Producer Commentary

PROGRAM: Minding the Brain

AUTHOR: Larry Massett

January 10, 2007

Cesar Frank’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue as played by Arthur Rubenstein.

That’s what I’m thinking after reading about the efforts to re-connect Freudian theory with neuroscience.

Okay, not the Fugue. For that you need a long attention span. But the Prelude and Chorale …those musty Wagnerian harmonies, the mournful rhetoric, the lugubriously high-minded seriousness of it all…

That’s what I’m thinking. I keep playing the CD over and over.

How nuts is that?

Maybe not so nuts. At least it’s a reaction to the research, an emotional reaction. Never mind whether it makes sense. No work starts without enlisting the gut, the emotions. The Freudian Id. Whatever you call it, the Mind Down Under sometimes does get the job done:

Halfway through listening to the Frank for the 10th time it occurs to me—or it occurs to the music—to wonder why anyone cares if neuroscience can be fitted to Freudian theory. Any set of facts can support any number of theories. A good theory should do more than explain what’s known—that’s relatively easy—it ought to point the way toward new facts. Does psychoanalytic theory suggest important new research for the neurosciences? Are there competing theories making different predictions?

I have no idea. But at least I have an idea what questions to ask now…

February 6, 2007

To solve a puzzle you have to get stupid.

My puzzle has been to come up with a first treatment for this program that connects a rag-heap of unconnected topics in a way that might work on radio. What does psychoanalysis have to with neurogenetics, ADHD, the political implications of childhood development research, and schizophrenia? Beats me.

This is not do-able.

Fortunately I’ve done it before. You just stuff all the information into your mind and walk around in circles with your mouth open, bumping into the furniture, like a stupid person. You’re not, consciously, thinking about anything. A quarter inch below the level of consciousness, however, the neurons are working like mad. I have the impression they’re running through possibilities at high speed, like a computer, without using words. But that’s just a hunch; what’s (fairly) certain is they’ll eventually knock on the door with a solution.

Two and a half days into into stumble-walking the knock comes and I immediately knock out a script. Thanks, neurons. No use asking what you’ve been up to, eh? Like asking how to ride a bicycle…

Friends tell me they handle puzzles this way too.

Neuroscientists describe a bunch of very cool unconscious learning systems in the brain. They give them dull names like “procedural memory” and “priming.” So far I haven’t come across this one- which in neurojargon could be called “implicit cognition” or “non-declarative problem-solving.” That’s not going to sound good on radio, is it?

March 15, 2007: Stupid Ol' Neurons

I'm sure there are psychology experiments in which grad students are given a random assortment of words or images and told to find the connections between them. And no doubt they do. Brains are built to discover links, patterns, meanings, even when there aren't any.

Looks like that's what I've done in my treatment. The advisors' comments ("unfocused," "drifting," and the particularly dammning "some good thinking here") confirm what I already suspected: I've connected dots that aren't actually on speaking terms with each other. Elephant…lawn….prevaricate…Eiffel…fish… palimpest…dweezle….

Oh well. Can't blame the brain for trying. No use asking it to try again, either. The neurons would just do their connecting thing all over again.

In my (hideously long) experience this is what comes from writing a treatment ahead of doing the interviews. Cart before the horse.

So, now it's time to talk to real people and hear what they really have to say and how it really connects. There's nothing to worry about. There's nothing to worry about. There's nothing to worry about. There's nothing to worry about.