Suzana Herculano-Houzel

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The ways of the human mind are a delightful, if occasionally thorny, subject. Several times, in the question period after lectures, on radio shows or in emails prompted by something I’ve written, I receive the criticism that science, and neuroscience in particular, by reducing the mind to a handful of matter removes the divine from existence, strips life of poetry and mystery. Isn’t scientific reductionism, after all, a great mistake of science – an erroneous belief that all behavior or phenomena can be reduced to molecules?

Instead of being annoyed by these questions, I love answering them. The long answer begins with the reminder that René Descartes, the French thinker who devised the method of reductionism, was looking for a way to approach those questions that were so incredibly large and complex that they defied attempts to understand them in their entirety. Descartes then proposed breaking these questions down into smaller, approachable parts. Once the parts are understood, it becomes possible to move on to the next level: understanding how they fit together and how other properties emerge from their interaction, which are not explained by the units.

This, real reductionism, works so well that it is still used – successfully! – as part of the scientific method, the systematic quest to understand how molecules arrange themselves into structures that organize themselves into ever more complex levels from whose interaction emerge extraordinary abilities such as thought.

The short answer, however, is that I disagree that science strips life of poetry, mystery and enchantment. My conviction emerged the day I sat down at the living room table to do a biochemistry assignment for college and looked up to see my cousins, children, jumping up and down laughing on the open sofa bed. At that moment, I understood that the biochemistry in the book was in my cousins’ little bodies – and I began to see them as two handfuls of molecules organized in such a wonderful way that it turned them into children capable of playing, laughing, gaining consciousness – and making me love them.

If science shows that we are handfuls of molecules organized in specific ways that make us capable of falling in love, wanting good and even finding our existence a miracle, then it only makes life even more extraordinary. Molecules don’t think – but if mind is born from their organization, then isn’t that pure poetry?

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo in October 2007.

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