Evolution of the neuron

I have just read, albeit slowly, Werner R. Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. Having finished the book, I can attest I understand his argument even though my grasp of the physics involved is decidedly at the novice level. The last three chapters of the book were what drew me to reading it in the first place–those chapters cap the text with his model of how Evolution (he anthropomorphizes the theory) “chose to design”–in its exemplary, concise way–complex systems that led not just to life but to sentience.

Loewenstein compares neuro/biological processes with computers in terms of their being processors of information from the environments. He seems enthusiastic about computers in general, but he argues that artificial intelligence remains far away from evolving into sentience because consciousness requires many kinds of parallel processing that intersect and interact and filter out information. That complexity, he claims, will be difficult to engineer; yet over eons, the process of evolution accomplished it through a combination of physics, chemistry, and biology.braintrust-small

Loewenstein prioritizes the physics aspect: how electrical pulses in neurons parallel electrical pulses (attraction and repulsion) in atoms, how these behaviors can combine to create compounds or release energy; he uses analogies and spends several chapters on the eye, its neurons and dendrites and cones and rods, to demonstrate how a system of information reception and filtering can occur that relays information to the brain and then back to other information receptors and actors in the body of a worm, bird, or human being. Get enough relay systems going, and sight + touch + smell + hearing + taste evolve into the living animal. At some point, the multiple parallel information systems develop into consciousness (Loewenstein does not speculate where that point occurs–it is still “a mystery,” he admits).

~

Douglas Fox, writing in Aeon, quotes neuroscientist Leonid Moroz as saying, “There is more than one way to make a neuron, more than one way to make a brain.” In this fascinating article, Fox follows Moroz’s lengthy study of ctenophores, jellyfish-like creatures about which little is understood–though Moroz and his team of researchers are changing that. At the same time, their work suggests that our previous understanding of brain development is not necessarily the only model out there for how neurons and synapses can get information processed and acted upon to sustain a life. If that life is lived under very different environmental circumstances, maybe evolution might “choose” different paths of systematic information processing (ie, “thinking”).

…when he failed to find common neurotransmitters in ctenophore nerves back in 1995, it wasn’t simply that his tests weren’t working; rather, it was because the animal wasn’t using them in any way. This, says Moroz, was ‘a big surprise’.

‘We all use neurotransmitters,’ he says. ‘From jellyfish to worms, to molluscs, to humans, to sea urchins, you will see a very consistent set of signalling molecules.’ But, somehow, the ctenophore had evolved a nervous system in which these roles were filled by a different, as-yet unknown set of molecules.

Fox poses the researchers’ questions this way: “how divergent can nervous systems be? Do we truly understand how life senses its surroundings and behaves?” Science has generally, post-Darwin, followed a straight-line approach to evolution; but good scientists recognize that sometimes the road less traveled by has made all the difference.

 

Although the very idea of “sentient jellyfish” might appall many people, I wonder what sort of consciousness ctenophores would develop.  🙂

Advertisements

A little honey, a little sun

Today, something to soothe the collective psyche, to ward off anxiety and remind us that we cannot move through this life totally fearlessly, but we can move through this life.

Ann E. Michael honeybee

~

Take from my palm, to soothe your heart
a little honey, a little sun,
in obedience to Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat that was never moored,
nor hear a shadow in its furs,
nor move through thick life without fear.

Osip Mandelstam, tr. Clarence Brown & W.S. Merwin

There’s more to this poem–three further stanzas–and I am re-reading it today, over and over, as if to memorize its quietly unfolding lines:

For us, all that’s left is kisses
tattered as the little bees

 

The poignancy of that image nearly kills me. Yet, soon enough in the poem (and elsewhere), Mandelstam’s bees die; but they also hum in the night, in the woods, “in the mint and lungwort of the past.” They make a sun out of honey. They warm the chill of winter’s approach; like kisses, they can soothe our hearts.

~

I have read some severe criticism of translations of Mandelstam’s poetry. Brodsky’s work, Merwin’s…Russian speakers suggest no translation adheres at all closely to the original. Rose Styron and Olga Carlyle’s version is here in Paris Review. And here’s a version (tr. uncredited) in The Atlantic. A bilingual version resides here, if you happen to know Russian and can weigh in on the translation controversy (Mandelstam himself reportedly hated reading verse in translation).

But here is why I am holding this poem close to myself today:

The poem acknowledges the fear that resides in all of us.

The poem reminds us that we have much to share. That we can soothe one another’s hearts.

Namaste.

 

The color orange

bouquet

Late summer bouquet five days past its first blush…

~
The crickets are raising their “voices” each night; the darkness lasts a little longer, and the color orange emerges from the green of midsummer to remind us of all that is beautiful in the world, despite __________________________ [insert your list of unpleasant, tragic, disheartening things].

