Monthly Archives: March 2017

Our Surprising Brain


Eric Kandel is a dapper, bow-tied, Austrian-American neurophysiologist and Nobel Prize winner. He specializes in the physiological basis of memory. In his book “The Age of Insight,” he reminds us of the creative atmosphere of Vienna where he was born. He writes, “I see psychoanalysis, art and biology coming together”

I first learned about Kandel on the Charlie Rose “Brain Series” where a panel of scientists described their research on the human brain. Each episode discusses a different aspect of the brain: perception, creativity, aging, depression, addiction and so on.

The latest episode was devoted to childhood environmental deprivation. Deprivation affects specific areas of the brain and stunts normal development in such areas as behavior and language acquisition. Mental disorders are rooted in biology and we have evolved technologies such as brain imaging and mapping that can trace and record mental impulses and clearly show the affected brain areas.

I learned a new word: “epigenetics.” This is the study of biological mechanisms that switch certain of our genes on and off. Some circumstances in life can cause genes to be expressed or silenced, and that is how environment affects genetics.

Some of the causes of abnormal development seem self- evident. Poverty is an important factor and often results in parental neglect and abuse as well as lack of intellectual stimulation. Institutions like orphanages are particularly responsible for an impoverished childhood environment. This is expressed when children have problems in controlling their behavior. Some of the symptoms are: aggression, tantrums, difficulty in relating to other people, and cruelty to animals. Intervention is possible, especially if started early. At age 2 it can be very successful. Although the scientists seemed very reluctant to say so, the window of opportunity seems to close by age 12.

School bullying was discussed since it also affects normal childhood development. It is possible to teach a child some defense mechanisms, but there is a need for more awareness on the part of teachers and school administrations to intervene to try to change the culture in which bullying arises. More studies are also needed to understand how and why some children are more resilient to adversity and the ways to promote such resilience.

It is always fascinating to learn and understand more about the constant interaction of our genetic makeup and our environment.

Here is a link to the shows in the Brain Series.

Charlie Rose Brain Series

Obama for President?


The French Presidential elections are to be held in April and May of this year. So far three candidates have emerged, and what a sorry lot they are, swimming in a sea of scandals, petty squabbles and flat rhetoric.

Francois Fillon (the candidate from the center-right) has secured jobs for his wife and relatives at tax payer’s expense, but he then went one step further. The jobs were fictitious and not one of his favored family ever did any work. All were paid by the State for doing nothing. Now did Fillon seem contrite? Did he admit that he used poor judgement? Did he apologize? Not at all! He shrugged it all off as if to say…So what? Doesn’t everybody?

Marine LePen, on the extreme right, has been a French Trump for more than twenty years. She wants to “make France great again” by getting rid of all foreigners. And now she is also involved in fraudulent party financing.

Emmanuel Macron is perhaps the least objectionable candidate. He is an independent and a centrist, with little experience in government beyond having been at one time an economics minister. He does not seem to have a program or an agenda.

Young voters are disgusted with all three of these candidates. In this lamentable climate, a radically new idea has emerged. Why not draft Barrack Obama for the French presidency? A website and a poster campaign
have been formed called:”Oui On Peut”! (Yes We Can).
But Obama is not French? No matter, they will naturalize him. How is that for a lovely dream? (and such an uplifting one). While the Americans just voted for the anti-Obama, the French are yearning for him to be President. He is a charismatic and eloquent speaker and young people love him.

In France presidents are elected directly by the people for a maximum of two terms of five years each. They have substantial power and a Parliament that is much more obedient than in the United States. Wouldn’t Obama thrive in such an environment?

We too miss Obama, his sense of humor, and his self- deprecating attitude. He is fit and dresses well. In his eight years in office, not the slightest hint of scandal has ever been attached to him personally or to his administration. We sometimes wish he had shown a little more decisiveness and had been more actively engaged in the Middle East. But we will always admire him because
he possesses that elusive old fashioned quality: He is an honorable man.