20 December 2010

Neurobabble, etc.

I think this piece from the NYT, "A Real Science of Mind" by Tyler Burge (Dec. 19, 2010) makes some good points, including this one about "brain talk" that always bugs me when I come across it:

In recent years popular science writing has bombarded us with titillating reports of discoveries of the brain’s psychological prowess.  Such reports invade even introductory patter in biology and psychology.  We are told that the brain — or some area of it sees, decides, reasons, knows, emotes, is altruistic/egotistical, or wants to make love.  For example, a recent article reports a researcher’s “looking at love, quite literally, with the aid of an MRI machine.”  One wonders whether lovemaking is to occur between two brains, or between a brain and a human being.


Neurobabble piques interest in science, but obscures how science works.  Individuals see, know, and want to make love.  Brains don’t.  Those things are psychological — not, in any evident way, neural.  Brain activity is necessary for psychological phenomena, but its relation to them is complex.

But the comments are also worth looking over for some critiques of Burge's approach.

12 September 2010

New ideas on studying

Interesting NY Times article by Benedict Carey titled "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits" published on Sept. 6, 2010.  Here are a few excerpts:

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.


That’s one reason cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

Dr. Roediger uses the analogy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, which holds that the act of measuring a property of a particle (position, for example) reduces the accuracy with which you can know another property (momentum, for example): “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.

05 September 2010

The Brain that Changes Itself - Norman Doidge (2007)

I found The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge up in Whitefish, Montana, and was surprised that I had somehow missed it in the past.  I take my usual exception to the wording of the title - brains don't change themselves - rather people can guide their own brain re-wiring.  This book is a great round-up of the current knowledge around neuro-plasticity - the ability to essentially regain or enhance ones mental capabilities (re-wiring one's brain), whether in response to injury or through conscious efforts.

The book opens with a couple of interesting observations, which I think point out the potential danger of metaphors.  Doidge traces the idea that the brain cannot change to three causes - lack of recovery in many brain-injured patients, lack of direct visibility of brain changes, and "the idea - dating back to the beginnings of modern science - that the brain is like a glorious machine.  And while machines do many extraordinary things, they don't change and grow." (p. xviii).

The book traces findings of many scientists who are studying the possibilities of brain regeneration.  For a long time the theory of localization - that each area of the brain had its own task and couldn't really change - held sway, but the evidence seems pretty overwhelming at this point that indeed areas of the brain can re-wire.  Many of the findings seem to indicate that it takes dedicated effort, and sometimes deliberate constraints, to force the person to find ways to use weakened parts of the body rather than relying on the still-functioning areas (for example, after a stroke when one side of the body may be partially paralyzed, one must find ways to exercise the weak side).  Many of the personal stories here are quite inspiring, showing results thought to be impossible in the past.

For most brain functions, the rule appears to be "use it or lose it" - i.e. one must keep exercising the functions of the brain or else the areas will atrophy.  This applies both to body movements and to mental capability - it appears that both physical and mental exercise are critical to maintaining a sharp mind and brain. 

While much of the focus of the book is on recovery from disability, there is some coverage of tools that may be useful in sharpening the performance of 'normal' folks (one example is the software of Posit Science).  I think there is still so much we don't understand about our own capabilities!

09 July 2010

Your Brain on Exercise

Interesting blog post Your Brain on Exercise by Gretchen Reynolds posted July 7, 2010, on recent studies about the impact of exercise on neurogenesis.  An excerpt:
Your brain, you will be pleased to learn, is packed with adult stem cells, which, given the right impetus, divide and differentiate into either additional stem cells or baby neurons. As we age, these stem cells tend to become less responsive. They don’t divide as readily and can slump into a kind of cellular sleep. It’s BMP that acts as the soporific, says Dr. Jack Kessler, the chairman of neurology at Northwestern and senior author of many of the recent studies. The more active BMP and its various signals are in your brain, the more inactive your stem cells become and the less neurogenesis you undergo. Your brain grows slower, less nimble, older.
But exercise countermands some of the numbing effects of BMP, Dr. Kessler says. In work at his lab, mice given access to running wheels had about 50 percent less BMP-related brain activity within a week. They also showed a notable increase in Noggin, a beautifully named brain protein that acts as a BMP antagonist. The more Noggin in your brain, the less BMP activity exists and the more stem cell divisions and neurogenesis you experience. Mice at Northwestern whose brains were infused directly with large doses of Noggin became, Dr. Kessler says, “little mouse geniuses, if there is such a thing.” They aced the mazes and other tests.
So I guess the lesson here is - use your mind to convince yourself to do some exercise.  It'll do you good in more ways than one!

