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the male and female brain, revisited

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Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

An article, ‘Do women and men have different brains?’, from Mysteries of the human brain, in the New Scientist ‘Collection’ series, has persuaded me to return to this issue – or perhaps non-issue. It convincingly argues, to me, that it’s largely a non-issue, and largely due to the problem of framing.

The above-mentioned article doesn’t go much into the neurology that I described in my piece written nearly 7 years ago, but it raises points that I largely neglected. For example, in noting differences in the amygdalae, and between white and grey matter, I failed to significantly emphasise that these were averages. The differences among women in these and other statistics is greater than the differences between women and men. Perhaps more importantly, we need to question, in these studies, who the female and male subjects were. Were they randomly selected, and what does that mean? What lives did they lead? We know more now about the plasticity of the brain, and it’s likely that our neurological activity and wiring has much more to do with our focus, and what we’ve been taught or encouraged to focus on from our earliest years, than our gender. 

And this takes me back to framing. Studies designed to ‘seek out’ differences between male and female brains are in an important sense compromised from the start, as they tend to rule out the differences among men and among women due to a host of other variables. They also lead researchers to make too much of what might be quite minor statistical differences. To quote from the New Scientist article, written by Gina Rippon, author of the somewhat controversial book The gendered brain:

Revisiting the evidence suggests that women and men are more similar than they are different. In 2015, a review of more than 20,000 studies into behavioural differences, comprising data from over 12 million people, found that, overall, the differences between men and women on a wide range of characteristics such as impulsivity, cooperativeness and emotionality were vanishingly small.

What all the research seems more and more to be pointing to is that there’s no such thing as a male or a female brain, and that our brains are much more what we make of them than previously thought. Stereotyping, as the article points out, has led to ‘stereotype threat’ – the fact that we tend to conform to stereotypes if that’s what’s expected of us. And all this fuels my long-standing annoyance at the stereotyped advertising and sales directed at each gender, but especially girls and women, which, as some feminists have pointed out, has paradoxically become more crass and extreme since the advent of second-wave feminism.

And yet – there are ways of looking at ‘natural’ differences between males and females that might be enlightening. That is, are there informative neurological differences between male and female rats? Male and female wolves? Are there any such differences between male and female bonobos, and male and female chimps, that can inform us about why our two closest living relatives are so socially and behaviourally different from each other? These sorts of studies might help to isolate ‘real’, biological differences in the brains of male and female humans, as distinct from differences due to social and cultural stereotyping and reinforcement. Then again, biology is surely not destiny these days. 

Not destiny, but not entirely to be discounted. In the same New Scientist collection there’s another article, ‘The real baby brain’, which looks at a so-called condition known as ‘mummy brain’ or ‘baby brain’, a supposed mild cognitive impairment due to pregnancy. I know of at least one woman who’s sure this is real (I don’t know many people), but up until recently it has been little more than an untested meme. There is, apparently, a slight, temporary shrinkage in the brain of a woman during pregnancy, but this hasn’t been found to correlate with any behavioural changes, and some think it has to do with streamlining. In fact, as one researcher, Craig Kinsley, explained, his skepticism about the claim was raised in watching his partner handling the many new tasks of motherhood with great efficiency while still maintaining a working life. So Kinsley and his team looked at rat behaviour to see what they could find:

In his years of studying the neurobiology underlying social behaviours in rats, his animals had never shown any evidence of baby brain. Quite the opposite, actually. Although rats in the final phase of their pregnancy show a slight dip in spacial ability, after their pups are born they surpass non-mothers at remembering the location of food in complex mazes. Mother rats are also much faster at catching prey. In one study in Kinsley’s lab the non-mothers took nearly 270 seconds on average to hunt down a cricket hidden in an enclosure, whereas the mothers took just over 50 seconds.

It’s true that human mothers don’t have to negotiate physical mazes or find tasty crickets (rat mothers, unlike humans, are solely responsible for raising offspring), but it’s also clear that they, like all mammalian mothers, have to be more alert than usual to any signs and dangers when they have someone very precious and fragile to nurture and attend to. In rats, this shows up in neurological and hormonal changes – lower levels of stress hormones in the blood, and less activity in brain regions such as the amygdalae, which regulate fear and anxiety. Other hormones, such as oestradiol and oxytocin, soar to multiple times more than normal levels, priming rapid responses to sensory stimuli from offspring. Many more connections between neurons are forged in late pregnancy and its immediate aftermath.

Okay, but we’re not rats – nothing like. But how about monkeys? Owl monkeys, like most humans, share the responsibilities of child-rearing, but research has found that mothers are better at finding and gaining access to stores of food than non-mothers. Different behaviours will be reflected in different neural connections.

So, while it’s certainly worth exploring how the female brain functions during an experience unique to females, most of the time women and men engage in the same activities – working, playing, studying, socialising and so forth. Our brain processes will reflect the particular patterns of our lives, often determined at an early age, as the famous Dunedin longitudinal study has shown. Gender, and how gender is treated in the culture in which we’re embedded, is just one of many factors that will affect those processes.

References

New Scientist – The Collection, Mysteries of the human brain, 2019

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunedin_Multidisciplinary_Health_and_Development_Study

https://ussromantics.com/2013/10/06/what-do-we-currently-know-about-the-differences-between-male-and-female-brains-in-humans/

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2020 at 10:50 pm

discussing mental health and illness

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Canto: I’ve been told I’m on the autism spectrum, by someone who’s not on it, presumably, but who’s also not an expert on such things, but I’m not sure who is.

Jacinta: Well of course we’re all on the autism spectrum, it depends on your location on it, I suppose, if you need to worry. ‘You’re sick’ is one of the oldest lines of abuse, but I’m reminded of a passage in The moral landscape, which I’m currently rereading. He describes a funny-but-not-so-funny piece of research by one D L Rosenhan:

… in which he and seven confederates had themselves committed to psychiatric hospitals in five different states in an effort to determine whether mental health professionals could detect the presence of the sane among the mentally ill. In order to get committed, each researcher complained of hearing a voice repeating the words ’empty’, ‘hollow and ‘thud’. Beyond that, each behaved perfectly normally. Upon winning admission to the psychiatric ward, the pseudo-patients stopped complaining of their symptoms and immediately sought to convince the doctors, nurses and staff that they felt fine and were fit to be released. This proved surprisingly difficult. While these genuinely sane patients wanted to leave the hospital, repeatedly declared that they experienced no symptoms, and became ‘paragons of cooperation’, their average length of hospitalisation was 19 days (ranging from 7 to 52 days), during which they were bombarded with an astounding range of powerful drugs (which they discreetly deposited in the toilet. None were pronounced healthy. Each was ultimately discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia ‘in remission’ (with the exception of one who received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder). Interestingly, while the doctors, nurses and staff were apparently blind to the presence of normal people on the ward, actual mental patients frequently remarked on the obvious sanity of the researchers, saying things like ‘You’re not crazy – you’re a journalist’.

