Jonah Lehrer on Neuroscience and Humanity

On Tuesday night I went to the Herbst theatre in San Francisco to hear neuro-scientist and writer Jonah Lehrer in conversation with Roy Eisenhardt.  While I grew up listening to City Arts and Lecturs, this was my first live discussion and a much needed return to academic discourse (not to be confused with discussion, debate, or dialogue).  As an alumnus of Columbia and Oxford Universities, Lehrer is now a contributor to Scientific American,  National Public Radio, and Wired Magazine, among others.  He has published articles in The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe and maintains the blog The Frontal Cortex.

Lehrer’s talk was especially interesting personally because of his combination of academic affiliations and real-world application.  As a scientific correspondent Lehrer straddles disciplines with which I myself struggle: the balance of academic research and real-world application.  Lehrer speaks and writes with the ease of a well-read academic.  In discussing one of his two books – Proust Was a Neuroscientist – Lehrer cited Plato to confirm his thesis that some fundamental ideas currently espoused by popular neuroscience were conceptualized by the Greeks.   (I grow bored with the use of the classics merely for the edification of ones argument though this trend is by no means exclusive to Lehrer.  In my opinion, references should be accessible to the audience to which they are cited.)  However, I heartily concur with Lehrer’s argument that the humanities use different methods to answer fundamentally human questions about thought, cognition, existence, humanity… .  What artist, writer, poet, dancer – who?! – does not seek to answer such questions through whatever medium their profession employs?

Jonah Lehrer’s most recent book, How We Decide, encompasses decision making throughout the development of research psychology all the way to recent publications in neuroscience.  I have a pretty thorough grounding in classic Behaviorism (B. F. Skinner, etc.) and Cognitive Psychology.   It was interesting, then, to hear studies with which I am very familiar (the classic example of Pavlov’s dogs trained to salivate at the sound of a bell which ques food) in the context of neuroscience.  Lehrer discussed Chimpanzees being fed squirts of apple juice and conditioned to respond to a bell just as Skinner’s dogs were, with the important difference that these Chimps were also undergoing brain scanners.  The brain scans showed anticipation of food as clearly as did Skinner’s dog’s saliva.  My cognitive psychology profession Dan Reisberg used to argue that neuroscience would not replace cognitive psychology but merely confirm what we (as cognitive psychologists) had already learned.  I saw echos of this throughout Lehrer’s discussion.

In all, I very much enjoyed Lehrer for his wit, humor, and melding of neuroscience with the news.  I am critical of academic’s trend to use lofty references to establish credibility but I see this everywhere that academics publish.  And truly, Plato had some interesting things to say.   I will be adding The Frontal Cortex to my blogroll and will certainly be posting about Lehrer in the future.

As an aside I am also amused by Lehrer’s public image:

This rumpled look is awfully reminiscent of the graduate students I know in the sciences at UCSF.