Brain Science 2; Or, What Is Huther onto?

So what is Huther onto (see previous entry)?

In summary:

For decades the presumption was that the neuronal pathways and synaptic connections established during the brain’s initial development were immutable. Today we know that the brain is capable throughout our lifetimes of adaptively modifying and reorganizing the connective pathways that it has laid down, and that the development and consolidation of these pathways depends in quite a major way on how we use our brain and what for.

So what does this mean in some larger sense. Well, it means the structure of any particular brain….and one can only study particular brains…may well not be the structure of any other brain with the consequence that locating an immutable DNA conditioned structure is difficult, if not down right impossible. Certainly down there somewhere is a structure determined by DNA but “overlaying” that structure are all the structures or networks that arise from the inter-relation of the organism with its environment.

Huther writes:

A few years ago, no researcher in the field of brain science could have conceived the possibility that what we experience could be capable of changing the structure of the brain in any way. Today most scientists who study the brain are convinced that the experiences of our lives do become structurally anchored in the brain.

This notion that experiences themselves can “program” the brain or create structures provides some “scientific” proof for the process of socialization…that sociologists talk so much about. We learn, it might be said, from experience when those experiences create a new structure or reprogram the brain in some way.

Consequently, Huther argues that human beings did not develop big brains so that they might think or reason but so that they might become socialized. He writes: “Our brain is thus much more a social organ than it is a thinking organ.”

The brain of course is not equally open at all stages of development to being reprogrammed through experience (as the interaction of the organism with it environment). Rather, more like Freud than not, Huther suggests that the most profound and possibly unalterable experiential reprogramming occurs during the first year of life. Reprogramming or possibly first programming at this level is so profound, so obdurate that structures produce by it may appear DNA determined. They are not however and possibly because they are not Huther proposes as a kind of ideal brain one that is not boxed in by its early experiences but capable across the whole life cycle of learning (being reprogrammed by experience).

Very few and relatively rare individuals however achieve this brain ideal. Rather, to use Huther’s phrase, most of us develop brains that are in one way or another “one-sided” and relatively unopen to alteration. To address this problem he suggests scientists should expend less energy on asking how the brain is structure and more on how the brain is used, for how we use the brain is what determines whether “…the potentialities built into it can really be fully actualized.”

Trial and Error

When I shifted this blog to a new site, I also upgraded the blog platform Movable Type.

This shift brought with it a whole bunch of stuff I don’t understand. Things with potential I suppose for something, but not if you don’t understand them.

So I have been futzing around.

In the course of doing so I seriously disabled the blog on two occasions. I noticed that the “archieve path” for the category “entry” was blank. This didn’t seem right since all the other categories under that particular heading had an archive path. So in an attempt to fix the situation I pushed the “refresh templates” button. That had the effect of replacing my newer templates with older ones and wiping out entirely the changes I had made to the blog in the prior three or four days.

I almost gave up at that point and said so be it. But I found the energy and the memory, surprisingly, to rebuild what I had previously created.

Then, while attempting to make a URL or link between my main blog, this one, and something called an action stream, I noticed that none of the links on the page were working. None of the entry links I mean. Like those you can see to the right. Click on a recent entry and it comes up in its own page. But none of that was working. Though the links to external blogs (Dan’s or Steve’s) were working. But effectively the page was dead.

This lead me to my original concern. Why wasn’t there and should there be an “archive path” for the entry category. I went to the entry template and screwed around. Then down below the code itself I something called template options and one of those options had to do with establishing an archive path. I clicked that and bingo the archive path was restored and all the links went back to working.


Whatever little I have learned about the more technical (albeit superficially technical) aspects of making web pages or working with a blog I have learned in this way.

Old and familiar trial and error. The problem with learning via trial and error is the error part. Errors take up time and on top of that as you try to correct the errors via trial, you can compound the error.

But I wonder if that isn’t how most people learn whatever the really learn. But there just isn’t enough time in life to make all the errors. 

Remodel 10: The Diderot Effect

While the remodel is nearly complete, the effects of it are not.

In my readings on the consumer society, I came across more than once reference to the "Diderot effect."

Apparently Diderot acquired a fancy new housecoat (given to him I believe) and abruptly all that had previously surrounded him seem shoddy.

