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Mindless

Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, offers a beautiful analogy on the state of neuroscience.

So this question, like any other about neurology, turns out to be both simply mechanical and monstrously complex. Yes, a hormone does wash through men’s brains and makes them get mad. But there’s a lot more turning on than just the hormone. For a better analogy to the way your neurons and brain chemistry run your mind, you might think about the way the light switch runs the lights in your living room. It’s true that the light switch in the corner turns the lights on in the living room. Nor is that a trivial observation. How the light switch gets wired to the bulb, how the bulb got engineered to be luminous—all that is an almost miraculously complex consequence of human ingenuity. But at the same time the light switch on the living-room wall is merely the last stage in a long line of complex events that involve waterfalls and hydropower and surge protectors and thousands of miles of cables and power grids. To say the light switch turns on the living-room light is both true—vitally true, if you don’t want to bang your shins on the sofa sneaking home in the middle of the night—and wildly misleading.

It’s perfectly possible, in other words, to have an explanation that is at once trivial and profound, depending on what kind of question you’re asking.

Related:
The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience