08 January 2009

Learning things

I have been learning things.

The things that I have learned have changed my mind - physically. That's what happens when you learn. The process alters neuronal connections to create new ones; to strenghten some, to weaken others so that over time the physical structure of the neocortex changes.

Those of us who don't hold any fuzzy Cartesian dualist notions of a mind/body split will not find this surprising. After all, everything is made of atoms. It's difficult to shake the notion of mind being separate though. We have so much ingrained vocabulary that reinforces it. But it's a straightjacket - carrying around this ethereal element which we think of as 'me' but which we cannot explain.

Learning about neuroscience is important. Surely it's an essential grounding for any field of human intellectual endeavour. How can a philospher, for example, opine about the nature of the mind and the human condition if she has no idea where or how her opinions are being generated, stored and reinforced?

Dendrites, the antennae of neurons, are a little like trees - hence the name derived from Greek. Some types of dendrite have 'spines'. The dendrite as a whole and the quality and quantity of the spines are affected by many environmental factors. The 'trees' can grow well or poorly. Their environment may be the cortex of a Downs Syndrome child, in which case many will be stunted and withered, as we would perhaps expect. But a similar 'withering' effect can be observed in the neurons of children with a poor social environment, bereft of proper human interaction and nurturing.

Cartesion dualism is wrong. We are biological and our 'minds' are generated by biochemical processes within our brains. Isn't that liberating.

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