06 June 2010

'Supersizing the Mind' by Andy Clark (2008)

At the MIT Press book store I found the latest book by Andy Clark (author of 'Natural Born Cyborgs'), entitled 'Supersizing the Mind' (2008, Oxford University Press).  This book is less accessible than his earlier work, as it largely seems to be addressing various arguments and criticisms of the 'embodied mind' proposition that he and David Chalmers first raised in a 1998 paper.

The notion of the 'embodied mind' is that our cognitive processes frequently use resources 'outside our heads' to perform the task.  A simple example would be long division, a task which we learn to do on paper.  For most of us, it would be virtually impossible to do this task with large numbers 'in our head'.  This does not mean that the paper or pencil is a 'cognitive agent' but that the cognitive system includes paper and pencil in its sphere.

This book has some interesting extensions of this idea, such as the role of gestures.  Some research finds that active gesturing can aid in certain cognitive tasks.  "The physical act of gesturing, Goldin-Meadow suggests, plans an active (not merely expressive) role in learning, reasoning, and cognitive change by providing an alternative (analog, motoric, visuospatial) representational format." (p. 125).

There is also some intriguing information about the ready ability we exhibit to 'spread the load' of cognition by reconfiguring problems to avoid having to keep all the information available in our mind - rather it can be written down, or simply referenced in the real world rather than having to store a complete model 'in our heads'. Clark's conclusion is that "the appeal to embodiment, if this is correct, signals not a radical shift as much as a natural progression in the maturing of the sciences of the mind." (p. 219).

28 March 2010

Mind, Language and Society - John Searle (1998)

Philosopher John Searle attempts to cover most of his work in the short book Mind, Language and Society from 1998, and it's a fairly straightforward read.  I don't claim to know exactly how Searle's approaches are regarded generally, but I have to say I found most of his ideas to be well-grounded.  For the blog I'm most interested in what he had to say about the mind, and there were a few things here that I thought were of interest.

He posits that there is indeed a 'real world' and that we have what he calls 'direct perceptual access' to that world.  I would agree that we have perceptual access, but I think it is surely limited and subject to our own interpretations, which may bias what we think the real world consists of.  Bottom line, however, I agree with his assertion that "realism is not a theory at all but the framework within which it is possible to have theories." (p. 32).

In the second chapter, 'Mind as a Biological Phenomenon' he argues that you can study consciousness scientifically.  He rejects the physical/mental split that we've created, he refuses "to accept the system of categories that makes consciousness out as something nonbiological." (p. 52).  "Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes" and "consists of higher-level processes realized in the ... brain."  Bottom line here: "Suppose we start with the fact that the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind, and go from there." (p. 59).  I'm with him on this!

The latter part of the book explores language, and while I have not read much on linguistics, I found some of his ideas quite interesting.  He breaks statements (illocutionary points) down into five categories, the most interesting, I think, being the declarations.  These types of statements essentially create the situation that they describe, such as a declaration of war or a vow of marriage.  He sees language as a powerful tool for creation of our social reality. 
What we have, in effect, is not just the mind on one side and language on the other, but mind and language enriching each other until, for adult human beings, the mind is linguistically structured. (p. 152).
 Here are some interview snippets with Searle.

21 March 2010

Some thoughts from Eric Kandel

Eric R. Kandel won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, and in 2006 published a memoir entitled In Search of Memory, subtitled The Emergence of a New Science of Mind.  While much of his career was in neuroscience and in particular the basis of memory, he did have a background in psychoanalysis, so he brings an interesting viewpoint on the mind-brain link.  He does believe that mind-directed activity such as psychotherapy can change the brain.

"In fact, if psychotherapeutic changes are maintained over time, it is reasonable to conclude that different forms of psychotherapy lead to different structural changes in the brain, just as other forms of learning do." (p. 370).

Kandel would like to evaluate psychotherapeutic techniques through brain imaging of the resultant changes, to give it a more empirical basis.  He also pulls in this quote from Kay Jamison's An Unquiet Mind:

"But, ineffably, psychotherapy heals. It makes some sense of the confusion, reins in terrifying thoughts and feelings, returns some control and hope and possibility of learning from it all. Pills cannot, do not, ease one back into reality." (p. 372 of In Search of Memory).

I think the point of control is an interesting one.  If one relies only on the neuroscience approach to the brain, this effectively cedes control of brain changes to the expert, whether through use of drugs or more invasive techniques.  With a mind-directed approach, there is the potential for self-control and direction.

