Cover image for The missing moment : how the unconscious shapes modern science
The missing moment : how the unconscious shapes modern science
Pollack, Robert, 1940-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Physical Description:
x, 240 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
R726.5 .P63 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



In THE MISSING MOMENT a distinguished molecular biologist explores the nature of time and argues for a radical rethinking of how time affects our sense of self, our mortality, and the future of science and medicine. Only in the past few years have we learned enough about the brain for this remarkable book to be written. We know now that our brains continually filter the present through memories and emotions of the past. In fact, strictly speaking, we live in the past: since it takes the brain a second to process perceptions, what we think is the present actually happened a second ago. We also know where and how the unconscious operates and how painful memories are repressed; repression is not a psychological defect but an evolutionary necessity for our species. All thought, even the most rational, is permeated with unconscious feelings, fears, and emotions. Scientists, like the rest of us, make choices for reasons they don't understand. Thus the direction of scientific research is driven by private demons, not public needs. We can see this in medical science, where doctors develop the tools to diagnose genetic diseases they cannot cure, bringing pain rather than comfort to patients. Today science can do more good than ever before, and it can also do more harm. The time has come for scientists and others to abandon the notion that there is any such thing as the disinterested pursuit of truth. Instead, they must strive for a therapeutic self-awareness of their unconscious agendas and work for larger goals than personal immortality.

Author Notes

Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, was formerly dean of Columbia College. He worked for years with James Watson, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. His first book, Signs of Life: The Language and Meanings of DNA, was widely praised for both its science and its writing. He lives in New York City and Chelsea, Vermont.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a stimulating critique of modern science, Pollack (Signs of Life), a Columbia University biology professor, challenges conventional notions of consciousness by arguing that the past is an inextricable component of the mind's grasp of the present. He begins with a look at sensation: our five senses, he maintains, are products of ancient choices, fixed in the human genome millions of years ago through natural selection. With a nod to Freud, whom he calls an experimental psychologist, Pollack then points to strong evidence that repressed memories, hidden from consciousness in untapped neural networks, do exist, setting the stage for conflicts in adult life. He also reports that within the past few years scientists have discovered how a 40-cycle-per-second wave, arising from deep inside the thalamus, sweeps through the entire brain, constantly binding together sensory information and memories. Synthesizing these findings, Pollack contends that our minds function only via continual reference to the past. The whole scientific enterprise, he argues, is just as prone to unconscious fears and fantasies as is any person. The collective myth of science and of biomedicine, in Pollack's diagnosis, involves misplaced beliefs in the omnipotence of rational thought, absolute control over nature and triumph over death. With eloquence and wit, he contends that biomedicine's heroic goals of beating infectious microbes into total submission, of eradicating cancer and of dramatically extending life expectancy should give way to emphasis on disease prevention and methods to slow the aging process. Full of liberating insights, his provocative study calls on hard-core rationalists, establishment physicians, behaviorists, neurobiologists and life-extension researchers to rethink entrenched positions. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Pollack (biology, Columbia Univ.) offers a cogent and eloquent argument distinguishing between scientific knowledge and scientific wisdom. The author, a molecular biologist, proposes that scientific creativity and effort is based upon the past experience of individual scientists over time and that the genesis of much of what is initiated, carried out, interpreted, and utilized resides repressed in the unconscious. There are chapters on sensation, conscious, memory and the unconscious, the fears of invasion, insurrection and death, and conclusions. It offers a scholarly and credible challenge to strict empirical determinism by presenting a phenomenological reality based on the interaction of internal and external truth that cannot always stand the test of reason. It also speaks to the dangers of scientific perversion and the need for responsibility for promoting positive societal utilization of the products of science. A meaningful contribution to the philosophy of science, and a valuable resource for present and future researchers to pause and consider the possibility and consequences of complex interactions of their internal valuing system, emotions, and fears with their scientific efforts. Chapter notes; appendix with an agenda for a more humane science. Highly recommended for academic libraries. R. E. Darnell; University of Michigan--Flint