S. Harris, The moral landscape, p142

Canto: Well, that’s a fascinating story, but let’s get skeptical. Has that study been replicated? We know how rarely that happens. And there are quite a few other questions worth asking. Wouldn’t most of the staff etc have been primed to assume these patients had a genuine mental illness? And surely only a small percentage would have had the authority to make a decision either way. Who exactly had them committed, what was the process, and what was the relationship between those doing the diagnosis and those engaging in treatment and daily care? Was there any fudging on the part of the pseudo-patients (who were apparently also the researchers) in order to prove their point (which presumably was that mental illness can be easily shammed)? And wouldn’t you expect other patients, many of whom wouldn’t believe in their own mental problems, to be supportive of the sanity of those around them?

Jacinta: Okay, those are some valid points, but are you prepared to accept that a lot of these mental conditions, such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (the name speaks volumes), attention deficit disorder, narcissistic whatever disorder and so on, are a little flakey around the edges?

Canto: Maybe, but with solid centres I’m sure. Depression is probably the most common of those mental conditions, and too much skepticism on that count could obviously lead to disaster. Take the case of South Korea, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. There appears to be a nationwide skepticism about mental health issues there, which clashes with high stress levels to create a crisis of care. Professional help is rarely sought and isn’t widely available. It raises the question of the value of skepticism in some areas.

Jacinta: I wonder if the rapid advances in neurophysiology can help us here. Mental health is all about the brain. In the above quote, the pseudo-patients were mostly diagnosed with schizophrenia. That’s surprising. In my naïveté I would’ve thought there was a neurological test for schizophrenia by now.

Canto: Well, the experiment described in The moral landscape dates from the early seventies, but currently there’s still no diagnostic test for schizophrenia based on the brain itself, it’s all about such symptoms as specific delusions and hallucinations, which could still be shammed I suppose, if anyone wanted to. But what about borderline personality disorder – I was told recently that it’s very real, in spite of the name.

Jacinta: Well, there appears to be a mystery about the causes, and a general confusion about the symptoms, which seem to be rather wide-ranging – though I suppose if a patient displays several of them you can safely conclude that she’s stark staring bonkers.

Canto: Yes that’s a thing about mental illness, quite seriously. You don’t need to be an expert to notice when people are behaving in a way that’s detrimental to themselves and others, especially if it’s a sharp deviation from previous behaviour. And if it’s a slow descent, as quite often depression can be, it’s harder to pick from that person’s standard lugubrious personality, so to speak. And in the end, maybe the labelling isn’t so important as the help and the treatment. But then, people love a label – they want to know precisely what’s wrong with them.

Jacinta: I suppose the difficulty with mental illness and labelling, as opposed to labelling other more ‘physical’ illnesses or injuries, is the near-ineffable complexity of the brain. For example, I notice that among the symptoms of borderline personality disorder are apparent behaviours that don’t really cohere in any way. This site places the symptom of uncertainty and indecisiveness along with extreme risk-taking and impulsiveness, and then there is fear of abandonment, and other odd behaviours which seem to head in different directions, seeming to have one thing alone in common – being extreme or abnormal.

Canto: Yes, again, behaviour that tends to harm the self or others.

Jacinta: At the moment, I think there are still too few connections between neurology and psychiatry and the treatment of mental illness, though it’s a matter of enormous complexity. I had thought, for example, that the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine was essential to our understanding of schizophrenia, but more recent research has found that the neurochemistry of the condition involves many other factors, including glutamate, GABA, acetylcholine and serotonin. There’s so much more work to be done. But we also need to be very aware of the social and cultural conditions that tip people over the edge into mental illness. Changes in the way our brain is functioning might be seen as proximal causes of an increase in depression and suicide, but it’s more likely that the ultimate causes have to do with the stresses that particular organisations, societies and cultures impose upon us.

Written by stewart henderson

June 30, 2019 at 12:45 pm

the self and its brain: free will encore

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yeah, right

so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible – in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo, author’s preface to Les Miserables

Listening to the Skeptics’ Guide podcast for the first time in a while, I was excited by the reporting on a discovery of great significance in North Dakota – a gigantic graveyard of prehistoric marine and other life forms precisely at the K-T boundary, some 3000 kms from where the asteroid struck. All indications are that the deaths of these creatures were instantaneous and synchronous, the first evidence of mass death at the K-T boundary. I felt I had to write about it, as a self-learning exercise if nothing else.

But then, as I listened to other reports and talking points in one of SGU’s most stimulating podcasts, I was hooked by something else, which I need to get out of the way first. It was a piece of research about the brain, or how people think about it, in particular when deciding court cases. When Steven Novella raised the ‘spectre’ of ‘my brain made me do it’ arguments, and the threat that this might pose to ‘free will’, I knew I had to respond, as this free will stuff keeps on bugging me. So the death of the dinosaurs will have to wait.

The more I’ve thought about this matter, the more I’ve wondered how people – including my earlier self – could imagine that ‘free will’ is compatible with a determinist universe (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which I don’t think is relevant to this issue). The best argument for this compatibility, or at least the one I used to use, is that, yes, every act we perform is determined, but the determining factors are so mind-bogglingly complex that it’s ‘as if’ we have free will, and besides, we’re ‘conscious’, we know what we’re doing, we watch ourselves deciding between one act and another, and so of course we could have done otherwise.

Yet I was never quite comfortable about this, and it was in fact the arguments of compatibilists like Dennett that made me think again. They tended to be very cavalier about ‘criminals’ who might try to get away with their crimes by using a determinist argument – not so much ‘my brain made me do it’ as ‘my background of disadvantage and violence made me do it’. Dennett and other philosophers struck me as irritatingly dismissive of this sort of argument, though their own arguments, which usually boiled down to ‘you can always choose to do otherwise’ seemed a little too pat to me. Dennett, I assumed, was, like most academics, a middle-class silver-spoon type who would never have any difficulty resisting, say, getting involved in an armed robbery, or even stealing sweets from the local deli. Others, many others, including many kids I grew up with, were not exactly of that ilk. And as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, and as the Dunedin longitudinal study tends very much to confirm, the socio-economic environment of our earliest years is largely, though of course not entirely, determinative.

Let’s just run though some of this. Class is real, and in a general sense it makes a big difference. To simplify, and to recall how ancient the differences are, I’ll just name two classes, the patricians and the plebs (or think upper/lower, over/under, haves/have-nots).

Various studies have shown that, by age five, the more plebby you are (on average):

  • the higher the basal glucocorticoid levels and/or the more reactive the glucocorticoid stress response
  • the thinner the frontal cortex and the lower its metabolism
  • the poorer the frontal function concerning working memory, emotion regulation , impulse control, and executive decision making.

