Friday, December 19, 2008

Neuroscience in the News: Here comes the ambiguously described Decade of the Mind

Well, the 1990s was declared the Decade of the Brain, and ready or not, we are now in for a Decade of the Mind.

We are told that
Recent advances in brain research, in combination with the scientific consensus that mind emerges as a result of the activities of brains, has led to the notion of a new "Decade" project — one dedicated to understanding the phenomenon of mind within the context of neuroscience.
That's actually a rather ambiguous statement. To see what I mean, consider the following:

"mind emerges as a result of the activities of brains"
"ice storm emerges as a result of the activities of variable fronts"
"foal emerges as a result of the activities of horses"
"dinner emerges as a result of the activities of cooks"
"news magazine emerges as a result of the activities of journalists"
Now, I wonder which of these sentences the conference organizers think is most like the other - or are they too smart to pick just now?

The Decade's more detailed objects are as follows:
The Decade of the Mind initiative focuses on four broad areas:

Healing and protecting the mind: This is the notion of improving the public health by curing diseases of the brain that affect the mind. An example of such a disease is Alzheimer’s disease.

Understanding the mind: This aspect of the initiative seeks to understand how mind actually emerges from brain functional activity. Some of the key characteristics of the mind that are still not understood include consciousness, memory and dreams.

Enriching the mind: Improving learning outcomes in education is a key component of this part of the initiative.

Modeling the mind: A key approach to understanding the mind is to model it either analytically or using computation. Such models of mind may facilitate the creation of new hypotheses which can then be tested in the laboratory or clinic. Modeling the mind may also allow for the creation of new applications, technologies and inventions.
I am glad to see that the first priority is something useful, and I hope it stays that way.


Andrew Newberg: Meditation helps, but - how many times do we have to say this - you must WORK at it ...

At Sharp Brains, Alvaro Fernandez interviews Andrew Newberg, author of Why God Won't Go Away and several other books, on recent studies in meditation. Newberg notes,
A variety of studies have already shown the stress management benefits of meditation, resulting in what is often called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. What we are researching now is what are the cognitive - attention, memory- benefits? It is clear that memory depends on attention and the ability to screen out distractions - so we want to measure the effect of meditation on the brain, both structurally and functionally.
Why don't more people meditate (or contemplate), despite a growing body of evidence that it helps them? From Newberg:
Well, the reality is that meditation requires practice and dedication. It is not an easy fix. And some of the best-researched meditation techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, are very intensive. You need a trained facilitator. You need to stick to the practice.
Yes indeed. As I have said elsewhere, and not as graciously as Dr. Newberg: "Real Buddhism scholar to "neural Buddhists": The real Buddha does not infinitely morph and would never drop two grand for meditation gear.

Labels: ,

Long overdue TV series: Mysteries of the Mind

By mysteries, I don't mean the woo-woo factor, I mean stuff that challenges our comprehension and exerciss our gift for wonder: Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author of The Brain that Changes Itself, will be introducing each segment of Mysteries of the Mind, exploring - among other subjects - Alzheimer Syndrome. At the other end of the spectrum from memory loss, we have:
Brain Man

Friday January 16 2009 at 9 pm

Following Daniel Tammet, one of the world’s few savants as he calculates pi to over 20,000 places in his head, as he meets Kim Peek, who was the inspiration for the film Rain Man, as he makes a killing at the blackjack tables in Las Vegas, and as he learns to speak Icelandic in a week.
You can see why they call it "Mysteries of the Mind."

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

Oh, and I just noticed that here Doidge comments on porn addiction changing the brain. TO some extent, we become what we choose to pay attenton to.

See also:

Neuroplasticity: Growing public recognition greets Norman Doidge's new book

More on Norman Doidge and The Brain That Changes Itself ...

Labels: ,

Religion and health: Practising believers feel most in control

A study of 1800 Americans by University of Toronto sociology prof Scott Schieman finds that religious beliefs and devotion are linked to a sense of personal control.

That surprised Schieman:
“One might think the most devout religious practitioners would feel a lack of personal control in their lives because they have such faith in divine control,” says Schieman. “Surprisingly, we found the opposite. It’s those who believe in God but don’t dedicate much time to practicing religion who feel the least in control of their lives.”
It's not really hard to understand, though. If people think they should be doing something and are doing it, they will feel that they are in control. However, if they think they should be doing something but are not doing it, they will feel that they are not in control. And they're right, too.

I cannot find the abstract online at the journal, Sociology of Religion, which seems to be moving to a new publisher.

Ah well, in the meantime, another one for the "Religion spoils everything" files ...

See also:

See also:

Albert Einstein College of Medicine: Religious practice prolongs life, unexplained factor cited

Adopting a dog better for your health than pills?

Religion and health: Some teens more, not less, depressed due to religion?

Labels: , ,

I get mail: More on the awesome totally world-famous mind reading machine ...

Recently, I have been reading Plagues of the Mind by Bruce Thornton, about which I will say more shortly, on the epidemic of false knowledge that surrounds us these days.

False knowledge is what we know that ain't really so. And often common sense will help us see why it can't be so. Here's one example: We are told that the human and chimp genomes are 99.5% similar.

You heard that? Now forget it. Here is a more realistic summary, with explanation, offering a figure in the 70 per cent range - a figure you can believe is reasonable.

I use this example because no one has much difficulty figuring out the difference between a human and a chimpanzee, and if the 99.5% folk were right, it should be difficult. Otherwise, the only conclusion I can draw is that the genome is not as important a source of information as we once supposed.

