Posts Tagged ‘the human brain’

In Which The Complaint Is Longer Than The Original Piece

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Something that caught my eye in the news the other day: an article about scientists discovering a potential genetic link to depression. Whilst the subject itself is interesting, and we will get to that in a moment, this article also provides us an illustrative example of the problem with overly-simplistic science reporting. In this case, it is playing up to a popular misconception about the nature of genetics, by stating that the genes in question actively cause depression. This is almost certainly wrong, for reasons which experts would have a much easier time explaining, but I will give it a shot.

All human behaviour, to varying extents, is the product of a complex interaction between genes and environment (additionally, you could also say that genes construct phenotypes – some of which, such as the psychological makeup of the human brain, become a kind of third player in this interaction, transcending their genetic origins but also acting independently of any environmental influences). The idea of genes playing a predominant role in this process is kind of like suggesting that all you need is the recipe to know how a meal is going to taste. If you don’t go to the trouble of gathering the necessary ingredients, cooking them, and actually eating the final product, you’re going to miss out on a lot of important information. And even then, you can’t speak authoritatively about the recipe, because variations in ingredients and the cooking process will produce subtlely – or even substantially – different results each time.

Depression is no different in this regard, and its status as a problem that has both genetic and environmental roots is fairly well accepted by most experts. And yet the idea of a neat genetic cause remains appealing, both here and with many other problems, for a couple of reasons. First is just the basic simplicity of it – but whilst simplicity is of course highly valued in science, this simplicity should never come at the expense of fact. Elegant simplicity, encompassing all the known facts, is the real ideal to strive for. And secondly, there is a strange comfort that people seem to derive from the idea of genetic predeterminism, even when it causes significant problems, because it negates responsibility for any actions that may have otherwise caused said problems. In other words, no one has to modify their behaviour to prevent depression in this scenario, because it’s just genes and there’s not much you can do about it. Naturally, this is especially appealing to people who don’t actually suffer from depression, but whose actions or beliefs may have contributed to other people’s problems with the disease.

In reality, most people with depression can trace it back to an environmental cause, though the actual nature of those causes can vary greatly, from interpersonal problems to physical injuries to any number of odd and unexpected things. But of course, if the causes are so varied and widespread, why do some people suffer from it and not others? This is where the genetic component comes in: theoretically, genes may provide a predisposition towards depression in some people, explaining why they react differently to others when presented with the same stimulus. As a general rule of thumb, this is usually how genes work: they can only create a predisposition towards certain behaviours, which is then fulfilled or altered by environmental conditions. Some predispositions are easily changed, whilst others require a more complex confluence of factors before they will start to shift, but generally speaking, humans have evolved to be highly malleable and to adapt to a wide range of environments – including entirely artificial environments of their own creation. Indeed, one of the largely unique functions of the human brain is its ability to override its own predisposed behavioural patterns, which is why we can adapt so readily to new environments, and is also why we possess some semblance of biologically-constrained free will. Additionally, contrary to what you may at first assume, knowledge of our genetic predispositions doesn’t excuse behaviour (ie. you won’t be able to say, “this person has the dickhead gene, therefore they can’t help being a dickhead”) – in fact, this knowledge is actually more likely to make it easier to change these predisposed tendencies. In much the same way that it’s easier to control your hands when you can see what they’re doing, as opposed to groping about in the dark, self-knowledge often empowers the brain to overcome its own limitations. So, you know, it’s not something we should be particularly afraid of, even though many people seem to be, in my own experience at least.

The real trick here, if you want to understand how human behaviour works, is trying to unravel a tremendously convoluted chain of cause and effect – which is why simplistic explanations like “genes cause depression” usually fall apart fairly quickly. I expect the actual answers will be somewhat harder to pry out.

