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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

This fall's book selection for the Cognitive Neuroscience Discussion Group is David Linden's The Accidental Mind. We will meet every other Monday at noon starting September 14 in SC 200. Please join us and encourage students and new faculty to join us as well.

Book Overview:

You've probably seen it before: a human brain dramatically lit from the side, the camera circling it like a helicopter shot of Stonehenge, and a modulated baritone voice exalting the brain's elegant design in reverent tones.

To which this book says: Pure nonsense. In a work at once deeply learned and wonderfully accessible, the neuroscientist David Linden counters the widespread assumption that the brain is a paragon of design--and in its place gives us a compelling explanation of how the brain's serendipitous evolution has resulted in nothing short of our humanity. A guide to the strange and often illogical world of neural function, The Accidental Mind shows how the brain is not an optimized, general-purpose problem-solving machine, but rather a weird agglomeration of ad-hoc solutions that have been piled on through millions of years of evolutionary history. Moreover, Linden tells us how the constraints of evolved brain design have ultimately led to almost every transcendent human foible: our long childhoods, our extensive memory capacity, our search for love and long-term relationships, our need to create compelling narrative, and, ultimately, the universal cultural impulse to create both religious and scientific explanations. With forays into evolutionary biology, this analysis of mental function answers some of our most common questions about how we've come to be who we are.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

In today's Louisville Courier-Journal James Willmot, a former Kentucky science teacher, writes a firm op-ed opposing the intent of the creation museum in Boone County.
There is a great educational injustice being inflicted upon thousands of children in this country, a large percentage of whom come from the Kentucky, Ohio and, Indiana areas. The source of this injustice is a sophisticated Christian ministry that uses the hook of dinosaurs, the guarantee of an afterlife, and the horrors of hell to convince children and their families to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. The tax-exempt ministry, Answers in Genesis, and its new $28 million creation museum in Boone County has become the de facto source of science information to thousands of Christians who are throwing away reason and 500 years of scientific inquiry and replacing it with ignorant dogma. [...]

We do not need citizens who are closed-minded, anti-knowledge fundamentalists who want to see the world move closer to the Biblical prophecies of an Armageddon. (AIG also believes in a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation.) Unfortunately, the creation museum in Northern Kentucky has been very successful at encouraging their non-thinking, anti-reasoning philosophy, especially among young, dinosaur-loving children. Inaction in this matter may come back to haunt us in the future.
Abolutely. Now how do we get those ignorant dogma-driven parents who reject critical thinking to see the point? I suppose we can't lure them in with dinosaurs.

Hat tip to Pharyngula

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Onion is the best.
Repeatedly stabbing monkeys with sharpened objects may have an adverse effect on their health, according to a new study.

Study: Multiple Stab Wounds May Be Harmful To Monkeys

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Over at The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer wrote a nice piece in response to Paul Davies' NY Times Op-Ed. PD argues that
... both religion and science are founded on faith ? namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence....[U]ntil science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
In a tidy exposition, JL introduces Quine's holistic account of knowledge to support Davies, concluding that
a little faith in science isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, one might even say that faith is an essential part of the scientific process.
The introduction of Quine is helpful, but I'm forced to reflect on whether "faith" is used univocally in both contexts. On Quine's account of science (aimed at knowledge of the world), the periphery of our belief system (theories) bumps up against our experiences continually (and intentionally), possibly causing reverberations that eventuate in changes to the core. Nothing is irrevisable and there is no foundation from which we can ultimately evaluate the results. We are, as the metaphor goes, adrift on a raft at sea, changing planks as necessary.

Religious epistemologies tend to be quite different. Religious belief held in faith is held in spite of new experience, not in lieu of it. There is no expectation that bumping up against the world will bring about changes in core beliefs held on faith; in fact, if anything the expectation is that faith will trump recalcitrant experience (though that has not always happened in history). These approaches are often more authoritarian and hierarchical; revelatory and foundational in just the way that Quine opposes (though his target was Logical Positivism).

