Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Winter, Neurevolution, and Nicolas Wade

This morning there was a definite cloak of white spread out on the street below, and resting upon branches and twigs. The day is Dec. 1/09, and the light level is fabulous - beautiful blue sky. So refreshing to be back in the land where winter colors are blue and white instead of dark grey and dark green.

I found two tweets today to bring here. The first one is from Neurevolution blog, Cingulate Cortex and the Evolution of Human Uniqueness. Apparently there is a small region in the human ACC not present in oft-studied monkey brains. The author, while refraining from making any direct claim, and acknowledging the difficulties inherent in directly studying human brains, suggests that neuroscience in general might want to not gloss over this issue. My interest in ACC stems from the idea that it's an area of the brain that come to be known as part of the "pain matrix" as it it usually lit up in people with persisting pain. It seems, metaphorically speaking, to be the zone in the brain that has trouble making up its "mind", the brain's worrier.

Deciding what I have to do is not something I ever found particularly hard - rather, determining the shape of the problem to be solved is something I've always found much harder. This requires a lot of time and examination, and is a very difficult thing to do when there is nothing actually concrete to handle or measure or weigh or consider or interact with, just vague feelings to deal with and try to sort, like the recent long climb back up out of a depressed state. I feel like my ACC has had a real workout in the last few years.

The other piece is an NYT story, We May be Born With an Urge to Help, by Nicolas Wade.

I really appreciate Nicolas Wade. Had he not written his excellent NYT article on Seth Grant's work, I wouldn't probably have picked up on it at all, and would not have become excited enough about Mo's interest in the topic and concurrent blogpost about it to have been able to interest Ginger Campbell of the excellent Brain Science Podcast into doing an interview with Seth Grant, and wouldn't know the first thing about synapse evolution. I feel I might have gained an IQ point just following along, attempting to grasp the enormity of what it might mean, as a real breakthrough...

But that is all history now - this new article by Nicolas Wade is about a topic also important to me but at a much different level - intrinsic helpfulness in babies and small children, practical suggestions on how to cultivate it instead of snuffing it through inadvertently bad parenting. Looks like we're here to help each other, helping shows up early, and frankly, I think we'll go on doing this as long as we continue to be a species. Personally, I do not like cultures or societal or religious institutions that have stifled this urge, have distorted or perverted it to meet more selfish interests or objectives - i.e., their own, but that is a whole other topic for some other time or place.

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