Archive for the ‘book’ Category

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.)


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levy.jpgMost of the neuroethics literature is written by neuroscientists, but now Cambridge University Press has published a book on neuroethics by philosopher Neil Levy: Neuroethics. Challenges for the 21st Century. Philosophers are famously opposed to anything coming from the neurosciences so it will interesting to see what Levy has to say! Actually, Levy has for some time posted on Adam Kolber’s great Neuroethics and Law blog, so some of his views will already be know to many.

Last November Levy was interviewed on The Philosopher’s Stone at ABC Radio National. I can’t find the audiofile for that interview – leave a message in the comments if you can – but here’s a transcript of it.


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New cognitive neuroscience book

cogbrain170×100.gifThere is a new textbook in cognitive neuroscience coming in June, called Cognition, Brain and Consciousness. The book is edited by Bernard J. Baars and Nicole Gage, who have done a tremendous job with this book.

I would know, because I’m co-author on two of the chapters. The book is richly illustrated and written in a clear and concise manner all through. In addition, an accompanying CD contains supplementary material such as movies and animations.

From the advertisement one can read:

A wave of new research is transforming our understanding of the human mind and brain. Many educational fields now require a basic understanding of the new topic of cognitive neuroscience. Cognition, Brain and Consciousness is a groundbreaking new textbook that bridges the disciplines of neuroscience and psychology to provide students with a clear and simple path to understand the latest findings in this emerging field.

It adopts an easy-to-understand thematic approach, building on widely understood concepts in psychology, such as working memory, selective attention, and social cognition. The brain is introduced in a step-by-step, readable style. Hundreds of color graphics have been carefully selected from the vast Elsevier archives including Gray’s Anatomy and Fundamental Neuroscience. Beautiful, clear artist’s drawings are used to “build a brain” from top to bottom, simplifying the layout of the brain. Drawing exercises at the end of each chapter are provided to strengthen the students’ understanding.

Indeed, what I like about this book overall is that it discusses consciousness up front. In standard cognitive neuroscience textbooks, consciousness is an add-on topic, i.e. it is discussed only later in a book. The treatment of sentience as “something else” than regular cognition is a categorical error. After all, many cognitive functions can operate at both conscious and unconscious levels. The new textbook explicitly addresses consciousness from page one.

– baarsgage.jpgThomas

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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.


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figure1.jpgIs binding the single most important concept in neuroscience? I think it is, even without making the concept too general or vague. On the contrary, binding seems to be a general concept to understand the workings of the brain. No more need for modules of perception, cognition, memory and action. Binding is the solution.

More specifically, what is binding? Or, to reframe the question 100%: what happens when the brain works? To many, the brain binds information together at all levels throughout the brain. If you perceive an object, that particular object is a mixture between colour, form, position, movement etc., that is bound together. Because of you look at the early sensory processes in the brain, we know that the features of an object are treated by separate processes in the brain. Accordingly, they can be lesioned separately, leading to e.g. acquired colour blindless but with intact movement perception.


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religionscience.jpgI just received the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science. It’s nothing short of a mammoth book on this topic — and I didn’t even know it was such a big topic. Basically, the book’s aim is to provide a comprehensive introduction and review of the field. The book also attempts to provide a discussion of the relation between naturalism and supernaturalism

It does this by a series of chapters of different religions and their stand on science. I’m reading the book (at home; too heavy to carry around), and hope to be able to provide a tentative review soon.

…and I always wonder why they call it a ‘handbook’ — I need both arms and feet to hold it, let alone read it.


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Many people are interested in the new, emerging field of neuroaesthetics – the attempt to use neuroscience to understand art and aesthetic behaviour. It is not an easy field to come to as an outsider, though. First of all, at the moment neuroaesthetics is not so much a coherent field (with textbooks and so on) as a collection of researchers with an individual interest in illuminating the neural underpinnings of art behaviour – and what these researchers take “neuroaesthetics” to mean differ rather widely. Secondly, although quite a lot has been written on neuroaesthetics in the last ten years, there is really no representative publication where newcomers can become acquainted with all the problems and research data pertinent to neuroaesthtics (for the reasons stated above).

