Whenever someone asks me what I study in school, I always have a little moment of panic. I usually freeze up trying to decide how I am going to answer. This may seem dramatic and, to some, even ridiculous, because in the final semester of my senior year, I should be quite comfortable with and have an easy time telling others what I have chosen to study. However, saying that I am interested in neuroscience always sounds pretentious to me when it starts to come out of my mouth. This trouble I have even just saying I am interested in neuroscience is why I am even more impressed with how Seung handles explaining neuroscience in Connectome.
As we discussed in class, the more you know something, the easier it is to explain. However, at the same time, as we went on to discuss, the further removed you are from first learning something, the harder it can be to relate to someone who is not familiar with the material and is learning about it for the first time. Seung, having researched the brain for most of his academic life, knows everything that modern science has taught us about the brain: from the basic facts that synapses are the sites where neurons interact, that the neurons don’t interact by touching but rather by neurotransmitter secretion and reception at the synapse, to his own complex theoretical speculation about how individual neurons actually come together to create a living, remembering, and thinking human being. The simple facts, like the ones just mentioned, are the building blocks that Seung uses in making the argument for the complex theory he proposes in his book. He knows that in order to convince anyone of the validity of his theory, he has to make sure they understand how it could work; he has to explain neuroscience to a general audience without turning them off with technical jargon, keeping in mind that concepts we may think of as basic need to be explained thoroughly to that audience. This is not an easy task when discussing something as complicated and misunderstood as the human brain, but Seung does it incredibly well using analogies to represent all of the concepts he attempts to explain. Comparing the various neurotransmitters in the brain to the various types of alcohol sold in a liquor store, he explains that just how we have a tendency to pick out the same bottles (or boxes—no judgment) of wine or any other type of alcohol, neurons often only secrete a single neurotransmitter even though a large variety exists (43-44). He also skillfully explains how messages in the nervous system are converted from electric to chemical and back again to electric messages and so on, using the analogy of a “traditional” wired phone conversation. The message first initiated from our vocal cords in the form of sound energy travels out our mouths into the phone’s mouthpiece, where it is converted into electrical signal that travels down the phone wire (we can’t hear the conversation if we stand outside next to the phone wire), and then back again into audible sound energy for the person on the other end (49). Avoiding being too technical in his writing, Seung writes almost as if he is writing to friends, using humor and popular culture to help keep our interest, for example, joking about being upset about one of Hollywood’s most beautiful couple’s breakup (84).
Needless to say, I find Connectome very interesting and Seung’s argument convincing. When he explains that the neurological correlate of each topic or subject that we know is a group of neurons in our brains that can be connected to other neurons or groups of neurons, that this is how memories are stored and referenced (86), I wonder why we never thought of that before. If he had filled this section with jargon about specific neurotransmitters or electrical signaling pathways instead of discussing our memories of Angelina, Jennifer, and Brad, I might have lost interest and stopped reading. Seung is deft at effectively communicating facts, concepts, and theory, making use of humor, popular culture, and analogy, in a way that is easily understood by those with and those without a neuroscience background.
Seung, S. (2012). Connectome. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.