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chris-frith.jpgThe eminent neuropsychologist Chris Frith has recently retired from his job at FIL, the world famous factory for neuroimaging research in London. He is best known for his work on schizophrenia and, during the last ten years, mentalizing and social cognitive neuroscience. His many brillant reviews on these topics will probably be familiar to most of this blog’s readers. Now, Frith has written a book entitled Making Up the Mind – with the great subtitle “How the brain creates our mental world” – which, I suspect, will be widely reviewed and debated in the coming months. Certainly, we will have more to say about it later this summer here at BrainEthics. (Also, in a week or two I will put up a post about some recent papers on social cognitive neuroscience.)

-Martin

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tawspvidcastshowpromo.jpgLiving in Denmak I had never heard of The Agenda, a tv program broadcasted by Canadian network TV Ontario, undtil Wodek Szemberg, one of the program’s producers, contacted me last week. However, as it turns out, from time to time The Agenda covers topics of interest to those of us interested in neuroscience and neuroethics. Last Thursday’s program, for instance, contained a discussion on brain plasticity prompted by a new book by psychologist Norman Doidge: The brain that changes itself. In addition to Doidge, the guests on the show included Jordan Peterson, Robert Sawyer, Bruce Wexler, and Judy Illes. Illes, of course, debates the neuroethical concequences of brain plasticity research. You can even get the program as podcast and watch it at home at your own leisure.

- Martin

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humphrey.JPGIt was twenty years ago today. Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

Actually, last year it was 30 years ago that Nicholas Humphrey published his seminal paper “The social function of intellect” (pdf). Many people see this paper as the impetus to later work on the social brain hypothesis (pdf) and Theory of Mind. Humphrey suggested that, rather than the need for technology, it was in fact the need for advanced cognitive mechanisms for keeping track of conspecifics and interacting with other members of their social group that drove the expansion of brain and intelligence in hominids. This idea has provoked research into the role of cooperation and collaboration as well as deception and competition in primate social behaviour. It has prompted research into the importance of conspecifics being able to attend to a shared mental content. (Shared attention appears crucial to the transfer of knowledge in a social group, and is therefore probably a prerequisite for the establishment of cultural traditions.) Finally, it has been instrumental in getting neuroscientists interested in the neurobiological underpinnings of social cognition, including research into Theory of Mind and mirror neurons.

To commemorate Humphrey’s paper and track the above-mentioned ensuing research, the Royal Society of London staged a Dicussion Meeting last year. The papers presented at that meeting have now been published in the latest issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. It is a veritable smorgardsbord of big names: There’s papers on social intelligence in birds, hyenas, dolphins and apes by, inter alia, Nathan Emery, Nicola Clayton, Kay Holekamp, and Richard Connor. Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten discuss the animal cultures hypothesis. There’s papers by Michael Tomasello and Daniel Povinelli on ToM in primates. Vittorio Gallese explains the importance of mirror neurons, Chris Frith reviews what we know about the social brain, and Steven Mithen speculates that farming may have arisen from a misapplication of social intelligence. Naturally, Humphrey is also given the opportunity to revisit his 1976 paper.

If you are at all interested in the question of what makes some species social beings you will want to check out this issue.

-Martin

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trends.jpgI am a sucker for lists, so please bear with me: In a forthcoming editorial, Shbana Rahman, the editor of the great journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, is celebrating the ten years anniversary of TICS by printing short reflections on what has been the most “exciting discovery or theory of the past ten years” by a number of fat cats in the cognitive neurosciences: John Anderson, Nick Chater, Jon Driver, Jerry Fodor, Marc Hauser, Phil Johnson-Laird, Steven Kosslyn, Jay McClelland, George A. Miller, Lynn Nadel, Steven Pinker, Zenon Pylyshyn, Trevor Robbins, and Vincent Walsh. Naturally, there are as many different answers as people asked: the shift from computational models to probalistic models (Chater), Gergely and Csibra’s experiments on rational imitation in infants (Hauser), research on how intuitions determine judgments (Johnson-Laird), mirror neurons (Nadel), etc., etc. The funniest entry by far is Fodor’s:

What with brain imaging and neural nets, it will be a hard ten years to forget. But I’m working on it. Hopes
for the future: (i) the further erosion of attempts to apply the adaptationist paradigm to the evolution of
cognitive and linguistic phenotypes; concurrently, its replacement by an account that stresses the ‘‘hidden’’
constraints on phylogeny imposed by neurology, genetics, biochemistry, ontogeny and so forth; (ii)
the development of a serious referential/causal semantics for mental representations.

