Category Archives: uncensored

i’ll tell you why there’s no neuroscience blogosphere

You’ll have to trust me that I say this from a place of love, but there is no neuroscience blogosphere because what you think about the brain is stupid.

There is no neuroscience blogosphere because you are so embarrassingly eager, and wide-eyed, and curious, and credulous… nothing you say about the brain makes any sense and it makes us neuroscientists very uncomfortable to listen to you talk about it.

It’s not your fault. “You” are a layperson, a scholar, well-read, clever, astute… you may even have earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience. But for reasons largely out of your control, the things you have to say about the brain are invariably, appallingly, even curiously, incorrect.

Do you know someone who studies the brain? Ask them this — when they are in a bar, and someone asks them what they do for a living, do they tell the truth? And if they do tell the truth, do they tell it immediately and eagerly? Or do they briefly skim a mental flipbook of alternative lives, flailing to think of a career so boring that it invites no follow-up questions? Ask them.

People read about neuroscience because they glimpse the opportunity to understand why they are who they are. They get excited about what they learn, and they try to do normal things with that knowledge — making connections, building schemas, changing their behavior, discussing, theorizing… but there’s a problem. The available information is often so shoddy, exaggerated, overblown and oversimplified; the shelf life of conventional wisdom is so short and variable; and garbage research is so often polished and spun and pushed to the front of public discourse, that the poor suckers really don’t have anything of reliable value to work with.

So when normal, intelligent adults try to process the information they gather about the brain, their tools, which serve them well in other fields of inquiry, fail them. They assemble mangled theories out of ill-fitting metaphors mistaken for facts, science layered carelessly with philosophy and spirituality, some good science , some crappy science, and emerge with ruddy cheeks and a firmer footing on the earth itself. Man’s true dominion over the unknown at last is nigh.

So when someone shares with me something that “they know” about the brain, I just can’t stomach it anymore. I can’t look at another tattoo of a dopamine molecule. I can’t choose between the variously unsatisfying answers to the question, “Now does the hippocampus count as part of the reptilian brain, or the mammalian brain?” I never volunteer for these conversations, but when I was a neuroscientist they found me again and again and again.

Now, before you indict me as a snob, (and perhaps as a simple expansion on Calhoun’s reason #4), I have a second reason not to engage with you in public conversations about brains. I’m 100% sure  that I am not exempt from the criticisms I have just leveled against you. The greenhorn’s grin may have faded from my face ages ago, but after 13 years of learning and unlearning and relearning I have no confidence in anything that I “know” about the brain. Or at least how it works. I’d be happy to gather up a bunch of Ramon y Cajal’s sketches with you, and just sit quietly with our hands in our laps and admire them. Don’t speak. No that’s one man, Santiago Ramón y Cajal. And I said don’t speak. Now you’ve ruined it.

Shoot, I’m usually just hoping that the literature I used to justify my study stays current through the 18 months it takes to get my paper submitted. The last thing I want to do is to poke my nose out into the blogosphere and learn that my premises are stale, to find out that last week’s best practice is today’s voodoo correlation, to notice that conventional wisdom is shifting, again, on just what it is that the amygdala does. Or the cerebellum. Or dopamine. Just spare me, please.

Neuroscience is young, small, raw, and unstable, especially compared to a field like economics. When we talk to each other honestly about what we know (and don’t know) and how it all fits together (or doesn’t), we do it in hushed voices, lying on the carpet under our desks in the lab at night with the lights turned off clutching tumblers of bourbon. We do it in hushed, self-conscious monologues to our role models when we meet them at conferences. We do it, brazenly, in front of faculty committees, because they force us to in order to graduate. We don’t do it in a blogosphere, where you and your sincere, innocent, blameless, gawking interest can listen in, and sophomorically, grotesquely, you can respond.