Sunday, December 14, 2008

Men vs. women — from Neuroscience to Judaism

(Excitatory neuron is in red. Inhibitory neurons controlling its activity are in blue and green. Click on the picture to see more detail. Source: the quoted paper.)

From “Development of GABA innervation in the cerebral and cerebellar cortices” (Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2007, 8: 673–686) by Huang et al.:
In many regions of the vertebrate brain, neural networks consist of two broad classes of neurons: excitatory principal neurons and inhibitory interneurons. Although excitatory neurons often constitute the vast majority of the neurons that make up neural circuits, by themselves they would only generate an avalanche of excitation, and they would not be able to perform useful computations. It is often the inhibitory interneurons that provide the functional balance, complexity and computational architecture of neural circuits.

Interneurons that use GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid) as their transmitter have far more functions than just the “inhibition” of other neurons. For example, GABA transmission regulates synaptic integration, probability and timing of action potential generation, and plasticity in principal neurons.

Furthermore, interneurons generate and maintain network oscillations, which provide the temporal structures that orchestrate the activities of neural ensembles. The functional output of principal cells — the neural code embedded in their firing patterns — is largely determined by the temporal and spatial dynamics of inhibition in the network.
In other words, it is very well for excitatory cells to be the “representatives” of a specific cortical area and be responsible for sending information to other areas and even sub-cortical structures (all the way to periphery — e.g., to muscles), but it is the interneurons who determine what sort of information will be sent out.

According to Rabbi Gottlieb’s lecture on the differential role of men and women in Judaism (part of a series called “Men and Women”), the former play the role of “representatives” of their families in the society at large. Furthermore, they are the ones taking active roles in the society: witnesses in court, rabbis, judges, kings. In a synagogue, men pray in minyanim, wear their talleisim and tefillin, get an aliyah for reading of the Torah and give over divrei Torah in front of an adience.

(The reason why women do not take an active role in the society is also discussed. As expected, it has to do with cherishing privacy and not drawing public attention to oneself, which for women is crucial, but for men is merely important.)

Without women, however, men would be unable to make correct decisions — or, at least, it is rare that they (choose to) do so. Rabbi Gottlieb distinguishes between authority and power. Authority is a legal concept; power is a pragmatic concept. A king (or a president) may have authority to make any decree (and a bill does not become a law without his “stamp of approval”), but the “power behind the throne” — whoever it is — is who determines what the decree will be and whether it will be passed or not. Without this power-figure, the authority-figure would be blind and... well, powerless.

If we confuse authority and power, it may seem that women are powerless in Judaism. We must realize, however, that just like an excitatory neuron does not fire without its inhibitory neurons telling it how and when to fire (and what information to transmit), in Judaism, men’s public decisions depend crucially on their wives’ private control, advice and approval (or lack of thereof).


Elisheva said...

This is excellent. I wish I could make a point or state a disagreement, but alas, not this time.

Crawling Axe said...

Thanks. Good luck for exams.

Rachel said...

Rockin' analogy. I really liked this.

(Elisheva- no, I'm not stalking you- does this post make up for R' Hyrcanus, or does R' Hyrcanus' idea erase the ideas of this post?)

Crawling Axe, may I link this?

Elisheva said...

Rachel I think its great we keep ending up on the same blogs. Seriously.

Rachel said...

I actually followed the Axe from your blog. *Shrugs*

But I'm glad you like it anyway.

Elisheva said...

I sort of figured as such.

Crawling Axe said...

Crawling Axe, may I link this?


Rachel said...


In case you care: Your profile photo somehow looks like Chaplin memorializing the revolutionaries at Père Lachaise cemetery. Thought I'd share. Ignore that if you will.

mor said...