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Allan Powell: It's all in the wiring

December 13, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

Ongoing research on the structure of the brain has the potential to give us a clearer understanding of the relative influence of nature (our inherited traits) and nurture (our acquired cultural traits). Sebastian Seung, professor of computational neuroscience and physics at MIT, is involved in important and extremely complicated studies of the brain to uncover the role of the brain in determining our uniqueness.

He is convinced that the pattern of connections between the brain’s neurons might give some clue to the answer. The study of the whole mass of connections, the “connectome,” might reveal “How The Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are,” as the subtitle suggests.

This research quickly brings us face to face with the issue of the relative influence of genes, culture, unique experiences and now, connections in the brain, in the formation of selfhood. Over the years, we have been witness to several types of determinisms: “we are what our genes are,” “we are what we eat” or “we are where we were born.” Believers in one of these determinisms assume that the one they have chosen is the right one and can produce valid cases to support their choice. They are reluctant to admit that each human being has a different configuration of these critical influences. Moreover; early experience might have a special significance in development and must be given due consideration.

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Until reading “Connectome,” I was unaware of the extensive studies carried on by neuroscientists and the sophisticated technology in use. It was a bit unnerving to read about a neuroscientist building a new machine for slicing brains in his garage. Slicing a brain seemed different than an appendectomy. But, as we say, “If you want an omelette, you have to crack some shells.”

We learn much about the development of the brain by an awareness of the progression of studies of neuroscientists. They first mapped the regions of the brain in a way similar to that used by cartographers coloring regions of the world on a globe. They then began to relate certain behaviors with these regions.

Seung then argues that the most fruitful information about the brain will be found as a result of the study of “connectomes,” which reveal the “wiring” of the neurons and their connectivity. As Seung states, “The function of a neuron is chiefly defined by its connection with other neurons.”

The next mammoth task of neuroscientists was to examine this mass of spaghetti — like strands to read (decode) the roles played by these neurons with regard to memories, thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

This formidable task is a challenge somewhat like finding the meaning of the markings etched on clay tablets found in the Middle East. It took dogged persistence over many decades to decode these inscriptions. Seung is upbeat about their efforts — a testimony to their dedication and genius.

After progress in the area of the “wiring” of the brain and the ability to interpret the “messages” carried, there is the possibility of finding new drugs for the treatment of mental disorders. These drugs, supplemented by training, might open the door to altering thinking and behavior. By achieving needed connectome change by applying the four R’s (reweighting, reconnection, rewiring and regeneration), Seung sees the possibility of reshaping the connectome.

Mankind has a hopeful future in store, according to Seung’s perspective. He could have had a more negative outlook by choosing one of the determinisms (genetic, environmental, unique experience or connectionism) which might control the fate of all human beings. But, he concludes his book with this hopeful opinion.

“The flow of neural activity through connectomes drives our experiences of the present and leaves behind impressions that become our memories of the past. Connectomics marks a turning point in human history.

As we evolved from apelike ancestors on the African savannah, what distinguished us were our larger brains. We have used our brains to fashion technologies that have given us ever more amazing capabilities. Eventually, these technologies will become so powerful that we will use them to know ourselves — and change ourselves for the better.”

This optimism about human self-improvement is not supported by the historical record. Every step of human improvement has been matched (or surpassed) by equal portions of violence, fanaticism, greed, torture, destruction and mayhem. Fortunately, we are reminded that “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.


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