EWF Scientific Magazine Year 2 Number 4-May-August 2016 published
- 22 Mar, 2016
EDITORIAL: WHAT WILL BECOME OF US?
Some days ago I walked into a book store and chose a book because of the extraordinary introduction in its flap cover. The title of the book is: “On the Matter of the Mind”: a classic in the field of neuroscience, masterfully writ-ten by American biologist, Gerald Maurice Edelman, Nobel Prize winner for medicine at only for-ty-three years of age, for having studied and contributed to the understanding of some important mechanisms of the immune system. The presentation says: “We are at the beginning of the revolution in neuroscience; in the end, we will know how the mind works, what governs our nature, and how we know the world.” Immediately my mind processes the concept: What will become of us? What will become of the man we know now, of his limits and his greatness? Many things in which we have believed until now, could change, or others could be con-firmed. Whatever happens and however the adventure turns out, it is of great interest not only for the entire existence of man but, in particular, in the context in which we move - the world of sports performance and human movement in general.
Often, when talking about neurology, in other words, the brain, mind and consciousness, we risk making the mistake that it is something separated from the rest of the body and we return to the famous Cartesian dualism that describes a “res cogitans” and “res extensa” to indicate that on one hand lies the spirit and on the other lies matter. Cartesian dualism, to be honest, is already present in the Greek world. Plato thinks of a world of ideas (Hyperuranion) that is distinguished from the world of bodies and describes the body as a jail in which the soul is “imprisoned”.
Today we can say that the two are neither separated, nor that the function of both is an end in itself. Both are, however, a function of the body in its entirety, and each is a function of the other. In this way we restore dignity to the body emphasising once again how their interaction constitutes a perfect equation. Recent, extraordinary advances in neuroscience show that the mind is the expression of the brain, in other ways, the result of several acquisitions and experiences that man has made over time.
The brain is, however, part of the body and there are strong, very strong links between the brain and body, to the point that one is the expression of the other. After all, whatever happens in the brain, affects the body and we know today that what happens in the organs is closely related with the mind. The mind-brain relationship is a problem with a long history.
For centuries, it has interested philosophers, theologians, psychologists, psychiatrists, doc-tors, with interpretations more or less similar or quite different, or even irreconcilable, with no chance of finding common ground. Sometimes integration leads to the rejection of one theory.
Over time, two schools of thought were generated by these positions: dualism and monism. Among contemporary dualists, a great neuroscientist John Eccles (1903-1997), speaks of parallelism between two completely different realities. One proceeding parallel to the other, forming a track on which human behaviour can “travel”. Naturally monists were not of the same opinion, with their Eleatics movement (Eleaticism flourished in the Greek colonies of southern Italy around the VI-V century B.C.), whose founder was Parmenides of Elea. He believed, in fact, that man is always faced with two paths: the path of truth (aletheia), based on reason, which leads us to know the true Being, and the path of opinion (Doxa), based on sensations, that takes us to the apparent Being. This school of thought emphasised the actual impossibility of the intellect to put together opposites reaching the contradiction of the movement and of the manifold. According to the monists, every mental expression has a corresponding neural reaction and every neural movement has a reflection in the mind. This concept is defined as belonging to materialists, who - by reducing everything to matter - consider anything outside of it a mere illusion, a mistake.
In what historical moment does the mind reach this stage? The hypothesis, according to many authors, is to regard consciousness as the result of an evolutionary process created through natural selection (Kandel).
Harry J. Jerison, a renowned psychiatrist, among many others claims that, since the dawn of life on earth, the change in animal organisms is “connected” to a significant expansion of the size of the brain, known as the process of “encephalization”.
During evolution, the amount of knowledge increased parallel to the increase in brain size, thus in-creasing intelligence and making awareness of the self more acute. Scientists later discovered that the cerebral cortex, the “more thinking” part and perhaps, most noble part of the brain, was further developed in the species that lived in more numerous social groups (Dunhar). Therefore, the group, interaction, upright posture, the establishment of a language to communicate, painting (the first graffiti), the processes of migration and the processes of survival (hunting, defence etc.), clearly channelled the evolutionary path of the human brain. This container of special cells, about one hundred billion, as many as the presumed galaxies in the universe, has enthralled and continues to fascinate scholars of every branch of science, who are committed to giving the brain a face and a size that does not belong only to interpretation or imagination. It is indeed a lengthy process, but they are slowly and persistently succeeding.
