Freestyle Lehrer

Edge has an excellent interview with science writer Jonah Lehrer who riffs on consciousness, the joy of discovery, the importance of the marshmallows in psychology and how he fell in love with science.

It’s interesting because rarely do science writers get the opportunity to give their own opinions on the big questions in neuroscience, despite the fact that, as Lehrer mentions, they have a distinct way of looking at the field as a whole.

Writers have a massive influence on politics, economics, business and the arts, to the point where they are actively courted and coerced by those wanting to control the agenda, but there is much less of a tradition of writers influencing science outside the political sphere.

In fact, it’d be interesting to directly ask science writers for their own theories one day, but in the mean time here’s a rare opportunity to see one ‘in action’ on the big issues.

The questions I’m asking myself right now are on a couple different levels. For a long time there’s been this necessary drive towards reductionism; towards looking at the brain, these three pounds of gelatinous flesh, as nothing but a loop of kinase enzymes. You’re a trillion synaptic connections. Of course, that‚Äôs a necessary foundation for trying to understand the mind and the brain, simply trying to decode the wet stuff.

And that’s essential, and we’ve made astonishing progress thanks to the work of people like Eric Kandel, who has helped outline the chemistry behind memory and all these other fundamental mental processes. Yet now we’re beginning to know enough about the wet stuff, about these three pounds, to see that that’s at best only a partial glance, a glimpse of human nature; that we’re not just these brains in a vat, but these brains that interact with other brains and we are starting to realize that the fundamental approach we’ve taken to the mind and the brain, looking at it as this system of ingredients, chemical ingredients, enzymatic pathways, is actually profoundly limited.

The question now is, how do you then extrapolate it upwards? How do you take this organ, this piece of meat that runs on 10 watts of electricity, and how do you study it in its actual context, which is that it’s not a brain in a vat. It’s a brain interacting with other brains. How do you study things like social networks and human interactions?

Link to Jonah Lehrer interview on Edge.

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