My synapses, myself

The self, Joseph LeDoux tells us, is “the totality of the living organism”. Most disciplines in the natural sciences focus on only one or two levels of organization. Indeed, Dmitri Mendeleev figured out the periodic table of the elements without knowing any of the underlying quantum mechanics or stereochemistry. There are, however, at least a dozen levels of organization within the neurosciences — and, if we use a metaphor, we temporarily create yet another. This leads to considerable confusion and arguments at cross purposes over whether learning is an alteration at the level of gene expression, ion channels, synapses, neurons or circuits. Each neuron has thousands of synapses, which produce currents that summate to form an impulse train. But only rarely is the activity of a single neuron sufficient to cause a perception or trigger an action. Neurons usually act as members of ‘committees’ — what Donald Hebb in 1949 called cellassemblies. Just as in academia, one individual may function in different committees on different occasions. A concept, including any explicit memory that we can talk about, is probably formed by such a committee. Implicit memories are less differentiated — they are part of the ‘feltwork’, together with motivations and emotions, that biases the choice of one’s next act. In this well-written 400-page appreciation of behavioural neuroscience, LeDoux argues that synapses are the seat of self. He says, in effect, that you are your memories; that it is the uniqueness of an array of synaptic strengths that distinguishes one twin from another. Fair enough, but why not instead focus on one’s unique array of ion channels? Or neurons, because a neuron is the closest thing we have to a computational unit? Or one’s unique arrangement of those overlapping, redundant hebbian committees? None of these make for a catchy book title, but relating other things to the synapses proves to be a good way of covering a lot of fascinating material at the overlying levels, including a few updates to LeDoux’s earlier book The Emotional Brain.
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