BRAINSTORMS


Scholarship these days . . . involves one's own personal style of eclecticism.
Robert A. Paul, Candler Professor and Chair, The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts


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Brainstorms
Emory and the changing climate of neuroscience

Good interdisciplinarity is . . . in some ways just more work.
Tom Insel, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience


Academic Exchange February/March 2000 Contents Page

Moses and Civilization is Robert Paul's most recent book. In addition to chairing the ILA, Professor Paul is the coordinator of psychoanalytic studies.

The Academic Exchange With all the changes in forms of knowledge inquiry going on in the university today, what do you see as the essence of scholarship?

Professor Robert Paul In the old days, disciplinary boundaries, in addition to being administrative units, gave us a sense of what we do. This was also backed up by a presupposition that we were all pursuing pieces of a much larger puzzle. Providing a sense of coherence was part of what the ila was founded to do. Yet the notion that we are all working on part of the same puzzle, even as a myth, is misleading. The disciplines do not simply reflect the way knowledge inquiry has been carved up. The disciplines reflect radically different takes on knowledge, verification, and the aims of teaching.

At the same time, everyone has become aware that there was stuff in other disciplines that you had to know to do your own work. And so collaboration became much more of a necessity. So, to get back to your original question, scholarship these days, among other things, involves one's own personal style of eclecticism.

AE Jerome Kagan from Harvard's Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative, which is an interdisciplinary neuroscience project, visited in early February. That program includes some humanities faculty members.

RP I think that's a great idea. There are issues for humanists to deal with--psychological, ethical issues. All the questions facing us are too big to be faced by any single part of us. And it can't be, "let's explain to the humanists how great the sciences really are." Nor can it be, "let's explain to the scientists how everything is ideological construction," because then nobody listens. I've been in this business too long to believe that some miraculous, wholly synthesizing knowledge is going to come out of what we do, but we have to learn to listen to each other.

The kind of put-downs the disciplines use to protect their boundaries have to be breached all the time. We have to make places--real places, not virtual ones--where those conversations can occur. This university took a great leap forward when Caribou and Starbucks opened up, because informal conversations and sharing of perspectives can occur there among colleagues.

AE What concerns do you have about the translation of research for a larger, more general audience?

RP The risks in doing it are less than the risks of not doing it. All one can do is put out the best information possible. There is a huge marketplace out there, and you can't control the spin given to some ideas. My fear is that bad ideas will drive out the good, if we don't get good ideas out there. There's a form of academic critique today that says you can't say X or Y because that gives aid to Z political cause. I have real problems with that. To withhold information because of fears of how it may be used by some potential groups at some point in the future skews the game of argumentation in advance. The academy should be a place where you can pursue unpopular ideas to the end.

AE Some charge that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of a biological understanding of mental illness, largely due to the cheapness of drug therapies relative to talk therapies. What do you think about the prescription pad versus the couch?

RP A rush to a mainly prescription brand of psychiatry is too bad, because talk therapies can help one gain understanding even as one benefits from medication. Just as I was saying before about the humanities and sciences, we have to talk together because the combination of both is better than any single approach. We have evolved over centuries the ability to listen and understand. To jettison that wisdom in favor of chemical fixes would rob ourselves of one of our greatest natural talents.

I'll give you an example of a typical confusion-scientists who try to dispute Freud's theory of dream analysis with pet scans. The problem is that pet scans don't capture dreams, they only measure some brain activity. Dreams, of course, are subjective experiences. And we have better access to dreams from subjects' accounts of their dreams than from a machine. Once that's understood, real collaboration becomes possible.