Archive for the ‘history’ Category

I just love the way that YouTube is developing these days. If you just spend some time searching this wonderful site, you can get access to so many different teaching resources for psychology, neuroscience and philosophy that you could ever dream of. Seeing an interview with the younger Michael Gazzaniga speaking about the callosotomy procedure, BF Skinner speaking, even an item on Pavlov, just just blows my mind.

Below is just a few examples:

Gazzaniga on the split-brain procedure (good thing it’s not in colour)

And here is a thing on split-brain mind-blowing behaviour:

BF Skinner on operant conditioning

Or how about giving a demo of how patients with unilateral neglect actually behave (I’ve seen this many time when I was working clinically, but it’s like “what are you doing?”)


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Edge.org briefly taps into a most important topic: is China going to be the next leader in science and economy? Many observers tend to think this, and it is iterated in the media regularly. In terms of economy, we may expect this to be the case. The sheer amount of people, combined with lower rates of salary etc. suggests that for a period, China will be competitive not only in industy but also high-tech jobs.

But in science? I usually think of science as either basic or applied (although they can be mutually informative, and the distinction is not water proof). For applied science, like engineering, IT and so forth, one may expect that Chine may do well. But in basic science, what we often encounter is surprising, unexpected, and, not the least, runs straight counter to our wide-held beliefs. And the realization of these ideas depend on whether the state are basically tuned to accepting scientific results.

Think for example, how often you hear science news that actually alter your thought about the human/animal mind, the world and cosmos, and so forth. Many of these ideas run straight counter to widely and long-held beliefs in society and even academia. Think of our understanding of the role of unconscious (often emotionally driven) brain processes in decision making. Or, one of our favourite topics here: how genes contribute to specific differences between people’s brains, minds and behaviour. These ideas run straight counter to ideas in religion, economic theory and social science. But they are nevertheless expressed freely, through the peer-reviewed scientific thought.

So the question could be put differently: could ideas about evolution and evolutionary psychology, quantum mechanics, or the Big Bang ever come from scientists residing in China? Several authors and observers may think not. Although this is NOT the topic of the Edge.org issue, the brief title of the news, and the afterword by Dawkins suggests that it deserves more attention.


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“It is much clearer that consciousness is determined by physical states of the brain than it is that a separate mind perceives and acts through the brain” (Stephen Walker, Animal Thought, 1983).

I am going over papers and books at the moment pertaining to the great reductionism problem (preparing a chapter for Thomas’ and mine forthcoming book), and I must confess that it baffles me why philosophers are so convinced of the existence of the mind. While we know that the brain exists, and are able to study its nature and function directly, we only know of the mind through indirect and unreliable means (behaviour, introspection). It seems to me that the questions should not so much be whether or not the mind can be reduced to the workings of the brain, as how the behaviour and cognitive functions we asociate with the mind can arise from neural activity – which is not the same question!

Naturally, there is a historical reason for the reductionism debate. Before mankind had any idea about the nature of physics or the brain, perception, memory, language, and other forms of “mental function”, were pondered as special metaphysical principles or entities – called the “soul” by the Greeks – inhering in the physical matter of the body. Hence, philosophers grabled with mental functions for thousands of years before physics and neuroscience made it possible to even begin investigating the brain. When the first really serious anatomical and physiological results of such investigations begang to appear in the 17th Century through the work of Vesalius, Willis, and others, it therefore came to a conflict between the old received idea of a non-material soul and the new mechanical wordview. How on Earth can the soul possibly be inhering in the physical properties of the brain? Well, according to Descartes, to whom this question first presented itself, surely only through some kind of mysterious linkage about which we cannot say anything. However, without the old assumed existence of the soul, there would not have been a need to reconceale mind and brain.

In parallel to Descartes, today philosophers seek to illuminate how mental functions and neural processes are linked through “bridge laws” and other forms of modern technical notions. Yet, as with Descartes, the question of how mental function and neural processes are linked is only raised by the very assumption that two separate substances – mind and brain – exist. If we don’t accept this metaphysical dualism, the reduction problem dissapear!

It is time to leave ancient metaphysics behind, people! The burden of proof rests with the “non-reductionists”: why should we accept the existence of “the mind”?


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Neuroethics is an inherently historical field, although this is not always pointed out: the cases and experiments discussed by the neuroethics literature took place sometime in the past, and in many cases it might be beneficial to also consider the historical context when examining them. What were the theoretical assumptions that informed the experiments? What social and political factors surrounded some specific case story? An interesting example of this strategy is three new papers on “Neurosciences and the Third Reich” published in the September issue of Journal of the History of Neuroscience. As Axel Karenberg notes in an accompaning editorial: “What and how much can we learn from the past to help us better plan for the future? Every interaction with Nazism forces us to confront this question.”

The first of the three papers, Florian Steger’s essay “Neuropathological research at the ‘Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie’ in Munich…”, examines how German scientists took advantage of the Nazi regime’s euthanasia policies to conduct unethical experiments on people, often children, who were later killed.

The second, Florian Schmaltz‘s paper “Neurosciences and Research on Chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction in Nazi Germany”, looks at the neurochemical weapons development program started and later discontinued in 1942. While the resulting nerve gasses were never widely used during World War II, the German researchers responsible for developing them were later, after the war, recruited by the allied forces.

And the third, an essay by Jürgen Pfeiffer entitled “Phases in the postwar German reception of the ‘Euthanasia Program’ (1939-1945)…”, explores how Germany after the war refused to deal with this dark chapter of German neuroscience and medical research.

At the end of his editorial Alex Karenberg ponders what ethical lessons can be extracted from examining the history of neuroscience in the Third Reich and draws three conclusions which I here quote:

1: Our view of the natural sciences has changed since the development of atomic weapons and the Nuremberg Trials. “Pure science” — the search for truth in ivory towers — no longer exists. Scientists today bear a moral responsibility for consequences and aberrations. The history of medicine in the Third Reich made abundantly clear how dependent medical research is on political pressure, social expectations, and financial considerations.
This is as true today as it was then, even when the circumstances have changed. The task of medical historians is to make this clear to current and future students and scientists.

2: Nazi medicine makes equally clear that it is not a question of good versus bad research — but that medical knowledge is always in conflict with ethical values. Ever since medicine became a true natural science, this union has had an inherently destructive potential. Where and whenever the desire for scientific progress dominates and is made superior to all other moral values, that is where and when the “dark side” of medicine will be found: in the Third Reich, in other totalitarian regimes, and even in democratic states lacking strong ethics. Inhuman and inhumane progress is possible in any kind of research when the only goal is the acquisition of knowledge. This is and shall remain true.

3: Finally, writing history is not the same as personal memory. History is constructed memory based on dates and facts. Personal memory is subjective and emotional. Society and above all science needs both forms of cultural remembrance in order to fully understand itself. This is especially the case for German medicine when recalling those crimes committed in the name of science. I would thus like to conclude this introduction with two citations dealing with the power of self-criticism and memory. The first is from the Book of KingsI (19:4): “I am no better than my ancestors.” The second is from a speech given by former German President Richard von Weizsäcker: “The secret of reconciliation is remembering.”

It would certainly be interesting, in the future, to see a more direct integration of historical research with neuroethics discussions.


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Kandel memoirs out

I didn't know Eric Kandel had written his memoirs. But he has. The book is entitled "In Search of Memory", and The NY Times has just published a review of it.

– Martin









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Thomas has several times written about how science have stripped us humans of our self-notion of being unique in the universe. Here's a visual rendition of the four major results to have "dethroned" us:

– Martin

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