Thursday, October 15, 2009

Neuroscience for the Twitter Generation

This is a guest post by Ethan Segal, MD. If you're interested in submitting a guest post, please contact me.

I am stunned at today’s David Brooks column, “The Young and the Neuro.” The NYT’s conservative columnist, who apparently went to the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society’s conference in Lower Manhattan last weekend (who knew he liked to party with the brain-geek crowd?), talked about how instead of finding “graying professors” he found neuroscientists who were, “so damned young, hip and attractive.” These youngn’s, as Brooks notes, are barely in their twenties and thirties, seem to have a unique interdisciplinary spin to neuroscience. They are using data from fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and applying it social science questions, economics, and culture. Brooks goes on to acknowledge how one must be careful to draw broad conclusions about society and culture from such reductionistic approaches, as did the scientists at the meeting. He makes the following conclusion:
The hard sciences are interpenetrating the social sciences. This isn’t dehumanizing. It shines attention on the things poets have traditionally cared about: the power of human attachments. It may even help policy wonks someday see people as they really are.
The reader comments are interesting. Many readers seem to think Brooks is referring to the Obama administration by “policy wonks.” Although most welcome the explosion of research in the brain, with new technology such as fMRI, many disagree with his notion that there is a true way to “see people as they really are.” Im curious by my generation’s interest and take on neuroscience. It makes me think of William James, the physician and psychologist, brother of novelist Henry James, in the early twentieth century, promoter of the Pragmatism movement in academia. Follow me as I digress…

James said that in academia you could basically separate out academics into the “tough-minded” and “soft-minded” thinkers. The former were people like Hegel, Kant, Hume, who emphasized logic, reason, cause and effect; the later softies could be Emerson, Kierkegaard, Whitman, who emphasized passion, feeling, individuality. The basic premise was that ideas were as much a product of temperament of the individual as much as it was cognition.

Which brings me to my point: am I drawn to neuroscience because of my temperament, maybe the way I was raised, in a perfect storm of computers, video games, the internet, Japanese anime? Is there something about being a twenty or thirty year old in medicine or science today that seeks such reductionistic ways of describing human nature/society? Prior to medical school, I was involved in neuroimaging research with a psychiatrist at Harvard who found that the amygdala lights up on MRI scans when white subjects are shown black faces subliminally. The amygdala, being a “fear center” in the brain that is in large part subconsciously activated, could this be a biologic explanation of racism? Interestingly, the amygdala activates in african americans who are shown subliminal pictures of white faces. Like many readers of Brooks’ column have posted, it will take a long time to make sense of such data. In the meantime, Im going to sit under a tree by the Charles River and read Leaves of Grass.

This guest post was written by Ethan Segal, MD. Ethan Segal earned a BA from Amherst College and a MD from Tufts University School of Medicine. He is currently working freelance as a medical writer and applying to residency programs for July 2010. He can be reached at Ethan.Segal(at)

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