Archive for November, 2005

SCR Reloaded

For those of you interested in consciousness science, the new online journal/e-zine/forum for the scientific study of consciousness, Science & Consciousness Review, is now online.

New features include comments by registered users, databases, an annotated bibliography, RSS feeds and surveys.

Visit SCR here.

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Modern brain science has made a big impact on numerous issues, not the least on health care. The invention of psychopharmacological agents was the first break-through in human history in the treatment of psychiatric diseases.

The consequences of neuroscience may, however, be felt most at all in our self-conception, in how we view human nature. A very clear example of how profound investigations into the brain have upset very deep seated convictions about human nature is the research started by Thomas Willis and his Oxford circle in the 1660’s. By empirically examining both human and animal brains Willis demonstrated that not only bodily, but also cognitive functions, were governed by physical (albeit, at that time, still unknown) processes located in the grey matter of the brain. This conclusion effectively broke with a more than 2000 year old psychological model where bodily and cognitive function were commanded by different parts of the soul – most dramatically in Descartes’ philosophy of mind, where the bodily functions were imagined to be controlled by wholly material forces, whereas “the mind” were seen as non-material. In fact, it is fair to say that this break in our self-image was so powerful that we haven’t really come to terms with it yet. The story of Willis’ groundbreaking work is told masterfully in Carl Zimmer’s informative and very entertaining book The Soul Made Flesh.

In many ways, though, the revolution of Willis pales beside the neuroscientific results obtained in the last 30 years. We are now on the brink of understanding how the very brain processes Willis could only speculate about actually work. Some processes, early vision and memory consolidation for instance, are already quite well understood, even on a molecular level. And the invention of brain imaging techniques – PET, fMRI, MEG, etc. – has made it possible for brain scientists to start digging into even more mysterious and opaque faculties of the human brain such as decision-making, future planning, mathematical reasoning, and language…In short, all the higher-order cognitive faculties we consider the defining and unique traits of the human species. Already, this research is turning out some rather unexpected surprises. Consider, for example, how studies of human economic decision-making have shown the reward and punishment system – the basal ganglia, nucleus accumbens, amygdala, OFC, and other structures – to be critically implicated. Processes in these structures are highly dependent on neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. As it turns out, these molecules play much the same role in rat and monkey striatum, with dopamine, for instance, contributing to reward-prediction processes. Thus, behaviour such as economic wheelin-n-dealin, hitherto considered a strictly human ability, setting us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom (perhaps even elevating us to a superior, non-animal level of the great chain of being…), has at least some root in neuronal mechanisms that have been around for millions of years and which we share with other animals.

Throughout the last century economic behaviour were explained through mathematical models – utility functions and game theory. Now this approach is being turned on its head…or actually inside the head, as it were! Economics is slowly becoming neuroeconomics. And, similarly, philosophy is becoming neurophilosophy, sociology is becoming social neuroscience, aesthetics is becoming neuroaesthetics, etc., etc. This is perhaps next big revolution brought about by the neurosciences: putting the humanistic sciences on a biological footing, exchanging cultural analysis for neuroscientific experiments!

The coming days I will post discussions of a new book that epitomizes this neurobiological Kehre. Based on a symposium held this January in Paris, Jean-Pierre Changeux, Antonio Damasio, Wolf Singer, and Yves Christen have published a small book called Neurobiology of Human Values. This is really a remarkable title, since more than anything human values have been the foundation that the whole enterprise of a specific “human” science (Humanwissenschaft), in contrast to the natural sciences, have been built on. Human values, the argument runs, cannot be captured by natural laws (since they are changing and subjective), and therefore human behaviour cannot be the subject of the natural sciences but must be investigated by way of a particular “humanistic” methodology. As Changeux et al.’s book shows, this argument no longer holds up to scrutiny. The many experiments reported in the book’s papers demonstrate that it is, in fact, possible to unveil the neuronal processes underlying human values.

At the same time, the book is also important because its authors are almost all very senior and influential neuroscientists – besides the editors, there are chapters by, e.g., Frans de Waal, Richard Davidson, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, Giacomo Rizzolatti, and Stanislas Dehaene. This will lend important credibility to the ongoing study of human values, a research topic which is yet not mainstream in the neuroscientific community. Thus, although it has its shortcomings (most of all, very sloppy copy-editing), Neurobiology of Human Values is a very welcome publication which deserve mentioning.