17 March 2010

More on brain healing, learning

A McClatchy story by Nancy Churnin ran today in the Oregonian entitled "Scientists rethinking the brain" - couldn't find it on their website, but found it on the Taiwan News site.  News of interest concerns a man who was thought to have permanent damage with regard to "his ability to talk to people and stay on task".  He was helped by a set of exercises on attention and reasoning.
Strategic attention: the skill to block out distractions and focus on what's important. Exercises might include taking stock of your environment, identifying what distracts you and eliminating or limiting those things, and creating daily priority lists.

Integrated reasoning: the ability to find the message or theme in what you are watching, reading or doing. Exercises might include making a point of reflecting on the meaning of a book after you've read it or a movie after you've seen it and writing down your interpretation.

Innovation: the vision to identify patterns and come up with new ideas, fresh perspectives and multiple solutions to problems. Exercises might include thinking of multiple solutions to problems as they come up, talking to other people to get a different perspective and taking time to step away from a problem to give yourself an opportunity for creative thoughts.

Hayner says his sessions - he attended for two months and completed take-home exercises - proved invaluable.

"I have been on so many drugs and medications, and they got me nowhere," he says. "Adults with TBIs (traumatic brain injuries) tend to become overwhelmed, and when someone becomes overwhelmed, it spirals into fear and chaos, and we have a tendency to shut down.

"Today as long as I stick to what I was taught here about filtering information and innovative thinking and what's important and what's not important and apply that to my real life, things don't confuse and baffle me ... I can make a decision on the important things that have to be done each day."
Using the mind to heal the brain...

15 March 2010

Yoga at elementary school in Portland

Ran across this interesting tidbit in a cover story of the Oregonian today: "Portland's Lent School helps disadvantaged students soar" by Betsy Hammond, on the positive results at a local elementary school.  Yoga is mentioned on the front page, but in the story itself there's just a bit more on it:

But the school also engages students in hands-on science from the earliest grades. And every elementary student gets art lessons, drama or music class and library time with a specialist each week. Some even have regular yoga lessons to help them relax and feel successful. 
I'd be interested in knowing more about the yoga program - how many kids are in it, do they self-select, how often do they go, etc.

Finding Consciousness in the Brain?

This short article "Can You Find Consciousness in the Brain?" by Ray Tallis raises some of the philosophical problems of the quest.

Thus measurement takes us further from experience and the phenomena of subjective consciousness to a realm where things are described in abstract but quantitative terms. To do its work, physical science has to discard “secondary qualities”, such as colour, warmth or cold, taste – in short, the basic contents of consciousness. For the physicist then, light is not in itself bright or colourful, it is a mixture of vibrations in an electromagnetic field of different frequencies. The material world, far from being the noisy, colourful, smelly place we live in, is colourless, silent, full of odourless molecules, atoms, particles, whose nature and behaviour is best described mathematically. In short, physical science is about the marginalisation, or even the disappearance, of phenomenal appearance/qualia, the redness of red wine or the smell of a smelly dog.

Consciousness, on the other hand, is all about phenomenal appearances/qualia. As science moves from appearances/qualia and toward quantities that do not themselves have the kinds of manifestation that make up our experiences, an account of consciousness in terms of nerve impulses must be a contradiction in terms. There is nothing in physical science that can explain why a physical object such as a brain should ascribe appearances/qualia to material objects that do not intrinsically have them.

14 March 2010

What is determined?

I recently came across this book description:

In If Not God, Then What? theoretical neuroscientist Joshua Fost shows how the search for beauty is the source of both religious experience and scientific theorizing. The pleasure of seeing a beautiful face, the thrill of understanding a new idea, the sublimity of art and the power of religious transformation are all, in the end, the result of a brain that wants to make sense of the world. Weaving ideas from brain science and everyday activities, from Sunday cartoons to existentialism, Fost shows how a biological idiosyncrasy motivates them all. But if religious experience is just a special activity pattern in neurons, what should we think about its undeniable and emotionally transformative power? If everything we do is determined by physics, what is the basis for free will, or ethics? Blending receptivity to the glory of spiritual exultation with an insistence on naturalistic foundations, If Not God, Then What? breaks new ground and gives its readers insight into a compelling new worldview.
The phrase I found most troubling is "If everything we do is determined by physics..." - this just seems wrong to me as a proposition.  The laws of physics constrain what is possible, but they do not seem to determine or predict what is possible.  Do the laws of physics determine that the boiling point of water is at 100 Centrigrade? I don't think so.  In fact we don't know very much about the actual properties of substances until we experiment.

