Updated: Feb 4
I entered the world of neuroscience as an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews. The town of St Andrews has a monastic feel to it—an hour up from Edinburgh, on the northeast coast of Scotland, it functions as a sort of safe haven for eccentric intellectuals, golfers, and fishermen. On one of its three main streets lies St Mary’s Quad, which is home to two of the University’s departments: the School of Psychology and Neuroscience and the School of Divinity.
I don’t believe that these shared premises are the product of anything other than coincidence, but in my view, the co-existence of psychology, neuroscience, and theology does make sense. Studying the mind and its material basis has always felt like a partially spiritual pursuit. There is nothing more fundamental to the human experience than the thing which yields our subjective, personal perspectives. I often think back to the first time that I read Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions—his musings on the nature of thought and memory were incredibly prescient, and they demonstrate the fact that our philosophical conceptions of the mind have always been deeply sophisticated and nuanced. Only recently have we become preoccupied with understanding the biology behind our thoughts and inner experiences.
The goal of neuroscience is to bridge the explanatory gaps between behaviour, cognition, and the brain. We look for patterns; we isolate variables; we find strings of cause and effect. Recently, neuroscientists (particularly those with computational inclinations) have even been making simulations of brain structure and function on the basis of mathematical rules. The field is progressing at a breath-taking pace, and there is still so much left to be explored. Indeed, I think that we now face more unanswered questions than ever before. There is reason to be excited about neuroscience—a strange and complicated dance between biologists, psychologists, engineers, philosophers, computer scientists, and physicists.
At St Andrews, I had a rather interesting experience that propelled me towards a life of studying the brain. In my second year, my course mates and I were led down a formaldehyde-scented corridor in the School of Medicine, where we convened around a large wooden table under the glow of fluorescent lights. My professor brought out several plastic vats, placed them on the table, and asked us to put on our lab coats and surgical gloves. His voice took on a sombre tone as he explained the importance of the contributions made by organ donors, who deserved our utmost respect and appreciation on that day.
He then lifted a human brain out of one of the containers. It was grey, and smaller than I imagined it would be. The average adult human brain weighs only about 1.3 kilograms, though it contains tens of billions of neurons. But when the brain was placed in my hands, I found my thoughts veering away from its material dimensions. What struck me most in that moment was the fact that I was holding an organ that had previously allowed another human being to experience the world—in some major way, this small, wrinkled clump of matter was a representation of all of their memories, their passions, and their fears. There it was, in my hands: the sum of a person’s inner life, embedded within a perceptual sense-making unit that was frozen in time upon their death.
Neuroscience is a special field, not because cells or neurotransmitters are particularly incredible, but because it connects us to a far deeper appreciation of subjective experience. The brain is phenomenally complex in its structure and electrophysiological dynamics; I cannot even begin to describe how unfathomably complicated it all is, at least not in this short piece of writing. It takes time, a long time, to conceive of what the brain actually is. This search for understanding is what drives my passion for neuroscience.
This is something that I hope to share with you in my lecture series for Paideia. We’ll start with the basics and move forward in trying to make sense of some of the big questions in psychology and neuroscience. I won’t assume any technical knowledge on your part; I certainly didn’t start my journey with any, and I know that I still have much to learn, along with the rest of the researchers in my field. But I hope that I can impart something of a heuristic appreciation for the study of the brain and convince you that it lends itself well to understanding the mind, too.