Neuroscience

At sixty-six years of age and best known for his books on the sociology of food, the American author and journalist Michael Pollan has become an unlikely figurehead for the so-called ‘psychedelic renaissance’. In How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan surveyed the recent revival of psychedelic drugs as adjuncts to psychotherapy, and the emerging evidence that supports their use in the treatment of depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. Globally prohibited since the early 1970s and still mostly illegal, these compounds – including the ‘classic’ psychedelics LSD and psilocybin (the main psychoactive alkaloid in magic mushrooms), as well as MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and ketamine – are once again the subject of clinical trials, including in Australia where the federal government has became one of the first in the world to fund research in the field.

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One of the blessings of Covid-19 lockdown was discovering the wildlife cameras streaming on the internet in real time. With a click it became possible to observe brown bears catching salmon in Alaska, sea lions clambering on and off a rocky beach in British Columbia, and white-bellied sea eagles nesting in an eyrie high in bushland on Sydney’s fringes. Watching newly fledged eaglets literally stretching their wings as they stare across the treetops, it’s impossible not to wonder what they must experience in that moment, as they sense for the first time the instinctive urge to take flight. What does it feel like to be a bird? What sense does a bird have of itself as a subjective, experiencing being? How might its consciousness be characterised?

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Once, when we humans reflected on what made us special, we latched on to those qualities that distinguished us from the rest of creation. We were smarter, more rational, more cognitively capable. The philosopher Joseph de Maistre, for example, proposed that ‘the concept of number is the obvious distinction between beast and man’. More recently, with the onrush of the digital age, we have come to feel less confident in our mental powers. We may understand numbers better than other beasts, but our phones can carry out arithmetic calculations at inconceivable speeds and beat the brainiest among us at chess.

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A few intellectually superior women exist, conceded nineteenth-century anthropologist Gustav Le Bon, but ‘they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads’. Armed with cephalometers, scales, and birdseed for measuring skull volumes ...

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How does consciousness, the feeling of what happens, emerge from the object that Tim Parks describes in this engaging book as ‘a gruesome pinkish grey, vaguely intestinal lump’? Is mind identical with brain, is it secreted by it in some fashion, or does it, as some philosophers suggest, mysteriously ‘supervene’ on ...

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Along time ago in a university far, far away, I received an application for graduate study in psychology. The applicant claimed to have no particular orientation to the field, just a broad and open-minded curiosity. In her own words, she was a ‘tabula rosa’: a rose tablet. The student had misrendered John Locke’s famous tabula rasa, the empiricist metaphor of ...

In 2009, pop star Michael Jackson, desperate to sleep, called his personal physician, Conrad Murray. To relieve the troubled star, Murray administered Propofol and anti-anxiety medications, then left. Jackson was found dead the next morning. Murray was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

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The youthful genre of popular neuroscience enjoys a few advantages that popular psychology, its older sibling, does not. The general public holds neuroscience in higher esteem, more confident in its scientific legitimacy. The concreteness of brain science – its colourful scans, its focus on a kilogram or so of custardy matter rather than a weightless cloud of mind ...