Written by Andrew Neff
Special thanks to Montana's finest arts culture and entertainment magazine editor, and all around good dude, Ryan Simon, for the feedback
What is Neuroscience from Underground,
and how should we talk about the science of mental illness?
“Such persons as the writer of these notes not only may but even must exist in our society,
taking into consideration the circumstances under which our society has been formed”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, introductory note to Notes From Underground
We live in a time when scientific merit is measured by publication count. Where one major finding after another is found to be irreproducible in separate labs, or ungeneralizable to similar situations. Where obtaining research funding is two parts luck, one part networking, and one part merit. Where in psychiatry, our fundamental premises are based on expert consensus, rather than conclusive scientific findings. Where cures to diseases are always right around the corner. Science, as an aspiration, can be immeasurably valuable. Biological psychiatric research, as a practice, is a bureaucratic labyrinth and a communicative arms race.
But scientists can also be brilliant, skeptical, and incomparably rational. The enlightened audiences of bloggers like neuroskeptic
and twitter heros like @justsaysinmice number in the hundreds of thousands. Universities, scientific journals, and funding bodies are constantly reforming their practices to become more in line with the public interest. But if we want real reform, institutional changes in incentive schemes may not be enough.
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For the past several hundred years, we’ve been seeking a biological basis of mental illness. We made grand assertions about skull shape, the power of neurotransmitters, and the diagnostic potential of EEG and fMRI, but very little of it has a meaningful impact on people’s lives. It may be that, from a historical perspective, skepticism is the only justifiable position towards the value of neuroscience.
At the same time, to understand the biological basis of mental illness, we can’t progress without getting both the biology and the psychology right. As our neurotech advances, we need to continue with an open mind to other interpretations of humanity. Whether it’s psychiatry’s current diagnostic system or the National Institute of Mental Health’s plan to replace it, expert consensus still dictates our psychological terminology. Until we’re neurobiologically sure about a construct, we need to remain open to alternative perspectives from creative thinkers of all types.
In parallel with institutional reform, neuroscience communication needs cultural upheaval. We need to insist on interpreting our results within the context of what really matters, maintaining our focus on the horizon that we all claim we’re looking towards. And we have to open our minds to the enormous range of compelling ideas that have never been given their scientific due.
The name Neuroscience from Underground comes from the novel Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevski, a book that has torn many undergraduate classics and philosophy students to pieces. The narrator is, however, not an aspirational figure. Instead, he represents a rejection of popular definitions of achievement while, at the same time, highlighting how flawed we all are and how much work needs to be done. There’s hope for the science of mental illness if only we remember how difficult the problem is, and are willing to acknowledge our limitations.
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