The feeling of publishing a paper has two key components: the unforgiving roller coaster leading up to publication — a process that feels like an airplane is perpetually parked on the face of your self-esteem — and the part after the paper has been accepted — a process that feels like a double-thick oreo milkshake multiplied by world peace. Both processes are bound together by research. Research is what happens when you navigate onto the edge of what is known and unknown. Neuroscientists are cartographers of the brain, and this story is about how my first two years as a grad student in Susumu Tonegawa’s lab (T-lab) have been an adrenal gland-squeezing voyage to understand how uncharted neural waters make the wine of memory possible. I took the hippocampic oath; we called the voyage Project X.
Nothing Either Good Or Bad?
You’re a 10-year-old girl in Africa, lying nervously on your back with your lower body fully exposed. You don’t know why, but the grown-ups nearby keep assuring you that the tradition they’re about to carry out is to prevent you from becoming one of those immoral outcasts. They are concerned with one thing only: keeping you pure – your virginity must be preserved. Being a female and all, you mustn’t pleasure yourself. With your consent, what is about to happen to you is called a clitoridectomy – partial or total removal of the clitoris. Without your consent – and almost surely, you have not granted it – it is called female genital mutilation (FGM).
The starry heavens above and the moral law within — these were the two things that Immanuel Kant claimed were immune to scientific investigation. Equally untouchable was the vague abstraction known as consciousness. That was in the 1700s. This book-length book of a post will be split into two parts, each covering the hot buttons of consciousness or morality, both within the framework of neuroscience. Here’s the sparknotes version: consciousness can be explained solely in terms of orderly neural activity and is fully measurable; and, morality is and ought to be understood in light of the brain states of conscious creatures. We can — and do — have a neuroscience of both, because we’re not in the 1700s anymore.
Part 2 on morality will be posted shortly.
This post will be somewhat atypical. No science-heavy references, no hard data, no hypotheses — nothing new. It’ll be just one general and optimistic story for the non-specialist, a story and opinion that celebrates neuroscience to the bone.
Imagine taking a scalpel and making an incision on an anesthetized patient’s head. As the blade glides down a shaved patch of gelatinous skin, the blood underneath begins to flow out and glistens a bright crimson. It quickly dries to a rust on the scalpel and gauze. Some yellow cubes of fat almost bursts at the seams of the skin around it, and white skull finally comes into sight. Flakes of bone fly around as you drill a hole open. As soon as the hole gives way, the pinkgrey custard that is your brain appears. It is engulfed by a spider-web of of purple bloody veins. Congratulations! Before you, finally, is the seat to everything that is You, and there is nothing You-er than your mind, than your brain. So, let’s study You.
It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up
‘Cause you were born this way, baby
Test tubes with DNA and canvases with brushstrokes. Einstein and Shakespeare. Science and humanities. These two cultures have been polarized throughout most of history, benefiting little, if anything, from each other.
When people think of “science,” they naturally think of atoms, planets, robots — things they can touch and see. They know that subjective experiences such as happiness are important, but they believe that such experiences can’t be studied scientifically. That belief is dead wrong.
Here’s a proposed answer to the question of where good ideas come from, presented in style, courtesy of the RSA. In an attempt to revolutionize how education is delivered, the RSA has been converting lectures from all disciplines into visually stunning stories. This one is presented by science writer Steven Johnson, author of Mind Wide Open and Where Good Ideas Come From :