Thursday, February 16, 2017

System Integration

In a healthy person the eleven interconnected biological body systems function normally as a single system. The brain, part of the central nervous system, controls and coordinates the functions of the other ten systems. Electrical messages pulse through the spinal column and into a network of neural branches toward the organs of the individual body system. This action is a regulatory response to information received from outlying sensory systems in the body. The control and coordination system is an incredible wonder of living things. Our use of a few descriptive words or phrases does not adequately explain the phenomenon of the integration of biological systems in living creatures.

With this disclaimer we attempt to draw several analogies between human body systems and the world of technology. Modern humanity operates in an age of complex machines. We cite two examples: In our home’s heating/cooling system and our personal automobiles, we are beholden to machines. They provide the ability to control our dwelling’s temperature and our personal transportation system automatically. In the pioneer days of our nation, our great-grandparents supplied the regulatory systems for home temperature control and personal transportation manually. They piled more wood on the fireplace, opened the windows, and used a manual accelerator pedal.

In our home’s temperature controlled environment thermostats sense rising or falling home temperatures and activate the cooling or heating system. According to our preset preferences, home temperatures remain in our chosen narrow range of comfort. In winter we desire a comfortable level of warmth. The control system raises the air temperature automatically—the furnace is programmed to go “on” when a certain limit is reached. In summer our bodies cry out for cooling to the desired temperature. The air conditioner kicks in to supply the desired cooling. Does this sound simple? It is simple to check the thermostat to affirm it is set correctly. If it is malfunctioning we call the experts to modify the system. In our day of “miracle” technology this is a minor inconvenience.

Our functioning brain has systems of sensory neural receptors with the ability to respond and react. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) accomplishes the desired outcome. When we become overheated by exercise, the brain responds with complex physiological processes instructing the body to generate perspiration—a cooling phenomenon—neither too much nor too little. Perspiration is mostly water. When water evaporates, heat is removed from the body. On cold days our body calls for more heat. Reflexively, the body engages its “shivering” response—a good thing—because it forces the body to move about to generate more heat. In this case the body reaction is involuntary and automatic.

Speed control in our automobiles, also known as cruise control, is analogous to many brain functions which control various rates. A partial list includes (1) heart rate, dependent on increased rate of heart muscle contraction, (2) digestive function, also controlled by changing rates of muscle contraction and release of digestive juices, (3) respiration rate, summoned by a need for additional oxygen in working cells due to increased bodily activity, (4) salivation rate, controlled both voluntarily as well as by conditioning from food odors or other sensory cues, and (5) multiple glandular secretions such as adrenaline which appropriately heighten our response to stress. The human brain performs multiple functions controlling and integrating the biological systems of the body. 

Our brain, the control center of our body system and the acknowledged seat of human consciousness, is sometimes characterized as computer-like. Its capabilities, however, extend far beyond the most capable man-made computer. Yes, the brain and the neural network of the central nervous system are storms of electrical activity as are computers. But analysts say computers work in a manner foreign to biological systems. 

The Creator has produced humanity in His Image. This image is integrated with the mystery of consciousness by which we perceive divine reality.              
   


    

  


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Superbowl Control Systems

“Over the years my enjoyment of the game of football has been increasing. This game offers a level of complexity which I had not realized in my earlier years. The offensive and defensive options are fascinating because they are nearly limitless.” (This quote originated from our May 17, 2009 post.) After the incredible Superbowl LI, we cannot resist offering parallels between football, one of the most popular participation and spectator sports ever conceived by sports-minded humanity, and the operation of our eleven biological body systems. Our 2017 post-Superbowl game musings comparing team football strategies and our knowledge of biological body systems may be instructive for both sports fans and students of biology as well as those who look for parallels in the spiritual realm.

Never before had a Superbowl team come from more that 10 points behind to win. The New England Patriots were behind by 25 points, but finished with a 34-28 victory, posting 31 “unanswered” points. It was the first overtime game in Superbowl history. For more than half the game, the Atlanta Falcons dominated and took a 28-3 lead.

