Friday, November 14, 2014


RESEARCH HAS BEEN WORKING DELICATELY AND INGENIOUSLY TO EXPLAIN HOW THE BRAIN WORKS.  A lot of progress has been made.  Some of the discoveries are surprising to people who thought they knew all about brains.  (Maybe someone told them they were "brainy.")  These ten ideas were listed in a Scientific American article.  I tried to paraphrase.  There’s not a lot more explanation in the article.

1.  Neurogenetics: the idea that a gene molecule can affect the way a person thinks and feels about life, his or her capacity to perceive, understand and act on what happens.  This is driven in part by the desire to understand the little strand of whateveritis that seems to give vulnerability to various forms of schizophrenia, depression, alcoholism, and Alzheimers.  More recently, and not considered here, is interaction with the environment and events to moderate, exaggerate, or even create these phenomena, regardless of involving the same genes.  Everyone was surprised when studies suggested that genes can be influenced by the experiences of one’s grandparents, who apparently add footnotes to the directions, epigenes.

2.  Brain mapping:  not just a road map for the transportation of thought, the route it takes through the brain, but also the location of the “train stations” where the thoughts are modulated, censored, or even transformed.  It was already fascinating but the technicolor computer diagrams are truly seductive.  It turns out there are “express trains,” alternative routes, and that some people’s brains have done “workarounds” for various reasons, maybe a missing part or a developmental timing problem.

3.  The malleable brain:  a brain is always under construction: old worn-out unused parts being dismantled and new parts being built.  At birth the brain has certain capacities, but in the next few years those capacities are very much changed by interaction with the environment, including nutrition, human interaction, exposure to other stimulation and expectations.  After that, it’s use it or lose it, but also practice it and gain it.

4.  Knowing our place:  It appears there are at least two specialized cell types, one that keeps track of a grid that records the space one is occupying and the other a monitor of the compass points.  There might be more.  Human GPS.

Hey!  You forgot to write on those post-its!

5.  Funny things with memory:  It now appears that not only is the “memory” not a video camera that records whatever happens, but that there are several monitors running at once to capture different aspects of the experience, its sensory components, its emotional significance, and the response of the body at the time.  These appear to be stored in different ways in different parts of the brain and re-assembled on demand.  They might or might not be about exactly what really happened.  Bits from television, dreams, the opinions of others, later experiences, and something read in a book might all accumulate like barnacles on a boat.  And what if you were drunk or high at the time?

6.  Advances in therapy:  It’s still clear that talking and thinking about behavior is useful.  The subject may be quite different: not dream analysis, but strategies for coping with interfering reactions and the dissipation of untrue assumptions -- maybe just ones that don’t fit the world anymore.  Behavior can also be a workaround.
"Do not think of a white mouse."

7.  Optogenetics: This is actually only one of a number of techniques that allow the observation of nerve cells in action, so the investigator can challenge the subject (ranging all the way from rats to sea creatures) to see what happens.  The advance in this particular strategy is that individual nerves can actually be turned on and off without having to use drugs, and light fibers are capable of great precision.  We can “see” thought.

8.  New roles for glial cells:  There are long stretches of DNA genes that were considered “junk” until it turned out they were off/on switches of crucial importance, since timing and sequencing of development controls the effectiveness and consequences of what the genes actually do.  Now it appears that glial cells, which even look different, are not just scaffolding but actively doing something -- we don’t know what, but we can tell they’re turning on and off and somehow responding to the other cells.

Cochlear implant (external part)

9.  Neural implants:  A prosthetic brain seems wildly science fiction, but bits are already happening, both electric stimulators like heart implants to abort the electrical storms of epilepsy, replacement parts for hearing, and delivery systems for molecules that are running short or are missing.  (Like insulin pumps but with brain chemicals.)  

10. Decision making:  This is a way of thinking about reflexive responses meant to save one’s life, like jumping out of the way of a speeding vehicle; and considered responses like deciding which car to buy.  Even in the second case, there will be a division between the conscious weighing of alternative advantages and the uncontrollable and unconscious weight of some association from the past, like seeing a familiar kind of vehicle driven by a beloved person from the past.

This Scientific American article is interesting and a quick checklist, but there is much more going on in the field than is considered here.  For instance, the realization that gut microbes and brain parasites may be controlling responses.  The gut itself has underconscious influence.  The famous case of parasite control of the brain is that it appears infection with a toxoplasmosis worm makes rats crave cat pee.  

Another dimension of the little gray cells is that it turns out relating to other people makes brains light up in various ways very much like drugs.  One CAN be addicted to other people, one can crave company.  We solitaries may be low on some hormone or other.  Or maybe ideas are our compensating drug.

The bottom line is the credo of the bioneers:  we are all connected, we are all changing.  Our salvation and meaning lies not in our individual immortality, but in the participation.  But that participation may be so subtle and so varied that no one realizes it’s there at the time.  Our sentinels identify the wrong threats and our compensations turn out to be misguided.  Particularly our moral systems are clearly not picking up the threats of conformity, which would mean that there are no people different enough to survive a challenge like ebola, much less the killing or confining of categories of people -- like women. Surely a culture that destroys the half of their population that produces and teaches babies is doomed by its own inability to understand human institutions, let alone create circumstances that support them.  And yet the rest of us try to preserve the world.  Can anyone learn to breathe without oxygen?  

Our blind spots don't come from our eyes but from our brains.  The cruelty we don’t recognize, the sentimentality that imposes goofy political correctnesses, the out-groups we ourselves create by insisting on having things our way.  We want to be waited on, nursed, our chores done by others, but we make it a marker of low “class”, the glial cells of society.  We want our children to be geniuses who honor the family, but we punish them -- even throw them out -- when they explore ways like same sex relationships in spite of the well-known and powerful contributions to the world that have been made by homosexuals.  We hang onto a desert religion based on a man broken and suffering because of authoritarian power and use it to justify breaking and imposing suffering on more men.

Our maps are not about the real world but about the media-gripped version that tells us it’s important to buy, buy, buy.  Because otherwise monsters will tear your toes off and put them in soup.  You know what I mean.  What’s the use of having a brain if you never use it?  There are so MANY ways to use a brain.  It is a lifetime’s work to figure out the bright pathways of thought and feeling.  

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