Fwd: Memories etch sense of self

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    Memories etch sense of self

    By Chet Raymo, Globe Staff, 11/27/2001


    Neurologist Antonio Damasio suggests in his book ''Descartes'
    Error'' that the great French philosopher got it backwards: Not
    ''I think, therefore I am,'' but rather ''I am, therefore I

    Without a brain - those few pounds of red meat atop our spinal
    columns - thinking is impossible. The mind, and therefore the
    self, is inextricably embedded in our physical bodies.

    But a newborn brain is not yet a self, at least not much of one.
    A self is also a lifetime of remembered experiences, somehow
    woven into hundreds of billions of cranial neurons like a
    picture into a cloth tapestry.

    I visited my 88-year-old mother recently in Chattanooga. At one
    point in our visit, she entertained me with a song she had
    learned more than 80 years ago, ''My Grandfather's Clock.'' Some
    readers will know it:

    My Grandfather's clock was too tall for its shelf, so it stood
    90 years on the floor...

    As my mother called up the words of the song out of the distant
    past, I marveled that they still existed inside her brain, along
    with countless other shared memories that she recalls more
    vividly than I do. What a thing is human memory! No library can
    touch it for speed of recall. No computer memory can equal it
    for volume.

    It was bought on the morn of the day he was born and was always
    his pleasure and pride ...The words came tumbling out. How? How
    can that song possibly still be in there, intact, able to be
    extracted and sung without erasing? I could tell that she was
    proud to remember the song, as well she should be. The song is
    part of who she is, a brick in the mansion of her self.

    The 2000 Nobel Prize in medicine went to Eric Kandel, Paul
    Greengard, and Arvid Carlsson for studies on the physiology of
    memory. In his address to the Nobel Foundation, Kandel recounted
    his own journey into the mansions of self.

    He first became interested in the study of memory in 1950 as a
    result of his readings in psychoanalysis as an undergraduate at
    Harvard. Later, as a medical student, he began to find
    psychoanalysis limiting; it treated the brain as a black box,
    observable only from outside. Kandel wanted to open the box, to
    see what was inside - to explore the mansion of memory as flesh
    and blood.

    He was convinced that memory was biological and that human
    memory might have much in common with memory in other organisms.
    His approach, therefore, would be reductionistic: Start with the
    rudiments of memory in a simple organism, with the hope of
    eventually understanding the apparent miracle of human memory.

    Kandel took the sea slug Aplysia as his model. This fist-sized,
    shell-less, aquatic snail has several advantages as an
    experimental animal: It has only 20,000 central nerve cells,
    rather than the tens of billions in mammalian brains, and the
    cells are big, ten times bigger than human neurons. And Aplysia
    can be trained to respond to stimuli. It learns and remembers.

    When a sea slug remembers, changes happen at the places where
    nerve cells touch each other, the synapses. Kandel, and others,
    worked out the biochemistry of these changes, for both
    short-term and long-term memory, and they showed that the
    cellular and molecular changes at work in Aplysia's rudimentary
    brain are present in mammals, too.

    There may be as many as 100 billion nerve cells in the human
    brain, and each one is connected to thousands of others.
    Memories are stored as electrical and chemical changes at the
    synapses where cell communicates with cell. A scribble. A
    lifetime of experiences scribbled into flesh.

    Ninety years without slumbering, tick tock tick tock. Its life
    seconds numbering, tick tock tick tock ..."
    The biochemical approach to understanding memory has been
    wonderfully successful, but it is a long way from a sea slug to
    an 88-year-old human who can remember the words of a song
    learned more than eight decades ago. And not just a song.
    People, faces, voices, places, literature, music, telephone
    numbers, travels, likes, dislikes, loves, hurts, grandparents,
    grandchildren, birthdays, funerals, current affairs, and the
    grand pageant of human history - a vast and unique accumulation
    of memories, profound and trivial, which are a human self.

    As Kandel pointed out in his Nobel address, there is lots more
    yet to learn, and full understanding will require the combined
    efforts of molecular biologists, cognitive psychologists,
    neurologists, psychiatrists, and perhaps even computer modelers.
    The 21st century promises to be the century when we explore
    every corner of the mansions of self, and understand, at least
    in principle, how the brain gives rise to mind.

    The sea slug Aplysia has confirmed that Descartes was wrong; The
    human self is not a dualism of mind and matter, but rather an
    efflorescence of self from matter - tick tock tick tock - a
    shimmering exuberance of the stuff of the universe gathered in
    the human brain into biochemical webs of astonishing complexity.

    Chet Raymo is a professor of physics at Stonehill College and
    the author of several books on science.

    This story ran on page C2 of the Boston Globe on 11/27/2001.
    Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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