Like most scientists, I attend professional meetings every now and then, one of them being the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, an organization of most of the earth's brain researchers. This is one of the more intellectually assaulting experiences you can imagine. About 28,000 of us science nerds jam into a single convention center. After a while, this togetherness can make you feel pretty nutty: for an entire week, go into any restaurant, elevator or bathroom, and the folks standing next to you will be having some animated discussion about squid axons. The process of finding out about the science itself is no easier. The meeting has 14,000 lectures and posters, a completely overwhelming amount of information. Of the subset of those posters that are essential for you to check, a bunch remain inaccessible because of the enthusiastic crowds in front of them, one turns out to be in a language you don't even recognize, and another inevitably reports every experiment you planned to do for the next five years. Amid it all lurks the shared realization that despite zillions of us slaving away at the subject, we still know squat about how the brain works.
My own low point at the conference came one afternoon as I sat on the steps of the convention center, bludgeoned by information and a general sense of ignorance. My eyes focused on a stagnant, murky puddle of water by the curb, and I realized that some microscopic bug festering in there probably knew more about the brain than all of us neuroscientists combined.
This article was originally published with the title Bugs in the Brain.