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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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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

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

the short life and strange brains of the octopus, and other thoughts

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a meeting of minds?

Canto: So we’ve been reading about the strange world of the octopus, and her fellow cephalopods, the squid and the cuttlefish, and what they might tell us about other intelligent forms of life. So what might they?

Jacinta: This is quite a new field of investigation, but certainly an exciting one. The octopus appears to be the most intelligent invertebrate on earth, though we still have lots to learn about it, and we know even less about its cephalopod cousins.

Canto: And we need to be careful about the ‘it’ word, as there are at least 300 species of the beasties, which vary considerably in size, habitat and even quite possibly in life-span.

Jacinta: Yes, some octopuses appear to have very short life-spans, a mere two years, but so little is known about so many of the deeper water species out there…

Canto: They’re predators, of course, feeding mainly on crabs, but some of the shallow-water species are known to scavenge off human activities, stealing bait and the like. They have incredibly flexible, almost amorphous bodies that aren’t co-ordinated simply by a central brain. In fact their nervous systems are still very much a source of mystery.

Jacinta: Like our own. Well, okay we know a helluva lot more about ours. Some other facts: they have three hearts, their eight arms or tentacles are made up of four pairs, they’re all more or less venomous, they’re famously able to match their colour to their surroundings pretty well instantly, they can unscrew the lids of jars to get at the contents, some species collect shells to use as constructions around their homes, they have very high brain-to-body mass ratios, and they appear to be very quick to learn new stuff.

Canto: Apparently tentacles are out, they’re called arms. Tentacles are another thing. A cuttlefish has two tentacles and eight arms. Snails have tentacles. As to the brain and nervous systems of octopuses, here’s what we know. Two thirds of its neurons are to be found in its arms, and they can allow the arms to act independently to some extent. Interestingly, although octopuses have complex motor systems, they don’t have an internalised map of the body as vertebrates apparently do. It’s called a somatotopic map, and it’s found in humans in the primary somatosensory cortex, at the top of the brain. Octopuses’ brains/nervous systems are organised quite differently, and that’s the point – their relationship to us on the evolutionary bush is very distant indeed.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s exactly what makes them fascinating – they’ve evolved a complex nervous system on a completely different plan, like aliens.

Canto: Not quite – they still have neurons after all, and DNA. But the link between humans and octopuses probably goes back at least 500 million years, to some of the earliest complex life forms.

Jacinta: Not so complex by modern standards…

Canto: Indeed, something like a sea worm or sea sponge. Anyway, although they appear to have highly developed intelligence, their learning capacity is really hard to ascertain. They’re not highly social animals like many primates and cetaceans are, and they certainly don’t learn from their parents, since both parents ‘fall apart’ and die shortly after breeding.

Jacinta: They’re quite inventive, even playful, they’ve been observed pushing objects into circular currents and catching them. They also board fishing boats in search of food and find ways of getting out of lab aquariums. Their ability to flatten and elongate or bunch up when required makes them very slippery little suckers, you always have to keep an eye on them.

Canto: Well no doubt researchers will be keen to learn more about their neurology, but this relatively new understanding of their smarts raises questions about their treatment by researchers – not to mention eating them en masse. 

Jacinta: Well just sticking with lab treatment, I remember reading in The Lab Rat Chronicles how the rather complacently cruel treatment of lab rats, and all experimental animals, is being questioned more and more, leading to the use of less invasive neurological and other operational approaches..

Canto: Which would in any case be a good thing – the more we can learn without destroying the living thing we’re seeking to learn about, the better, for obvious reasons.

Jacinta: Rats are really smart animals – and just about the most successful animals on the planet – and they certainly feel pain and become depressed, and it’s clear that octopuses do too. In fact some countries have rules against surgical procedures without anaesthetic for octopuses, presumably based on a growing body of knowledge about them.

Canto: They often lose an arm to predators – which by the way they’re able to regrow – and have been observed to favour and tend to damaged or lost arms and other parts, which is a clear sign of ‘feeling’ the damage. But really, the idea that animals don’t feel pain  – any animal – has surely had its day.

Jacinta: So what about eating them? I gather that in some parts, eating them live is a thing.

Canto: Well I’ve always been of two minds about this, about eating other animals. And Peter Wohlleben argues for the smartness and the communal life of trees and plants, so that doesn’t leave us with anything to eat at all, if we’re being truly sensitive to others. But there’s no doubt we’re eating too much, we’re destroying the habitats of huge number of species, on land and sea, to feed our growing and increasingly voracious human population. Nobody knows how that’s going to end, though some are hoping, as ever, for technological fixes – artificial meat, ways of creating bumper harvests using less and less land and so forth.