Here is my encomium to the Mexican sunflower, tithonia rotundifolia, a favorite of bees and monarch butterflies and also a favorite of my daughter’s, so it has special aesthetic-emotional appeal for me. The poem I’d like to write to the sunflower has not yet materialized, so praise in prose will have to do for now.

mexican sunflower, bee by Ann E Michael

Autumn approaches. I like autumn, though some of my dear ones do not–but one thing universally salvages the early weeks of the season, no matter how a person feels about the encroaching cooler weather: orange. Even people who don’t care for the color in clothing or decor admit that, in nature, the color orange attracts the eye, enlivens a scene, brightens the dullest corner.

Nasturtiums, zinnias, the last hurrah of daylilies, butterflyweed, and early-turning foliage such as sumac and sassafras sport the color well. There are also pumpkins and squashes warming up fields; and in some areas, there are butterflies wearing the hue: monarchs, viceroys, fritillaries.

But nothing delights in a bright red-orange so well as the Mexican sunflower, which evokes the warm climate of its designation and likely origin (I haven’t done a great deal of research on the plant. I know that tithonia diversifolia is native to the region of Central Mexico and am merely guessing that the rotundifolia variety has its roots there, too–excuse the pun).

monarch.ann e michael

It sports well with one of its showiest pollinators, the gorgeous, orange, monarch butterfly.

Tithonia likes full sun and does not mind a bit of drought–all reasons it managed well in Mexico. It’s also ridiculously happy in the American Northeast, at least in the Mid-Atlantic region where I garden. The plants grow 6-9 feet tall and are veritable fountains of pleasing, brilliant points in the late-summer garden. They attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and small songbirds and have few pests. Deer dislike their “hairy” leaves, and slugs and beetles seem also unimpressed with their food qualities.

Or perhaps the “pests” appreciate the blooms’ aesthetic value, as I do. [Okay, too much anthropomorphism there, I admit.] tithonia.2sm

Furthermore, as long as I get out to the garden and dead-head the plants regularly, they bloom right up until the first hard frost.

And they cut well for bouquets (see the not-excellent photo above).

When there is so much sorrow going on in the world, it may seem odd that a flowering plant can offer respite–a moment or two of awe, of joy, the discovery of a bumblebee with its legs pollen-yellow or a monarch’s slim proboscis coiled just above brilliantly golden stamens amid a red-hot orange daisy-shaped blossom…and maybe, above, an autumn-blue sky.

Not art, but nature. Both valuable to human creatures.

 

Mind & gray matter

After an interlude of fiction-reading and the start of the semester, during which there is little time for personal reading, I have returned to some of the topics of neurology, consciousness, and the evolution of the story-telling mind that have so often diverted me from–yet influenced my thinking on–poetry.

Just a brief overview of my “difficult books” of the past four or five years…I have a background in philosophy and, to a much lesser extent, theology. Both disciplines endeavored over thousands of years to explain why we think the way we do and why or how we reason, make decisions, and make clearly unreasonable decisions.

The Free Will paradox, the Mind-Body Problem, ethics, tribalism, the body politic, you name it.

My thinking tends to sway slightly Eastern in terms of intention, mindful behavior, and non-theistic compassion despite my being raised pretty much Western Protestant with Enlightenment ethics and values (also compassion, as based upon the teachings of Jesus).

Throw in a bit of psychology built upon philosophical foundations, Freud, William James, Darwin, Thoreau, and my constant searching for what makes a being conscious, and I end up with an eclectic but not unreasonable reading list.

Also poetry. But I digress.

Here’s the barest outline of my more recent forays into understanding the probably not-understandable: I read Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe to obtain a grasp of a chemistry-and-statistically-based (Boolean) thinking concerning how consciousness may have arisen in the universe and whether we Earthly human beings may not be entirely alone as conscious beings in a huge and expanding cosmos. Frances Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis offers a biologist’s view of how we ought to go about trying to study consciousness and its evolution based upon biological science. Douglas Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop, a deeply engaging look at an interdisciplinary concept of consciousness, examines evolution, biology, neurology, and a bit of physics and philosophy; Dennett & Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh grounds philosophy in neurological underpinnings. Just to be sure the physicists are not overlooked in my overview of consciousness, I’m now reading Werner Lowenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain.

Referenced in almost all of these books are Patricia Churchland, the D’Amasios, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Kuhn, Charles Darwin, Descartes, and Kant.

To name a few.

brad-hammonds-flikr-books

~

What good has this reading done me, in terms of understanding what constitutes consciousness, from what it is derived, and how it evolved? Do I know any more than I did about human beings? I certainly know more about the human body, especially the brain, than I did. I know more about the cellular level of information processing and more about theories people have posited during the past centuries–and what aspects of those theories seem to have had either intuitive, reasonable influence or scientific (empirical) value.

That last paragraph appears to be question-dodging, doesn’t it?

~~

I love to read. I love human beings. I love the phenomena of the visible and experiential world. I love the urgent fuel of creativity. Can that be enough, for now?

In time, maybe I will come to accept the fraying of the consciousness, the decay of memory and the intimate Beloveds as they fade into senility or pass out of the tactile world.