Overweening Generalist

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Our Neurogenetic Archives: A Few Notes

I have a guitar student, and she had a high school assignment to write on John Locke and was worried. I piped up, unwisely: "Ask me anything about John Locke! I'm here to help ya!" She had the vaguest notion of what Locke was up to, but she did know he influenced the risk-takers and revolutionaries who established Unistat. I told her Locke has been shown to be pretty far-wrong with his notion of our minds at birth as tabula rasa. Already, I had lost her.

But aye...I think the jury has come in with a unanimous decision on this: we come equipped, fully loaded. For presumably many but not all imaginable things. This has been established, in historical time, a few seconds ago. Or say 1950-now.

But to what extent are we loaded? Is it only activated with experience in-the-world, with language, with education? Certainly we inherit a shuffled deck of genes from mom and dad. Is that it?

(Aside: this genetic inheritance, modified by drugs, learning, changes in environment, bombardment by cosmic rays, alterations in diet, etc: this is my best unpacking of "Plato's Problem" as mentioned briefly in the review of Knight's book on Chomsky, below.)

In his lecture after winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1968, Marshall Nirenberg talked about "genetic memories." Well of course, our genes can be said to have "memories" in a certain metaphorical sense, but details about this metaphorical sense? As I tried to read his lecture (quite technical...but it turns out Nirenberg was wrong about "nonsense codons"!), I can't get a line on it. He's certainly not going off about how the Akashic Records were "right after all!" or anything like that. Nirenberg gets as close to mentioning the astral plane as Keanu Reeves gets to winning Best Actor.

But that was way back in 1968.

Since then, there's been an explosion of knowledge about epigenetics: it turns out experience-in-the-world of our immediate forebears does have influence on our genes/lives. Poverty has been linked to epigenetic changes and mental illness, for example. Epigenetics is the study of how genes get expressed, and the more I read about it the more my head spins. RNA has much ado about gene expression. It's not merely a "messenger," as many of us were told in skool. Some genes get turned on or off like a binary light switch; others get modulated like a rheostat, gradually becoming more and brighter, or less and dimmer.

Here's another example from the past year: the methylation of the genes coding for the hormone oxytocin - a hormone linked to nurturing, trust and social skills - can get taxed by intense emotional experiences. What a wonderful example of the new reality of understanding biology: a gene that helps us do very important things such as falling in love with baby as soon as she is born? It's processed in the brain, like a drug. (Hell: I see oxytocin as one of the more interesting endogenous drugs we have, and we can synthesize it too!) This hormone/drug, via social interaction in the world, affects our behavior, and the social world/environmental feedback can alter the expression of the gene. This circular-causal feedback looping of nature/nurture ---> nature/nurture, ad infinitum, till death do us part - seems like a microcosm of how Everything works. (And remember: then the epigenetic effects can get inherited by the next generation, via what happened historically in the environment, and just, wow. So: death is not the end of our story. We're connected in ways we didn't know before.)

Gosh dad!: Father may pass down more than his genes: his life experience too?
Oh, my: a bad night's sleep can epigenetically alter your genes.
Our genetic cups runneth over: epigenetic drugs are in the works.
Not fair: Study of Holocaust survivors show trauma passed on to children's genes.

Think of how all this impacts the roiling and boiling issue of income inequality...

There's plenty more where that came in. A fine readable book for non-specialists that I can point to 'cuz I read it and was enthralled: Nessa Carey's The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance

Combine this with a few books on the new synthetic biology, CRISPR techniques, and what the hell: quantum computing and ye head shall be spaghettified.

But back to the neurogenetic archives. They seem to have some ontological status outside the drawing room where the Theosophical expert waxes on about past lives. But to what degree?

