Thursday, February 12, 2009

Neuroscience: "Social neuroscience" is down for the count

This just in from the British Psychological Society Research Digest Blog:
The brain imaging community is about to experience another shockwave, just days after the online leak of a paper that challenged many of the brain-behaviour correlations reported in respected social neuroscience journals.
Social neuroscience (which I take to be a classic example of false knowledge) depends in large part on measured changes in blood flow. However,
The interpretation of human brain imaging experiments is founded on the idea that changes in blood flow reflect parallel changes in neuronal activity. This important new study shows that blood flow changes can be anticipatory and completely unconnected to any localised neuronal activity. It's up to future research to find out which brain areas and cognitive mechanisms are controlling this anticipatory blood flow. As the researchers said, their finding points to a "novel anticipatory brain mechanism."

Writing a commentary on this paper in the same journal issue, David Leopold at the National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, said the findings were "sure to raise eyebrows among the human fMRI research community."
If anyone went to jail over "social neuroscience" findings, I hope they get released soon, and sue the government. Whatever happened to science that was cautious? Science should always be cautious, especially in areas like this.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose.

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Call for papers on the scientific study of consciousness

Only two days left, I admit, and I am sorry that local responsibilities prevented me posting this call for papers sooner:



June 5th to 8th, 2009

Berlin School of Mind and Brain and Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience,

Berlin, Germany
Consciousness is typically called "the hard problem of consciousness" in neuroscience, and for good reason. But I bet Berlin is nice in the spring - so by all means, if you have an idea, apply.

See also:

Audio: Interview with Denyse O'Leary on new discoveries in human consciousness

Mind: We have minds, whether we recognize them or not.

Mind reading technology: In your face and in your mind - or maybe not

Hat tip:Alan Yoshioka at The Sheepcat

A Beautiful Mind: When the mind restores order to the brain?

A friend writes to ask,
I was wondering if you were aware of the movie A Beautiful Mind? It may make for a good brain/mind point.

John Nash's malfunctioning brain kept telling him that the people, which he was hallucinating, were real but his mind eventually figured out that they were not (even though he kept experiencing the hallucinations after figuring it out).
The film is based loosely* on the life of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, who won the Nobel Prize for economics. Here's a synopsis.

Essentially, my friend is right. In the film, Nash must decide whether to believe what he is experiencing or what he knows to be true. The more he believes what he knows to be true, the more distant the fantasy figures that formerly dominated his life become. In some ways, that is a useful analogy to the importance of the focus of attention in non-materialist treatments of brain disorders.

Perhaps my friend is also recalling this comment by neurosurgeon Mike Egnor regarding the great neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield:

Penfield was a neurosurgeon who pioneered the field of epilepsy surgery. He operated on thousands of patients who were awake (under local anesthesia), and were able to speak to him while he stimulated various regions of their brains.

Penfield found that he could invoke all sorts of things- movements, sensations, memories. But in every instance (hundreds of thousands of individual stimulations- in different locations in each patient- during his career), the patients were aware that the stimulation was being done to them, but not by them. There was a part of the mind that was independent of brain stimulation and that constituted a part of subjective experience that Penfield was not able to manipulate with his surgery.

I've performed some epilepsy surgery (although it's not my primary specialty), and my experience has been the same. Patients always know that the memory or sensation or movement is is imposed on them, not by them. Some colleagues who do specialize in epilepsy surgery have confirmed Penfield's observations as well.

Penfield called this "double consciousness", meaning that there was a part of subjective experience that he could invoke or modify materially, and a different part that was immune to such manipulation.
*Doctors tell me that, in reality, most schizophrenic delusions are not nearly as interesting as described in the film.

See also:

Just how much brain do you need? Could you use that space for something else?

Non-materialist neurosurgeon's criticisms of current medicine called well-founded

Neuroscientist Michael Egnor to lecture on why we got eugenics

Here is a trailer for A Beautiful Mind:

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Religion: When bad things are done by (supposedly) good people ...

Columnist Michael Gerson recalls
sitting at a Kigali restaurant with a Tutsi woman who described the death of her younger sister, a university student, during the Rwandan genocide. The girl had been given up for murder by one of her own teachers, who was a nun. The survivor across from me, previously a Catholic, had never attended church again. In the sacrifice of the Mass, she could only see the sacrifice of her sister.

Many items on the list of horribles laid at the door of religion are libels or exaggerations. But this charge - the indifference or complicity of many Christians during the great genocides of modern history - is one of the genuine scandals.

In Hitler's Germany, Christians responded to mass murder with general acquiescence and only isolated defiance. Protestants earned the most shame.
He's right, of course, and he adds
During the Rwandan genocide, writes Timothy Longman, "Numerous priests, pastors, nuns, brothers, catechists and Catholic and Protestant lay leaders supported, participated in, or helped to organize the killings." Two Benedictine nuns collaborated with Hutu militias in the murder of 7,000 people just outside their convent grounds. A priest participated in the burning and bulldozing of a church with 2,000 men, women and children inside.

It is very difficult to understand how those who worship a man on a cross could help to drive the bloody nails themselves.
He offers a useful analysis:
When religion is infected by racism, ideology or extreme nationalism, it can become a carrier of hatred instead of conscience. And when churches are concerned mainly for their institutional self-preservation, they often end up neck-deep in compromise or paralyzed by cowardice.
Yes indeed. The Vatican was not telling those people to do those things; rather the opposite. But the message they heard was "protect our institution, our culture, our spocial and political advantages, etc."

This is a perennial temptation of religion.

Gerson is writing in the context of Pope Benedict XVI's lifting the ban of excommunication on a Pope St. Pius X Society bishop - in an effort to heal a long-standing rift. Unfortunately, the bishop turned out be a Holocaust denier. I am sure that "B16" did not know that. He fully intends to continue his predecessor's project of healing rifts. But one wishes that he had better research services. Perhaps he will take steps to acquire them now.

Gerson's reflections throw a curious light on Bill Maher's documentary, Religulous. Recently, on a radio show hosted by Barry Arrington, I expressed puzzlement that the film focuses on ridiculing simple peole who are religious and says comparatively little about evils committed orc ondoned by religious folk. But a moment's thought, and the picture comes in: It would then be necessary to talk about the good that far more religious people do.

Here's my review of Religulous. I was also on

See also:

Spotted: Neuroscientists in the movies ... Andrew Newberg!

Commentator challenges "Religulous" documentary producer to a debate

Does religion protect us against pseudoscience?

Atheist bigots: Avoiding serious questions and targeting ignorant religious folk?

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Neuroscience: Memory loss is reversible with training

Researchers at Sweden's Karolinska Institute have shown that
intensive brain training leads to a change in the number of dopamine D1 receptors in the cortex.

Their results can be of significance to the development of new treatments for patients with cognitive impairments, such as those related to ADHD, stroke, chronic fatigue syndrome and ageing.

"Changes in the number of dopamine receptors in a person doesn't give us the key to poor memory," says Professor Lars Farde, one of the researchers who took part in the study. "We also have to ask if the differences could have been caused by a lack of memory training or other environmental factors. Maybe we'll be able to find new, more effective treatments that combine medication and cognitive training, in which case we're in extremely interesting territory."
Of course, the brain can only be trained by first reaching and persuading the mind.

This is good news for seniors struggling with memory loss.

Neuroscience: Individual brain cells spotted in act of retrieving memories

Andrew Newberg: Meditation helps, but (how many times do we have to say this?), you must work at it

Long overdue TV series: Mysteries of the Mind

Neuroscience: Yes, we do think while we are asleep

A key question regarding our minds: Double consciousness

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose