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The Shape of Science to Come

I think enough time has passed to allow the pain of REJECTION to subside so that I can now post my short submission for the Nature magazine essay contest.  My strategy was to try to shoot the moon: take a risk and try to distinguish myself from a pack of trite “it’s-hard-to-be-a-scientist-in-the-age-of-reduced-funding/academic burdens/[other inconvenience or challenge that has existed for decades and is nothing new]” essays that typically represent these sorts of contests.  It didn’t work, but I will boast beforehand that I was selected as a finalist.

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Long before deciding to wear a lab coat to work, I wanted to attend classes with a spiked mohawk. Instead of speaking next to a projection screen, I dreamed of being on stage in front of suburbia’s restless and marginalized. Before tuning pipettes at the bench, I was tuning guitar strings in my room. I wanted to be a punk rocker more than anything.

My rattle ‘n’ roll ambitions eventually deferred to my love of science, but the punk scene’s influence on me feels surprisingly stronger than ever. Science and graduate school have fomented, rather than extinguished, my inner punk. I suspect that most scientists have their own inner punk as well, and I strongly encourage them to embrace it. I would argue that doing so is deeply important for science’s continuing progress.

Punk does not simply refer to an aesthetic or music genre, nor is it a synonym for petulance or stridency. It is instead a mindset for many people, and even a complete worldview for some. At its most elementary level, the punk mindset stresses the challenging of one’s preconceptions about the world. It encourages the bold questioning of authority, doctrine and dogma in order to develop a deeper personal sense of meaning. Punk thus involves a process of discovery that I view as inherently complementary to science, which embodies many of the same principles.

The interaction between the punk mindset and science is best illustrated by some of the greatest and bravest theorists in history. One such thinker was the sixteenth century Italian friar Giordano Bruno, whose cosmological theories were a huge influence for his younger contemporaries Kepler and Galileo. Bruno accepted the Copernican heliocentric model of the Solar System, but took it a step further by abandoning the idea of a hierarchical universe in which the Earth and the Sun were perched in the center of it all. He introduced the concept of a homogenous universe: the Sun is essentially another star among many others in an infinite universe, and the Earth is just another heavenly body among innumerable others like it. This was a fantastically bold idea for his time because it directly contradicted the views of his church, the longstanding authority on science.

Although a religious person himself, I believe Bruno harbored a personal philosophy consistent with the modern punk outlook. As a young man in monastery he allegedly could not quell his appetite for forbidden books. A court of inquisition eventually found Bruno guilty of heresy, and he was burned at the stake. Testimony to his inquisitors reveals that upon hearing his fate Bruno said, “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it1.” This level of commitment to open skepticism feels both relatable and inspiring to me.

Luckily, the penalties for challenging authority are much softer today. As a young scientist, my inner punk often emerges when opening a dialogue with others. While answering questions during a presentation, for instance, I find myself consciously striving to understand someone else’s point of view as best I can so that I can better gauge where my research fits into a larger context. I view the candid challenging of my work as a way to refine my own attitudes toward it, rather than as a reason to mentally accommodate the leftover cognitive dissonance from a tense examination. This level of scrutiny has the practical benefit of helping me decide which ideas warrant further investigation and which are probably dead ends.

I don’t believe that my approach to science is much different from most other young scientists. We all have an intrinsic curiosity about the natural world that motivates us to better understand it, and this is the source of our inner punk. I encourage all scientists to reject stagnant, ineffective ideas and discard toxic mindsets like arrogance or pride. These feelings hinder our progress and distract us from our ultimate goals as scientists: the discovery of new knowledge and the reduction of our own ignorance for the benefit of everyone.

1D.W. Singer, Giordano Bruno, His Life and Thought, New York, 1950, ch. 7

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Lit Review: Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks

Finally, something worth posting here.  I wrote another book review for our newsletter.  I didn’t enjoy writing about this book as much as the previous one I reviewed because there wasn’t too much wrong with it.  Not that there was a ton I disagreed with in Consciousness, but there were some pretty controversial topics covered in it that were more fun to discuss.  Anyway…

Hallucinations

Oliver Sacks

Alfred A. Knopf (New York), 2012

“Thus the matter of belief is, in all cases, different in kind from the matter of sensation and perception, and error is in no way analogous to hallucination.  A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.”

–Bertrand Russell, Theory of Knowledge (1913)

            One astonishing revelation of the human mind uncovered by the study of neuroscience is the fragility of our perception of reality: a mild imbalance in the activation of certain neuronal circuits from drug use or psychiatric disease is often sufficient to evoke profound alterations in sensation and perception.  We call the precepts that form in the absence of external reality hallucinations.  Despite the stigmas associated with them, drug users and the mentally ill are far from the only people who experience hallucinations.  In fact, hallucinogenic experiences are a nearly universal phenomenon.  As Dr. Oliver Sacks illustrates in his most recent book Hallucinations, they can provide deep insight into how the human brain functions.

            Dr. Sacks has a gift for crafting a compelling narrative out of the human nervous system, and he accomplishes this in Hallucinations by combining medical history, scientific background, fascinating (and sometimes downright bizarre) case studies of his patients, as well as his own personal experience.  Perhaps because he experienced it himself, Dr. Sacks begins by describing a common (yet little recognized) condition called Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS) that afflicts older people suffering from visual impairment.  CBS is marked by the experience of a wide spectrum of intensely vivid, complex visual hallucinations.  Patients report seeing anything from faces, common objects, repetitive patterns, and even rows of text or sheet music.  Often times a “scene” composed of hallucinatory people and objects will play in the patient’s visual field. 

            Patients with CBS are not united by dementia or mental illness, as many doctors mistakenly diagnose.  Rather, they suffer from deficits in the visual field.  The visual damage that yields CBS hallucinations can arise in the eye (due to macular degeneration, for example) or in the brain, especially in areas of the cortex associated with the visual pathway.  Dr. Sacks describes the pioneering research of British psychiatrist Dominic ffytche, who, using fMRI, discovered a “striking correspondence” between the particular hallucinatory experiences of CBS patients and specific portions of the visual pathway that become activated while the patient is hallucinating.  For instance, hallucinations of faces were associated with activation of the fusiform gyrus and the superior temporal sulcus, brain areas known to be specialized for the representation of faces and facial features, respectively. 

            As the remainder of Hallucinations uncovers, there are hallucinations for every perceptual experience—those of sound, smell, touch and taste, as well as complex, multimodal hallucinations involving a combination of the senses—and their origin is in the brain.  Dr. Sacks devotes chapters to describing visual auras seen by sufferers of migraines and epilepsy, and even recounts his own experiences while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs to hilarious effect.  The recurring theme of the book is that the vast majority of people who experience hallucinations are not crazy; the patients Dr. Sacks describes are instead treated as privileged observers of singular neurological phenomena.

Dr. Sacks ascribes an almost romantic quality to hallucinations, frequently citing patients who describe their experiences as comforting and even inspiring.  Among the more interesting segments are his discussions of how hallucinatory experiences may have contributed to works of art and literature, including myths and certain religious beliefs.  “Hallucinations,” writes Dr. Sacks, “beyond any other waking experience, can excite, bewilder, terrify, or inspire, leading to the folklore and the myths (sublime, horrible, creative, playful) which perhaps no individual and no culture can wholly dispense with.”  As Dr. Sacks brilliantly illuminates in Hallucinations, the brain often separates our sense of what is real and what is illusory with a fuzzy line.