My own suggestions, just of the top of my head, would be:

(1) The rapidly growing understanding of the role played by emotions in various forms of “higher” cognition.

(2) Research on on the interplay between genes, brain processes and the environment in producing behaviour – especially development. Hopefully outdated words such as “innate” will soon dissapear from the vocabulary of cognitive neuroscientists.

(3) Decision-making. By which I mean research on making a judgment, forming preferences for possible choices, neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, and neuroethics.

What would be your choices?

-Martin

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Kandel is optimistic

kandel150.jpgThis year’s annual question at Edge was, “What are you optimistic about?”. Now, Brockman has asked Eric Kandel to outline the four neuroscience breakthroughs made in 2006 that makes him optimistic about our future possibility of understanding the brain. The first breakthrough is research into the role of microRNAs in the formation of synapses. The second is research into the encoding of external space in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex. Kandel’s third choice is research into social interaction, including Rebecca Saxe’s imaging studies of Theory of Mind, and Barry Dickson’s discovery that if the male form of the protein fruitless is expressed in female Drosophila, the females will display male courship behaviour. And his fourth is the possibility, through neuroimaging and other new techniques, of understanding the effects of psychotherapy on psychiatric diseases.

All four advances are clearly great causes for optimism. But maybe there are other breakthroughs worth mentioning? What about research into decision-making, or comparative genetic studies casting light on the evolution of the hominid brain? I bet that you readers have your own suggestions. Please share them with us in the comments section.

-Martin

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New books on semiotics

livstegn.jpgSemiotics, as you may or may not know, is a theory of meaning that holds that the worlds presents itself to us through signs. What is a sign? Well, in a basic sense it is the idea that some perceived part of the physical reality surrounding us – let us call this a “signifier” – acquires meaning by being coupled with some mental content; let us call this latter thing the “signified”. In other words, a sign is a function between a signifier and a signified. Take the word “dog”. As you read this word here on your computer screen, the visual input is related to a certain semantic category. As it so happens this semantic category can also be accessed by other signifiers, for instance the French word “chien”, or the Danish “hund”. In order to understand the meaning of “dog”, “chien”, or “hund” you have to know the rules linking signifier with signified.A basic problem in semiotics is how such rules arise and how they are instantiated. A particular branch of semiotics argues that rules are completely arbitrary and the product of social negotiation. That the signifier “dog” signifies a specific semantic category is due to the fact that some group of people collectively have decided to employ this semiotic rule. On the other hand, another group of semioticians argues that such rules are grounded in a basic isomorphism between the forms of the perceived world and our conceptual system. This “ground” is the very prerequisite for the formation of semiotic rules in the first place. How else would they get off the ground?

Unfortunately, there has not been a great interest among semiticians to test these assumptions through neuroscientific research. Roman Jakobson, one of the greatest semioticians of the 2oth Century, a few years before his death, said that had he been a young man he would have turned to neuroscience. To date, almost no semiotician has heeded this call.

On this note, let me mention two new semiotics publications. The first is an encyclopedia called Livstegn, written by 49 Danish researcers. (Sorry, this book is only available in Danish!) I contributed the entry on “neuroaesthetics”. Curiously it contains two entries on “neurosemiotics”. Curiously because, as I just wrote, there hardly exists any semiotic research taking its departure from neuroscience.

The second book is Frederik Stjernfelt‘s Diagrammatology, the first monograph to really consider the Peircean concept of “the diagram”. (This book is in English and is published by Springer, so everybody should be able to both get it and read it!) The interesting part about Stjernfelt’s book is that he relates Peirce’s idea of the diagram to both Husserlian phenomenology and modern cognitive linguistics – hence integrating a rather obscure semiotic concept into current discussions in cognitive science. I also know that Stjernfelt is interested in looking into the neurobiology of diagrams.

-Martin

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