Writings

The Internet: Bridging the Gap

In 1959, C. P. Snow wrote an essay entitled The Two Cultures in which he illustrated how the scientific intellectuals and the literary intellectuals belong to two very distinct groups that do not inter-communicate. Although some have argued that there is a third culture developing in our modern society to help bridge this gap, I feel that there is still a lot to be done. A bridge of mutual understanding does not yet exist. An important factor in the existence of this gap is the very idea of an intellectual. The elite of any field of study are those who understand a subject that is very difficult for the common person to grasp. Those who attempt to explain the intricacies of their area of specialty on a level that everyone can understand are shunned by the rest of their community for belittling or oversimplifying the important concepts. Stephen Jay Gould explains, in a tribute to Carl Sagan, that “[t]his narrow-minded error — our own Philistinism — arises in part from our general ignorance of the long and honorable tradition of popular presentation of science, and our consequent mistake in equating popularization with trivialization, cheapening, or inaccuracy. Great scientists have always produced the greatest popularizations, without compromising the integrity of subject or author” (Gould).

Because of the popularly held view that ideas on the frontiers of knowledge are untouchable to all but the most elite, many people never attempt to understand even the most basic fundamentals of these areas. These areas are passed off as “too hard” or “too confusing.” Very few people take the time to understand and appreciate the fundamentals of many areas of study — the same basic concepts that the intellectual elite within that area take for granted. This apathy towards understanding challenging, engaging subjects reflects a generally-held, but misguided value system. The nightly news alerts us that our high-school seniors are falling shockingly behind those in other countries in some of the more basic realms of knowledge such as math, geography and science. Many people are all too content to say “So what?” or to argue that the students in those countries have no social life and are depressingly behind the U.S. in high-school basketball.

This illiteracy in some of the more basic realms of knowledge is not limited only to high-school students. “In American polls in the early 1990s, two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the ‘information superhighway’ was; 42 percent didn’t know where Japan is; and 38 percent were ignorant of the term ‘holocaust.’ But the proportion was in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendez, Bobbitt, and O. J. Simpson criminal cases; 99 percent had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a boy. The United States may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid” (Sagan, 376).

I know that there are people in this country who, from a very young age, have felt stifled in their individual quests for knowledge — I am one of them. My hope is that the Internet will be a place where those people can venture beyond the limits of their classroom education and where those who have long since left the classroom can learn that it’s never too late to find inspiration in the wonders of the world. I hope that the Internet will provide an atmosphere where both of these groups can find challenge and intrigue in the countless realms of knowledge available to them.

Bibliography

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Bright Star Among Billions.” Science 275 31 Jan. 1997: 599.

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random House, 1996.

Writings

Complexité Simple: Le Petit Prince par  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Traduction par Cyril Giron

“Dans ce livre, le mélange de fantaisie, de satire, de philosophie, de poésie, de science, d’imagination et de naiveté enfantine peut aussi bien atteindre les coeurs et les esprits des ‘grandes personnes’ que ceux des ‘enfants’, à travers seulement quatre-vingt-douze courtes pages”. Voici comment Anne Dodd tente de décrire un livre qui ne s’inscrira jamais dans une quelconque catégorie. Cette aventure mystique commence quand Saint-Exupéry fait un atterrissage forcé dans le Désert du Sahara. Apparaît alors un jeune visiteur blond qui demande à l’aviateur de lui dessiner un mouton. Voyageur en provenance d’un petit astéroide, le petit prince décrit son voyage vers la Terre et ses expériences vécues dessus. L’histoire prend fin avec le départ du petit prince de la Terre, un an après son arrivée. Les critiques sont d’accord pour dire que Le Petit Prince est écrit comme un livre pour enfants mais peut être analysé à de nombreux différents niveaux.

Pour commencer, Henri Peyre décrit l’oeuvre tel un conte à l’écriture pure et aux dialogues très simples. La dédicace montre même que le livre parle directement aux enfants. Mais peut-être est-il nécessaire de préciser ce mot : on n’est pas défini comme ‘enfant’ ou ‘adulte’ par son âge, mais par son état d’esprit. Peut-être vaut-il mieux expliquer que c’est une histoire pour enfants, mais qui ne leur est pas spécifiquement destinée.

