Learning to peck

Stuart Sutherland

  • The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind by Steven Rose
    Bantam, 355 pp, £6.99, October 1993, ISBN 0 553 40748 1

Astronomers have penetrated billions of light-years into space, explained the changing states of stars from their birth to their death, postulated the existence of black holes in which matter disappears, and rightly or wrongly, pinpointed the origins of the universe to a moment in time. The work of neuroscientists demands the same kind of ingenious speculation and theorising and rests on the invention of just as many subtle techniques. For several reasons, however, most people are less interested in what goes on inside their own heads than they are in events in the recesses of space. First, brain biochemists work with tiny structures, many billion times smaller than those with which astronomers deal: there is perhaps something attractively majestic about the distances and time scales over which astronomy ranges. Secondly, most of the conclusions reached by neuroscientists are less secure than those of astronomers. Finally, it is usually impossible to connect findings on the brain with its actual function.

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