Oct 21 • 1HR 16M

Erik Hoel: neuroscience is dead, long live neuroscience!

The problem of consciousness, the utility of dreams and writing on the web

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Razib Khan
Conversations about science, culture, and current affairs
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Today, on the Unsupervised Learning podcast Razib talks to Erik Hoel, author of the novel The Revelations, and host of  The Intrinsic Perspective Substack. Hoel is a neuroscientist at Tufts who is interested in the problem of consciousness. Hoel admits right off that the questions and answers around consciousness motivate neuroscience in the first place, but throughout the conversation, he also points out that the discipline has a long way to go before it uncovers deep and insightful counterintuitive findings. In the early years of the 21st century, neuroscience was driven forward by amazing new technologies like functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) that seemed to offer a window onto the brain’s activity, but over the last few years, most researchers agree that many of these papers did not live up to the hype (getting caught up in the replication crisis and underpowered studies). 

Razib also talks to Hoel about his recent paper, The overfitted brain: dreams evolve to assist generalization, which argues that by “hallucinating out-of-distribution sensory stimulation every night, the brain is able to rescue the generalizability of its perceptual and cognitive abilities and increase task performance.” In plainer English, dreams allow the brain to experiment with novel possibilities outside of the range of experience and let it be more flexible and well-prepared in the face of surprising stimuli.

Razib and Hoel also discuss his unique perspective as a humanist and a scientist. Hoel’s mother owned an independent bookstore, and he spent most of his childhood exploring its shelves. He reflects on how his Substack has grown (his piece The gossip trap won Scott Alexander’s book review contest), to the point where he wonders if perhaps in the next decade he will be more a writer who does some neuroscience than a neuroscientist who does some writing.

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