November 3, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Windows into the Mind

What would it be like to see things for the first time?  You can watch the reaction on Live Science #1 and Live Science #2.  Blind patients were implanted with a microchip that allowed them, for the first time, to roughly sense the visual input of objects in front of them.  Amazing as it was, it fit pretty well with what their sense of touch had already visualized internally.
    This dramatic illustration of the mystery of the mind and brain continues in other recent stories.  Science Daily reported on work at the University of York that shows that we collect our thoughts in our sleep.  Even without our conscious awareness, our brain is synthesizing inputs during the day, correlating the data, and filing it.  Sleep helps organize our “mental lexicon,” the article said.
    Another article continues the trend of exalting the humble – the long-overlooked microglia in the brain that long played second fiddle to the more charismatic neurons (07/16/2005, 09/29/2006).  The second fiddles are now looking more and more like the concertmasters: “Immune cells known as microglia, long thought to be activated in the brain only when fighting infection or injury, are constantly active and likely play a central role in one of the most basic, central phenomena in the brain – the creation and elimination of synapses.”  It appears these cells play the theme with the neurons and contribute to the ongoing process of learning and memory – a finding that “really challenges current views of the brain.”
    Even newborns have a lot of unconscious activity.  PhysOrg echoed a press release from Imperial College London, where researchers probed the “resting state” of 70 babies between 29 and 43 weeks of development.  In the resting state, there is a level of brain activity even when the mind is not focused on anything in particular, or when sleeping.  “The researchers found that these networks were at an adult-equivalent level by the time the babies reached the normal time of birth.”  A finding like this could have ramifications for the issue of personhood of a fetus.  “The fact that the default mode network has been found fully formed in newborns means it may provide the foundation for conscious introspection,” the article suggested, “but it cannot be only thing involved, say the researchers behind today’s study.”  The “default mode network” involves introspection – activities like retrieving autobiographical memories and envisioning the future.  Professor David Edwards commented, “The fact that we found it in newborn babies suggests that either being a fetus is a lot more fun than any of us can remember – lying there happily introspecting and thinking about the future — or that this theory is mistaken.”  Either way, “babies’ brains are more fully formed than we thought,” he said.
    So is mental activity real?  What about great apes, which Professor Kim Bard [U of Portsmouth] claims are just as smart as humans? (Science Daily).  Chimpanzees she studied seem to have “joint attention,” the ability to associate objects or events with another individual.  The article was more about what Dr. Bard plans to do, not what she has found.  “There is an urgent need to revise evolutionary theory and what I propose to research is innovative and important,” she said, happy to have received a major grant for the research.  “Moreover, I hope to contribute to a major paradigm shift in our understanding and future research into developmental processes underlying great ape cognitive outcomes.”  She did not mention any apes reciprocating and planning to do research on her.
    Research on ancient papyri, reported Science Daily, shows that people have had many of the same concerns over the past millennia as we do today.  Looking through the list of concerns expressed in writing by Romans, it seems not much in human nature has changed.  What produces our mysterious sense of self?  Is thought a secretion of the brain?  Can neuroscience explain the mind physically, as PhysOrg asked?  “More fundamentally, what do we mean by ego, from a neural perspective?” the article began.  “Is there a brain circuit or neurotransmitter system underlying ego that is different in some people, giving them too much or too little?” 
    We all sense that our mental life is real.  Our thoughts matter, even if science tells us we are little more than carbon pumps.  You give off two tons of carbon dioxide a year from the food you eat, reported Science Daily.  But a lot of the energy from that food powers that most enigmatic of phenomena, the mind.
Update 11/11/2010:  The Nov 11 issue of Nature has a whole subsection on glia with five papers on these long-overlooked brain cells.  “Neuron-envy should now become a thing of the past,” the introductory article said.  “Recent years have seen an explosion of new findings demonstrating that glial cells play an irreplaceable part in all aspects of brain function.”

Think about these findings, and then realize that by thinking about them, with a true sense of self and conscious direction of your mind, you distance yourself from other primates, with which we share many physiological characteristics.  Then think about how our upright posture, opposable thumbs, and language equip us to stand in a special position in nature.  These important issues have everything to do with our actions and attitudes about the value of human life.  If apes are just as smart as us, then what’s the big deal? – although it is ironic that many of those who support abortion on demand are vehement about animal rights.  If, though, a developing baby has the full mental equipment to operate as a human being in the world of the mind, what gives other humans the right to deny that person the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness endowed by its Creator?

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