Likewise, computers are constrained by operating on particular chips.  Does this mean that we can predict everything that is possible to do with computers? 

And our brains operate with neurons and bio-chemical reactions, etc.  Does this mean that we can predict all that is possible with our minds?  I think not.  We need to experiment to see what is possible.

Critique of 'Scientism'

I think this passage sums up my feelings about the extreme materialist views that seem common in neuroscience.  It's from 'Blinded by Scientism' by Edward Feser.

The irony is that the very practice of science itself, which involves the formulation of hypotheses, the weighing of evidence, the invention of technical concepts and vocabularies, the construction of chains of reasoning, and so forth—all mental activities saturated with meaning and purpose—falls on the “subjective,” “manifest image” side of scientism’s divide rather than the “objective,” “scientific image” side. Human thought and action, including the thoughts and actions of scientists, is of its nature irreducible to the meaningless, purposeless motions of particles and the like. Some thinkers committed to scientism realize this, but conclude that the lesson to draw is not that scientism is mistaken, but that human thought and action are themselves fictions. According to this radical position—known as “eliminative materialism” since it entails eliminating the very concept of the mind altogether instead of trying to reduce mind to matter—what is true of human beings is only what can be put in the technical jargon of physics, chemistry, neuroscience and the like. There is no such thing as “thinking,” “believing,” “desiring,” “meaning,” etc.; there is only the firing of neurons, the secretion of hormones, the twitching of muscles, and other such physiological events. While this is definitely a minority position even among materialists, there are those who acknowledge it to be the inevitable consequence of a consistent scientism, and endorse it on that basis. But as Hayek would have predicted, the very attempt to state the position necessarily, but incoherently, makes use of concepts—“science,” “rationality,” “evidence,” “truth,” and so forth—that presuppose exactly what the position denies, viz. the reality of meaning and mind.

Just because there are firing neurons, etc. does not mean that that's the only level of interesting phenomena underlying 'mind' - in fact I think in many ways this is the least interesting level!  Not to say that there aren't interesting findings coming from brain studies - of course there are - but there are limits to what can be discovered when looking from the 'outside' of the mind.

12 March 2010

What is Mind?

Let's see what Wikipedia has to say about Mind:

"Mind is the aspect of intellect and consciousness experienced as combinations of thought, perception, memory, emotion, will and imagination, including all unconscious cognitive processes. The term is often used to refer, by implication, to the thought processes of reason. Mind manifests itself subjectively as a stream of consciousness."

This seems useful enough. The key, I believe, is that mind is subjective. The issue of  conscious faculties versus unconcious ones is worth considering.

07 March 2010

The Mind and the Brain

I’ve been reading a number of things lately about the mind (our subjective experience) and the brain, and how they inter-relate.  Some scientists seem perfectly comfortable with simply stating that the mind can be equated to brain-states, and this may be true (I don’t think we really know, though the scientific position rejects the dualistic approach that posits the mind as something more or different from the brain).  But even so, certainly my experience of mind is not an experience of brain-states, it is about concepts like attention, memory, feeling, etc.  I am particularly interested in scientific study of how intentional mind-states have impact on the brain (and thus have known physical effects), even if we don’t really understand what ‘attention’ actually is.

Here’s some material from a book I’ve been reading called Train Your Mind Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley which reports on some recent neuroscience findings (it’s in fact a summary of findings that were presented to the Buddhist community  including the Dalai Lama in a series of workshops).  Many of the findings are with regard to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change in response to various stimuli.  But this one stuck out in my mind (page 158):

Attention is also, as it happens, indispensable for neuroplasticity. Nowhere was that shown more dramatically than in one of Mike Merzenich’s experiments with monkeys. The scientists rigged up a device that tapped the animals’ fingers one hundred minutes a day every day for six weeks.  At the same time as this bizarre dance was playing on their fingers, the monkeys listened to sounds over headphones. Some of the monkeys were taught, pay attention to what you feel on your fingers, such as when the rhythm changes, we’ll reward you with a sip of juice; don’t pay attention to the sounds. Other monkeys were taught, pay attention to the sound, and if you indicate when it changes, you’ll get juice. At the end of six weeks, the scientists compared the monkeys’ brains. Let me underline that every monkey, whether trained to pay attention to what it was hearing or what it was feeling on its fingers, had the exact same physical experience – sounds coming in through headphones plus taps on its fingers. The only thing that made one monkey different from another was what it paid attention to.

