Neurontic

A Manifesto

I’m angry with my science teachers. I wish I could track them all down and give them a good tongue-lashing. They allowed me to get all the way through 12th grade believing that science was the domain of left-brainers: People who enjoyed computations and categorizations. People who seemed bent on bleeding life of all its color and distilling it down to a series of sterile “laws.” They never gave me any indication that learning the periodic table, the laws of physics, or the basics of evolution was just the grunt work–the equivalent of practicing scales so that you could go on to tackle Bach.

I was sold down the river. For years and years, I believed what CP Snow said about the two cultures. I believed you were offered admittance into one of two worlds: literature, philosophy, and the arts, or science. Once you received your passport, your ability to navigate between them was severely restricted. These two cultures had managed, with much finagling, to establish a kind of d├ętente, like Russia and the US during the Cold War. And too much back and forth between them threatened this delicate equilibrium.

Of course, I opted to join the right-brainers. Given the choice between spending my time mucking around with charts and graphs and reading Fitzgerald, Whitman, and Blake, it seemed impossible to do otherwise. I was interested in the Big Picture questions, not the fine print. Science, it seemed to me, was all about the fine print. It’s only over the past year that I’ve begun to realize just how wrong I was.

I stumbled into writing about neuroscience entirely by accident. I was taking a class with Adam Penenberg, the technology writer, and one of the requirements was starting a blog. Write about something that fascinates you, he said. Given my low-grade ADD, I was having trouble choosing. But it occurred to me that there was a thread linking most of my obsessions: the quest to understand human nature. Then, I stumbled on an article in The New York Times by Sandra Blakeslee about mirror neurons, “Cells That Read Minds.”

Having virtually no grounding in science, it took me a couple of reads to grasp the nature of mirror neurons, but I was immediately caught by Blakeslee description of their import:

The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions.

“We are exquisitely social creatures,” Dr. Rizzolatti said [the man who "discovered" mirror neurons]. “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others.”

He continued, “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.”

The discovery is shaking up numerous scientific disciplines, shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language, imitation, autism and psychotherapy.

(For more on mirror neurons to read: “Psychic Cells.”)

I was floored. Cells that allowed us to feel with other people? Had they really discovered the biological underpinnings of empathy? This was the Rosetta Stone! Literature allows us to represent human experience, I thought; philosophy is an attempt to systematize it; and psychology enabled us to begin conceptualizing the nature of the self. But it suddenly it occurred to me that science could delineate what was really going on inside our heads. The idea that there were two cultures imploded in an instant. I was drunk on the potential, and Neurontic was born just a few days later.

Why am I telling you all this now? Because I’m not the only one who had lousy science teachers. Over the past 12 months, I’ve become convinced that many of you also bought into the myth of the two cultures. And I’m hell bent on changing that.

My world is peopled with right-brainers–creative types who stick the science section of The Times in the trash the moment they unwrap the paper. These are not incurious people; nor are they stupid people. They are people who still associate science with practicing scales. And even if a particular article strikes their fancy, they’ve spent so little time visiting “the world of science,” they fear the language will be entirely foreign to them. So they just don’t bother. And that’s a shame, because science is the new philosophy.

It is the possibility of one day being able to answer the Big Picture questions that fuels my growing obsession with science. And I fear I haven’t done a very good job articulating this to the reader. So, for the next couple of weeks we’re going to dangle our toes in the deep end.

I plan to write about two subjects: how scientific findings are challenging the traditional notion of “the self,” and the overlap between quantum physics and theology. Yes, I know, it sounds daunting. But I will do my utmost to keep things simple. If I’m successful, this won’t feel like homework; it will feel like intellectual playtime, because that’s how it feels to me.