The new housecoat ruined him.

He writes in "Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune":

"In its shelter (the old housecoat) I feared neither the clumsiness of a valet, nor my own, neither the explosion of fire nor the spilling of water. I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one."

While I don’t feel a slave to my new surroundings, I know what he means. One upgrade requires another. The new stove for example required new cookware, not simply because the old cookware looked lousy on the new cookware but also because according to the instructions that came with the new stove our old cookware (wonderful and simple cast iron) would ruin the white ceramic top of the new stove. Moreover, upgrade means additional upkeep. The new stovetop is so damn white, I feel compelled to wipe it clean after I use it. The same with the cookware, so gleaming and new, I must make sure to get it back to its original shine.

So too we are in the market for a runner to cover the carpet on the stairs. Previously, it looked OK, but now that we have repainted everything and put new white carpet upstairs, it’s slightly worn condition, once tolerable, is now intolerable.

But there’s more to the effects of the remodel than just the "Diderot effect." In fact Diderot suggests more: the relation of good taste to fortune (though this gets a bit glossed over in the consumer interpretation of Diderot’s essay).

We need to find night stands for this. We have two of them:


The Practice of Missing

For some reason, my high school teachers and my coach wouldn’t praise me. They wouldn’t criticize me either. But they felt it was OK to tease me. Well, it was. Teasing for me was water off the duck’s back. In any case, I would rather be teased than not mentioned at all. I remember one season, they had the award ceremonies to give out the letters for that year and they were given out by the Vice-Principal who lived just a little up the hill from us. And rather than praise me for my feats he teased me, saying, that I made a pretty good rooster, since I would wake up the whole neighborhood at six AM shooting baskets, and if there was such a thing as a rooster in reverse, I would make a good one of those too, since people knew when they could no longer hear me shooting that the sun had gone down.

I don’t think any of that was true. I would continue to shoot well after the sun had gone down. You didn’t need to be able to see the basket to shoot the ball; you just had to know where you were on the court. I stopped shooting mostly because when it got really dark I was deprived of the pleasure of seeing it go through the hoop. And I don’t think I ever got up at 6 AM to shoot baskets, though some days on the weekends I would start pretty early. And maybe they could hear me a little bit since I had a backboard made out of plywood and it would produce a thunking noise, sort of like a bass drum. But I can’t believe I woke up the whole neighborhood, though, I guess he must have heard something so as to make up this rooster bit.

But the point here isn’t that I got a letter or was teased while getting it, but that the Vice Principal knew I practiced day and night. And I did from eight 8th through 12th grade. I practiced whenever I got the chance out back on my dirt court off my plywood backboard. I didn’t have great ability. I didn’t grow as tall as I had hoped I would; I was skinny lacking strength and not that good a jumper. I never dunked the ball. Not because I couldn’t get that high but because I couldn’t palm it. My hand wasn’t big enough. I would get it up there and drop it or bang it off the side of the rim and put myself at risk in doing so. But I figured if I practiced enough I could make the team. And I did and I lettered two years.

Practicing is its own art form; and as such, I became a pretty sophisticated practicer. People who are sophisticated practicers know there comes a point when the person devoted to practicing practices missing. This might seem odd. Surely, the point of practicing basketball is to practice making the basket. Why, yes, of course, but the long distance practicer will tell you that sometimes one misses in an interesting way, and one decides to see if one can miss again in that particular way. The very, very sophisticated practicer may do this at any time; in my less sophisticated and less athletic way, I practiced missing mostly when I was tiring. OK, so I was too tired to make it, but in the meantime I could practice missing. Sure the point is to make it go in, but barring that–at least momentarily–one could keep at it and set as one’s goal–making it go exactly where one wanted it to go.

Practicing, from the perspective of this particular philosophy of practice, insures that one never actually misses. And that–that–is what keeps you going after the sun goes down.


In my readings on the development of the consumer society, I have come across this claim that in the first decades of the twentieth century the “self” constructed by that society changed. In the 19th

century, so goes the claim, “character” was cultivated; in the 1920’s however one can begin to see a change towards the cultivation of “personality.”

I may be wrong but I think that I did have some exposure to the cultivation of character as late as the 1950’s in the rural South.  After all, your average farmer tried to sell his crops, not his personality.

