Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, and others on how learning about their brains changed the way they live.

A special issue on neuroscience and neuroculture.
April 25 2007 3:27 PM

Brain Lessons

Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, and others on how learning about their brains changed the way they live.

Click here for more from the Brains! special issue.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Psychoanalysis may not be in vogue right now, but most of us still believe in one of Freud's central insights: The better we understand our minds, the happier and healthier we'll be. What does that mean for the folks who know more about their brains than anyone else in the world? Slate asked a group of eminent writers and researchers in the field of neuroscience to describe how their knowledge about the brain has affected the way they lead their daily lives.

Patricia Churchland, author of Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the  Mind-Brain.
How has understanding neuroscience changed my daily life? In a thousand different ways. I can see how many differences in capacities and temperament and behavior are rooted in basic brain differences; that understanding makes me less judgmental, more moderate, and motivated to acquire yet more knowledge. At the same time, I can understand my own failings and achievements with similar moderation and tolerance.


Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness.
In some ways the brain is remarkably robust. Phineas Gage fell down when a tamping iron passed through his head and blew out large chunks of several lobes. But then he got up, and—despite a few personality quirks—lived happily ever after. Some people have an entire hemisphere of their brains surgically removed and continue to function relatively normally. And yet, in other ways, the brain is remarkably fragile: Minute changes in patterns of neurotransmission can turn a normal person into a raving lunatic, as anyone who has ever swallowed a mere 1,000 micrograms of LSD can attest. Because it is so difficult to know whether a particular brain change will be invisible or catastrophic, I try to change mine as little as possible.

Alison Gopnik, co-author of The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn.
Consciousness, attention, and brain plasticity all seem to be linked. And attention and plasticity are much more widely distributed in young animals—including human babies—than older ones. For grown-ups, consciousness is like a spotlight; for babies it's like a lantern. I have always loved the childlike moments, however brief, when our minds seem to open to the entire world around us—the experience celebrated by Romantic poets and Zen sages alike. The neuroscience makes me think that these moments aren't just a passing thrill. Cultivating this childlike "lantern consciousness," this broad focus, might help make us almost as good as babies at changing our brains. 

Joshua Greene, author of a forthcoming book on moral decision-making.
My knowledge of neuroscientific details—knowing which parts of the brain do what—has no effect on my life outside the lab. But my immersion in these details has forced me to appreciate in a deep way the fact that we humans are physical beings all the way down.  To be a physical object is to be a collection of parts rather than a unified entity with one point of view and one will. (Like Whitman said, we contain multitudes.) Knowing this helps me tolerate the contradictions in myself and others: Am I happy? Did she do that intentionally? Can people change? These questions never have single answers because we're not single things.

Charles Gross, author of Brain, Vision, Memory: Tales in the History of Neuroscience.
We now know that both physical exercise and mental exercise is good for maintaining healthy brain function, especially in aging people like me. I probably don't do more of each than I would have without this knowledge, but I do feel better about the amount I do.

Marc Hauser, author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed a Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.
I wish I could answer this question by saying that my research on the neural mechanisms of morality has made me more virtuous, fueled a greater desire to donate to charities, or generated confidence that the neurosciences will soon make us more respectful of others.  But I can't.  None of it is true, at least not yet. What we are discovering is that our moral sense is a powerful biasing agent, guiding us toward ethical verdicts that aren't always just. My hope is to uncover these biases so that we can recognize them when they covertly attack. And in retirement, I hope to leave academia to work in war-torn areas, teach, distribute medicines and food supplies, and leave my selfish genes behind. Perhaps this will change my brain!

Christof Koch, author of The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach.
My empirical studies into the neurobiology of consciousness have convinced me that many species share the sights and sounds of life with us humans. Why? First, except for size, there are no large-scale, dramatic differences between the brains of most mammals (including humans). Second, when people experience pain and distress, they contour their face, moan, cry, squirm, and try to avoid anything that would trigger a reoccurrence of the pain. Many animals do the same. Likewise for the physiological signals that attend pain—like changes in blood pressure, dilated pupils, sweating, and an increased heart rate. Because it is likely that mammals can consciously experience the pains and pleasure of life, we should not be eating their flesh.

It was difficult for me to follow this growing realization with action—the taste of meat is deeply ingrained! The death of my beloved companion Nosy a few years ago provided the final impulse to make me live in accordance with my belief. I am now an ovo-lacto vegetarian.


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