In coming days I will go through some of issues raised by the book, including aesthetic values, social values, ethical values, and economic values. And what exactly is a value, then? Stay tuned for the answer to that big question!

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More Literary Darwinism

In response to my post on Literary Darwinism, Joseph Carroll has updated his web site, adding not only the Buss chapter I cite, but also several new in press papers. Get ’em here.

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The November 6 issue of the New York Times Magazine ran a piece by D.T. Max on a new literary theory called ”Literary Darwinism” (LD). LD is the most prominent part of a larger movement called Biopoetics, dedicated to investigating the evolutionary background of the human capacity for producing and consuming works of art. As is well known, the emergence of anatomical modern homo sapiens is associated with a “creative explosion” some 50.000-75.000 years ago – exactly when is still hotly debated by archaeologists and paleontologists – which included, among other things, the first appearance of works of art. (Again, some experts argue that the first works of art appeared earlier, and, indeed, we cannot be completely certain that older hominids didn’t produce non-fossilized art such as, for instance, songs or stories; we can, however, be pretty sure that art, in any meaningful sense, was invented by some member of the homo lineage, and not too long ago.) Thus, the existence of art seems to depend upon some neurocognitive mechanisms that are only found in the human brain. It is of obvious interest to understand not only what these putative mechanisms amount to, but also why the human brain ended up being equipped with them. Biopoetics is dedicated to answering this last question.

If you are at all convinced that humans are biological organisms, this endeavour shouldn’t upset you much. I personally find it pretty obvious that any true understanding of the phenomenon of art calls for a concerted examination of the three old questions: what, how, and why? Without a description of the kinds of language constructions that make for a metaphor (what), a break down of the neuronal processes “running” these constructions (how), and an explanation of why the human brain – perhaps in contrasts to brains of other species – has picked up these processes (why), a theory of what a metaphor is cannot really be considered complete. Yet, as it turns out, most scholars studying art and language only focus on the what-question and disregard the question of how behaviour is grounded in neurobiology. Indeed, many (for reasons I won’t speculate on here) even find this question orthogonal to what a real inquiry into art or language should be about. There are therefore a lot of humanistic scholars to whom any introduction of biology, such as exemplified by Biopoetics and LD, into the study of human behaviour will be like a red rag to a bull.

No doubt this is main the reason New York Times Magazine find LD important enough to warrant a whole exposé. (I don’t think that I offend anybody by saying that LD is still very much in its infancy: Max tells us that there are in fact “only 30 or so declared adherents [of LD] in all of academia”, and most of the work done on LD to this day is of the sort that Joseph Carroll, the theoretical leader of LD, calls “Darwinian literary criticism” – interpretations based on insights gleaned from evolutionary science. Actual attempts to answer the why-question, “why did the human brain come to be able to produce and consume literature?”, are few and far between.) The main story of Max’s article is certainly that here is something new, something different from mainstream postmodern theory. That’s ok. But I think it should be stressed that Max’s introduction to LD is very cursory and doesn’t go much into its theoretical assumptions at all. (For instance, it doesn’t discuss LD’s heavy reliance on Evolutionary Psychology (EP) and EP’s hypothesis that the mind is massively modular, with each module having been adapted for some specific task. Both the notion of a massively modular mind and the human mind as adapted can be criticized; I will return to this discussion in some later post when I get my hand on The Literary Animal, the anthology of papers on LD that prompted Max’s article.) For a more in-depth presentation the reader should really go to Joseph Carroll’s homepage where it is possible to download a sizeable part of Carroll’s papers, albeit not his most recent introduction to LD which can be found in David Buss’ new Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology.

