It was a headline that arrested the eye:
Not news, you say? Wrong. The news from neurobiology is large enough to subvert our sense of ourselves.
Having obtained bits of Einstein's brain from the pathologist who conducted the autopsy in 1955, a scientist at Berkeley has discovered that Einstein's brain had 73 percent more "support cells" for every neuron than are found in average brains. The Einstein samples reportedly came from the part of the brain responsible for "the deepest thinking" -- presumably the part we use to ponder the infield-fly rule.
We are learning a lot -- perhaps an alarming lot -- about what we are. Increased knowledge of the brain already has brought a reduction of misery through pharmacological treatments of such diseases as depression and schizophrenia. But that knowledge seems to threaten us -- that inner something that makes us individuals. It seems to portray us as merely physical, as more comprehensible and quantifiable than we want to be.
It was bad enough when Copernicus evicted us from where we think we belong: the center of the cosmos. Since then, many systems of thought have seemed to imbed us stickily in the world in ways that compromise our sense of autonomy.
Darwin embedded mankind in the mud of the planet that Copernicus had made peripheral. Darwin asserted a continuum between mankind and lesser (are we sure?) matter. The historicisms of Marx and others asserted that political and social change are governed by iron laws of social evolution, not the choices of autonomous human beings. Freud said there are within us uncharted depths with their own turbulences.
Now comes neurobiology, suggesting . . . what? It really does not suggest that anyone with 73 percent more support cells per neuron than average could have said, as Einstein did, "Hey: Increase the speed of an object and you contract the passage of its time." (Einstein was always saying things like that, and may even have understood the infield-fly rule.) Neurosciences do not make such extravagant claims.
In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Israel Rosenfield of the City University of New York offers a balanced assessment. Suppose particular mental events -- feelings, emotions -- can be associated with particular chemical events. That does not mean that, say, the feeling of love or patriotism or whatever can be expressed as a chemical formula. Neither does it mean that when you read "Hamlet" you should say, "Ah, yes. This is the product of beautiful brain chemistry."
What has been learned about brain functioning has advanced therapy more than it has understanding. We can improve the functioning of the brain without really knowing how to explain what is being done, aside from the correction of a chemical imbalance. As Rosenfield writes, "Just as we cannot know the role an actor is playing by studying the basic electrical patterns in his brain, no analysis of the circuits of a computer can tell us whether the computer is playing chess or predicting the weather." While it is better to treat certain mental illnesses by administering drugs rather than confining the patient to an immobilizing chair, "we should have no illusions that we really know what we are doing when we use many of the therapies administered today."
The chemistry of memory, the chem sorrow. . . . We would feel diminished in dignity by such ways of speaking. But certain foods contain amino acids that pass into the blood and alter moods. Indeed, simply seeing food evidently can trigger physiological mechanisms that produce weight increase. Gracious.
Human beings became comfortable with the thought of themselves as creatures composed of flesh and blood and also something grander. Now neurobiology makes problematic the idea that we are both bodies and quite distinct minds or spirits. The idea of "the ghost in the machine" may be yielding to the idea that we are machines. Are we just the sum of the chemical reactions bubbling within us?
Happily, the more we know, the less we know. The more we know about the brain, the more we are awed by how much there is to know, not only about the brain but about the totality of creation that has culminated (we are the culmination . . . aren't we?) in a gadget as intricate as man. The neuroscience behind the news that "Einstein's Brain Was Different" calls to mind a recent Chicago Tribune headline. It was a story about the aftermath of the Israeli airlift out of Ethiopia: "20th Century Stuns Ethiopian Jews." I know just how they feel.