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Nelson, P.G. (1993). Palimpsest or Tabula Rasa: Developmental Biology of the Brain. J. Amer. Acad. Psychoanal., 21(4):525-537.

(1993). Journal of American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 21(4):525-537

Palimpsest or Tabula Rasa: Developmental Biology of the Brain

Phillip G. Nelson, M.D., Ph.D.*

In the cognitive world of the human, many of the most powerful inputs are symbolic and, specifically, linguistic. Psychotherapists (and perhaps especially psychoanalysts) and their patients embody the systematic use of linguistic stimuli to induce long-term and profound alterations in the function of the nervous system. One may reason that linguistic characteristics of the environment of the infant and child are potent influences on shaping the human intellectual apparatus.

The central dogma of cellular neuroscience states that the functioning of the brain, even for the most complex levels of mentation and behavior, is finally determined by the connections between the billions of neurons in the central nervous system. These connections, the synapses, define the neural circuits that perform the perceptual, integrative, and executive (motor) tasks on which individual and species life depends. It is a primary task of neuroscience to understand the mechanism involved in the establishment and modification of these synapses.

Despite obviously learned aspects of the language function, a profoundly inherent, genetically determined component of language has been posited (Chomsky, 1966, 1986; Edelman, 1989). So even for language and for other neural functions mediated by synaptic circuitry, two extreme alternative hypotheses can usefully be considered as starting points in approaching this problem of the specificity of synaptic connections in the brain. (1) Genes activated in each nerve cell specify the expression of sufficient information, probably in the form of “recognition” molecules on the neuronal surface, so that each neuron can interact only with the “correct” partner neurons to form functionally appropriate neural circuits.

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