L’histoire du petit prince prend place à différents niveaux, tant un conte ressemblant à d’aussi grands travaux qu’ Alice au Pays des Merveilles ou que les Voyages de Gulliver. Saint-Exupéry explique l’importance de voir au-delà de la superficialité en commençant son livre avec l’histoire sur les dessins de boas ouverts et de boas fermés. Plus tard, il relate l’histoire de l’astronome Turc qui découvre la maison du petit prince, l’Astéroide B-612. Quand il présente sa découverte au Congrès International d’Astronomie, vêtu de son comique costume Turc, personne ne le croît. L’Homme n’a pas appris à voir au-delà de la superficialité des choses, ou alors il a oublié. Parce que les adultes ne regardent pas à l’intérieur des choses, ils ne connaîtront jamais les autres ou eux-mêmes.

L’idée que l’homme est seul dans le monde incite Martin Heidegger à considéer Le Petit Prince comme “un des grands livres existentialiste de ce siècle”. Toute sa vie, Saint-Exupéry a pensé que les grandes personnes ne se préoccupent que de choses inconséquentes et sont très sots lorsqu’il s’agit de parler de choses importantes. Il n’a jamais rencontré personne avec qui il puisse discuter de ce qui est réellement important.

A travers son livre, Saint-Exupéry enseigne l’importance de regarder au-delà d’une vision superficielle pour trouver la vraie beauté. Analysé à un niveau instructif, son livre pose une mystérieuse question sur les choses communes en montrant ce qu’il y a derrière. Les choses visibles sont seulement des coquillages dans lesquels est masquée la véritable beauté, qui est à l’intérieur. Suite à la leçon du renard nous disant qu’on ne peut voir ce qui est important uniquement en regardant avec son coeur, Saint-Exupéry quitte le désert transformé. Il est d’accord avec la réflexion du petit prince : “les étoiles sont belles à cause d’une fleur que l’on ne voit pas”.

Saint-Exupéry, l’auteur, nous apprend aussi comment aimer — la seule façon de dépasser le blocage existentiel entre les hommes. “L’amour, pour Saint-Exupéry, n’est pas un problème de choix, c’est une question de conséquence; en fait, c’est une façon de survivre. Les hommes doivent apprendre à s’aimer les uns les autres ou périr”. L’amour est ce qui donne à la vie sa raison d’être. L’amour du petit prince pour sa rose est tellement important pour lui que l’aviateur ému commente:

“Ce qui m’émeut si fort de ce petit prince endormi, c’est sa fidélité pour une fleur, c’est l’image d’une rose qui rayonne en lui comme la flamme d’une lampe, même quand il dort…”.

Son amour donne à sa vie un sens et une direction.

Le renard apprend au petit prince comment aimer — une leçon pour nous tous. C’est le temps que l’on ‘gâche’ pour quelque chose ou quelqu’un qui le rend important. C’est le renard qui nous dit comment l’amour dépasse l’existentialisme: “on ne connaît que les choses que l’on apprivoise…. les hommes achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchands d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis”. La joie et le plaisir ne doivent être ni donnés ni reçus, comme la joie que l’eau du puit donne au petit prince et au pilote. Sa douceur est “née de la marche sous les étoiles, du chant de la poulie, de l’effort de ses bras”.

Le Petit Prince peut aussi être analysé comme une satire. Il présente une caricature des préoccupations des hommes avec leurs inutiles passe-temps, richesse et pouvoir. Ce sont ces caractéristiques humaines qui font que l’homme “manque les choses essentielles dans la vie : la beauté, l’amour et l’amitié”.

Saint-Exupéry méprise l’alcoolisme comme unique activité. La logique ‘qui se mord la queue’ du buveur montre la stupidité de cette activité. Le buveur explique au petit prince pourquoi il boit:

“Pour oublier.”

“Pour oublier quoi?” s’enquit le petit prince qui déjà le plaignait.

“Pour oublier que j’ai honte” avoua le buveur en baissant la tête.

“Honte de quoi?” s’informa le petit prince qui désirait le secourir.

“Honte de boire!” acheva le buveur qui s’enferma définitivement dans le silence.

