an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Archive for the ‘neurology’ Category

On Massimo Pigliucci on scientism 2: brains r us

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neuroethics is coming…

In his Point of Inquiry interview, Pigliucci mentions Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape a couple of times. Harris seeks to make the argument, in that book, that we can establish, sometime in the future, a science of morality. That is, we can be factual about the good life and its opposite, and we can be scientific about the pathways, though there might be many, that lead towards the good life and away from the bad life. I’m in broad agreement about this, though for pragmatic reasons I would probably prefer the term ‘objective’ to ‘scientific’. Just because it doesn’t frighten the horses so much. As mentioned in my previous post, I don’t want to get hung up on terminology. Science obviously requires objectivity, but it doesn’t seem clear to everyone that morality requires objectivity too. I think that it does (as did, I presume, the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and I think Harris argues cogently that it does, based on our well-being as a social species. But Pigliucci says this about Harris’s project:

When Sam Harris wrote his famous book The Moral Landscape, the subtitle was ‘How science can solve moral questions’ – something like that. Well that’s a startling question if you think about it because – holy crap! So I would assume that a typical reader would buy that book and imagine that now he’s going to get answers to moral questions such as whether abortion is permissible and in what circumstances, or the death penalty or something… And get them from say physics or chemistry, maybe neuroscience, since Harris has a degree in neuroscience..

Pigliucci makes some strange assumptions about the ‘typical reader’ here. Maybe I’m a long way from being a ‘typical reader’ (don’t we all want to think that?) but, to me the subtitle (which is actually ‘How science can determine human values’) suggests, again, methodology. By what methods, or by what means, can human value – that’s to say what is most valuable to human well-being – be determined. I would certainly not have expected, reading the actual sub-title, and considering the main title of the book, answers to specific moral questions. And I certainly wouldn’t expect answers to those questions to come from physics or chemistry. Pigliucci just mentions those disciplines to make Harris’s views seem more outrageous. That’s not good faith arguing. Neuroscience, however, is closer to the mark. Our brains r us, and if we want to know why a particular mammal behaves ‘badly’, or with puzzling altruism, studying the animal’s brain might be one among many places to start. And yet Pigliucci makes this statement later on re ‘scientistic’ scientists

It seems to me that the fundamental springboard for all this is a combination of hubris, the conviction that what they do is the most important thing – in the case of Sam Harris for instance, it turns out at the end of the book [The Moral Landscape] it’s not just science that gives you the answers, it’s neuroscience that gives you the answers. Well, surprise surprise, he’s a neuroscientist.

This just seems silly to me. Morality is about our thoughts and actions, which start with brain processes. Our cultural practices affect our neural processes from our birth, and even before our conception, given the cultural attitudes and behaviours of our future parents. It’s very likely that Harris completed his PhD in cognitive neuroscience because of his interest in human behaviour and its ethical consequences (Harris is of course known for his critique of religion, but there seems no doubt that his greatest concerns about religious belief are at base concerns about ethics). Yet according to Pigliucci, had Harris been a physicist he would have written a book on morality in terms of electromagnetic waves or quantum electrodynamics. And of course Pigliucci doesn’t examine Harris’s reasoning as to why he thinks science, and most particularly neuroscience and related disciplines, can determine human values. He appears to simply dismiss the whole project as hubristic and wrong-headed.

I know that I’m being a little harsh in critiquing Pigliucci based on a 20-minute interview, but there doesn’t seem any attempt, at least here, to explain why certain topics are or should be off-limits to science, except to infer that it’s obvious. Does he feel, for example, that religious belief should be off-limits to scientific analysis? If so, what do reflective non-religious people do with their puzzlement and wonder about such beliefs? And if it’s worth trying to get to the bottom of what cultural and psychological conditions bring about the neurological networking that disposes people to believe in a loving or vengeful omnipotent creator-being, it’s also worth trying to get to the bottom of other mind-sets that dispose people to behave in ways productive or counter-productive to their well-being. And the reason we’re interested isn’t just curiosity, for the point isn’t just to understand our human world, but to improve it.