Among spectators watching Superbowl LI it is likely that only a very few grasped the number and scope of personnel who provided the support system for the two top  professional NFL teams. Coaching assignments on each team number 15-20, not counting physical conditioning specialists. In addition, there are many management positions emplaced by team owners. Most of the millions of spectators watching on television may be unaware of the range and variety of personnel functioning in so many diverse roles behind the scenes. Parallels to the adventure of living things and living systems are abundant.    

On a professional football team there are many different coaches tasked with various roles. The head coach receives a majority of the public attention. While not responsible for every decision, he is the “main man” who sets team philosophy and strategy. On a team level there are multiple coaches who have responsibility in different areas including offensive and defensive coordinators and coaches, special teams, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, all-important quarterback coaches, and many assistants.

NFL teams operate with far less complexity than the human body. The brain is the command center for the body. It receives input in the form of electrical impulses from many outlying body regions on what conditions exist a few inches or feet from the brain. As a whole, the brain delivers its responses. The cerebellum controls balance, coordinates speech, and balances muscular activity. The brain stem controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body and regulates breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. One tiny organ, the pituitary gland, is known as the master gland because it supplies directions for proper functioning of virtually all other glands in the body including the thyroid and adrenal. The pituitary may be tantamount to the “head” coach of body chemistry. The hypothalamus prompts the pituitary either to stimulate or inhibit hormone production. This array of “coaches” trusts its communication system—nerve impulses coded with coherent instructions sent out along the axons of neurons. One may draw the parallel to electronic communication delivered to assistant coaches on the football practice or game field.

How do the players execute their training to win on Superbowl Day? February 5, 2017 was the culmination of many months, even years of preparation. For the Atlanta Falcons, there were several instances of lack of critical execution in the last quarter of their game which resulted in a heartbreaking loss. Quarterback Matt Ryan at 4:40, with the ball in the range of an easy field goal near the opponent’s 20-yard line, dropped back to pass. He was sacked for a big loss. Two plays later a holding call pushed them back for another big loss. Hundreds of hours of coaching meant nothing as the Falcons were forced to punt, thereby forfeiting a near certain field goal which would have produced a two-score game at 31-20. With that score they could have held the lead and won the contest even with the incredibly heroic late drive and two-point conversion later executed by New England.

Victorious quarterback Tom Brady overcame a dreadful start for almost three quarters. But the control and execution system—the master coaching staff and their talented players—prevailed on the front line of battle. In the end victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. Brady passed for a record 466 yards and completed 43 passes, both records.

The human body has an even more magnificent control and execution system—the controlling brain with its ability to effect healthy bodily function, the systems ultimately working their phenomenal activity at the body’s periphery. One bodily ability deserving of highest wonder is its ability to remedy and repair malfunctions and achieve bodily healing using the directives of the brain as its control and coordinating system. At the level of the Superbowl, the New England Patriots’ 25-point deficit well into the second half expresses “healing” at the level of a sporting contest better than most examples. 

The Falcons made several crucial game errors, mentioned above, costing them victory in the world’s ultimate football contest. At the level of professional medicine we cite success by many doctors who help us overcome bodily neglect or even a physical body deficiency or illness over which we may not have control. There are nearly unlimited object lessons we could draw from the ultimate championship football contest to parallel human body function as well as the more important spiritual warfare in which we are involved throughout our lives. We mention the importance of physical conditioning, vital for sports competitors, briefly mentioned by the Apostle Paul in I Cor. 9:24-25: “Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (NIV).

The occurrence of a “fluke” play dictated by chance may play a part in defeat on the athletic field; likewise, errors of judgement characteristic of ordinary error-prone humanity. For these, we do not offer a fool-proof solution. Our favorite athletic team members, however, may appreciate exercise of the gift of patience and forbearance from their fans!          








          

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Consciousness--A Fundamental Property?

Human consciousness is usually not a coffee table topic of conversation. Consciousness is fairly easy to define. Awareness of self and surroundings is a common definition, but the simplicity of the definition belies the complexity of the topic. Historically, scientists and philosophers have devoted plentiful attention to understanding the phenomenon of consciousness. Ironically, as we unlock even more information on the brain—the seat of consciousness—the subject may grow ever more mysterious. In spite of our burgeoning knowledge of the physical brain, cognitive scientist David Chalmers thinks the scientific explanation of consciousness might still be dozens of years away. We reiterate that some researchers claim that with the “hard problem of consciousness” we may have reached the limits of what science can explain. 

