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Synaptic gasp, neural architectonics and Descartes’ error

November 29, 2006


This is a work in process vaguely entitled Synaptic Gasp. The synaptic cleft in the human brain reminds me of the gap between the hand of God and Adam in Michaelangelo’s visualization of Creation.

Neurons must be triggered by a stimulus to produce nerve impulses, which are waves of electrical charge moving along the nerve fibres. When the neuron receives a stimulus, the electrical charge on the inside of the cell membrane changes from negative to positive. A nerve impulse travels down the fibre to a synaptic knob at its end, triggering the release of chemicals (neurotransmitters) that cross the gap between the neuron and the target cell, stimulating a response in the target (Baggaley 2001:104).

My mind is stuck on the image of the gap. That’s the leap of faith between that which we can know and that which is beyond our capacity to know. In the human brain this synaptic gap is so microscopic no one has ever seen it. But there are amazing images that are somewhat like science fiction as artists attempt to compile scientific data into visualizations of what it might look like. I am not attempting to be a science illustrator. But I think somehow this image will be like a cartography of a way of thinking that resonates more with complex hyperlinkages than with the human brain. I have been working on this Adobe Photoshop Image which seems to keep getting larger and larger.

This is the Synaptic Gasplarger version of Synaptic Gasp,
originally uploaded by ocean.flynn.

I used the starry night wallpaper for the background. I did a pencil drawing of the the neural architecture learning as I was drawing. And I keep making sketches of close-ups so now I am trying to imagine terminal nerve fibres entwined in neurofilament, proteins at the interface of the downstream end of neuron’s dendritic spine and an excitary synapse.

The brain is a supersystem of systems. Each system is composed of an elaborate interconnection of small but macroscopic cortical regions and subcortical nuclei, which are made of microscopic local circuits, which are made of neurons, all of which are connected by synapses (Damasio 1994:30).

Damasio’s elegant text reads like poetry. He describes the neural underpinnings of reason and challenges Cartesian dualisms of mind/body, emotions/reason. Feelings and logical thinking are not like oil and water.

The “body [. . .] represented in the brain [constitutes] an indispensable frame of reference for the neural process that we experience as the mind (Damasio 1994:xvi).”

Our bodies are the ground reference for the construction we make of the world. Our embodied selves construct the ever-present sense of subjectivity, our experience. The body becomes is the instrument through which we construct our most refined thoughts and actions (Damasio 1994:xvi).

Churchland takes this reasoning to imply that we, our subjective selves — our very consciousness — are merely chemical reactions, synapses firing across synaptic gaps for purely physical reasons that science alone (not religion) will one day explain and interpret for us.

The ontology of things ─ objects, substance, stuff are all one thing ─ raises questions about the world’s origin or original principle (arche) and its nature (physis). The Conflicting-Worlds model holds that science and religion are mutually exclusive ways of knowing. Science is one ontological perspective, a way of studying what exists and ways of being of different kinds of things. Religion provides another ontological perspective or another way of adding something to the study of what exists. Those who adopt the Same-Worlds-Model, argue that science and religion are different epistemologies not different ontologies. Probably most of those who believe in the Same-Worlds-Model believe in a Higher Power, a God, Divine Architect in some form, who created man with the capacity and responsibility to explore logic, pure mathematics and physics. I can believe what I want but I like to read from both sides of the Möbius Strip.

Flashback: A uniformed unsmiling, fully armed police officer pulled me over. What had I done? What was I, my young, idealistic, apolitical and therefore politically naïve self ─ doing there in a Third World country under an unstable, potentially dangerous, communist, military dictatorship? The officer leaned into the open window on the passenger side of our old Renault 4. There was a long silent pause as he decided what to do with this flushed creature whose hands were clenched on the steering wheel like a ship’s railing in a storm. He reached in and picked up the book on the front car seat and calmly asked me a question in a voice that could have been saying, “Did you know you failed to stop back there?” But that’s not what he asked. Instead, I can still hear his words even decades later. He asked me, “Do you pray?” Is this a threat? No, he was fingering the book entitled Livres de prière indicating that he too prayed and would appreciate having the book. As I drove away trembling I looked in the rear view mirror as he opened the book, then pocketed it.

After I returned to my Western home and graduate studies, I could not forget this incident which repeated itself in many forms. In spite of the pervasive even dogmatic message that the logical next step in human consciousness resided in the 20th century’s western form of atheism, humanism and materialism most people  many still living in fragmented nation states that were former colonies ─ still believe that humans are spiritual beings and that some form of prayer unites us all even if it is a silent “Help!”

For more on the body/mind duality debate see Dawkins, Pinker, Fodor, Searle. According to Richard Dawkins (1976 SG, 2006 GD) these scientific and religious ways of knowing are conflicting and mutually exclusive.

Heraclites described the ontological ultimate stuff a process, a ceaseless flux like fire, not a substance retaining its identity through time.

These sources include:

Baggaley, Ann, Ed. (2001), “Anatomy of the Human Body,” Human Body, Dorling Kindersley Publishing: NY, p. 104.
Damasio, Antonio R., 1994, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Grosset/Putnam: New York.
Damasio, Hanna, (1994) “Gage’s skull, illustrations” in Damasio, Antonio R., 1994, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Grosset/Putnam: New York. p. 31-2.
Johnson, Graham, (2005), “The Synapse Revealed,” 23 September 2005, Science Magazine and the National Science Foundation. The first place winner of the Science and Engineering Visualization Challengewas Graham Johnson from Medical Media, Boulder, Colorado. His image is described on Science Magazine’s web page:

Deep inside the brain, a neuron prepares to transmit a signal to its target. To capture that fleeting moment, Graham Johnson based this elegant drawing on ultra-thin micrographs of sequential brain slices. After scanning a sketch into 3D modeling software, he colored the image and added texture and glowing lighting reminiscent of a scanning electron micrograph.

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