Thursday, September 30, 2010

I am More than My Genes

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I spend a lot of time thinking.

I think about things like what came before the Big Bang? If the universe is finite, then what is beyond its borders? How should I best take advantage of the gift of life? What is the allure of reality TV? What makes me me?

Consider that last question for a moment. What makes me me?

First, let's go back to the beginning.  I am the product of my parents’ chromosomes combining to create my unique DNA. Although we tend to inherit the traits of our ancestors, the process by which an individual’s genetic code is formed has a degree of randomness to it. What if things had gone just a bit differently on that fateful day when I was conceived? Would I still be me? What if Dad had decided to have one more sip of his drink?  What if Mom had to sneeze?  What if a butterfly flapped its wings in China?  If anything had changed that day, then the random process of my DNA creation would have been ever so slightly altered.

If I had blue eyes instead of brown, intuitively I would say that I am still me. Eye color is incidental to who I am, not essential. If I was 5’ 7” tall instead of 5’ 11”, I would still be me. But what if my IQ was 20 points higher or lower, my hair color was blond instead of brown, I didn’t have a genetic predisposition to MS, my build was slight instead of husky, and I tended to be rash and emotional instead of logical and calm? When, in this continuum of differences, would I cease to be me and become someone else instead?

Of course this is just a thought exercise, because I am who I am, genetically. My DNA does not change. It was established at conception. But I love to ponder questions like this, nevertheless. I can’t help myself.

Now let's look forward from birth, to try to answer the question “what makes me me?” My DNA is a blueprint for who I am, but because my body and my brain are also influenced by experiences and environment, my DNA does not determine exactly what I will look like or how I will behave throughout my life. For example, a person's DNA would not account for a missing finger from a lawnmower accident. A person's DNA would not completely account for psychological damage from abuse. So if we are more than our genes, then what are we, and what do we call it?

Sebastian Seung is an MIT researcher who is pursuing this philosophical question from a neuroscientist’s perspective. If these sorts of abstract mysteries intrigue you, you might enjoy the video, below. If you are too busy feeding the baby, looking for a job, or trying to figure out if your spouse is cheating on you, I understand and accept that you simply may not give a damn.

Note that this talk is designed for a general audience, not an audience of other neuroscientists.

If you did watch the above video, consider this with me. Since I have a brain disease, how has it reshaped my connectome? And if “I am my connectome,” as Seung hypothesizes, then who would I have been without MS? I’ll never know.
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  1. Ooh, good one. I like the TED talks. I enjoyed and appreciated Seung's hypothesis, but I disagree. My body has a connectome. I am not my body.

    I am a spiritual being having a human experience.

    I think the human brain is miraculous and as incomprehensible to me as the infinity of the universe. I like to think about these things too. I could contemplate them forever but like you said at the end of your post "I'll never know."

    I may be correct or I may be wrong. Either is fine with me.

  2. Hiya Mitch! I watched that talk just yesterday too! My favorite part of his talk is the zooming into the mouse brain slice to show the nerves, synapses, and vesicles.

    The way I see it MS connectomes are seemingly randomly modified at a variable rate by incompletely understood processes. Killing off myelin is controlled by the immune system (per current theory) which points to something important - that processes outside the brain control the connectome too.

    I do not believe an individual is defined by their DNA, connectome, blood type, or gender in isolation. Humans are not entirely human to begin with - each person has 10x the bacterial cells as human cells. It seems to me that a human is inseparable from its environment, both in the macro external perspective and also internally as food stuffs, brain food, and disease processes mill about.

    Who would Mitch be without MS? Still Mitch mostly. I think the connectome incompletely describes an individual.

  3. Ouch! That one actually hurt. Maybe my synapses are too far gone already. I'll have to ponder this another day. Right now I have to figure out how to get my socks and shoes on.

  4. Love brain talk. And we need more philosophers today. Every butterflies wing movement--the variables are infinte on who we will be tomorrow. Life has plasticity, just like our brains. We are all the constant changes.