Of all the nerve, I — a non-scientist, a non-neurologist, a non-medical person — am writing a book about the nervous system. To make matters worse (in case you’re not sure, I am being facetious), I’m taking the liberty of philosophizing about it — as a non-academic, an unofficial philosopher.
It’s tricky, to say the least. The field of neurology keeps changing. Our understandings of neurobiology are evolving at a rapid rate, as every month it seems someone discovers something new, or puts 2-and-2 together in ways that add up to more than 4. Or, for that matter, they realize there’s another hidden “2” in the equation that nobody noticed before, and they either add it in, or square the values that they’ve discovered before.
It’s tricky, even for people who are highly trained scientists, on the cusp of cutting-edge research. It’s tough to stay current — even (especially?) if you’re actively involved in research, yourself.
But I’m doing it, anyway. Because, when we look closely at the world around us, and we have even the most basic access to what we Do Know About Our Nervous Systems, it’s possible to use that knowledge as a springboard to better understand the world around us. In fact, it’s almost irresistably compelling.
Very few of us understand what exactly is going on inside the sun that produces all that light and heat and those amazing sunsets. But we do know how to reference that light and heat and color in our lives to add meaning and “texture” to our experience. We don’t understand the exact chemical compositions of water and air, but we constantly use them as metaphors, often without realizing it.
I think we can/should do the same with our nervous systems. Over the past 20 years, we’ve gained the ability to look more closely and understand more completely, just how it all works — as far as we can currently tell. That knowledge is continually shifting and changing, of course, and it could be that some (much?) of what I’m writing about will change in the next 20 years. But that shouldn’t stop me — or you — from considering how it all fits together, and how our understanding of it can enrich our lives.
Once upon a time, very distinguished scientists believed that the nervous system was a continuous network of uninterrupted connections — like the vascular system with its networks of veins and arteries. It seemed like just common sense, that the nervous system would also be uninterrupted, just like our veins, allowing the signals passing along our “wires” to get where they’re going in one piece.
People believed this so strongly, that Camillo Golgi, the scientist who figured out how to stain nerves so you could see them as individual pieces, rather than just another dark clump of organic stuff, devoted his entire 1906 Nobel Prize speech to explaining how it was impossible that the nervous system was made up of separate neurons.
His co-winner, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was a proponent of the “neuron doctrine”, which held that nerves were separate cells that were connected by something, though people hadn’t figured that out, just yet. Turns out Ramon y Cajal was right — but it took decades before we had equipment that could give us a decent view of that.
Did this stop them, though? Did their obviously imperfect, partial knowledge of How Things Work stop them from moving forward in their work? Oh, no. And even when they stood the chance of being proven wrong, they just moved ahead, anyway. Even staked their reputations on it.
Looking back at the past hundreds of years of scientific discovery, as well as changes in how we view ourselves as individual humans in community with each other, I’m struck by just how dynamic our knowledge of science and self is. We are continuously changing how we think about life, how we relate to it, how we regard ourselves, and how we relate to each other. Nothing stays the same for long, but we seem to get in the habit of thinking that How Things Are Now is How Things Have Always Been. It’s not true, of course, but we tend to believe it. Especially now, when we’ve got our online echo chambers to reinforce our biases and support even our least defensible opinions.
But things change. Times change. Knowledge aggregates and opinions proliferate… and at regular (and irregular) intervals, there’s some knew “wrench” being tossed in the workings of our minds. And so we adapt. Science adapts. Society adapts. We shift and change along with our surroundings, no matter how firmly we may believe that we’re anchored in universal truths. Maybe Truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of it does.
And so it’s important — for all of us — to step out and take some chances in considering the facts of the world around (and inside) us… building an understanding of those facts that works for us and makes our lives more meaningful. Even if the science might shift in a matter of years, even if we don’t have all the answers or all the insight that more accelerated experts do, I think we have every right to avail ourselves of What We Know At This Point In Time, and use that to better appreciate and understand our world.
Even if we aren’t PhD-grade neuroscientists.
Especially if we aren’t PhD-grade neuroscientists.
It’s our world, they’re our bodies. The science has been funded by our tax dollars. And I say we have the right to understand what’s going on in there, so that we can do better at what we do out here.