Friday, January 27, 2017

Torah & Music: Kandel & Brain Formatting!

It was as far back as 1960 when the Cockroach Catcher and a few school friends would sit in the back yard of his friend’s village hut and grind away a black disc. We knew the music well as we do not really have other records. On one side was Bruch’s and the other Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. My eyes welled up when Chloe Hanslip came on stage at the Royal Festival Hall to perform the Mendelssohn. Of course she played extremely well (she played a Guarneri del Gesu 1737). As it was, we were all refugees in Hong Kong following Mao’s taking over of China. It was strange that my friend who lives in a hut should own an old gramophone player and one single disc. No matter, it started me on to classical music and I never looked back.

© 2012 Am Ang Zhang

The brain is obviously a very advanced computer: a parallel processing computer! No computer the size of the human brain has yet been made to match its performance. But the brain in computer terminology still need to be formatted like the computer hard disc.

Kandel describe his formatting by his Grandfather 

My grandfather and I liked each other a great deal, and he readily convinced me that he should tutor me in Hebrew during the summer of 1939 so that I might be eligible for a scholarship at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, an excellent Hebrew parochial school that offered both secular and religious studies at a very high level. With his tutelage I entered the Yeshiva in the fall of 1939. By the time I graduated in 1944 I spoke Hebrew almost as well as English, had read through the five books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Prophets and the Judges in Hebrew, and also learned a smattering of the Talmud.”

He went on:
“It gave me both pleasure and pride to learn later that Baruch S. Blumberg, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976, had also benefited from the extraordinary educational experience provided by the Yeshivah of Flatbush.”

In Hebrew and English!!! That did not seem to have done him and Blumberg much harm. Right now some governments seem hell bent in doing away with rote learning and that includes some medical schools.

In 2001 I was fortunate enough to be in New Orleans for the American Psychiatric Association Annual Conference. One of the lectures attracted a long queue and it turned out that the Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel  was giving his lecture. I was fortunate enough to be able to secure a seat.

"What learning does is to change the strength of the synaptic connections in the brain," Kandel explained, "and this has held true for every form of learning so far analyzed. So, what genetic and developmental processes do is specify the cells that connect to each other, but what they do not specify is the exact strength of those connections. Environmental contingencies, such as learning, play a significant part in the strength of those connections.""Different forms of learning result in memories by changing that strength in different ways. Short-term memory results from transient changes that last minutes and does not require any new synthesis of proteins, Kandel said. However, long-term memories are based in more lasting changes of days to weeks that do require new brain protein to be synthesized. And this synthesis requires the input of the neuron’s genes."

The alternative to Torah and Talmud: Music!

Is the piano China’s answer to the problem that is facing many parents in the west, i.e. ADHD? Could it be a novel substitute for Ritalin and other stimulants? With the advent of unproven modern approaches to education at all levels, very few subjects require memory work. Yet in the last decade or so, memory work has been shown to be beneficial to “brain power”, leading to a whole new approach to neuroplasticity. Learning a musical instrument is one way to give the brain the right amount of training. 

Did the 300,000 or so that took up piano this year in China know a thing or two about brain plasticity? Currently 30 million children are reported to be learning the piano in China.

For now, just as the west is abandoning classical music training as part of the school curriculum, parents in China are paying for their children to have piano lessons. By some reckoning, North America probably consumes 90% of Ritalin and similar stimulants, whereas China is probably consuming 90% of the pianos produced. One factory in the south of China is currently producing 100,000 pianos a day.

As a child psychiatrist, I find the ones on ADHD showed great promise but I doubt if we are ever going to see the end of the stimulants’ hold on the condition in the West. It is interesting to note that Stimulants never took off in China, a country with a fifth of the world’s population. Computer games, on the other hand, have really taken off there.

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