Saint-Exupéry méprise aussi l’obsession de l’homme pour la richesse et la puissance, ceci à travers le Roi et le Businessman. Le roi apporte une grande importance au fait d’être obéi quand les ordres sont tels qu’ils ne pouvaient qu’être réalisés. Le businessman juge important, lui, de posséder toutes les étoiles, un collectionneur trop occupé à les compter pour tirer un quelconque plaisir de leur beauté. Le petit prince essaie de faire valoir son point de vue, en expliquant que les étoiles ne peuvent être possédées, il ne leur apporte rien. Le petit prince dit alors qu’il possède une fleur et trois volcans. Le fait qu’il les possède et qu’il en prend soin leur fait du bien. Le businessman n’aide pas les étoiles.

Le petit prince méprise également la fascination de l’homme pour la science et la technologie. Philip Mooney nous dit que “la technologie en soi-même ne peut jamais apporter de bonheur humain car elle ne peut pas plus créer de relations humaines que révéler une personne à une autre”. Cette apathie est illustrée par l’histoire de l’aiguilleur. Des tas et des tas de passagers font route dans des directions differentes, ne sachant jamais vraiment ce qu’ils cherchent et où ils vont.

En dernier lieu, on peut analyser Le Petit Prince comme une profession de foi. L’oeuvre a été appelé une ‘transposition en conte de certains épisodes de la vie du Christ’. Le petit prince arrive sur Terre, dans le désert sous ‘son’ étoile pendant une période de conflit spirituel. Il est réputé être sans maladie, même face au serpent, un symbole biblique du diable. Comme Christ dans le temple, il surprend l’auteur par sa précocité. Il reconnaît immédiatement le dessin du boa fermé et sait que l’auteur a réparé son moteur avant que Saint-Exupéry le lui ait dit. Quand l’auteur arrive à cours d’eau dans le désert, le petit prince le guide ‘miraculeusement’ vers un puit de village -même si ils sont au milieu du désert sans aucun village en vue. Au puit, ils partagent leur ‘dernier dîner’ et le petit prince donne à l’auteur une leçon très similaire au très Chrétien ‘Aimez-vous les uns les autres’. Le moment du départ du petit prince de la Terre est prémédité. Il dit à l’auteur qu’il aura l’air d’être mort, mais qu’il vivra. Le petit prince se sacrifie lui-même à cause de son amour pour toute l’humanité. Quand l’auteur ne trouve plus le corps du petit prince au lever du jour, il sait que le petit prince est retourné sur sa planéte “paradisiaque”, le quittant avec une sorte de ‘fantôme sacré’ — son étoile au paradis et dans sa mémoire. il laisse aussi à l’aviateur son ‘Gospel à réécrire et à transmettre’.

La magnifique et poétique description de la mort du petit prince par l’auteur aviateur illustre sa foi en une vie dans l’Au-Delà. Le petit prince, laissant son ‘corps’ derrière, est parti vers l’endroit le plus beau qu’il puisse imaginer — son étoile et son amour — son propre petit paradis.

Writings

Is There a Relationship Between Learning and Neurochemical Changes in Rodents?

Introduction

“Memory refers to an organized collection of representations of events and of relationships between events. The formation of sensory or mnemonic representations is the result of a process of internalization of the properties of the world…” (Doyère et al. 1993). But just how are these representations encoded in the brain on a chemical level? This is the question that I asked when I began researching. But there is a problem with this research question – how does one study a memory? Memories are very complex and multifarious things; it would be impossible to isolate one type of memory to study. It would also be impossible to control how an event is represented as a memory and even whether or not a memory has been formed. Therefore, I modified my research question slightly to a form that is more realistically studied: “What is the relationship between learning and changes in neurochemistry in rodents?”

This topic is of particular interest to me and to the field of psychology because the knowledge of how learning takes place in rodents would help give researchers a starting point in the quest to discover how higher order thinking is represented on a neurochemical level in humans and our closer relatives. Learning and the formation of memories are very basic – and essential – functions of the brain. Imagine how useless the brain would be if it could never retain anything that one has experienced. Incoming stimuli would be meaningless because they couldn’t be related to previous stimuli. But what kind of changes lead to learning and the formation of memories? This article will address part of this question: whether or not these changes are neurochemical changes – either partially or entirely.