Finally Pigliucci seems to confuse a lack of interest, among such people in his orbit as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss, in philosophy, especially as it pertains to science, with scientism. They’re surely two different things. It isn’t ‘scientism’ for a scientist to eschew a particular branch of philosophy any more than it is for her to eschew a different field of science from her own, though it might seem sometimes a bit narrow-minded. Of course, as a non-scientist and self-professed dilettante I’m drawn to those with a wide range of scientific and other interests, but I certainly recognise the difficulty of getting your head around quantum mechanical, legal, neurological, biochemical and other terminology (I don’t like the word ‘jargon’), when your own ‘rabbit hole’ is so fascinating and enjoyably time-consuming.

There are, of course, examples of scientists claiming too much for the explanatory power of their own disciplines, and that’s always something to watch for, but overall I think the ‘scientism’ claim is more abused than otherwise – ‘weaponised’ is the trendy term for it. And I think Pigliucci needs to be a little more skeptical of his own views about the limits of science.

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2019 at 3:09 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

on anthropomorphism and human specialness

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Chimps gather to mourn the death of an elder

Recently I got into a bit of a barney with a friend who mocked the Great God David Attenborough for talking, in one of his whispered jungle monologues beside some exotic creatures or other, of the ‘mummy’ creature doing this and the ‘daddy’ creature doing that. My friend was slightly pissed off at this ‘anthropomorphism’. What followed is best dismissed as the insidious effects of too much jungle juice and jungle-jangle jazz, but the issue strikes me as an important one, so I’ll examine it further here.

There was a time when ethologists – those who study the behaviour of non-human animals – considered anthropomorphism a giant no-no. To describe an organism as he or she was (or seemed) to ascribe personhood to it, and clearly only humans can be persons. This was unscientific, and kind of soft. After all, ‘animals’ are driven by instinct, whereas humans make conscious decisions. They deliberate, they confer, they worry, they grieve, they organise, they invent, and they have a highly developed prefrontal cortex lacking in other species. And because they have a sophisticated Theory of Mind, they have fun attributing such mental attributes to their pets – ‘my dog Peaches understands every word I say/loves playing with my iPad/always helps me with the gardening’. Scientists of course eschewed such fluffiness in their research, while recognising that anthropomorphism will always be with us, as a type of human failing.

When Jane Goodall began publishing pioneering papers on chimp behaviour in Tanzania in the 1960s, she was quickly accused of anthropomorphism, ‘the cardinal sin of ethology’, but the impact of her work, together with that of other women in the field such as Diane Fossey on gorillas and Birutė Galdikas on orang-utans, was so transformative that it not only changed attitudes toward anthropomorphism but helped overturn the dominant paradigm in ethology and human psychology – behaviourism. And I don’t think the fact that these were all women was coincidental.

What Goodall et al were describing was complex social and family behaviour, driven by feelings – anger, fear, lust, shame and grief, to name a few. It was, in fact, nothing new. Darwin himself wrote The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, in which he regularly used anthropomorphic terminology. However, the fact that it has now become more standard is due as much to neurological research as to field ethology. I’ve written elsewhere about bird brains, and the transformative and ongoing research into them. Research has also found that many bird species have extended family relationships. How do they recognise sisters and aunties when they all look the same? Maybe humans all look the same to a parrot (actually plenty of evidence says that they don’t). Neurological research into humans and non-human species is growing exponentially, and is quickly eroding the sense of our neurological specialness, which is a good thing. For example, in the bad old days, non-human primates were a regular subject of human research – or much more than they are now. It’s much easier to, say, remove part of a marmoset’s brain – sans anaesthetic – and observe its reactions if you’ve always referred to the creature as ‘it’ rather than ‘her’ or ‘him’, let alone as someone’s mother or daughter. But that’s exactly what they are. And they know it.