Booklist Review

Pollack explodes one of this century's most cherished illusions by uncovering irrational obsessions hidden beneath medical scientists' claims to objectivity. Ignoring the implications of recent discoveries as to how the neurochemistry of the brain ties us to our own individual history and to the collective history of the species, these scientists have persisted in the fantasy that their godlike minds operate free of biological constraints. Pollack challenges his colleagues to confront their perfectly human fears of disease and death so they can break out of the fallacies of magical thinking and end the waste of resources on projects that promise an impossible immortality. It would be much wiser, for example, to learn how to help patients die without unnecessary pain than to continue to develop more technologies that extend life for a week or two while creating a barrier of monitors and tubes between the dying and their loved ones. The demographic reality of an aging Baby Boom makes this a timely and critically important book. --Bryce Christensen

Library Journal Review

In the half-second between a physical stimulus and its conscious perception, Pollack (biology, Columbia Univ.) explains, the signal passes first through the unconscious. There, it filters through stored memories and primal experiences. This psychological process affects the substance of thought itself and, by extension, scientific research. According to Pollack, the bias of modern medicine toward aggressive and intrusive treatment over prevention and support is, at root, an unconscious denial of human mortality. Separately, both of these main points are compelling; Pollack's emphasis on the role of the unconscious in the workings of the mind and senses expounds upon an often overlooked field. Likewise, his manifesto for more humane medical sciences should be taken seriously. The putative connection between the two seems strained, however, and diminishes Pollack's other excellent discussions somewhat. For academic and larger public libraries.ÄGregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Sensation All theory, my friend, is gray But green is life's glad golden tree. -- Mephistopheles to his student Faust, in Goethe's Faust Das Sein ist ewig; den Gesetze Bewahren die lebend'gen Schätze, Aus welchen sich das All geschmückt. (Being is eternal; for there are laws to conserve the treasures of life, on which the Universe draws for its beauty.) -- Goethe, quoted in Erwin Schrödinger, What Is Life? Making sense of the world is the job of science. In order for scientists to begin that work, they first must engage the world through their senses. The ways we sense the world -- the way we see it or smell it, for instance -- may seem consistent with some rational purpose, allowing us to grasp the world just as we would design a set of instruments to do so. But the opposite is the case, as neither our rational intentions nor our experimental models of the natural world inform the design of our senses. Though scientists and doctors may design their instruments of experimentation and diagnosis to observe the world with precision and accuracy, the senses they use to take in their results are designed and constantly rebuilt for other purposes by clocks inside the body. We are each home to many imperceptible clocks, some of which run as fast as a thousand ticks each second, others as slow as one tick per lifetime. These clocks share two attributes: they all operate without being noticed -- although they can be found -- and none of them uses time in quite the way any instrument of science does.     The oldest and slowest of the clocks that build the senses is one we share with all other forms of life: the clock of natural selection, which continually builds new forms of life from old. Its beat is the birth of a species; millions of years may go by between ticks. One of its products is the second inner clock, a rhythm of signals that turn genes on and off in the cells of a developing embryo. This rhythm creates the senses as it builds a human body from genetically identical cells descended from a single fertilized egg. Though it is not as ancient and pervasive as the first, this clock can be found inside all living things made of more than one cell. A third clock is more restricted; it ticks only in nerve cells, welding the nervous system together with impulses arriving less than a thousandth of a second apart. These three clocks are deeply embedded in the past, and thus the senses -- the initial instruments of scientific observation that these clocks have assembled -- are connected to the past as well. Our ways of knowing the world -- our senses -- may seem designed for our present needs, but because they are assembled by these three clocks, they were designed to meet the needs of species now long dead. The clock that differentiates the many cells of a complex organism from one another works by turning different genes on or off in different cells. It starts up at fertilization, the very first instant in the development of an embryo. The plumbing involved in conception has been the object of obsessive attention since ancient times, but the actual events that mark the beginning of a new person from a single cell were clarified only in the past century or so. Aristotle taught -- and many scientists through at least the first half of the nineteenth century accepted as fact -- that a baby began when semen mingled with uterine secretions and caused them to coagulate; in this way the man provided the baby's soul, life, and heart and the woman its body. This old model of inheritance underlies the common -- but by no means universal -- convention that wife and children should share a man's surname. Such cultural atavisms notwithstanding, both parents contribute about the same amount of information to each newly conceived child; if anything, the mother's contribution is more important since she contributes a whole egg cell to the next generation while the father contributes only the nucleus of his sperm cell.     