I received an email from a very nice person seeking advice and help about their future career choice. I replied saying that I don’t usually give advice because of how complicated people are. One piece of advice that might work for one person, may be detrimental to another. However, what I did do was speak from my own experiences – hoping that themes within them applied to their personal situation. I noted that much of what I wrote could be complete rubbish!

The email correspondence between us helped me to get some of my thought down on paper. And, I would like to put them up on my blog just in case someone else finds value in my experiences. This is the fifth of five blog posts.

In this blog post, Alex discusses their interest in neuroscience and psychiatry and talks about the scientific method used in physics. They note that in many psychiatric papers, a “cheat” method has been used, which can never lead to a law, only patterns. Alex is frustrated with the vagueness and lack of mathematical understanding in psychiatric papers and plans to learn more about the fundamental mathematical theories of complexity and neuron function to gain a better understanding. He acknowledges their ignorance of most of the sciences involving the brain and welcomes corrections if they have made any mistakes.

At some point in the far future, I hope to work on something to do with neuroscience and/or psychiatry. I am writing this blog post just in case my opinion of what I think I can add to the subject is useful to the reader.

In the 1960s Richard Feynmann gave a talk to the general public (I think?) about the scientific method. More specifically, he describes how physicists come up with a law in very simple terms. What he describes is the same process I followed when doing my PhD.

A law (or theory) in physics is something (almost always a mathematical formula) describing a specific situation that has been tested many times by experiment from many different angles and it has stood firm at specific scales. Examples are Newton’s laws, Schrodinger’s equation etc. (Just to be clear, Newton’s laws “work” at the human scale but not for the very large or very small ones e.g. atoms or planets. Quantum mechanical and general relativistic influence is negligible)

The process goes like this:

Guess (or hypothesis) —> Compute the consequences of this guess (nowadays it is simulation) —-> test the consequences of the guess against the experiment.

There is a “shortcut” however:

Guess —> do loads of mini experiments with slightly varying initial conditions and do a statistical analysis to see the degree to which the initial conditions are connected to the guess.

I have not read many neuroscience papers, but in many psychiatric papers the “shortcut” method has been the predominant one. The problem is that the “shortcut” method can never lead to a law. It can never lead to a description of what is happening – only patterns of what is happening.

I have been told by many clinicians that mental illness/the brain in general is too complex to be able to interpret brain scans. My answer (if I was bold enough to say it) is “Which theory of complexity? Chaos theory? Network/graph theory? Which exact mathematical model of complexity are you referencing? Indeed, I would find it impossible to interpret a brain scan with no background understanding of the mathematics that describe it. We have had a mathematical model of neuron function since the 1960s, we have an entire field in computer science based on mathematical models of neurons – i.e. machine learning. So what is your excuse?”

It is this epidemic (sorry, couldn’t think of another word) of vagueness I have been met with during my treatment which drives me up the wall.

I have been so annoyed by this, that I intend to learn the fundamental mathematical theories of complexity and our current mathematical understanding on neuron function to see if the psychiatric papers start making a heck of a lot more sense. I have found in physics that I do not fully understand a concept until I have got my head around the mathematics describing that concept.

However, I am aware that I am ignorant of most of the sciences involving the brain – please correct me if I have said something that doesn’t make sense (it helps).