Trees, Brains and Human Faces

Jan 03, 2013 | Updated Mar 04, 2013

What do trees, brains and human faces have in common? While they share a lot of characteristics with the others of their species, each stands apart, distinctly, from its siblings.

Have you ever sat in a subway train and marveled at the differences in the faces around you? Have you ever wondered what the brains in all those heads look like (as in a medical picture of the inside of the skull)? I'll bet that most people who ever had that question in their heads would pretty much assume that the physical brains in all those heads look just alike simply because they cannot see inside the skulls. Well, of course, in fact those brains are as unlike all the others as the faces.

Have you ever traveled through Central Park in New York City when the leaves are off the trees? The trees are gorgeous, and while they are all beautiful (or at least most of them), they are also all different.

Do we suppose that the diversity we see, and do not see, is accidental? Or is it produced by nature for a purpose? I am not sure if there is a scientific answer to that question. But I am quite sure there is an existential answer. If nature had wanted everything to be much the same, it probably would have been pretty easy to arrange, as in the kind of cloning that scientists are now experimenting with. So much for human and other forms of sex! What would that world be like?

But happily, that is not the world we have and -- one hopes -- is one we will never develop.
Still, we need to learn how better to discern patterns in all those differences -- visible and invisible -- to be able to identify various diseases and risks that could be dealt with earlier and in advance of more serious, later consequences. For example, some cancers respond very favorably to certain therapies, which allows a very efficient use and application of expensive therapies. Therefore, instead of giving all cancer patients one specific therapy (which would be pointless and very expensive) it is targeted very successfully and happily. More of that type of targeting medical genius is surely in store in many areas for mankind in this century.

Hopefully, the same type of investigations into those different, invisible brains might lead in due course to identifying genetic or structural problems in individuals before they might do harm to other people.

It is, to be sure, a difficult problem, both scientifically and practically. While brain research has flourished in recent years, we're still in the infant stages of understanding just how the brain actually works. Furthermore, it's unlikely we'll find a single "on/off" switch somewhere in the brain that could be used to predict and/or prevent violent behavior. And, of course, we'd need strong safeguards to prevent abuse of a predictive system based on somewhat subjective science. Finally, even if the science were flawless, we'd need better support systems in place to identify the correct candidates for such screenings.

A deeper understanding of the process of human thought might lead to advances in a host of areas of concern to society, not just mass murder: racism and homophobia, domestic abuse, suicide, road rage, and other maladies of the modern age might, ultimately, be traced to flawed wiring, meaning that, if an appropriate therapy can be developed for each, societal ills might become medical illnesses, treatable like any other.

Can there be a more important calling for scientists in this day and age than pursuing solutions to the most difficult questions relating to the dangers of deranged people? If there is any reason to believe that answers might exist, we owe it to the children of Newtown as well as everyone on earth -- and all who fell before them -- to pursue such answers with every fiber of our existence.

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