Jacinta: Another whole realm of discussion, but getting back to octopuses, can they tell us anything about consciousness, given their vastly different origin, compared to us?

Canto: Well I don’t want to get into consciousness now – that’s such a massive subject – but they can tell us a lot about a different neurological system, obviously. The fact is, though, that we observe whales, crows, elephants, octopuses, rats and other creatures that are vastly different from each other behaving in ways we, in our indulgent and sometimes condescending manner, consider intelligent, but we know barely anything about, to paraphrase a philosopher, what it’s like to be any of those creatures. Do they have thoughts like us? Or do they have thoughts, but nothing like our own? Which of course raises the question, what exactly is a thought? Can it be reduced to brain processes or do we lose too much in the reduction? Will our endless and increasing probing of human and other brains definitively answer this question?

Jacinta: I think we’ll have to wait till after we die to find out…

 

References

Other minds: the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

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

https://onekindplanet.org/animal/octopus/

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 21, 2018 at 10:17 am

The philosophers want more power

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tamsin shaw

tamsin shaw

Canto: Well I suppose the apparent detection of gravitational waves should be capturing our attention more than anything else right now, but it’s very well described in The Economist, and in many other places, and we’re no astrophysicists, and we did promise to focus a bit more on philosophical issues, so…

Jacinta: But we’re no philosophers. But we’re philosophasters at least, so let’s have a go.

Canto: Well I came across an article on Three Quarks Daily which vaguely gave me the irrits, so with your help I want to explore why.

Jacinta: Right. The essay is called ‘The psychologists take power’, the author is Tamsin Shaw and it was originally published in the New York review of books.

Canto: Yes, and on reading it in full I find it an interesting but confused piece, which seems to take the failings of certain individual psychologists as an example of the failings of psychology as a whole, and even of neurology. Shaw seems to be entering the philosophy versus science debate, on the side of philosophy, but I don’t find her arguments convincing.

Jacinta: The essay seems to divide into two parts, first a general critique of psychology and neurology, which can be summed up by the title of a philosophical essay by Selim Berker, which she quotes approvingly, ‘the normative insignificance of neuroscience’. The second part is an account of how certain professional psychologists, practitioners of the ‘positive psychology’ pioneered by the influential Martin Seligman, colluded with the US government in providing dubious evidence for the psychological effectiveness of torture in eliciting valuable information from ‘enemies of the state’. Shaw clearly wants to link these unethical practices to what she might want to call ‘the normative insignificance of psychology’.

Canto: Yes, and it’s a bit of a dangerous game – you might as well label Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party, or Althusser’s murder of his wife, as examples of ‘the normative insignificance of philosophy’.

Jacinta: Ha, well Althusser was declared insane at the time, no doubt by psychologists, who would be examining Althusser to determine whether he was, while strangling his wife, capable of understanding and following the normative rules of his society. Such determinations are hardly normatively insignificant, even though, no doubt, individual psychologists might make different determinations, due to levels of competence, corruption, ideological considerations and so forth.

Canto: Right, but let’s look more closely at Shaw’s essay, and pick it apart.

Jacinta: Okay, but first let’s make a philosophasters’ confession. Shaw mentions eight or so books or sources at the head of her essay, which form the basis of her discussion, but of those we’ve only read one – Pinker’s eloquent tome, The better angels of our nature. And we don’t intend to bone up on those other texts, though no doubt we’ll refer to our own reading in our responses.

Canto: And we are reasonably familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work and ideas.

Jacinta: So Shaw begins her essay with the overweening ambition of behaviourist extraordinaire B F Skinner, a pretty soft target these days. I have no problems with criticising him, or Freud or any other psychologist whose theories get way out of hand. Shaw’s concerns, though, are specifically about the moral sphere. She feels that a new breed of psychologists, armed with neurological research, are making big claims about moral expertise. Here’s a quote from her essay:

Neuroscience, it is claimed, has revealed that our brains operate with a dual system for moral decision-making.

Canto: I like the ‘it is claimed’ bit. Claimed by who? Someone has put forward that hypothesis I’m sure, along with their reasons, but most neurologists bang on about neurology being a field in its infancy, and most findings are highly contested, it seems to me.

