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  • Neuroscience and the EnvironmentA View on Change and Constancy within Our Current Paradigm

WHILE SCANNING radio channels during a drive the other day, I quickly passed over a station on which some commentator was talking about, as he put it, "misplaced Darwinian ideas about evolution." Considering how much I've thought about this snippet since, I regret not stopping to listen because I often think about the differing frames of reference that comprise our communities.

The Powers of Ten, a video produced by Charles and Ray Eames in 1977, is an elegant commentary on frames of reference. This iconic work opens with a close-up of a couple picnicking. Initially from 1 meter away, the view expands sequentially to reveal the edge of the then-known universe. Then the film takes us to Earth again, continuing eventually down to the level of a carbon atom. So, and this is my first point, the film does not incorporate how our frames of reference have advanced since 1977; many nano-scientific, neuroscientific and cosmological discoveries we discuss today were not yet a part of our knowledge base. On some level, it presents a view analogous to my driving around town accompanied by an AM-FM radio while so many others use MP3 players, satellite radio, digital streaming and other subsequent advances.

Second, the Eames presentation offers no commentary on the community and/or cultural changes that are a part of broadening and deepening our knowledge base from frame to frame. We are spectators when we watch the Eameses' work, not active participants. Our separation brings to mind the scientific objectivity of the laboratory and the use of third-person parameters in academic arguments. Clearly, the "detached objectivity" found in vast cross-cultural literatures that have probed nature—who we are, how we live together and best practices for inter-generational education—doesn't offer the Truth; we find nuances from paradigm to paradigm, culture to culture. The evidence of differing opinions even within fields seems a constant.

I've always been drawn to thinking in terms of changing "frames of reference," and lately it seems many disciplines are changing their frames. Ecological studies, for example, include a growing awareness that change occurs in connection with both human activities and the environment. Nature is not "out there" and somehow separate from us. Even within science, the prevailing "objective" ecological perspective includes the awareness that what we do is a part of how the physical world and our role within it develops over time.

In the neurosciences, too, human actions are now getting more play as elements like brain plasticity become more apparent. Generally, brain plasticity is defined in terms of how changes in neural pathways and synapses are due to changes in behavior, environment, thinking and emotion, as well as in recovery from brain injuries. It is less clear how this works on a larger timescale. To date there is no convincing evidence of biological change in human brain size or structure for about 50,000 years. Still, paleontology shows that brains do evolve, just as massive cultural evolution is evident throughout history.

As change and plasticity increasingly enter our discussions, surely our ideas about who we are, the nature of nature, how we live together and educational perspectives will modulate and retain points of constancy with earlier epochs. As I ponder the way change and plasticity have entered recent discussions, I find myself wondering how the man on the radio who spoke about misplaced Darwinian ideas about evolution might develop this issue. Although he might not share my view, I find myself also thinking that the intergenerational component (or education) is where the best hope for the future most likely resides. [End Page 232]

Amy Ione
Leonardo Editorial Board Member


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