So why are some people still resistant to anthropomorphic terminology? It may be a religious hangover – most of the major religions make a sharp distinction between humans and brute beasts, and our language is full of these ‘human specialness’ distinctions, which we rarely notice. The term, ‘animal’ for example, standardly excludes the human animal. Since most of us can’t distinguish between a male and female bird of most species, we use the general term ‘it’, but if we’re presented with a new-born human animal we’re likely to inquire its gender so as not to use the insulting term I’ve just used.

Returning to the argument mentioned at the top of this post, the issue seemed to be that we shouldn’t use ‘mummy or ‘daddy’ etc to refer to non-human animals, that these terms are used for human relations, and should be used exclusively for that purpose. I can see no logic to this argument. Of course, birds don’t think of their parents as ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’, but neither do they think of themselves as ‘birds’ or ‘oiseaux’ or ‘tori’ (Japanese). So if we refer to their relationships as ‘male parent’, ‘female parent’, and ‘offspring’, instead of mum, dad and the kids, that is just as much an imposition on them – a deliberately distancing imposition, emphasising our superiority – as the anthropomorphic terms.

One of the parties to this recent contretemps suggested we calm down, ‘it’s just a nomenclature issue’. Of course this is true, it’s all about nomenclature. And nomenclature can be really important – it can be racist, classist, as well as speciesist. The terms we use for other creatures can help to determine whether we see them as our friends or our dinner. In the meantime, continued neurological and ethological research will, I believe contribute further to the dissolution of the old rule against anthropomorphism, and the Great God Attenborough’s whispering tones will resonate through the firmament, as surely as mummy chimps mourn the loss of their babies.

Elephants live in multi-family groups over 70 years and develop strong, intimate bonds


Written by stewart henderson

February 5, 2019 at 9:29 am

Deep brain stimulation, depression and ways of thinking

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I read in a recent New Scientist that some progress has been made in using deep brain stimulation (DBS) to find associations between electrical brain activity and ‘mood’ or mood changes. This appears to mean that there’s an electrical ‘signal’ for happiness, sadness, anxiety, frustration, and any other emotion we can give a name to. And to paraphrase Karl Marx, the point is not to understand the brain, but to change it – at least for those who suffer depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, epilepsy and a host of other debilitating disorders. So that we can all be happy clapping productive people…

So what is DBS and where is it heading? Apparently, electrodes can be implanted in specific brain regions to monitor, and in some cases actually change, ‘negative’ electrical activity. I use scare quotes here not to indicate opposition, but to highlight the obvious, that one person’s negativity may not be another’s, and that eliminating the negative also means eliminating the positive, as one means nothing without the other. Similar to the point that loving everyone means loving no-one. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself with these ethical matters. Here’s a simple overview of DBS from the Mayo Clinic:

Deep brain stimulation involves implanting electrodes within certain areas of your brain. These electrodes produce electrical impulses that regulate abnormal impulses. Or, the electrical impulses can affect certain cells and chemicals within the brain.
The amount of stimulation in deep brain stimulation is controlled by a pacemaker-like device placed under the skin in your upper chest. A wire that travels under your skin connects this device to the electrodes in your brain.

The most recent research translated neural signals into the mood variations of seven epilepsy sufferers who were fitted with implanted electrodes. The participants filled out periodic questionnaires about their mood, and clear matches were supposedly found between those self-reports and patterns of brain signals. Based on this knowledge, a decoder was built that would recognise particular signal patterns related to particular moods. It was successful in detecting mood 75% of the time. Brain patterns varied between participants, but were confined mainly to the limbic system, a network essential to triggering swings of emotion. 

I’m not sure if I should be overly impressed with a sample size of seven and a 75% success rate, but I do think that this research is on the right track, and there will be increasingly successful pinpointing of brain activity in relation to mood in the future, as well as other improvements, for example in the use of electrodes. Currently there’s an issue around the damaging long-term effects of implants, and non-invasive systems are being developed that can stimulate the brain from outside the skull. And of course there’s that next step, modulating those mood swings to ‘fix’ them, or to head them off at the pass.