Usually, when a particular spot on the skin suddenly begins receiving unusual amounts of stimulation, its representation in the somatosensory cortex expands. That was what Mike Merzenich discovered in his monkeys. But when the monkeys paid attention to what they heard rather than to what they felt, there was no change in the somatosensory cortex – no expension of the region that handles input from the finger feeling the flutter.
It goes on to state that the stimuli that was attended to produced more brain resources going to that stimuli, and not to the one that was ignored.  So in some sense it appears that ‘attention’ can be a part of what shapes our brain, and that since we can direct our attention, there may be ways to consciously direct the development of brain resources.

Now in some ways this finding seems completely obvious.  Clearly when we’re in school, we tend to learn those things which we pay attention to… if you attend a foreign language class and don’t pay attention, you may pick up a few words, but will not learn much.  This just confirms that there’s an actual physical result from the conscious attention.  The interesting questions to me are what techniques can be used to direct attention in the most effective way to achieve one’s goals and desires.

Also it seems to me that as more brain resources are trained on particular tasks, the task moves from one that requires conscious attention to being more of a background, autonomous process, allowing the conscious attention to move to other areas.

11 February 2010

'Natural Born Cyborgs' by Andy Clark (2003)

The author of Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark, is more philosopher than science fiction writer, though as the cover indicates he does cover some pretty far out technology in this book.  He’s most interested in the notion of the ‘expanded mind’, by that meaning the way we incorporate not only biological but also technological tools to navigate in the world.  By this he means not just the cinematic cyborg concepts like implants into the brain, but also simpler tools like pen and paper, and anything else we use either consciously or unconsciously.  I found this book really interesting for a number of reasons, and I’ll try to cover a few high points.

1.  On language:
“The deepest contributions of speech and language to human thought, however, may be something so large and fundamental that it is sometimes hare to see it at all! For it is our linguistic capacities, I have long suspected, that allow us to think and reason about our own thinking and reasoning. And it is this capacity, in turn, that may have been the crucial foot-in-the-door for the culturally transmitted process of designer-environment construction: the process of deliberately building better worlds to think in.” (p. 78).  What he’s getting at here is language as a tool that gives us the ability to examine concepts and generate ideas that could not have been conceived of without language.

In a somewhat similar fashion he mentions how we use mathematical shortcuts and paper-based tools to, for example, multiply two large numbers, like 147 * 382.  Most of us cannot do that calculation in our heads, but with a piece of paper and a pencil and the mental math tools of breaking the problem down into simple integer multiplication (7 * 2, then 7* 8, etc.) we can solve the problem.  So is the calculation simply in our head, or is it in fact a collaboration of brain and pencil and paper (or these days brain and calculator).  The tools expand our mental universe, give us access to areas that we could not get to without them.

2. On extended mental worlds, Alzheimer’s example:
“These patients were a puzzle because although they still lived alone, successfully, in the city, they really should not have been able to do so. On standard psychological tests they performed rather dismally. They should have been unable to cope with the demands of daily life. What was going on? A sequence of visits to their home environments provided the answer. These home environments, it transpired, were wonderfully calibrated to support and scaffold these biological brains. The homes were stuffed full of cognitive props, tools and aids. Examples included message centers where they stored notes about what to do and when; photos of family and friends complete with indications of names and relationships; lables and pictures on doors; [etc.]” (p. 140).

Here again he is making the point that we put ‘intelligence’ out in our environment, and our brains and bodies work with these tools to make sense of the world.  Note that none of this involves ‘biological implants’ but in principle these too are tools that can feed us more useful information, just the way a cane can provide information to a blind person.

3. The extended mind:
“What we really need to reject, I suggest, is the seductive idea that these various neural and nonneural tools need a kind of privileged user. Instead, it is just tools all the way down. Some of those tools are indeed more closely implicated in our conscious awareness of the world than others. But those elements, taken on their own, would fall embarrassingly short of reconstituting any recognizable version of a human mind or an individual person. Some elements, likewise are more important to our sense of self and identity than others. Some elements play larger roles in control and decision making than others. But this divide, like the ones before it, tends to crosscut the inner and the outer, the biological and the nonbiological.” (p 137).

“Tools-R-Us. But we are prone, it seems, to a particularly dangerous kind of cognitive illusion. Because our best efforts at watching our own minds in action reveal only the conscious flow of ideas and decisions, we mistakenly identify ourselves with the stream of conscious awareness.” (p. 137).

There is plenty more to chew on in this book.  This argument about the extended mind is similar to the points made by Alva Noe in his book Out of Our Heads.