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The Amazing Mind

May 6, 2009


Saint Augustine, the famous Catholic theologian, once wrote: “The mind commands the body, and it obeys: the mind commands itself, and it withstands.” To Augustine, the mind was just another of God’s mysteries. Scientists are attempting to sneak a peek into the mysteries of mind and it controls our muscles and our memories [“Wired,” The Economist, 11 April 2009 print issue]. According to the article, it took “14 painstaking years” for a team of scientists “to map the complete nervous system of C. elegans,” an animal that contains only “959 cells, of which 302 are nerve cells.” The article continues:

“The scale of that work, though, hardly compares with today’s quests to map the brains of mice and fruit flies. The cerebral cortex—the part of a mammal’s brain that thinks—is composed of 2mm-long units called cortical columns. Winfried Denk of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, estimates that it would take a graduate student (the workhorse of all academic laboratories) about 130,000 years to reconstruct the circuitry of such a column.”

And that figure (130,000 years) is for something the size of a mouse’s brain. As daunting as that challenge sounds, a number of scientists are exploring ways to use computer automation to reduce the time required to map the brain and the nervous system so that it could occur within our lifetime (depending, of course, on how old you currently are!). The article concludes:

“The result of all this effort, it is hoped, will be precise circuit-diagrams of brains. The first brains to be mapped will probably have belonged to mice. Besides being cheap and disposable, a mouse brain weighs half a gram and packs a mere 16m neurons. Human brains (1.4kg and 100 billion neurons) will come later, when all the wrinkles have been ironed out in rodents, and proper methods devised to analyse the results. But come they will. And when they do, the most complicated object in the known universe will begin to give up the secrets of how it really works.”

Of course, neuroscience isn’t waiting for the brain to be mapped before exploring other aspects of memory. Benedict Carey writes, “Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit.” [“Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory,” New York Times, 5 April 2009]. Most people, I suspect, aren’t very interested in people messing with their memories — unless they are trying improve them. Apparently, the same protocol that researchers are using to erase memories could be used to ward off dementia as well.

“Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills. The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems. So far, the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.”

Carey notes that neuroscience is relatively young, but it is nevertheless attracting billions of dollars for research. “The influx of money, talent and technology,” he reports, “means that scientists are at last finding real answers about the brain — and raising questions, both scientific and ethical, more quickly than anyone can answer them.” Gene Roddenberry may have thought that space was the “final frontier,” but Carey notes that we have managed to send men into space even though the brain has “remained almost entirely dark, a vast and mostly uncharted universe as mysterious as the New World was to explorers of the past.” Augustine was right in thinking that the mind is a mystery.

“Dr. [Todd C.] Sacktor is one of hundreds of researchers trying to answer a question that has dumbfounded thinkers since the beginning of modern inquiry: How on earth can a clump of tissue possibly capture and store everything — poems, emotional reactions, locations of favorite bars, distant childhood scenes? The idea that experience leaves some trace in the brain goes back at least to Plato’s Theaetetus metaphor of a stamp on wax, and in 1904 the German scholar Richard Semon gave that ghostly trace a name: the engram.”

Carey likens the engram to “a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event. Call on one cell and word quickly goes out to the larger network of cells, each apparently adding some detail (a sight, a sound, a taste, a feeling or a smell). The brain appears to retain a memory by growing thicker, or more efficient, communication lines between these cells.” Most people have probably experienced clear examples of this “collective” phenomenon. For example, the smell of salt air may cause one to recall former trips to the beach. One memory links to another and memories open up. The big question, Carey asks, is how does the mind do that? The answer apparently has to do with the presence of number of different molecules that serve various functions in the brain — like the molecule discussed above that can help erase memories. Carey notes that “scientists have found scores of molecules that play some role in the process. But for years the field struggled to pinpoint the purpose each one serves.” Dr. Sacktor works with a substance called PKMzeta.

“In a series of studies, Dr. Sacktor’s lab found that this molecule was present and activated in cells precisely when they were put on speed-dial by a neighboring neuron. In fact, the PKMzeta molecules appeared to herd themselves, like Army Rangers occupying a small peninsula, into precisely the fingerlike connections among brain cells that were strengthened. And they stayed there, indefinitely, like biological sentries. In short: PKMzeta, a wallflower in the great swimming party of chemicals that erupts when one cell stimulates another, looked as if it might be the one that kept the speed-dial function turned on.”

Dr. Sacktor now focuses on how PKMzeta affects human behavior and he has solicited the help of his colleague André A. Fenton, who studies spatial memory in mice and rats.

“Dr. Fenton had already devised a clever way to teach animals strong memories for where things are located. He teaches them to move around a small chamber to avoid a mild electric shock to their feet. Once the animals learn, they do not forget. Placed back in the chamber a day later, even a month later, they quickly remember how to avoid the shock and do so. But when injected — directly into their brain — with a drug called ZIP that interferes with PKMzeta, they are back to square one, almost immediately.”

ZIP appears to affect memory in a number of ways. It has even made rats forget that a particular food has a disgusting taste and can make them sick. That doesn’t exactly sound like a substance I’d like administered to me. Carey advises, however, that I probably shouldn’t judge the drug too hastily. “Researchers have already tried to blunt painful memories and addictive urges using existing drugs; blocking PKMzeta could potentially be far more effective.” But the drug could also be used for much less benign purposes.