Max’s article does, however, raise an interesting and important point: that LD would benefit immensely from incorporating brain science into their evolutionary framework. I think this suggestion is a very apt and timely memento. The fact of the matter is that, until recently, both LD and Evolutionary Psychology as a whole have more or less completely neglected the what-study, i.e., how brains actually process literary language. And the reason for this negligence has not only been a pragmatic division of labour, but a problematic commitment to a functionalist stance that goes back to John Tooby and Leda Cosmides manifest “The Psychological Foundations of Cuture” in The Adapted Mind; a functionalist stance that deems that genes and neurobiology are not really relevant to understanding biological functions. This stance is problematic since evolution not really works on “functions” but on genes and, consequently, on the cell biology of the brain. Also, as Marc Hauser has stressed, comparing how “functions” are instantiated in different brains is actually a very powerful way of getting at the evolutionary why-question…Comparing chimpanzee to human speech, for instance, will tell us something about how the speech system has changed in hominids since chimps and humans parted way some 6 million years ago. It is therefore very gratifying to now read that no less a figure than Edward Wilson, the doyen of adaptionist studies, points to neuroimaging as a way of advancing LD and evolutionary studies in general. Writes Max:

Edward Wilson told me that he is confident neurobiology can help confirm many of evolutionary psychology’s insights about the humanities, commending the work to “any ambitious young neurobiologist, psychologist or scholar in the humanities.” They could be the “Columbus of neurobiology,” he said, adding that if “you gave me a million dollars to do it, I would get immediately into brain imaging.” In fact, you won’t always need a million dollars for the work, as the cost of M.R.I. technology goes down. “Five years from now, every psychology department will have a scanner in the basement,” says Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist. With the help of those scanners, Wilson says that science and the study of literature will join in “a mutualistic symbiosis,” with science providing literary criticism with the “foundational principles” for analysis it lacks.

It should be noted, though, that, due to various technical limitations, much of what is interesting about literature will be very difficult to investigate in a MR-scanner. Long stretches of discourse doesn’t really make for good experimental stimuli, and we really need a good model of “literary cognition” before being able to design interesting fMRI experiments. But, it is definitely the way to go, and I hope that we will soon see some of the people working within LD take a more keen interest in the brain.


D.T. Max (2005): The Literary Darwinists. New York Times Magazine (November 6).
Joseph Carroll (2005): Literature and Evolutionary Psychology. In D. Buss (ed.): Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. John Wiley.

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Having mentioned the new blog at Nature.com, it should also be noted that John Rennie, the editor of Scientific American, writes a regular blog worth surfing by from time to time. In the most recent post (dated November 13), as I’m writing this, Rennie scolds the pope’s embarrasing endorsement of Intelligent Design. According to the Associated Press the pope

…quoted St. Basil the Great, a 4th-century saint, as saying some people, “fooled by the atheism that they carry inside of them, imagine a universe free of direction and order, as if at the mercy of chance.”

But, as Rennie remarks,

…I don’t think most scientists would say that the universe is directionless or chaotic. Randomness is a fact of nature in many physical processes (e.g., radioactive decay and mutation), but there are also organizing principles at work (e.g., the laws of thermodynamics) that do impose a direction as well. For instance, creationists like to say that it’s impossible for random evolution to produce order, but evolution isn’t random: natural selection is an orderly directional process that acts on the randomness introduced by mutation. Thus it’s not clear whom the Pope is really rebuking with this comment.

Rennie, in older posts, does a great job of rebuking the spectre of ID. It is very gratifying to see the editor of one of the major vehicles for the popularization of science take a stand against this concerted effort to suspend the scientific inquiry into the nature of homo sapiens.

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Gazzaethics I

What does a member of the US President’s Council on Bioethics think about the consequences of brain science? How does is knowledge about the brain influencing bioethical decisions? Michael Gazzaniga is a world-renowned neuroscientist and one of the very founders of modern experimental cognitive neuroscience. He is also a member of the Bioethics Council. In his recent book, The Ethical Brain, Gazzaniga not only presents the new discipline of ‘neuroethics’. He is also putting forth his own views on the vital matters. In many ways, Gazzaniga’s own take on the ethical problems are indeed the most interesting parts of the book, and they will surely be found provocative by a lot of readers.

