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Where is the individual amongst analogies for the brain?


Gerald Edelman's theory of neural Darwinism
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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Edelman thinks in terms of populations of cells and... and repertoires of cells, and of selective powers, and for the first… in the foetus at one point there is a huge, superabundance of nerve cells, and these are pruned to a considerable extent, even by birth. So already, selective processes have been going on before there has been any experience. And Edelman likes to say that in identical twins, the brains are not identical, the... the fine features of brains are quite different. But, given the brain one has at birth, then further shaping of the brain will be the result of experience. Experience will strengthen certain connections and perhaps other ones will be weakened. And one way and another one becomes a match for the world, and the world matches one, through this... through this sort of selection.

A simple example of this occurs in babies as they learn to reach. The details of reaching are not programmed, perhaps something about the general structure of reaching, but the baby has to experiment, and from the baby’s experiments, an optimal of... or idiosyncratic and unique and individual way or reaching is... is arrived at. So, reaching is ‘evolved’, it is not just programmed.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Gerald Edelman

Duration: 1 minute, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012