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Archive for October, 2006

New feature — read more

We’re adding a new feature on the blog. Very simple, yet helpful for those who are going through our blog’s archive etc. We are adding the “Read more” function which will give you only the introductory paragraphs on the BrainEthics screen. If you press the “Read more” link, you will go to the full story.

-Thomas

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pamuk.jpgA lot of our fellow science bloggers covered this year’s Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics, and economics. So, let me take the opportunity to congratulate Orhan Pamuk, the recipient of this year’s literary prize. The literary prize is often critized for being controversial, and most people agree that not all the recipients over the years have deserved the prize (Pearl S. Buck, anyone?). The criteria for awarding the literary prize is very different from the criteria for awarding the scientific prizes, though. Whereas it is possible to meassure a scientist’s contribution more or less objectively, according to how accepted his findings are, over time, to the scientific community, literary prizes are awarded for the perceived aesthetic value of a book, and aesthetic value is always in the eye of the beholder. We know this not only from the countless top ten lists floating around on the internet, invariably different!, but also from a century of experimental testing. It is simply impossible to find a work of art universally adored by all humans on this planet. (There might be some universal body features, such as facial traits, deemed pleasant or attractive by everybody, but that’s another story.)

Why is this so? Well, a number of imaging studies have begun to cast light on which parts of the brain are involved in attaching aesthetic value to works of art. It turns out that aesthetic value chiefly stems from a network of subcortical, limbic and frontal regions, including the caudate nucleus, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex. The workings of these structures may be under influence of several factors: personality (cf. the Hariri studies we have been discussing here on the blog), expertise, mood, age, task, stimulus complexity – and, of course, cognitive factors may modulate them in various ways. We don’t know yet how aesthetic values are formed in detail – and, thus, we don’t know yet why people’s taste differ – but the upshot of  the current research is, that a particular aesthetic judgment (Orhan Pamuk is Nobel material!) is the consequence of a rather complex neural process, malleable over time.

Then, why should we give out literary prizes? Some critics have lamented that, since aesthetic values really can’t be determined objectively, aesthetic prizes is really an attempt to impose value. I suppose there is something correct about this view; we fight all the more over aesthetic value because it can’t be settled objectively. This is not always a bad thing, though. As the saying goes, a big prize may attract attention to an underappreciated author or artist. So literary prizes may have a function, even if they are basically without merit. At least, since I think Pamuk is a great novelist, I am happy that he got the Nobel!

A final word on aesthetic value. Many of today’s articles mention Snow as Pamuk’s chef d’oevre, probably because of its political content. To new readers, though, I would recommend starting with The Black Book and My Name is Red. These two books are, according to my reward system, Pamuk’s undisputable masterpieces!

-Martin

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Trends in the loop

drfun.jpg

I need a break! Working on posters, crashing batch jobs and data pipelines, travels etc etc for the SfN is a neck-breaking experience. So is almost every conference for me. So every once in a while, I take a break and peek deep into the secrets of forthcoming articles, or prepublications as they might be called. Here is a nice little list of some upcoming articles as well as some very recently published ones from the Trends series:

How can we understand consciousness, the very process we most often define ourselves as humans? In the article Towards a true neural stance on consciousness, Victor Lamme claims that we must move away from our folk-psychological concepts about mental functions and processes. Instead, neuroscientific arguments should “have their way”. Basically, Lamme’s proposition seems very similar to Pat Churchland‘s intertheoretical reduction, which basically is a form of eliminative materialism.

On the distinctive role of different medial temporal lobe structures (MTL) such as the perirhinal cortex, two review articles shed an interesting light on their functions. In Mechanisms underlying working memory for novel information Hasselmo and Stern point out that parahippocampal regions (i.e. partly MTL) mediate working memory for novel stimuli. In several studies of both humans and non-human mammals, the perirhinal cortex has been shown to be a novelty indicator. Indeed, this is in good line with the earlier review by Fernández and Tendolkar who, in their review The rhinal cortex: ‘gatekeeper’ of the declaratove memory system, argue that the rhinal cortex (peri- and entorhinal cortex) “optimally allocates limited encoding resources away from familiar information and towards novel information”. Finally, this is very much concordant to what Aggleton and Brown writes when they argue that “recognition memory comprises at least two independent mechanisms: one recollective and the other using familiarity detection”. So this collection of articles really demonstrate the changing view of the MTL in cognitive processes, as I have written about before.

Peng Shi and colleagues ask in Trends in Genetics whether brain-specific genes have evolved faster in humans than in chimps. contrary to previous findings suggesting a widespread accelerated sequence evolving of CNS genes in human origins, Shi and colleagues find that “some datasets show significantly fewer nonsynonymous substitutions in humans than in chimpanzees for brain-specific genes relative to other genes in the genome” and they conclude that their results suggest that “the unique features of the human brain did not arise by a large number of adaptive amino acid changes in many proteins.”

Finall, Striano and Reid reviews the interdisciplinary study of social cognition in the first year, where they posit that “in order to achieve a more robust understanding of the nature and parameters of human social cognition” the field must integrate various research fields and methods. Such methods include neuroscience, social psychology and anthropology. I guess that with the recent reports of social imitation in non-human primates, one should include comparative studies, too.

-Thomas

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scr11_new.pngThis time it should work. Science & Consciousness Review, the online webzine/journal for the review of the scientific study of consciousness, is back online. It crashed several months ago due to a buggy new interface and content management system. Now, with a fresh new and well proved system (same as BrainEthics is using, wordpress), it is now running, albeit in a next-to-full version. Commenting is still disabled, as are newsletters, certain images and some other functions. It’s slowly coming up, too
However, you can now enjoy the articles that we at BrainEthics have contributed with at SCR. First of all, Martin’s excellent review of Solso’s book on neuroaesthetics, and my article on “how genes make up your mind”.

Enjoy… and spread the word.

-Thomas

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Neuroethicist bound for SfN

logo_society-for-neuroscience.gifSfN is up shortly, and I will do my best to overcome a disc prolapse and get there, too. If you are going to Atlanta, let me know (either here as a comment, or email me, thomasr AT drcmr.dk) .

SfN is definitely going to be busy, and Judy Illes is going to give a talk about neuroethics. I might even be lucky and squeeze in a mini-interview with her. Anyway, amidst the abundance of posters, talks and workshops, I hope to make your acquaintance.

-Thomas

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