Although the book is relatively small (178 pages plus endnotes) and written as a popular science book, the issues treated here – and Gazzaniga’s views – are well worth a closer look. Despite that Gazzaniga sometimes takes logical leaps from premise to conclusion, the book is clearly a most accessible and entertaining book. As member of the Bioethics Council, Gazzaniga has an impact not only on US law and ethics, but potentially a worldwide influence on how we think about ourselves and others, about free will, when life begins and ends, and on brain enhancements. So let me start by taking on one part at a time; life-span ethics, brain enhancement, brain and the law, and “universal ethics”

“An egg and a sperm is not a human. A fertilized embryo is not a human – it needs a uterus, and at least six months of gestation and development, growth and neural formation, and cell duplication to become a human.” (p. 11)

Gazzaniga leaves no doubt that there are specific boundaries for what can be called a human and what cannot. A fertilized embryo goes through a series of necessary steps before becoming the complex organism that makes up a human baby. But where along this development do we draw the line of what is human, a being to be given rights as any other human being? Anti-abortionists make use of the “continuity argument” which states that a fertilized egg will go on to become a human being and therefore deserve the rights of an individual. In this view the embryo is a (potential) human being from conception and onwards that should be given rights accordingly. This stands in sharp contrast to today’s practice in many countries worldwide, accepting abortion before the embryonic age of 23 weeks.

In order to make good judgements about these issues, says Gazzaniga, we need to consult scientific evidence. Based on findings from neuroscience, Gazzaniga refers to the development of the brain (and mind). It is now well-know that it is only in weeks 5 to 6 that the first electrical brain activity occurs. However, this activity is much too crude to be called “brain waves”, which is the assembly of neuronal populations working together, and a hallmark of mental life. It is first around week 23 that synapses start to form and lay the ground for coherent assemblies of brain activity. In order to see the relevance of these brain waves we should look at the other end of the life line: brain death. The complete and irreversible cessation of brain activity is the clinical hallmarks of the end of life. This is an uncontroversial fact across countries and religions. Practice on the determination of brain death may vary between countries and regions, but the basic assumption that brain death signifies mental death is considered a well established fact today.

The following concluding argument is obvious: while neural activity can be found in brain dead patients, the incoherent, scattered and unorganized activity found – and signifying death – here corresponds to the activation found in embryonic stages up until around week 23. Before that, the neural activation does not represent any integrated thought or behaviour. The embryo is not a mental being before week 23.

What, then, about the continuity argument? As mentioned, there are those who claim that any fertilized egg will continue to grow into a human, and that because of this a fertilized egg should be given the same rights as you and me or any other human. This argument moves beyond the current state of the embryo, basically stating that the human “soul” is present right at or after the fertilization of the egg. Gazzaniga replies here by addressing what he calls the “potentiality argument”; the view that “since an embryo or fetus could become an adult, it must always be granted equivalent moral status to a postnatal human being” (p. 11). The premise here (always look for the premises!) is the assumption that a fertilized egg will always develop into a human being. However, such a view is based upon an uninformed view of fertilization and embryonic development. During the first fourteen days both twinning and chimeras may occur. That is, the fertilized can become two individuals, or it can split into twin eggs and then move back into one egg again. This is in stark contrast to the continuity argument. Otherwise, we should be talking about splitting souls and chimera souls, right?

Gazzaniga gives us a new perspective on ethics; our moral decisions should now be informed by the best possible available evidence on a subject matter. We should not be led by our gut feelings or implicit assumptions about such complex mechanisms as the growth of a human embryo. In order to make sound decisions, we must consult the evidence.

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Are you ready for action?

We are not the only ones starting a serious blog these days. We are being dwarfed by Nature Neuroscience’s (NN) new feature, a blog called Action Potential. And yet, this is very likely one of the resources we will get our material from. A brief look at the blog tells us that it is an attempt at giving the journal a face outwards. To many (most) of us, NN is really one of the top journal to get a publication. Any source that can give a better understanding of what goes behind the scenes in NN is great! And see, they also announce talks about how to get published in NN!

About the purpose of the blog, it says:
“Action Potential is a blog by the editors of Nature Neuroscience – and a forum for our readers, authors and the entire neuroscience community. We’ll discuss what’s new and exciting in neuroscience, be it in our journal or elsewhere. We hope for spirited conversation!”

If things work out for Action Potential, we hope to see plenty of discussions, news and headlines both from NN, Nature as well as other journals. But it seems to depend on the activities of the visitors; you and me. Why not pay Action Potential a visit and join the discussions?

So, a welcome from us Lilliputians; we’ll be watching you.

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