An October 8th NEW YORK TIMES “Profiles in Science” piece on Michael Dickinson and fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) completely (technical term alert) blew my mind. Although fruit flies, obviously, have very small brains, the flexibility and mutability of their neurons result in a per-neuron superior functionality than is found in humans. Because “the presence of different chemicals called neuromodulators in the fly brain can change how a given group of neurons acts at different times” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/08/science/focusing-on-fruit-flies-curiosity-takes-flight.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0), fruit flies have an astounding capacity for (relatively speaking, of course) adaptation and development.
I was inspired by this article to do a little research on neuromodulators in humans and it turns out this is a pretty new concept in neuroscience, one which looks very promising for human development in the long term. Neuromodulators include serotonin and dopamine, with which scientists have been experimenting for decades with somewhat limited success; however, our knowledge of how neuromodulators influence and transform brain activity is now expanding exponentially.
Dickinson’s work will contribute to this understanding, as well as to our respect for the complexity and genius of the lowly creatures he studies. The wonders of flying, he suggests, rest chiefly in the brain. Just as the brain flexibility of fruit flies enables flight in an ever-changing variety of circumstances, so might the relatively less-flexible human brain be influenced to adapt and develop -- if we can more effectively identify and utilize neuromodulatory mechanisms.
There’s a lot of talk about neuroplasticity around autism, hinting at enhanced brain-healing capacity in spectrum-y brains, but I am encouraged by the potential for healing, among other things, brain traumas (such as are found in attachment disorders and PTSD) as well. These neurological differences – autism, attachment disorders and PTSD - are all significant factors in our Full Spectrum household. (Please stay tuned for an upcoming post on HEALING in a Full Spectrum!)
Apart from the NEW YORK TIMES’ “Science” section, just a quick dabble shows the world of neuroscience is all abuzz (and awiggle) in popular culture.
In VOGUE, Rebecca Johnson’s “New Frontier” (October 2013) profiles the neuroscientist Cori Bargmann and her work with a tiny worm (the nemotode C. elegans) that has 302 neurons (humans have 10 billion). Bargmann’s work sketches filaments of hope for brain-science progress between increasing computer capacities, advances in electrodes for the measurement of nerve cells, and improved microfabrication…She sees psychiatric medicine as just one of the more promising subfields among the many in which neuroscientific developments will benefit humanity.
“Now,” Bargmann marvels in VOGUE, “we are not just watching the flow of information [via neurons] but trying to change it.”
One part scary, one part breathtakingly hopeful, eh?
THE NEW YORKER recently published “Mindless: The new neuro-skeptics,” by Adam Gopnik, about the mind-brain divisions and debunkings posited in some circles (September 9, 2013). Gopnik likens the “brain” camp, with its currently culturally dominant emphasis on neuroscience, to Mr. Spock (now you know I love a good Star Trek reference, plus Spock was my pretend-fiancé when I was little). The “mind” camp, which sometimes compares neuroscience to the now thoroughly discredited early-nineteenth-century “science” of phrenology (or mapping the mind through the shape of the skull), he frames as akin to Captain Kirk. He points to the rich literature and inquiry on both “teams” and concludes that both responsibility and possibility lie in the whole package – mind-plus-brain (plus environment), all working together in a way so “complex and contingent” as to boggle the, ahem, mind.
Complexity notwithstanding, evolution of many sorts is ongoing, whether scientific, philosophical, even personal: “We learn and shape our neurology as much as we inherit it,” says Gopnik. ”Our selves shape our brains at least as much as our brains our selves.”
What he said.
More neuroscience-boom proof: the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2013 went to some neuroscience dudes…And Obama recently launched the BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) project, an unprecedented neuroscience initiative (in fact, Cori Bargmann will co-chair this endeavor).
But then, working on the mind is nothing new.
From ancient philosophers to contemporary mystics, wise people have always known it is possible to train (ideally) and re-train (less-ideally, but more commonly) the mind. From Plato’s (and his student, Aristotle’s) thoughts on ideal environments and habits for exercising the virtues, to the Buddha’s writings on practices to calm and discipline the mind and actions; from Confucius on good habits and self-discipline in harmony (the Tao), to Teresa of Avila on practicing devotions of imagination and contemplation; from Thomas Merton on spiritual disciplines as the way to liberation,* to Starhawk on “psychological techniques and personal disciplines” as tools for transformation;** and on and on (I’ve left so many out in the interest of brevity!!)…all the great traditions offer tools for behavioral, mental, emotional, and – sometimes – spiritual development of the mind.
Now we are just beginning to enter this heretofore sci-fi realm of attaining real knowledge about the brain itself. It’s exciting.
Disclaimer: Full Spectrum Mama loves her children and self just as they are, and is NOT looking for a “cure” for Asperger’s!!!! ***
But wouldn’t it be great to have the option of tweaking our own neurology in positive ways? Even if we have no desire whatsoever to change, this knowledge itself will be awe-inspiring: we have the potential to understand, if not emulate, what Dickinson calls the “great success stories” borne of adaptable, flexible (fruitfly) neurology.
Full Spectrum Mama is certainly gung ho about adding new tools to our quests for health and healing, especially in terms of reducing suffering. To wit, my neurology has always been sensitive and prone to migraines, but with age and/or a major concussion a few years back and/or something else (?) my migraines and PTSD triggers have increased dramatically over the years. I’d try just about anything – meditation to neuromodulation - to soothe these neurological responses. Just – don’t you touch my Special Interests!
I guess that last is the key, though.
Bargmann bemoans the “dismal state” of today’s psychiatric medicines, and the field of neuromodulators remains in its infancy. All the beautiful possibilities mentioned in these articles are still just ideas. Early on, would tweaking my neurology result in unintended consequences such as losing my precious Special Interests or other things about me that I treasure or see as integral to who I am? Furthermore, the idea of such tools being used against our will or unbeknownst to us is unsettling, at best. “Neuromodulism” (I just made that up) could become “the new eugenics.” Ew.
With all these caveats, I am still intrigued by the potential for human beings to develop and adapt more effectively. Reducing certain kinds of obstacles to flourishing, such as unwanted manifestations of mental illness, physiological trauma and physical pain, will help us “fly” higher – and with more flexibility.
Now come on, Homo sapiens! If D. melanogaster can do it, we can too!
Full Spectrum Mama
* Admittedly, Merton’s deeply entwined Catholicism and Zen Buddhism were somewhat controversial, but FSM always errs on the side of acceptance.
*** Speaking of Asperger’s: between you and me and the fencepost, take a look at the picture of Dickinson and then read his words and ask yourself who’s got Asperger’s all up in that article.