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This is partially in response to a piece recently published by Salon.com, covering an interview with Alva Noe, a philosopher from UC Berkeley.
I am a Hindu. Hindus believe in the existence of souls. I am studying biology. Biology does not consider the soul to be a possible entity. I am a neuroscience-enthusiast. Neuroscience does not believe the soul is the seat of consciousness.
While Alva Noe argues against a reductionist approach to understanding consciousness, unfortunately that is the very real reality of consciousness. The brain is the seat of consciousness. Why argue that it isn’t? It’s not as though the brain is somehow incapable of being responsible for the functions and emotions that make us wholly human.
I will agree with one aspect: that a lot of experience is very much dependent on the context into which we are placed. Yet that does not diminish the role of the brain, but rather, it reveals just how involved the brain is in crafting consciousness. It has to determine, based on the inputs it receives, how to perceive and react to the stimuli present. This is where his driver versus engine analogy falls apart. It is not a process that happens apart from the brain, it is the brain itself. When someone is brain dead, it’s not as is if consciousness continues to exist apart from the brain. Consciousness dies when the brain dies.
Why is religion something that has to be so separate from neuroscience? It’s as if one cannot coexist with the other, that somehow, neuroscience would undo the wonder that makes religion and religious experience what it is or vice versa. Neuroscience gives a more concrete basis for religious experience, and religion can help us reflect on the sheer wonder that is the brain. Why can’t the soul have a neurological basis? I’m not arguing for the total negation of the existence of the soul, I’m arguing for integrating it into our cerebral selves.
Likewise for love, desires, dreams, whatever emotions and states of mind there are that seem much too complicated to be contained in a network of neurons. These all have strong neurological bases, most have in dopaminergic pathways that give rise to feelings of pleasure and instilling the need to repeat actions that make us feel good (seek out someone we’re crushing on, eating something we like, pursuing a career which interests us). Yet we hate to think of it in these terms, we like to keep a little bit of that veil of mystery intact. It’s understandable, but it’s silly to argue that they are undoubtedly separate from the brain, whether partly or totally.
For better or worse, we are animals. We are a network of organs. We have been blessed with a highly developed forebrain, but that does not make our added ability to perceive ourselves, the world, or anything beyond…anything beyond our membrane-bound brain. What we should perhaps be more in awe of is that, despite the fact that we operate within the confines of our cranium, we can understand and strive for things that seem to exist far beyond us. That is the real wonder of the human psyche.
I interviewed with a doctor yesterday for a research position, and found myself saying the following words:
“I have been working in labs for the past 7 years…”
Good Jesus…and I don’t have a Ph.D yet?
Nonetheless, getting into a medical school involves an unwritten rule: that you will sell your soul for a certain period of time to a research lab of your choosing. There you will be the willing and able slave of your PI, and do whatever he/she orders. That’s not really the reason I do research though.
I’m fortunate to have had a research program in my high school, which introduced students to the various techniques and concepts that one normally encountered in labs. While it was, in essence, a breeding ground for new Intel entrants, it was also where I realized I loved research.
My first project looked at the possible xenoestrogenic effects of polystyrene leechate. While I didn’t get statistical significance with my work, it was enough to make me extra wary of getting my coffee in a styrofoam cup. There was something thrilling about having my own project, tweaking the parameters, working with the specimen, seeing the results. Oh seeing the results is the best part. For better or worse, I think ego drives a better part of the scientific community to do what it does, but sometimes people can make the leap from getting thrilled at seeing their name in a journal article to getting thrilled at seeing their discovery in a journal article.
Needless to say, since then, I’ve been around the block. I’ve worked in many labs, and I’ve loved all the experiences I’ve had. Some were obviously better than others. In terms of the projects that were covered, I think all were fantastic. In terms of how I gelled with both the lab setting and the people? Sometimes there was something left to be desired. Here is how I categorize all the labs I have worked in, names and locations have been left out to preserve anonymity (but if you know me you will probably be able to guess which one is which):
1) The lab with the lone, hermit grad student, and the PI. The grad student is like a mother hen around her work and is reluctant to bond with new students. The PI kind of does his own thing. The equipment is so-so. The work is mostly benchwork, molecular biology stuff.
2) The lab with no grad students, just a sweet…albeit absentminded PI. The work is interesting, animal-related, but the lab space is dreary, old, and has no windows. Most of the equipment and office furniture is decades older than I am.
3) The lab teeming with students, but the PI is kind of abrasive at times. When he is not talking about science, though, he can be borderline personable. No one really bonds terribly well despite efforts at achieving that end. The lab is well-lit, and the equipment is mostly new. The work is bench work.
4) The lab with students from all walks of life. The PI mostly remains in the shadows, but the older students take you under their wing. Bonding happens readily, and bonds remain well past the research stint. The lab is cutting-edge, and scenic. The work is animal-related, but it is a marriage of a lot of disciplines and a lot of cool techniques.
Most labs probably fall into these categories, or some variant of it. Needless to say, I liked lab 4 the best. Science is important, but sometimes the best labs are the ones that both produce the great discoveries and foster the best bonds. Contrary to popular belief, social connections are important to scientific progress. Being a hermit isn’t what being a scientist is about.
Science has unfortunately taken a back seat in this country. We have let science and math education falter and wither, and are sitting back passively as the world passes us by. This needs to change…maybe by fostering research among students more aggressively. It’s a way to generate interest at the trench level, so to speak, instead of speaking solely in theory.
So obviously I want to be a doctor, and this will help me to better understand medicine, in some senses. Yet I genuinely enjoy the research process in of itself. You can call me a nerd if you want to, but come on, there’s something cool about being in a lab with other people who are all striving to learn something new and interesting, and taking matters into their own hands by designing ways to reach that goal.
And to think Sarah Palin derided fruit fly research as something inconsequential? Seriously, she’s missing out. :p