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Yale Finds Choreography in the Brain

Degas dancers.jpg

If you listen to or watch a performance of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, you will most likely not suppose it was produced by unguided material processes, even if you don't understand some of the dissonant sections or know why there's no traditional fourth movement. Similar reasoning should apply when watching a "symphony in three movements" unfold during brain development.

Scientists at Yale announce, "Human brain development is a symphony in three movements."

The human brain develops with an exquisitely timed choreography marked by distinct patterns of gene activity at different stages from the womb to adulthood, Yale researchers report in the Dec. 26 issue of the journal Neuron. (Emphasis added.)

The first movement lays down the general regions of the brain. In "a burst of genetic activity, which is distinct for specific regions of the neocortex," the brain, like a ballet, presents the stage and performers. This is followed by a second phase, a kind of intermission, during which "most genes that are active in specific brain regions are quieted -- except for genes that spur connections between all neocortex regions." The final movement occurs in late childhood and early adolescence, when "the genetic orchestra begins again and helps subtly shape neocortex regions that progressively perform more specialized tasks, a process that continues into adulthood."

Neurobiologist Nenad Sestan used the symphony/ballet metaphor to "show this 'hour glass' sketch of human brain development, with a lull in genetic activity sandwiched between highly complex patterns of gene expression." Interestingly, the hourglass pattern appears to be unique to humans. It was not seen in developing monkeys, indicating that it "may play a role in shaping the features specific to human brain development."
While we're talking about metaphors, let's mix them up a bit. Focusing on the connections between brain regions and how they are synchronized, Sestan says:

... the human brain is more like a neighborhood, which is better defined by the community living within its borders than its buildings.

"The neighborhoods get built quickly and then everything slows down and the neocortex focuses solely on developing connections, almost like an electrical grid," said Sestan. "Later when these regions are synchronized, the neighborhoods begin to take on distinct functional identities like Little Italy or Chinatown."

Needless to say, neighborhoods get built in a way that reflects planning and intention, intelligent design.

Meanwhile, this is interesting. Poor performance of the symphony might be rescued by religion, if one is to believe a story from HealthDay News: "Could Brain Thickness Point to Stronger Religious Belief?" Summarizing a research survey in JAMA Psychiatry, reporter Mary Elizabeth Dallas related that most of 103 adults between the ages of 18 and 54 who said religion was important to them were found to have increased cortical thickness in certain brain regions.

The researchers were quick to note that "these findings are correlational and therefore do not prove a causal association between importance and cortical thickness." All kinds of false conclusions could be drawn from this questionable correlation. The researchers offer one:

A thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression, possibly by expanding a cortical reserve that counters to some extent the vulnerability that cortical thinning poses for developing familial depressive illness.

On the other hand, it's highly doubtful that 103 individuals assessed at 2 time points in 5 years can establish a robust correlation, let alone causation, to describe all mankind.

The fact that human minds can use logic to identify causation at all is the more interesting thing. C.S. Lewis's Argument from Reason provides clarity here. It takes more than cortical thickness or behavior to identify abstract relationships, like correlation or causation. Without mental activity, one could never have confidence in any proposition, including the one that says the human mind is material. It follows that even judging the truth or falsity of intelligent design theory presupposes mental activity. Since mental activity is immaterial, a materialist cannot judge intelligent design to be false.

For some, that, indeed, could be depressing.

Image: "Ballet Rehearsal," Edgar Degas, Fogg Art Museum/Wikicommons.