Democrats & Liberals Archives

Mind Your Conclusions About The Brain

I think people take a far too deterministic view of genetics and neuroscience. If the question is, do women and men learn differently, think differently, then I’d say science would support you. If, however, you’re saying that there is an innate disability on certain subjects for women, that is not scientifically supportable as far as I can see.

It's easy for conservatives to put forward such notions because it confirms what has been traditionally believed in times past. I recognize that all conservatives are not necessarily subscribers to this belief, but I don't think I would be off if I said that the leadership is more invested in ideas of traditional women's roles than the Democrats are.

All that considered, though, the notion is based on preconceived notions conflated with evidence that satisfies holders of that view.

Let's take the case of the "God Spot".

The story of this starts with Neuroscientist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, and a young man with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. In looking at the boxing glove shape of the brain, The Temporal lobe is the thumb, located below the Temporal bone of the skull (cerebral lobes are named for the pieces of the skull above them.) Like many parts of the brain, it's multipurposed. Many of the tasks it takes care of are related to memory.

The brain, it seems, does not have a hard drive. There is no one location where memories are stored. The changes seem to be in the connections between different parts of the brain. Memory is not simply the recovery of data, scientists like Ramachandran have discovered, it's the recovery of states of mind, feelings even.

How powerful can it be? It can affect a person physiologically. With drug addicts, the place or places where they normally get high can have such an effect on how the brain anticipates the hit, that it can mean the difference between a tolerated dose and an overdose. What we feel from our experiences and what we feel about what we sense int he world around us are integral parts of our memory. Our emotions and feelings can act in turn as gateways to certain sets of memories. Even the substances we take in can have an effect. Take in a lot of caffeine studying for the test, and you may end up needing to drink a few cups of coffee before the test to recall things in the best detail.

Emotional and visceral states of mind are part of the structure of memory. The structures concerning memory have a hardwired connection to our limbic system, a set of midbrain neural nuclei in the brain that regulate our emotional responses.

As we travel through the territory of our daily lives, there is no neutral ground. We feel something about everything we see around us. Looking at Temporal Lobe Epileptics, Ramachandran proposed that the extraordinary mystical experiences that follow their seizures maybe the result of the scrambling of a certain part of the temporal lobe that helps us to make emotional readings of what we feel in the world around us. Like defibrillators stimulate the heart, the Temporal Lobe Seizure redlines the parts of the brain that give us that emotional reading of the world. In the aftermath, Ramachandran theorizes, everything takes on heightened significance. Everything is one. Everything is meaningful.

Needless to say, there are profound implications to that, and people ran with it. For those who believe religion to be merely superstition, it was evidence that God was merely a product of a neurological quirk. For those who believed it to be a product of evolution, it was evidence that nature selected for religious experience in human beings. For those who believe in God in whatever form, it was one more piece of evidence to trumpet: we are hardwired to worship God!

In short, people saw what they wanted to see in a quirk in the brain that explained nothing except a mechanism by which such experiences may happen in normal people and epileptics alike. It doesn't prove or disprove the presence of a supernatural creator. It's functional enough to where we can't assume it was put there just for mystical experience. It is a profound philosophical question, but I think it's honestly more intriguing in that its sheds light on the complex nature of how the brain works.

The Microprocessor paradigm of understanding the brain is misleading. We do have parts of the brain that serve certain functions, but the waves of impulses that pulse through the brain aren't signals being sent back and forth between fixed processors. Instead, the wiring carrying the signals does the processing, the impulse in perpetual motion.

In dealing with gender and orientation issues, we must take that and other things into account. I doubt there is a specific switch in the brain on orientation. Like most functions, sexual attraction and arousal are products of many different parts of the brain. Isolating a gay gene in our genetic code or a gay spot in the brain could be no less futile than trying to find the seat of the soul or the place where all the memories are stored. The function may not be that simple, and "correcting" it may have a price we would balk at paying.

Gender issues are complex in this way, too. Math and Science are not taken care of by some discreet processors in the brain, but a variety of different parts working in concert. Granted, the parts in the brain that men have and women are likely a bit dissimilar, but how much so, and to what end? As I suggested in a recent comment to another Watchblogger's entry, the difference may be more in the way women think about math, science, and business, not in the ultimate quality of the decisions. In fact, the differing approach may be exactly what math, science and business need.

The ghost of the old establishment still lingers, an establishment that believes that there is a standard way to think about the world and all other approaches degenerate from it. The truth is, the world doesn't work that way. Our brain is a complex thing, both biologically and in how it experiences the world.

Such differences have already had their effect on the world in which we live.

The words Asperger's Syndrome, for example, may not mean much to the average person, but those with this condition have changed the world. Not may have, have.

People joke about folks with abnormally high focus on esoteric things, about folks with lousy social skills and annoying habits, but at the same time we marvel at intuitive intelligence that certain individuals have in the arts and sciences, with the printed word and the moving image. Our society talks about the folks that are made fun of today being their tormentors bosses tomorrow. We know these people, and yet we don't. They are frustratingly opaque in their manner, but paradoxically straightforward about what they believe and feel.

From a certain perspective, this Autism-spectrum condition would be a disability to be selected against in looking for the ideal in human thought. It's true that Asperger's Syndrome has its pathological, dysfunctional side, and many find those who have it frustratingly out of sync with the ideals of our strongly social, fun-loving, life-in-the-moment obsessed society. But the life of the neurotypical and those who live with Asperger's are more entwined than one might expect, or perhaps care to admit, especially in a day and age with complex technology like ours.

Asperger's is an extreme example, but one that should be paid attention to when regarding the abilities of women in math and science. After all, A woman deserves much of the credit in discovering the structure of DNA, alongside Watson and Crick. A woman discovered the first radioactive element, Radium. Heck, a woman named Ada Lovelace is credited as the first computer programmer. She was a contemporary and associate of Charles Babbage, regarded now as the father of computing.

I guess my point is that we should take these differences in neurology and not use them as some justification to shut people out, but instead exploit the opportunities available in taking on problems and issues from a different point of view, and a different state of mind. America prides itself on using the talents and abilities of all, instead of wasting them over old prejudices and assumptions. It is only American not to underestimate women or unconventional thinkers in business, the arts or the sciences.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at March 12, 2005 8:18 AM