Jacinta: Shaw may be referring to the work of Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist not a neurologist – who distinguished between system 1 thinking (intuitive, less conscious, rough-and ready) and system 2 thinking (reasoned, conscious, more changeable depending on inputs and knowledge). But really there are many dual-process theories going back at least to William James. But Shaw is explicitly referring to the fMRI imaging work of the neurologist Jonathan Cohen, who analysed brain activity when subjects were asked to think about moral hypotheticals.

Canto: Yes and she’s quite straight about describing the two systems apparently highlighted by Cohen’s research and the brain regions associated with them, but becomes scathing in dealing with Joshua Greene, Cohen’s co-researcher, whom she quite deliberately introduces as a mere ‘philosophy graduate student’, whose interpretation of the research she describes thus:

Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology. Since primitive human beings encountered up-close dangers or threats of personal violence, their brains, he speculated, evolved fast and focused responses for dealing with such perils. The impersonal violence that threatens humans in more sophisticated societies does not trigger the same kind of affective response, so it allows for slower, more cognitive processes of moral deliberation that weigh the relevant consequences of actions. Greene inferred from this that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values—for example, justice—to which personal harms and goals such as family loyalty should be irrelevant. He has taken this to be a vindication of a specific, consequentialist philosophical theory of morality: utilitarianism.

Jacinta: Okay, so here’s where psychology – especially evolutionary psychology – first comes under attack. It’s often said to present just so stories, which are necessarily highly speculative, as if they are facts. But I would question whether these speculations, or hypotheses, are unverifiable (forget about falsifiability, a term made popular by Karl Popper but which has come under heavy criticism since, both by scientists and philosophers of science, and I suspect Shaw has simply used it as a ‘double whammy’ to vilify Greene), to me they’re important and useful, and in any case are rarely presented as facts, at least not by the best psychologists.

Canto: So how do you verify this hypothesis, that fast, rough-and-ready responses for dealing with immediate dangers are systematically different from slower, more sophisticated responses that deal with the ‘impersonal violence’, the many restraints, justified or not, on our personal freedoms that we deal with on a daily basis?

Jacinta: Well one obvious way is through neurology, a scientific field still in its infancy as you say. Clearly the system 1 responses would be shared by other complex social mammals, whereas system 2 thinking is much more language-dependent and unique to humans – unless cetaceans have developed complex language, which is far from being out of the question. New techniques for mapping and exploring neural pathways are coming up all the time, as well as non-invasive ways of exploring such pathways in our closest mammalian relatives.

Canto: Good point. So to go to the second part of the above quote, Greene is presented (and I wonder about whether Shaw is fairly or accurately presenting him) as finding system 2 thinking as superior because it deals with more abstract and less personal values, whereas I would prefer to think of this system as a further adaptation, to a human existence that has become more socially complex, systematic and language-based. And in this, I’m apparently in line with the thinking of psychologists Shaw takes aim at:

Many of the psychologists who have taken up the dual-process model claim to be dismissive of philosophical theories, generally. They reject Greene’s inferences about utilitarianism and claim to be restricting themselves to what can be proved scientifically. But in fact all of those I discuss here are making claims about which kinds of moral judgments are good or bad by assessing which are adaptive or maladaptive in relation to a norm of social cooperation. They are thereby relying on an implicit philosophical theory of morality, albeit a much less exacting one than utilitarianism.

Jacinta: But I detect a problem here. You’ve talked about adaptation to the fact of growing social complexity, and the need to co-operate within that complexity. Shaw has written of a ‘norm of social co-operation’, by which she means an ethical norm, because she claims that this is the implicit philosophical theory of morality these psychologists rely on. But that’s not true, they’re not claiming that there’s anything moral about social complexity or social co-operation. We just are more complex, and necessarily more co-operative than our ancestors. So it’s kind of silly to say they’re relying on a less exacting moral philosophy than utilitarianism. It’s not about moral philosophy at all.

Canto: And it gets worse. Shaw claims that this phantom moral ethic of social co-operation is greatly inferior to utilitarianism, so let’s look at that normative theory, which in my view is not so much exacting as impossible. Utilitarianism is basically about the maximising of utility. Act in such a way that your actions maximise utility (act utilitarianism), or create rules that maximise utility (rule utilitarianism). So what’s utility? Nothing that can be measured objectively, or agreed upon. We can replace it with happiness, or pleasure, or well-being, or Aristotle’s eudaemonia, however translated, and the problem is still the same. How do you measure, on a large-scale, social level, things so elusive, intangible and personal?

