neuroscience lite

It has come to my realization that I could actually have pursued a more lucrative career in the health sciences like my mom hoped I would. Oops.

So last month and over a bit of February (remember, I had vertigo, so my brain fried itself and I spent 10 days not being able to comprehend more than three written sentences at a time), I read Reading in the Brain, which, while dense, is pretty awesomesauce. It’s about exactly what the title says, duh. I read it at a very convenient time, since I’m taking a class titled Literacy and Services to Underserved Populations. One of the things I keep realizing in library school is that, for someone who considers herself rather enlightened and attuned to social justice issues, it really hadn’t occurred to me that there were so many issues surrounding illiteracy, like learning disorders, the obvious social structures and issues that keep children from finishing school, and more. So coupling my natural interest in how social politics perpetrate inequalities with the actual science of how reading works was interesting, because it made me worry for a minute that I would take a stance that teachers don’t know what they’re doing, and being a progressive Democrat who is the daughter and sister of teachers, I DO NOT DO THAT. EVER. Because teachers, generally speaking, super duper know what they’re doing. But I digress. Dahaene described the entire neural process of how the brain, fascinatingly enough, has basically two simultaneous processes, one for recognizing letters and one for recognizing full words, even if that word is actually written incorrectly or includes typos. Fascinating stuff. I can’t really explain it to you as well as he did, and at times he got slightly too technical for me, but given that this was not my first time in the neuroscience book rodeo, I think it was probably due to my overtaxed brain.

But that’s the thing. I can’t explain it to you, and the fact that neuroscience is something I find really interesting, and the fact that I have a rather good conceptual understanding of all the information Dahaene gave me, makes me want to point out why it is I can’t be a PhD neurologist, even though I think I would really enjoy it. It took me years to learn that I find neurology interesting, because I only ever enjoyed science classes when the science was puzzle-based, like balancing chemical equations. But the way science is taught in the US, it is based on rote memorization more than context. In every science class I can remember, the idea was that I already knew what the teacher was talking about, and therefore we would build on that, and that was never true. I bravely signed up for a neuroscience class my junior year of college, called The Biology of Sensation, the description of which sounded like an Oliver Sacks book. But, even though it was cataloged as an appropriate general education science course, it was also a second-semester course for majors, so I was lost when it came to drawing cells and having background knowledge of college-level biology. I faltered every day in class, but when I’d go home and look things up online, or when I read the book The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better, which, again, used good prose writing skills to explain things in a way that used language that appealed to my more conceptual mind.

If I had learned science in this way first, and then gone into the details of drawing a cell, I think I could have achieved more in science. And not that I’m suffering in life, and not that I’m not happy in my chosen field, but when you think about the efforts being made to get women and people of color into the sciences, it’s a shame that they lost me.

It’s not like I’m the only person who notices this. There are MFA programs in science writing, because it takes a special kind of person to understand stuff on the cellular level and transfer it to a place where an educated but not in-the-field person can grasp it. And universities are always trying to figure out how to make their science majors and professors see the value in good skills of rhetoric and speaking. It’s just too bad that there aren’t more scientists like Dahaene and Sacks, even though there must be (since I have an ever-growing science reading list), who stress this approach in science class, and who develop college-level courses that make science accessible to people with more humanities-trained minds. Because I love learning this stuff, but I’d never pass the MCAT.

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