Thoughts on: Genes in the Brain, Philosophy, Itching, and Erasing Memory

Understanding the human mind is an interest of mine. I write about it occasionally on this blog. Over the last week I’ve run across four writings that I found interesting. They are:

Scientists Map the Brain, Gene by Gene
Author: Jonah Lehrer, Wired Magazine
Summary: Paul Allen, of Microsoft fame, has launched several projects over the last couple of decades and one is the Allen Institute for Brian Science. Allen wanted to look into how the brain works. It is amazing how we know so little about it. The institute is trying to figure out how it works be studying the different genes in different places and then mapping them. The process for doing this is a combination of gruesomeness and industrialization. To map the brain each specimen is sliced into tiny standard segments and then dyed to find certain genes. A robot then takes a picture of it, chronicles the data, and stores the results – conceptually and physically. This is tedious and since the brain is so complex, the scientists aren’t even sure if it will warrant any revelations. Part of the problem is finding the right balance between seeing the holistic connections and getting inside the specific functions. Several misconceptions have been identified. More will come from this work.

The End of Philosophy
Author: David Brooks, NY Times
Summary: Systematically identify a principle, and apply it. This is the code of a thinker. But it isn’t true of humans. It can be applied to computers though. The line I like the most is in regards to the instant processing the emotion computing that happens:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You
don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have
to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

The observation is that we use our emotional capacities initially and then use our rational thought processes to either validate those thoughts or to compare the results. This creates different levels of conundrums for those that study this area.

Scratching Relieves Itch by Quieting Nerve Cells
Author: Benedict Carey, NY Times
Summary: Scratching rarely gets attention. You itch and its gone – done. Pain gets the focus usually. But the need to itch isn’t really understood well. Normally scratching would lead to pain, but itching generates a relief feeling. Why? Perhaps its the evolutionary grooming function, but why then does just thinking about itching makes you need to scratch?

Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory
: Benedict Carey, NY Times
Summary: An experimental drug can inhibit certain memories from being retained. This can potentially help with diseases of the mind, like dementia. And perhaps lead to drugs that can improve memory retention. There are still hurdles to clear though. One of which is that memory is associative, meaning that to get to one memory you go through other memories to stimulate it. So to erase it, you have to impact that relationship. It’s observed through fMRIs that thoughts are distributed throughout the brain which means you’d have to untangle the connections and it’d be hard to discern which are the memory and which are the associations. And there are many moral questions to answer about this as well. My favorite is about personal identity. If you erase a painful memory will you gain back some of the innocence you had before? Somehow I doubt it.


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