The brain: sources

For over a year now, I’ve been studying the brain. Why? Because neuroscience might be the single most exciting area of science — nay, of knowledge in general — today. Just the other day, I found myself in a conversation with an 18-year-old cousin and heard myself saying that, if I were to enter university again today, I would choose any discipline that might lead me to neuroscience. (One feels old when spouting such counterfactuals to the young.)

So, given that my own brain is now teeming with newly-acquired insights into the brain and — much more importantly — with newly acquired insights into what is not yet known about the brain, I might amuse myself with a few posts here on the subject.

Just to be clear: This has nothing whatsoever to do with my forthcoming book, nor with my day job at The Economist (where I cover very different things). It’s just one of my little intellectual hobbies.

In this post, I’d simply like to tell you about some of my main sources. The two big ones are:

Robert Sapolsky

1) Robert Sapolsky: Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality

This is a great course in 24 lectures by a very entertaining character, whom you’ve already met on this blog here and here.

Sam Wang

2) Sam Wang: Neuroscience of Everyday Life

Another good course, in 36 lectures, organized totally differently from Sapolsky’s (as you can easily see by glancing at the lecture titles). The two are very complementary.

I also seem to be reading about specific aspects of neuroscience everywhere these days. The articles are too numerous to link to.

Here is one, by David Eagleman in The Atlantic, on how understanding the brain might or might not affect our notions about criminal justice.

Here is another, by John Tierney in the New York Times, on “decision fatigue”. Like Eagleman’s, it looks at one of many, many topics covered in the lectures by Sapolsky and Wang.

That should give you enough infrastructure to hold me to account as I pen my indubitably outrageous and provocative posts on the brain. Bye for now.

Better writing through forced retelling

I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek post called “How I Write“. (Answer: In the Lotus position.)

Well, it turns out that there is a more serious project by that title going on in the English Department at Stanford, where successful writers talk about how they write. One of them is Robert Sapolsky, the same genius neuroscientist I mentioned in the previous post.

Of note in the long transcript is the crucial importance of rewriting — editing yourself. Compare what Sapolsky says below to how Khaled Hosseini, author of the Kiterunner (which is also published by Riverhead, as my book will be), talks about rewriting in successive drafts.

Here goes Sapolsky (emphasis is mine):

… I was not particularly into writing, and it was not until after I finished college—right after, a week after graduation—I went off to Africa for a year and a half to begin to get my field work started, which I have been doing ever since for twenty-five years and it was fairly isolated site, where a lot of the time I was by myself. I would go 8 to 10 hours a day without speaking to anyone, I would get a mail drop about once every two weeks or so, there was no electricity, there was no radio, there was no anything, and I suddenly got unbelievably, frantically dependent on mail. So as a result you wind up sending letters to every human that you have known in your life in hopes that they would write back to you. …  So you would write to somebody about it, and then you would write to the next person about it, and you would realize that before the end of the day, you had just written 25 versions of it, each of which was a page and a half long. … I would get incredibly bored with the damn thing and would thus start editing and make it more concise, and all of that, and you could sort of see it shrinking until it was half an aerogram, and then I would have to come up with something else to say. So I think just sort of in passing it kind of forced me to start editing.

Interviewer: And so, yeah, you started editing and went through a process of revision actually forced by duplication…

RS: Yes.

Interviewer: …rather than the need to get it right. Just the need to do it again

RS: And the need to get it shorter and get out of there….

Another thing of note to me — an avowed generalist and never a specialist (not even in the subject matter of my own book) — is how Sapolsky explains his incredible skill at translating complex science into storytelling for non-scientists:

Umm…well this is going to sound silly, but I was actually not terribly well-trained as a scientist in college; I was much more of the social science type, so I actually never took any chemistry or physics in college and don’t have a very good fundamental grounding. So I am easily panicked in my science and I think thus I can easily imagine more readily than most people in my position how somebody else can be. …

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How humans are (not) unique

Robert Sapolsky

Beat me, said the masochist.

No, said the sadist.

We, Homo sapiens sapiens, are the only species that can understand the humor (ie, the meaning) of this conversation. It involves advanced versions of simpler concepts such as Theory of Mind and tit-for-tat. But the simple versions of those and other concepts are not unique to humans. So the definition of human really rests on marginal complexity.

Take 37 minutes of your time to watch Robert Sapolsky, a brilliant and hilarious neuroscientist at Stanford, as he analyzes what makes humans “uniquiest”. It is a prime example of making science accessible through storytelling.

The short of it: Almost all of the things that we used to think made us humans unique in the wild kingdom can in fact be observed in other species. Such as:

  • Intra-species aggression (including genocide)
  • Theory of Mind
  • The Golden Rule
  • Empathy
  • Pleasure in anticipation & gratification-postponement
  • Culture

However, we humans exhibit these facilities with a twist — with an added layer of complexity.

(By the way, he refers to the same baboon study that I mentioned in this post, but could not locate. Does anybody have a lead?)

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