All of this comes from Sapolsky, who cites all the research at the end of his book. I’ll do the same at the end of this post (which doesn’t mean I’ve analysed that research – I’m just a pleb after all. I’m happy to trust Sapolski). He goes on to say this:

moreover , to achieve equivalent frontal regulation, [plebeian] kids must activate more frontal cortex than do [patrician] kids. In addition, childhood poverty impairs maturation of the corpus collosum, a bundle of axonal fibres connecting the two hemispheres and integrating their function. This is so wrong foolishly pick a poor family to be born into, and by kindergarten, the odds of your succeeding at life’s marshmallow tests are already stacked against you.

Behave, pp195-6

Of course, this is just the sort of ‘social asphyxia’ Victor Hugo was at pains to highlight in his great work. You don’t need to be a neurologist to realise all this, but the research helps to hammer it home.

These class differences are also reflected in parenting styles (and of course I’m always talking in general terms here). Pleb parents and ‘developing world’ parents are more concerned to keep their kids alive and protected from the world, while patrician and ‘developed world’ kids are encouraged to explore. The patrician parent is more a teacher and facilitator, the plebeian parent is more like a prison guard. Sapolsky cites research into parenting styles in ‘three tribes’: wealthy and privileged; poorish but honest (blue collar); poor and crime-ridden. The poor neighbourhood’s parents emphasised ‘hard defensive individualism’ – don’t let anyone push you around, be tough. Parenting was authoritarian, as was also the case in the blue-collar neighbourhood, though the style there was characterised as ‘hard offensive individualism’ – you can get ahead if you work hard enough, maybe even graduate into the middle class. Respect for family authority was pushed in both these neighbourhoods. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much on what the patrician parenting (soft individualism) was like – more choice, more stimulation, better health. And of course, ‘real life’ people don’t fit neatly into these categories, there are an infinity of variants, but they’re all determining.

And here’s another quote from Sapolsky on research into gene/environment interactions.

Heritability of various aspects of cognitive development is very high (e.g. around 70% for IQ) in kids from [patrician] families but is only around 10% in [plebeian] kids. Thus patrician-ness allows the full range of genetic influences on cognition to flourish, whereas plebeian settings restrict them. In other words, genes are nearly irrelevant to cognitive development if you’re growing up in awful poverty – poverty’s adverse affects trump the genetics.

Behave, p249

Another example of the huge impact of environment/class, too often underplayed by ivory tower philosophers and the silver-spoon judiciary.

Sapolsky makes some interesting points, always research-based of course, about the broader environment we inhabit. Is the country we live in more communal or more individualistic? Is there high or low income inequality? Generally, cultures with high income inequality have less ‘social capital’, meaning levels of trust, reciprocity and cooperation. Such cultures/countries generally vote less often and join fewer clubs and mutual societies. Research into game-playing, a beloved tool of psychological research, shows that individuals from high inequality/low social capital countries show high levels of bullying and of anti-social punishment (punishing ‘overly’ generous players because they make other players look bad) during economic games. They tend, in fact, to punish the too-generous more than they punish actual cheaters (think Trump).

So the determining factors into who we are and why we make the decisions we do range from the genetic and hormonal to the broadly cultural. A couple have two kids. One just happens to be conventionally good-looking, the other not so much. Many aspects of their lives will be profoundly affected by this simple difference. One screams and cries almost every night for her first twelve months or so, for some reason (and there are reasons), the other is relatively placid over the same period. Again, whatever caused this difference will likely profoundly affect their life trajectories. I could go on ad nauseam about these ‘little’ differences and their lifelong effects, as well as the greater differences of culture, environment, social capital and the like. Our sense of consciousness gives us a feeling of control which is largely illusory.

It’s strange to me that Dr Novella seems troubled by ‘my brain made me do it’, arguments, because in a sense that is the correct, if trivial, argument to ‘justify’ all our actions. Our brains ‘make us’ walk, talk, eat, think and breathe. Brains R Us. And not even brains – octopuses are newly-recognised as problem-solvers and tool-users without even having brains in the usual sense – they have more of a decentralised nervous system, with nine mini-brains somehow co-ordinating when needed. So ‘my brain made me do it’ essentially means ‘I made me do it’, which takes us nowhere. What makes us do things are the factors shaping our brain processes, and they have nothing to do with ‘free will’, this strange, inexplicable phenomenon which supposedly lies outside these complex but powerfully determining factors but is compatible with it. To say that we can do otherwise is just saying – it’s not a proof of anything.

To be fair to Steve Novella and his band of rogues, they accept that this is an enormously complex issue, regarding individual responsibility, crime and punishment, culpability and the like. That’s why the free will issue isn’t just a philosophical game we’re playing. And lack of free will shouldn’t by any means be confused with fatalism. We can change or mitigate the factors that make us who we are in a huge variety of ways. More understanding of the factors that bring out the best in us, and fostering those factors, is what is urgently required.

just thought I’d chuck this in

Research articles and reading

Behave, Robert Sapolsky, Bodley Head, 2017

These are just a taster of the research articles and references used by Sapolsky re the above.

C Heim et al, ‘Pituitary-adrenal and autonomic responses to stress in women after sexual and physical abuse in childhood’

R J Lee et al ‘CSF corticotrophin-releasing factor in personality disorder: relationship with self-reported parental care’

P McGowan et al, ‘Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse’

L Carpenter et al, ‘Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing factor and perceived early life stress in depressed patients and healthy control subjects’

S Lupien et al, ‘Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition’

A Kusserow, ‘De-homogenising American individualism: socialising hard and soft individualism in Manhattan and Queens’

C Kobayashi et al ‘Cultural and linguistic influence on neural bases of ‘theory of mind”

S Kitayama & A Uskul, ‘Culture, mind and the brain: current evidence and future directions’.

etc etc etc

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2019 at 10:53 am

the amazing physiology of hummingbirds

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The smallest bird on our planet is the bee hummingbird, of Cuba. The average adult weight ranges between 2 and 2.5 grams, with females being slightly larger than males. There are other tiny hummingbirds, including the bumblebee, from Mexico, and the calliope, of Canada and the US. Basically the adults of all these birds weigh little more than a couple of paper clips. Yet, as Jim Robbins reports in The wonder of birds, these featherlight birds are incredibly robust. Calliopes fly from the northern US down to Mexico every winter, often through powerful head-winds and raindrops as big as their ‘eads. They fly back north in spring, early arrivals, living on insects (their principal source of nutrients) until the flowers start blooming (providing nectar, their principal source of energy). It’s an annual journey of nearly 3000 kms.

adult male bee hummingbird

It takes heart to undertake such a journey, and hummingbirds have plenty. The hummingbird heart is the largest of any known animal relative to its size, and its rate has been measured to reach over 1200 beats per minute (in the blue-throated hummingbird). There are some 350 species of hummingbird, all living in the Americas. 

