Inside the Mind of a Killer

From this angle, she could see nothing above the quicksilver surface. To the left, at the limit of visibility, the big female Porbeagle (Lamna nasus) caught a glimpse of a vertical forest of kelp and turned to investigate. Poking down among the rubbery floating fronds were the pink, paddling feet of a seabird of some kind. Although the shark had never caught one of them and was not particularly hungry, she decided to try. Stalking silently, she waited until almost directly below the bird, now a stark silhouette framed against a bright circular window of downwelling sunlight. Launching the attack, she rocketed upward, the tip of her snout punching the startled bird through the surface and exploding into the glaring nothingness above. Blinded by the intense brightness, the shark snapped half-heartedly at the flurry of splashing water and wing-slapped air. Nothing. The panicked gull shrieked avian obscenities into the Cornish sea breeze as it flapped away on ruffled feathers. As the shark's head and chest fell back into the water, a frond of kelp wrapped around her snout and jaw, clinging like cooked lasagna. The Porbeagle rolled at the surface to escape its clutches, only to wrap more of herself. The heavy kelp now spiraled around most of her body and tickled the soft skin on her belly in a strange but not unpleasant way. She continued to roll in the kelp until she became dizzy, then bolted seaward, trailing a detached frond of kelp like a rubbery, gently unraveling streamer. Two other Porbeagles gave chase, each snapping at the kelp's wildly fluttering free tip. Suddenly she caught a whiff of the familiar scent of fish oils. Tossing her snout from side-to-side, she freed herself from the last of the clinging kelp frond. As it fell behind, the two pursuing Porbeagles doubled back, grasped opposite ends of the kelp in their teeth and pulled like two puppies fighting over a well-worn rag. Closing on the fish scent, her attention was caught by something new at the surface: a bright yellow sphere floating half out of the water, below which hung a hook baited with a limp mop of herring. She knew from previous encounters that such herring mops often contained the sharp surprise of a hook and line which restricted her swimming to a frighteningly small circle. But the new floating wonder was irresistible. Cautiously at first, and then a little more forcefully, she poked the colorful object. It was soft and blubbery, yet unlike anything she had encountered before. Gingerly, she mouthed the strange object, grasping it gently between her sensitive teeth. Instantly the yellow blubbery sphere ruptured with an explosive pop, leaving thin rubber shreds draped between her teeth. She paused momentarily, not believing her eyes: a moment ago it had been there, now it was not. No fish or squid ever did that before! Spotting another of the yellow spheroid wonders, she approached it to investigate . . .

Our species has achieved a firm understanding of the physics of matter and energy, including how these fundamental components shape the properties of life. We understand the detailed behavior of atoms and the forces that affect them, the essential mechanisms of cells and genes, as well as the basic processes of ecology and evolution. But the mind remains one of the last great enigmas of modern science. Philosophers have speculated that our physical bodies are merely an expedient transport mechanism and that who we are as individuals is characterized by that ethereal quality we call 'mind'. Even the deceptively simple question of what 'mind' is takes on the ambiguity of a Zen koan. Some psychology theorists have attempted to tackle this slippery issue by proposing a brain-mind duality, implying that mind is something fundamentally distinct from the physical structure of the brain. But this seems to me an unproductive approach, as it is not amenable to experimental testing. Every bit of neurophysiological evidence we have suggests that whatever 'mind' is, it is contained wholly in the tissues of the brain and nowhere else. Therefore, those human qualities we most admire and aspire to - such as love, kindness, creativity, intelligence, wisdom, bravery, honor, and so on - are all consequences of the flurry of chemical and electrical signals passing among the brain's 10 billion neurons. Some people regard this perspective as 'robbing' us of our humanity, but I am not among them. That everything we do and are is an expression of the exquisite organization of otherwise ordinary atoms packed into 3 pounds (1.4 kilograms) of gelatinous goo inside our bony skulls seems an astonishing idea with awesome implications. Many other animals - including Great White Sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) - have brains that are composed of neurons and other cells that seem to function more-or-less the same way ours do. This structural similarity raises two fascinating possibilities: 1) the mental universe of animals, while somewhat different from ours, may be every bit as richly textured, and 2) the experiences and awareness of animals differ from ours largely in degree rather than kind. Our minds may have more in common with those of White Sharks than we ever dared suspect.

 

ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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