Thursday, December 8, 2011

Neuroscience for the Millions

Having occasionally permitted ourselves an unkind word, we hasten to celebrate the monumental achievements of neuroscience.  Thus, to quote Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate (2002), p. 79:

A network of neurons can represent different concepts depending on which ones are active.  If neurons for “yellow”, “flies”, and “sings” are active, the network is thinking about a canary;  if neurons for “silver”, “flies”, and “roars” are active, it is thinking about an airplane.

Actually this rather recalls that fad of “grape jokes” from a while back.  As:  “What’s purple, huge, and lives in the sea?”  Answer:  “Moby Grape.”

But let us not mock their titanic achievement.   Thus, in parallel fashion, when my neurons fire on “hunchback”, “bad breath”, and “knuckles drag on ground” … I am thinking of a neuroscientist.

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Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and developmental linguist, is very well-versed in the neuroscience literature;  and doubtless has found much to admire.  But he too is repelled by its bastardization in the yellow press.  From p. 86 of the same work:

Nowadays  any banality about learning can be dressed up in neurospeak   and treated like a great revelation of science.  … “Scientists have found that the brain is capable of alterning its connections. … You have the ability to change the synaptic connections within the brain.”  Good thing, because otherwise we would be permanent amnesiacs.

(A propos of not much -- cf. this and this re transient global amnesia.)

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