Join the discussion
and the changing climate of neuroscience
interdisciplinarity is . . . in some ways just more work.
Insel, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Center for
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.