Character, of course, was cultivated first though the Bible, but I believe also that it was passed along in short sayings.

For example:

Waste not, Want Not.
A stitch in time, saves nine.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
Money doesn’t grow on trees.
If wishes were horses beggars would ride.
A place for everything and everything in its place.

Benjamin Franklin—a key figure in Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—cooked up a good number of these sayings (including some of the above); additionally:

Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.
Buy what thou hast no need of and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessities.

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
God helps those who help themselves.

These are fairly mundane sayings, practical in their import.  They are also doable by the individual.  Take care of the small things—not only because not doing so may lead to disaster—but because these small things are things a person can do.  And partly because they are things an individual can do, a person with character might be said to be self-activating.  He or she internalizes the rules of character and acts upon them (without reference to how these actions are perceived by others).

Driving today, while out shopping, I noticed that I turn on my turn signals, no matter what.  I am for example moving from the right lane to the left and though—I notice—there is no one in sight in either direction, I still signal I am moving into the left lane.

This might be a sign of character or perhaps of dumb habit.

I welcome other sayings.  I think I remember  Grandmother Tingle saying,  "Sweep the corners and the center will take care of itself."

Oh, Brother Steve would like to know the names of all our first cousins.  Not a small matter.  I have a partial list in my head.  If any one has a complete list, could you please post it and I will put it in an entry so all can refer to it, as occasion dictates.


Wilhelm von Humboldt

I was looking for a book on consumer society—to snatch a chapter—because next quarter I will be working with that subject again.  I was sure I had this book; I could see it in my mind’s eye but for the life of me not in plain sight.  Instead, plucking through books, I pulled out another because reading the book sidewise I could not make out the title.  I thought at first that it was one by Helvetius that I had taken from the library, as part of an effort better to understand the origins of sociological thought.  I started reading and right off it didn’t sound like that guy but instead something very German.

Indeed, turns out I was reading from a collection—in translation—of the works of Wilhelm von Humboldt.  I can’t remember why the heck unless I was doing further research into German Transcendental Idealism. 

I am doing my version of speed reading—by this I mean I read a line here and there and on the basis of other stuff I have read from that period begin to contextualize the thought relative especially to Kant and Rousseau (the twin pillars of German Idealism).  And then I come across this line:

 As we can imagine life neither standing still nor moved by an external mover, so does the whole universe subsist only in urge; nothing lives or exists except insofar as it strives to live or exist.

 Now I doubt very much that Bob Dylan read Wilhelm von Humboldt, though it is not out of the question that he did, but suddenly this line drew my attention to something I had not quite seen or seen only peripherally in the title of this blog, “And he not busy being born is busy dying.”—taken as I previously noted, I believe, from Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma.”

I don’t know quite how to put what I previously saw in that line but, taken in the context of the Wilhelm von Humboldt, I feel the emphasis shift to being as the busy-ness to be born.  Or following von Humboldt, the line shifts into the assertion: being is becoming or becoming is being.   That would appear itself to be a paradox, unless one concludes, as von Humboldt seems to do: that “being” is an activity and not a state of stasis. 

Funny—von Humboldt thinks of the entire universe, not as a set of pre-existing scientific laws, or something empirical, but as an “urge,” or one might say a feeling.  I think in German he may have used the word “Trieb,” which means variously “urge,” “impulse,” “driving force,” or “drive.”   


Biologists and Philosophers

Cousin Lucy, a bit back, wrote me a nice comment saying she thought that I could probably teach biology should I wish and that some of my philosophic musings were above her head.  This suggested many potential writing topics—one being an apology for my more philosophic musings, another being what philosophy is for, and what is it about, and finally, biologists and philosophers.

I would hazard to say many philosophers have not been good biologists; Aristotle, for example, believed in spontaneous generation—the creation of living tissue from inanimate matter.  Spontaneously.  But Aristotle was smart and if he had a microscope I am pretty sure he would have corrected this assertion.  But biologists too are sometimes not such hot philosophers.

James Watson, one of the “discoverers” of the DNA double helix, was kicked out of his job as head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory because he appears to have said that Africa is pretty much a lost cause since the people of that continent are genetically inferior when it comes to intelligence.  This was pretty stupid comment that only a non-philosopher might make.

