“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of…”
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis
I really like the quote above, which is from the Chronicles of Narnia. It raises a neat little metaphysical question:
Why do we assume that what a thing is made up of is what a thing is?
A Quora conversation led me to recent paper in Neuron that highlights a very important problem with a lot of neuroscience research: there is insufficient attention paid to the careful analysis of behavior. The paper is not quite a call to return to behaviorism, but it is an invitation to consider that the pendulum has swing too far in the opposite direction, towards ‘blind’ searches for neural correlates. The paper is a wonderful big picture critique, so I’d like to just share some excerpts.
Here’s the intro to my latest blog post at 3 Quarks Daily.
“The osmosis of neuroscience into popular culture is neatly symbolized by a phenomenon I recently chanced upon: neurochemical-inspired jewellery. It appears there is a market for silvery pendants shaped like molecules of dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine and other celebrity neurotransmitters. Under pictures of dopamine necklaces, the neuro-jewellers have placed words like “love”, “passion”, or “pleasure”. Under serotonin they write “happiness” and “satisfaction”, and under norepinephrine, “alertness” and “energy”. These associations presumably stem from the view that the brain is a chemical soup in which each ingredient generates a distinct emotion, mood, or feeling. Subjective experience, according to this view, is the sum total of the contributions of each “mood molecule”. If we strip away the modern scientific veneer, the chemical soup idea evokes the four humors of ancient Greek medicine: black bile to make you melancholic, yellow bile to make you choleric, phlegm to make you phlegmatic, and blood to make you sanguine.
“A dopamine pendant worn round the neck as a symbol for bliss is emblematic of modern society’s attitude towards current scientific research. A multifaceted — and only partially understood — set of experiments is hastily distilled into an easily marketed molecule of folk wisdom. Having filtered out the messy details, we are left with an ornamental nugget of thought that appears both novel and reassuringly commonsensical. But does neuroscience really support this reductionist view of human subjectivity? Can our psychological states be understood in terms of a handful of chemicals? Does neuroscience therefore pose a problem for a more holistic view, in which humans are integrated in social and environmental networks? In other words, are the “chemical self” and the “social self” mutually exclusive concepts?”
– Read the rest at 3QD: The Chemical Self and the Social Self