For the last 24 weeks, I’ve sent out this newsletter every Sunday in an effort to share what I’m thinking about, become a better writer, and have important conversations about neuroscience and human nature. The response from all of you has been bigger and better than I could have expected, and for that, I thank all of you for reading. For me, Synapse has been one of the highlights of what has been a weird year. Thank you to everyone who sends me nice comments—I don’t deserve your praise! Thank you to everyone who responds to my arguments—I’m flattered that people smarter than me read this newsletter and I’m happy to learn from others’ perspectives and expertise.
For the first issue of Synapse in 2021, I wanted to take a week to reflect on what I’ve written for the past few months. I think there are interesting threads that connect each of these ideas and this will give my new subscribers a chance to catch up on any essay that they missed.
So here goes…. Synapse in 2020
Synapse in 2020
After starting off Synapse with two important issues in neuroscience including gender bias in experimental design and racial equality in neuroscience, I wrote what has been one of my most popular essays to date: can a memory be formed without an experience? Looking back, I was surprised this essay did so well on both my newsletter and on Medium because it simply covered a very niche research study addressing a relatively obscure question. However, I think this essay did well because it covered the most cutting-edge neuroscience research happening over the very intriguing topic of memory. I’ll be looking to write more essays like this in 2021.
The memory essay was the beginning of Synapse’s venture into the nature of human experience—but first I wanted to write more about the fundamental biology of the brain that some people might not be aware of, and so I covered glial cells which occupy over 90% of the cellular mass of the brain.
One of the reasons I chose to study neuroscience was definitely because I think this field of study has some of the most intriguing fundamental questions of the universe including the origins of consciousness and how the question of whether consciousness could be everywhere. I later explored a possible biological function of consciousness in an essay titled your inner eye.
After exploring difficult questions of consciousness I returned to fundamental biology with the second brain in your gut and looked at its connection to Parkinson’s disease.
In Synapse #7 I pontificated about a common phrase in popular science media—that the brain is ‘hard-wired’ in certain limited ways. I made the basic argument that, yes, our brains are certainly shaped by evolution but that our brain’s potential for change generally goes unappreciated.
Synapse 13 and 14 were written in the run-up to the election and a lot was on my mind regarding the political polarization of our time. In Synapse 13 I asked the question of whether we substitute our opinions for our identities and found overlapping neural mechanisms for forming identity and our survival instinct. In 14 I outlined the problem with categorical thinking and argued that so many of the problems we talk about today are unnecessarily simplified into an either-or and that a continuum is more appropriate when talking about complex issues.
In Synapse 16, I took a break from politics to present a model of the factors that influence human behavior in my circus tent of behavior and applied this model to the neuroscience of murder in Synapse 17. This thinking led nicely into my tackling the big question of free will and critically examining our strong intuition that we are in full control of our behavior.
After a brief detour on a new learning neural mechanism that piqued my interest, we came back to the hard neuroscience of free will—a conscious veto system outlined by Libet's famous experiments. Finally, we celebrated the amazing scientific feat of the COVID 19 vaccine in Synapse 21 and had a little holiday fun connecting glitter bomb pranks to basic human psychology in Synapse 22.
🧠 Synapse in 2021
So that was Synapse in 2020! It has been quite an intriguing journey for me so far. I’ve learned that Synapse is about so much more than the brain by itself—it is really an exploration of human nature. I hope to continue to push the boundaries of popular thinking on the human experience and make it all more applicable for you in 2021.
Heading into 2021, here are some themes that I expect Synapse to cover each Sunday:
Misinformation and Deep Fakes
Living a moral life
Understanding people with opposing views
Free Will (yeah, we aren’t done here)
The fascinating biology of our brains
I think these are really important topics and I’m excited to read/write about them in the coming months. What am I missing? Is there something that you’d like to see me write about in 2021? If so, please leave a comment or hit [reply] on this email!
📈 It’s my goal that Synapse continues to grow and get better in the next year. I have some exciting plans in the works for Synapse to become a better product for its readers in 2021. Thank you for spending some time with my thinking each week. As always, if you think a friend of yours would be interested in the brain or human nature, please share this newsletter with them!
🎉 Thanks again and I will be back in your inbox throughout 2021!