Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Transformed Minds

The last few weeks I've been reading In Search of Memory by Eric R. Kandel, who with his family immigrated to the U.S. as a child from Vienna shortly after the Nazis invaded Austria and began persecuting Austrian Jews in 1939. As a young man Kandel was heavily influenced by the work of his Viennese compatriot Sigmund Freud to the extent that he too resolved to pursue a career in pyschoanalysis. However, Kandel's interest in behavioral science gradually shifted over to the uncharted territory of molecular biology of the brain. He won a Nobel Prize for his work on memory in 2000.

Regarding memory, what did Kandel research? Neurons are the fundamental unit of the neural system and the starting point for learning about memory. Memory derives from changes in the synapses of neural circuits.  On the one hand, short-term memory derives from functional changes involving ungated sodium and voltage-gated potassium ion-channels which create voltage differentials allowing for the signaling of visual experiences, movements, thoughts, and memories sent from one end of a neuron to another. On the other hand, long-term memory derives from structural changes in neurons and the brain itself!

The brain is mapped out and hard-wired to different body parts and functions in a most fascinating manner (Kandel only briefly delves into this, but try googling "brain region" with other keywords such as "language comprehension", "language expression", "cortical map" etc). For example, the size of brain regions mapped to certain fingers change over time and with respect to other people or even the other hand of the same person, as say, someone learns to study violin from a young age on. So the brain and its neural circuits change over time in response to various stimuli.

I find all this especially interesting from a Christian perspective. First, in spite of being one of God's chosen, Kandel doesn't come across as one who believes in God, but his discoveries and observations regarding the intricacies of the mind nevertheless give glory to God as the Creator of the universe and of humankind. Secondly, his observations reflect spiritual truth. For example, a friend of mine remarked to me yesterday that one of her family members seems to be moving progressively further and further away from God as he grows older. Moreover, millions of people the world over suffer from various addictions.  From a scientific vantage point, could it be that their brains are actually  physically changing as a result of prior experiences and poor decision-making? A good reminder from science to obey the Lord's exhortation to stay close to Him at all times, to set our minds on things above, to dwell on that which is pure, honorable, right, and to be transformed always by the renewing of our minds.

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