Not seeing the wood for the dendritic trees

The LA Times has an article by Jonah Lehrer arguing that we can’t solely understand the mind and brain by reductionism – the process of working out smaller and smaller components of what we’re trying to study.

He argues that an approach that uses only measurement will never capture the complexity of subjective experience and that cognitive science needs to rediscover the value of first-person experience if it is to truly capture human thought and behaviour.

Lehrer suggests that the arts might be a way of re-addressing the balance:

The question, of course, is how neuroscience can get beyond reductionism. Science rightfully adheres to a strict methodology, relying on experimental data and testability, but this method could benefit from an additional set of inputs. Artists, for instance, have studied the world of experience for centuries. They describe the mind from the inside, expressing our first-person perspective in prose, poetry and paint. Although a work of art obviously isn’t a substitute for a scientific experiment — Proust isn’t going to invent Prozac — the artist can help scientists better understand what, exactly, they are trying to reduce in the first place. Before you break something apart, it helps to know how it hangs together.

Virginia Woolf, for example, famously declared that the task of the novelist is to “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day … [tracing] the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

In other words, she wanted to describe the mind from the inside, to distill the details of our psychological experience into prose.

Woolf and her fellow ‘stream of consciousness’ writers, however, were latecomers to this particular challenge.

The phenomenologist philosophers, most notably Karl Jaspers and Edmund Husserl, were attempting to chart the subjective structure of the mind in the early 1900s.

While scientific psychology has been the dominant research paradigm for the past century, there has been a small but dedicated band of psychologists, psychiatrists and philosophers who have attempted to continue the project.

In particular, psychiatry and clinical psychology involve the application of science to help patients who report disturbances in their subjective mental states, so this area has always been particularly influential in these areas.

In fact, it’s seeing something of a resurgence, with special issues of scientific journals being published on the topic.

Of course, Lehrer’s main point, that we ignore subjective experience at our peril, is exactly the thinking that led to the eventual death of behaviourism in the first half of the 20th century.

That’s not to say that behaviourism was worthless. Far from it. Many of the theories are still as valid today, but as with reductionism, beware when any tool becomes an ideology.

Art is another way of approaching an understanding of first-person experience of course, which is why Lehrer is arguing its benefit to cognitive science.

As it goes, I’m working on something similar at the moment, as I’m going to be co-teaching a course on cinema and the phenomenology of psychosis with psychiatrist Andrea Raballo and psychologist Frank Laroi at the next European Congress of Psychiatry, so look out for some musings on the topic in the coming weeks and months.

Link to LA Times article ‘Misreading the mind’.
Link to previous Lehrer article on art and science.

Wired on suicides of AI leading lights

Wired magazine has a feature article on the life, work and tragic deaths of two of the leading lights of Artificial Intelligence: Chris McKinstry and Push Singh.

Singh was a young researcher at MIT’s AI lab while McKinstry was considered a maverick and most of his AI work was conducted independently.

Both had a significant impact on the field as personalities and took a similar line in trying to make AI more focused on dealing with ‘common sense’ knowledge, rather than applying neural networks to complex pattern-recognition and transformation tasks as was more common at the time.

Interestingly, it seems from the Wired article that their ideas are experiencing something of a renaissance.

Tragically, both took their own lives. We covered the sad event of McKinstry’s death back in 2006, and the Wired article discusses the somewhat less clear circumstances surrounding the death of Singh.

Link to Wired article ‘Two AI Pioneers. Two Bizarre Suicides’.

Avalanches and Gnarls Barkley psychiatry mashup

Laptop Punk has created a mashup of two curiously complementary music videos: Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy and The Avalanches’ Frontier Psychiatrist.

The original version of Frontier Psychiatrist is a turntable satire on clich√©s about psychiatry and mental illness taken from films of the 1950s, that include mental illness being dangerous, psychiatrists having couches and patients being ‘crazy as a coconut’.

In contrast, Crazy gives us the modern voice of someone who’s lost their mind, but suggests that being betrayed in love is the greater madness.

When combined, they make an unlikely couple, but the musical mix works well and the contrast is wryly appropriate.

Link to Gnarls Barkley / Avalanches mashup.

Test your corpus callosum

I’ve just discovered a wonderfully simple finger touch procedure that can test the function of your corpus callosum, a key brain structure that connects the two cortical hemispheres.

It is called the ‘cross lateralization of fingertips test’ and was used in a 1991 study by Kazuo Satomi and colleagues.

It relies on the fact that different hemispheres are responsible for the movements and sensations from each hand.

In other words, each hand is connected to a different side of the brain, and, to allow you to co-ordinate both hands, the brain passes information between the two sides by using the corpus callosum.