In the studies that I found, learning refers to classical conditioning or active avoidance learning. Classical conditioning is the learned association between two paired stimuli – for instance a tone and a footshock – in which the unconditioned response (UCR) to the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) will be elicited by a previously neutral stimulus (NS) after the conditioning (Tocco et al. 1992). A slight variation to classical conditioning that is used in one study is called differential classical conditioning. In this case, the subject is randomly presented two stimuli – a reinforced stimulus (CS+) and a nonreinforced stimulus (CS-). In the case of the tone and footshock, two tones of different frequencies would be randomly presented, but the footshock would only follow one of the two. The subject learns to discriminate between the two stimuli as only one of them predicts the footshock (Edeline et al. 1990). Active avoidance learning refers to the learning to avoid a punishment that is consistently presented a few seconds after a stimulus. This type of learning involves more participation on the part of the subject than classical conditioning because now, instead of the response being unconditioned, the subject must discover how to avoid the punishment and actively perform this behavior when the stimulus is presented (Pöǧün et al. 1992).

Pöǧün et al. 1992

This study was conducted to investigate how the level of D2 receptor binding changes in a rat’s brain following active avoidance learning. Seven areas of the brain were studied for changes in binding: the cerebellum, hippocampus, corpus striatum, frontal lobe, occipital lobe, parietal lobe, and temporal lobe. Active avoidance learning was used on the experimental group with a tone preceding a footshock and a vertical pole as an area safe from the shock. The control group received identical learning trials except that the pole was removed. This corrected for any changes that were due to classical conditioning and not active avoidance learning. Chemical tests were used at the termination of the experiment to determine the level of D2 receptor binding in different parts of the brain in the two groups. The results of this experiment showed an increase in D2 receptor binding in the experimental group over the control group only in the hippocampus and the corpus striatum.

In this study, only the D2 receptor binding was studied. So although there appears to be a causal relationship between learning and D2 receptor binding, this knowledge may be useless. One reason for this is that the level of D2 binding and the availability of dopamine are inversely related (Pöǧün et al. 1992). Therefore it may be that the availability of dopamine is affected by learning and the level of dopamine affects D2 receptor binding. In this case, variations in D2 receptor binding would be just a “byproduct” of the changes that take place during learning. A flaw that I found with this study deals with the experimental procedure. Although the rats were divided up randomly into two groups, the groups were not treated equally. The rats that were to undergo active avoidance learning were kept in an enriched environment for 100 days prior to the learning trials whereas the control group was kept in a standard environment for the 100 days prior to the trials (Pöǧün et al. 1992). This created a preexisting difference between the groups – a second variable that isn’t dealt with. Because of this confound, the results of this study cannot show a causal relationship between learning and D2 receptor binding.

Tocco et al. 1992

This research studies the regional changes in binding of the NMDA and AMPA receptors following nictitating membrane (NM) classical conditioning. The rabbits were divided up into 3 groups: rabbits in group I were conditioned classically with the CS being a tone, the NS being an air puff and the UCR being NM and eyelid response; those in group II received pseudoconditioning where their conditioning trials were identical to the rabbits in group I except that the NS and UCS were unpaired; and the rabbits in group III received no handling. Tritiated AMPA, CNQX and TCP were used to study binding through autoradiography (locating a radiolabel within a solid specimen by exposure to a layer of detector material) with a tritium-sensitive film. The results of this study showed no difference between groups II and III, illustrating that any experiment-related stress did not affect the results. In group I, there was an increase in AMPA binding in the hippocampus and a decrease in CNQX binding in the hippocampus after classical conditioning. There was no difference between any of the three groups in TCP binding nor any significant difference in binding of the three chemicals in any other areas of the brain.

In analyzing this study, it is important to understand the chemicals involved and their roles. NMDA and AMPA are two subtypes of glutamate receptors. TCP is a ligand that binds specifically to the NMDA receptors. AMPA is an agonist for the AMPA receptors whereas CNQX is an antagonist for the AMPA receptors. With this knowledge, this study clearly shows that classical conditioning leads to an increase in the binding of the AMPA receptors in the hippocampus and no modification of the binding of the NMDA receptors. The fact that the agonist binding is increased while the antagonist binding is decreased suggests a modification of the configuration of the AMPA receptors during classical conditioning – not a change in the number of binding sites. This is because a change in the number of binding sites would push both AMPA and CNQX binding in the same direction while maintaining the same ratio between them – not in opposite directions like the results of this study showed (Tocco et al., 1992). This knowledge that learning involves a change in configuration and not just a change in number of receptors suggests possible future experiments: What is the spatial change in configuration (as opposed to the quantitative one)? Are these changes consistent over time, and if not, how do they change with time? Will extinction of the classical conditioning reverse these changes?

