Join the discussion
and the changing climate of neuroscience
these days . . . involves one's own personal style of eclecticism
A. Paul, Candler Professor and Chair, The Graduate Institute
of the Liberal Arts
Academic Exchange February/March
2000 Contents Page
joining the National Institutes of Mental Health in 1979, psychiatrist
Tom Insel developed the first effective medical treatment for
obsessive-compulsive disorder before turning to his current research
on the neuroscience of affiliation and parental care in animals.
Exchange What do you see as the
greatest challenges of interdisciplinary work?
Dr. Tom Insel
First of all, some problems are
handled best with a tight, disciplinary focus. Second, there
is a risk of being a mile wide and an inch deep. I worry about
the project that has ten investigators but no one who really
knows what's going on. Even though we like to think it is an
opportunity for new discoveries--and I think it is--good interdisciplinarity
is also incredibly time consuming. In some ways, it's just more
work; it's harder to do.
Having said all that, I think there are some problems that you
are only going to approach in this way if you want to approach
them intelligently. And the one that Harold Varmus, the head
of nih, has used as an example is pain. We really are not going
to be able to understand pain without taking a view from molecular
changes at a single-cell level up to the subjective experience
Initiative investigates some of the same issues that the BNC
will, but they also include humanities faculty, like English
professor Elaine Scarry, who writes on pain.
TI I still believe--and this is an issue for some
discussion--that the scientific mission has to remain very focused
on making discoveries in behavioral neuroscience. I worry about
having so many different directions that nothing ever really
gets accomplished. The mission has to be discovery based on experiments
linking brain and behavior. At this stage, I don't see how the
humanities will contribute to this mission. This may happen as
So discovery is the essence of scholarship for you?
TI Absolutely. But that's my view--it is not for
everyone, and it is not the dominant view at Emory. Particularly
within the college, scholarship may mean writing about other
people's discoveries. That is important, but that is not what
the center is funded for.
Some have identified an area of mistrust between the humanities
and social sciences; where scientists see medical advances, humanists
see eugenics, for instance.
TI I don't see this mistrust, but then I may be
talking exclusively to scientists. Actually, I like to think
that some of my favorite scientists are humanists. Certainly,
I don't like the assumption that scientists can't read a moral
compass or, for that matter, that an expert in the humanities
can't contribute to medical care. We can't allow scientists or
science students to leave the moral questions, the tough questions,
to non-scientists. In a center that is investigating aggression
and attachment, we need to consider how our work can contribute
to the public good and how our work might be misused.
The rational basis of science is usually seen as opposed to
the intuitive basis of faith. But one definition of faith is
the belief in things that are unseen. Do you think brain researchers
are pulled by a kind of faith in the power of the unseen?
TI I've always felt pulled by the mystery of behavior,
whether it is obsessive-compulsive behavior or pair bonding in
prairie voles. The closer you look, the more mysterious it becomes.
Our understanding of normal or abnormal behavior is much less
interesting than the behavior itself. And that was particularly
true of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It seems like demonic
possession. It's just absolutely an extraordinary phenomenon
of the human mind. Our understanding of it is so trivial, it's
What do you make of the popularity of evolutionary psychology,
which many see as the latest version of socio-biology?
intrigued by its popularity. It's kind of like science by metaphor.
Fun to read, but it's hard to approach scientifically.
Research about the brain is particularly vulnerable to faulty
public translation because of its complexity, the rapidity of
advances, and the way so many topics relate to larger social
and political debates. What fears do you have about that?
TI Tremendous ones. I've become gun-shy with the
press. After we had a paper in Nature about monogamy, we must
have gotten one hundred and fifty press inquiries afterward and
almost all started with the same question: "So is this what
President Clinton needs?" There's such a tendency to assume
that every basic science discovery should get translated into