Some signs of this stupidity, however, appeared a few years back.  I read that Watson was trying to find the exact spot in the brain where the “soul” is located or perhaps it was “consciousness.”—I can’t remember exactly which.  Now that was a pretty stupid too.  I will state here without fear of contradiction that no one will ever locate the spot in the brain where consciousness is located.  Or let’s say, consciousness is located in the whole brain.  You can test this by hitting a person on the head with a brick thus rendering him or her unconscious.

But signs of Watson’s philosophic stupidity appear earlier on, as far back as his book, The Double Helix.  There he reports, when he and Crick made their breakthrough, that he exclaimed to Crick, “We have discovered the meaning of life!”  I can’t find my copy of the Double Helix.  So I am not sure if those are the exact words, but they’re pretty close.

I can understand Watson being carried away by the exuberance of his discovery.  Still, a philosopher couldn’t have said that.  No, Dr. Watson, you did not discover the meaning of life.  You discovered how genetic information is passed along from one living organism to another.  You discovered “how” something is done, but you discovered nothing at all about why it is done. 

Since Job at least and before that too, philosophers and theologians have been concerned with “Why?”  Only a non-philosopher could have conflated the how question with the why question.  Which does not mean philosophers are any good at the how question.  In fact they suck.  But non-philosophic biologists can tend to be awful literal minded.

The Greatest Story Never Told

A comment appeared on the last entry from Tom, an old friend of mine from back in high school.  He wrote about the relation of the past to the present and future and how as one gets older, while the past does not perhaps dominate one’s thinking, it’s harder as one gets older to think of the future without thinking of the past.

He recently sent me an email asking a question about Beowulf, an epic written in old English, that I had to read in college.  Recently made into a bad movie by Robert Zemekis (what possessed him I don’t know).

I remember not liking Beowulf and wondering why the hell I had to read it.  In general, the professors in what was called History of Civilization (western) kept going on and on about the past.  I mean, sure, it was a history class, so what else was there to talk about, but they seemed to be making some larger point about the importance of the past to the present.  I really didn’t get what they were talking about.  Hell, I wanted to know about the present and most especially the future.  But they did not seem to have any books to read that were written in the future.  The big problem with the future, as I saw it, was that nobody had written it down yet.

I remember back then in college wishing I had some access to some future book that might tell me how things were going to turn out.  That would have relieved some of my anxiety.  But the more I thought about it, the more I thought well, maybe that was not a good idea.  Knowing what was going to happen would pretty much take the surprise out of things; and being pretty pessimistic maybe I didn’t want to know either because I was pretty sure things were going to turn out real crappy—this being back when the idea that we were all going to be blown to bits by the A-bomb was still in the air.

Which got me to thinking about the movie, Sunshine.  I rented it on CD because Jack Tingle who saw it on the big screen said it was a good movie.  It was a good space movie.  I think I can say without giving away the plot that the sun is going out and these people in a space ship go to the sun to drop a bomb in it to sort of relight it and save the whole human race.  But as one might expect all sorts of bad things happen.  One guy has to sacrifice his life for the sake of the mission.  They show him there all frozen up and dead; and it feels sort of strange because this guy had sacrificed himself for the sake of the mission, and being dead like he was he would never have any idea at all whether the mission had been a success or not.

I am not sure the movie was about this point exactly.  I am not sure what the movie was about, but at least it was about something.  I mention it here to make the point that the future will forever remain the Greatest Story Never Told.

Which Comes First: The Egg or the Shell

I guess I was falling asleep, taking a nap maybe, and my mind started to roam.  That’s a good sign, when the mind starts to roam; that means I am falling asleep.  One day my mind started roaming, and I was like the Prince in Cinderella going around with that slipper trying to find the foot that fit it, except I was going around with an eyeball looking for a face that needed one.  This should have been easy but it seemed like I found a lot of faces that needed eyeballs.  I don’t know what happened because I fell asleep.

This time my mind was roaming and for some reason I remembered that Homo sapiens women are born with—or have present at birth—all the eggs, stored in the ovaries I suppose, that they will ever have.  And then I wondered if this was also true of chickens, but got all confounded when I realized chicken eggs appear outside of the body of the chicken and the eggs of homo sapiens women do not because they have wombs.