Chalmers, one of the foremost “consciousness” gurus of our time, analyzes problems of consciousness realistically and is well known for his articulate clarity of thought. He states consciousness is a subjective phenomenon. In contrast, science is objective. Scientists would delight to offer a scientific explanation of consciousness by outlining a credible, reductionist, cause and effect analysis. To cite examples, is human creativity explained as the product of simple identifiable causes? Could the subjective experience of pleasure, pain, joy, sorrow, confidence, or fear be reduced to or explained by straightforward sequences of neural electrical signals? Synapses—inter-neural connections in the human brain—outnumber the number of stars in our Milky Way. Scientists do not suffer from a lack of empirical data. Neuroscientists observe some correlations between brain events, but the totality of the resulting conscious experience remains unexplained.    

Everyday functioning of the ten body systems are generally understandable in terms of the duality of observable causes and effects. Ordinarily we are healthy and sound in body and mind. On some occasions we must visit our family doctor or another medical specialist. One of their most fascinating medical skills is their diagnostic ability, not to mention their ability to treat patients’ symptoms. Skilled diagnosticians possess one of the medical profession’s most treasured gifts. Such medical professionals have mastered the understanding of cause and effect, especially with respect to human body systems. Human consciousness, however, is in a different league. Science is unable to explain consciousness. 

Switching focus, we review the basics of universe history to reinforce a point we made in our first paragraph relating to “the limits of what science can explain.” Perhaps the most famous Bible verse of all is in the very first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1). The chronology of the first two verses of Genesis includes a gap of nearly ten billion years from the initial creation event (Gen. 1:1) to the following verse. Genesis 1:2 describes our planet a few billion years later as a body “formless and empty,” with darkness over the surface of the deep. This describes a liquid water world shrouded in darkness by thick clouds. But “…the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Creator had something wonderful in mind almost four billion years later. The “formless and empty” earth became the beautiful planet we currently observe. Conscious humanity, body, soul, and spirit, now inhabits this unique planet. Christian theology recognizes the timelessness of God according to human reckoning. 

In our human time frame the universe was created 13.7 billion years ago. Scientists often refer to this creation event as the origin of several fundamental building blocks of nature—our time, space, matter, and energy dimensions. In our human comprehension we do not experientially understand the absence of time, space, matter, and energy. We struggle conceptually to grasp the reality of “before time began.” Some Bible translators use phrases like “before time began” or “before the beginning of time” to express deep concepts of the origins of man’s future redemption in the mind of God (I Cor. 2:7, II Tim. 1:9, and Tit. 1:2). Most scientists see the Big Bang event 13.7 billion years distant as the inception of “fundamental building blocks” of nature.

God, eternally existing before the beginning of our universe, was omnipotent and omniscient. If we could describe God (a difficult assignment for humans) we may describe Him as having ultimate consciousness. We reiterate: cognitive scientists have wrestled with the thought that consciousness may be beyond the reach of science to explain. Chalmers posits that consciousness may be a “fundamental building block of nature,” in the same league as space, time, matter, and energy. Consciousness exists, but it cannot be explained reductively. We may study the correlation of physical events in the mind, electrical impulses for example, as they pertain to our conscious experience. But at this point explaining the scientific causes and effects of consciousness is beyond the reach of science. Perhaps it will always be beyond the reach of science because science dictates all phenomena must be explained naturalistically.  

Before time began, God existed eternally—the ultimate supernatural Entity of consciousness. When God created the heavens and the Earth in the beginning, He linked consciousness with the physical matter of the human body. Matter is one of the fundamental building blocks of nature gifted to sentient humans in our realm of existence. This connects with the theological truth that God made man IN HIS IMAGE.

We are fascinated by scientific and philosophical pondering concerning consciousness. Scientists and philosophers both generate commentary on this captivating topic. Some commentators wear the hats of scientist and philosopher simultaneously. Perhaps theologians should actively join the arena where talented minds discuss this profound topic, especially if we recognize consciousness as a fundamental building block of nature with strong supernatural overtones.
     