Immediately after an egg cell takes in the head of a sperm, chromosomes from the two parents combine to form a new version of the human genome, and the egg cell is transformed into the first cell of what will be a person. The new genome in a fertilized egg is not the new person nor even a coded version of the person; it is the archive of information that the developmental clock will use to form a new and genetically unique body from the descendants of one fertilized egg cell. The products of certain genes -- called regulatory proteins -- attach to the opening stretches of other genes in the genome, turning them on or shutting them down, giving the cell a new protein or taking one away. When the new protein is itself able to turn other genes on or off, it sets off a cascade of gene-switching. Eventually, gene circuits end up conferring a specialized, differentiated fate on every cell of the embryo. The fertilized egg begins this cascade of differential gene expression by opening a new human genome's genes in precisely the right way so that a baby emerges a few months later. We are thus all born of women in a second, deeper way: all of us get our start through the action of proteins present only inside our mother's egg cell.     The cells of the body that differentiate into either sperm or egg cells are called germ cells. Human germ cells thus produce the sole transmitters of a human genome. With the exception of any sperm or egg cells that have succeeded in fertilizing each other, a death means the end of all inner developmental times for a particular version of the human genome and for the clonal population of cells it constructed from a fertilized egg to be a person. One-celled microbes pass on an exact copy of their genetic information by copying their genomes and then splitting themselves in two. For them, developmental time is frozen, for their "body" is always complete. The lines of germ cells passed on from generation to generation by our species resemble these lines of single-celled life. The resemblance is deep and old: germ cells escape death because the developmental clock is frozen for them as well. At the instant of fertilization, when developmental time begins for the other, mortal, cells of the body, the genes of the germ line are left alone, undisturbed and unused, preserved instead for a proper cascade of differentiated readings in the next generation. In all other cells of the body, the developmental clock continues to open and close different genes in different cells throughout a person's lifetime. For instance, sex hormones secreted by a small number of cells bring on puberty.     The world outside the body can also change a cell's fate, by triggering a change in its choice of open genes. The senses are constantly sending the brain new information about the changing world, and sensing a change in the world outside actually changes the brain. When the nerve cells in our sensory organs respond to signals from the outside world -- light, sound, touch -- they do so initially by communicating with electrical and chemical impulses and then -- in a delayed response necessary both for memory and for the stable wiring of the brain's circuitry -- by altering the way they read their own genomes. The sensory experiences that wire up the brain in the first place keep rewiring it all through life. Much of what we think of as most ineffable about our brains -- our conscious sense of the world around us, for instance, or our memories -- are at least in part the consequence of nerve cells continuing to change one another's patterns of gene expression. Make two fists and bring them together to appreciate the rough volume and shape of the human brain. Its unprepossessing appearance has led to many deprecating descriptions; my favorite is the mathematician Roger Penrose's: a bowl of porridge. In its two wrinkled, wet, warm hemispheres lie chemical and electric circuits of the greatest known complexity and density in the universe. Aside from its shocking smallness -- somehow I had always imagined the brain as far bigger than the skull that encloses it -- the brain's other surprising aspect is its crumpled appearance. The brain is squeezed like badly packed clothes into its bony case. Any slice through it shows why: its outermost quarter inch or so is a continuous layer of densely packed and interconnected nerve cells so large that to fit into the skull it must be deeply folded and pleated, leaving about a third of its pinkish-gray surface showing when the skull is lifted off. This gray matter is the brain's cerebral cortex. Nerve cells in the cortex are organized in columns that run perpendicular to its wrinkled outer surface, making that surface a fine-grained intarsia or mosaic of the tops of many tiny cortical columns. Nerve cells from each sensory tissue send their information to different tiles of the cortex's mosaic. Adjacent columns then share the information with each other and with organized clusters of nerve cells elsewhere in the cortex as well as in the rest of the brain.     A wrinkled cortex is the product of two conflicting needs: first, the embryonic brain needs to develop for an extended time in the controlled and safe environment of the uterus, and second, after birth the brain has to respond in ever more subtle ways to the vicissitudes of a constantly changing world. The mammalian trick of nurturing an embryo in the mother's body limits a newborn's skull to the size of a stretched pelvic passageway, while the mammalian knack for complex behavior places a premium on a cortex of the largest possible area and therefore the greatest capacity to process information from its senses. The combination leads to the cortex that must be crumpled up to fit in the skull. Humans are one of the two mammalian species with the largest and therefore the most convoluted cortexes; the other -- with a cortex even more complicated and folded than ours -- is the highly social, handless, but not speechless porpoise.     