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"On the Other Hand"
Emmett's Blog and Essays
Feb 24, 2007
DNA Squared
Emmett explores memory and brain function...


No one really knows how we learn anything or retain any of our experiences. You study a book or read a magazine in "good faith", confident that your mind will somehow be active enough to "make the leap" from the two-dimensional page into your thoughts and memory, an apparent vortex of no dimension at all (where does it go?). We have no reliable control over this process and therefore each person's memory is "selective".

But what if your mental images and constructs had all three spacial dimensions, albeit in microscopic size? What if DNA were specialized in brain cells, different in kind from the body's DNA?

Biologists have decreed that the brain's 100 billion nerve cells in their tangle of branched dendrites somehow form the elaborate electrochemical computer we experience as consciousness, memory, personality, skills and more. In recent studies, the brain's glial cells (outnumbering the neurons some ten to one) have also demonstrated an active learning capacity beyond their assumed functions of feeding and protecting the brain's neurons - a revelation in itself!

Beyond glial cells, however, there may be a much, much greater level of complexity in the brain. Molecular biologists have relegated the incredibly dense DNA molecule to the role of a chemical machine that cuts and pastes protein tissues and secretions everywhere in the body. In their arrogance they explained away more than 90% of the giant molecule as "junk DNA", baggage from our past co-evolution with viruses. Some are now finding, on second thought, that the "junk" is "software" for shaping and combining genes to perform multiple tasks.

I see the DNA double helix protein molecule of three billion bits of information (nucleotides), present in every cell including the nerve and glial cells of the brain, as the perfect medium for storing "images" and learned experience (the "grandfather cell" resurrected.)

True, the brain's DNA serves to secrete chemicals, create synopsis and in some cases generate new nerve cells, but its specialized form may also be central to brain function itself. Intelligence could be a combination of synoptic organization of neurons plus images and experiences stored in the DNA of individual cells. The metaphor of sign language comes to mind, grand gestures running together with spelled names, where the fingers accelerate and miniaturize the information.

I feel free to admit that human consciousness and intelligence resides mostly in the brain, though holistic philosophers allude to richer, more extensive and interactive resources (the whole body and spirit among other things). The theory I'm presenting here accounts for such richness and complexity solely within the brain - read, write, storage, and much more. Several nerves all storing the same information in their DNA would insure fail-safe redundancy, firing off the complete image of your grandfather. Their simultaneous firing would amplify the "experience".

I have no hopes of resolving the age old philosophical question as to the nature of thought, memory, experience, or of consciousness itself. In all likelihood, these mental processes will never be understood by way of molecular mechanics, chemistry or electronics, but with DNA added to the equation, the super-abundant capabilities of our internal computer might come closer to matching the incredible richness of our real life experience and consciousness.

According to "The Other Half of the Brain" in the April 2004 issue of Scientific American, the brain's glial cells outnumber the neurons nine to one, as if we needed another multiplier. The author, R. Douglas Fields, builds acoustic guitars as a hobby, so he must know what he's talking about. In an intriguing paragraph on page 59, middle of column 1, he states:

"ATP released from an axon was indeed triggering calcium influx into Schwann cells. Using biochemical analysis and digital microscopy, we also showed that the influx caused signals to travel from the cells' membrane to the nucleus, where the genes are stored, causing various genes to switch on. Amazingly, by firing to communicate with other neurons, an axon could instruct the readout of genes in a glial cell and thus influence its behavior."

Could it be that such a genetic "readout" performs a mental function in the brain and possibly in other nerve cells as well? The scientific community has grudgingly come to admit the possibility of hard-wired behavior regulated by DNA. These would be the animal instincts. But why rule out the possibility that the brain's DNA might be more highly specialized, that is, active, responsive, switching, capable of learning, able to somehow reconfigure itself like an incredibly long DIP switch?

This theory of intelligence should not be confused with the long discredited Soviet theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Such additional capability, spanning the generations, would require the male and female germ cells to collaborate with the neurons in some form of reconfiguration and responsiveness to experience. It's more likely that the brain's DNA, if it is indeed capable of learning, would have no influence on the germ cells, thus life experience would die with the individual - each person's life and mind a unique portrait.

Let's see, 100 billion neurons, times 10 (to include the glial cells), times 3 billion DNA nucleotides. Will that be enough processing and storage to encompass the universe inside a single skull?

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