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fundamentals of Consciousness

In conversations with our young grandchildren we sometimes observe some surprisingly deep thinking. Several years ago our almost three year old granddaughter, in response to one of our questions replied, “I haven’t thought about that yet.” At her tender age she was already aware of the thought process as an outgrowth of her human existence. Her grandfather occasionally points to the foreheads of his grandchildren with the news that their brain is located inside their heads: “That’s where you think.”

Young children are aware of their subjective experience. They see and hear. They experience joy and cheer and happily express delight. Sometimes they encounter pain or become sad, impatient, bored, or angry. They express their subjective feelings without hesitation. We might characterize them as masters of subjective experience. Consciousness is a subjective experience having many dimensions. Children are masters of their own consciousness.  

A few years down the road I may further explain to my grandchildren that the brain is home to billions of cells—neurons which carry trillions of electrical pulses in a network of millions of neural pathways within the organ known as their brain—a convoluted three pound mass of grey and white matter identified by neuroscientists as the seat of conscious thought. Such wonders are not visible in graphic diagrams or photographs of the physical brain. Through powerful microscopes neuroscientists have now instructed us concerning astonishing wonders of the sub-visible world of the brain. Going beyond the visual, scientists have described a superabundance of incredible events occurring within the brain.

Perhaps after several years our grandkids will become more objective and less subjective. Objective scientific explanations will increasingly dominate their conscious thought. With increasing intellectual maturity they will become interested in their body’s biological systems, including what happens in their brain. If they understand the basic objective truth that all matter is composed of atoms they will recall that atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Two of these three particles, the proton and electron, possess electrical charges. One statement charged with truth is, “All matter is electrical in nature.” Translation: Without electricity pulsing through their brains there is no conscious brain function.

The body’s other biological functions are also interconnected with the brain’s system of neurons. Scientists have an easier task explaining the processes of electrical communication between ten other body systems and the brain. Causes and effects are easier to identify. For example, when an event happens such as body overheating or overcooling, the brain signals the body to respond to the changes in remarkable, multiple ways.

Brain function is considerably more difficult to grasp. Many scientists propose that the brain is the seat of human consciousness. Some dispute the truth of this statement, perhaps because the subject of consciousness is so poorly understood. David Chalmers calls consciousness “the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe.” It is possible to study correlations between events occurring in our environment and brain activity as well as correlations between events occurring only within our brain. So far as these events correlate with consciousness, we become less certain of causes and effects.

What conclusion do we make about the mysterious subject of human consciousness? Was my granddaughter’s comment concerning not having “thought about that yet” an early expression of her knowledge of consciousness? Our recent post discussions do not begin to answer the deepest mysteries of consciousness. Many contemporary experts in the subject look forward to a rich harvest of discovery in future years. At present, the topic is known fully only in the infinite mind of God.           


    

Friday, January 27, 2017

Explaining Conscious Thought

What really happens in our brain when we think, desire, create, feel, recall, or decide? One neuroscientist, Paul King, says, “The brain is a multilayered ecosystem of hierarchically organized neurons, circuits, networks, and brain areas.” Alva Noe is a philosopher working in the area of perception and consciousness. He has stated, “A human being is a locus of densely interwoven coupling with the world around us.” We do not quote these two sources because they are more insightful than many thousands of other scientists and philosophers working in their field. Rather, experts working to relate what happens when we think, desire, create, feel, recall, or decide have discovered there are thousands of relevant observations to offer concerning the subject of conscious human thought. The most eloquent observations attract the most attention. The above quotes serve as examples.

The truth about human brain activity—in particular, human thought—is that when we set out to explain it, we spend most of our time describing “What?” and very little time explaining “How?” This is not meant to be a criticism directed toward researchers who explain what happens. For example, it is impossible to describe human memory, creativity, and decision making except with reference to the continual storm of electrical activity in the billions of neurons which provide building blocks for the millions of neural networks in the brain. Physical stimulation from motion or energy is completely converted to trillions of electrical spikes in the human brain. From quadrillions of rapidly occurring electrical spikes traveling the length of multiple neurons, all human thought somehow connects with human consciousness. The foregoing information is the “what?” In contrast, the “how?” remains obscured. Have neuroscientists really explained how billions of electrical spikes in the brain produce the phenomenon of conscious apprehension about what we think, desire, create, feel, recall, or decide?