"Faith" might appear in both contexts, but apart from the fact that there is a commitment to an unobservable object, its role in the acquisition of knowledge is very different. In science, as JL points out, "We accept our starting premises on faith (the invisible yet inviolable laws of science) simply because they help us make sense of totally separate layers of experience." Faith, in a religious context, may be used to make sense of some experience, but its' objects are eternally resistant to revision. So if we are going to talk about the "faith" of scientists alongside religious faith, we need to be careful.

The metaphor of the raft and the pyramid (to borrow from Ernie Sosa) should capture the difference I'm highlighting. But somehow it feels more like the difference between drifting on a raft and flying on a magic carpet.

The Frontal Cortex : The Faith of Scientists

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Brian Doherty of Reason writes an interesting piece on the insanity defense and the role of psychiatric expert testamony.
Phillip Resnick, one of the leading witnesses in Andrea Yates' defense, certainly believes in the value of expert psychiatric testimony in court. He testified that delusions caused by postpartum psychosis qualified Yates for the insanity defense under the Texas standard. But while he completely disagrees with those who think Yates was guilty in any normal sense of the word for her killing her children, his reasons have nothing to do with fMRIs or other high-tech windows to the brain.

He drew his conclusions the old-fashioned way, a way that doesn't necessarily require a medical expert: by observing Yates and by talking to her and to people who knew her. He believed, from such evidence, that she was in the grip of psychotic delusions when she killed her kids, delusions that made her think that drowning them was in fact the right thing to do to save their souls.

Resnick's belief convinced the second jury, without any recourse to objective neuroscience and its promises to help us understand exactly what in our brains makes us think, feel, and act as we do. Even in the 21st century, our ability to make those kinds of legal and moral judgments remains largely untouched by purely objective science. To make the judgments about human beings and their behavior that courts need to make, Resnick says, "You need to understand why. And you can't see why on an fMRI."
Individuals themselves sometimes have difficulty identifying their own motives--what did they really want or believe, and what was mere rationalization or confabulation? It might be today that the best way to 'uncover' real motivations, broadly speaking, is to look at how the individual behaves, to find the habits, tendencies and dispositions that define the person's character. Even that only takes us a little way toward understanding why an individual acted as s/he did in a particular situation. fMRIs certainly aren't up to the task--and probably never will be. Still, it might be in the realm of possibility to use science to determine whether a brain/person is functioning properly (to some degree)--assuming we can somehow determine what proper functioning is.

Reason Magazine - 'You Can't See Why on an fMRI'

Monday, June 18, 2007

In this podcast Dan Dennett speaks speaks to the New York Academy of Sciences about the evolution of human culture. (From Science & the City)
In this video Robert Sapolsky talks about stress-related neurodegeneration.
The Grass Traveling Scientist Program presents Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky of Stanford University's Dept. of Biological Sciences in a seminar sponsored by the Dept. of VCAPP and the Northern Rocky Mtn. Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience.
Channel N: Stress-related neurodegeneration

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne writes a very intelligent response to Senator Sam Brownbeck's editorial in the NYT, which itself followed a rather disturbing Republican presidential debate in which three candidates acknowledged that they didn't believe in evolution.
According to Brownback, we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith, but accept them if they're compatible. But the scientific evidence says that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago. Are we supposed to reject this as "atheistic theology" (an oxymoron if there ever was one)? The religious conviction that "man" is unique in ways that really matter is compelling in many ways%u2014surely our language, art, music, and science itself are unique products of life on this planet--but holding our uniqueness to be a dogma immune to scientific analysis is an arrogant, and ultimately foolhardy, declaration of authority.