So then I wondered how the hell a chicken produces an egg.  Maybe a chicken does not have a womb but there must be some place in a chicken where the egg builds up like it does to a full egg size and then pops out.  I was amazed that I had never thought of this before in my entire life.  I had never given even a single second’s thought to this issue of chicken anatomy.

I have long felt the egg itself to be kind of miracle of food packaging.  Here there is this neat, white (or some other color) sort of oval shaped thing with food right inside it.  True, the oval shape makes for an unstable object. Square eggs would be better for the purposes of shipping since they could be stacked next to each other more efficiently than is now the case, but that might be a real pain for the chicken.

Out the window went my nap!  My mind was no longer roaming. I consternated myself by suddenly realizing that I had never adequately reflected on the origin of an egg.  So I went and looked it up on the web.  Turns out—and I had never thought of this either!—that the egg shell while feeling hard to the touch is actually at the microscopic level a permeable membrane.  Well, naturally, of course…the egg needs oxygen and were the shell not permeable the little chicken inside would die.  That would be pretty much a self-defeating egg, one without a permeable shell.  I could have concluded that pretty much deductively since growing things do need oxygen.  But as I said I hadn’t ever given it a single thought.

Then I found out that the chicken does not create the shell; the egg does.  The egg or oven generates the genetic information necessary to build up the shell around itself; otherwise it could not develop, lacking a womb in which to do so. So the ovum builds its own womb so to speak.

I still cannot conclusively answer the question: which came first the chicken or the egg.  Actually I hate chicken egg questions, like the nature-nurture questions, as being mostly a waste of time, fit material for philosophic pedants, I suppose.  This I call bad philosophy.  But I think I can now say conclusively that the ovum comes before the shell and the chicken with the ovum inside of it comes before the ovum, and in this way I can conclude that the chicken does come before the egg in the case of any particular chicken or egg.  But the chicken egg question—as a philosophic matter—is not about any particular chicken or egg that ever existed or ever will.

So there went my nap.

Perceiving, Knowing, Creating.

Still mulling Winnicott’s contention that one, while being careful not to locate a clock where one is not, creates one’s perception of a clock through conception and apperception.  No, that’s not quite correct. Or maybe it is.  In any case, I have been looking for an example and think I have found one in the DNA issue.

Watson and Crick are credited with having “discovered” the structure of DNA: the double helix.  The word “discovery” implies that the structure was already there—pre-existing Watson and Crick—to be discovered via perception.




But I think there’s a prior problem; one may perceive but not “know” what one perceives.

Why and how did Watson and Crick know what they were discovering?  Well, more or less digressively, they did not come to know it through the so called scientific method.  Rather, their piece in Nature with the picture of the double helix was a piece of rampant speculation arrived at, not my testing, hypothesis and so on, but by a synthesis of things previously known.

More specifically Watson, in The Double Helix, acknowledges the contributions of A) Erwin Chargaff.  He found out that the DNA in any cell has a 1:1 ratio of pyrimidine and purine bases and, more specifically, that the amount of guanine is equal to cytosine and the amount of adenine is equal to thymine. B) the work of Linus Pauling on amino acids (proteins), his discover of the function of the double helix in the structure of amino acids and by way of method his use of models to demonstrate the structures of amino acids.  And C) and most importantly, I think, the x-ray work of Rosalind Franklin.

Watson nearly pissed his pants when he saw one of Franklin’s x-rays.  This very one I think:




Franklin, however, for her own reasons I suppose did not see this as a picture of a double helix.  Clearly she perceived the structure in this x-ray.  But she did not know it.  Watson and Crick knew it because, following Winnicott’s strange claim, they brought to it conceptions, models, speculations, and imagination.  These led them to create what was already there: the structure of DNA.

So what’s the point?  Not much.  Except that what we know about a perception is not the same thing as the perception. Most of the time of course we do not create what we know.  Rather we have been socialized into knowing what we perceive.  A long schooling has taught me that a green light means I can go.

Creation, per se, is not perception, nor is it simply knowing what is perceived, but seeing or knowing something new about what is perceived.