Science has its fads, just like Hollywood and toddlers with their plaything of the week.
Along these lines, the world at large has become obsessed with all things brain.
Neuroscience is undeniably fascinating. That’s why I jumped at the chance to make it my beat a few years ago.
Amazing stuff has happened in the last few years as brain imaging and manipulation technologies have come to the fore.
Monkeys control computer cursors with brainwaves and optical signals piped into the gray matter of rodents can make them run in circles.
All amazing. But this is nothing new. More than 100 years ago, Santiago Ramón y Cajal came up with the “neuron theory” that communication between nerve cells takes place in inter-cellular gaps called synapses. That understanding has expanded in subsequent decades to form the basis of how we remember anything ranging from our keys to Kant's Transcendental Idealism. The Decade of the Brain (nominally, the 1990s) will, in truth, repeat over and over as we try to deduce the workings of the most complex machine anywhere this side of Alpha Centauri—and maybe anywhere this side of the Big Bang.
Like every fad, the current hype is overblown. Cute experiments wow us, but “actionable” knowledge still just trickles in. A new generation of memory-enhancing drugs is not at hand. And neural prostheses that make you into a chimera of human and robot are still the stuff of script writers.
That’s why I laughed when I started to see the reviews and commentary for a new book Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media. The premise is that we’ve gone off the deep end for neurotransmitters and spike trains. The iconic organ represents the illusion that we’ve gained a level of mastery over matter—that three-pound “meat machine”—that will let us leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The idea of Davi Johnson Thornton, assistant professor of Communication Studies at Southwestern University, to write a book about neuro-faddishness was nothing if not brilliant.
I just wish I had thought of it first.