All of this raises vital questions in relation to causes and treatments. If we focus on that most difficult but pervasive condition, depression, which so many people I know are medicating themselves against, it would seem that a brain-stimulation ‘cure’ would be less damaging than any course of anti-depressants, but it completely bypasses the question of why so many people are apparently suffering from this condition these days. Johann Hari has written a bestseller on depression, Lost Connections, which I haven’t read though I’ve just obtained a copy, and I’ve heard his long-form interview on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. So I’ll probably revisit this issue more than once.

The medical establishment is more interested in treatment than in causes, and generally investigates causes only so as to refine treatments, but severe depression has proved difficult to treat other than with drugs which may have severe side-effects when used long-term. Clinicians have used terms such as treatment-resistant depression (TRD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) to characterise these conditions, which are on the rise worldwide, particularly in the more affluent nations. 

DBS first came to prominence as a promising treatment for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and dystonia (which causes muscles to contract uncontrollably). It has since been used for more psycho-neurological ailments such as OCD, Tourette syndrome and severe, treatment-resistant addiction, with modest but statistically significant benefits. It has even shown promise in the treatment of some forms of dementia. Side-effects have been mostly confined to surgical procedures.

Clearly this type of treatment will improve with better targeting and increased knowledge of brain regions and their interactions, and in the case of MDD, which can be overwhelmingly debilitating, it offers much hope of a better life. But the question remains – why is depression increasing, and why in those countries that appear to offer a richer and more stimulating environment for their citizens? 

Hari’s title, Lost Connections, more than hints at his view of this, and in a recent conversation it was suggested to me that, in more subsistence societies, most people are too busy struggling to survive and keep their families alive and well to have the time to be depressed. This might seem a slap in the face to MDD sufferers (and I might add that the person making that suggestion is on anti-depressants), but surely there’s a grain of truth to it. I’ve often had travellers say to me ‘you should visit x, the people there have so little, yet they’re so happy and relaxed’. Is this a matter of ignorance being bliss? I recall, as a fifteen-year-old in one of the world’s most affluent and educated countries, wagging school and reading one of my brother’s economics textbooks – he was at university – and trying to get my head around the laws of supply and demand. It occurred to me that this might take years – but what about the other subjects that gripped me when I read about them? Astronomy, physics, ancient history, music, subjects that often had little to do with each other but which you could spend your whole lifetime immersed in. Not to mention other childhood ambitions that hadn’t been let go, to be a great sport star, or rock star, or latter-day Casanova…

This sense, cultivated in advanced societies, that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, can easily overwhelm when you’re faced with so many choices, and so many gaps in skill and knowledge between what you are and what you’d like to be, that it’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll feel flat, crushed by the weight of your own delirious hopes and expectations. This might be called a mood-swing, a symptom of depression, or even of bipolar disorder. All effort to climb that mighty mountain seems fruitless. The very thought of it sends you back to bed.

Such moods have overtaken me many times, but I’ve never called myself depressed, at least not in a clinical sense, and never sought medical advice or taken anti-depressant medication. I’ve occasionally been pressured to do so, because misery likes company, but I have a kind of basic stoicism which knows these moods will pass and that I should ‘rise above myself and grasp the world’ – a quote said to be from Archimedes, which is the new subtitle of my blog. 

The point here is that I think I have a sense of where all this depression is coming from, and it’s not just about a lack of connection. Nor is it, surely, all about low serotonin levels, or receptor malfunctions or other purely chemical causes. It’s so much more complicated than that. That’s to say it’s about all of these things but also about failure, the gap between the ideal and the real, the gap – in advanced countries – between the privileged rich and the disadvantaged poor, disillusionment, stress, grief, selfishness, the hope deferred that makes the heart sick…

So – back to DBS. Presumably this and other treatments have the same measure of success, which might be described as ‘improved functionality within the wider world’. Being able to hold down a job, hold a conversation, hold on to your partner, hold a baby without dropping it, etc. Of course, this is a worthwhile aim of any treatment, but what is actually happening to the brain under such a treatment? Neurologists might one day be able to describe this effectively in terms of dopamine levels and electrical activity, and the stimulation or becalming of regions of the nucleus accumbens and so forth, but on the level of thinking, dreaming, wondering, all those terms studiously avoided, or just ignored, by neurology (all for understandable reasons), what is happening? We don’t know. Treatment seems essentially a matter of dealing with functionality in the external world, and letting that inner world take care of itself. Is that the right approach? Something gained, but something lost? I really don’t know. 

