Category Archives: Neuroscience

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.

Frontiers Research Topics

A few months ago, I got an invitation to host a Research Topic at Frontiers, one of the (relatively) new wave of Open Access journals, where authors pay publication costs and readers can freely access articles. Apparently, my recent article would be an excellent fit for the Research Topics initiative! Research Topics are where a couple of editors get together and invite submissions on their pet topic – a bit like a special issue, or a conference symposium. I’ve seen some great examples of these on topics dear to my own heart, like VanRullen & Krieman’s The timing of visual object recognition, so you’d think being asked to host one would be pretty cool, no?

Now here’s the thing: I get plenty of spam. Invitations to random conferences, offers of monoclonal antibodies, invitations to enlarge various appendages. Every couple of months I get a letter from a vanity publishing press asking if I want to publish my thesis as a book. The common theme is that they’re rather impersonal. When I get what reads like a form email that makes only a cursory reference to me and my work and then tells me what a great opportunity it’s providing me, I get suspicious.

After a moment’s pause, I discounted the invitation as spam, as I have done the repeat invitations. And the pause was only because it was from Frontiers, a journal family I like. From a few conversations on Twitter, it feels like this is a pretty common reaction.

The attitude that Open Access is simply vanity publishing is one I clearly disagree with (published in both PLOS ONE and Frontiers), but it’s a long way from being a dead opinion yet. It’s not great if even supporters of the OA movement and Frontiers find these kind of invitations a bit spammy.

There are a couple of things at play here. I’m a junior researcher. Nobody asks me to host a symposium or edit a special issue. I once mentioned to a colleague that perhaps we could try setting up a research topic with Frontiers, and the reaction was “isn’t that really for more senior researchers?” If I start inviting people, I feel like the most likely reaction will be “Who are you, and how did you get my address?” This is something Frontiers have explicitly claimed they’re trying to address, opening up such paths to junior researchers, but it’s not a stated aim on their website or in the emails.

The article that formed the basis of my invitation has been cited once – by me – so if you want to tell me that this is an article that can form the keystone of a research topic, you need to do more than re-state the title. Tell me why it’s interesting and why it might fit. Otherwise, I don’t get the feeling you’ve even read the abstract, and I start to get the impression that these special issue Research Topics are perhaps not so special.

So in other words, if you want to appeal to us juniors, you have to overcome both our insecurity in our early career status and our doubts about your sincerity. If you want to reach out to us, make it feel like you’re interested in *us* and have some idea what our research area actually *is*. That’s if that’s what you really want to do.