Edeline et al. 1990

The purpose of these investigations was to test the retention of learning induced changes formed during classical conditioning. Differential classical conditioning sessions were held for two groups with the CS+ being a 1 kHz tone and the CS- being a 7kHz tone for one group. The second group received the same two tones, but with the opposite frequency corresponding to the CS+ and the CS-. The UCS was a footshock for both groups and the UCR was any neurochemical responses. Extinction sessions were held forty-five days after discriminatory classical conditioning. Responses in the hippocampus, medial geniculate and auditory cortex were recorded throughout the habituation, conditioning and extinction sessions. On the first day of conditioning, the hippocampus showed no difference in response to the CS+ versus the CS-. The response to the CS+ progressively increased above that for the CS- throughout the twelve days of conditioning. On the first day of extinction, the CS+ response in the hippocampus was considerably larger than the almost imperceptible CS- response, and by the second day of extinction, there was absolutely no response to the CS-. These same responses were also shown in the auditory cortex. In the magnocellular nucleus of the medial geniculate body (MGm), the CS+ was much greater than the CS- response from the first day, and neither one changed throughout the conditioning trials. On the first and second days of the extinction, the CS+ response was less than during conditioning, but present, whereas the CS- response was nonexistent.

In these experiments, the MGm showed markedly faster effects than the other two areas studied, but it showed no increase in response after more conditioning trials like the other two areas, and it also showed a decrease in response from the last day of conditioning until the first day of extinction (Edeline et al., 1990). This shows the MGm’s ability to quickly distinguish between two stimuli, but that its discriminatory response is also the first one to erode with time. These properties may lead to evidence that the MGm is responsible for certain types of learning that are initiated very quickly such as the development of phobias. This study suggests that the changes caused by learning are not associated with one particular structure that is designed for long-term storage of information – but rather with many of the structures of the brain where changes can be detected during learning. This is a valuable piece of knowledge in understanding the workings of the brain – memory is not centralized like in a computer, but rather it is localized in multiple areas of the brain.

Hennevin et al. 1993

The purpose of this study was to determine whether or not neurons in the medial geniculate nucleus (MG) respond to a conditioned tone during paradoxical sleep. Rats were divided up into two groups – a conditioned group and a pseudoconditioned group. The conditioned group received classical conditioning in which the UCS was a footshock, the NS was a tone and the UCR was the response of the MG neurons. The rats were then presented the same tones during paradoxical sleep. The results of this study show that during conditioning the level of evoked discharges in the MG increased above the baseline, whereas there was no change in the pseudoconditioned group.

This study showed the responsiveness of the MG during classical conditioning by studying the evoked discharges that take place during classical conditioning. This confirms some of the findings that Edeline et al. (1990) made regarding the changes that take place in the MG during classical conditioning.

Weinberger et al. 1995

This research studied whether facilitation of the magnocellular nucleus of the medial geniculate body (MGm) affects the receptive field plasticity in the auditory cortex. The experiment paired electrical stimulation of the MGm – or Sham stimulation in the case of the control group – with an auditory stimulus and recorded changes in the contralateral auditory cortex. In this case the UCS was the stimulation, the NS was the tone and the UCR was the plasticity of the primary auditory cortex. Classical conditioning was used in this experiment because it has previously been shown to produce a highly specific receptive field plasticity in the primary auditory cortex. The research showed that all subjects who received MGm stimulation had long-term facilitation of click-evoked potentials (EPs). Facilitation occurred as early as 1.3 minutes into the two hour session – but more often at 2.6 minutes – and continued to increase throughout the entire session. The control group developed no facilitation of click EPs. In fact the control group developed a reduction in click EPs throughout the two hours.