Human consciousness is termed “The Hard Problem of Consciousness.” Many neuroscientists acquire fame as they lecture about the “hard problem.” The “hard problem” refers to the uncertainty of bioscientists’ explanations for the mystique of human consciousness, defined as awareness by the mind of itself and the world. One cognitive scientist—David Chalmers—is celebrated for originating the term and proposing meaningful speculation concerning the “hard problem.” Some contemporary scientists currently object that there is no such thing as a “hard problem of consciousness.” We align with Chalmers on this question. 

Chalmers describes consciousness as “the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe.” He claims much writing about consciousness answers questions of correlations and are not really explanations. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) in an article “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” claims we can still meaningfully ask the question, “Why is it conscious?” after answering questions concerning the functional, dynamical, and structural properties of the conscious mind. IEP suggests that, “…an explanation of consciousness will have to go beyond the usual methods of science. Consciousness therefore presents a hard problem for science, or perhaps it marks the limits of what science can explain.”

Scientists devoted to the paradigm of naturalism are distressed with the proposal that there are limits on what science can explain. Such scientists are wholly gripped by the idea that there is nothing that cannot be explained according to the tenets of naturalism. For instance, in many discussions with naturalistic evolutionists we encounter insistence that the existence and development of Earth’s life forms must be explained according to the model of naturalism. Such a proposal would rule out any supernatural explanation at any time in the present or past. To the degree that human consciousness cannot be scientifically explained, we inquire where neuroscientists and cognitive scientists go from here? In the dualism of naturalism vs supernaturalism, there is only one other investigative and exploratory alternative.

We have investigated the subject of consciousness previously in our blog. I suggest my readers review a previous post from 2015 in which we discussed the “hard problem of consciousness.” The search for modern scientists’ explanation for consciousness according to the principles of naturalism has not become easier since this post appeared:


         


   

Monday, January 23, 2017

Brain Power

All human abilities, aptitudes, achievements, talents, and gifts are mediated by the human brain. The primary organ of the central nervous system, the brain is a command and control center and the source of our ability to function. Virtually all human ability and performance originates with activity of the brain. Even aptitude, a statement of what a person can do but has not yet done, is a product of our brain as is achievement—describing what a person has already done. Talent relates to a special skill level as we travel our road to achievement. At the edge of this spectrum of traits is the category of giftedness—an exceptional manifestation of talent. Finally, in the ultimate gifted category we have very rare young people considered to be prodigies. Perhaps best known prodigies are musicians, especially adept on the keyboard or stringed instruments.

When I was very young, my parents observed my ability to pick out melodies of hymn tunes with one finger on our old upright piano. This ability prompted them to enroll me in music lessons beginning in second grade. The lessons continued until eighth grade. The music theory course from Art Publication Society in St. Louis was geared for promising young musicians. I showed promise and was once pronounced to have “much talent” by a visiting professor from St. Louis. The truth was that I preferred to explore the brooks, fields, and barns on my grandfather’s farm just a few stone throws from my home rather than to practice on the piano. The visiting professor did not pronounce me “gifted.” He merely stated I had “much talent.” My brain’s activity produced a desire to devote only a modicum of practice time on the keyboard. Very young gifted or prodigy musicians generally possess an insatiable urge, even an obsession, to practice extensively. By this metric alone, my parents realized I was certainly no prodigy. Nevertheless, I acquired a good grasp of musical theory which served me throughout life.

Prodigies possess an “off the charts” memory. They need normal, age-appropriate socialization but most schools do not meet their intellectual needs. Sometimes socialization becomes difficult: Classmates often do not understand the advanced, unique workings of their prodigy friend’s mind. Parents of prodigies must be careful not to exploit such children since the child may be harmed. Their great challenge is to share the gifts of their prodigy children with the public without harm to the children.

