We are familiar with the accidental discovery of enormously important scientific ideas and methods. Everyone, it seems, was looking for something else when they made the discovery that made them famous. Pasteur’s immunological advances, penicillin, vulcanization, Watt’s observation of the steam kettle’s energy – all these came not as complete accidents, but of clever people looking for one thing and finding another. It happens often enough that a methodology of looking for one thing, but just fooling around with the ideas or objects to see what they do, has much to recommend it. Pasteur famously said “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” We often miss the important only in that statement.
There is a new one, found somewhat accidentally by neuropsychiatric researchers at NYU. It is not yet published, so I won’t push this too far, but it seems we have been overlooking enormous amounts of data from fMRI’s because of an unlucky choice in the frequency we use to reveal brain data. A graduate student fooling around with the procedure uncovered a wealth of signal we had been dismissing as noise and trying to eliminate. If this holds up, it will reveal brain activity with a specificity that will begin to consitute lab tests for various psychiatric diagnoses. As brain activity patterns emerge, it will likely upset our diagnostic categories.
Not too far away from the day that we can tell exactly what has been damaged in a head injury, or knowing the brain’s pattern for autism or schizophrenia – or whatever we learn to reconceptualize them as then.
As Yogi Berra said “You can observe a lot just by watching.”