The philosophy of wine

Two views on wine appreciation. The first from the introduction of an academic book edited by Prof Barry Smith called Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, a volume that collects perspectives from philosophy and cognitive science on how we understand the qualities of wine:

Do we directly perceive the quality of a wine, or do we assess its quality on the basis of what we first perceive? Tasting seems to involve both perception and judgement. But does the perceptual experience of tasting – which relies on the sensations of touch, taste and smell – already involve a judgement of quality? Is such judgement a matter of understanding and assessment, and does require wine knowledge to arrive at a correct verdict?

Some philosophers would claim that one cannot assess a wine’s quality on the basis of perceptual experience alone and evaluation goes beyond what one finds in a description of its objective characteristics. According to these thinkers something else is required to arrive at an assessment of a wine’s merits. This may be the pleasure the taster derives from the wine, the valuing of certain characteristics, or the individual preferences of the taster. Is there room among such views for non-subjective judgements of wine quality?

And the alternative view, from The New York Times review of the same book:

The rhetoric and rituals of wine appreciation are sometimes said to be the alimentary equivalent of lipstick on a pig: they are meant to give an attractive sheen to the ugly business of getting drunk.

Link to book details (thanks Kat!).
Link to NYT review.

When a Rose Is Not Red

There’s an interesting article in January’s Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience about a brain injured patient who has a curious form of simultanagnosia – the inability to perceive more than one object at once.

In this case, he also seemed unable to report more than one attribute, like colour or name, at a time, while looking at the object.

Simultanagnosia: When a Rose Is Not Red.

J Cogn Neurosci. 2008, 20 (1), 36-48

Coslett HB, Lie G.

Information regarding object identity (“what”) and spatial location (“where/how to”) is largely segregated in visual processing. Under most circumstances, however, object identity and location are linked. We report data from a simultanagnosic patient (K.E.) with bilateral posterior parietal infarcts who was unable to “see” more than one object in an array despite relatively preserved object processing and normal preattentive processing. K.E. also demonstrated a finding that has not, to our knowledge, been reported: He was unable to report more than one attribute of a single object. For example, he was unable to name the color of the ink in which words were written despite naming the word correctly. Several experiments demonstrated, however, that perceptual attributes that he was unable to report influenced his performance. We suggest that binding of object identity and location is a limited-capacity operation that is essential for conscious awareness for which the posterior parietal lobe is crucial.

This is particularly interesting because it relates to a key question in understanding consciousness, known as the ‘binding problem‘.

The brain deals with different parts of perception (for example movement, colour, light-dark differences) in different parts of the brain, yet when we perceive an object, it all seems to be integrated into one conscious experience.

For example, our experience of an object’s colour and movement never seem to be ‘out of synch’. How this happens is the essence of the binding problem.

This case report is of someone whose brain injury seems to prevent ‘binding’.

Looking at what brain injured patients can no longer do and matching this with the damaged areas can give us a clue to how the brain works because “you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone”.

Strictly speaking, this is called the transparency assumption in cognitive neuropsychology but I call it the Joni Mitchell principle as the quote is a song lyric of hers (I got this from a student essay I once marked so thank you insightful mystery student!).

In this case, the patient suffered damage to both sides of the back of the parietal lobes because of a stroke (“bilateral posterior parietal infarcts”), suggesting the parietal lobes might be key in binding perceptual elements for consciousness.

Unfortunately, I can’t get to the full-text of the paper yet, so I’m not sure what insights the authors themselves have offered. Still, a fascinating case.

Link to PubMed abstract.

Finding Alzheimer’s

The New York Times has a fantastic article on the neuroscience of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the human impact of the disorder on individuals and their families.

The article is accompanied by two video reports that weave together personal stories with some of the latest developments in understanding the disorder.

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia, which is where the mind and brain break down quicker than would be expected through normal ageing.

Like many forms of dementia, the first symptoms (such as memory, attention, language or movement problems) appear after a significant amount of brain damage has already been done.

One of the key aims of dementia research is to identify this process while it is still ‘silent’ to understand how it forms and try and prevent it developing further.

Genetics are one focus, but they are known to be complex. Certain genes (most famously ‘ApoE’) are known to alter the risk of developing the Alzheimer’s in older people, but they’re only one part of the puzzle.

