Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Guest post: How our brains are wired to advance science

We have a treat today. Today I am featuring a guest post from my brilliant 17-year-old niece Katherine Dana. She is currently applying to colleges, and this is one of her brief essays. Kathy is interested in animal communication specifically, but, as you can see, also spends a lot of time thinking about science in general. And oddly, she seems to be contemplating similar themes to the ones we address here. 
While it is hard for me to stop waxing poetic about how proud I am of her, I will now cut myself short, so that you can enjoy her lucid commentary.

By Katherine E. Dana

Marcel Proust once wrote, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Thus goes the song of science, humanity's great unifier. Science is not merely the means for collecting random information—it is the means through which we make sense of our world. It is messier than mathematics, less exact. And yet in some ways, it is this very inexactitude that gives science its potency, and allows it to cut to the very heart of nature's chaotic randomness. It works by taking the givens of nature and churning out elegant guesses, which predict as effectively as they describe.

One quality that distinguishes mind from machine is that leap of thought that psychologists term "heuristics"—mental shortcuts, expressly designed to help us connect the dots without having to consciously traverse the spaces between. This is our organic advantage.

While today's machines, no matter how complex, are restricted to lengthy algorithms, we may leap from branch to branch. Nowhere in human endeavors is this cognitive edge more apparent than in the combined efforts of humans seeking to find new truth. For before we can know, we must question; and this is where insight is most crucial. It is not enough to investigate the familiar. We must find the courage to ask uncomfortable questions, and be willing to uproot even our most cherished beliefs, all in the name of a deeper understanding.


  1. Best wishes to Katherine. Perhaps she will be a scientist? or a physician?

  2. Thank you, Katherine for a stimulating post. It reminds me of a book by Paul Thagard, Conceptual Revolutions (Princeton University Press, 1992) in which he seeks "to provide a new cognitive perspective on scientific revolutions...and to provide a theory of conceptual change that unites philosophical, psychological, and computational approaches and that applies to all the major scientific revolutions." You are way ahead of many with your insights. Thanks.