As I See It: Peeking Under the Hood
February 24, 2014 Victor Rozek
There would have been no AS/400 without it; no iSeries or System i or Power Systems, no servers of any kind, and no cloud in which to assemble them. Without it, there would be no smartphones, no tablets, no Internet. In fact, without some advanced evolutionary form of it, we would probably still be trolling around the African savannah looking for food. The “it” refers to the three pounds of our neuroanatomy that are the source of all human progress and invention: the brain.
If that was not immediately obvious, it is because (please forgive the pun) we don’t give the brain much thought. The mind often seems to have a will of its own and most of us are unable to control it. Unbidden thoughts flood in at inopportune moments, generating waves of static across the screen of consciousness. Periods of full focus are comparatively brief as the mind wonders off down trails of its own choosing. “It’s a wonderful organ,” Robert Frost said, “it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get to the office.”
Unarguably, the mind becomes much more amenable to discipline when it’s engrossed in something it likes. But core to the concept of attraction is the question: What is it that draws us to a specific interest, a certain career? Why are we good at some things and pathetic at others? Malcolm Gladwell insists that mastery of any field comes with 10,000 hours of practice. But what is it that keeps us grinding? The nature v. nurture debate will probably endure as long as people have opinions, but new technologies are beginning to unravel the workings of the brain with the hope of providing definitive answers to what were once rhetorical questions.
Toward that end, President Obama recently announced an initial investment of $100 million to fund an initiative adroitly called BRAIN (Brain Research through Advanced Innovative Neurotechnologies). Modeled after the Human Genome Project, this grand undertaking seeks to map our neural circuitry and the activity of every neuron in the human brain–all 86 billion of them. Attached to a network of nerve fibers stretching some 100,000 miles, and producing thousands of different proteins that carry information on hundreds of thousands of pathways throughout the brain, each neuron has, on average, 10,000 synapses, structures that permit a neuron to pass electrical or chemical signals to another cell. It’s like trying to map the global population of ants.
The complexity and enormity of the task is daunting. Carl Zimmer, writing the cover story in the February issue of National Geographic, The New Science of the Brain, reports that researchers studying the brains of mice have been able to peer into a chunk about the size of a grain of salt. “Its data alone,” writes Zimmer, “total a hundred terabytes, the amount of data in about 25,000 high definition movies.” Now I feel bad about smashing their little heads in traps.
Perhaps the most celebrated mammalian brain of the last century (or any other century for that matter) was that of Albert Einstein. Less than eight hours after his death in 1955, Einstein’s brain was removed by pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey. He dissected it into several pieces, keeping some for himself and doling out the rest to leading pathologists in the hope of discovering what made this man so unique. As a ghoulish afterthought, Harvey removed Einstein’s eyes and gave them to the mathematician’s ophthalmologist. Why Harvey would do such a twisted and arrogantly proprietary thing is anyone’s guess. At least we can be thankful he didn’t drop Einstein’s body off at the taxidermist.
In any event, Harvey and his heirs kept Einstein’s brain (and autopsy photos) for about 50 years. But at some point the novelty must have worn off because they eventually donated their stash to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. What was learned in the ensuing half-century is open to some debate. But when the autopsy photographs were examined, there were some abnormalities. For one thing, Einstein was missing what is known as the lateral sulcus, a fissure which divides the frontal and parietal lobes from the temporal lobe below. The advantage, if any, isn’t clear, but there were other compensations.
It appears that Einstein had a much stronger connection between brain hemispheres facilitating greater activity between the left and right brain. Based on the pictures of Einstein’s brain, Dean Falk, an evolutionary anthropologist, noted that “although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein’s brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary.” In other words, size matters.
Still, what made Einstein excel at physics, as opposed to say, golf, is not known. But a plausible answer has emerged from the soft sciences. Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, originated the theory of multiple intelligences, which identifies eight modalities that describe the way people process information. Gardner is not implying that each of us is limited to a single modality, rather that we all have a preferred way of learning and will naturally pay attention to some things at the exclusion of others.
These include musical intelligence, native to musicians and composers. Interpersonal intelligence, such as might be displayed by psychologists and mediators. Bodily/kinesthetic intelligence, prevalent in athletes, dancers, surgeons, and physical therapists. Linguistic intelligence, present in writers, teachers, and people who experience life through words. Intra-personal intelligence, usually seen in very independent individuals with a high degree of introspection and self-rapport. Visual/spatial intelligence, common to architects and graphic artists. Naturalist intelligence; resident in people who orient to nature such as farmers, biologists and ecologists. And logical/mathematical intelligence, which would include most of the people reading this article.
At first glance, those categories appear to be based more on effect than cause. Observe a gifted pianist and it’s not much of a stretch to assume she has musical intelligence. But based on his research, Gardner believes the brain has hardwired tendencies and he identifies a series of attributes that each type of intelligence possesses. The characteristics of people who display mathematical intelligence, for example, are pattern recognition, excellent problem-solving skills, the capacity for abstract thought, and the ability to solve complex problems. You will not find politicians in this tribe, but here you will find IT professionals, engineers, scientists, and inventors. Substitute artist for IT professional and that pretty well describes da Vinci who, in another time, would have written some killer code.
Examining the structure of the brain in minute detail may ultimately reveal why we think the way we think and do the things we do. Neuroscientists are beginning to identify structural differences in the brains of people with autism, schizophrenia and a number of other conditions. If defective brains have unique structural characteristics, there are likely minute differences in the brains of healthy people as well. Differences that make elegant code segments as compelling to some as guitar riffs are to others; minuscule variations that lead one person to become Einstein and another to become Charlie Sheen.
Odd as it may sound, Einstein may have something in common with Charlie Sheen. The great mathematician once penned this little limerick. “A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?” Now there, I suspect, is a quandary familiar to Sheen.