03 December 2012

Nominees for the Newton of neuroscience

Gary Marcus wrote in The New Yorker:

 Neuroscience has yet find its Newton, let alone its Einstein.

Really? Here’s a small selection of individuals who could be candidates for the gig of “the Newton of neuroscience.”

Luigi Galvani, who discovered that there is electricity in living organisms. To me, if you are to draw a single line between how the ancients understood brains and behaviour and how we understand how brains and behaviour today, I would draw it at Galvani and bioelectricity. That changed everything.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who established that the nervous system is composed of individual cells .

Otto Loewi, who proved that neurons release chemical neurotransmitters after having the idea for the critical experiment in a dream – twice.

Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, who established how neurons send electrical signals along their length. (Surprisingly, this is the only picture I can find with the pair in the same frame, despite their historic association. Hodgkin is on the left.)

All of these are seminal, fundamental advances in our understanding of how nervous systems work. These are findings that apply almost universally across the animal kingdom, and even in cases where they are not true – nonspiking neurons, electrical synapses – we probably couldn’t understand those without the knowledge gained by these people. Like Newton’s findings, these are unifying principles of the field. And also like Newton’s work, they are not the final word.

I think one reason none of these individuals is recognized as a “Newton of neuroscience” is because their discoveries do not address the primary preoccupation of modern neuroscience.

The goal of neuroscience today is not to understand the nervous system; it is to understand the human mind.

You can see this in Marcus’s article. Marcus equates “neuroscience” to human brain imaging of cognitive function.  The first example is speech perception. He describes how bright blobs of brain became “became a fixture in media accounts of the human mind”. Every example is about human thinking.

When someone says, “Neuroscience has not found its Newton,” it may be because they are looking for someone who will start to explain human consciousness. And by that standard, no, we’re nowhere close to understanding that. But that’s like declaring, “Physics has not found its Pythagoras, let alone its Euclid,” because Newton didn’t develop a grand unified theory or a theory of everything.

Responding to Marcus, Scicurious thinks neuroscience will not have a Newton because brains are complicated. Or, as she put it on Twitter this:

Sci writes:

Physics, math, these are simple, elegant fields.

These may look simple and elegant to someone outside the field, but research is fractal: every level is messy and disorganized when viewed from inside the thick of it. Chemistry looks simple to people in biology. Biology looks simple to people in psychology. Individual psychology looks simple to people in social psychology. And so on.

Of the sort of scientists I nominate here, Sci writes:

But even these are not really neuroscience Newtons. They are not because as we gain more and more knowledge of the brain, we are able to see: there is no unifying theory of the brain.

Newton proposed no unifying theory of motion, either. He gave us three independent, non-interacting laws and one for gravity. And needless to say, physicists are still have their hands full of new phenomenon (dark matter, dark energy) that were not even predicted by their theories. And gravity still stubbornly refuses to be integrated with the other fundamental forces in the universe in the standard model.

Physics might be more like neuroscience than we’d like to admit.

Related posts

When is neuroscience not neuroscience? When it’s neurobiology

External links

Does neuroscience need a Newton? by Scicurious. It’s already clear she’s got a winner in that post.


Anonymous said...
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Pearly Craig said...

I underestimate the popularity of that LOTR meme. :)

psychologist in Denver