Rime of the Ancient Neuromythographer

The discovery and identification of a large set of puzzle pieces...has made it possible to apply a modified version of an ancient practice to solve a bleeding-edge problem, where the abstract mental nouns have failed.
Rime of the Ancient Neuromythographer
"But I am not an explorer. I haven't a single explorer on my planet. It is not the geographer who goes out to count the towns, the rivers, the mountains, the seas, the oceans, and the deserts. The geographer is much too important to go loafing about. He does not leave his desk. But he receives the explorers in his study. He asks them questions, and he notes down what they recall of their travels."
-The Geographer of the Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery

A neuromythographer is not a neuroscientist. They are at best a neuroinsurgent. But, what the neuromythographer does is interpolate the key interpretations of many neuroscientists into a metaphor, via personification. Neuroscience itself is still at the pre-paradigmatic phase in Thomas Kuhn's famous philosophy of science scheme; there are many opinions but little consensus. One of the postulates of neuromythography is we have to go back to the mythic phase in order to break the logjam.

The academic industry of studying philosophy constructs and psychological functions has dominated the neuroscience field, to-date. Neuroscientists are asked to investigate these things, and find their 'neural correlates', and explain their results in the terminology of social science and and philosophy. These words do not map well to the brain, and must be deprecated as epiphenomenal noise.

The neuromythographic method instead borrows from historiography and literary traditions, and applies these techniques to the neuroscience literature itself. Instead of interpreting various battles of the Trojan War from ancient sources, we tentatively generalize insights into the lateral wing of the dorsal raphe nucleus and its serotonergic, GABAergic, glutamergic, and NOS projections across experimental paradigms. This sounds goofy because we are taught that creating a tight hypothesis statement allows one to "do science", but when it is our words themselves that are defective, we have to find another way.

Latent Capacities Awaiting Revival

Another allegory may be found in a 2018 evolutionary biology study of the Lenski long-term evolution experiment (LTEE), a captive population of E. coli bacteria that are descended from a single cell isolated in 1988, that has reproduced and evolved over tens of thousands of generations, and whose evolution can be rewound and played back by unfreezing historical “snapshots”.  After 60,000 generations, a single anaerobic E. coli lineage evolved the ability to aerobically metabolize citrate, a preservative present in the culture medium.  A careful analysis after repeated evolutionary playback of why citrate metabolism took so long to evolve was summarized by researchers as follows:

Key innovations are rare, game-changing moments in evolution when a species or population achieves new success by escaping its normal constraints. We examined a case in which bacteria that had been maintained in the laboratory for fifteen years evolved to exploit a previously untapped nutrient in their environment. Why didn’t this highly beneficial innovation evolve earlier? We found that two distinct mechanisms suppressed this innovation at different times in the history of the population. Early on, competition drove any new cells that started on the path to evolving the innovation extinct. Later, genetic changes accumulated in the population that shut down the potential to benefit from the new nutrient. After competition abated somewhat and further genetic changes restored a beneficial path to the innovation, it evolved. This example illustrates how stiff competition can force evolving populations to adopt short-sighted, incremental solutions that block or significantly delay achieving innovative breakthroughs.

Although the authors were talking about bacterial evolution, we find it metaphorically apropos for neuromythography or any other attempted paradigm shift.  Mythography has been a method used from ancient times to today. It had been eclipsed by psychological constructs and functions. The discovery and identification of a large set of puzzle pieces--the neurotransmitter/receptor inventory, the HCP cortical parcellation, the prosomeric model, and a huge instantly searchable asset of 2.5M neuroscience studies--has made it possible to apply a modified version of an ancient practice to provide new insight into a bleeding-edge problem, where the abstract mental nouns have failed.

About the author
Steven Florek

Steven Florek

Steven Florek is the creator of neuromythography and founder of Neuromemex.

The Neuromythography Institute

The home of neuromythography

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