The corpus callosum is the largest structure in the brain and works like a huge bundle of white matter ‘cables’, connecting different areas.

If this structure gets damaged, a patient might have trouble with coordinating their hands, preventing them from matching sensations on one hand with movement on the other, because the information doesn’t get to where it’s needed.

The test works like this: you need to ask someone to close their eyes and put their hands face up.

You then touch one of their fingertips with a pencil, and with the opposite hand the participant needs to touch the corresponding finger with thumb of the same hand.

For example, if you touched their right ring finger, they would need to touch their left ring finger with their left thumb, as shown in the diagram above.

You need to do this on both hands, with them always touching the corresponding finger on the opposite hand.

It’s important that the person keeps their eyes closed, because as soon as they look, they get information from the eyes, which goes to both hemispheres.

Patients who have damage to the corpus callosum (either because of acquired damage or because it just hasn’t developed) usually can’t do this test, because of the disruption in communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.

Of course, just to be sure its not a problem with movement or sensation in one hand only, the patient is also asked to do another quick test where they’re asked touch the exact finger you just touched.

For this part, the sensation and movement happen in the same hand, so information doesn’t need to cross the corpus callosum.

The test was shown to me by Dr Emma Barkus, who researches what neurological tests can tell us about psychosis and unusual experiences.

Link to Wikipedia page on the corpus callosum.
Link to abstract of Satomi and colleagues study (thanks Emma!).

The inner body

NPR’s radio show Talk of the Nation has a discussion with Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee, authors of a new book on the neuroscience of the body and movement.

If you’re interested in the ideas of embodied cognition that we covered the other day, the discussion touches on many of the major findings in cognitive science that are feeding into this important area.

The book, called The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, has a website which is somewhat sparse on readable excerpts but does have links to some more interviews about the topic.

The host of the NPR programme is a bit taken by the idea of ‘body maps’ (called sensory or somatotopic maps in the scientific literature), where areas of the body are literally mapped by the brain to represent sensation and movement, and the Blakeslees get asked lots of variations on the question ‘how do body maps explain x, y and z’.

Of course, somatotopic maps are only one part of a complex brain system that perceives the outside world and allows us to act within it, but I wonder whether this is a sign that ‘body maps’ might be the new ‘mirror neurons’ and become a popular explanation for everything from winning the World Cup to finding a partner.

Either way, Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee do a great job of explaining the science and trying to draw out some of the complexities.

Link to NPR discussion.
Link to The Body Has a Mind of Its Own website.

Power and consciousness with John Searle

Philosopher John Searle, most widely known for his ‘Chinese Room‘ thought experiment, is profiled in an article for The Times.

The article is partly a review of his new book Freedom and Neurobiology, and partly a look back at the work and experiences which have shaped his current views on mind, brain and society.

Searle, like Daniel Dennett, tries to avoid the technical jargon that haunts some philosophical literature and is known for penning accessible material even when writing for academic journals.

The article is written by fellow philosopher David Papineau who doesn’t seem awfully keen on Searle’s new ideas.

Link to Times review and article on Searle.

An ode to ibuprofen

A lyrical tribute to the pain killer ibuprofen, written by poet Matt Harvey.

The poem was written for BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live, as they had Dr Stewart Adams on the programme discussing his discovery of the drug.

The Telegraph has a great article on its discovery, which includes the fact that he tested the drug on himself to try and shift a troublesome hangover.

I Prefer Ibuprofen

Life is so much easier with effective analgesia

The purpose of pain is to say to the brain:
Ow! Houston we’ve got a problem…
But once we’ve got the message we don’t need it again and again…

What do we want? Symptom Relief!
When do we want it? Now!

When you’ve had enough of it there’s just no need to suffer it
Just pop a little caplet and Ibuprofen will buffer it

I’ve had a go with Aspirin, Codeine and Paracetamol
With Solpadeine, Co-codamol, with Anadin and Ultramol
I love them all, I really do, but I prefer Ibuprofen

There are other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs around
Your NSAID’s these days are quite thick on the ground
There‚Äôs Naproxen, there’s Nabumetone
and, of course, there’s Indomethacin
Each with much to offer us. But I prefer Ibuprofen

I love the way the compound sticks its cheeky little hand in
The way it blocks the enzyme that creates the prostaglandin

Reducing fever, inflammation, and mild to moderate pain

Yes I know it isn’t curative, in anyway preventative
But to dwell on what it doesn’t do is anally retentative
I know it doesn’t treat the cause, the cause will still be there
But it lends a hand, it puts the ‘pal’ back into palliative care.

It does exactly what you’d expect it to say it would do if it came in a tin

Link to more poems by Harvey.
Link to Telegraph article on the story of ibuprofen.