Predicting the future is hard. It’s easy to instinctively turn to science to tell us where we’re going, but that’s usually only half the story. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enthralled by fiction’s ability to evoke ideas that end up pertaining to science. In this essay, from a class I took on philosophy of mind some years ago, I discuss the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Jim Carey takes advantage of a new neurodevice that allows a person to completely ablate bad memories, in this case, memories of his ex. I think the movie raises several questions that are becoming more pertinent all the time (and it doesn’t help that it’s a beautiful performance, give it a watch!).
Is there some calculus for how many years it takes before something you once considered serious becomes cringe-worthy? Is it a linear equation, or is there some point where the cringe turns to turn into nostalgia? I’m not sure, but in putting together this site, I found an essay I wrote for Vanderbilt’s undergraduate philosophy journal, Geist, as a wee sophomore. It falls somewhere between cringe, nostalgia, and just a smidge of pride. As is probably clear from the tone, my politics were… a little more radical, to say the least. It’s a funky essay, but I do think it’s at least mildly apropos bringing information out of the hands of the powerful and disseminating it to the people. Enjoy!
It’s difficult for me to stay consistent with blogs that I read – especially so if they’re constantly being updated. Over the years, there’s been a constant churn in what I look at on the daily, with one exception. brainpickings.org, the brainchild of Maria Popova, consistently surprises and humbles me. Ms. Popova personally reads (at least) 100 books a year and then distills and contextualizes their messages with a warmth and passion that often feels lost in the sciences. If you’re interested in science, design, history, philosophy, and more, I would highly recommend giving it a glance.
For at least a decade, one of my favorite websites to visit when I want long-form, deep conversations that span disciplines has been edge.org
The website is the product of John Brockman. While you might not know this name, you’ve almost certainly felt his impact. A publisher of science books for general audiences with a mission of bringing together artists, scientists, and the public, he is responsible for bestsellers like Guns, Germs, and Steel among many others. I’d describe the website in more detail, but I think their header sums it up better than I ever could:
To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.
Last semester, I took a class on the ethical underpinnings of scientific research. As part of this course, we wrote a final paper on some topic pertinent to research ethics. I’ve been fascinated by the pharmacology and policy surrounding indoleamine psychedelics (magic mushrooms, LSD, DMT) ever since working in a primate lab at Vanderbilt where we investigated the neural correlates of visual hallucinations evoked by these strange compounds.
Currently, they are considered ‘Schedule I’ drugs by the DEA: they have (ostensibly) no known medical uses and a high potential for abuse. After spending so much time learning about the pharmacology, I found this classification to be odd, and I went looking for answers in history. This paper distills my findings about the sociological forces that led us to stigmatize a group of compounds that, for many patients with disorders like PTSD, end-of-life anxiety, or even smoking cessation, could be highly efficacious. Along the way, I discovered that their status as Schedule I drugs is ensconced an a web of culture and geopolitics involving far-flung figures and entities like Timothy Leary, the CIA, and Richard Nixon. Thomas Final Paper
Many of you might have seen my recent TED(ish) talk posted on the website. Several of the themes I address in the talk are not new to me; in fact, they have been following me for several years. I recently dug up an essay that gives some deeper context to the issues faced by a world where neuroscience continues to impinge upon our sense of privacy and agency. Free will essay
Rapid advances in the field of neuroscience hold great promise and great peril: are we ready to accept what the data is revealing? Throughout history, scientific discoveries have continually forced us to rethink how we see the world, and the process is often… uncomfortable, to say the least. We’re reticent to move out of our mold, to accept that something we saw as obvious is actually more complicated (or simpler) than we imagined. When we think back on theories like geocentrism, Aristotelian physics, and spontaneous generation, it’s easy for us to scoff at such silly beliefs. But do you feel the same way about your brain? What if I threw a concept like free will into that list of debunked theories? Suddenly you might be feeling a little more uncomfortable…
Recently, I sat down with Dr. William Krenzer, a post-doc here at Duke inside the Science, Law, and Policy Lab, affectionately known as SLAPLAB. William’s doctoral work focused on the emotion of awe: what is it, how we can measure it, and where can we leverage this feeling for our benefit. We had a fascinating conversation that ranged widely, touching on topics as disparate as electroencephalograms, Immanuel Kant, and how to appreciate trees.