Saturday, September 13, 2008

Neuroscience: No, we really DON'T understand kids

This editorial in Nature Neuroscience raises a key children's health issue issue:
Our understanding of the neurobiology and treatment of psychiatric illness in children remains poor. Prominent psychiatrists have now been accused of concealing the extent of their financial ties to the drug industry. We urgently need to encourage more science in this area and we need vigorous regulation to restore some neutrality to the field.
Here's a brief excerpt:
Diagnosing mental disorders can be tricky even under the best of circumstances. God biomarkers for psychiatric disorders (pediatric or adult) are nonexistent. Our knowledge of the neurobiology of these complex disorders also has glaring holes;

And if you are the parent of a child with a mental disorder, you can at least have the peace of mind of knowing that, if you think this :
... there is an urgent need to put more science behind child psychiatry. We need an independent, objective assessment of the efficacy and safety of these medications, comparing existing generics and new products, and comparing non-drug or combination interventions to drug-only approaches. One option is to pool money from both industry and the government or other funding bodies, bringing together public and private money to fund such studies (similar to the ‘Innovative Medicines Initiative’ proposed by the European Commission). The raw data generated by clinical trials should be available for independent scrutiny. We also need to consider ways to increase recruitment in clinical trials, such as an alternate trial design where all patients initially get access to active treatment (Klein, D.F. JAMA 299, 1063–1065 (2008)) . Urgent action is needed to restore some objectivity and neutrality to this field; the stakes are simply too high to remain complacent.
... you have expert company.

For some reason, Nature Neuroscience is not making this editorial "Credibility crisis in pediatric psychiatry" (Nat Neurosci. 2008 Sep;11(9):983.) available free online yet, but you mightbe able to read the rest through a library with journal subscriptions.

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Applied non-materialist neuroscience: Do not fire your boss before you listen to this ...

Nonmaterialist neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwart, lead author of The Mind and the Brain was interviewed on Australia's Open Mind Radio, and the files are just up. Stephanie West Allen of Brains on Purpose explains,

In the interview you will hear about the brain's plasticity and how understanding its malleability can give you and your clients more options for change. Some points covered:

You can harness neuroplasticity by paying attention to: 1) how you perceive, 2) how you act, and 3) what you think and imagine.

When you understand how your brain works, you can use that information to enhance your perspective, broaden your sense of capacity, and, by consistently changing your focus, change your brain.

Cultural differences are not merely matters of opinion. They are created by brain wiring, an "incredibly important" point, one which needs much more consideration and thought.

Many more topics are discussed. I urge you to listen. You will be reminded of how much of a sculptor of our lives we can be when we master the art of changing our brains. By learning about self-directed neuroplasticity, you are handed the ways and means of neuro-Play-Doh. So what are you going to mold and change? What are you going to help your clients to create?

Ah yes, cultural differences can be minefields in the workplace. For example, from my own experience, when the boss wants you to tell her what you "really" think about the new office layout, does she mean

(1) tell her you like it?
(2) tell her you hate it?
(3) offer her moral support for going through with it, without further comment?
(4) tell her what you've heard others say?
(5) use it as a springboard to talk about other, bigger issues in the workplace?

Typically, the culture your boss comes from determines what she "really" wants you to talk about at this point. And she may be wired to react along those lines. But you don't have to be. And getting something like that wrong can be a career limiting move. Anyway, check in at Mind Matters.


Religion: Who don't modern people find the miracles in the Bible a barrier to belief?

An agnostic friend asked me that question in the title recently. I thought about it for a minute, and replied, "Many people either become religious or rediscover the religion in which they were raised because of an unusual experience.

Perhaps they were healed when they didn't expect to be. Perhaps their life was spared in quite unusual circumstances. Or maybe something like that happened to someone they care about.

Anyway, as a result, they don't find accounts of unusual events impossible to believe. They don't necessarily have an explanation for these events. Nor are they gullible. But their universe includes rather than excludes unusual events, at least in principle."

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Psychology: What did you really see? You'd be surprised!

I'll be reviewing a book called The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues by Mike Gene. He recounts an interesting experiment that demonstrates the extent to which we perceive what we expect to perceived, as described by Daniel Chandler, a lecturer in Media and Communication Studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth:
In an experiment by Brewer and Treyens (1981), individual participants were asked to wait in an office [photo]. The experimenter said that this was his office and that they should wait there whilst he checked the laboratory to see if the previous participant had finished. After 35 seconds, he returned and took the participant to another room where they were asked to recall everything in the room in which they had been waiting. People showed a strong tendency to recall objects consistent with the typical "office schema." Nearly everyone remembered the desk and the chair next to it. Only eight out of the 30 recalled the skull (!), few recalled the wine bottle or the coffee pot, and only one recalled the picnic basket. Some recalled items that had not been there at all: 9 remembered books. This shows how people may introduce new items consistent with the schema. (pp. 125-26)
Gene notes,
The experiment is intriguing in that most people failed to notice a skull sittiing on the desk, while many others recalled seeing books that never existed. The "schema" that Chandler refers to is essentially the mind-set or context that we bring to the situation. Since the people knew they were in an office, they failed to notice objects that are not normally in an office.
Or, as Sherlock Holmes liked to say, "You see but you do not observe."