Darold Treffert is a psychiatrist who's been studying savants and autistic people with extraordinary abilities in some domain of life. He's been at it for many decades. He became personal friends with Kim Peek, the person "Rain Man" was based on (though that character was a composite of many savants, says Treffert). In the beginning he was a traditional scientist who read Jung and thought it wasn't science: too soft. Now he thinks Jung was on to something; he thinks we may have genetic memories of things experienced in the past by others whom we often cannot identify. See his two books (mentioned in the text linked to) and give us a better explanation.

How wild this is! We can inherit knowledge? We can get bashed in the head and suddenly write symphonies, when before we couldn't even carry a tune? (Being somewhat conservative in certain areas, I'd rather not get my head bashed in and instead risk continuance of not being a genius.) Treffert says we inhabit a metaphorically left-brain (linear, rational) society; maybe activate latent abilities by spending more time doing what the Kulchur is telling us as "wasting time": doing art. (Here's yet another argument for Basic Income?)

Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson have a collectively dizzyingly rich series of speculations on neurogenetic memory, based on their reading in genetics, mythology, neuroscience, history, anthropology, and literature; they scattered their ideas throughout their many books, and I'd point to Leary's Info-Pyschology and Wilson's Prometheus Rising for starters...

David Foster Wallace, in an essay on David Lynch collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, riffs on our topic, saying our internal impressions and moods are, "An olla podrida of neurogenetic predisposition and phylogenetic myth and psychoanalytic schema and pop culture iconography." (p.199 in my copy) I hadda look up "olla podrida."

Well, now I said to myself, "I think I write too much for this texting world. I'll try to make this OG spew a short one," and so I'll end with a quote from my favorite cognitive neurolinguist, George Lakoff:

"When we understand all that constitutes the cognitive unconscious, our understanding of the nature of consciousness is vastly enlarged. Consciousness goes way beyond mere awareness of something, beyond the mere experience of qualia, beyond the awareness that you are aware, and beyond the multiple takes on immediate experience provided by various centers of the brain. Consciousness certainly involves all of the above, plus the immeasurably vast constitutive framework provided by the cognitive unconscious, which must be operating for us to be aware of anything at all."
Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, p.11

Thanks for bringing your immeasurably vast constitutive framework of your cognitive unconscious to the OG: see ya!

                                      художник Боббі Кемпбелл зробив цю графіку для мене


Eric Wagner said...

Interesting piece. It makes me wonder about the damage done unto us and our children by terrible bosses. I also wonder about the effects of listening to music. I have Wagner playing now, and I've listened to a lot of Wagner this week, trying to understand the role of Wagner in Proust's fiction. I wonder about the effects to our genetics by reading fine poetry or listening to the Ramones.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

You can see "inherited knowledge" pretty plainly with animals. My Siamese cat likes to cover up his food (and empty food dish) with pieces of paper. This is not something he learned from his environment; neither I nor anyone else in the household ever steals his food, and he's fed at least three times a day, so it's not like he worries about where the next meal is coming from.

When I read his, I was curious if you've ever read "The Bell Curve." Now there's a taboo book ....

michael said...

I seem to remember a book...The Bell Curve Jar?

In which a woman can't hack coming to grips with her impoverished inheritance of intellect, so she sticks her head in an oven?

Was that it?

Unknown said...

Luckily I bumped into this wonderful article about this wonderful character today:


Definitely cheered me up. It is ridiculous how much of my own thinking was influenced by his work before I ever heard of him.

Robert Trivers made a mark with the 2006 textbook Genes in Conflict. According to Trivers, “We created an entire field, the evolutionary dynamics of within-individual genetic conflict.” It seems at the core of our mental lives is a contradiction and I wonder if we live by constant cognitive dissonance in the 4-D space/time continuum?

Somehow I feel a wonderful synergy between genes in conflict and guerrilla ontology. Is it just me?

According to this article Trivers lived in Santa Cruz and was teaching at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1977; in close proximity to Capitola where Robert Anton Wilson used to live. I am curious if Wilson lived there in the late 70’s?

michael said...