Jacinta: Yes, and look at how laws change over time, laws for example relating to homosexuality, women’s rights, the protection of minorities, and even business practices, taxation and the like; they’re all about our changing, socially evolving sense of how to co-operate in such a way as to produce the best social outcomes. This can’t be easily bedded down in some fixed normative ethic.

Canto: Yes, Shaw seems to imply that some deep philosophical insight is missing from these psychologists which makes them liable to go off the rails, as the second half of her essay implies, but I’m very doubtful about that. But let’s continue with our analysis:

Rather than adhering to the moral view that we should maximize “utility”—or satisfaction of wants—they are adopting the more minimal, Hobbesian view that our first priority should be to avoid conflict. This minimalist moral worldview is, again, simply presupposed; it is not defended through argument and cannot be substantiated simply by an appeal to scientific facts. And its implications are not altogether appealing.

Jacinta: But surely she’s just assuming that ‘they’ – presumably all the psychologists she doesn’t like, or is it all the psychologists who posit a two-tiered system of decision-making? – take the view that avoidance of conflict is the highest priority.

Canto: Well I must say that Jonathan Haidt seems to take that view, and it’s something I find uncomfortable. So I agree with Shaw that Haidt ‘presupposes that the norm of cooperation should take precedence over the values that divide us’, and that this view is dubious. It’s just that I suspect my own view, that there are values more important than co-operation, is also a ‘presupposition’, though I dislike that word. But more of that later perhaps.

Jacinta: Right, so Shaw refers to the sinister implications of a minimalist Hobbesian worldview, supposedly held by these psychologists. What are they?

Canto: We’ll get there eventually – perhaps. Shaw describes the work of the ‘positive psychology’ movement, stemming from Martin Seligman and practised by Haidt among others, including Steven Pinker, whose book The better angels of our nature was apparently influenced by this movement:

In that extremely influential work Pinker argues that our rational, deliberative modes of evaluation should take precedence over powerful, affective intuitions. But by “rationality” he means specifically “the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games,” rather than any higher-order philosophical theory. He allows that empathy has played a part in promoting altruism, that “humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering.” But nevertheless our “ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary.”

And here’s where I see another problem. Pinker is here criticised for not subscribing to any ‘higher-order philosophical theory’, but Shaw doesn’t attempt to outline or give examples of such higher-order theories, though she does refer to empathy – an important factor, but one that doesn’t obviously emerge from philosophy.

Jacinta: Right, and we’ve already referred to utilitarianism and its problems. This reminds me that years ago  I read a sort of primer on ethics, I think it was called Moral Philosophy, in which the author devoted chapters to utilitarianism, Kantianism, rights theory and other ethical approaches. In the final chapter he presented his own preferred approach, a sort of neo-Aristotelianism. I was intrigued that he felt we hadn’t made much progress in philosophical ethics in almost 2,500 years.

Canto: Well, his may be a minority view, but it’s doubtful that our changing laws derive from philosophical work on normative ethics, though this may have had an influence. I do think, with Haidt, that there’s a great deal of post-hoc rationalisation going on, though I’m reluctant – very reluctant actually – to embrace the relativism of values. And this brings me to the nub of the matter, IMHO. To go back to an old favourite of mine, Hume: ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. A fairly notorious pronouncement, but I take the passions here to be something very basic – the fundamental drives and instincts, largely unconscious, that characterise us as humans…

Jacinta: But doesn’t Hume break his own is-ought rule here? He says that our passions rule our reason, which may or may not be true, but does it follow that they ought to?

Canto: Please don’t complicate matters. Hume also wrote this, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view, and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind.

So these true interests of mankind…

Jacinta: Hang on, so there he goes again, gaily bounding over his own is-ought barrier, saying that in order to work out what we ought to do we need – pretty well absolutely – to determine our interests, what in fact makes us human, what we actually are.

Canto: Well, precisely…

Jacinta: Or what we have evolved to become, which might amount to the same thing. So we need to study our evolution, our genes and genetic inheritance, our brain and its inheritance, and adaptive growth, and maybe the physics of our bodies…

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

Canto: So we need neurology, and genetics, and palaeontology, and physics and psychology, all of which contribute to an understanding of what we are. Without them, normative ethics would be empty theorising.

Jacinta: So I suppose you’re going to write a rejoinder to this ‘normative insignificance of neurology’ essay? Something like ‘the insignificance of normative ethics without neurology’?

Canto: Ha, well that would require reading Selim Berker’s essay, which I’m not sure about – so many other things to explore. But I should end this discussion by saying a few words about the second half of Shaw’s article – and I’ll pass over many other points she’s made. This section deals with the collusion of some psychologists, practitioners of the above-mentioned ‘positive psychology’, with the CIA and the US Department of Defence in the commission of torture.

