Synaptic Transfer and Interdisciplinarity

I spent much of the Christmas break admiring my new granddaughter’s constantly changing and newly acquired skills as she progressed from 8 weeks old to 10; the sense of new synaptic connections being made was very strong as her hand-eye coordination improved and she began to get some sense of one limb being distinct from another. So, reading Brigitte Nerlich’s recent post about synaptic connections, interdisciplinarity and metaphor really resonated. She in turn pointed me to the article by David Rowan who, in this year’s issue of The Edge answered the question ‘What scientific term or concept should be more widely known?’ with the answer Synaptic Transfer saying:

‘We need to celebrate the synapse for its vital role in making connections, and indeed to extend the metaphor to the wider worlds of business, media and politics. In an ever-more atomized culture, it’s the connectors of silos, the bridgers of worlds, that accrue the greatest value. And so we need to promote the intellectual synapses, the journalistic synapses, the political synapses—the rare individuals who pull down walls, who connect.’

In a world of global societal challenges, misinformation (and downright lies) and a transforming world-view amongst many nations, we need such people more than ever. We need people who can take evidence, from wherever it may be found, and translate it into a message that politicians have to hear; we need people who can join the dots in unexpected ways, taking fundamental ideas from physics and translating them into ecology or epidemiology, for instance; we need people who understand why scientists can’t simply work in a vacuum but need to work in tandem with social scientists and humanities scholars. We need to stop reinventing wheels because people didn’t notice them first time around and we need to continue to fight against those who propagate untruths which fly in the face of nature because they make people feel better.

An interesting example in the mainstream media of a journalist/comedian who is not afraid to speak out is David Mitchell. This week’s Observer column sees him quoting a paper in PLOS Medicine on the benefits (or otherwise) of diet drinks in reducing obesity. He cannot quite bring himself to refer to this paper as a ‘scientific paper’, he ducks behind the word ‘thing’ for reasons probably of journalistic license. But as a scientist I can only applaud his conclusio:

‘If there’s even a whisper of falsehood appended to the real, important, dispiriting truth, it will give millions all the excuse they need to believe comforting lies.’

We must never forget this. Politicians get away with lies, but scientists’ work will always be challenged by vested interests (think climate change) who have the money to dig down and raise doubt over the least uncertainty or misapplication of method. I think it is brilliant to see the widely read Mitchell highlight and deconstruct why a scientific paper really matters, so his column enters my lexicon as an example of Rowan’s synaptic journalism.

More parochially within a purely academic sphere, I care about synaptic transfer between disciplines because of the importance of such transference between subject areas far apart, in other words in interdisciplinarity. Mindful of my new role for REF21, I have been reading around the subject. The recent LERU report on Interdisciplinarity and the 21st Century research intensive university highlights the need to change what we value within the University system if interdisciplinarity is to thrive, as it must. It identifies three strands we must get right, recognizing

‘1) university governance, 2) science policy, evaluation, and funding, and 3) publication and valorisation of interdisciplinary research as the main targets where actions need to be taken.’

We know that if the REF21 does not give due credit to interdisciplinary work, universities will internally give less weight to it and so the Panel I’m chairing has a significant responsibility on its shoulders. As researchers focus on the new source of funding that is encompassed under the Global Challenges Research Fund they must be under no illusions that interdisciplinarity has to be integral to solving many of these so-called Global Challenges. From sustainable energy to clean water, from local generation of and grid-free electricity to food security, the solutions will never be sitting in a single discipline. One could argue that the £1.5bn GCRF monies will transform behaviour very swiftly (although even £1.5bn does not go very far if every academic is chasing it.)

Finally in this potpourri of thoughts prompted by the phrase ‘synaptic transfer’ let me throw in something that has been at the back of my mind since the summer when I read David Kaiser’s chapter Thomas Kuhn and the Psychology of Scientific Revolutions in the collection of essays Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty. In this Kaiser reflects on the impact of Bruner and Postman’s classic study on incongruous playing cards – such as a red five of clubs or a black ten of hearts – on Kuhn. What struck me reading this was how Bruner and Postman, who showed that subjects in their study took longer to ‘identify’ a playing card that didn’t fit their expectations, related to the phenomenon of unconscious bias that is now well recognized in so many real-world contexts (as opposed to the psychologists’ experiment), including – and close to my heart – that of women in science. I had not previously come across the study, nor have I seen others link it to unconscious bias (though that doesn’t mean plenty of other people haven’t done so), but here sits a clear example of the reinvention of the wheel. The playing card study dates back to 1949, Virginia Valian’s 1999 book Why so Slow describes the idea of unconscious bias specifically in the context of academic women and she was (I believe) was one of the first people, if not the first, to do so. Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow  includes the topic from yet another viewpoint based in behavioural economics. (I have heard it cynically said, unconscious bias was really only fully appreciated when a man, and a Nobel Prize winner at that, spelled it out so carefully, and that the concept is frequently attributed to him rather than to the female Valian).

In  all these examples what matters is that connections are made across conventional boundaries, be it between academic fields or far further afield. As our world structures appear to get more complex, as physical and social connections across the globe matter more than ever, we need people who are adept at synaptic transfer as Rowan describes it. Now I ‘ve come across the concept I’m sure I will find it a useful hook to hang so many things on. No doubt ever reader will be able to come up with their own examples.

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One Response to Synaptic Transfer and Interdisciplinarity

  1. Brigitte says:

    Thank you! I am glad my post sparked some more connections! And I loved my son making connections when he grew up. Wait until your granddaughter starts to try and make jokes – and always encourage her to do so – they are important! Have fun!
    Brigitte