The Progression of Progress… is kinda Slow

As the semester comes to a close [I refuse to admit that this class is ending], I’m taking this opportunity to talk broadly about where this class has taken me in the world of psych-neuro and what I’m taking from it. Obviously, if I were to regale all of you with accounts of each and every interesting point or epiphany I’ve had throughout the term, this would be quite the epic (and rather obnoxious) post. Thus, I’ll keep it to the single, albeit broad, subject of progress, which seems to be the inescapable underlying topic of each and every discussion, presentation, paper or poster we’ve dealt with, so let’s rewind all the way back to the first book we read as a jumping off point for this final rant.

Connectome was all about hypothetical progress, and although the book insisted that, one day, we will have the technology to map a human connectome, it also reminded readers again and again that this is something from which we are currently QUITE far. It’s frustrating, both for us as students to have to rely on theory and for Seung, I mean the guy’s dedicating his life to something he’ll likely never see happen. This is the first major  epiphany I had about neuroscience: Most of the individuals who study it never make ‘the big discovery’, and even if they do, it’s only a minute piece of what feels like an impossible puzzle. Image (like this cow puzzle, but brainy-er.)

As a young adult/college student, I often find myself still holding onto the idea that I’ll figure it all out (cue the knowing smiles of my professors), but I’m coming to realize that, even if that’s what science is all about, it’s not what being a scientist is all about. More likely than not, being a scientist is more about setting the stage such that you give others a greater possibility of finding out in the distant future the answer to whatever question has been bothering you for half your life. It seems thankless in a lot of ways, not to mention utterly exasperating. (I bet that cow puzzle is udderly exasperating too… wow, that was bad.) At the same time, though, you can come at the scientist’s situation with the opposite perspective: I mean, how amazing is it that something I do now, in this lifetime, could lead to something a thousand times more incredible or beneficial. In a sense, it sort of depends on how patient you are, and how much recognition means to you.

Of course, the future isn’t all sunshine and research rainbows.

rainbow or is it…?

Neuroethics has pushed us to ask the same daunting question over and over again: if we manage to [insert bad-ass scientific advancement here], what will be do with it, and can’t it be used in ways that would destroy some part of our society? The answer, unfortunately, is almost always yes, to a certain extent. As was true with the classic example of Oppenheimer’s bomb, it’s often the case that someone somewhere gets greedy, misguided or just plain cruel and decides to twist data and findings into something dangerous and even grotesque. So, I guess the question I/we have been grappling with all semester is really that of “is it worth it?”. Which advances are sure to lead to good, which to bad, and for those times that may result in both, should we allow ourselves to continue piecing these puzzles together?  I’m going to pull a total cop-out and say ‘it depends’, but what that really means is that, even after months of talking about it with some truly lovely and intelligent people, I still have no idea. Frankly, I don’t know that we’ll ever have an answer for this, just as I don’t know if I’ll ever see a human connectome. But if more scientists brought the question of future ethics to the forefront along with their questions about future results, the answer to “is it worth it?” might start to be a more resounding ‘yes’.

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