Jacinta: And what exactly is this ‘positive psychology’?

Canto: Well, to explain that would require a large digression. Suffice to say for now that it’s about using psychology to make us more resilient, and in some sense ethically superior, or more benign, humans. Shaw dwells on this at some length, but claims that in spite of much rhetoric, these psychologists can only offer what she calls the bare, Hobbesian ethic of avoidance of strife. However, she herself is unable to point to a more robust, or a deeper, ethic. She presumably believes in one, but she doesn’t enlighten us as to what it might be. And this is very striking because the tale of these psychologists’ collusion with the Bush administration  on torture, and the huge financial gain to them in applying ‘learned helplessness’, a theory of Seligman’s, to the application of torture, is truly shocking.

Jacinta: So it would be a question of what, in their make-up, allowed them to engage in such unethical behaviour, and was it the lack of a deep ethical understanding, beyond ‘bare Hobbesianism’?

Canto: Right, and my answer would be that, although two psychologists took up this lucrative offer to ‘serve the state’, there would have been others who refused, and would any of them, on either side, have made their decision on the basis of some rigorous normative ethic?

Jacinta: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have colluded with that sort of thing for all the terracotta warriors in China, but I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been for deep philosophical reasons. I just have a kind of visceral revulsion for physical violence and bullying as you know, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d facilitated the premeditated cruel and unusual punishment of others. I’m not even sure if it’s about empathy, but it’s not a particularly reasoned position.

Canto: Yes, and so the only way to understand why some people are more prone to do unethical things – actions outside of the ever-changing standards of community ethics – might be to look at individual psychology, and neurology, and genetics, which takes us further away from normative ethics than ever.

Jacinta: Yes, and didn’t we read, in Sam Kean’s The tale of the duelling neurosurgeons, about a poor fellow in his mid-fifties who suddenly started engaging in paedophile acts, something he had never showed any signs of before? A brain scan revealed a large tumour pressing on parts of the brain responsible for higher-order decision-making (to put it over-simplistically). When the tumour was removed he returned to ‘normal’, until some time later he regressed to paedophile acts. A further scan showed they didn’t remove all the tumour and it had regrown. After another more successful operation he was cured and never diddled again. But the consequences of his actions for his victims when ‘not himself’ would have required him to be punished, on a consequentialist ethical view, wouldn’t they?

Canto: Very good point. And yet, and yet… can it be true that we’ve barely gone further in our ethics than the Golden Rule, or Aristotle’s mean between extremes?

Jacinta: We’re animals, don’t forget. Okay we’re animals that have managed to detect waves from space that are a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton, but we’re still not that good at being nice to each other. And the extent to which we’re able to be nice to each other, and follow social norms, that’s a matter of our individual psychology, our neurology, our individual and cultural circumstances, our genes and our epigenetic profile, so much particular stuff that philosophical ethics, with its generalities, can’t easily deal with.

Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2016 at 8:37 am

what is autism and what causes it?

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Brain_Autism

The term ‘autism’ was coined in the 1940s by two physicians working independently of each other, Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in the USA, to describe a syndrome the key feature of which was a problem with interacting with others in ‘normal’ ways. Sounds vague, but the problem was anything but wishy-washy to these individuals’ parents and families, and over time a more detailed profile has built up.

The term itself is from the Greek autos, or ‘self’, because those with the syndrome had clear difficulties in interpreting others’ moods and responses, resulting in a withdrawn, often antisocial state. Autistic kids often avoid eye contact and are all at sea over the simplest communication.

Already though, I feel I’m saying too much. When describing autism, it’s common to use words like ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ or ‘some’, because the symptoms are seemingly so disparate. Much of what follows relies on the neurologist V S Ramachandran’s book The tell-tale brain, especially chapter 5, ‘Where is Steven? The riddle of autism’.

Autistic symptoms can be categorised in two major groups, social-cognitive and sensorimotor. The social-cognitive symptoms include mental aloneness and a lack of contact with the world of other humans, an inability to engage in conversation and a lack of emotional empathy. Also a lack of any overt ‘playfulness’ or sense of make-believe in childhood. These symptoms can be ‘countered’ by heightened, sometimes obsessive interest in the inanimate world – e.g. the memorising of ostensibly useless data, such as lists of phone numbers.

