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.