By: Allan Turton
Illustration/ Allan Turton
In science as in life, the questions asked determine the answers received. Maintaining a broad perspective helps when putting the smaller pieces into context—it also makes the finer details seem less tedious. For the neuroscientist, who deals with details so fine that fancy microscopes are needed to see them, this is especially important.
If you want to understand questions in neuroscience, you first need to know what exactly neuroscience is—and perhaps more importantly, what neuroscience is not.
Simply put, neuroscience is the study of the nervous system. This means all the nerves in the body, plus the spine and the brain. The nervous system allows the eyes to move, the lungs to breathe, and the mind to think. Incredible things have been achieved through neuroscience research: we can now communicate with people in comas, we have created mind controlled prosthetics for amputees, and allowed the blind to “see.” The list goes on.
Though the field of neuroscience is vast, it receives most of its public attention due to the study of the mind. This is backwards—why do we turn to scientists to help us learn about people? Science does not value people; science values objectivity. Further, scientists do their very best to remove any trace of the individual from their experiments. Research papers are written in the third person, giving the impression that the experiment was done by someone living in the land of third-people, where opinions and beliefs do not exist.
This is a great ideal, but very far from the reality.
You see, opinions and beliefs exist in the neurosciences, too. Although the data gathered from experiments may border on objective, the direction the proverbial microscope is pointed depends on the person at the helm—the scientist. The answers gathered will guide the subsequent questions asked, which, in turn, determine the answers we will receive; on marches science. Now, if the world is viewed as a material place (a requirement for the scientific approach), then the questions asked will reflect that view, and the results gathered will serve to solidify it. This is circular reasoning, but reasoning that is nonetheless abundant.
Why does this concern you? Because neuroscience is becoming an authority on the mind.
If you want to learn about people, watch Bruce Lee throw a punch, listen to Eminem freestyle, or take a look at the work of Picasso. None of these feats of human achievement were accomplished with references to neuroscience. Indeed, doing so may have only held them back.
Held them back? Yes, because neuroscience creates models of the mind based off of averages and reproducible events—independence and spontaneity are rarely recognized. The neuroscientific approach to the mind works great for robots; the field of artificial intelligence is intimately related with the neurosciences.
Your intelligence, however, is not artificial.
The most effective approach then is not to reduce every neural event to a data point, but to use our subjective thoughts and feelings as a guide for journeys through worlds yet unexplored within our brains. If the conscious experience is all that is real, then perhaps what should be most valued in the objective study of the mind is the very subjectivity that science strives to rid itself of in the first place.
This article was originally published on our old website at https://thenewspaper.ca/the-inside/questioning-answers/.