In looking at these results, one immediately notices the reduction in click EPs in the control group. The researchers used this to improve the correlation that they found. If the control group is considered the baseline from which all measurements are made, then the MGm stimulation group appears to have a decreasing baseline. When this is corrected for, the correlation is even better (Weinberger et al., 1995). It is important to raise the point made in this article that the MGm facilitation may not have directly facilitated the click-evoked potentials. It is very possible that the MGm affected other nuclei in the thalamus that actually caused the facilitation. Another explanation is that the MGm played no part in facilitation whatsoever, that the current actually spread to the nearby ventral nucleus of the medial geniculate body (MGv) – which also projects directly to the primary auditory cortex – and it is the MGv that actually caused the click EP facilitation (Weinberger et al.). A possible course of further study to address some of these issues would be to study the effects of MGm stimulation on the MGv and other surrounding nuclei.

Conclusion

From these studies, one can learn a lot about the relationship between learning and neurochemical changes. For one, these studies illustrate that the areas in the brain that show the highest level of responses during learning are the medial geniculate body (Edeline et al. 1990m Hennevin et al. 1993), the hippocampus (Edeline et al. 1990, Pöǧün et al. 1992, Tocco et al. 1992) and the corpus striatum (Edeline et al. 1990, Pöǧün et al. 1992). These studies also show that the D2 and AMPA receptors in the hippocampus and the D2 receptors in the corpus striatum play a major role in these changes (Pöǧün et al. 1992, Tocco et al. 1992). Although these studies only show a quantitative change in binding and click-evoked potentials, they do show that, in the case of the AMPA receptors, this change is due to a modification of the configuration of the receptors and not a change in the overall number (Tocco et al. 1992). These studies do not show, however, just how these changes take place or what types of configuration changes they are. Another piece of information that comes out of these studies is the fact that learning takes place in multiple areas – that information can be stored in the same place that it is detected and/or needed (Edeline et al. 1990). This is very useful when thinking about how learning is represented in the brain and when designing future experiments to further explore learning.

Based on these studies, I can confidently answer my research question that yes, there is a relationship between learning and neurochemical changes in rodents. The only qualification of this answer that I need to make is that these studies cannot answer just what types of changes take place or how these changes occur. This is because of the complexity of the brain and the chemicals it contains. Changing one chemical in one part of the brain may affect other chemicals that have not been studied yet in parts of the brain that are spatially unrelated. The complexity of a system where any chemical change can lead to countless other ones makes it very difficult to draw any conclusions from this type of research. As in many of these studies, one can safely say that learning leads to a certain change in receptor binding or neurotransmitter availability, but that may simply be the result of some other change in chemical availability. In the research of Weinberger et al. (1995), the MGm is directly stimulated and the auditory cortex plasticity is directly measured, but the actual mechanism for this change in plasticity may be a result of countless other thalamic nuclei that cannot be disregarded. Because of the incredible complexity of this system, one can safely say that learning causes a neurochemical change, but as far as the actual mechanism is concerned, there is – as of yet – no way to tell.

Bibliography

Doyère V, Burette F, Negro CR, Laroche S. (1993). Long-Term Potentiation of Hippocampal Afferents and Efferents to Prefrontal Cortex: Implications for Associative Learning. Neuropsychologia, 31, 1031-1053.

Tocco G, Annala AJ, Baudry M, Thompson RF. (1992). Learning of a Hippocampal-Dependent Conditioning Task Changes the Binding Properties of AMPA Receptors in Rabbit Hippocampus. Behavioral and Neural Biology, 58, 222-231.

Edeline JM, Neuenschwander-El Massioui N, Dutrieux G. (1990). Discriminative Long-Term Retention of Rapidly Induced Multiunit Changes in the Hippocampus, Medial Geniculate and Auditory Cortex. Behavioral Brain Research, 39, 145-155.

Hennevin E, Maho C, Hars B, Dutrieux G. (1993). Learning-Induced Plasticity in the Medial Geniculate Nucleus Is Expressed During Paradoxical Sleep. Behavioral Neuroscience, 6, 1018-1030.

Pöǧün, S., Kanit, L., & Okur, B. E. (1992). Learning-Induced Changes in D2 Receptors of Rat Brain Are Sexually Dimorphic. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 43, 71-75.

