To open session three, Zahava Solomon addressed the effects of trauma on human psychology. She defines trauma as a shocking event during which psychological edifices collapse “and a sense of fear and helplessness sets in.” Our biological vulnerability is always on display – from riding in speeding cars to flying on airplanes – but we maintain a psychic distance from imminent threats through social conditioning and a numbing based on experience. Trauma challenges many assumptions about our own safety and about the intentions of our fellow man; when defenses collapse, the repercussions continue far into the future. The long-term consequences of traumatic incidents include continual flashbacks, a pervasive sense of foreboding, guilt, and an array of cognitive effects. For example, a traumatized child has “a foreshortened sense of the future,” having seen their peers die young and rendering long term plans superfluous. Sadly, as Solomon notes, “aggression is an integral part of human history, it’s innate,” but by understanding the associated mental burdens, treatment and cultural incorporation of traumatized victims can be improved.
Karl Deisseroth is working on the intricate links between the 80 billion neurons of the human brain with fiber optic tools, activity based measurements, and the buzzy field of optogenetics. Using proteins that create electrical conductance in response to light, “we could flash light and play with specific cell functions.” Flash blue light, for example, and action potentials stream down a certain set of neurons. When incorporated into a mouse’s brain, Deisseroth and his team were able to minimize anxiety and risk aversion just by flashing a light of the appropriate wavelength. Understanding “how our mind works, and how it fails to work” can lead to solutions to mental and physiological ailments, says Deisseroth; optogenetics may prove useful in improving neuronal function in a range of contexts.
Christof Koch discussed the mystery of consciousness. He’s after “the neuronal footprint of consciousness,” and wonders what the physical mechanisms are that govern different states. For example, do they involve different neurons, or activate different parts of the brain, and does the vibration of action potential matter? Functional brain imaging is a common technique to visualize which parts of the brain are activated under a given condition, but the resolution isn’t great. Through Koch’s new gig at the Allen Institute, he and a quickly growing team are examining the nuances of brain activity with improved techniques, producing open source data within a “brain atlas.” “The brain is by far the most complex physical living object in the known universe,” Koch explains, and by using a range of reductive model systems and novel imaging techniques, the secrets to human consciousness may one day be demystified.
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi spoke about corruption, revealing its pernicious effects on many important societal indicators. For example, innovation capacity is inversely correlated with corruption indices, as “it’s far more difficult to steal money that you put into research than it is to take money from highway projects,” according to Mungiu-Pippidi. Her research has also shown that talent flees corrupt countries through extensive brain drain. “It’s a vicious circle,” she says, since those people most likely to fight the status quo simply leave, taking their capacities for productive change with them.