Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Adjusting to the Changing Times, Part 3: Science of the Mind

We all have come to appreciate the importance of genetics. The deciphering of the human genome is one of the most significant advances we are witnessing in science today. We are just beginning to see the complexity of the genetic factors that make us what we are.

A new field of science is emerging, however, that likely will have an equal if not greater impact on our understanding of humanity. Our genes are givens—we are born with them and they don’t change. Although some advances are being made in gene therapy, mostly we are in the “describing” stage in this science with the prescribing stage still to come. The new field of science, however, is addressing a far different component of humanity. It is exploring the “wiring” of the human brain with the goal of describing how memories, personality traits, and skills are stored. This nascent field of neuroscience is being called “connectonics,” and it is an attempt to understand the mental makeup of persons. In the same way that geneticists are trying to map the human genome, connectomicists are trying to build a map of the mind. By tracing the connections of synapses in the ganglions of the brain, these scientists hope to discover how we store memories, make decisions, and function as individuals.

The scope of this effort is mind-boggling (no pun intended). As an example of its scope (and to help you appreciate the complexity of the human mind), scientists say that about one petabyte of computer memory will be needed to store the images needed to form a picture of a one-millimeter cube of a mouse’s brain (that is about the size of a cross section of the wire used in a paper clip). In comparison, Facebook uses one petabyte of data storage space to hold 40 billion photos. To ramp this up to the human scale, a worm’s brain has about 300 neurons. A mouse’s brain has about 100 million neurons. The human brain has about 100 billion neurons and millions of miles of “wires” (connections) that must be unraveled and traced. Ashlee Vance, writing about connectomics in the New York Times, compares the task to trying to untangle a bowl of spaghetti by tracing how each strand of spaghetti touches each other strand as it winds its way through the bowl.

Scientists are better at describing than prescribing. Somewhere down the line we may be able to describe how a person changes his or her mind, but I suspect the “why” will continue to be a “spiritual” thing. And the most remarkable thing is that we can change our minds, we can “repent,” and we can do all of that with a “fixed” structure of brain connections that are adaptable and consciously controllable but hold the potential for conversion into something new.

1 comment:

  1. Mike, interesting observations. The discovery of DNA and the mapping of the human gnome are monumental achievements, the consequences of which we can't begin to understand. Francis Collins has written an interesting book entitled, The Language of God. Collins was the lead scientist responsible for mapping the human gnome. If you haven't read the book I recommend it to you. Interestingly enough, Daniel Clendenin posts an interesting essay on this Sunday's Lectionary readings. It sort of relates to your post. Check it out: www.journeywithjesus.net Steve