When I first became interested in neuroscience, someone sent me a science-fiction story about a scientists who dissects his own brain. In “Exhalation,” by Ted Chiang, brains are made of gold leaf, and the prevailing theory of memory holds that our experiences are engraved on these sheets. The narrator of the story reveals that soon there will be no consciousness, due to a lack of air pressure that needs to flutter through the brain, and he is writing a testament for other inhabitants of the universe—us—to find. “Through the act of reading my words,” he writes, “the patterns that form your thoughts become an imitation of the patterns that once formed mine. And in that way I live again, through you.” Chiang’s collection Story of Your Life is definitely worth reading; the title story, in which a narrator weaves together the birth and death of her daughter together with the visit of an alien race whose unique language reflects their simultaneous sense of time, is almost a masterpiece. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker are attached to the film project, which sold at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival to Paramount Pictures and is expected to release in 2016, directed by Dennis Villanueve.
Image credit: Peter Gamlen for The Guardian
Nautilus has a fascinating article about the psychologist Julian Jaynes, author of the influential cult classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In it, he argues that ancient peoples were not conscious; one half of their mind spoke to the other with ugidance in the voice of the gods until about 3000 years ago, when self-awareness emerged. Jaynes conducted animal behavior research as a graduate student at Yale before moving to England to become a playwright and actor. “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences,” his only book begins, “this insubstantial country of the mind!” Jaynes’ theory treats consciousness as a cultural rather than biological phenomenon, which is not a popular view these days. However, more than one neuroscientist that I know has cited Julian Jaynes and his The Origin of Consciousness as an inspiration for entering the field.
Happy Birthday to Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “the father of modern neuroscience,” who would be 163 today. Cajal was born in Petilla de Aragón, a tiny village high in the mountains of northern Spain. On this same date, when he turned 36, Cajal declared the independence of the nerve cell in his self-published journal Revista Trimestral de Histología normal y patológia. (Images courtesy of the Cajal Institute in Madrid.)
For those of you who haven’t heard of SciArt in America, a new organization founded by Julia Buntaine, check it out! They have a magazine (submit to their Flash Fiction contest) and put on events based in New York City.
(The famous patient H.M. as a young man.)
The new STEM podcast Transistor, presented by the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, has released new neuroscience episodes called Totally Cerebral. The host, Wendy Suzuki, is a scientist at NYU who studies learning, memory, and cognition. In a review of the first two episodes, The A.V. Club called the show “gripping and immediate the way the best sort of storytelling podcast can be, as these scientists are not only bright but personable and emotionally connected to their studies.” Part 1 is titled “Untangling the Mystery of Memory,” and Part 2 is titled “The Man Without a Memory.” Earlier podcasts feature astrophysicist Michele Thaller and biologist Christina Agapakis.