Trifles make the sum of life

I’ve just found a curious scientific paper that looks at whether computational models of neural function are of relevance to clinical psychiatry. Oddly, it is written as a debate between two Charles Dickens characters.

The paper was published in the journal Neural Networks and is entitled “Are computational models of any use to psychiatry?”.

It starts entirely normally and then suddenly introduces two characters from the novel David Copperfield who begin to discuss the cognitive science of computational psychiatry.

Wise old Dr. Strong (Dickens, 1850) will now put the case against CMs [computational models] from the point of view of a psychiatrist. Our optimistic – or maybe unrealistic – friend Mr. Micawber will try to enthuse him about their cause. He is also a fan of reinforcement learning models.

It’s worth noting that in the original version of David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber barely mentions his admiration of computational reinforcement learning models (reading between the lines, he always seemed more of learning mechanism agnostic autoassociative memory man to me – but hey, I’m no English literature scholar).

Dr. Strong: First and foremost, CMs have failed to influence clinical practice.

Mr. Micawber: I would agree, Dr. Strong, that CMs have not influenced clinical practice to date; but neither have most advances in neurosciences. In fact, we believe that CMs will be instrumental in helping to bridge the gap between neurobiology and psychiatry because CMs are able to link levels of descriptions and make well-founded predictions at one level based on information at another level.

Dr. Strong: I disagree. The question is: are they clinically relevant, not will they be at some point in the future. All the models omit the very centre of psychiatry: subjective experiences. No one I have met believes that computers feel duty, personal bonds, or sexual titillation.

Weirdly, this is not the first cognitive science paper to be presented as a debate between two rather unexpected people.

Jerry Fodor’s paper “Fodor’s Guide to Mental Representation: The Intelligent Auntie’s Vade-Mecum” involves a discussion between him and his aunty about the finer points of mental representation.

Sadly, the paper is behind a pay-wall because Elsevier know that the cognitive science / Dickens combination can be deadly in the wrong hands.
 

Link to locked article “Are computational models of any use to psychiatry?”

2 thoughts on “Trifles make the sum of life”

  1. Douglas Hofstadter (cognitive scientist and author of Godel, Escher, Bach) is pretty fond of discussing things via a “dialogue” between fictional characters (e.g. Aristotle and a tortoise). Maybe these authors were influenced by him?

  2. A little surreal, especially in a cog sci journal. This is a tradition in philosophy that goes back at least to Berkeley’s Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, which presents his arguments for idealism (or phenomenalism, to distinguish it from the other meaning of idealism) in the form of a dialogue between two figures from Greek myth. (Berkeley’s idealism was the idea that ideas compose reality, and that when we refer to material objects we really mean the ideas of those objects). I suspect this was a source of inspiration for the authors of this article.

    This tradition has been continued through the centuries, more recently with John Perry (and separately) Derek Parfit’s dialogues on personal identity. I’m sure there are many more examples, but those are some of the most renowned.

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