Weinberger NM, Javid R, Lepan B. (1995). Heterosynaptic Long-Term Facilitation of Sensory-Evoked Responses in the Auditory Cortex by Stimulation of the Magnocellular Medial Geniculate Body in Guinea Pigs. Behavioral Neuroscience, 1, 10-17.

Writings

Simple Complexity: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“The combination in the book of fantasy, satire, philosophy, poetry, science, imagination, and childish gaiety can capture the hearts and minds of ‘grown-ups’ as well as ‘children’ in only ninety-two short pages” (Dodd, 152). This is how Anne Dodd attempts to describe a book that will not allow itself to be categorized. This mystical adventure begins when Saint-Exupéry makes a forced landing in the Sahara Desert. A small, golden-haired visitor appears at dawn, asking the downed aviator for a drawing of a sheep. A traveler from his home on a small asteroid, the little prince describes his journey to Earth and his experiences here. The story ends with the little prince’s departure from Earth on the anniversary of his arrival. Critics agree that The Little Prince is written as a children’s book but can be analyzed on many different levels.

To begin, Henri Peyre describes the book as a tale “written with a purity of outline and a terse simplicity of dialogue” (Peyre, 144). The dedication even hints that the book is speaking directly to children (Higgins, Number 1, 149). But perhaps it is necessary to clarify this statement: one is defined as a ‘child’ or an ‘adult’ not by age, but by state of mind (Dodd, 152). Maybe it is better to explain that “‘it is a story for children, but not specifically for them alone'” (Higgins, Number 2, 156).

The story of the little prince exists on many different levels, a tale resembling such great works as Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels (Graham, 146). Saint-Exupéry explains the importance of seeing beneath the surface by beginning his book with the story about drawings of closed and open boa constrictors. Later, he relates a story about the Turkish astronomer who discovers the little prince’s home, Asteroid B-612. When he presents his findings to the International Congress of Astronomy, dressed in his comical Turkish outfit, he is not believed (Price, 151). Man has not learned to look beneath the surface, or rather, he has forgotten how (Jan, 153). Because adults never look inside, they will never know themselves or others.

This idea that man is alone in the world prompted Martin Heidegger to call The Little Prince “‘one of the great existentialist books of the century'” (Gagnon, 159). All his life, Saint-Exupéry has thought that grown-ups care only about inconsequential matters, such as golf and neckties, and are very dull when talking about important matters. He has never met anyone whom he could talk to about what is really important (Gagnon, 159).

Throughout his book, Saint-Exupéry teaches the importance of looking beneath the surface to find true beauty. Analyzed on an instructive level, his book casts a mysterious wonder over common things by showing what is beneath (Higgins, Number 1, 149). Visible things are only shells that hint at the real beauty of what is inside (Higgins, Number 2, 158). From the fox’s lesson that one can see only what is important by looking with the heart (Mooney, 611), Saint-Exupéry leaves the desert as a different person (Graham, 146). He agrees with the little prince’s thought: “‘the stars are beautiful, because of a flower that cannot be seen'” (Higgins, Number 2, 158).

Saint-Exupéry, the author, also teaches us how to love — the only way to overcome the existential boundary between men. “Love, for Saint-Exupéry, is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of consequence; indeed, it is a matter of survival. Men must learn to love one another or perish” (Higgins, Number 2, 159). Love is what gives life meaning (Dodd, 152). The little prince’s love for his rose is so important to him that the stranded aviator comments:

“What moves me so deeply about this little prince who is sleeping here, is his loyalty to a flower — the image of a rose that shines through his whole being like the flame of a lamp, even when he is asleep.” (Mooney, 611)

His love gives his life purpose and direction (Price, 151).

The fox teaches the little prince how to love — a lesson for us all. It is the time that one “wastes” on someone or something that makes it important (Higgins, Number 2, 157). It is the fox that tells us how love overcomes existentialism: “‘One only knows the things that one tames…. Men buy things already made in the stores. But as there are no stores where friends can be bought, men no longer have friends'” (Maurois, 150). Joy and pleasure must be earned — not given or received — like the joy the water from the well gives to the little prince and the pilot. Its sweetness comes from the journey under the stars and the work of the pilot’s arms making the pulley sing (Cate, 155).

