ASK A NEUROSCIENTIST:
WHY DOES THE NERVOUS SYSTEM DECUSSATE?
Curiosity is a Form of Spirituality, Too
Our aim in JJB is to offer thoughts, opinions, and perspectives which, in combination with other factors, help promote a more hospitable world. We believe that a more hospitable world is one in which people young and old get to be curious about the world and share their thoughts and opinions about what it is like, how it develops, and where it is going.
For us curiosity is a virtue in its own right, as important in its way as wisdom and compassion, justice and sustainability, are in their ways. The Stanford Neuroblog is all about curiosity as nourished and advanced through scientific research. That's what took us to the Neuroblog in the first place. We believe in curiosity.
We also appreciate its democratizing mission. The contributors to the Stanford Neuroblog want to air perspectives on Neuroscience, Science, and Popular culture for fellow scientists, to be sure, but also for "any member of the general public whose electronic wanderings have led them to our blog." We believe in art for the public good and in science for the public good.
The JJB Community
Who are we? The contributors to JJB and its readers come from different parts of the world, including mainland China. We want to encourage the development and practice of science as one way, not the only way, of helping build a more hospitable world. For us there are four important sources of wisdom in life -- none of them absolute but all of them helpful: scientific experience, aesthetic experience, religious experience, and ethical awareness. There is no need to choose between them.
Most of us in the JJB community are influenced by an evolving, international tradition called process-relational philosophy. Building upon the work of the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, process-relational philosophers see the whole universe as an unfolding process of events. This means that, for us, evolutionary biology makes good sense. We believe that all beings are outcomes of becoming and the very idea of becoming comes close to naming the very essence of existence. Whitehead's major work was called Process and Reality. Reality is a process, a movement, an unfolding of events. Being is becoming. Anatomical structures are outcomes of becoming, which make possible new forms of becoming. Order and novelty -- novelty and order -- that's what we find when we look around us.
And inside us, too. We human beings are instances of, not exceptions to, life on earth, which means that we are vertebrates among vertebrates, albeit with close invertebrate relatives, like the Acorn Worm pictured above. Process philosophers do not lament our kinship with the Acorn Worm, we are gladdened by it.
Of course, we know that acorn worms and humans have different ways of being-in-the-world, due partly to our anatomies. For process philosophers the differences are as interesting as the similarities. A world of order and novelty is a world of multiplicity. The differences make the whole richer and therefore more interesting.
Among process-relational thinkers the word interesting plays an important role. To be curious and to be interested are two sides of the same coin, and both are aimed at what Whitehead calls satisfaction. We would not be interested in the world around us or in our own brains, were we not seeking some kind of satisfaction, intellectual or emotional or spiritual. Scientists are no exceptions. They are seeking a kind of satisfaction they call understanding. They want to understand the patterns in the world and the world in the patterns.
Ultimately this aim to understand is not for practical purposes alone, there is something aesthetically satisfying about pattern-recognition. In the process tradition, pattern-recognition is a form of spirituality, too.
In any case Whitehead believes that all living beings, vertebrates and invertebrates alike, have conscious and subconscious aims at satisfying existence. For Whitehead, the story of evolutionary biology is not only the story of evolving forms of anatomy, it is also the story of evolving forms of satisfaction: that is, evolving forms of aliveness aimed at some kind of pleasure, some kind of harmony and intensity as felt by the living beings at issue.
Which takes us to Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism. Buddhism is a way of thinking that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of living in the moment, even as a person remembers the past and anticipates the future. Jazz is a musical tradition that celebrates diversity and mixing things up in an experimental way, to see what happens. And Jesus is, for us, a symbol for living compassionately, sensitive to the aliveness of other living beings. Make no mistake, these qualities of life -- interconnectedness, living in the moment, celebrating diversity, and being kind -- can be symbolized by other words, too. If they aren't your words, please find others. But the point is that these sensibilities have a kind of spirituality to them. As we see things in the JJB community, science at its best evokes many forms of spirituality: curiosity, interconnectedness, delight in beauty, delight in differences, openness to new ideas, a desire to share opinions, and, importantly, kindness.
Here's the point. When you get up in the morning and want to do a daily devotional, you might start with something physical like yoga or breathing meditation. Then, for reading, you might turn to the Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Tao te Ching, or the Stanford Neuroblog. And then, on weekends, you might go road-biking, or backpacking, or take tango lessons. It's all part of a whole called life. It is nourished by a sense of hospitality and curiosity.
At its best this thing called life is enjoyed, not only in a spirit of aesthetic satisfaction, but also in a sense of ethical responsibility aimed at helping bring about a more sustainable world. Other animals make decisions -- rats included -- and we do, too. Informed by insights from science, and shaped by spiritual sensibilities, we can make economic and policy decisions that bring about a more hospitable world. That's what interests one of the Stanford neurobloggers, Kelly Zalocusky. It's all so interesting, and important.
-- Jay McDaniel
Our latest question comes from Dr. Sowmiya Priyamvatha, who asks:
What is the Stanford Neuroblog?
The Stanford Neuroblog was started in December 2009 by Senior Editor Astra Bryant. Astra created the Stanford Neuroblog in the belief that the members of Stanford University’s neuroscience community possess coherent and unique perspectives on Neuroscience, Science, and Popular Culture. Concomitant is a belief that online publishing platforms present the perfect environment for airing these aforementioned thoughts/opinions for our fellow scientists, people considering scientific careers or education (particularly at Stanford University), and any member of the general public whose electronic wanderings have led them to our blog. Which is to say: everyone is welcome. Some of the posts will be geared towards the Stanford scientific community, some will address specific topics in Neuroscience, and many will (hopefully) be accessible to those who do not dedicate the majority of their waking hours to the study of the brain.
Kelly Zalocusky is a Neuroscience PhD candidate in the lab of Karl Deisseroth. Although, in the past, she has studied the behavioral ecology of songbirds, squirrels, armadillos, and predatory mammals in the field, she is currently working on a rat model of decision-making in more laser, virus, and lab-coat filled environs. She is interested both in the basic science of decision-making and in its economic and policy implications. When not in the lab, Kelly can be found road-biking, backpacking, or attempting to tango.