Fruit flies and brain chemistry

http://www.ted.com/talks/david_anderson_your_brain_is_more_than_a_bag_of_chemicals.html

There is a trickle down effect in science. Cutting-edge research is happening all the time. Doctoral students and researchers are pushing the boundaries of knowledge as we speak. But from what I have seen, population-wide understanding of science is about 50 years behind, if not more. The above video is an example of this, in which popular belief is that mental disorders are caused by the imbalance of chemicals in the brain. The concept of chemical imbalance was meant originally to reduce stigma, demonstrating that brain chemistry was the ultimate cause of mental health issues, not personal deviance. It is a useful heuristic! The video above, however, shows that this idea is too simplistic, and leads to a lack of understanding the true causes of mental health – as well as an apathy towards finding out what those real causes are.

These simple ideas take hold all the time. Once there is a sufficient explanation to a problem, typically one that is revolutionary, and one that is widely discussed both in ‘science’ and in newspapers and other public media, we all lose interest. We ‘understand’ the issue now. We’re done with it. The heuristic has been made, and we are confident in its ability to explain ideas related to, say, mental health.

I can’t answer these questions now, but it makes me wonder: when these heuristics are born, what about that time makes them popular? Sufficient? What aspects of them are needed in order to be waved like the flag of victory? A simple motto? A catchy one? Why does the media take hold of an idea when it does, and why do we then stop bothering with further inquiry?

The other question it raises is, why does the trickle down take so long when it isn’t some revolutionary heuristic? Why are we still thinking about brains as chemical soup when new research (and actually, research from up to 20 years ago) says otherwise?

Another example: you’ve probably heard the name Noam Chomsky. Most likely, you’ve heard it in conjunction with the idea that there are universal or global characteristics of languages – that all languages have a common root, and that there is something about our brains (even our genes) – that leads to all languages having standard bits and pieces. When I say the word “linguistics” to people, to describe what I study, this is what they can pull out as basic knowledge of the field. Which is frustrating, because it’s outdated by 60 years now. Not to mention, it’s almost certainly wrong. There is a mountain of evidence against language universals, and still more against the possibility of language being coded in our genes. Linguists are yet to find a single thing that is completely universal about human languages. That’s right, lots of languages don’t appear to have verbs, nouns, adjectives – some of them don’t even seem to have words (I’m serious).

This trickle down effect is a serious problem. The general public has no idea what is current in science. They don’t know what research their tax dollars are funding. They are considered stupid, disinterested and incapable. Scientists are too busy to bother explaining their ideas in a way that is accessible.

I cannot think of anything more ridiculous! Did you, or did you not, understand that video? It used diagrams directly from its academic publication in a scientific journal. It explained in detail all the concepts necessary to understand – in depth – what he is researching and discovering. It took only 15 minutes! This disconnect between the science-making community and the ‘rest’ is not acceptable. The public is no longer a consumer of scientific knowledge. The only people who consume scientific knowledge are the ones who create it. This isn’t just about knowing where your tax dollars go – it’s about being a fully informed human being, who has every right to input their own informed opinion into these debates. You have every right to know and understand the up-to-date accurate medical information so that you can talk to your doctor about precisely what the problem is. And your doctor can likewise fully explain the treatments and possible effects. Imagine how much more success you could have with treatments if you understood how different symptoms and side effects were connected, or not!

TED conferences are an amazing start to rectifying this problem. They connect the public with current research far faster than any media form can currently do with accuracy and reliability. We all need to be a part of science as a ‘conversation’. None of us is too stupid to understand current science, and it’s time that scientists, politicians, teachers, and you yourself realized that.

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