Synapse Feedback #1

Synapse 23: Feedback from you!

I hope all of you had a wonderful Christmas even though it likely looked different than usual for a lot of you. I’m optimistic Christmas 2021 will look more normal. Since starting Synapse 23 weeks ago, I’ve unexpectedly received lots of interesting and thoughtful feedback from Synapse readers. Most of you are a lot smarter than I am and I get to learn so much when you respond with your thoughts and expertise. I’m grateful that a lot of you are engaging deeply with what I’ve written. I think these topics are really important and interesting and I’m glad many of you agree.

As someone who is only beginning his career as a scientist and physician, I’m not an expert in anything—I’m merely someone who is curious, who reads a lot, and wants to share what I’m learning with all of you. Many of my essays contain ideas that are a work-in-progress, aren’t completely fleshed out, and will continue to evolve as I learn more about topics I care about. Part of that process is listening to other perspectives from my smart readers, and I would like to pass along these thoughts in the first edition of feedback. Let’s make this more of a two-way conversation!

Below are some ideas that readers have sent me. If your feedback isn’t there, know that I’ve read and appreciated it!

Your Thoughts on Free Will

In Synapse #18, I wrote about our intuition of choice and discussed the large question of free will. Essentially, I argued that although we have a strong inclination to believe we have an enormous influence over the tentpoles of our behavior, the reality is that we likely can’t choose as freely as we think. Reader Sandra raised an important point about the role of friend and family in our behavior—particularly people we admire:

And about people we admire, let's say I met someone in my life, who I admire and I want to be more like this person so I will take decisions that I think will bring me closer to what this person is. So I am what I am, because of neurobiology, hormones, environment, genes and culture, but then I see someone who is totally different and I want some of these characteristics too.

Could we then say, the more friends we have and people we admire, the greater our capacity of free will is? We know through this more possibilities of what a human can be/do/decide/achieve and might then decide to change what our normal behavior would be.

I think Sandra raises a really interesting point here which is that we are incredibly influenced by our peers. I often adopt the behaviors/attitudes of my friends and family. Therefore, the diversity of my peers affects the number of possible outcomes. I wonder if someone who increases the "surface area" of his or her environment (i.e., meets more people, experiences more things, etc) is more "free" just by virtue of having more opportunities to be impressed with new ideas to choose from. Unlike the other tentpoles, the environment and our peers have an arrow going back to it -- you can change it. Maybe that's the essence of free will.

Some of you have also raised the point of Western influence on our thoughts on Free Will. I’m admittedly not well-read on non-western cultures but I suspect their thoughts on free will are going to be quite different from my individualist American culture.

Others, including reader Joshua, have argued that the free will vs determinism likely isn’t an either/or but that there is a component of both phenomena at play. From a human psychology standpoint, much of our cognition runs on ‘auto-pilot’ or what Kahneman calls “System 1” thinking (which I wrote about here). Yet, with some effort, we can deliberately partake in “System 2” thinking which is more carefully considered. System 1 thinking is what you might use to choose a t-shirt color to wear today and System 2 thinking is what you might use to decide which college to attend. It’s important to tease these types of thinking apart in the free will debate — I suspect most of the neuroscientific evidence is geared toward System 1 thinking.

Send in Your Thoughts!

What did you think of this format of my first try at a feedback newsletter? Like? Dislike? Substack has a discussion board feature which I may start using in the new year to experiment with more conversations between readers. If you have thoughts on this, let me know below.

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How mRNA went from a scientific backwater to a pandemic crusher

I really liked this fascinating piece from Wired about the backstory behind the biochemist who pushed through walls to get mRNA research funded despite doubters along the way.

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