Monday, July 28, 2008

Great majority of neuroscientists on wrong track?

Here's an interesting site: How the brain works sponsored by Eugene B. Shea.
Neuroscientists around the world are working day and night with their brain scans to analyze the activities of individual neurons and segments of the brain in hopes of learning how the brain works, and eventually, arriving at an understanding of human behavior.

[ ... ]

But since this article will take strong exception to the direction of their research, I must devote the following portion to explaining why I believe the great majority of cognitive neuroscientists and neuropsychologists are on the wrong track.

First however, I want to clearly and largely exempt Bernard J. Baars, Ph.D., and Nicole M. Gage, Ph.D. from my criticism, based on their marvelously lucid and carefully researched new textbook, Cognition, Brain, and Consciousness: Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience - Academic Press, 2007. Indeed, I am deeply indebted to them for much of the factual neuroscience cited in this article. I think every serious student of cognitive neuroscience should have a copy of this excellent book.
Shea is, I gather, just as impatient as Mario and I are of schlocky pop science theories of how the mind works.

Remember, your brain is like an ocean.

The problem is not that some theorist is wrong about what is in your brain. Rather, so much is in your brain that you should avoid giving his theories an unrealistic amount of attention.

Look at it this way: Suppose an oceanographer told us that his specialty is sea horses. In his view, we cannot understand the history of life - or even our own lives - without an intimate knowledge of sea horses.

Well, maybe - or maybe not.

Similarly, all theories of how the mind works may be true for at least some people some of the time, but probably none is true for everyone everywhere. And if the theorist thinks the mind an illusion or believes that it is some sort of material thing, well ... Anyway, I expect Shea has some good ideas.

He notes, while dismissing shallow theories,
Nor is there any validity to the “triune” nature of the brain, as composed of evolutionary development from reptilian to mammalian to primate brains. The so-called “reptilian brain” is not a brain at all, since it only represents a portion of the reptile brain, which is comprised, like ours, of brainstem, midbrain, and cortex. Nor, for the same reason, is the mammalian brain a brain. And as we shall see, our derogation of these so-called lizard and mammalian brains in favor of the cortex has led researchers to only a perfunctory analysis of their marvelous functions, without which we would be vegetables shortly before our demise.
Ah yes. I am glad he raised that topic.

I have not found any good evidence that reptiles are in principle incapable of emotion, as is often claimed. If you think that, please do not get in the way of a she-alligator nursing her eggs. She will behave exactly the same way as a she-bear nursing her cubs. It seems that, in these situations, the alligator uses the reptile brain the same way the bear uses the mammal brain: To drive off or kill the threat to her offspring. And if you think that that is not emotion, then you must commit yourself to the view that no animal ever shows emotion.

I wrote about the alligator's behaviour here, relying on the expertise of a man who knows a great deal about alligators.

See also: The unfeeling reptilian brain: Don't mess with its babies.