Robert Sapolsky used a great analogy in a lecture about the limbic system. He was describing case studies in which neurologists tried to use incidental brain trauma to determine the function of different parts of the brain. When someone had to have part of their brain removed and their behavior changed, the neurologists assumed that the removed section was responsible for controlling that kind of behavior.

Assume that all the garlic that is consumed in all the Stanford dining halls is grown in Cloverdale, CA (in reality it’s probably from China) and is delivered daily in a big truck that comes down the 101.  You do an interesting experiment to determine the source of the garlic: carpetbombing Northern California until the garlic arrivals stop. After a section of the 101 in the middle of nowhere off the map, Stanford is garlic-less and the garlicologists proclaim ‘aha! Highway 101 is the source of garlic!’ when in fact it is just the connection.

What does this have to do with things besides the human brain and Stanford’s fictional garlic supply?

My mind immediately went to specialization. It’s pretty clear that the world we live in is requiring more and more intense specialization as the depths of knowledge and technology continue to deepen. But two people, one of whom only knows how to pick coconuts and one who only knows how to crack coconuts will both starve to death on a coconut-filled island if they can’t communicate due to distance or language. These two are the specialists, Stanford and Cloverdale. The missing part of the equation is someone who understands them both to act as Route 101. The necessity of inter-specialist specialists isn’t as easily noticed as the trend towards specialization.

The lecture is part of a whole series that is available for free and should be watched by anybody who interacts with other humans in any way (that’s you.)