Neuron Culture

Research Digest has posted an q&a interview with me as part of their The Bloggers Behind the Blog series. Here are a few key tidbits. Do read the rest there, as well as the other interviews already run and to come.

On why I write about psychology, psychiatry, and other behavioral sciences:

Science constitutes our most serious and rigorous attempt to understand the world — and psychiatry, psychology, and now neuroscience make great material partly because they so often and starkly show science’s power and pitfalls. These disciplines are hard. The people who work in them, whether researching, treating patients or both, are trying to discern and treat enormously complex and opaque dynamics.

Some do brilliant work. Others, both now and through the centuries, have come up with some really fascinating wrong ideas, some of them, like phrenology, hare-brained and obviously corrupt, and others, like Freudian psychology, more rigorous but in the end almost as badly flawed empirically. Freud created a brilliant, beautiful, and disciplined body of work — a gorgeously developed account of how we think and behave — that ultimately fails as science because you can’t falsify it. Meanwhile, Cajal was figuring out the neuron — and quietly laid a path now being followed to much greater effect.

At their best, these disciplines try to find empirical ways to understand human behavior, mood, and thinking, and to treat problems in the same areas. And even as we’re starting to get a few real insights into the brain, these disciplines offer one object lesson after another in the challenges and dangers of science. Take neuroimaging alone. You get brilliant people like Helen Mayberg, who uses imaging to create and test deep, complex, substantial ideas about how depression works. And you get others who claim they can read an fMRI and tell you whether someone is lying. And in between you encounter — sometimes starkly, sometimes subtly — every kind of intellectual, financial, cultural, and personal issue that generate what we call conflicts of interest — that is, the desires and motivations that pull scientists or medical people away from solid, empirically based science and practice and into murky terrain. Meanwhile you get the very cool technical solutions people devise, and the lovely long detective-story-level intellectual puzzles they solve.

All that, and a million alluring ideas about why we act, think, and feel the ways we do. There’s no end to the richness. 

On my blog’s ‘mission':

Same as my writing in general, only faster. I want to write about science, nature, medicine, culture, and — the big fun — how they overlap. Blogging lets me do this in quicker, more provisional takes. It lets me revise my provisional takes and respond more fluidly to other people’s provisional takes. It lets me elaborate or post sources on longform articles I’ve written for print. It lets me write about things I’ll deal with more deeply in my book on behavioral genetics — and on related issues I won’t have room for in my book. All that, and I can post YouTube mashups ofSoviet soldiers dancing to hip-hop. I can write about curveballs and Sandy Koufax. Twice.