The Frontal Cortex

Memory and Journalism

There’s an illuminating four part series looking at neuroscientist Gary Lynch in the LA Times. It’s written by Terry McDermott. What makes this series so compelling is that it does two things rarely done by science journalists.

First of all, the articles present Gary Lynch as a complex human being, complete with the usual human flaws, features and foibles. Most newsy profiles of scientists portray the researcher as some sort of emotionless lab machine, motivated by nothing but the search for objective truth. This, of course, is a false stereotype. Science is a human endeavor, and the data is never as clear as we would like it to be. In my experience, most great scientists have egos to match their talent. Here, for example, is a snippet of McDermott’s revealing character description:

Lynch almost always spoke in such a way that his huge ambition, self-regard and lack of pretense were vividly displayed. He was unreserved, witty, juvenile, insightful and learned in ways that were surprising. He was as apt to quote Cormac McCarthy as Gregor Mendel. He made on-the-fly references to, among many other things, left- handed relief pitchers, Moses, British naval history, the stock market, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Maxwell’s equations, the ur-city of Ur, Darwin, Dylan, Kant, Chomsky, Bush, Titian, field theory, drag-racing, his father’s perpetual habit of calling him — intentionally — by the wrong name, his career as a gas jockey at an all-night service station, Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and the search for the historical Jesus.

That leaping ability has earned Lynch as much trouble as reward. He never shies from proclamation based on his intuitions, nor from criticizing those not privy to his insight. “That is what amazes me,” he said. “People will walk in who are very sensible and intelligent biologists and tell you, ‘Memory is this.’ And you go, ‘How in the hell could it possibly be that? I didn’t think it was that when I was back at Our Lady of Fatima Grade School. I mean, I didn’t think it was that when I was working at the all-night gas station. For crying out loud!’ “

The other thing McDermott does exceedingly well is complicate the linear model of scientific progress, in which truth slowly accumulates, like dust. He shows us just how hard it is to discover something new, and how modern science is really a tense negotiation with reality. Sometimes, of course, reality wins. As Lynch notes, “You’re always surprised or horrified or pleased or something. It’s not what you expected. It’s always a bunch of crap.”

The myth of modern science, that it proceeds carefully, rationally, incrementally, building bit by bit from rock-solid foundations to impregnable fortresses of fact, comes unraveled in contemporary neuroscience. Fortresses, entire kingdoms of neuroscience have been built on what turn out to be frail premises that get swept away entirely when the next new thing comes along.

A few years ago, a huge amount of effort was spent researching the then-thought marvelous qualities of a humble molecule called nitric oxide. This molecule, better-known in the broader world as the key element in laughing gas, was celebrated as a vital actor in human memory and cognition.

Science Magazine, as if honoring a rock star or president, put the thing on its cover and declared it Molecule of the Year.

By the end of the next year, nitric oxide had fallen off the end of the Earth. Little of what had been claimed on its behalf turned out to be true. This was but one example in a long, sad tradition of a science, as if gripped by mass hysteria, going off the deep end and pretending it knew how to swim.

There was no guarantee, neuroscientist Gary Lynch liked to say, that something was important just because you happened to study it.

It’s all too common for a science article on some sparkling new data – here, McDermott is discussing Lynch’s empirical validation of LTP – to treat this data as the final say, the stopping point, the end result. Science doesn’t work like that. In a few years, the theory will be revised, and the data will be reinterpreted in a new light. The rise and fall of nitrous oxide could just as easily apply to NGF, or CREB, or a long list of other acronyms that once upon a time seemed like the best thing since sliced bread. Now we know better.

Read the first two parts of the series here. There are also some great images of synapses. If I had to sum up the moral of Lynch’s work, it’s that actin and other microtubules don’t get enough credit. These proteins might not be sexy, but they happen to underlie many aspects of plasticity.