But it’s not just their long-distance flights that astonish, it’s their everyday manoeuvres. They can fly upside-down, change speed and direction smartly, and hover for long periods, even in strong winds, while collecting sweet nectar in vast quantities – as much as 12 times their body weight daily. Their wing-beat speed, which can reach 100 beats per second, is about ten times that of a pigeon, and they have the largest pectorals for their size of any bird. Birds’ pectorals, which power their flight, are always proportionally massive, taking up some 80% of their weight, but hummingbirds are clearly built for flight more than any other, which allows them to remain in the air more or less constantly. ‘It’s their default setting’, says Bret Tobalske of the University of Montana, who studies the mechanics of flight in birds, bats and insects. Tobalske has studied their flight using ultra high-speed cameras and atomised olive  oil illuminated by lasers, so that the revealed air-flow around their wings can help in understanding the mechanical processes involved. He’s also used wind tunnel experiments to investigate how well the birds can withstand wind forces. In a 20mph headwind, they simply increase their wingbeat rate, and can remain hovering for up to an hour and a half. 

calliope hummingbird

Hummingbirds are very trainable and human-friendly, especially if you reward them with sugar water, their favourite energy hit, though the more food is laid on for them the less they’ll visit and pollinate flowers. Their beaks and long tongues are adapted to extracting nectar. The tongues themselves are an extraordinary adaptation. They’re forked at the tip, and when retracted they coil up inside their tiny heads like a garden hose. For years it was thought that the nectar was drawn out of the flowers by capillary action, like a blotter soaks up ink (showing my age), but Margaret Rubega of the University of Connecticut quickly recognised this was a crock, on first hearing of the hypothesis in the 1980s. Capillary action is a slow process, especially with more viscous liquids, but hummingbirds stick their tongues into flowers at a rate of up to 16 times a second. How their tongue works has been revealed by slow-motion photography, another example of technological advances leading to advances in knowledge – though the ingenuity of Rubega and her colleague Alejandro Rico-Guevara in working out the process played a large part. Ed Yong provides a good account here, and the more detailed original paper is also online. The hummingbird’s tongue appears to be a unique evolutionary invention, a bespoke tongue, so to speak. At its tip, where it forks, it curls up at the edges, creating two tubes. Here’s how it works, from Yong:

As the bird sticks its tongue out, it uses its beak to compress the two tubes at the tip, squeezing them flat. They momentarily stay compressed because the residual nectar inside them glues them in place. But when the tongue hits nectar, the liquid around it overwhelms whatever’s already inside. The tubes spring back to their original shape and nectar rushes into them.

The two tubes also separate from each other, giving the tongue a forked, snakelike appearance. And they unfurl, exposing a row of flaps along their long edges. It’s as if the entire tongue blooms open, like the very flowers from which it drinks.

When the bird retracts its tongue, all of these changes reverse. The tubes roll back up as their flaps curl inward, trapping nectar in the process. And because the flaps at the very tip are shorter than those further back, they curl into a shape that’s similar to an ice-cream cone; this seals the nectar in. The tongue is what Rubega calls a nectar trap. It opens up as it immerses, and closes on its way out, physically grabbing a mouthful in the process.

As Rubega and Rico-Guevara suggest in their abstract, such a unique fluid-trapping mechanism may well have biomimetic applications. As the researchers have shown, the tongue mechanism works even after the bird has died, showing that it’s in some sense independent of the bird itself, and requires none of the bird’s energy. 

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to find that hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of any creature (excluding insects). Apart from their record heart rate, they take around 250 breaths a minute, even resting – which they rarely do. Their oxygen intake (per gram of muscle) during flight is ten times higher than that of the most elite human athletes, and they get almost all of their energy for this hyperactive life through ingested sugars – compared to a maximum of 30% for humans. They can utilise sugars for flight within 35 minutes of consumption, which requires a very rapid oxidation rate. Though it isn’t precisely known how this rapid oxidation occurs, it does explain how they can maintain flight while feeding – they’re essentially refuelling while in flight. This raises questions, though, about long-haul flights, for example across the Gulf of Mexico – a distance of 800 kms. It appears they’re able to store fat as a fuel reserve, like other migratory birds, thus almost doubling their weight before the big journey. 

Hummingbird songs and calls are highly varied, and some are even ultrasonic – at a frequency above that of human hearing. These may be used to disturb the flight patterns of small edible insects. Most interestingly, neurological and genetic expression studies suggest that they are capable of vocal learning, something rare among birds as well as mammals. Research in this area is something I hope to explore more fully in future posts – it involves brain design, development and epigenetic factors. 

blue-throated hummingbird, a larger species – only the male has the blue throat

A few other interesting points in closing. Hummingbirds do rest at night, and when there’s no available food – they can enter a state something like hibernation, when their metabolism slows almost to a full stop. They can lose about 10% of their body weight during these states. It’s also notable that they have surprisingly long life-spans for such hyperactive creatures.  Average life-spans have been difficult to measure, but individuals of different species have been known to live for eleven or twelve years at least. 

My growing interest in birds and other creatures, especially with regard to intelligence, has inevitably led me to the load of videos available online, displaying all sorts of amazing traits, as well as profound human-animal relations. There are too many to recommend, but I would strongly suggest to any reader that they sample some of them. Watching them is somehow uplifting, and inspires a sense of hope. Life is nothing if not ingenious, even if accidentally. 

References

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/11/hummingbird-tongues/546992/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hummingbird

http://www.pnas.org/content/108/23/9356

Written by stewart henderson

November 15, 2018 at 10:09 am

bird smarts and theory of mind

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human brain compared to that of a zebra finch, I think

I like birds a lot – how could you not? I particularly like their brains, which considering their ‘beautiful plumage’, their grace in flight, their songs, their treatment of mates and offspring and their dinosaur history, is quite a big call. Not that I’ve ever seen or examined a bird’s brain, but I’ve seen and heard of  some gobsmacking behaviour from some species, so I thought I might check out what’s known about their grey-white matter.

As with so many research fields, there’s been a surge in research into bird brains, and I’ve not heard the term bird-brain used as an insult in recent times. Still, when we think of bird intelligence, we tend to anthropomorphise, to compare them with us – do they play, do they use language or tools, do they recognise us individually, can they solve the same sorts of problems we can? That’s understandable enough, but in studying bird brains we should be just as thoughtful about the differences as the similarities.

The birds that have stood out for us so far are corvids – ravens, crows, jays and magpies, though many parrots such as the sadly endangered kea of New Zealand have also caught researchers’ attention. So how do these small-brained creatures manage to do the things that so impress us? Well for a start it may be more a matter of numbers than actual size (and it should be noted that birds have the largest brain to body ratio of any creature). Some research published in July 2016, which received a lot of media attention, found that bird brains pack neurons more densely than other animals. It was previously thought that neuron density didn’t vary much between species, but it’s now becoming clear this isn’t so, and actual brain size isn’t such a reliable guide to intelligence. But bird brains are really small compared to those of primates, so there must surely be other differences besides density.

