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.”

Brain Science

I got a book from Amazon, as I said, called “The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence.” I read the whole thing in a day–or rather parts of a day–not because it was all that interesting, but it was short and with pretty big print (helpful for me, these days).

The subtitle was really misleading. Huther, the author, says very, very little about empathy and nothing at all about how empathy creates intelligence. That was disappointing. I guess the publishers wanted some sort of catchy title, though had they been honest they would have called it “A User’s Guide to the Brain” which is what Huther calls it in his introduction. I don’t know. The book was written in German. Maybe something got lost in translation.

Huther is a brain scientist. He admits to having cut up in his day lots of rats’ brains and seems to have learned a good deal about the social life of rats. In fact, what he learned about the social life of rats seems more important to his line of thought than he learned cutting up the brains of rats. He has pretty much transcended that sort of brain science. He writes:

They [certain other brain scientists] think that the amygdala is the source of fear, the hippocampus is the source of learning, and the cerebral cortex is the source of thinking. Now in case you have heard of any of this stuff, you can just go ahead and forget it. The same goes for any claims that particular genetic configurations are responsible for what goes on in your brain. There are no genes for laziness, intelligence, melancholy, addiction or egoism.

I am glad he says this because I have long been suspicious of such claims, as in Looky-Looky when we have X masturbate this part of his or her brain lights up! First of all the brain never “lights up.” That’s just some sort of digital special effect. And the whole business of making things light up and then inferring something about “intelligence” or “addiction” strikes me as no more than slightly advanced phrenology.

Hegel pretty well did in phrenology as science as far as I am concerned; he writes in part (he always writes “in part”):

Thus then, on one side we have a number of passive regions of the skull, on the other a number of mental properties, the variety and character of which will depend on the condition of psychological investigation. The poorer the idea we have of mind, the easier the matter becomes in this respect; for, in part, the fewer become the mental properties, and, in part, the more detached, fixed, and ossified, and consequently more akin to features of the bone and more comparable with them. But, while much is doubtless made easier by this miserable representation of the mind, there still remains a very great deal to be found on both sides: there remains for observation to deal with the entire contingency of their relation. When every faculty of the soul, every passion and (for this, too, must be considered here) the various shades of characters, which the more refined psychology and “knowledge of mankind” are accustomed to talk about, are each and all assigned their place on the skull, and their contour on the skull-bone, the arbitrariness and artificiality of this procedure are just as glaring as if the children of Israel, who had been likened to “the sand by the seashore for multitude”, had each assigned and taken to himself his own symbolic grain of sand!

Now that’s a long quotation, but I would point to the line that suggests that implicit in phrenology (as science) is a ” miserable representation of the mind.” I think Huther would agree. Modern day let’s light it up brain science is based implicitly up a pretty miserable representation of the brain.

He is unto something else.

Not phrenological.

Screw Dick and Jane

dick and janeOur first grade teacher would ask us to read aloud from Dick and Jane.  Dick and Jane were awful boring white kids. Their father wore a suit.  What bullshit.  They also had a dog named Spot.  I didn’t know where the hell these kids lived, but they sure didn’t live where I did. My parents gave me a dog; but it became a chicken killer and somebody killed it with a shot gun.   “See Spot run.  Shoot Spot in the ass.”

 The teacher would read, “See Spot Run!” and we would say it back.  Then she would ask one of us to say it back; if you didn’t say it back correctly, she would whack you on the hand with her yardstick.

 We had a dunce chair.  The kid who couldn’t get anything right would be stuck up there on the dunce chair.

“See Dick on the dunce chair.  Dick is an idiot boy.”

But we didn’t have a dunce cap.  When the dunce chair was occupied, the teacher would put kids in the two closets in the back.  They had to stand there and face the wall; the teacher kept the doors open so she could see what they were up to.  When she ran out of closet she would use the wall.  Kids would just line up and face the wall.

Late one afternoon, I looked around and saw I was the only person still in my seat except for one girl across the room.  The room was stone cold silent; I couldn’t even hear the kids breathing.  I felt a bit dizzy sitting there alone and exposed.  My I had a brain and paid attention.  I remember getting whacked only once.  “Hold out your hand.”  She was a pretty good whacker.  It stung.

“See Dick get whacked!  See Dick cry like a baby.”

National Geographic

pop mechanics

My mother subscribed to Time and National Geography, not for herself–mind you–but for us, the boys, me and my two and then three younger brothers.  They also bought the World Book Encyclopedia.  Neither of my parents had been graduated from college, though both had gone a year or less.  My father wasn’t graduated from high school till he was 21. 

But my mother wanted us to be educated, maybe to fulfill her own unfulfilled dreams and maybe because she was an immigrant.  She had the immigrant mentality when it came to education–Get One, Goddamn it, as the most practicable way to move up.  Actually, she was not just an immigrant but an illegal alien from Canada.  She looked just like any other American but she didn’t have the documentation to prove she had been born in the U.SA.  So she never voted in her whole damn life or got a driver’s license because she was afraid that if she did these things the government might detect her illegal presence.  She never did jury duty either. 

In the closet next to my bed, in the room I shared with my brother, the shelves were stacked high with National Geographic and Time magazines.  I read Time each week when I hit high school, and took it pretty seriously as my "eye-on-the-world" since I didn’t have any other, not knowing it then for the bourgeois organ than it was and still is. Also it seemed like every week, they would use some strange word that I didn’t know.  I would look those up to expand my vocabulary.

My parents got Reader’s Digest.  After my father read it, he would go around saying, “Did you know there are X number of fish in the Greenland Sound?”  And did you know this? And did you know that?  Like trying to be funny or maybe just irritating. But by the next morning he would have forgotten what he knew.

My mother read Reader’s Digest and the paper everyday from back to front, excepting Sports and with special attention to the Society Page as a way of updating her intimate relationship with the high and mighty of San Diego Society.  She had grown up in San Diego, when it was like a small town, and she knew every high and mighty person there was.  Like, “Oh yes, I knew so and so’s son when he was living in blank.”

And my father got Popular Mechanics mostly I think for the “centerfold” of some blond babe posed provocatively by some farm machine or manhandling a power saw.