Tuesday, July 16, 2019 | ePaper

Role Of Learning In Religion

Potentially Change The Brains

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William Klemm  :
What one is taught and chooses to learn about religion changes the biology of the brain. Changing brain biology is likely to change who and what you are as a person. This principle applies to everyone, religious or irreligious.
Learning changes the brain. One's original DNA does not control everything about brain structure or general mental properties. The genetically inheritable component has been determined from identical twin studies to be about 40-50 percent. Environment, especially learning, controls the rest. Thus, what this means is that what one learns, including religious ideas, can change your brain.
When the brain learns something new, it creates a new pattern of nerve impulses flowing around networks of neurons. This impulse pattern is the brain's way or representing the information, and as long as the pattern representation exists, as in working memory, you have conscious access to it. If that pattern can continue intact for some time with subsequent rehearsal, it may induce gene expression in neurons to store the representation as a more lasting memory. This process involves the necessary protein synthesis for the information-relevant synapses. Such synthesis enables the proliferation of more dendrites and axon terminals. These new proteins create the structure of new synapses and an increase in both the number of neurotransmitter molecules and postsynaptic receptor proteins.
Everything we learn from what we see, hear, smell, feel, taste, or even imagine can potentially change the structure and networking of our brains. Should we not expect the same of religious learning? Brain scans suggest that one part of the brain, the anterior cingulate gyrus, seems especially sensitive to such effects. However, the brain can be damaged by belief in a wrathful and punishing God. A chronic fear that God regards you as an enemy inevitably produces emotional distress. The continual bathing of the brain in cortisol released during chronic stress causes synaptic junctions to shrink. Such shrinkage is evident in the hippocampus, a large cluster of neurons that are crucial for processing emotions and for forming memories. Reduced function in this structure may create thinking limitations. In other words, belief in a wrathful God impairs mental health. Scripture is replete with admonitions to fear God. A healthier admonition is to be more attuned to God's expectations and hopes for you.
All cells are susceptible to genetic mutation, which in the case of neurons could likely change circuit connectivity. A startling recent discovery of enormous implications challenges the accepted dogma that all of a person's cells have the same genetic coding. It turns out that this is not true in neurons. The DNA in each nerve cell has hundreds of mutations of the A-T, C-G nucleotides that constitute the genetic code for the neuron. No two neurons are identical. The study was conducted by 18 research teams at 15 U.S. institutions, formed as a consortium by the National Institute of Mental Health to examine neural genetic coding, using repositories of postmortem brain tissue taken from both healthy people and those with various mental diseases.
The scientists have no explanation at present for the cause of so many mutations in neurons and for why each neuron has a different genetic profile. The most obvious possibility might be that the mutations occurred as transcription errors during cell division. We don't know when these mutations occur. Except for granule cells in the hippocampus and cerebellum, neurons generally do not divide after the first few days after birth. If cell division is the cause of mutations, the mutations likely occurred in the fetus and during the early post-natal period. More likely, life's learning experiences cause many of these genetic changes.
These startling findings of so much genetic diversity in neurons open a completely new field of research. Scientists need to examine different cell types in other organs to see if each cell in the organ has identical genes.
There is a related aspect. Each neuron differs not only in its genes but also in which genes are expressed. The new field of "epigenetics" has revealed that environmental influences, ranging from drugs, toxins, metabolites, and perhaps even lifestyles, can affect the expression of genes. In the case of brain, there is a distinct possibility that one's mental life can affect gene expression.
So far, what I have said about gene change and expression refers to single individuals. But what if some of these gene mutations or epigenetic effects also occur in sex cells? That would mean that traits acquired during one's lifetime could transfer to future generations. I would hope that the research consortium that has made this monumental discovery about brain cells would extend its charter to examine sperm and ova.
Recent research on the genetics of the classic animal model of brain function, C. elegans, reveals that epigenetic inheritance of neuronal traits does occur. Gene expression was modified by exposing the animals to high temperatures, and the genetic change transferred via both ova and sperm to offspring that had no exposure to high temperature. The epigenetic change was still present some 5-14 generations later.
To the extent that the findings of both of these studies can be extrapolated to humans, we must now consider the possibility that personal lifestyle, environmental, and cultural influences on people may be propagated to successive generations of their children. Bad environments and lifestyle choices may extend well into the future, magnifying the deleterious consequences through multiple generations. We now have to consider that medical and behavioral problems, poverty, and degenerate cultures can arise when not only people make poor choices but also that the effects can be genetically propagated to subsequent generations. Is this a basis for scripture that asserts the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sons? It isn't a matter of fairness. It is basic biology.
Recent research discloses how what the brain thinks, feels, and does affects its own structure and function. For one thing, synaptic connections and network configurations respond to neural activity. The idea was first advanced by Daniel Hebb, who famously said, "neurons that fire together wire together." The firing of impulses change the synaptic junctions that receive the voltage shocks of nerve impulses. Hebb meant the comment to explain the formation of memories. But the idea can be extended more generally as an explanation of how the brain programs itself.
Associated with real-time changes in synaptic strength and circuit formation, the environment and even brain activity creates genetic changes. Recent discoveries place new importance on the genetic effects of RNA. Originally, scientists emphasized how RNA allowed translation of the code in DNA to specify the selective manufacture of proteins. Now we know there are many kinds of RNA with far different functions. There is a circular RNA, with unknown function. Gene expression is influenced by several kinds of RNA (cis-natural antisense RNA, enhancer RNA, long noncoding RNA, microRNA, small interfering RNA, and many others). Neuroscientists have known for decades that the brain is readily modified. We likely have underestimated this "neuroplasticity."
In the next post, we will explore specific ways in which we program our brains to accept and live religious ideas. Relevant learning principles include neural plasticity, learning attitudes, the brain's self-programming, and the various kinds of conditioning. Everyday topics covered will include the brain's self-programming, child rearing, neural development, and aging.

(William Klemm, Ph.D., is a senior professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University).

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