Written by stewart henderson

December 18, 2018 at 2:27 pm

on luck, and improving environments

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Trump wasn’t born here, and neither was I

I’m in the process of reading Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and biology at Stanford University, who has tried in his book to summarise, via the research literature, the seconds, then minutes, then hours, then days, then lifetimes and more, that precede any particular piece of behaviour. It’s a dense but fascinating book, which aligns with, and provides mountains of evidence for, my view that we’re far less in control of ourselves than we think.

It seems we think this because of what might be called conscious awareness of our behaviours and our decisions. This consciousness is something we sometimes mistake for control. It’s interesting that we consider it obvious that we have no control over the size of our nose or the colour of our eyes, but we have more or less complete control of our temper, appetites, desires and ambitions. 

 Humanistically speaking, this understanding about very limited control needs to have massive implications for our understanding of others. We don’t get to choose our parents, our native country or the immediate environment that most profoundly affects our early life and much of our subsequent behaviour. The flow of hormones and neurotransmitters and their regulation via genetic and epigenetic factors proceed daily, hourly, moment by moment, and all we’re aware of, essentially, is outcomes. 

A lot of people, I note, are very uncomfortable about this kind of talk. For example, many of us want to treat each other as ‘equal before the law’. But is one person ever ‘equal’ with another? We know – it’s obvious – that we’re all different. That’s how we distinguish people, by their smiles, their voices, their fingerprints, their DNA. So how can we be different and equal at the same time? Or, to turn things around, how can a legal system operate if everyone is treated as different, unique, a special case?

Well, in a sense, we already do this, with respect to the law. No two bank robberies, or rapes, or murders are the same, and the judiciary must be highly attuned to the differences when applying punishments. Nowadays, and increasingly, the mental state of the offender – particularly at the time of the offence, if that can be ascertained – is considered when sentencing.  And this is surely a good thing. 

The question here is, considering the exponential growth of our neurophysiological knowledge in the 21st century, and its bearing on our understanding of every kind of negative or positive behaviour we engage in, how can we harness that knowledge to improve outcomes and move from a punitive approach to bad behaviours to something more constructive?

Of course, it’s one thing to identify the release or suppression of glucocorticoids, for example, and its effect on person x’s cognitive faculties, it’s entirely another thing to effect a remedy. And to what effect? To make everyone docile, ‘happy’ and law-abiding? To have another go at eugenics, this time involving far more than just genes? 

One of the points constantly hammered home in Sapolsky’s book is the effect of environment on everything that goes on inside us, so that, for example, genes aren’t quite as determinative as we once thought. Here are some key points from his chapter on genes (with apologies about unexplained terms such as epigenetic, transcription and transposons):

a. Genes are not autonomous agents commanding biological events.

b. Instead genes are regulated by the environment, with environment consisting of everything from events inside the cell to the universe.

c. Much of your DNA turns environmental influences into gene transcription, rather than coding for genes themselves; moreover, evolution is heavily about changing regulation of gene transcription, rather than genes themselves.

d. Epigenetics can allow environmental effects to be lifelong, or even multigenerational.

e. And thanks to transposons, neurons contain a mosaic of different genomes. 

And genes are only one component of the array of forces that influence or control our behaviour. We know, or course, about how Phineas Gage-type accidents and brain tumours can alter behaviour, but many other effects on the brain can alter our behaviour without us and others knowing too much about it. These include stress, malnutrition, and long-term cultural and religious influences which permanently affect our attitudes to, for example, women, other species and the food we eat. Domestic violence, drug use, political affiliations, educational outcomes and sexual affinities are all more inter-generational than we’re generally prepared to admit. 

