28 December, 2013

Boys and their Toys

I just learned about a scientist named Eric Kandel, and an experiment, for which he earned the Nobel Prize, performed in the early 70s on a a type of large sea slug known as Aplysia.

Kendal prodded the side of the slug over and over, right on the gills. Take that, slug. And that. Poke poke poke. Neat how he curls up, huh? A reflex reaction. Poke Mr Slug enough times and he gets used to it.

I was reminded of one big reason why I hated science classes when I was a child. I had too many of my own ideas, and the discoveries I was forced to read about, bullied by a system that constantly hammered home the notion that my future depended on conformity to their education (poke poke poke, and eventually I got used to it, and consequently better at ignoring them) were boring. Scientists like Kendal could win a Nobel Prize for "discovering" something every little boy already knew. Poke a slug enough times in the side, and it gets used to it.

However, before the tone of this post feels too snide, let me clarify something. I was reminded in an amused way. Kendal won his Nobel Prize for something deeper. He discovered that Mr Slug doesn't just stop caring, his "learned change in behaviour was paralleled by a progressive weakening of the synaptic connections." (Quoted in Doige, Brain that Changes Itself, p. 201)

Mr Slug's brain was changing.

The possibilities of such things had been theorised about before. Sigmund Freud was a researcher in Neurophysiology before his idea that the brain was made up of separate cells gained him such derision as to push him from his original dream, and lead him to find new grounds to explore in Psychology. 

Canadian neuroscientist Wilder Penfield had already made a sensory map of the brain back in the 1930s, and Michael Merzenich in 1968 took the idea a step further by cutting off a segment of a living monkey's skull and prodding his hands while he was strapped, conscious, to a chair with needles and probes jabbed into his brain. What a nice fellow.

Evidence for neuroplasticity (the idea that the brain can reform itself based upon stimuli) had sprung up by 1950. In a series of lectures broadcast by the BBC, British biologist J. Z. Young argued, "There is evidence that the cells of our brains literally develop and grow bigger with use, and atrophy or waste away with disuse." (J. Z. Young, Doubt and Certainty in Science: A Biologist's Reflections on the Brain, Oxford University Press, 1951, p. 36),

What Kendal accomplished in prodding Mr Slug is to prove that the neurotransmitters actually reforge on a cellular level, that the sensory map alters with stimuli. This had been theorised, but it had never actually been mapped. Slugs make great subjects for such experiments as their nervous system is both simplistic and large. Kendal showed us the cellular reason behind age old childish wisdom, poke Mr Slug and he eventually gets used to it.

In showing us proof that even those things which science would scoff at, those things that the innocent and un-indoctrinated know to be true, Kendal gives strong evidence to the idea that such wisdoms will frequently be proven. This discovery made me wonder about all aspects of the universe. Science itself dictates that an absolute truth is impossible (this does not purely refer to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle) and that discoveries will lead us into new ground. What else is there a cellular (and is cellular as deep as it goes?) explanation for?

Mr Slug didn't "just" stop caring, but he did stop caring. There were biological reasons behind a deep, intrinsic response--an "intellectual" response, so far as a slug's intellect is concerned. This is true of human brains as well. It draws me to a question for the scientists and science fiction writers: does this cheapen the neurological experience? Does biology ruin magic, or is it magic? What's the difference?

It also makes me wonder about scientists generally--the kind, at least, who offended me so as a child, and the kind who ousted young Freud. How can we be so ignorant of our own methodology and principles as to decide that thought, or indeed a piece of age-old wisdom, is wrong on the grounds of not having yet unearthed the explanation?

As you can see, learning of this turned the ignition of my imagination, and, to be perfectly honest, I wrote this as much to force myself to remember as I did to share it with you. Such is the benefit of having a blog. I hope you've enjoyed my new-found knowledge and thoughts.  (This is rushed because I'm supposed to be taking my mom out for coffee.)

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