In recent years, neuroscience has embarked on a fascinating journey along a broad spectrum that includes our brains, our minds, our consciousness, our feelings, our social world, and including our moral systems and religion. As always, the human brain has been recognised either for its “uniqueness” or its lack of uniqueness. Humans were considered the only animals capable of reflecting on their own thoughts. Today, a series of data shows that this ability is also present in the animal world. We present the same chemical components and demonstrate the same physio-logical reactions of animals. We share the majority of our genes and the architecture of our brain with them. Nevertheless, the differences are huge, unfathomable, obvious. To understand the brain and the mind, is to understand man, his being and his essence. The main question of this world is to provide an answer to how the brain enables the mind to be and to work. Mental processes are still part of the dark mystery of the brain that neuroscientists are desperate to understand. Michael S. Gazzaniga, American psychologist and neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Santa Barbara, California, where he also directs the new SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, says that very soon neuroscience will replace psychology, which no longer has the means to answer questions.
Hence, the severe judgment of Gazzaniga, already expressed in “The Mind’s Past”, that “psycho-logy itself is dead”, replaced by neuroscience, a discipline in which amazing discoveries are made practically every day. Unquestionably a strong statement, but as good, patients and interested spectators, we will certainly understand the evolution of this field of research.
Neuroscience can, therefore, not only probe interiority, as a pro-cess of awareness of our ability, but it can also explore the “human consciousness”.
The major contribution to the understanding of the latest concept of consciousness has come from studies of people living with the two cerebral hemispheres separated, following trauma or surgery, which has interrupted the lines of communication between the left and the right hemisphere. The experiments conducted by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga on a split brain, show that each hemisphere can have its own awareness. These individuals live as if they have two separate minds that have their own characteristics and ability to learn, remember and feel emotion.
Normally, the two halves of the brain communicate with each other: if the right half sees an apple, the message passes through the corpus callosum to the left hemisphere, which can give a name to that apple. If there are no connections, Sperry observed, it is as if these people had “two distinct realms of conscious awareness, two systems of intuition, perception, thought and memory.” Inspired by these studies, Gazzaniga, began to support the concept of “interpreter”, emphasising the ability of the left to “interpret” our thoughts, our behaviour and our responses, both cognitive and emotional, to environmental stimuli, giving a sense to all pro-cesses of consciousness, of the mind, showing for example that the left hemisphere has many more mental capacities than the right, having the ability to think and generate hypotheses.
It is the centre of thought, of language, of speech and of the resolution of problems. It is superior in verbal, analytical and sequential tasks. The right brain, on the other hand, specialises in spatial recognition tasks, and is more inclined to synthetic, globalising and ideational tasks, including music, but is not able to “think or communicate”. It can only solve simple problems.
Together they build a system that gives a “sense” to all the information that the brain receives, interpreting thoughts, ideas, actions, cognitive and emotional aspects and connections.
Such a mechanism cannot help but “give rise to the concept of self”. We understand the concept of cognition of oneself as the “product” of various processes and as a “knowledge structure” (Kihlstrom and Klein). This level of self-awareness demonstrated by humans is “unique”.
An important part of the evolution of this magnificent structure stemmed from the fact that man is able to move, thus having the opportunity to explore new environments and to adapt to them.
Therefore, if an organ evolves, it means that it represents a plastic capacity. On this topic neuroscience shows that, over time, the brain is always willing to re-adapt and change. The brain, like life, is not a static thing, it is in constant evolution, a process of self-creation known by the term autopoiesis. The idea, then, of an immutable intelligence is “false”, declares Rose.
Research shows that it is possible to increase one’s intelligence (Dean, Morgenthaler). In experiments with chicks, rats and mice, a new experience translates into an increased neuronal activity (Kim, Baxter). These scientists strongly affirm that today’s brain of today is not like that of yesterday and will not be like tomorrow’s brain.
Dynamism produces neural connections that can be changed in two ways: from experience and from biological evolution as referred to by Aamodt, Wang. It is a phenomenon that affects our ability to think, learn, remember and plan behavioural strategies. Deprivation in childhood can, for example, interfere with brain development. Research on this matter shows that children who spent their childhood in an institution manifest disorders of brain development and behavioural problems that persist into adulthood. This dynamic process is known as the phenomenon of “synaptic plasticity” or “neuronal”.
A phenomenon that begins in the womb: a newborn baby recognises the voice of his mother and that of other people and prefers the music heard before birth (Michael Fifer). It was later discovered that the intelligence quotient (IQ) increases or decreases depending on the type of stimulation to which the infant brain is subjected.
In 1965, thanks to the discoveries of Altman and Das, the idea that the brain was made up of a fixed number of neurons and could not generate new neurons, was vanquished. Neurogenesis in the adult is now a certain fact. However, in all this movement, what is the impact of physical activity and sport on the evolution of the brain? A great deal indeed.
Physical and mental activity stimulates the secretion of neurotrophins, which support the development of neurons; It improves mental and physical agility and the health of the body during aging; it prevents damage caused by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, “sculpting” our brain, always creating new connections between neurons. In conclusion, for now, we can say that - whatever will be-come of us - we are already sure that: sports, and movement in general, favour the evolution of our brains and our intelligence.
Dr. Antonio Urso