The first thing we need to do is be aware of all this in our judgment of others, and even of ourselves. There’s just so much luck involved in being who we are. We could’ve been more or less ‘good-looking’ than we are -according to the standards of the culture around us – and this would’ve affected the way we’ve been treated throughout our whole lives. We could’ve been born richer or poorer, with more or less dysfunctional parents, taller or shorter, more or less mentally agile, more or less immune to the pathogens that surround us. On and on and on we could go, even to an extreme degree. We could’ve been born in Algeria, Argentina or Azerbaijan. We could’ve been born in 1912, 1412 or 512, or 150,000 years ago. We could’ve been born a mongoose, a mouse or a mosquito. It’s all luck, whether good or bad is up to us to decide, but probably not worth speculating about as we have no choice but to make the best of what we are.

What we do have is consciousness or awareness of what we are. And with that consciousness we can speculate, as we as a species always have, on how to make the best of ourselves, given that we’re the most socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and for that reason the most successful, measured by population, spread across the globe, and what we’ve done for ourselves in terms of social evolution – our science, our technology, our laws and our politics.  

That’s where humanism comes in, for me. Since we know that ‘there but for the randomness of luck go I’, it surely follows that we should sympathise with those whose luck hasn’t been as lucky as our own, and strive to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Safe havens, educational opportunities, decent wages, human rights, clean environments, social networks – we know what’s required for people to thrive. Yet we focus, I think, too much on punishment. We punish people for trying to improve their family’s situation – or to avoid obliteration – by seeking refuge in safer, richer, healthier places. We punish them for seeking solace in drugs because their circumstances are too overwhelming to deal with. We punish them for momentary and one-off lapses of concentration that have had dire consequences. Of course it has always been thus, and I think we’re improving, though very unevenly across the globe. And the best way to improve is by more knowing. And more understanding of the consequences of that knowledge. 

Currently, it seems to me, we’re punishing people too much for doing what impoverished, damaged, desperate people do to survive. It’s understandable, perhaps, in our increasingly individualist world. How dare someone bother me for handouts. It’s not my fault that x has fucked up his life. Bring back capital punishment for paedophiles. People smugglers are the lowest form of human life. Etc etc – mostly from people who don’t have a clue what it’s like to be those people. Because their life is so different, through no fault, or cause, of their own. 

So to me the message is clear. Out lives would be better if others’ lives were better – if we could give others the opportunities, the health, the security and the smarts that we have, and if we could have all of those advantages that they have. I suppose that’s kind of impossible, but it’s better than blaming and punishing, and feeling superior. We’re not, we’re just lucky. Ot not. 

  

Written by stewart henderson

December 4, 2018 at 2:22 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

why are our brains shrinking?

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my own brain, squeezed of alcohol

my own brain, squeezed of alcohol

Jacinta: So you know that the average human brain mass, or is it volume, has reduced by  – is it 15%, I can’t remember – over the past 20,000 years or so, right? And there’s this theory that it’s somehow related to domestication, because the same thing has happened to domesticated animals…

Canto: How so..?

Jacinta: Well, we don’t know how so, we just know it’s happened.

Canto: How do we know this? Who says?

Jacinta: Well I’ve heard about it from a few sources but most recently from Bruce Hood, the well-known psychologist and skeptic who was talking on the SGU about a recent book of his, The Domesticated Brain. 

Canto: So the idea is that humans have somehow domesticated themselves, in the same way that they’ve domesticated other species, with a corresponding decrease in brain mass in all these species, which signifies – what?

Jacinta: Well it raises questions, dunnit? What’s going on?

Canto: It doesn’t signify dumbing down though – I read in Pinker’s big book about our better angels that our average IQ is rising in quite regular and exemplary fashion.