The Little Prince can also be analyzed as a satire. It presents caricatures of man’s preoccupations with useless pastimes, wealth and power, and technology (Price, 151). It is these human characteristics that cause man “to miss the essentials in life: beauty, love and friendship” (Dodd, 152).

Saint-Exupéry scorns drinking as a pointless activity. The roundabout logic of the tippler shows the stupidity of this activity. The tippler explains to the little prince why he drinks:

“To forget.”

“To forget what?” inquired the Little Prince, already feeling sorry for him.

“To forget that I am ashamed,” confessed the drinker, bowing his head.

“Ashamed of what?” asked the Little Prince who wanted to help him.

“Ashamed of drinking!” concluded the drinker, shutting himself into a definitive silence. (Cate, 155)

Saint-Exupéry also scorns man’s obsession with wealth and power, this through the King and Businessman. The king puts a great deal of importance into being obeyed when he orders only what would happen anyway (Maurois, 150). The businessman takes great pride in owning all the stars, a collector too busy counting them to get any pleasure from their beauty (Cate, 154). The little prince tries to show the pointlessness of his “property” by explaining that it does the stars no good to be owned. The little prince then tells how he owns a flower and three volcanos. The fact that he owns and takes care of them does them some good. The businessman does not help the stars (Hürlimann, 147).

The Little Prince also scorns man’s fascination with science and technology. Philip Mooney tells us that “Technology on its own can never bring human happiness because it can neither create human relationship nor reveal the person of another” (611). This apathy is illustrated in the story of the train-switch operator. Dozens of dozing passengers are routed in all different directions, never truly knowing where they are going or what they are looking for (Cate, 155).

A final level that The Little Prince can be analyzed on is as a profession of faith. The Little Prince has been called a “fairy-tale transposition of certain episodes in the life of Christ” (Graham, 146). The little prince arrives on Earth in the desert beneath “his” star (Mooney, 611) during a time of spiritual conflict. He is professed to be without sin, even by the serpent, a biblical symbol of evil. “Like Christ in the temple, he astounds the author with his precocity” (Graham, 146). He recognizes the drawing of the closed boa constrictor immediately and knows that the author’s attempts to fix his engine have been successful before Saint-Exupéry can tell him. When the author runs out of water in the desert, the little prince “miraculously” leads him to a village well — even though they are in the middle of the desert without a town in sight. At the well, they share their “last supper” and the prince gives the author a lesson very similar to “the Christian ‘Love one another'” (Graham, 146). The time of the little prince’s departure from Earth is predetermined. He tells the author that he will look like he has died, but will live on (Mooney, 611). The little prince sacrifices himself because of his love for his rose — an act paralleling Christ’s sacrifice for his love of all mankind (Graham, 146). When the author does not find the little prince’s body at daybreak (Mooney, 611), he knows that the little prince has returned to his “heavenly” home, leaving with “his follower a sort of Holy Ghost — his star in the heavens and his memory” (Graham, 146). He also leaves the aviator his “Gospel” to write down and pass on to others (Graham, 146).

The author-aviator’s beautiful, poetic description of the little prince’s death illustrates his belief in life after death (Dodd, 152). The little prince, leaving his “shell” behind (Graham, 146), has gone to the most beautiful place he can imagine — his star and his love — his own little heaven (Dodd, 152).

Through reading and reserching The Little Prince, I have learned that this seemingly simple book is truly a complex literary work and can be analyzed on many levels. I spent a great deal of time with the reviews of this book, and, as Saint-Exupéry would say, “I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them” (Saint-Exupéry, 9). I love The Little Prince for its simplistic beauty and childlike wonder. I have always thought, as Maxwell A. Smith has, that “[t]o analyze in detail so lovely and fragile a tale would be like removing the petals of a rose to try and discover its charm…” (145). I believe that it is a work that means different things to different people. The feelings that I get from reading it are not to be found in any critical review; they are to be found in my heart. As André Maurois said: “The essential virtue of a work of art is that it has its own significance, without reference to abstract concepts. A cathedral does not require commentaries, the starry vault does not require footnotes” (150).

Bibliography

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Mooney, Philip. “‘The Little Prince’ — a Story for Our Time.” America, 20 December, 1969: 610-611,614.

Peyre, Henri. Untitled. In Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 10. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1986: 144.

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