About five years ago, Gary Lynch, a brash, young neurobiologist whose specialty is the chemistry of human memory, found himself in a situation that seemed almost inconceivable to him. He was sitting on a stage at the University of California's Irvine campus in Orange County, California, describing his research to members of what he once would have considered warring tribes. He was surrounded by psychologists, linguists, philosophers -- even a few computer scientists -- all brought together for an annual meeting of a recently formed organization called the Cognitive Science Society.
As he gazed at the audience he thought, "What the hell am I doing here?"
"I really felt like it was a big plain out there," Lynch recalled, "and all these different tribes were sending representatives and asking, 'How many people are in your tribe?' and 'What are your totems?' and 'What are your customs?'"
He half expected them to exchange beads and trinkets instead of conversation.
Before him that day were tiers upon tiers of seats filled with people who would seem to have a lot in common. They all shared an interest in this thing called memory. Yet historically they haven't felt much in the way of kinship. They have looked upon one another as interlopers, not colleagues, jealously guarding their ancestral lands in the vast, unexplored jungles of the brain and mind.
In the last decade, some of these groups had forged uneasy alliances, a shaky coalition that was coming to be called cognitive science. Cases had been reported where psychologists actually conferred with philosophers, seeking clues for how to shore up their theories; some psychologists picked the brains of computer scientists for insights about how hardware and software might help think about the connection between the brain and the mind. It was even said that some computer scientists would occasionally send ambassadors to the more ethereal disciplines like linguistics for ideas about how to design better programming languages. But much of the time, these groups still eyed each another with suspicion, agreeing, however, that neurobiologists like Gary Lynch were hardly worth talking to at all.
Standing at the edge of an intellectual wilderness, cognitive science was like a great teetering tower rising over the terrain. At the top (some would say the attic) were the philosophers, who looked at the mind from the most abstract and lofty level. Along with such rarefied notions as truth, beauty, the meaning of life, and the meaning of meaning, the philosophers reflected on the nature of the mind. But only occasionally did they look down to the floors below them where psychologists toiled at their own level of abstraction, designing experiments and gathering clues about the mind. The philosophers thought the psychologists lacked direction, that when they left the tower for one of their hunting expeditions they wandered blindly, bumping into things. For want of a guiding light, they couldn't see the forest for the trees. The philosophers, of course, never left the building, and the psychologists had little regard for speculations about forestry coming from people who didn't know a Ponderosa pine from a Douglas fir. The linguists and the computer scientists occupied floors somewhere near the psychologists. All these groups hovered toward the top and middle tiers of the edifice, with the neurobiologists, like maintenance workers, stationed many floors below.
To those who preferred to deal with the mind from on high, these people who mucked around in the wetware -- the three pounds of oozing gray matter that fills the hole inside our heads -- were indisputably outsiders, with a language that was indecipherable, and a style of research they were welcome to call their own. Of course it was important for someone to understand how neurons worked. But the psychologists were convinced that the answers to the big questions -- what is mind? what is consciousness? what is memory? -- lay in the abstract realm of psychology; the philosophers believed they would find the answers in philosophy; the linguists in linguistics; the computer scientists in computational theory. There was very little sense that these fields all could be parts of a greater whole, much less that together they could benefit from a deeper understanding of calcium currents, potassium currents, sodium currents, serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine -- all the messy chemical complexities churning about in the basement of the mind. The inhabitants of the tower's upper regions had about as much interest in these details of neurobiology as an auto mechanic would in organic chemistry and geology, the sciences that explain how swamps and dinosaurs became motor oil. And the neurobiologists, who had actually held brain tissue in their fingers, looked upon these other explorers of the cognitive realm as a carpenter might look at a postmodern architect, or a novelist at a literary critic steeped in the arcana of the deconstructionist school -- as dilettantes who had soared so high into the stratosphere of abstraction that they had lost touch with the matter at hand, who had become so mesmerized by their ideas that they traded them for the real thing.
That, anyway, was how the situation had often seemed. Recently, though, something was changing. Lynch was finding that his rivals in these other disciplines were becoming more interested in what he and his colleagues had to say. In the last few years biologists had been accumulating a staggering amount of information. Some of this raw material was beginning to congeal into theories. Lynch himself believed that he had identified the chemical process by which we convert experience into memory -- into something solid and physical that can be lodged inside the brain. His findings were still too controversial to be considered monumental. No monolith had appeared on the veldt shocking the apes into creating civilization. It would take more than one discovery to bring all these people together.
But during the next few years, as the 1980's became the 1990's, Lynch and other biologists would develop theories tracing memory to its very roots inside the neurons and synapses that make up the brain. At the same time some psychologists would join with computer scientists to develop a hybrid called neural network theory, in which computers were programmed to model thousands of neurons working together, to mimick a piece of the brain. For centuries philosophers have debated what they call the epistemological question: how do we know what we know? As biologists studied memory at the level of the single synapse and the network people studied how hordes of neurons cooperated to form mental maps, they were engaging in what might be called applied philosophy. Even the physicists were getting involved, finding strange parallels between brains and other exceedingly complex systems.
"I think this is going to be one of the great playgrounds for intellectuals for the rest of this century," Lynch said. "I think it's possible that brain systems for learning and memory will become something like what Darwinian evolution provided in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century -- which is a playground. You had biochemists, political philosophers, economists, behavorial scientists, psychologists, psychoanalysts. You had people of every stripe and caliber, even amateur bone diggers -- everybody could play this game."
Darwin provided a lens that brought together all these scattered beams. Now a theory of memory seemed in sight, one that would draw from biology, psychology, computer science, physics and philosophy. The goal was to explain not only how we store individual facts but how we weave them together into a world view.
"In the end all these groups of people are all sort of hunkering down to talk about the same thing." Lynch said. "It's really quite an unprecedented moment to see this gathering of so many diverse tribes. It's as though some dark star appeared and it's got an enormous gravitational force, and it's inevitably going to shape the future of all these fields in just the same way that Darwinian evolution did. For the first time I've discovered how easy it is for me to pass knowledge between fields, which was a big problem. Now we have this common language."
Return to George Johnson's Home Page