But the 2016 research, which featured a revolutionary method for sampling brain tissue and making neuron counts, found that, in fact, a parrot brain contained as many neurons as some mid-sized primates. However, it’s also true that a bird’s brain is structurally different. Unsurprisingly, in the past, bird brains were thought of as primitive, and were classified as such, probably because they’re far removed from us on the evolutionary bush. Anthropomorphism again – understandably we used to feel that the only really intelligent creatures apart from us were those most closely related to us, but in recent decades we’ve learned that cetaceans, octopuses, elephants and birds, none of which are close to us  evolutionarily, are highly intelligent creatures. And they’re not all mammals, and in the case of the octopus, not even vertebrates. This is quite exciting for our understanding of intelligent life forms – they can have a multitude of ‘brain plans’.

The first important bird brain anatomist was the 19th century German naturalist Ludwig Edinger, whose work was so influential that it provided the orthodox view until a few decades ago. Noting the very different structure of the bird brain, Edinger understandably assumed they couldn’t be as smart as mammals, and being one of the first to name brain structures in birds, he assigned names such as paleostriatum, suggesting a very basic region involving instinctual and motor activity. Basically, he assumed birds lacked a neocortex altogether. However, we now know that the bird brain evolved from the pallium rather than the striatum, and in 2005 it was agreed that an overhaul of bird brain nomenclature was required. All part of our more informed and respectful approach to these wondrous creatures.

National Geographic, in combination with other interested organisations, has declared 2018 the Year of the Bird, and has some fascinating pieces on bird behaviour on its website. That’s where I learned that, according to one researcher, birds’ brains are more distributed ‘like a pizza’, whereas the mammalian brain is more layered. However, the wiring that underlies long-term memory in birds (and they clearly have impressive long-term memory) and decision-making is similar to that in mammals. 

Here are just a few of the extraordinary behaviours discovered. Green-rumped parrotlets of South America use calls as names for their chicks. Male palm cockatoos of New Guinea court females not only with calls but by drumming on hollow trees with twigs and seedpods – arguably a form of music. Goffin’s cockatoos, from Indonesia, make and use tools in captivity even though they’ve never been seen to do so in the wild. They’re also expert at opening locks. The National Geographic video ‘Beak and Brain: genius birds down under’ compares the kea of New Zealand’s South Island to the New Caledonian crow as problems solvers tasked with overcoming a variety of obstacles to obtain their favourite treats. It makes for riveting viewing. Other videos online show crows creating hooks on sticks and using them to pull food out of holes. 

Another video, involving experiments with jackdaws by Princess Auguste of Bavaria (really), a behavioural scientist, shows that these birds are much influenced by the gaze of humans, and can be directed to act simply by the gaze of a human they have bonded with. They also appear to know when they’re not being watched, and can act more boldly in such circumstances. All of this raises obvious questions, voiced by Auguste in the video. How do jackdaws think? How is it similar to the way we think? Do they recognise intentions? Do they have a theory of mind?

This theory of mind issue comes up with a lot of birds, and other animals. It refers to whether and to what extent a creature has the ability to attribute any or all of the variety of possible mental states to itself and/or others. The question of an avian theory of mind was explored in a study entitled ‘ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors’. In describing their experiment, the authors highlight what they see – or what skeptics see – as a problem with much experimental work that tests for theory of mind in other species. This is the question – as I understand it – of whether the bird or animal actually ‘sees’ or reads what conspecifics are thinking, or is simply following particular observable cues. It was a complex experiment involving caching (hiding a store of food for later consumption, a common raven behaviour), peepholes that were either open or closed, and inference (by the researchers) from observed behaviour to either ‘minimal’ or ‘full-blown’ Theory of Mind. As a dilettante I found much of the discussion and analysis beyond me, but I found these remarks interesting:

In conclusion, the current experiment, together with the other recent studies on chimpanzees11,12, provides strong evidence against the skeptical hypothesis that the social cognition of nonhuman animals is limited to behaviour-reading. Peephole designs can allow researchers to overcome the confound of gaze cues, but further experimental work is needed to determine the specific limits of ravens and other animals—including humans—on such tasks.

In my general reading on these matters I’ve definitely found something like a rift between the skeptics on the behaviour of higher primates, dolphins and other ‘smart’ creatures, and those who have pushed, sometimes naively, other-life smarts with regard to ‘language’, memory and emotional intelligence. What I think needs to be kept clearly in mind is that in examining intelligence, or brain power or whatever, human intelligence may be only one of a possible infinity of gold standards. Is Theory of Mind itself an anthropomorphic concept, or one that lends itself too easily to anthropomorphic thinking? 

Meanwhile, experimentation and investigation of the neurological underpinnings of bird behaviour will continue, and I’ll be watching for the results. Just about to embark on Jim Robbins’ book The wonder of birds, and I hope to learn more especially about bird neurology in the future, and how it relates to birdsong. That’s a whole other issue.

Written by stewart henderson

November 2, 2018 at 9:40 am

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.

References

https://ussromantics.com/2018/05/15/is-free-will-a-thing-apparently-not/

R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’. 

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/#FreWil

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/one-among-many/201803/five-arguments-free-will

https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/06/free-will-exists-and-is-measurable/486551/

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

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Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? – part 1

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He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity… manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. 

Trump, when asked who he consults with on foreign policy

You might be forgiven for thinking the above description is of the current US President, but in fact it’s a 19th century account of the change wrought upon Phineas Gage after his tragically explosive encounter with a railway tamping rod in 1848. It’s taken from neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. A more fulsome analysis is provided in Antonio Demasio’s landmark work Descartes’ Error. The 19th century account is provided by Gage’s doctor.

Due to an accident with blasting powder the iron tamping rod blew a large hole through a part of Gage’s brain, exited through the top of his skull and landed some eighty feet away ‘along with much of his left frontal cortex’ (Sapolsky). Amazingly, Gage survived, though with great changes to his behaviour, as described above . Before the accident he had earned a reputation as a highly skilled, disciplined and reliable railway team foreman.

I was quite happy to be reacquainted with Gage’s story this morning, because in a recent conversation I was expounding upon Trump’s pre-adolescent nature, his tantrums, his solipsism, his childish name-calling, his limited language skills, his short attention span, his more or less complete ethical delinquency and so forth, about which my companion readily agreed, but when I suggested that this was all about a profoundly underdeveloped frontal cortex, she demurred, feeling I’d gone a bit too far.