However, there is one form of Alzheimer’s that is inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern, meaning that if one of your parents has it, you’ve got a fifty percent change of getting it too.

It means that if you’ve inherited the gene or genes (autosomal dominance implies a single gene, but several are currently candidates), you’re almost definitely going to develop the disorder.

Interestingly, this autosomal dominant version of Alzheimer’s tends to happen much earlier in life, in the early 60s, 50s or in some cases, even the 40s.

A similar thing happens with other similarly inherited dementias, like CADASIL, where a single gene has been fairly confidently identified.

It’s both terrifying and amazing to think that a difference in a single gene, expressing a single different protein, can cause such as massive break down in brain function.

The article also looks at a new type of dye which allows abnormal clumps of amyloid protein, a brain change characteristic of Alzheimer’s, to be seen on a PET brain scan done on living people.

At the moment, Alzheimer’s can only be diagnosed with 100% accuracy after death, but this new technique could allow brain changes to be tracked in people before they develop any symptoms.

However, it’s become clear that you can have protein clumps without having the disease.

Researchers are increasingly talking about ‘cognitive reserve‘, a measure of ‘wear and tear’ or ‘fitness’ of the brain, with the idea that the disease happens where various factors tip the brain ‘over the threshold’ into physical decline.

The ‘threshold’ is thought to be set by a combination of genetics, physical health, cognitive ability, education and level of activity.

The New York Times article is a wonderful guide to the scientific debates behind the quest to understand the disorder, and the videos really bring home the effect of it.

Link to NYT article ‘Finding Alzheimer‚Äôs Before a Mind Fails’ with videos.

Sex, prodrugs and rock and roll

BBC News has a report on the increasingly popularity of gamma-Butyrolactone or GBL as a recreational drug. Actually, it’s not a drug in itself, but once ingested it is metabolised into GHB, a drug often sold under the name ‘Liquid Ecstasy’.

Actually, the effects are much more like alcohol than ecstasy (the street name is just a marketing ploy) and the similarities to alcohol can be seen in its structure and effect on the brain, as both affect GABA receptors.

The increasing popularity of GBL is particularly interesting, however, as GBL is legal, but the body transforms it into the illegal UK Class C substance GHB.

Compounds that are weak or inactive until the body transforms them into an active drug are called prodrugs, and this is the first situation that I can think of where a legal prodrug has been found for an illegal drug.

Probably the most commonly used illicit prodrug is heroin, which is metabolised into morphine in the body, but both are Class A drugs in the UK so there’s no legal benefit to having one rather than the other.

GHB is usually described as a ‘date rape drug’ despite the fact that it is barely used in ‘date rapes’, unlike alcohol, which is used in the vast majority of cases and is a much better candidate for the ‘date rape drug’ label.

GBL is closely related to 1,4-Butanediol, which is also a GHB prodrug. 1,4-B recently caused a scare because a toy called ‘Aqua Dots’ was made using the compound and had to be withdrawn after several infants swallowed the plastic pellets and became dangerously intoxicated.

Needless to say, the news inspired some to swallow the plastic pellets for fun and the experience was, inevitably, reported online.

GHB is a nervous system depressant, and like all depressants, a major danger is unconsciousness, coma, and collapse of breathing and circulation.

Consequently, there have been a number of reports of these cases being admitted to hospital emergency rooms.

The long-term toxicity of these substances aren’t really known, but as both GBL and 1,4-B are used as industrial solvents and cleaning fluids, it’s likely that they give the body a fairly rough time.

Link to BBC News on the rise of GBL use.

A War of Nerves

I’ve just started reading Ben Shephard’s stunning book A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists that tracks the history of military psychiatry through the 20th century.

Even if you’re not interested in the military per se, the wars of the last 100 years have been incredibly important in shaping our whole understanding of mental breakdown, mind-body concepts and clinical treatment.

For example, the effects of trauma stemming from World War I were so shockingly obvious and happened in such large numbers that the medical establishment could no longer deny the role of the mind in both the theories and practice of treating ‘nervous disorders’.

In effect, it made psychology not only acceptable, but necessary, to a previously sceptical medical establishment that were largely focused on an ‘organs and nerves’ view of human life.

