Volume 30 Number 2
When J. Michael Walker died on Jan. 5, the world of neuroscience lost an expert, Indiana University lost a valued faculty member, and my friend lost her brother. I knew that Walker was a professor of psychology and director of the Linda and Jack Gill Center for Biomolecular Science at IU Bloomington. I knew he was a productive scholar, liked by students, colleagues, and administrators.
I did not know he was my friend's brother.
It turns out that J. Michael Walker was also "Mikie," older brother to a woman I met as an IU undergraduate and have known, albeit at distance, for 30 years.
This startling and strange coincidence made me wonder what it means to say we "know" someone. It's no mere matter of familiarity and facts. We can learn a person's stats without knowing him at all, or know a friend without knowing her birthday or her brothers' names. So, what brain function or neuron connections produce knowledge of another?
J. Michael Walker's work on how our brains handle pain is part of a "revolution"in research that is transforming how we think about the brain. Not long ago, for example, neuroscientists at Duke University trained a monkey to walk upright on a treadmill, then translated her brain activity into a computer and transmitted it over a high-speed network to a robot in Japan. When the monkey walked, so did the robot, in lock-step, controlled by a monkey thinking about walking half a world away.
With supercomputers and rainbow-colored brain scans, scientists see where our gray matter lights up when we experience pain or pleasure, greed or gratitude, lust or love.
These are fascinating findings. Yet I still wonder, what does it mean to know someone?
In his latest book, I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter reflects deeply (and playfully) on the nature of consciousness, on what constitutes the loopy, illusory construction each of us calls "I." He spends a portion of the book writing about his wife, Carol, who died of a brain tumor 15 years ago at age 42. Hofstadter argues, movingly, that his wife's self lives on in him—diluted and "coarse-grained"but nevertheless living on "very determinedly in my brain." Musing on a photograph of his dead father, Hofstadter puts it this way: "Looking at that photograph of Dad . . . makes little fragments of his soul dance again but in the medium of brains other than his own. . . . That photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed."
I wonder, what part of gray matter does a soul-shard ignite?