Neuroscience has hit the big time. Every day, popular newspapers, websites and blogs offer up a heady stew of brain-related self-help (neuro-snake oil?) and gee wiz science reporting (neuro-wow?). Some scientists and journalists — perhaps caught up in the neuro-fervor — throw caution to the wind, promising imminent brain-based answers to the kinds of questions that probably predate civilization itself: What is the nature of mind? Why do we feel the way we do? Does each person have a fundamental essence? How can we avoid pain and suffering, and discover joy, creativity, and interpersonal harmony?
Predictably, the boldest claims tend to oversimplify and exaggerate scientific results, which are complex, provisional, tentative, and often mutually contradictory. Just as predictably, a backlash ensues. Neuroskeptics and neurocritics coin terms like neurobabble, neurobollocks and neuromania in order to name — and therefore tame — the beast. This of course unhelpfully adds to an ever-growing pile of n(eur)auseating ne(ur)ologisms, including such neurowonders as neuroesthetics, neurotheology, and the dreaded neuromarketing. Since the hype cycle is now measured in twitseconds rather than months or years, a backlash against the backlash seems to be underway already. (See here, here and here, for prominent examples.) Given
the difficulty of the science,
the growth of funding,
the intractability of the never-far-away philosophical issues, and
the insatiable appetite for both neuro-tidbits and neuro-antacid among the secular educated classes, the neuro trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, like a chattering neuron.
Se we might as well sit back and enjoy the show, right?
In order to make sense of the plots and intrigues in the palace of brain sciences, it is worth contemplating the sheer diversity of traditions that take up residence within its walls. And the paint isn’t even dry on these walls — until very recently, there were almost no undergraduate programs in neuroscience. I entered the field a little over seven years ago. Prior to that I studied physics, and I was only dimly aware of the umbrella term “neuroscience”. Before discovering neural networks I assumed only medical doctors studied the brain.
When I entered grad school one of our professors — also a former physics type — began his course on computational neuroscience with a little “sociology” of the field. He illustrated his description of the fields feeding into neuroscience with a handy little scheme.