Are We More Than Our Connectomes?

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...
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A few of you read my New Year’s reflection musing over the cosmic dimensions from cell to supernova and our place in the greater scheme of things.

Across this vast realm, we know best the experiences within our grasp and perhaps find most relevant in our explorations those lines of investigation that might bring a better understanding of the “space within”–of who and what and why we are.

That vast inner space has been given a new name, our “connectome“–a mental frontier equivalent to the cellular “genome” that like our DNA,  to some degree hardwires our behavior and personality. But is our DNA plus our connectome a complete explanation of man?

Sabastian Seung, in this TED video, thinks that “If we understood the way our neurons connect — our connectome — we would understand ourselves.” And yet, he has his audience chanting “we are more than our connectomes.”

With a complete map of every synapse in a human brain (they are different in each one of us the same way that our DNA is didfferent) I’m not so sure we we know anything more than how the wires are connected. An understanding of why they have come to be connected in just such a way over vast stretches of time would have to derive from a realm of knowledge beyond the wiring diagram, just like a radio’s complete circuitry blueprint would not help us understand the meaning and significance of a broadcast of Midsummer Night’s Dream received by that radio.

Is the whole nothing more than the sum of its parts?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fred, I was going to share this article on my Facebook page, when I noticed you don’t have one those little gadget that lets you share with Facebook, Twitter and other social media!

  2. We are only on the very edge of real discovery. Quantum physics is opening new avenues daily. Once we get out of our notion of three dimensions we will finally begin to understand the universe around us.