Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia).
He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia."
Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill.
This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.
Modern imaging techniques like functional Magnetic Resonance
Imaging ( f MRI) enable scientists to
study the human brain in real time. Areas of the brain that are active would
“light up” when the subject perform a function or activity, giving us an idea the
parts of the brain involved. Likewise, when the part of the brain that should
light up when doing a certain activity but does not in a particular person
doing that same activity, that also tells us something of the abnormality in
that person’s brain. This particular observation is highly relevant in such
conditions as autism.
principle of f MRI is based on
changes in local blood flow in the brain that correlates with increased nerve
cell activities. This increased flow alters the ratio of the oxygenated
(unused) hemoglobin pigment versus the deoxygenated (used), which is picked up
by the f MRI.
fascinating studies on babies and also adults across cultures that help us
better understand the workings of the human brain.
The brain is unique in that it
is far from fully developed at birth. It has considerable post-birth growth,
making the birth process pivotal as interferences during it impacts the brain’s
subsequent development. There are many examples of the tragic consequences on
brain development from birth complications. Both nature and nurture influence
genetic factors predominate, as with chromosomal abnormalities. Environmental
factors like lack of essential vitamins (folic acid) and nutrients or the
presence of toxins (lead, infection) could also be consequential.
brain has the same number of neurons as the adult’s. These neurons continue
making their connections with each other (synapses) after birth, a process
called synaptic growth. This is influenced by both nature (primarily genetic)
and nurture (the baby’s physical and emotional experiences). Such activities
like hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting stimulate the growth of
these neural connections.
pathway is used frequently, the brain recognizes its importance and covers the
nerve cell branches with a fatty myelin sheath to insulate it so the impulses
would travel faster and not stray, as well as to protect the nerve fiber. This
myelination process is most dynamic up until adolescence but continues on
though much more slowly into adulthood.
with synaptic growth is another process both complementary and in the opposite
direction, that of synaptic pruning. Those connections not used will atrophy,
as illustrated by the experiments on suturing shut the eyes of kittens cited
three theories on brain development. First, the maturational perspective,
postulates that brain development depends on the natural maturation process of
its various parts and largely determined by nature. The environmental role
would be restricted to only interference or acceleration of that maturation
process. The child for example, would not learn to control its sphincters until
the appropriate parts of the brain controlling those functions are mature (at
about three or four years); likewise, learning to talk or walk (at about two).
the interactive specialization theory. Brain development (especially postnatal)
involves organizing interactions between the different parts of the brain where
the development (or lack) of one part affects the others. Meaning, primarily a
process of integration. The studies on children blinded at birth with cataracts
and later given sight-restoring surgery support this contention. The child does
not “see” right after the surgery but has to learn it.
is the skill-learning hypothesis. Imaging studies indicate that when children
learn new skills, like walking, the frontal cortex (“higher” part) of the brain
is activated. As they become facile, the active part shifts more posterior. The
inference is that the frontal cortex is concerned with learning, but once that
skill has become automatic (as with walking), brain activity shifts to the
back, the non-thinking part.
learn a new skill like playing a musical instrument, the front part of our
brain would be active. Later when we have mastered it, the brain activity would
shift to a more posterior part of the brain, from the learning to the routine
center as it were.
is also supported by the findings that children who receive little social
stimulation or opportunities to explore their world have 20 to 30 percent
smaller brains than children of comparable age. Similarly, children exposed to
prolonged stress, as with abuse or trauma, will have altered brain function as
a consequence of that constant high level of the stress hormone, cortisol. They
have difficulty developing warm and secure relationships. We saw this with
Harlow’s baby monkeys.
the earlier nature-nurture dichotomy and the consequent heated controversies were
misplaced. Instead we have a complex interplay of the two, one influencing and
in turn being influenced by the other. It is a dynamic as well as adaptive
development in modern genetics is epigenetics. Briefly explained, it is the
inheritance of traits that are not due to changes in one’s underlying genes but
induced by alterations in our environment. In traditional biology, only genetic
changes are inherited; that still holds true. However, changes in the
environment (like stress, starvation, exposure to drugs and chemicals) could
alter how those genes would be expressed (phenotype), and then those changes
would be passed on to the next generation. The gene itself is unchanged, only
concept, it is an old one, predating Darwin, as with Lamark using it to explain
the long neck of giraffes. The modern concept, with its understanding at the
molecular level and integrating it with existing knowledge of DNAs, is very
only the codes for proteins, and only that. Proteins are complex molecules, and
how they function is influenced by its final shape or conformation even though
the molecule itself is unchanged. Gene expression also depends on its conformations,
and that in turn is influenced by its microenvironment.
the “simple” water molecule, one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. Imagine a gene
coding for it. At room temperature that chemical as water could be used to
erode a slope; at higher temperatures as steam, to power turbines to produce
electricity; at low temperatures as in the Arctic, it could crush the ships’ steel
hulls. Same code for the same molecule, but with different environment you get
vastly different consequences.
similar with the workings of our genes. Depending on their conformations (shapes),
different parts have different polarities, some more positive, others negative.
Chemicals like the stress hormone cortisol has varying own polarities on its
molecules. They would be attracted to the opposite polar parts of the genes,
thus altering their shapes ever so subtly to the extent that the genes could
not be expressed. This change in conformation would then be transferred to the next
generation such that even though it has the genes, they are not expressed,
which is the same thing as not having the genes.
with rats showed that when the mother licked its babies frequently, they grew
up to be contented and relaxed. Those babies in turn would have babies that
were also contented and relaxed, and would lick their own babies frequently,
thus perpetuating the transmission. Meanwhile those mothers that did not lick or
prevented from licking their babies would have stressed babies. They in turn
would not lick their young and produce yet another generation of stressed
babies, and the cycle continues. The genes themselves have not changed rather
the behaviors of the mother would be transmitted through the mechanism of
epigenes to the next generation, influencing whether those genes would be
rearing practices (and that would include what and how we feed as well as nurture
our babies) vary with culture. Those practices, as with the licking of rat babies,
affect our epigenome, and we pass that on to the next generation.
simply, we pass on through our biological mechanisms not only our genes (our
nature) but also our cultural practices (nurture) through our epigenomes.
major period of change is during adolescence. Again, the environment is crucial.
This impact is consequential and defining enough to merit the designation of
the “adolescent brain.” Nothing has changed with respect to the “nature”
component, only the environment. One is internal, the surge of new hormones
(primarily sex hormones) and the other, external, the cultural rites of
passage. The effect on the brain at puberty however is not as critical though
no less profound as with during the first few years.
different parts of the brain develop at different rates. The subcortical limbic
system that controls emotions develops much faster than the cortical part, the
“rational” center. Stated in Freudian language, the id maturing before the
superego. Thus, teenagers are predisposed to impulsive and dangerous behaviors.
Insights from studies of the adolescent brain have tremendous impact on the
criminal justice system, questioning the basic premise of culpability and
liability with these teenagers.
California, when a child is involved in an accident it is never at fault; it is
always the adult’s. Likewise, the criminal records of juveniles are sealed or
destroyed once they reach a certain age, based on the same principle.
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind,
published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was
released in January 2016.