I therefore thought that I should ease the way for the interested reader by listing a number of books that can serve as a first introduction to the world of neuroaesthetics. I have chosen to only list more or less popular books, not specialist papers, for two reasons: first, since this list is meant as an introduction, the material on it should not be too difficult; second, listing all relevant research papers is simply impossible within the framework of a short blog post. Choosing to highlight only some papers, leaving out others, would surely also make me unpopular with researchers around the world!

Neuroaesthetics can be thought of as a part of a more general study of art and aesthetics as a biological phenomenon. I will follow other proponents of this view (such as Tecumseh Fitch) in calling this broader approach bioaesthetics. The overall goal of bioaesthetics is to answer the three basic biological questions – what?, how?, why? – in regard to aesthetic behaviour in humans: what is art and aesthetics?; how does art and aesthetics spring from the brain?; and why did this cognitive ability evolve in humans? Neuroaesthetics is predominantly concerned with question number 2. In the list that follows below I will also mention a number of books that discuss the other two questions.

What is aesthetics?

Archaeological and anthropological research can help us answer such fundamental questions as when the first works of art appeared in the fossil record, what characterizes them, and who created them. It is of rather great importance to know what function(s) the first art objects had since that function reflects the cognitive capacities of those who created them. Randall White’s book from 2003, Prehistoric art (Harry N. Abrams), gives a fine overview of the when and what. Steven Mithen’s The prehistory of the mind (Thames and Hudson 1996) and David Lewis-Williams’ The mind in the cave (Thames and Hudson 2004) contain interesting speculation on the question of function and cognitive capabilities.

dancers1.jpgEqually important is ethnographic studies of what constitutes art in different contemporary societies. Much debate on “the nature” of art takes its departure from wholly theoretical considerations of what features define art. From a biological perspective it is much more interesting to know what people actually do when they create of experience art. Unfortunately, I know of no ethnographical survey, covering all the world’s cultures. However, in her books on the evolution of art Ellen Dissanayake has several great discussions of what art behaviour actually amounts to in different cultures. See especially her first two books, What is art for? (University of Washington Press 1988) and Homo Aestheticus (University of Washington Press 1992).

To these descriptions of art behaviour we should of course add the controlled investigations of experimental aesthetics. Sadly, most of the books trying to review of this psychological research tradition are rather old and outdated, but a short and idiosyncratic introduction to the field can be found in Robert Solso’s last book The psychology of art and the evolution of the conscious brain (Bradford Book 2003), which exclusive focus is on visual art, though. (Books on music are mentioned in the next section.)

How does art and aesthetics spring from the brain?

Neuroaesthetic research on how the brain gives rise to art and aesthetic behaviour can be divided up in three areas of interest: (1) Representation, (2) Emotion, and (3) Creativity.

Research on representation deals with the question of how the brain transforms perceptual inputs into mental representations – images, musical structures, etc. Since the different art forms – visual art, music, literature, dance, etc. – target different perceptual systems most researchers tend to focus on only one modality, especially vision or music. Good books on visual art are Semir Zeki’s Inner vision (Oxford University Press 1999) and Margaret Livingstone’s Vision and art (Harry N. Abrams 2002). An introduction to music research can be found in Isabelle Peretz & Roberts Zatorre (Eds.), The cognitive neuroscience of music (Oxford University Press 2003), and Daniel Livitin’s new book This is your brain on music (Dutton 2006). No books have yet been published on the cognitive neuroscience of literature – a great loss – but a few books on literature written from the point of view of cognitive science do exist, including Suzanne Nabantian’s Memory in literature (Palgrave Macmillan 2003) and Liza Zunshine’s Why we read fiction (Ohio State University Press 2006). This lack of books on literature written from the perspective of neuroscience is mostly due to the fact that, though there is a lot of neuroscientific research on language as such, almost no experiments yet have attempted to test specific literary questions. The same thing goes for dance and architecture as well (although some research appears to be forthcoming).

