The Art of Neuroscience

Four year ago I wrote this Letter to A Young Researcher. Having just read it again I’m struck by two things. One, there is very little I would change and two, there is very little that has changed.

Perhaps what is needed is a simpler rallying cry, something more actionable. Something every student who pursues studying the brain could easily adopt as they move forward in their careers.

Well, I’ve thought about it a lot over the years since and I think I’ve settled on this:

Don’t Study Disease.

I know you want to be the one to find the cure for Parkinson’s or ALS or Alzheimer’s, but it ain’t going to happen and, more likely than not, you’ll end up pretty miserable if you try.

Art?

Science, at its best, is art, and art, at its best, cannot be forced. It comes from love. Love for the world, the universe, biology and everything else that we are and that we know. Frankly, studying brain diseases sucks almost all of the love out of studying the brain.

I say this out of urgency. People living with degenerative conditions need the people who choose to study the brain to do the best job they possibly can, if we constantly hold their feet to the fire by forcing them to study the brain through the myopic lens of our diseases we simply won’t be able to accomplish as much.

But don’t we know a lot about how the brain works from the study of diseases? Yes, studying diseases has allowed us to understand a few aspects of how brains works. However, each has been but a flashbulb in an infinitely cold and dark universe. If we continue in that manner it will take thousands of years to get through it all.

And, because we have tried to understand the brain by understanding diseased brains, we have learned little about how brains should work which we need to know to be able to fix those that aren’t working as they should.

Pin on Psychedelic tapestry
But, there is no “should”.

I’ll let you in on a secret that no one tells you about neuroscience, it is more art than any other science. By that I mean that the great advances haven’t and won’t come from rigorous study of all the millions of parts but rather by just trying stuff and seeing where it takes you.

Don’t get me wrong, you can do classical science and study the brain if you want, there are many pieces to study, an infinity of finer details, but none tells us very much about how the whole works. A system as complex as the brain just cannot be understood by looking at individual parts. When systems get to that level of complexity emergent properties form that have little to do with the base layer of information contained underneath.

Imagine if you will a disk with many moving parts on it suspended in space. There are thousands of parts to this disk and each does thousands of different things all at once. You will never be able to wrap your head around it by trying to add up what each part does.

But, when you step back just a bit you see that the effect of all those parts is that the disk spins. The property (spin) can’t be found in any of the parts, and yet it spins and at the level of objects similar in size to the disk, it is the spinning that matters.

A single dopamine producing neuron depicted by Dr. Megan Duffy.

This is nothing new of course, the fact that emergent properties come from sufficiently complex systems is well known. Still it is worth repeating, particularly in the context of diseases and neuroscience.

“Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything. You named him Howard, but you can’t sell that. The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.”

Arthur Miller – Death of a Salesman

I was recently asked by some neuroscience students organizing a conference for my advice on how to maximize the impact it could have. Here is what I wrote:

“In my opinion, events such as these typically do a good job of bringing scientists together to talk about their science, but rarely if ever do they translate to anything that positively impacts patients or the broader society. That said, I think there are opportunities for such events to have greater impact if a few guidelines are set at the beginning.

  1. More open discussions, less talks. Science conferences should not be seen by researchers as a chance to advertise their work, instead they should come with the idea in mind that their work will be challenged and that they should be ready to challenge others as well.
  2. Invite experts from related fields. Biophysicists, quantum chemists, astrobiologists, etc. People who don’t know anything about neuroscience but work on things that might have some overlap. The only way we’ll ever make any jumps in this field is by getting fresh ideas and new disciplines to enter and take interest. Most of the people that have been working in one field and only one field for decades have nothing meaningful left to contribute.
  3. Invite more patients and caregivers, but no token patients or caregivers. People who are curious enough to learn from the people attending but who are also willing to challenge everyone else and not care too much about when they get something wrong.”

(That last sentence should apply to everyone invited)

That’s all, for now…
Original title of this piece.

3 comments

  1. Yes. Are any scientists free? Or are they all encumbered in some way? Even if there are unencumbered scientists, are they unencumbered from their own ambitions? Can we see why this is damaging?

    As patients, we’re no better. Cure us, we demand, shoving our way forward. It’s only a question of money, right? Because in our society, everything is a question of money – always. That’s why we have what we have. That’s also why we’ll never get all we want.

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