Within one cubic millimeter -- the size of a large grain of sand or a rather small diamond -- the cerebral cortex contains about one hundred thousand nerve cells. Each nerve cell makes tens of thousands of connections to other nerve cells; the nerve cells in a sand grain of cortex make about a billion connections with one another and with more distant nerve cells as well. Connections from the cortex to distant parts of the brain and spinal cord are wrapped in a fatty sheath called myelin. Much of the inner part of the brain is called white matter because myelin has a milky appearance rather than the gray of the cortex's nerve cells. The other parts of the brain connected to the cortex through the white matter -- called centers or nuclei -- are also organized in aggregates of tightly wired clusters of nerve cells.     All signals between nerve cells, and all signals from the outside world, enter through a membrane. The membrane of a nerve cell is a fairly impermeable, fatty skin, penetrated by doughnuts and rivets of protein that stud it like the peepholes and locks in a New York apartment's front door. Nerve cells signal one another by releasing small molecules called neurotransmitters from their tips. When a neurotransmitter released by one nerve cell arrives at a nearby nerve cell's receptors and fits one of them properly, other portals in the recipient's membrane open and shut, turning on an electric current in the form of a flow of salts that travels the length of the nerve, triggering the subsequent release of neurotransmitters at its tips. The genes that encode the various gates, pores, channels, and pumps of the nerve cell membrane control which neurotransmitters will be able to trigger an impulse, which salts will flow inward and outward to propagate the electric pulse to the nerve cell's tips, and which other neurotransmitters will be sent out by those tips to other nerve cells in turn.     Embryonic cells become nerve cells by the activation of a set of genes whose products allow them to receive and transmit chemical and electrical impulses at their tips, just as other embryonic cells become pancreatic islets by the activation of another set of genes, including the gene for the hormone insulin. The amount of hormone produced by a pancreatic cell's insulin gene can be tuned by the responses of other cells to secreted insulin. In a similar way, the intensity and pattern of neural communication can affect the strength of the connections that nerve cells establish at their tips. A network of nerve cells is established when connections among a group of cells are tightened by gene activation. The almost simultaneous arrival of nerve impulses from many cells activates genes in the recipient nerve cell; they direct the production of proteins that then hard-wire the cell into a network with the cells that sent the signals. Connections are not hard-wired unless multiple impulses arrive within less than a thousandth of a second, as measured by one of the brain's internal clocks, the nerve cell's coincidence clock.     The circuits in our brains are thus assembled through the coincidence clocks of nerve cells after the ubiquitous developmental clock of differential gene expression lays out a rough draft of the wiring circuitry in the embryo. In the early embryo's brain, there are a vast excess of weak connections among nerve cells. As rough, even random, clusters of nerve cells hook up to one another, the embryonic brain buzzes with cross talk until impulses begin to arrive from many different cells in a thousandth of a second or less. Once recipient cells harden their active connections with the cells that send these coincidental signals, any signal from even one cell in the network will get through. If multiple coincidental inputs do not harden the initial embryonic connection, it will dissolve. Only after a nerve cell gets wired into functional circuits can it properly respond to the hormones that keep it alive; if it does not end up with a large enough set of stable connections to other nerve cells, a brain cell will usually die.     As soon as the fetus begins to be exposed to the world through its senses, its sensory nerves begin to signal the brain, allowing the coincidence clocks of the brain's nerve cells to begin to sculpt the functional connections to each of the senses. The senses and the way the brain interprets their signals are thus both products of the cooperative interaction of the developmental and coincidence-counting clocks; each nerve cell's embryonic capacity to sense time's passage at each of its tips creates and gives meaning to the senses.     Coincidence continues to resculpt the brain's circuitry throughout our lives as experiences continue to add to the establishment of connections among nerve cells. The size and complexity of a child's brain increases from birth until about the tenth year as the coincidence clock continues to maintain an ever larger number of connections among an ever larger number of nerve cells. Thereafter, though, the clock serves more as a winnower than a seeder as nerve cells in the brain begin to die back for want of sufficient new connections. By late adolescence, connections in the brain and numbers of brain cells are reduced to the level of a two-year-old's; from then on they continue to decline slowly for the rest of life. A considerable portion of each brain's final circuitry is created by experiences rather than genes. Since every child's experiences will differ from every other's, the wiring patterns of any two brains -- even those of identical twins -- will be entirely different from infancy on. Copyright © 1999 Robert Pollack. All rights reserved.