Between PBS and zombie movies everyone knows the brain looks like an oblong loaf of textured gelatin. I’ve seen some graphic illustrations that show it as a mass of little wires. The tangled mass of wires suggesting a salad of connections in a rounded obstacle course. Science has never presented a picture of what those networks of neurons look like. All of the representations we’ve seen have been educated conjecture or the vivid imagination of illustrators. Brain Wiring a No-Brainer?
The brain appears to be wired more like the checkerboard streets of New York City than the curvy lanes of Columbia, Md., suggests a new brain imaging study. The most detailed images, to date, reveal a pervasive 3D grid structure with no diagonals, say scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“Far from being just a tangle of wires, the brain’s connections turn out to be more like ribbon cables — folding 2D sheets of parallel neuronal fibers that cross paths at right angles, like the warp and weft of a fabric,” explained Van Wedeen, M.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), A.A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Harvard Medical School. “This grid structure is continuous and consistent at all scales and across humans and other primate species.”
The layer upon layer structure of this grid would strongly suggest that the options for neuron growth are not unlimited in terms of geometry. Such a plan would mean that during development the brain must stick to certain routes to discourage poor, counter productive or damaging nerve fiber development. growing nerves have to go left, right or up and down. No sweeping curvy off ramps in this highway. This probably has some evolutionary advantages by way of limiting structural imperfections. Though obviously some animals do have neural connections issues, considering the billions of cells and exponential connections between them, it has turned out to work relatively well. Until ET gets here it is rash to say this is the best nature has to offer. Though it does seem as far as life on earth goes the cross streets grid became nature’s best plan through millions of years of experimentation.
The research is by Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and published in the prestigious American Sociological Review. In the study, Gauchat uses a vast body of General Social Survey data to test three competing theses about the relationship between science and the U.S. public:
1) the cultural ascendancy thesis or “deficit model” view, according to which better education and engagement with science lead all boats to rise, and citizens across the board become more trusting of scientists and their expertise;
2) the alienation thesis, according to which modernity brings on distrust and disillusionment with science (call it the “spoiled brat” thesis if you’d like); and
3) the politicization thesis—my thesis—according to which some cultural groups, aka conservatives, have a unique fallout with science for reasons tied up with the nature of modern American conservatism, such as its ideology, the growth of its think tank infrastructure, and so on.
The result? Well, Gauchat’s data show that the politicization thesis handily defeats all contenders. More specifically, he demonstrates that there was only really a decline in public trust in science among conservatives in the period from 1974 to 2010 (and among those with high church attendance, but these two things are obviously tightly interrelated).
Chris Mooney, who wrote that post, is also the author of The Republican War on Science and the new book The Republican Brain. I remember reading an opinion column at Slate during the Bush administration by a conservative who tried to counter the anti-science argument by citing the increase of the science budget under Bush. Nice try, but most of that, as now for that matter, was spent on defense related science. I’m not against such spending in general, but that hardly makes up for cutting funds for medical research, basic research and stem cell research in particular. The other big bias in the conservative view of science and how they sculpt it to suit their agenda, is climate change. Not being able to produce any high quality research to support their claims, they have resorted to pay for play science. Paul Krugman and Jared Bernstein have both posted about how the conservative anti-science and anti-education agenda are combing to hurt the economy and America’s future prospects as a world leader in science and technology: We Don’t Need No Education
Jared Bernstein has a heartfelt lament about the priorities of the American right, and in particular the way it’s determined to slash taxes for the wealthy while slashing student aid
The squares show the percentage of older people with college education, the triangles the percentage of younger people; what we see is that almost every other nation is becoming more educated, but we’re not — and, of course, slipping rapidly down the rankings.
And yes, affordability is surely the biggest single reason for our slide. So of course, the GOP wants to make the affordability problem worse.
It’s hard not to see this development as tied to the growing conservative distrust of science (and presumably non-faith-based inquiry in general):
But hey, I’m a pointy-headed intellectual, so you can’t trust anything I say.
So the last thing you’d want to do is to cut rungs from that ladder. Yet that’s exactly what the House Republican budget, authored by Rep Paul Ryan, does. According to the White House, the budget changes “eligibility and funding under the Pell Grant formula so as to eliminate grants for 400,000 students and cut grants for more than 9 million others in 2013 alone.”
And for what? So millionaires can get a tax cut of almost $400,000, if you include both the new Ryan and the extended Bush tax cuts.
A few weeks ago I promoted a model of the current political economy wherein income inequality does not simply divert growth from the poor and middle class. If inequality gets high enough, it supports (buys?) a politics that reinforces itself. What better way to do so than to block the educational mobility of the poor and use the proceeds to enhance the rich? If it wasn’t so freakin’ tragic, it’d be laughably simple.
Mooney,Krugman and Bernstein seem to go about their analysis with the usual assumption, here is a terrible trend with awful implications for the working poor and the middle-class. Seeing this truth will move, embarrass or goad conservatives into changing course to avoid the coming – or currently occurring shipwreck. I’m tending to think that while many conservative have some cognitive issues, there are enough fairly bright ones to see what is going on in terms of public policy and like what they see. Everything is going according to plan. Being part of the wealthy plutocracy doesn’t require all that much intelligence or education. If they need brain power they can always buy it and they will always have access to the gateways of power like Harvard and Brown. If the working poor and middle-class lose ground, who cares. If the USA becomes a third-rate source of scientific or technological innovation – that is what hungry ambitious Chinese and Indians are for. The feudal overlords break the back of labor, keep everyone scared that they might lose even more ground – the peasants shop at Wal-Mart and drown their discontents in cheap beer, video games and high def sports on the flat screen from Asia.
I found another kind of human wormhole: Canadian Penny ? @CDN_Penny, I will live forever in your old purses and seasonal coats.
Retweeted by William Gibson