@Hilary Chase-

Yea, Trivers has not advertised for himself, but of all the 1970s minds in "sociobiology" he was the Einstein. Trivers put out a memoir last year and I still haven't read it.

RAW didn't move to Santa Cruz until around 1990 or so. He spent 1982-86 in Ireland, then Los Angeles, trying to get his work made into a films, then eventually settled in Santa Cruz. Another UC Santa Cruz guy RAW was influenced by who was there at the same time: Norman O. Brown.

RAW lived in Berkeley in the late 1970s.

I didn't have time to fit Trivers into this blogspew, but you're right: that was germane: we seem to have all sorts of other "selves" our genes are driving. Trivers has written some gripping stuff on self-deception and why it may have evolved in his marvelous work _The Folly of Fools_.

Your line about the core of our mental lives are contradictions is fascinating to me. Have you seen the latest stuff on how gut bacteria can influence our thinking? It just gets weirder from there on out.

Finally: Trivers's career as the great sociobiological genius, coupled with his "street talk," his take-no-bullshit from university administrative types, his very close ties to the Panthers, his constant pot smoking...he's my kinda intellectual. Apparently never quite as "dangerous" to tweedy academic jerks as Leary appeared in those same in the early 1960s. Progress?

Unknown said...

Based on what little I've read on how gut bacteria can influence our thinking, I find this bacterial assemblage fascinating, and the more I read about it the more my head and my guts spin.

Okay, bacteria have lived inside humans for millions of years and for centuries people were saying: "My gut tells me.........." Or: "I need to digest the information." As "if" the gut was thinking and talking to people. It sounds like people were aware of the connection between the brain and the gut before many scientific researchers? How so?

For me the question remains: to what degree does gut bacteria influence our thinking?

If 90% of our cells are actually bacterial and if bacterial genes outnumber human genes by a factor of 99 to 1, does that mean that about 90% of our thinking depends on the gut bacteria?

I guess, the advantage is: bacteria can be manipulated and many neurodevelopmental disorders can be treated and very likely be more precise than the current pharmacological approaches. I assume in the near future when we go to the doctor he or she will prescribe eating yogurt 2 X a day instead of taking Prozac.

michael said...

@Hilary Chase-
I like how you've taken colloquialisms about "my gut tells me" and link it to the recent avalanche of fantastic science about gut bacteria. Aye! Yea, verily: this stuff is fascinating. I've written about it a tad here before, but am currently mired in the amazing research.

A specific neural pathway from gut to brain has been described. Right now it seems doubtful that 905 of our thinking depends on gut bacteria, but even if it's "only" 10% I consider that world-shaking news.

Further: gut bacteria seem to work in shifts, or their actions wax and wane throughout a day, but not necessarily with "our" schedule...the irony being that "our" implies that the bacteria are not "us", which of course is wrong, and the whole point.

There's been a lot written about probiotics, but we really don't know enough about how they work, if they work with some people and not others, etc. It's extremely complicated.

Two researchers on this topic that seem well worthsomewhiling about: Rob Knight and Pieter Dorrenstein.

There was an outlier doctor who wrote a book on the gut being a second "brain"...in the 1990s. I remember working at a library and a patron (who was really brainy) checked out the book Michael Gershon's book from 1999 about this Second Brain. I had shelved the book and briefly scanned it and thought it seemed borderline "quackish" because: really? my stomach and intestines are in league with my brain? It's just another example of how, even when we believe we're the most open-minded people around, we can ignorantly foreclose on some idea.

Now I can't stop reading about gut bacteria...and OH YEA! Read Ed Yong's new book _I Contain Multitudes_! I just finished it, and it's enchanting.

Unknown said...

Thank you for recommending Ed Yong's new book. There are some 46 people on the waiting list ahead of me in my local library. WOW! It sounds like one of the hottest scientific fields. I guess, I am buying the book. Thanks again!