Does this mean we can't trust anything we see? No, biasese may interfere with our ability to observe.


Animal minds: How well can we understand a cat ... or a bat?

In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel published a most interesting essay called "What is it like to be a bat", which reminded us that animals not only have different minds from humans, they - in some cases - have different senses. Their whole experience of life may be different: For example, he notes:

To the extent that I could look and behave like a wasp or a bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of those animals. On the other hand, it is doubtful that any meaning can be attached to the supposition that I should possess the internal neurophysiological constitution of a bat. Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.

[ ... ]

I assume we all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bats, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.
Nagel's main purpose was not really to understand what it is like to be a bat, which he believes unlikely. Rather, he opposed reductionism - as in "the mind is nothing but ..." as a strategy for understanding the mind. His point is that reductionism is not even a good way of understanding animal minds, let alone human minds.

As he says,

Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable. Perhaps that is why current discussions of the problem give it little attention or get it obviously wrong. The recent wave of reductionist euphoria has produced several analyses of mental phenomena and mental concepts designed to explain the possibility of some variety of materialism, psychophysical identification, or reduction.

[ ... ]

Every reductionist has his favorite analogy from modern science. It is most unlikely that any of these unrelated examples of successful reduction will shed light on the relation of mind to brain. But philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood, though entirely different. This has led to the acceptance of implausible accounts of the mental largely because they would permit familiar kinds of reduction. I shall try to explain why the usual examples do not help us to understand the relation between mind and body—why, indeed, we have at present no conception of what an explanation of the physical nature of a mental phenomenon would be. Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless. The most important and characteristic feature of conscious mental phenomena is very poorly understood. Most reductionist theories do not even try to explain it. And careful examination will show that no currently available concept of reduction is applicable to it. Perhaps a new theoretical form can be devised for the purpose, but such a solution, if it exists, lies in the distant intellectual future.
Conscious Entities notes,

Nagel's aim is to launch a kind of counter-attack against physicalist arguments, which would reduce the mental to the merely physical, and which were evidently getting into the ascendant in 1974 when the paper was published. Tempting as it may be to fall back on the familiar kind of reductionist approach which has worked so well in other areas, Nagel argues, phenomenal, subjective experience is a special case. Reductive arguments always seek to give an explanation in objective terms, but the essential point about conscious experiences is that they are subjective. The whole idea of an objective account therefore makes no sense - no more sense than asking what my inward experiences are really like, as opposed to how they seem to me. How they seem to me is all there is to them. Any neutral, objective, third-person explanation has to leave out the essence of the experience. The point about conscious experience is that there is something it is like to see x, or hear y, or feel z.
Non-materialist neuroscience, which we explore in The Spiritual Brain, treats the relationship between the mind and the brain in a non-reductionist way, like the relationship between a television program and a television set. The program requires the set but cannot be reduced to it. Little will be discovered about the program by analyzing the set. On the other hand, if the set is damaged, it may not transmit the program very well.

There are, of course, other non-materialist ways of looking at the relationship between the mind and the brain.

Other "animal mind" stories from The Mindful Hack

"Animal minds: Monkeys understanD money?"

"When pop science TV wants to hear only one side ... "

Animal minds: Art produced by animals: Is it art?

Researchers ask: What does it mean to be an animal?

Deception in humans and animals: The differences

Medical journal published article on cat's death predictions


Dismantling Dawkins's Case Against God

I've been enjoying Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker's Answering the New Atheism.

When Mario's and my agent suggested that we write an Introduction to The Spiritual Brain, our editor suggested I read Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion.

I felt that Delusion was - like most "new atheist" works - far inferior to the earlier generation of such works by such figures as Bertrand Russell or Antony Flew. The new atheists have inherited that self-righteous post-Sixties vehemence which doubtless feels good to the venter and those who share the venter's views, but makes no new point and advances no worthwhile discussion. Anyway, Hahn and Wiker write,
For anyone who has read his other works, The God Delusion is a decided letdown. It is caustic and peevish, rather than genuinely witty or insightful, and has the feel of a book dashed off by someone who is annoyed that his opponents still exist and can barely condescend to dismiss them. As a result, The God Delusionis filled with self-congratulatory smugness appropriate to gala dinners thrown by people of the same tightly-wound (pp. 4-5) intellectual circle who, after too much wine, trade in spiteful quips about the incomprehensible stupidity of anyone not sharing their opinions.
Antony Flew has gone as far as to call Dawkins a bigot,
An academic attacking some ideological position which s/he believes to be mistaken must of course attack that position in its strongest form. This Dawkins does not do in the case of Einstein and his failure is the crucial index of his insincerity of academic purpose and therefore warrants me in charging him with having become, what he has probably believed to be an impossibility, a secularist bigot.
I thought Hahn and Wiker's cover (below) hilarious, and hope you agree.

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