One of the big concerns during World War I was ‘shell shock’, a confusing and eventually abandoned label that was typically used to describe any number of physical problems (such as paralysis, blindness, uncontrollable shaking) that arose from combat stress.

The original name came from early theories that suggested these symptoms arose from the effect of ‘shock waves’ on the nervous system.

However, it became clear that only a small percentage of cases actually resulted from actual brain injury (interestingly, a recent article in the American Journal of Psychiatry notes parallels between ‘shell shock’ and concerns over the effects of Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs in Iraq).

It turns out, many of the symptoms were triggered or exacerbated by unbearable stress and were shaped by beliefs and expectations.

This was clearly demonstrated when a ‘gas shock’ syndrome emerged during World War I when gas attacks became more frequent.

Like ‘shell shock’, it arose from a combination of extreme stress and was shaped by expectation and fear (the descriptions of death by mustard gas are truly horrifying) even when no gas injury could be detected.

An eye witness recalled that: “When men trained to believe that a light sniff of gas meant death, and with nerves highly strung by being shelled for long periods and with the presence of not a few who really had been gassed, it is no wonder that a gas alarm went beyond all bounds. It was remarked as a joke that if someone yelled ‘gas’, everyone in France would put on a mask. Two or three alarms a night was common. Gas shock was as common as shell shock.”

The military managed (and still manage) these forms of combat stress reactions by rest (stress and fatigue play a great part) but also by managing expectations.

Soldiers are typically treated briefly and near the front line, with the expectation they’ll rejoin their unit. In effect, instilling the belief that the effects are unfortunate but transient. As a result, they usually are.

Shephard’s book is full of fascinating facts, quotes and insights on every page as he’s used some incredibly in-depth historical research to bring not only the scientific and medical issues alive, but also the culture and attitudes of the time.

He’s interwoven military records and scientific research with press commentary and personal letters to make the book really quite moving in places.

I’m sure I’ll be posting more gems as I read more.

Link to book details.
Link to abstract of ‘Shell shock and mild traumatic brain injury: a historical review.’

Philosophy, as God intended (if he were a school girl)

It seems it’s still handbags at 40 paces as the full text of Colin McGinn’s increasingly infamous review of Honderich’s book On Conciousness has been posted to the web, so you can enjoy the academic mudslinging in all its glory.

If you’re not clear on the background to this spectacular resurgence of the long-running feud, have a look at our post from a few days back.

To continue the saga, Honderich has also posted his own reply , followed by McGinn’s subsequent response with his own (one sentence!) reply to that.

Of course, there’s some good conceptual points being made about the nature of consciousness, but let’s be honest, that’s not why we’re reading it.

Link to McGinn’s review of On Consciousness with links to replies (via MeFi).

Beliefs about intelligence affect mental performance

I’ve just found a fascinating five minute NPR radio report on work by psychologist Carol Dweck that has found that if a child thinks that intelligence is something that can change throughout life, they do better in school.

Dweck has been doing some fascinating work on what affects children’s academic performance.

We’ve reported on some of her earlier work, including the fact that praising children for their intelligence actually makes them perform worse in certain situations, whereas praising them for their hard work encourages them to tackle adversity when it occurs.

This NPR radio slot covers some work she published with colleagues in a freely available paper looking at the fact that children who believe that intelligence is flexible seem to do better as they “tend to emphasize ‚Äòlearning goals‚Äô and rebound better from occasional failures”.

Dweck and her colleagues then tested the idea that if they taught children that intelligence could grow, their performance would improve. As predicted, it did.

It’s a really great example of carefully targeted cognitive science research. It’s a counter-intuitive finding that has direct practical application to improving children’s academic performance in both the long- and short-term.

It’s also a lovely example of a self-confirming belief. Children who believe intelligence is fixed are more likely to have fixed performance, whereas children who believe intelligence can grow are more likely to show performance growth.

The implications for the psychology of teachers are also interesting, because it would seem to be self-confirming for them as well. Teachers who believe that poorly performing children may have hidden potential might see them improve when they pass this on to the child.

Teachers who believe that poorly performing children are unlikely to change may actually limit a child’s performance if the child picks up on this and begins to believe the same.

So it might be worth testing whether teachers’ beliefs about intelligence affect their students’ performance as well.

Link to NPR on ‘Students’ View of Intelligence Can Help Grades’.
Link to paper ‘Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success?’.