the physical transformation of the human body with excessive use of brain and very little use of the muscles – obviously the health freaks and the ‘Adhuniks’ [2]were yet to emerge in the scene during the 1950’s when he had written it! Will an excessive use of the body with little demand placed on the brain create the opposite? Will it be a huge body with a tiny head to support hearing for receiving instructions and an eye to ensure that the other parts of the body carried out the order?

Both the above scenarios make a common assumption that there is one ‘brain’; and the experts on anatomy and physiology will not dispute that. But Smart Alyx (see, has an interesting theory of many ‘brains’ in a body – each being associated with an important organ in the body and may function independently. No wonder, we often say, who is doing the thinking! [Or, “let the fingers do the thinking”, and “its all in the knees!”]  In a web posting on ‘Body’s Many Brains’, Smart Alyx proposes that there are times when the organs can’t work out which one should be the lead brain; and in such circumstances, stability through mutually agreed tradeoffs between the organs is rare. The more common manifestation is in conflict,which makes a person appear to be several different people, many of which are not aware of the existence of the others (the case of multiple identities). More importantly, these conflicts can result in various diseases in the person.

There is possibly truth in both the assumptions – of a single brain and of many brains, except that we mean two different things when we use the term ‘brain’, mixing up there flex and consciousness, or, worse still, confusing artificial and a human intelligence! The single brain may be associated with human intelligence and consciousness; while the idea of ‘many brains’ is related to carrying out reflexive (or, rempte-controlled) functions whose roles within a body may change when the single brain is no more in the body.

Before discussing the problem on the ground, let me add one more observation on self-identity borrowed from Dr. Sam Vaknin’s The Shattered Identity. Let me paraphrase the substance: (i) the body alone cannot define self-identity; since it changes drastically in time; and almost all the cells in a human body are replaced every few years; (ii) changing one’s brain (by transplantation) also changes one’s identity, even if the rest of the body remains the same; (iii) thus, the only thing that binds a “person” together (i.e., gives him a self and an identity) is time, or, more precisely, memory, and the latter arises when the brain is in the body. Dr. Vaknin puts things at a philosophical level: we have a self-identity (i.e., we are self-conscious) if (a) we discern (usually through introspection) long term consistent intentional patterns(“memory”) in our manipulation of our environment; and (b) others accept that we have a self-identity.

So far, we considered an organic entity called the human which constitutes both the body form and the brain, because there could not be a human mind without the two. The organic entity we consider in this paper is a society – a collection of people, which we personify as Bangladesh. The preceding discussion suggests that ‘Bangladesh’ has self-identity and autonomy as an entity as long as it has the ‘single brain’ inside its/her organic society and polity. Numerous discourses in the recent past on policymaking and control over knowledge domain (or lack of it)raise doubt about it and call for rethinking the transformation process of‘Bangladesh’, so that we may get some realistic snapshots of our future.

Some selected illustrations are drawn from personal experience to initiate discussion on ownership of our destiny, and generalization will be feasible only if others share theirs. It is posited that the ‘brain’ is possibly increasingly getting de-linked from the body, which ultimately will erode our self-identity. I should warn the readers that no action is suggested to reverse the process –even though joint undertaking of a diagnosis may be the first step towards it.

The first story relates to the children of the 1970’s and beyond. There are thousands of young people, brought up in an environment with lot more opportunities than many of us had during our childhood, and they are very capable in specific areas.Interestingly, each of them has many brains, and also a single brain within the body; but the single brain often happens to be driven by a uni-track vision.Market opportunities as perceived by the ‘lead brain’ of these young people force them to develop many brains – and very competent ones, but a brain that does not connect with others to create social consciousness. Instead, the many brains they own (or try to develop) are meant to serve the agencies providing them with employment and/or income opportunities – be it the banking sector,the telecommunication industry, post-90’s NGO sector, or quick-earning politics. It is no new information to many that the database on clients of some of the foreign banks are stored and processed elsewhere, and a large pool of well-dressed and articulate young men and women toil till late hours during weekdays to carry out the instructions founded on a design developed elsewhere.Quite ironically, this is where there is a similarity between well developed many brains and artificial intelligence (AI). The global market needs fewer people to ‘think’ and choose what is to be done and how it is to be done, but it needs many to carry out the daily chores once the design is in place. The ability to carry out such chores, narrowly speaking, could be undertaken by AIs. No wonder, there is less mention of investments on AIs these days — if I may dare to suggest, why bother producing artificial intelligence out of machines when you can do so cheaply out of humans? After all, humans are willing to put their own (parents’) money to turn into AIs!

The above describes a global trend, and Bangladesh is no exception. Quite naturally, the education system is more geared towards producing such AIs; and as a junior teacher confessed, ‘merit’ is produced so that one can easily reproduce the stuff in the textbooks, but unable to abstract reality and apply the theory in explaining the real world phenomena.

In a recent study by the Economic Research Group, we tried to locate (pro-poor) policies and identify how people at different tiers within the government perceive policies.We were surprised to learn from the interviews that many of the senior government officials were very attuned to the “national policy document” that spells out a list of wishes/objectives and a set of strategies. To most of the respondents, the goals and objectives were the policies; and the programs,projects and activities were means to implement those ‘policies’! Thus,‘providing old age pension allowance to elderly people’, is an action to implement government ‘policy’ to ensure welfare of distressed people! The above perspective was found dominant among those who process government undertakings including resource allocation for those undertakings.

Interestingly, the government rarely takes “ownership” of policies and most policies are donor-driven. Heterogeneity in the use of the term ‘policy’ does give some indication of the extent to which the knowledge domain has been corrupted over the years. National policy guidelines, policy framework, sectoral policy; and under all these, action plans, programs /projects, and many such terms create sufficient confusions making it difficult to locate ‘policy’ in the whole design.It is quite plausible that the ‘policy’ is no more construed in the local/national polity – the brain is no more within the body! Instead, it is developed at a supra-national plane, and the strategies and programs that fit in with the ‘global’ policies are passed on to the country level AIs, who are trained to carry out the instructions following the manuals – be it in civil or in military dresses!

A third illustration relates to support provided by external development partners (EDPs) for research, which in turn is meant to provide inputs to policy making in the country. Remember the already mentioned buzzword ‘ownership’! You will find the officials in country offices of EDPs as well as those in the headquarters full of enthusiasm to ensure that their undertakings are “owned” by the national(aid-receiving) government. For that, the people in authority are often‘oriented’ with wider ‘exposures’ in foreign lands, hired consultants would labor to have the drafts ready on time, and EDPs may even for ego their right to place their logo on a publication and put the national government at the forefront even when the printing and proof-reading may be overseen and underwritten by an EDP!

[1] The first draft of this paper was published in the New Age, a local daily in Bangladesh, during 2007.

[2] Dr. Shahidullah had been a prominent literary figure in the erstwhile East Pakistan during the 1950’s; and ‘Adhunik’ is an organization of health conscious urbanites in Dhaka, Bangladesh.


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