Of course, I’m not a neurologist, but…

Any full description of Trump’s apparently missing or severely reduced frontal cortex needs to be evidence-based, but Trump is as likely to submit to any kind of brain scan or analysis as he is to present his tax returns. So the best we can do is compare his behaviour to those we know to have frontal lobe impairment.

Sapolsky tells us about the importance of the frontal lobe in making the tough decisions, the kinds of decisions that separate us from other primates. These are decisions in which our emotions and drives are activated, as well as higher order thinking involving a full understanding of the impact upon others of our actions.

Interestingly, in the case of Gage, his personality transformation meant that he couldn’t continue in his former occupation, so for a time he suffered the humiliation of being an exhibit in P T Barnum’s American Museum. I find this particularly intriguing because Trump has often been compared to Barnum – a showman, a con-man, a self-promoter and so forth. So in some ways – for example in Trump’s rallies, which he clearly loves to engage in – Trump has a dual role, as exhibitor and exhibit.

More importantly though, and this story is I think far more important than his injury and humiliation, Gage recovered almost completely over time – a testament to the brain plasticity which has recently been highlighted. On reflection, this shouldn’t be so surprising. Gage had been a person of rectitude and responsibility for decades before the disaster, and the neuronal pathways that his habitual behaviour had laid down, perhaps since early childhood, had only to be recovered through memory. It’s astonishing how this can happen even with subjects with less brain matter than ‘normal’ humans. Different parts of the brain can apparently be harnessed to rebuild the old networks.

The case of Trump, though, is different, as these higher order networks may never have been laid down. This isn’t to say there isn’t something there – it’s not as if there’s just a great hole where his frontal cortex should be. It’s more that his responses would map onto the responses of someone – a teenager or pre-teenager – who reliably behaves in a certain way because of the lack of full development of the frontal cortex, which we know isn’t fully developed in normal adults until their mid-twenties. And when we talk of the frontal cortex, we’re of course talking of something immensely complex with many interacting parts, which respond with great variability to different stimuli among different people.

But before delving into the neurological issues, a few points about the recent New York Times revelations regarding Fred Trump’s businesses, his treatment of young Donald and vice versa. The Hall & Oates refrain keeps playing in my head as I write, and as I read the Times article. What it suggests is a gilded, cosseted life – a millionaire, by current financial standards, at age eight. It seems that right until the end, Fred Trump covered up for his son’s business incompetence by bailing him out time and time again. This adds to a coherent narrative of a spoilt little brat who was rarely ever put in a position where he could learn from his mistakes, or think through complex solutions to complex problems. Trump senior clearly over-indulged his chosen heir-apparent with the near-inevitable result that the spoilt brat heartlessly exploited him in his final years. Fred Trump was a business-obsessed workaholic who lived frugally in a modest home and funnelled masses of money to his children, especially Donald, who basically hoodwinked the old man into thinking he was a chip off the old block. In the usual sibling battle for the parents’ affection and regard, Donald, the second son, saw that his older bother, Fred junior, was exasperating his dad due to his easy-going, unambitious nature (he later became an alcoholic, and died at 42), so Donald presented himself as the opposite – a ruthless, abstemious, hard-driving deal-maker. It worked, and Donald became his pretend right-hand man: his manager, his banker, his advisor, etc. In fact Donald was none of these things – underlings did all the work. Donald was able to talk the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk – he had none of his father’s business acumen, as the Times article amply proves. In the late eighties, with the stock market crashing and the economy in free-fall, Trump made stupid decision after stupid decision, but his ever-reliable and always-praising dad kept him afloat. He also bequeathed to his son a strong belief in dodging taxes, crushing opposition and exaggerating his assets. The father even encouraged the son’s story that he was a ‘self-made billionaire’, and it’s not surprising that the over-indulged Donald and his siblings eventually took advantage of their ailing father – enriching themselves at his expense through a variety of business dodges described in the Times article. By the time of his death, Fred Trump had been stripped of almost all of his assets, a large swathe of it going to Donald, who was by this time having books ghost-written about how to succeed in business.

Of course it can be argued that Trump has one real talent – for self-promotion. This surely proves that he’s more than just a spoilt, over-grown pre-teen. Or maybe not. It doesn’t take much effort to big-note yourself, especially when, due to the luck of your family background, you can appear to walk the walk, especially in those rallies full of uncritical people desperate to believe in the American Business Hero. Indeed, Trump’s adolescent antics at those rallies tend to convince his base that they too can become rich and successful idiots. You don’t actually have to know anything  or to make much sense. Confidence is the trick.

It’s not likely we’ll ever know about the connections within Trump’s frontal and prefrontal cortices, but we can learn some general things about under-development or pre-development in those regions, and the typical behaviour this produces, and in my next post – because this one’s gone on too long  – I’ll utilise the chapter on adolescence in Sapolsky’s Behave, and perhaps other texts and sources – apparently Michelle Obama brought Trump’s inchoate frontal cortex to the public’s attention during the election – to explore further the confident incompetence of the American president.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2018 at 5:38 pm

embodied cognition: common sense or something startling? – part two. language and education

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Canto: There isn’t much detail in Lobel’s book about how sensations or the senses can be harnessed to education, but she tantalisingly offers this:

Several studies have shown that peppermint and cinnamon scents improved cognitive performance, including attention and memory; clerical tasks, such as typing speed and alphabetisation; and performance in video games.

Jacinta: Right, so we spray peppermint and cinnamon about the classroom, and genius rises. But is there anything in this approach specifically for language learning?

Canto: Well, a key insight, if you can call it that, of embodied cognition is that not only does the mind influence the body’s movements, but the body influences our thinking. And the relationship can be quite subtle. It’s known from neurophysiological studies that a person’s motor system is activated when they process action verbs, and when they observe the movements of others.

Jacinta: So that’s about mirror neurons?

Canto: Exactly. The basic take-away from this is that activating mirror neurons enhances learning. So as a teacher, combining gestures, or ‘acting out’ with speech to introduce new language, especially verbs, is an effective tool.

Jacinta: Playing charades, so that students embody the activity? This can be done with phrasal verbs, for example, which students often don’t get. Or prepositions. The teacher or students can act them out, or manipulate blocks to show ‘between’ ‘next to’, ‘in front of’, ‘under’, etc. This would be a useful strategy for low-level learning at our college, really engaging the students, but it would also help with higher level students, who are expected to write quite abstract stuff, but often don’t have the physical grounding of the target language, so they often come out with strange locutions which convey a lack of that physical sense of English that native speakers have.

Canto: Yes, they use transition signals and contrast terms wrongly, because they’re still vague as to their meaning. Acting out some of those terms could be quite useful. For example, ‘on the one hand/on the other hand’. You could act this out by balancing something on one hand, and then something of equal weight on the other hand, and speaking of equal weights and balancing in argument, and then getting the students to act this out for themselves, especially those students you know are likely to misconstrue the concept. ‘Furthermore’ could be acted out both by physically adding more to an argument and taking it further in one direction. ‘Moreover’ takes more over to one side. You could use blocks or counters to represent contrast words, a word or counter that shifts the argument to the opposite side, and to represent the additive words, with counters that accumulate the arguments on one side.