Jacinta: Yes, the Flynn effect. Though of course what IQ measures has always been controversial. And they do reckon size isn’t the main thing. I mean look at all those small critters that display so many smarts. For example, rats, octopuses and corvids (that’s to say crows, ravens and some magpies). They all seem to be fast learners, within their limited spheres, and very adaptable. But getting back to the human brain, it seems to be something known mainly to palaeontologists, who have a variety of theories about it, including the ‘we’re getting dumber’ theory, but I’m not convinced by that one. It seems more likely that our brains are getting more organised, requiring less mass.

Canto: So this has happened only in the last 20,000 years?

Jacinta: Or perhaps even less – between 10 and 20 thousand.

Canto: Isn’t that a phenomenally short time for such a substantial change?

Jacinta: I really don’t know. They say it might be partly related to a decrease in overall body size, so that the brain to body ratio remains much the same.

Canto: A decrease in body size? What about the obesity epidemic? And I remember way back when I was a kid reading about how we’d been getting taller with each generation since the Great Depression – or was it the Industrial Revolution? Anyway our improved diet, our era of relative abundance, has led to a change in height, and presumably in mass, in only a few generations.

Jacinta: So now you’re saying that substantial changes can occur in a few generations, let alone 10,000 years?

Canto: Uhhh, yeah, okay, but I wasn’t talking about brain size.

Jacinta: Well why not brain size? Anyway, although there have been those recent changes, at least in the west, the story goes that the planet has warmed since the last ice age, favouring less bulky bodies, less fat storage, more gracile frames.

Canto: So what about domestication, why has this led to decreased brain sizes?

Jacinta: Well this is very complex of course…

Canto: I can think of a reason, though it might not be called domestication, more like socialisation, and outsourcing. You can see it in very recent times, with smart phones – it’s even become an already-stale joke, you know phones are getting smarter so we’re getting dumber. But then we always tend to exaggerate the short-term and the present against the longer view. And yet…. I was on the tram the other night, sitting across from this couple, locked into their phone screens, I mean really locked in, earplugs attached, heads bent, utterly fixated on their little screens, completely oblivious, of each other as well as of the outside world. I was reading a book myself, but I became distracted by my irritation with these characters, while wondering why I should be irritated. It just went on so long, this locked-in state. I leaned forward. I waved my hand in front of their bowed heads. I wanted to tell them that the tram had rattled past all the stations and was heading out to sea…

Jacinta: There are some problems with the whole argument. How do we know that domesticated animals have smaller brains? Domesticated cats have a wide range of brain sizes no doubt, but what wild cats are you comparing them with? Even more so with dogs and their immense varieties. Okay they’re descended from wolves so you compare a wolf brain with its modern doggy-wolfy counterpart, but who’s going to agree on type specimens?

Canto: So you brought the subject up just to dismiss it as a load of rubbish?

Jacinta: Well if we shelve the domestication hypothesis for the moment – I’m not dismissing it entirely – we might consider other reasons why human brains are shrinking – if they are.

Canto: So you’re not convinced that they are?

Jacinta: Well let’s be sceptical until we find some solid evidence. In this Scientific American site, from November 2014, palaeontologist Chris Stringer states that ‘skeletal evidence from every inhabited continent’ suggests – only suggests – that our brains have become smaller in the past 10 to 20 thousand years. No references are given, but the article assumes this is a fact. This piece from Discovery channel or something, which dates back to 2010, relies in part on the work of another palaeontologist, John Hawks, whose website we link to here. Hawks also talks about a bucketload of evidence, but again no references. The original research papers would likely be behind a paywall anyway, and barely intelligible to my dilettante brain….

Canto: Your diminishing brain.

Jacinta: Okay I’m prepared to believe Hawks about our incredible shrinking brains, but is domestication the cause, and what exactly is domestication anyway? Hawks doesn’t go with the domestication hypothesis. In fact the Discovery article usefully covers a number of alternative hypotheses, and of course the shrinking may be due to a combo. In fact that’s more than likely.

Canto: So what’s Hawks’ hypothesis, since we’re supposedly admirers of his?