This attitude has enormous political--and educational--implications. What happens if scientific truth conflicts with a politician's "spiritual truth"? This is not a theoretical problem, but a real one, as we see in debates about stem-cell research, abortion, genetic engineering, and global warming. Ignorance about evolution may be widespread, but it's not nearly as dangerous as dogmatic certainty about the real world based on faith alone.
What is especially sad--and very disturbing--is the fact that most republican voters take an anti-science position similar to Brownbeck's.
Seed: Don't Know Much Biology; also found at The Edge.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

My left temporal lobe is seeing ghosts.
In a study investigating how the brain generates paranormal experiences and psychotic states, researchers used strong electromagnets to alter brain function and found they could reduce the number of times healthy volunteers saw spontaneously experienced false perceptions.
I wonder if they stop seeing some patterns that are there.
Mind Hacks: Dispelling ghostly images with electromagnets

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

John Dupre harshly critically reviews Alex Rosenberg's latest book Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology.
"The question then is whether Rosenberg's latest book, Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology, constitutes a useful attack on a dogmatic orthodoxy or merely represents a failure to understand why the views of an earlier generation of philosophers of science have been abandoned. Unfortunately I fear the latter is the case. More specifically, his portrayal of the genome as a program directing development, which is the centerpiece of his reductionist account of biology, discloses a failure to appreciate the complex two-way interactions between the genome and its molecular environment that molecular biologists have been elaborating for the past several decades."
American Scientist Online - Is Biology Reducible to the Laws of Physics?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In the recent Scientific American article Michael Shermer discusses moral decision making and, referring to Read Montague's new book Why Choose This Book?, the neuroscience of choice. Shermer argues that
we evolved moral emotions that operate similarly to other emotions, such as hunger and sexual appetite. Thinking of these emotions as proxies for highly efficient computational programs deepens our understanding of the process. When we need energy, we do not compute the relative caloric values of our food choices; we just feel hungry, eat and are rewarded with a sense of satisfaction. Likewise, in choosing a sexual partner, the brain employs a computational program to make you feel attracted to people with good genes, as indicated by such proxies as a symmetrical face and body, clear complexion, and a 0.7 to 1 waist-to-hip ratio in women and an inverted pyramid build in men. Similarly, in making moral choices about whether to be altruistic or selfish, we feel guilt or pride for having done the wrong or right thing. But the moral calculations of what is best for the individual and the social group were made by our Paleolithic ancestors. Emotions such as hunger, lust and pride are stand-ins for such computations.
Free to Choose: Scientific American

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Robots, once the stuff of science fiction, are everywhere."
There is more in the Times article this morning about robotic salamanders, caterpillers, snakes and geckos. Using genetic algorithms, scientists hope to figure out the computer code that will emulate the motor control of some of the more interesting movers and shakers in the insect world--not to mention the squirmers, slinkers and slitherers.

In the Lab: Robots That Slink and Squirm - New York Times

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Oxytocin has long been one of my favorite neuropeptides. Now there is some evidence that it can improve mindreading abilities.
In a study published in Nature Ernst Fehr and his group demonstrated that injecting people with a spray of oxytocin increases trust.
Now, in a pretty remarkable new study published in Biological Psychiatry, German researchers show that injecting subjects with a whiff of oxytocin will also improve be ability to infer, based just on eye cues, what a person is thinking about.

Oxytocin is the window to the soul ? BRAINETHICS

Monday, February 12, 2007

It's Darwin Day--a celebration of Darwin's birthday, 198 years ago. I don't care much for birthdays, but I do care about calling attention to Darwin's theories and his legacy. At darwinday.org you can find an interesting array of essays on Darwin and evolutionary theory from the likes of Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins, among others.
In this section you will find short statements, and essays that provide the scientific rationale for celebrating Darwin, Science, and Humanity.

Darwin Day Celebration - englishL

Monday, December 18, 2006

If the sun were scaled down to the size of dime in Cincinnati, the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, would be 210 miles away, roughly in Cleveland. In reality Proxima Centauri is 4.2 lightyears away, or roughly 25 trillion miles. Scientists have recently been looking at stars 13 billion lightyears away, which they think might be the universe's oldest objects.
Astronomers might have seen the very first stars in the universe. If so, these are incredible stars, some 1,000 times as massive as the Sun.

The alternative is just as interesting: The objects might be early black holes consuming gas voraciously and spitting out radiation like crazy as nascent galaxies form.
The universe is about 13.7 billion years old, so these are very early objects.

SPACE.com -- Universe's First Objects Possibly Seen