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.


Are religious ideas innate?

Recently, a reader wrote to ask why I was not enthusiastic about Logan Gage's recent claim that there may be an innate human tendency toward religion, and that such a tendency should be evidence for rather than against God.

I replied more or less as follows:
I think that a human level of mental capacity means that people will naturally have certain questions.

But asking the questions is a function of having the capacity. I doubt that an innate mental program prompts us to ask specific questions.

Here is an example of what I mean:

I know that there is a future.

I observe that all humans grow old and die.

I am a human.

My grandparents have all grown old and died.

So, I naturally wonder, what happens to those people's minds, their personalities?

I also wonder why the universe is the way it is. Did someone make it this way? Who? If there is a mind behind the universe, is it one we can contact?

I don't need a special mental program to ask questions like that. Normal conscious awareness of the past, present, and future, the near and the far, will prompt such questions.

Now, crickets are different. Crickets would need some sort of special program to think such things. They do not have the minds or life experiences that observe their grandparents, their grandparents' deaths, or anything of the kind. They do not have enough of a sense of the totality of things to ask "How did the universe come to exist?"

When humans ask these questions, they answer them in very different ways: Some worship the spirits of powerful animals, some become monotheists, some become Buddhists, some atheistic materialists.

My reason for disagreeing with Gage is that I think that the idea of an innate "religiosity" program is an unnecessary complication. Some questions naturally occur to the aware conscious mind.

And the fact that so many humans have answered them in so many different ways tells - to me at least - against the existence of an innate program. Attempts to show that a program exists have not been successful, as mario and I show in The Spiritual Brain.

Note: Innate program: You may observe a pair of birds building a basket nest. So far as we know, the birds have some sort of innate program for that. The individual bird would not design the nest as an act of personal intellectual creation. Two birds together would not likely fare any better. The nest gets built because both birds know certain moves that feel right to them. But they always build the same kind of nest. Human religious ideas are not similar in that way. The question and answers originate with individuals.
See also: Does religion really poison everything?

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