Jacinta: Well Hawks decided to look more closely at this brain contraction – which is interesting because I was thinking along the same lines as he was, i.e. has it been a uniform contraction, or was there a sudden, quick development, followed by a stagnant period, as you would expect?

Canto: Anyway isn’t brain organisation more important than brain mass? Sorry to interrupt, but haven’t we already established that?

Jacinta: We haven’t established anything, we’re just effing dilettantes remember. Hawks started looking at more recent data, over the past 4000 years or so, to see if he could detect any difference in the encephalisation quotient (EQ) – the ratio of brain volume to body mass – over that time. He found that indeed there has. The picture is complicated, but overall there has been a reduction in the brain compared to the body. His explanation for this though is quite different. He reckons that a series of mutations over recent history have resulted in the brain producing more out of less…

Canto: Right, just as a series of modifications have allowed us to produce smaller but more powerful and fuel-efficient cars.

Jacinta: Uhh, yeah, something like that.

Canto: But we know what those modifications were, we can name them. Can we name the mutations?

Jacinta: Clever question, but we know about cars, we built them and they’ve only been around for a bit more than a century. We know vastly less about the brain and we’re still getting our heads around natural selection, give us a break. Hawks points out that it’s a rule about population genetics well-known in principle to Darwin, that the larger the population the more numerous the mutations, and there was a surge in the human population back when agriculture was developed and large settlements began to form. So a number of brain-related mutations led to streamlining and, as you suggest, fuel efficiency.

Canto: But isn’t this compatible with the domestication hypothesis? I imagine that, if there really is a brain reduction for domesticated animals, it’s because they don’t have to rely on their brains so much for survival, and we don’t either, the collective has sort of magically taken care of it through farming and infrastructure and supermarkets.

Jacinta: Yes but they all have their own complicated networks and issues we have to wrap our brains around. The domestication hypothesis is really about aggression apparently. The argument goes that all animals under domestication become more varied in size, coloration and general build, with a tendency to become more gracile over all. Selection against aggression, according to the primatologist Richard Wrangham, favours a slowly developing brain – one that is, in a sense, in a perpetually juvenile state (think of cute cat and dog videos). Of course, all this assumes that juvenile brains are less aggressive than adult brains, which some might see as a dubious assumption.

Canto: Yes, think of school bullying, Lord of the Flies, youth gangs, the adolescent tendency to extremes…

Jacinta: Well, both Wrangham and Hood offer a particularly interesting example of ‘super-fast’ domestication to illustrate their hypothesis:

In 1958 the Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev started raising silver foxes in captivity, initially selecting to breed only the animals that were the slowest to snarl when a human approached their cage. After about 12 generations, the animals evidenced the first appearance of physical traits associated with domestication, notably a white patch on the forehead. Their tameness increased over time, and a few generations later they were much more like domesticated dogs. They had developed smaller skeletons, white spots on their fur, floppy ears, and curlier tails; their craniums had also changed shape, resulting in less sexual dimorphism, and they had lower levels of aggression overall.

Now, how does this relate to juvenilism? Well, in the wild, offspring grow up quickly and have to fend for themselves, which requires a certain ruthless degree of aggression. Cats and dogs, yes, they abandon their offspring soon enough, but those offspring continue to be tutored, tamed, domesticated under their human owners. We hear a lot about school bullying and gangs of youths, but they’re actually the exception rather than the rule, or a last ditch rebellion against the domestication pressure that’s exerted by the whole of society, and they’ll either succumb to that pressure or end up in jail, or worse. It’s a bit like the Freudian concept of sublimation, you channel your aggressive energies into creativity, competitive problem-solving, sports achievements and the like.

Canto: So you’re in favour of the domestication hypothesis?

Jacinta: Well, I’m not against it. It sounds plausible to me. Human domestication, or self-domestication if you want to call it that, is a social-contract sort of thing. You agree to outsource and comply with certain arrangements – laws, government, taxation and so forth, in return for certain benefits in terms of security and resources. So you don’t have to fend for yourself. And that affects the brain, obviously. Though it might not be the whole story.

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2016 at 8:42 am