This aforementioned challenge is significant. Prodigies sometimes cannot control the outworking of their prolific mental production. In raising a prodigy, parents and advisers must ask for God’s supernatural wisdom. We must remember that prodigies are an exceedingly rare phenomenon: less than one per million. Their achievements come early in life. Some are able to talk, read, or create exceedingly early. With respect to musical performance many achieve adult level in their first few years of life.

Special reporting caters to the public’s desire for the unique or unusual. Many volumes and articles have been published on the topic of prodigies. Much speculation relates to the “nature versus nurture” question of the cause of such magnificent talent. The brains of the highly musically talented manifest subtle differences from average or musically deficient individuals. Brain centers with their physical neural connections are more highly developed. Some of these differences are subtle and identifiable only by experts in brain physiology. Evidence is plentiful that genetics is undeniably important in the production of a musical prodigy or even in ordinary musical achievement. Likewise, parental and environmental influence, encouragement, and training has been shown to be crucial. Detailed study concerning prodigies helps us discover what occurs in the human brain whether they are prodigies or not.

The working memory of most prodigies is metaphorically “off the charts.” Their conscious thought processes, creative ability, and performance skills are related to trillions of electrical impulses generated in neural networks of the brain. Bioscientists have researched and discovered the essence of what occurs in the human brain, including the brains of typical individuals, the gifted, the genius, and the rare prodigy. We are deluged with television advertising for supplements touted to enhance bodily function of one sort or another. For instance, certain products are advertised as memory enhancers for older people. Chemical substances derived from jellyfish are credited with ability to help with “mild memory problems associated with aging.” Without commenting on the uncertain efficacy of such products, we call attention to an attractive graphic in some recent television advertising: diagrams of neurons in the brain are interesting representations of astonishing neural networks alive with electrical activity.

Educators tailor their offerings to promote the learning of a wide spectrum of students. The physical and social needs of their school population are accounted for, but our school districts primarily foster growth of intellectual skills. At the heart of human ability to progress intellectually is the working of the brain. The deep, mysterious human consciousness originates in brain centers. Researchers sometimes disconnect the explanation of consciousness—personal awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings—from the more easily described manifestations of intellectual achievement. 

We conclude our discussions of giftedness and prodigies with the reminder that human intellect is a divine gift to all men and women created in the image of God. We reiterate that “all life is a gift bestowed by the Creator of life.” We have described the “bell curve” of physical and intellectual talents which reveals that the vast majority of humanity is classified as non-prodigy or non-gifted with respect to their achievement. The question arises concerning physical differences among the brains of prodigies, the gifted, and the vast majority of our human population. Certain brains and specific brain areas with their neural networks are more highly developed in some persons in terms of individual achievement and production. 

Some may conclude that brains differ structurally from one subject to another. This conclusion is inaccurate, just as the gifted athlete’s physical body is not anatomically different from the bodies of non-athletes. The athlete’s body organs, however, are more highly developed. Muscle tissue, for example, is more massive, flexible, and highly conditioned in the athlete. More specifically, body build or musculature of the long distance runner may differ from the football lineman, the basketball point guard, or the baseball clean-up hitter. So also is the athlete’s intellectual familiarity and control of the diverse skills involved in his sport. Magnetic imaging of more active brain areas in mentally and physically gifted individuals is powerfully instructive. Our achievement potential is substantially dependent on personal mental control.

The human body and mind is a bequest of the Creator to mankind. We may state that the astonishing performance gifts of a young musical prodigy at the age of six or seven would be impossible without an initial supernatural gift of creativity from our Maker. That is true, but the creative prodigy must be receptive to encouragement and exercise diligent will and effort to practice and perfect his or her output. The nature vs nurture duality is ever present. Talent and motivation are an inseparable combination. We need teachers to help unlock the potential of both.

God is the Creator of All Things, even the diversity of talents and gifts bestowed on humanity. With respect to the physical and mental we cite several passages in scripture that point to physical well-being and conditioning as the responsibility of each individual (I Corinthians 9:24-27 and II Timothy 2:5). Likewise, we are responsible for our own healthy mental outlook (Romans 12:2 and Phillipians 4:8). God is pleased with the control WE exercise in the use of HIS gifts.      