Jacinta: So this acting out, and gesturing, all this is very suggestive of the origins of language, which might’ve begun in gestures?

Canto: Yes it’s a very complex communicative system, which may well have begun with a complex gestural system, accompanied by vocalisations. Think of the complexity of signing systems for the deaf – it’s extraordinary how much we can convey through hand gestures accompanied by facial expressions and vocalisations, or even partial vocalisations or pre-vocalisations – lip movements and such. Other primates have complex gestural communisation, and it was in monkeys that mirror neurons were first discovered by neurophysiologists examining inputs into the motor cortex. They are the key to our understanding of the embodied nature of language and communication. When we learn our L1, as children, we learn it largely unconsciously from our parents and those close to us, by copying – and not only copying words, but gestures which accompany words. We absorb the physical framing of the language, the tone in which certain words are conveyed, words and phrases – locutions – associated with physical actions and feelings such as anger, sadness, humour, fear etc, and they fire up or activate neurons in the motor cortex as well as in those centres related to language processing.

Jacinta: I’ve heard, though, that there’s a competing theory about the origin and evolution of language, relating to calls, such as those made by birds and other animals.

Canto: Not just one other. This has been described as the hardest problem in science by some, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of it, but I recently watched an interview with Giacomo Rizzolatti, whose team discovered mirror neurons in monkeys, and he strongly favours the gestural origin theory, though he also says we need more neurophysiological evidence, for example of mirror neurons in other areas of the brain, or the absence of them, before we decide once and for all. He finds the debate a little ideological at present.

Jacinta: Well the origin of language obviously involves evolution, but there are few traces discoverable from the past. Spoken language leaves no trace. So it’s always going to be highly speculative.

Canto: Well it may not always be, but it long has been that’s for sure. Apparently the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all present and future debate on the origins of language back in 1866, so we could get arrested for this post.

Jacinta: Yeah, a bit hard to enforce that one. So we have no idea about when human language evolved, or did it evolve gradually over hundreds of thousands of years?

Canto: Well, that’s more speculation, but there are continuity theories (language is this extremely complex thing that came together gradually with the accumulation of changes – mutations or brain-wirings – over an extended period), and there are discontinuity theories that favour, for example, a single transformative genetic mutation.

Jacinta: And what about the song theory – that’s one I’ve heard. That song, and therefore music, preceded language. I suppose that’s romantic speculation – right up our alley.

Canto: Okay so this is very interesting and something to follow up in future posts, but we should get back to our main subject, the implications of embodied cognition for language learning today.

Jacinta: Aren’t the implications fairly straightforward – that we learned language, that’s to say our L1 – in a thoroughly embodied way, within a rich sensory and physical context, as highly active kids, and so it’s a battle to get students to learn their L2 or another language, because neurons that fire together wire together, and there’s this thing called brain frugality which makes us always look for short-cuts, so we always want to convert the L2 into the familiar, wired-in L1, rather than trying to grasp the flow of a foreign language. We want to work in the familiar, activated channels of our L1. So, as teachers, we can help students to develop channels for their L2 by teaching in a more embodied way.

Canto: Here’s a thought – I wonder if we can measure teaching techniques for L2 by examining the active brain and the feedback mechanisms operating between cortices as students are being taught? Have we reached that level of sophistication?

Jacinta: I doubt it. It’s an intriguing thought though. But what exactly would we be measuring? How much of the brain is ‘lighting up’? How long it’s remaining lit up? And how would we know if what’s being activated is due to language learning? It could be active avoidance of language learning…

Canto: I need to learn much more about this subject. I’ve heard that you can’t and shouldn’t teach an L2 in the way we learn our L1, but what does that mean? In any case, it’s true that the way we teach, in serried rows, facing the front with too much teacher talk and a general discouragement of talking out of turn and even moving too much, it really does smack of an old dualist conception, with disembodied minds soaking up the new language from the teacher.

Jacinta: Well surely you don’t teach that way any more, shame on you if you do, but there are ways in which a more embodied approach can be used, with role-playing, framing and other forms of contextualising.

Canto: Yes, clearly contextualising and incorporating action, sensation and emotion into language teaching is the key, and getting students to use the language as often as possible, to learn to manipulate it, even if ungrammatically at times and with gestural accompaniment….

Jacinta: So, like learning L1? But we ‘pick up’ our L1, we absorb it like little sponges, together with context and connotation. Is that really how to learn an L2? Is the idea to replace the L1 with a thoroughly embodied L2? Or is it to have two – or more – fully embodied, firing-and-wired transmitting and feedback-looping  language systems alongside each other. What about energy conservation?

Canto: Okay so let this be an introductory post. I clearly need to research and think on this subject a lot more…

the brave new world of neurophenomenology, apparently

the brave new world of neurophenomenology, apparently

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 22, 2017 at 9:50 pm

some preliminary reflections on patriarchy

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worried woman

Canto: I want to talk about patriarchy, it’s weighing on my mind more and more.

Jacinta: Go on. And by the way, since we’ll obviously be talking about males and females and difference here, I notice that this blog is currently getting quite a few hits on a previous post, What do we currently know about the differences between male and female brains in humans?, and I think there’s information I’d want to add to that post, based on more recent research.

Canto: Go on.

Jacinta: Well what the research found, and it doesn’t in any way contradict the above-mentioned post, is that there are no categorical differences between the male and female brain, only statistical differences. It’s a nice thing to emphasise, that human brains are a kind of mozaic of ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits, with a very broad spectrum of possibilities. It essentially means that, unlike with genitalia, which, with a few statistically insignificant exceptions, can be used to identify maleness or femaleness, you wouldn’t, even with a lifetime’s neurological experience behind you, be able to say categorically that an individual was male or female based on an examination of the person’s brain alone.

Canto: But there might in some cases be a high probability.

Jacinta: Oh yes, maybe 80% in some cases, but that wouldn’t pass muster in a court of law, beyond reasonable doubt and all that. That would require a 99.9% probability or more. Think DNA ‘fingerprinting’. So, in all that was written in the previous post, the words ‘on average’, a statistical reference, should be kept in mind.

Canto: Right. And that term was used in the post, but perhaps not enough. But now let’s look at some other stats. According to IFL science, males commit some 85% of homicides, 91% of same-sex homicides, and 97% of same-sex homicides in which the victim and the perp aren’t known to each other (that’s to say, in which the likely motive was ideological)…

Jacinta: Or business-related, as in hired hit-men and the like…

Canto: It’s a stark but probably not surprising set of statistics. The IFL science post from which I got this data went on to provide an explanation, of sorts, in evolutionary psychology, through concept such as ‘precarious manhood’, clearly embedded in a patriarchal society which appears to be taken for granted. The notoriously macho Yanomamo people of South America are cited as an example, because the more men they kill the more their status rises. This is claimed as evidence that the quest for dominance is pretty well universal among males…

Jacinta: Well I can see a clear problem there.

