A Beautiful Mind in a Beautiful Brain
Neuroscience has gathered much interesting data, but still is clueless about how a mind emerges from a brain.
A National Science Foundation (NSF) press release (echoed on Medical Xpress with bigger pictures) is titled, “The beautiful brain cells you don’t know about.” It’s about astrocytes and other glial cells that outnumber neurons over 8 to 1. Glia, the “rising stars” of the brain (11/20/13, 8/18/12, 7/22/09), were long thought to be mere scaffolding. At a “paradigm-shifting” workshop funded by the NSF last year, researchers gained new respect for these cells: “Everyone left enthused about the enormous potential for understanding brain function, especially learning and memory by studying how all the cells in the brain work together, rather than focusing exclusively on neurons.” For example, the oligodendrocyte glia help myelinate the neurons so that information flows more efficiently (see 9/04/12). The astrocyte glia “may release chemicals that strengthen newly formed connections between neurons.” The neurons couldn’t do their jobs without all these helper cells.
You have a built-in navigation system that atrophies when you rely on GPS or your smartphone’s navigator. Researchers publishing in Current Biology found that two separate regions of the brain are involved in natural human navigation. In a summary of the paper, Medical Xpress explains how the two parts work together:
The team found that activity in the entorhinal cortex, a region essential for navigation and memory, was sensitive to the straight-line distance to the destination when first working out how to get there. By contrast, during the rest of the journey, the posterior hippocampus, also famous for its role in navigation and memory, became active when keeping track of the path needed to reach the destination.
Taxi drivers tend to have an enlarged posterior hippocampus apparently because of frequent use, the article says. From fMRI scans, researchers noticed that the entorhinal cortex and posterior hippocampus lighted up when subjects were given navigation problems, but did not light up when they relied on GPS or SatNav systems. The proverb “use it or lose it” may apply to our native route-finding system.
“Purkinje neurons, remain one of most mysterious type of brain cell, receiving 10 times more connections than any other neuron and possessing structural characteristics that are unique among neurons,” said Dr. Launey. These large neurons have a distinctive shape with extensively branched extensions called dendrites, which receive signals, and a single axon for sending signals to other neurons. Unlike other inhibitory neurons that act locally on their neighbors, the Purkinje cells shut off neurons that are located outside of the cerebellar cortex.
It’s still not clear what these special neurons do, but working with rat brains, the researchers identified messenger RNAs and proteins built inside the cells. One finding was notable: “They found that there are many different kinds of proteins manufactured specifically in the dendrites that were distinct from the cell body.”
There’s still much to learn about Purkinje neurons, but the new techniques are “paving the way for comparative studies that may reveal the origins of complex cognitive abilities or the causal defects in diseases affecting the brain.”
Anesthesiologists in New York have found that the brain passes through activity states “in an orderly fashion,” Live Science reported. It’s not just a matter of drugs wearing off. “The researchers found that only certain transitions between activity states are possible, and some states do form hubs that connect groups of otherwise disconnected states.” Article summarizes a new paper on PNAS by Hudson et al.
Beautiful Child Communication
Another article on Medical Xpress continues a long-standing theme: language appears innate in young children. This time it was confirmed with gesture experiments. “Research led by the University of Warwick suggests when young children are asked to use gestures to communicate, their gestures segment information and reorganise it into language-like sequences,” the article states. “This suggests that children are not just learning language from older generations, their preference for communication has shaped how languages look today.”
In a guest Op-Ed on Live Science, titled “Where does the brain stop and the mind start?“, Sean Kean shares ideas from his book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. The book relates what neuroscientists have learned by studying accident victims whose brains were traumatized. He ends with something he finds mysterious and beautiful:
Above all, I wrote “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons” to answer a question: Where does the brain stop and the mind start? Scientists have, by no means, answered that question. How a conscious mind emerges from a physical brain is still the central paradox of neuroscience. But we have some amazing leads now, thanks largely to those unwitting pioneers — those people who, usually through no fault of their own, suffered freak accidents or illnesses and essentially sacrificed a normal life for the greater good.
In many cases, what drew me to these stories was the very commonness of their heroes, the fact that these breakthroughs sprang not from the singular brain of a Broca or Darwin or Newton, but from the brains of everyday people — people like you, like me, like the thousands of strangers we pass on the street each week. Their stories expand our notions of what the brain is capable of, and show that when one part of the mind shuts down, something new and unpredictable — and sometimes even beautiful — roars to life.
Rob Brooks got into hot water again by preaching material origins for the mind on The Conversation. In “What makes us human?” he merely assumed that evolutionary pressures gave us big brains, as if that explains the mind. At several points he tries to tackle the “difficult question” of the gap between ape brains and human brains, but then does a lateral pass to Thomas Suddendorf, whose new book The Gap: The science of what separates us from other animals tries to put the human brain into a “biological context” (explained by Suddendorf in a 17-minute embedded video clip from a TED talk, where he assumes all human unique traits, like logic, arose by evolution, and specifically discounts the idea that our minds are God’s creation).
Brooks especially likes Suddendorf’s identification of human uniqueness: “Our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on different situations, and our deep-seated drive to link our scenario-building minds together.” This leaves unanswered the question of how such capabilities arose by random mutation and natural selection, but if “scenario-building” refers to storytelling, he surely excelled at that in his talk. Brooks’ faith in Suddendorf’s biological origins for the human mind led to more mind-numbing banter between atheists and theists in the comments, some of it rather mindless.
Rachel Gleeson’s simplistic, quasi-Lamarckian hypothesis “Did standing up change our brains?” (U of Sydney press release) seems less worthy of serious consideration. Even more so, the question “Does free will stem from brain noise?” on Science Daily should hear a self-refutation implosion coming.
In a guest column for Evolution News & Views, Dr. Erik J. Larsen asked, “Why Can’t We Explain the Brain?” Drawing from his doctoral thesis expertise in computational linguistics, computer science, and analytic philosophy, he shows how every theory of mind to date falls short, failing to answer Leibniz’ conundrum that perfect knowledge of the brain’s structure and processes would never reveal a hint of one’s conscious experiences. Drawing on Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Larsen ends by showing that attempts to understand the mind from within the brain “may simply be on the wrong path.”
If you’d like to understand the failure of materialist explanations for the mind, read Larsen’s article. Brooks and Suddendorf engaged in simplistic faith that the mind is reducible to biology somehow, that the gap between apes and people is tractable to evolution. It’s interesting to watch evolutionists like these assume evolution to explain evolution. As usual, they are blind to the self-refuting nature of their propositions; i.e., if their minds are the products of mindless processes, they cannot trust any proposition, including the idea that their minds are the products of mindless processes. Most of the subsections above starting with the word “Beautiful” comport with Biblical creation of man in God’s image.