                    


Monday, January 16, 2017

Born or Raised, Nature or Nurture?

For centuries there has been a robust discussion concerning the relative importance of nature and nurture with respect to the traits humans develop. Are human traits inherent and innate or are they environmentally and culturally determined? Stated differently, are we born with our human traits, or do they manifest themselves as we are raised by parents and shaped by our environment—relatives, teachers, and society? To answer this complex question, we recognize several stages of historical focus on these questions. John Locke in 1690 promoted the “blank slate” idea. Locke saw the human as being totally produced by factors in his environment.

In the intervening centuries, philosophers such as Rene Descartes speculated on innatism, the concept that man possesses significant knowledge inherently and innately. Not all knowledge is gained from experience according to that belief. Since Charles Darwin’s time, behavioral scientists have fluctuated between the relative importance of our innate characteristics and the nurture acquired by our environment in the shaping of our total humanity. 

In the past few decades our knowledge has been fueled by a significant advance in  knowledge of genetics and the influence of environmental factors. The modern view does not tilt heavily toward either nature or nurture to the exclusion of the other. Instead, each complements the other. For discussion purposes, we term this dualism the genetic-environmental interaction. Philosophers, theologians, and scientists continue to be occupied by the discussion. As we study the subject of giftedness and prodigies our attention often shifts to fascinating causes and effects. 

The “nature or nurture” dualism enters the discussion. Lately we have been treated to televised confirmation hearings of cabinet nominees in the administration of our newly elected American president. Gifted and talented candidates appeared before U. S. Senate committees to explain their background and qualifications for various important governmental posts. On Thursday, January 11, 2017 Dr. Ben Carson, formerly a candidate for the nation’s highest office, appeared as a candidate for Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The brilliant neurosurgeon recounted his fascinating background as he prepared for his life’s work as a young person. Dr. Carson serves as a case study in the nature vs nurture discussion.

The child of divorced parents, Carson characterized himself as a “terrible” student. His mother refused to accept assistance from social welfare agencies. She insisted on a schedule for the young Carson to discover the value of reading and move upon his own motivation to travel his road of life from bottom to top. The now familiar story of Ben Carson’s success includes earning a scholarship to Yale and eventually becoming a famous pediatric neurosurgeon, performing “breathtaking life-changing surgeries.” No one is qualified to tell the story of the human brain better than Dr. Carson.

Human achievement of people of ordinary intelligence and achievement, to less common gifted individuals, to the true prodigies perhaps numbering less than one individual in a million or less, comprises the total spectrum of humanity. Scientific knowledge reveals that total physiological function, human consciousness, and ultimately all human achievement springs from brain activity. Dr. Carson’s testimony last week before the senate committee inspires renewed awe for the processes of the human brain. “We have to develop all of our talent….” Speaking of one’s profession, the doctor stated, “There’s an assumption that you can do only one thing—that we have these limited brains and that we are incapable or learning anything else.”

         One of Dr. Carson’s most startling statements in his 15-minute opening statement consisted of his brief synopsis of the functioning brain. He stated, “I find it humorous, particularly knowing what the brain is capable of—billions of neurons, hundreds of billions of interconnections, can process more than 2 million bits of information in one second…any brain can do that. You can’t overload it.”

Is Dr. Carson a prodigy? According to the research on prodigies who manifest their unique talents before the age of 10, he is not a prodigy in the classic sense. He is superbly gifted, however, with diverse talents evolving as he developed into adulthood. The interplay of nature and nurture find unique fulfillment in the life of Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson. 

If Dr. Carson’s statement, “Any brain can do that” is correct, how do we account for the difference between average intelligence, giftedness, and the unique achievements of true prodigies? Were we to actually view the buzz of trillions of electrical messages pulsing through billions of neurons each moment of our lives, would neuroscientists be able to explain the existence of human consciousness and productivity? This post does not pretend to answer that question. Neither does Psalm 139:14: “We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” does not answer the question of How?” The psalmist’s exultation serves to inspire and strengthen personal devotion and love for the omnipotent and omniscient Creator of human life.