“Dr. [Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist at Harvard], and others argue, could be misused to erase or block memories of bad behavior, even of crimes. If traumatic memories are like malicious stalkers, then troubling memories — and a healthy dread of them — form the foundation of a moral conscience.”

Researchers are hoping that understanding how memories can be erased may help discover how to recover memories or at least ward off Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementia conditions. Even that goal, however, has raised some ethical concerns.

“A substance that improved memory would immediately raise larger social concerns, as well. ‘We know that people already use smart drugs and performance enhancers of all kinds, so a substance that actually improved memory could lead to an arms race,’ Dr. Hyman said.”

That sounds a bit fantastical, but I’m sure there are good reasons some of our memories are dimmed by time. Grief, for example, might remain an overpowering emotion if memories are enhanced. Enhanced memories could mean that time doesn’t heal all wounds. Nicholas Kristof raises another interesting question about the mind: Is intelligence so deeply inbred that it cannot be enhanced? [“How to Raise Our I.Q.,” New York Times, 15 April 2009]. What caused Kristof to ask this question was the apparent fact that “poor people have I.Q.’s significantly lower than those of rich people.” He finds that an “awkward” truth because it has been used to assert that genetically the poor simply don’t measure up to the rich. Kristof doesn’t buy that argument and neither do I.

“If intelligence were deeply encoded in our genes, that would lead to the depressing conclusion that neither schooling nor antipoverty programs can accomplish much. Yet while this view of I.Q. as overwhelmingly inherited has been widely held, the evidence is growing that it is, at a practical level, profoundly wrong. Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has just demolished this view in a superb new book, ‘Intelligence and How to Get It,’ which also offers terrific advice for addressing poverty and inequality in America.”

Over the years, there have been lots of arguments about the value of IQ tests. Members of MENSA are thrilled with the results and the exclusivity and fame that high IQs provide them. As Kristof writes, “While I.Q. doesn’t measure pure intellect — we’re not certain exactly what it does measure — differences do matter, and a higher I.Q. correlates to greater success in life.” We know, for example, that brain damaged individuals score very poorly on IQ tests. But Professor Nisbett believes there are things that can be done to increase IQ — “praise effort more than achievement, teach delayed gratification, limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity.” What excites Kristof about the Professor’s book, however, is Nisbett’s call to raise the collective IQ of America. Experiments are beginning to show, Kristof reports, that environment does matter. Improve the learning environment and IQ scores improve as well.

“One gauge of that is that when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their I.Q.’s rise by 12 to 18 points, depending on the study. For example, a French study showed that children from poor households adopted into upper-middle-class homes averaged an I.Q. of 107 by one test and 111 by another. Their siblings who were not adopted averaged 95 on both tests. Another indication of malleability is that I.Q. has risen sharply over time. Indeed, the average I.Q. of a person in 1917 would amount to only 73 on today’s I.Q. test. Half the population of 1917 would be considered mentally retarded by today’s measurements, Professor Nisbett says.”

Early education followed by years of good schooling can significantly improve IQs. According to Nisbett, early education needs to be intensive. He recommends a program called Knowledge Is Power Program (better known as KIPP). He notes that students who have participated in the program “have tested exceptionally well and [he] favors experiments to see if they can be scaled up.” Interestingly, Nisbett indicates that just letting students know that their IQ is not a fixed number but can be improved through study and hard work is a big help. “Students exposed to that idea work harder and get better grades. That’s particularly true of girls and math, apparently because some girls assume that they are genetically disadvantaged at numbers; deprived of an excuse for failure, they excel.” Kristof concludes, “By my calculation, if we were to push early childhood education and bolster schools in poor neighborhoods, we just might be able to raise the United States collective I.Q. by as much as one billion points. That should be a no-brainer.” I couldn’t agree more.


Another New York Times‘ columnist, David Brooks, offers another interesting view about what it takes to succeed. His solution is not raising IQs but just old-fashioned hard work [“Genius: The Modern View,” 30 April 2009]. “The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark,” Brooks writes. “It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.” Look at the top performers in almost any field and they will stand out for one reason — their work ethic. Athletes like to talk about muscle memory. Muscle memory is developed after thousands of repetitions of a particular activity. Brooks continues:

“Recent research has been conducted by people like K. Anders Ericsson, the late Benjamin Bloom and others. It’s been summarized in two enjoyable new books: ‘The Talent Code’ by Daniel Coyle; and ‘Talent Is Overrated’ by Geoff Colvin. … Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this process [that is, the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine]. This research takes some of the magic out of great achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re ‘hard-wired’ to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.”

Whether we go into poor inner city neighborhoods in the developed world or poor villages in the developing world, we should go armed with a vision of what could be. If “what we do” is the key success, then we should make sure that “what we do” involves best practices. We can help the underprivileged achieve greater things by helping them work hard for them. Too often they are trapped in a pit of despair. Given a little hope and a vision of what could be, they can rise above their circumstances and achieve great things. They just need to see it. Photographer Dewitt Jones is fond of pointing out that too many people live by the motto: I won’t believe it until I see it. He encourages people to flip that motto on its head: You won’t see it until you believe it. When we can help people see their potential, they will have a much better chance of achieving it. Yes, indeed, the mind is an amazing thing; and, as both Brooks and Nisbett point out the benefits of hard work are also amazing.

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