Monthly Archives: March 2013

Every action potential, every neuron

Neuroscience was not always what I wanted to do. All I really wanted to do was play Smells Like Teen Spirit.

My parents bought me a battered nylon-strung acoustic from a car boot sale. Mr Brown, my chemistry teacher, taught me the basics. I quickly got the hang of simple chord shapes, the As, the Gs, the Es. Soon, I was banging out House of the Rising Sun and Blowing in the Wind like every neophyte guitarist before me.

But all I really wanted to do was play Smells Like Teen Spirit. How could I make my guitar sound like that? I started playing the basic melody on the low E string. Then I figured out power chords, which sound as limp on a classical acoustic as classical implies. I moved on to electric guitar (“Judas!”). Bigger. Louder. Cooler.Striking a pose

I had the basics. I cranked up the overdrive and made my chords crunch. I listened to the solo over and over until I could play every note without watching my fingers move up and down the fretboard. I figured out what effects to use, how close to stand to the amp to get feedback, how to mute the strings with my palm to get a percussive effect.

And all I’d really wanted to do was play Smells Like Teen Spirit. I moved on to more complicated songs, learning new riffs and new techniques, repeating them over and over until they became as natural as speaking. And I realized how often the details were less important than the generalities. You could shift all the notes to a different key, or play them all on a glockenspiel. You didn’t even have to play exactly the same notes. Once you had the overall structure down, you could take it for a walk to wherever you wanted to go.

These are grand times for neuroscience. Huge, ambitious projects with incredible scope garner Presidential attention and lavish funding. The big new idea? To record every action potential from every neuron; to build the most complete model of the human brain that’s ever been built; to be able to reproduce every instant of every task, on demand, just as if it were happening right now.

If all I’d really wanted to do was play Smells Like Teen Spirit, maybe, if I’d had the technology, I could have broken every instant down all the way to its individual frequency components. And then I could reproduce those exact frequencies on demand, without worrying about what produced them. Every detail, all the way through the song, exactly as it was, all without knowing a single chord, all without knowing how the guitar makes the sounds it does, what shape it needs to be, or how and why the strings resonate at particular frequencies, and all without knowing how and why the song was made, or why hearing it made me want to play it.

When it comes to researching the brain, there are thousands of people playing in different keys, each learning different parts on different instruments, each trying to find out what note they should be playing. Sometimes we find a new instrument, or even a new note. Sometimes it turns out to be the same old instrument playing a different note, or the same old note on a different instrument. And different movements in the composition rise and fall on the weight of evidence.

Do we really need to rebuild a particular guitar to learn the song? Of course, details are important. But knowing how to reproduce the notes is not the same thing as knowing how to play them in the right order. And sometimes you need to know how the song goes before you can know when you’re hitting the wrong notes. Until we have a feel for the movements, how can we understand where the notes should go?

But I digress; after all, all I really wanted to do was play Smells Like Teen Spirit.

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