Canto: Good.

Jacinta: And it relates very much to what I’ve been saying about male (and female) brains. Just as they vary over a very wide spectrum, so males themselves vary in the same way. So how can the quest for dominance be universal among males when males themselves are so various in their brain wiring and function?

Canto: Excellent point, and so let me leave this evolutionary psychology stuff aside, at least for the time being, and get back to patriarchy. There are many reasons that have converged to make western society less violent over the centuries, but I strongly believe that a ‘drop’ in patriarchy and a rise in gender egalitarianism has been one of the major civilising factors – possibly the major one.

Jacinta: So you have a solution for the world: patriarchy bad, matriarchy good?

Canto: Matriarchy probably better, but that wouldn’t make for such a good bumper sticker.

Jacinta: Seriously, I think you may be right. And it might actually be safer to challenge certain societies – Arabic, African and Indian societies for example – on their patriarchy than on their religion. It might actually be their soft spot, because if they react violently to a criticism of patriarchal violence they’ve lost the argument, haven’t they?

Canto: They probably wouldn’t care about losing the argument, as long as they kept their patriarchy.

does your boss look like this?

does your boss look like this?

Jacinta: I would challenge the women in those societies, too. Nowadays, in the interests of multiculturalism, we’re asked to respect the hijab, and we get soft interviews with women who almost invariably say it’s their choice to wear it, and when asked why they choose to wear it they almost invariably say something about modesty. And that’s where the tough questioning should come in, but it never does.

Canto: Such as?

Jacinta: Such as, Does your husband (or father, or son) wear a hijab? If not, is that because modesty isn’t a male virtue? And if not, why not?

Canto: I’ve no idea what they’d say. Maybe they’d say that in their culture women dress differently from men, just as they do in western culture. You don’t see many western men going about in frocks, or hot-pants.

Jacinta: Well… you don’t see that many women going about in hot-pants actually. And not even frocks except on special occasions. Trousers and a top, that’s probably the most common everyday dress for both sexes. But we’ll get back to that, imagine I’m trying to pin them down on this modesty question. I think maybe they’d have to admit that modesty is regarded as a feminine virtue in their culture.

Canto: Ah, and then you’d go for the killer blow, saying ‘isn’t this because modesty is a self-effacing virtue, whereas the male virtues would be more about confidence and assertiveness? And which of these virtues would you associate with power?’

Jacinta: Yes, that’d kill them stone dead.

Canto: Well, actually you don’t go for the killer blow, you soften them up with Socratic manoeuvrings.

Jacinta: Ah. Well, Socrates I’m sure that self-confidence and assertiveness are more associated with power than modesty.

Canto: And modesty, that tends to more associated with a desire not to wield power – to be, or to seem to be, lacking in power?

Jacinta: Yes, that is certainly true, Socrates.

Canto: So it would follow, would it not, that those who don’t wear the hijab, namely the males, would be assertive and dominant within such a culture, and the hijab-wearers would be more submissive, and rather dominated? For to be modest is surely not to be dominant.

Jacinta: Surely it isn’t.

Canto: And yet, research tells us that both females – the hijab-wearers in this culture – and males are both a mosaic of various traits, some of which have been traditionally associated with maleness, some with femaleness, though perhaps not with good reason.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s what the research clearly shows. And yet there’s this problem, even in our somewhat less patriarchal society, of male violence against women, both domestic and general. Is this just because of the statistical differences between male and female brains – not only in connectivity between neurons and between specific regions in the brain, but the flow of hormones and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and testosterone and dopamine?

Canto: Well, yes, now we’re getting into very tricky territory.

Jacinta: Yes, like ‘I wasn’t responsible for killing her, it was my brain that was responsible – I can’t help the dangerous cocktail of chemicals that is my brain’.

Canto: Yes, but the fact is, for the vast majority of us, those chemicals are ‘in check’, they don’t cause us to harm others or ourselves, in fact they’re essential to our living socially constructive, civilised lives. And it seems that the feedback from the wider society regulates the circulation and effect of those chemicals. If you live in a society which rewards you for denouncing someone as a witch, or which more or less sanctions pack rape – and such societies or sub-cultures do exist, though hopefully they’re diminishing – then many will act accordingly. And many societies, as we know, sanction or reward the two genders differently.

Jacinta: Well, that’s interesting, and it raises another question – the extent to which the culture we live in, or the family we grow up in, affects the actual physiology of our brains. So, ‘my culture/my family made my brain make me do it’.

Canto: Well, we can’t get away from that. What we want is something like the universal declaration of human rights having real impact, so that these universal values are actually imposed at the level of the brain.

Jacinta: Brainwashing? And are they universal values?

Canto: They’re useful ones for our flourishing, that’s enough. Ok forget the word ‘impose’, but they should be encouraged and rewarded, and we should ask people to look critically, through education, at whether there are any effective alternatives – such as shari’a law, or any other cultural laws or customary behaviours.

Jacinta: Individual flourishing, or is there some other possibly better sort of flourishing?

Canto: No I’m actually talking about a broad social, human flourishing, imposing limits within which individuals can thrive, as members. And those useful values deal pretty well with patriarchy, in that they show that both the Catholic Church and whole religions such as Islam are violating those values by discriminating in terms of gender.

Jacinta: But the UDHR has freedom of religion as one of its values.

Canto: It’s not perfect.

Jacinta: Some values are more valuable than others?

Canto: Well actually yes. And, getting back to what we know about human brains, and what they tell us about diversity within each gender, any cultural or religious practice which delimits that diversity is a curtailment of self-expression, freedom and flourishing.

Jacinta: Fine words, but get this. This diversity within genders you talk about is based on one study. How many brains were examined in this study, and more importantly, from which cultural backgrounds were they drawn? Could it be that brains taken from subjects who inhabited cultures that had imposed strict gender divisions for generations would show considerably less diversity? Then it becomes a chicken-and-egg issue.

Canto: Good point, and unfortunately the details of the research are behind a paywall, but there’s been a lot of reporting on it, for example here, here and here. Some 1400 brains were studied, and there was a connected study of behavioural traits among 5500 individuals, and ages ranged from 13 to 85, but I couldn’t find anything on the cultural backgrounds of the subjects. The research was done from Tel Aviv University, using existing datasets of MRI images. I’m not sure what can be derived from that.

Jacinta: Well OK, I don’t think we’ve quite solved the patriarchy problem or even sufficiently addressed it here, but it was a start. Time to finish.

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2016 at 11:26 am