Known Unknowns

by Douglas Quenqua
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Text Size A A A

Firestein, leaning back in his chair, arms crossed and eyes fixed on Churchland, began the questioning. Are there any ways in which animals benefit from this variability?

“For Tiger Woods, it’s always bad,” said Churchland, because the golfer can’t re-create his perfect swing every time. But there is a species of songbird, one that has a region of the brain dedicated to variability, in which males can generate an endless supply of new melodies to attract females. “So sometimes variability is good, because it allows you to find a solution that you didn’t know was there before.”

“Are there any neural differences between genders?” said a man in the audience wearing thick-rimmed glasses.

“We train male and female monkeys to reach,” said Churchland. “It’s all the same. But we prefer male monkeys because they’re thirstier.” (In other words, they work harder for the juice reward.) He conceded, however, that there were probably some neural differences between genders, “but I don’t know what.”

A curly-haired student in a blue T-shirt asked if there had been any research tying motor activity to memory. “I ask because I was taught that musical improvisation isn’t really improvisation,” he said, “but is just drawing on what you’ve done before.”

“There’s a lot about music I don’t know,” said Churchland, who then noted that it takes longer to execute most motor activities than to plan them. “I can take five seconds to gather my thoughts and utter a sentence that lasts twenty seconds,” he said.

At 8 p.m., the class applauded and filed out of the room. Some people were left scratching their heads.

“I’m just realizing how much I really don’t know,” said Issa Mase, a sophomore. “You’re talking to someone who’s a leader in his field talking about what he doesn’t know, and it’s just like, ‘Wow, I’ve got a long way to go.’”

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (53)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time