JZ: I’m so glad you could make time to talk to me. It must be a crazy time for you, with all the brouhaha about your book.
JL: I wrote it mostly in hotel rooms and in the backs of buses. I was moving pretty much through the whole book, and I think the pages reflect that.
JZ: So, is that how things went haywire with the Dylan quotes? I know interviews with him can be pretty hard to track down, like, on the internet.
JL: Let’s not forget that the universe operates on mathematical principles. There’s a strict order to it. One mistake puts everything out of balance. A twelve-vehicle pileup begins with something being out of place. The idea is to keep everything where it should be.
JZ: Does all of this mean you’re out of the business of popularizing neuroscience?
JL: People are only out once they’ve been in. We never hear of the ones that are truly out. They’re so out, they’re in. It’s all relative, isn’t it? I’ve always been more of a traditionalist and followed my own star—to thine own self be true and all that. What’s in or not in is mostly media-manipulated for commercial reasons anyway. You have to believe in what you do and stay dedicated. It’s easy to get sucked in to what others think you should do. But there’s a price to pay for that.
JZ: Heavy. Any idea what you’ll do next?
JL: I like to restore old cars, ride horses, and sail boats, and I’m learning how to cook and can do some gardening. Maybe someday I’ll be making my own instruments. I have no idea.
JZ: Wow, I guess those book deals were pretty lucrative. That must make it easier to move on then it was when you left Eric Kandel’s lab…
JL: He’d go around the room critiquing everybody’s work, in a personal way. Devastating critiques. Extremely loud and shocking. Embarrassing. He could get to the heart of the matter in no time, and tell all about a person by seeing their work. He told some people that they were murderers, thieves, charlatans, and a lot worse. I dreaded him looking over my shoulder. And when he did it, it was horrible.
JZ: Whoa. It’s amazing any of his students went on to be successful scientists.
JL: They were exemplary. Cult figures. Heroes and heroines. Anti-heroes. Top of the world. Brute force. Themes of salvation. Echoes of Shakespeare and of Aeschylus.
JZ: Sounds about right. With NIH paylines down in the teens across all the institutes, that’s what it takes to survive out here anyway.
JL: It’s like boxing—a fighter doesn’t always fight the same fight. A pitcher doesn’t always make the same pitch. Sometimes you make adjustments and sometimes you force adjustments.
JZ: Yeah, well, I guess it’s fair to say that a lot of people in my field have been forcing adjustments lately. It causes real problems for researchers who have tried to build on their work, because we can’t really know what was legitimate and what was fabricated. The worst part is that it can really corrode your faith in the field at large. When you see a really exciting, counterintuitive finding, it’s hard to know whether to spend the time figuring out how to adjust your worldview to assimilate it, or just wait for someone to come along and show that it was probably made up. Or that it doesn’t replicate. I mean, we’re dealing with so much ambiguity even if we assume that everyone is behaving ethically. Fabrication just adds an unnecessary layer of mysterry, doesn’t it?
JL: Yeah, sure, but everything in life, directly or indirectly, has a great degree of mystery. To paraphrase Warren Zevon, “Some days I feel like my shadow’s casting me.” Persons, places, things … time itself is a mystery. You know, like, who can explain it? It’s really difficult to define anything. What’s slow can speed up. Love can turn into hate. Peace can turn into war. Pride can turn into humility. Anger to grief. How would you define a simple thing like a chair, for instance—something you sit on? Well, it’s more than that. You can sit on a curb, or a fence. But they are not chairs. So what makes a chair a chair? Maybe it’s got arms? A cross has arms, so has a person. Maybe the chair doesn’t have arms? Okay, so it’s a post or a flagpole. But those aren’t chairs. A chair has four legs. So does a table. So does a dog. But they’re not chairs either. So a chair is a mystical thing. It’s got a divine presence. There’s a gloomy veil of chaos that surrounds it. And “chaos” in Greek means “air.” So we live in chaos and we breathe it. Is it any wonder why some people snap and go crazy?
JZ: Honestly, dude, I’m not sure I followed that completely, but it seems like you’re avoiding the question.
JL: Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.
JZ: Fair enough. I think we have to wrap this up, now actually. Good night, Jonah.
JL: I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.
JZ: Um, OK, I guess. Dreaming is free.
Image from Valentina Design on Etsy