While we’re on the subject, one interesting point to come out of this discovery is that a genetic predisposition to depression may help strengthen the theory that depression has some adaptive value, under the right circumstances. This will largely depend on whether these genes have been actively selected for, as opposed to just being a harmful mutation or an unfortunate by-product of some other beneficial process. Whilst depression is generally a debilitating problem, especially once it spirals out of control, it is also unusual in the sense that it actively reshapes the brain’s thought processes to make it better at solving problems. Most of the harmful symptoms of depression only occur because the brain is devoting too much of its finite resources to this effort, thereby neglecting other important functions. Which means that if depression occurs in response to a genuine problem, the person may well be in the optimum position to solve this problem, assuming their depression doesn’t go too far and drag them under entirely. If it does give people an edge when it comes to problem-solving, then this benefit may be enough for natural selection to favour it, despite the unpleasant side effects (especially if the side effects of failing to solve problems are significantly worse, which is not hard to imagine). But this idea is still fairly speculative, and the debate is far from over.

To return to the original article, we should probably ask the question: did the reporter actively misunderstand the concept, or were they simply trying to create a quick summary and didn’t realise the implications of their imprecise language? (This is a common problem in science – as I have often discovered in the past, even if you have a basic understanding of a concept, there’s still like a thousand ways you can get the terminology wrong.) Or alternatively: is it perhaps an accurate record of an overzealous announcement by one of the research teams in question? Well, here is one of the papers referenced in the article, so check it out for yourself. You’ll notice they are rather more conservative in their wording, revealing the actual nature of their discovery: they are merely documenting an interesting and potentially significant correlation, not the be-all and end-all causal link suggested by the subsequent article reporting their findings. Unfortunately, as usual, the real science is rather more boring and messy than most people would like.

Ultimately, this is just another reminder to remain skeptical about information that has filtered through the science news cycle.

Regression

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I was listening to Dream Theater’s Metropolis Part Two: Scenes From A Memory the other day, for the first time in a while. It’s been almost a decade since I was first introduced to what most fans would agree is Dream Theater’s best album (it’s either that or Images And Words), but even today, it still sounds as sweet as it did back then. I don’t want to understate this: from a purely musical perspective, it is an awesome feat, and demonstrates the ability of metal to convey a wide range of emotions, far apart from the narrow and angst-ridden, anti-social view that most people have of the genre. Indeed, it’s one of the main reasons why I first became interested in metal, back in the day.

From a lyrical point of view, however, the intervening years have not been kind.

It is a concept album, recounting a somewhat convoluted story involving hypnosis, past lives, reincarnation, and just in general, what happens after you die. But whilst they might have avoided specific Christian imagery and instead opted for more of a generic spiritual…ness, make no mistake, they are a Christian band, and this album is a fairly transparent representation of their views. I mention this because the end result is actually a conveniently straightforward list of reasons why religion is still a Thing – so it may prove to be a useful resource for anyone who looks at these bizarre monoliths of ancient dogma still attached like barnacles to the whale of our glorious civilisation and asks the inevitable question: WHY?? (Especially if you want your ponderings to be accompanied by excellent music.)

I’m not going to bother with a detailed analysis of the lyrics, because it’s all fairly basic stuff (I mean, thematically – trying to follow the actual storyline takes a more concerted effort). If you’re pressed for time, though, then just go to the penultimate track, “The Spirit Carries On“, because it acts as the summary sheet for everything that you’re supposed to learn from this story. LaBrie even states quite unironically that he used to be afraid of death until arbitrarily deciding that some ethereal part of his being will survive into eternity, and then like magic, his fears disappeared. That’s religion in a nutshell, my friends.

The line that really gets me, though, is when he says “I may never prove what I know to be true.” No. Just… fucking no, man. Not being able to prove something is the exact opposite of knowing it is true. And I have to ask, if you’re just going to decide that something is true without any evidence to back it up, then why do you even care about proof at all? If the presence or absence of proof has no bearing on your beliefs, then the whole concept is irrelevant anyway. It’s as if he sees proof as some sort of window dressing that he is happy to display when it lines up with his worldview, but if it doesn’t, then, you know, whatever. It’s not important. Because he knows that he’s right.

The significance of this logical trap is somewhat deceptive, I think. People tend to see faith as either a sort of security blanket (the argument I have used in the past) or alternatively, as some sort of noble dedication to higher ideals. But I have come across a better definition: it is the only known cure for that most annoying of existential problems, doubt. In other words, it is one of the dumbest acts of self-sabotage you can inflict upon yourself.

Like most people, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my time searching for ways to get rid of doubt. I can be quite hesitant and indecisive even at the best of times, I have social anxieties and other problems, and it just seems like everything would run a whole lot more smoothly if I could just jettison all that doubt and get on with things. But I’ve come to realise lately that that would actually be a disastrous achievement. Doubt is good. And the only reason we don’t realise this is because the only doubt we encounter on a regular basis is our own. Everyone else keeps theirs safely hidden away in their own minds, because we are all operating the exact same delusion – that everyone is more confident than us, and that our doubt is somehow unique. I can pretty much guarantee that the only people who don’t feel this way are those select few who are either too ignorant or too deluded to realise how frighteningly small their own depth of knowledge is compared to the unimaginably vast amount of information that exists in the universe. And while they may seem to be better off, with their false confidence and all the rest, they really aren’t. They are trapped in their own vortices of circular logic, which they will in all likelihood never emerge from. They will never get to experience the entirely new and uncharted delusions of the free-thinking individual, amiright lol.

So when you introduce faith into this equation, to quell that quiet voice in the back of your mind that is incessantly asking “but what if I’m wrong?”, what you are really doing is shutting down your capacity for growth. This is why religion closes people’s minds. You’ve found a nice little cottage, everything seems to be in working order as far as you can tell, so you just say to yourself, fuck it, I’m going to live here, I don’t care if there might be nicer places further down the road. Doubt, as it turns out, is actually the force that keeps pushing you down that road, because even if you passed some decent places along the way, you just want to go and check if there’s something better around that next corner.

Okay, yeah, people certainly have a right to set up camp wherever they wish. My main complaint here is just that it is just such a fucking waste. Billions of years of evolution have given rise to an immensely powerful tool which is, right now, decoding strange patterns in the beams of light being emitted from the screen in front of you and translating them into a language of its own devising, triggering a cascade of electronic pulses and chemical reactions which result in you reading a sentence about what is happening when you read this sentence. And that’s not even one of its main functions. I don’t care who you are, if you have a brain, you can do some amazing things – if you open yourself up to all possibilities, including the ones which make you uncomfortable or fearful. Which means that instead of trying to force everything to fit in with some kind of pre-existing idea, you have to sit back and let your brain do its thing. Your brain is designed to take in information, analyse it, compare it with information it already possesses, and finally, to produce new ideas from this raw data. That is its friggin’ job, and the delusions of faith and certainty only serve to hinder that process.

I mean, do you have any idea how incredible brains are? Just think about it, you guys. These things arose through entirely natural processes, with no guiding hand or pre-existing blueprint. That’s fucking amazing. Fuck! I’m tripping myself out just writing this, man. I’ve gotta go lie down for a while.

ETA:

Okay, I feel bad for ragging on Dream Theater in this post (I’m just frustrated because the music I like so rarely has lyrics I can relate to). There are a couple more points I should add: perhaps the most important being that their religious views played a major role in helping singer James LaBrie and drummer Mike Portnoy overcome some pretty serious personal problems (specifically, depression and social anxieties for LaBrie, and alcoholism for Portnoy). When people find a way to deal with such problems, regardless of the nature of that solution, they tend to latch onto it wholeheartedly, and naturally become blinded to any faults present in their newfound beliefs. But for most people, this levels out after a while, and once they begin to feel like they’ve really put their problems behind them, they may feel comfortable enough to start asking some harder questions about their own views. I think, to their credit, you can see this evolution occurring in some of Dream Theater’s later albums, where they start dealing with some of the more problematic issues surrounding religion. They are still operating from a decidedly deistic viewpoint, but they are at least adopting a more questioning attitude, and personally I think there is only one inevitable destination once you start down that road, so long as you pursue it honestly.

So basically, it is interesting to compare Scenes From A Memory with songs like “In The Name Of God” or “The Great Debate” – and even more interesting to think about where these questions might lead them in the future.