vermeer_painter.jpgResearch on emotion and art is a rather recent phenomenon and I know of only one book that explicitly deals with this topic, the book Music and emotion, edited by Patrick Juslin and John Sloboda (Oxford University Press 2001). I think there is reason to expect, though, that we will soon see several new books looking into it. (As Nancy Aiken reports in the comments to this post, her 1998 book, The biological origins of art, also deals with the question of how art elicits emotional responses. I am sorry to say I haven’t read that book yet, though.) In principle the field of emotion and art can be subdivided into two different problems: (1) How are emotions emulated by works of art? (2) How does the brain attach an aesthetic value to works of art? It is well known that a lot of art has human emotional life as its topic – think of romantic comedies, stories of vengeance and so on. Without the ability to induce these emotions in the viewer or reader such art works would simply be meaningless. So the ability of works of art to activate the brain’s emotional system is central to art. At the same time, art also activates the brain’s reward system, giving rise to such emotional reactions as feelings of beauty, ugliness, fascination, etc. Research on how such aesthetic emotions are computed by the brain is booming at the moment.

Finally, brain research on (artistic) creativity is still very much in its infancy. Several papers have been published recently investigating creative problem solving with fMRI and PET, but such research hasn’t really been translated into book presentations yet. The best new book on creativity and the brain is Kenneth Heilman’s Creativity and the brain (Psychology Press 2005). Readers interested in papers on artistic creativity will find several updated chapters in Colin Martindale, Paul Locher & Vladimir Petrov (Eds), Evolutionary and neurocognitive approaches to aesthetics, creativity and the arts (Baywood 2006) and Paul Locher, Colin Martindale & Leonid Dorfman (Eds), New directions in aesthetics, creativity and the arts (Baywood, in press).

I should also mention that in 2004 and 2005 Frank Clifford Rose and Dahlia Zaidel published two fascinating books collecting case stories and patient data casting further light on the issue of representation from the point of view of neuropsychology: Neurology and the arts (Imperial College Press 2004) and Neuropsychology of art (Psychology Press 2005).

Why did aesthetic cognition evolve in humans?

The evolutionary question of why aesthetic cognition evolved in humans is informed by several lines of evidence: archaeological findings, comparative studies of similarities and differences in cognitive behaviour between humans and other animals, genetics, etc. Researchers are often trying to identify either principles of sexual selection or natural selection as the driving force of the evolution of aesthetic cognition. The name most often associated with sexual selection – besides Darwin who first suggested it as a principle of evolution in The descent of man (1871) – is Geoffrey Miller who published the influential book The mating mind in 2000 (William Heinemann). The doyenne of adaptationist aesthetic studies (studies searching for natural selection forces) is Ellen Dissanayake who, apart from the two books already mentioned, published Art and intimacy in 2000 (at the University of Washington Press). The adaptationist approach has spawned quite a few publications in the last ten years, especially concerning the evolution of literature. Two good books on this topic is Joseph Carroll’s Literary darwinism (Routledge 2004) and the anthology The literary animal, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and D.S. Wilson (Northwestern University Press 2005).

chimp-painting.jpgIn addition to these books a number of publications dealing specifically with music have appeared very recently. The first, an anthology edited by Nils Wallin, Björn Merker and Steven Brown, entitled The origins of music (The MIT Press 2001) contains a wealth of different approaches, whereas Steven Mithen’s book The singing neanderthals from 2005 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) promotes only one hypothesis.

As can be seen, the literature on bioaesthetics is rapidly growing and the probably only gain momentum in the coming years. It will be interesting to see if someone will attempt to synthesize research on all three questions, including research on all art forms, in one tome sometimes in the future.


UPDATE. I have changed the embarassing mistitling of Mithen’s book pointed out by Geraldine in the comments. I have also fixed a couple of spelling errors.

There are clearly other relevent books out there which I haven’t mentioned. I encourage you all to suggest additional good titles in the comments section. I would personally be most interested in hearing of French and German books relevant to neuroaesthetics from readers speaking these languages.

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