Friday, September 14, 2007

In Response to LeDoux

I was quite reassured by the emphasis LeDoux places on what he calls "an interdisciplinary approach to the understanding of how the mind works" in his first chapter of "Synaptic Self". It is always wonderful to begin a book with the knowledge that the author understands the value of a balanced and all-encompassing perspective of the material covered.
I once heard a story about the way in which Descartes's taught the concept of consciousness and sentience; apparently to demonstrate his theory that animals were not truly conscious organisms the philosopher would nail a live dog to a board of wood in front of his class of horrified students. He would then dissect the animal, exposing it's beating heart and dismissing it's whimpers of pain as merely the sounds of a machine that was functioning improperly. As the animal literally died before his eyes, Descartes maintained that it's cries were no different then the whining of a gear that needed to be oiled. Not a pretty picture.
In a slightly melodramatic sense, I've often felt that reading scientific texts can be equated to spending time in Descartes' classroom. All too often I feel that advances in science are portrayed as a final answer to the more complicated questions we have about ourselves and our bodies. Just as Descartes simplified the dog, we (human beings) are presented as purely machines, rather then a complicated collection of variables and determining factors. Textbooks often treat human life in general as a sort of mathematical equation; these nerves plus those chemicals equal the entirety of your person. It can sometimes feel a bit like reading Vonnegut, with all that talk of "bad chemicals" and "faulty wiring".
Thus, I was impressed with LeDoux's approach to his subject. His insistence that multiple branches of Neuropsychology be used in conjunction in order to achieve a more complete understanding of what makes us who we are seemed both intuitive when I originally read it (of course we should take everything into account!) and at the same time remarkably novel. I don't think I've ever read anything quite like it before. He takes his conversation of the self past the basics of cognitive science and the nature vs. nurture argument, in order to "consider the whole mind" and how every aspect contributes to the self we become.

1 comment:

ellen said...

I agree with kford that Ledoux's argument felt very balanced and on the same plane as my own beliefs about "the self". The history of peoples' attempts to define "the self," is so interesting. It is amusing that so many feel the need to have one definition for such a personal experience. I really enjoyed this weeks readings. The stories in Sack's book were all heartbreaking. I came away with these readings feeling as though there may not be a solution to the neurological diseases presented. Instead of trying to cure these diseases, it seems more productive to try to establish a connection with the patients.