Against Antineurogenesis


For those of us of a certain age, the truism was passed down that the human brain was more-or-less fixed at or short after birth. The neurons you had at the time of fixing were all that you would have your entire life and the brain was a rather obstinate and immaleable organ.

Jonah Lehrer recounts the work of Elizabeth Gould, who in 1989 began exploring the question of neurogenesis and discovered that, in fact, the human brain is a highly malleable organ with new neurons being generated regularly.

from Proust was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

Neuroscience is just beginning to discover the profound ramifications of this discovery. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that modulates learning and memory, is continually supplied with new neurons, which help us to learn and remember new ideas and behaviors. Other scientists have discovered that antidepressants work by stimulating neurogenesis (at least in rodents) , implying that depression is ultimately caused by a decrease in the amount of new neurons, and not by a lack of seratonin. A new class of antidepressants is being developed that targets the neurogenesis pathway. For some reason, newborn brain cells make us happy.

And while freedom remains an abstract idea, neurogenesis is cellular evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving. Eliot was right: to be alive is to be ceaselessly beginning. As she wrote in Middlemarch, the "mind [is] as active as phosphorus." Since we start every day with a slightly new brain, neurogenesis ensures that we are never done with our changes. In the constant turmoil of our cells--in the irrepressible plasticity of our brains--we find our freedom.

The last sentence may be hyperbole (I'd have to give it more consideration that I have done), however, it is amazing to me that these insights should have been lilnked to the work of George Eliot. The human mind is capable of linking ideas that at first blush seem to have nothing to do with one another. It is this linking of ideas that moves us forward in science, the arts, and even civilization.

Someday, perhaps, we'll be able to make the logical, empathetic, and obvious link that a child in the womb is indeed a living creature separate from and dependent upon the mother for some period of time. Wouldn't it be marvelous if the implications of that statement could take hold of our collective hearts and minds and bring us out of the age of barbarism that we cast ourselves into in the name of some fictive freedom?

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 18, 2009 7:33 AM.

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