Journaling Academic Work

I’ve realized that there is a gap in my casual blogging since I’ve started regular posting here. I’ve written about technology and workflow for the most part, just touching at times on neuroscience and philosophy.

When I starting this site back in late 1999 at Dave Winer’s, I explicitly excluded writing about family and work. The internet was for everything else, we decided here at home. Working at a public company at the time, I had an intuition even then that public and private could collide online, with unpleasant consequences.

On the other hand, I think I’ve been neglecting discussions about basic neuroscience. These are exciting times as computational techniques are bringing together computer models of brain function and data collection from functioning brains. I started my research on the brain in the early 80’s at a time when knowledge of basic brain anatomy, neurotransmitters and receptors was exploding. Brain circuitry was being mapped with detail that was astonishing. We were beginning to understand the fundamentals of brain circuitry as building blocks.

Then, as I was exiting for my career in drug development, molecular biology was taking center stage. It was an era of more granular exploration of gene expression and cellular messaging that I found was moving away from the work on structure and function that had led me into neuroscience in the first place.

While that molecular approach has certainly paid off handsomely in understanding human neurological disease, it is computational approaches that seem to be where the excitement is. For me, it’s way more interesting that reading about the latest collection of messaging cascades and molecular explanation of neuronal function. We seem to be gaining fundamental insight into how interactions in brain circuitry lead to behavior.

Sadly, in my reading of Neuroscience Twitter today, I learned that David Linden, a Professor at Johns Hopkins and a contemporary in the Department when I was on the faculty, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, writing about it in the Atlantic.

I’m simultaneously furious at my terminal cancer and deeply grateful for all that life has given me. This runs counter to an old idea in neuroscience that we occupy one mental state at a time: We are either curious or fearful—we either “fight or flee” or “rest and digest” based on some overall modulation of the nervous system. But our human brains are more nuanced than that, and so we can easily inhabit multiple complex, even contradictory, cognitive and emotional states.

In the article he also marvels at our recent advances

Now we know that rather than merely reacting to the external world, the brain spends much of its time and energy actively making predictions about the future—mostly the next few moments. Will that baseball flying through the air hit my head? Am I likely to become hungry soon? Is that approaching stranger a friend or a foe? These predictions are deeply rooted, automatic, and subconscious. They can’t be turned off through mere force of will.

The reminder is always there, as we learn in Pirkei Avos: “Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.”

I take it as a bit of a push to bring a bit more brain science here.