On the sensorimotor side, symptoms include over-sensitivity and intolerance to noise, a fear of change or novelty, and an intense devotion to routine. There’s also a physical repetitiveness of actions and performances, and regular rocking motions.

These two types of symptoms raise an obvious question – how are the two types connected to each other? We’ll return to that.

Another motor symptom, which Ramachandran thinks is key, is a difficulty in physically imitating the actions of others. This has led him to pursue the hypothesis that autism is essentially the result of a deficiency in the mirror neuron system.

In recent years there’s been a lot of excitement about mirror neurons – possibly too much, according to some neurologists. A mirror neuron is one that fires not only when we perform an action but also when we observe it being performed by others. They’ve been found to act in mammals and also, it seems, in birds, and in humans they’ve been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex. It’s easier, however, to locate them than it is to determine their function. Clearly, to describe them as ‘responsible’ for empathy, or intention, is to go too far. As Patricia Churchland points out, ‘a neuron is just a neuron’, and what we describe as empathy or intention will likely involve a plethora of high-order processes and connections, in which mirror neurons will play their part.

With that caveat in mind, let’s continue with Ramachandran’s speculations on autism and mirror neurons. First, we’ll need to be reminded of the term ‘theory of mind’, used regularly in psychology. It’s basically the idea that we attribute to others the same sorts of intentions and desires that we have because of the assumption that they, like us, have that internal feeling and processing and regulating system we call a ‘mind’. A sophisticated theory of mind is one of the most distinctive features of the human species, one which gives us a unique kind of social intelligence. That autism would be related to theory-of-mind deficiencies seems a reasonable assumption, so what is the brain circuitry behind theory of mind, and how do mirror neurons fit into this picture?

Although neuro-imaging has revealed that autistic children have larger brains with larger ventricles (brain cavities) and notably different activity within the cerebellum, this hasn’t helped researchers much, because autism sufferers don’t present any of the usual symptoms of cerebellum damage. It could be that these changes are simply the side effects of genes which produce autism. Some researchers felt it was better to focus on mirror neurons straight-off, as obvious suspects, and to see how they fired and where they connected in particular situations. They used EEG (electroencephalography) as a non-invasive way to observe mirror neuron activity. They focused on the suppression of mu waves, a type of brain wave. It has long been known that mu waves are suppressed when a person makes any volitional movement, and more recently it has been discovered that the same suppression occurs when we watch others performing such movements.

So researchers used EEG (involving electrodes placed on the scalp) to monitor neuronal activity in a medium-functioning autistic child, Justin. Justin exhibited a suppressed mu wave, as expected, when asked to make voluntary movements. However, he didn’t show the same suppression when watching others perform those movements, as ‘neurotypical’ children do. It seemed that his motor-command system was functioning more or less normally, but his mirror-neuron system was deficient. This finding has been replicated many times, using a variety of techniques, including MEG (magnetoencephalography). fMRI, and TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation). Reading about all these techniques would be a mind-altering experience in itself.

According to Ramachandran, all these confirmations ‘provide conclusive evidence that the [mirror neuron] hypothesis is correct.’ It certainly helps to explain why a subset of autistic children have trouble with metaphors and literality. They have difficulty separating the physical and the referential, a separation that mirror neurons appear to mediate somehow.

A well-developed theory of mind which can anticipate the behaviour of others is clearly a feature of understanding our own minds better. In Ramachandran’s words:

If the mirror-neuron system underlies theory of mind and if theory of mind in normal humans is supercharged by being applied inward, towards the self, this would explain why autistic individuals find social interaction and strong self-identification so difficult, and why so many autistic children have a hard time correctly using the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ in conversation. They may lack a mature-enough self-representation to understand the distinction.

Of course, tons more can be said about the ‘mirror network’ and tons more research remains to be done, but there are many promising signs. For example, the findings about lack of mu wave suppression could be used as a diagnostic tool for the early detection of autism, and some interesting work is being done on the use of biofeedback to treat the disorder. Biofeedback is a process whereby physiological signals picked up by a machine from the brain or body of a subject are represented to the subject in such a way that he or she might be able to affect or manipulate that signal by a conscious change of behaviour or thinking. Experiments have been done to show that subjects can alter their own brain waves through this process. Some experimental work is also being done with drugs such as MDMA (otherwise known as the party drug ‘ecstacy’) which appear to enhance empathy through their action on neurotransmitter release.

So that’s a very brief introduction to autism. Hopefully I’ll come back to it in the future to explore the progress being made in understanding and treating the syndrome.

Written by stewart henderson

October 23, 2013 at 10:25 am