Grey matter: age does bring wisdom : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

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Grey matter: age does bring wisdom
Date: 06/05/2000

The brain, the mind, the soul - Professor Susan Greenfield has them clearly sorted out in her head.

Yet nothing is quite as fascinating, says this leading British neuroscientist, as holding that twinned lump of tissue, a human brain, in one hand and pondering that it was once the repository of a personality, an inner world, a mind.

The human brain has changed little in the past 30,000 years. And we are each born with most of the brain cells we will ever have, says Professor Greenfield, an Oxford University pharmacologist and author who is visiting Australia for National Science Week.

What change constantly are the connections forged between the 100 billion brain cells in our heads, in response to each experience, each moment of every day.

This "personalisation of the brain", which influences attitudes that lead in turn to different experiences for each individual, is what Greenfield calls the mind.

The good news, she says, is that wisdom really does come with age.

Our bodies may deteriorate, but our minds can develop, our consciousness can "deepen", as long as we stimulate the brain enough to keep strengthening the network of connections.

A new threat is that information technologies such as the Internet, which provide instant gratification at the push of a button, could dull this development, she says. "We could breed a generation of people with no attention span; or, worst of all, with no imagination, because they are always using other people's images rather than conjuring up their own when they read a book."

Scientists are a very long way from understanding the brain, says the director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, Professor Allan Snyder. "But that's positive. It's a challenge."

Some commentators have recently argued it is too complex for us ever to fathom. "But to predict that in advance is crazy," Professor Greenfield says. "We have to have a go."

There is, as yet, no accepted framework that encompasses all the bits of knowledge gained from the many different kinds of brain studies, including psychiatry and psychology. Genetics and brain imaging are the latest high-tech probes. The search is on for genes linked to everything from intelligence to dementia.

Yesterday Dr Paul Thomas, of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, told the ScienceNOW! conference in Melbourne that the team had identified the first genetic mutation linked to a brain development disorder in children known as septo-optic dysplasia.

Last year American researchers created genetically engineered "smart mice", able to tackle tricky mazes faster.

Professor Greenfield has no doubts we will be able in the future to manipulate human genes related to brain function. But the dangers will be great, she says.

New brain imaging techniques have led to brain maps identifying where different activities are carried out. Professor Snyder finds fascinating the discovery that the part of the brain responsible for arithmetic also controls finger movement.

"We must have evolved the concept of numbers by counting on our fingers."

The technology could also lead to cures for brain diseases. New research was also presented by Dr Dennis Velakoulis, of the Murdoch Institute to ScienceNOW! showing that brain changes linked to schizophrenia do not occur early in life, as previously thought. They appear in young adults as the disease develops, raising the prospect they could be prevented.

Brain imaging has its benefits but it's also been a curse, says Professor Greenfield, because it has led to a mistaken view of the brain as made up of rigid compartments with different roles.

To understand it we must view it as a whole, she says.

Professor Snyder's main interest is the non-conscious mind - the part that governs our selection of a partner, personal decisions, risk-taking and even doing what we do best, "whether that's physics or swimming 1,500 metres".

Studying people such as savants, brain-damaged people with extraordinary skills, throws light on this non-conscious mind, says Professor Snyder, who believes we all have access to virtuoso talents, if we could switch off higher consciousness.

The fact that people after a stroke can recover movement attests to the ability of the brain to make new connections. Last year American researchers also showed for the first time that monkeys were constantly growing new brain cells in adulthood.

Last month an influential British study was published showing that stimulating the brains of mice, with lots of new plastic toys, can delay the onset of Huntington's disease, a genetic brain deterioration.

"It shows we can deter the tyranny of the genes with environment," Professor Greenfield says.

Professor Snyder, a mathematician, also advocates mastering new skills; the more views of the world we have, the better we can find unexpected likenesses between things, which is at the heart of creativity.

So what about the soul? Believe in it or not, as you like, says Professor Greenfield. But don't look for answers in neuroscience.

Souls, by definition, last forever. "The brain and the mind ... are absolutely, undeniably mortal."

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My brain must have been mortal - I lost my mind donks ago. Then I found computers and all is just mush now. Interesting article though...,& as I'm rather dull I thought I'd share...

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (, May 06, 2000


LOL. Saw this somewhere: Of all the things I've lost. I miss my brain the most.

-- gilda (, May 06, 2000.

This quoute deserves its own thread:

"Professor Snyder, a mathematician, also advocates mastering new skills; the more views of the world we have, the better we can find unexpected likenesses between things, which is at the heart of creativity."

We have all seen the results of people with rigid views of the world- in the Y2K debate, and in every day life. The threads I read here often show how certain posters refuse to vary their world view.

-- FutureShock (gray@matter.think), May 07, 2000.

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