This, by the way, has nothing whatever to do with controversies over common ancestry of humans and chimps. In theory, we have a common ancestor with silverfish too, but if you hear that your genome is 97.5% similar to that of a silverfish, you should suppose that some pretty important information is stored somewhere other than the genome.

Incidentally, if it were true that the human and chimpanzee genomes were 99.5 percent similar, that would shoot genetic determinism dead in the water. Just sayin' is all ...

In short, common sense is our best defense against epidemics of false knowledge blowing through the pop science media.

That said, in response to my skepticism about new mind reading techniques, someone wrote to assure me that, at the pace of current progress, there is no doubt we will soon use machines to read minds.

At first I was overwhelmed with a sense of "Where have I heard this before?" - which a more literary person would call "deja vu." Then I remembered where. Lots of places, actually. So I replied as follows:

Nice to hear from you,

I predict it is going to go like this one: “In ten years, computers will think like people.” Remember that? Now forget it.

Also there was the fellow who said that in ten years you could pull a CD of your genome map out of your pocket and say, “There, that’s me!” [I can't find this fellow is on line. Possibly, he has a day job now.]

Then there was Carl Sagan, confidently expecting the autobiography of a chimpanzee …. (Dragons of Eden), due to success in teaching chimps to think like people.

So far as I can make out, the way it usually goes is this: There are big advances quickly. But then we run up smack against a wall …

We can develop computer software to win chess games. But only the programmer knows that the software won, not the software. And then what?

The genome map? Genomes change over a person’s life, apparently, and acquired genes get passed on so … (and that’s only a little bit of the problem with genetic determinism … )

And after they taught the chimps to ask for sweets, the chimps never wrote anything except: gimme sweet – and similar astonishing thoughts.

The early big advances slowly grind to a halt before a vast sea of complexities that are not readily reducible – and then popular science mags move on to the Next Big Thing.

In my view, this “reading minds” business is just another instance of what one author – about whom I will be posting shortly – has called “the epidemic of false knowledge.”

False knowledge is like alchemy – it attempts impossible reductions.

The good news is that out of alchemy was born chemistry. Chemistry can explain for sure why we cannot turn lead into gold - and a host of other things besides, things that have mostly made our world a better place.

In the same way, I suspect that the false knowledge that grows up around “in ten years, we’ll be able to read minds” will help us to a better understanding of the real relationship between minds, brains, and bodies – which in turn will be good for human physical and mental health.

Note: I am indebted to philosophy and computer science professor Angus Menuge for his useful - and very thorough - discussion of reductions in science that work and reductions that don't work in Agents Under Fire. The subject is much more complex than pop science pundits suppose.


Mental Health: Social problem? Spiritual problem? Both?

In Sin or Insanity?: Salvation through Retaliation in Flannery O'Connor's "The Partridge Festival," Stephen Sparrow (May 2008) discusses O'Connnor's approach to insanity, contrasting it with others:

In the early 1970s, internationally renowned psychiatrist Ronald David Laing dumbfounded many of his professional colleagues by declaring that apart from cases where the human brain had been affected by physiological illness, physical injury, or some deformity existing at birth, all mental illness was nothing other than social phenomena, which, just as in the case of "normal" social behaviours, has been acquired by the individual from his adjacent social environment. Laing was no Freudian so it was little wonder that psychiatrists world wide were dismayed, since the effect of his pronouncement meant that in most cases their methods to cure the mad (as Laing called them) were futile, and that furthermore, the money being poured into trying to identify a gene responsible for schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders was money wasted and tantamount to man searching for God through a high powered microscope.

Laing's controversial statement should make us all grateful, since any purported genetic link to mental illness would in the future inevitably be used to screen individuals in an experimental attempt to eliminate what "experts" see as mental illness and what the rest of us might prosaically refer to as bizarre or unusual behaviour--which is often the stuff of every interesting story ever told. The corollary is that any attempt at genetic manipulation to modify human behaviour is an attack on free will and as such is doomed to fail. Having said that, there are some mindsets where free will is a practical impossibility--obsessive states leading to paranoia are an obvious example, but rarely if ever is one born into that condition. Obsessive states usually come about through behaviour that over a period has so gradually changed, that even those closest to the afflicted person barely notice the effect until it is much too late to easily reverse the condition.
From what I can tell, people who are obsessive frequently know that their feelings are unreasonable, but they also don't think they can control them. So they may well hide them out of shame in many cases.

(For example, if I believed that house flies contained little videocams and were spying on me, I would probably say nothing to anyone until I experienced some kind of mental health crisis ... at which point people would be astonished to discover that I had thought so for years. All anyone would notice in the meantime is my systematic approach to exterminating flies - but that can be explained by the pursuit of cleanliness.)

Anyway, Sparrow writes,
Devoutly Catholic, Flannery O'Connor was deeply distrustful of modern psychiatric practice and in her short story "The Comforts of Home", her character Sarah Ham admits that she habitually lied because she was insecure. O'Connor's omniscient narrator then informs us that Sarah "had passed through the hands of several psychiatrists who had put the finishing touches to her education." O'Connor also dismissed as a romantic notion, the "traditional" association of insanity with the Divine (letter to John Hawkes 22/6/61).
O'Connor is one of my favourite novelists. She lived a short (1925-1964), pain-filled life, so her work focuses on the spiritual reality that is all around and within us - but we often do not even see it. That reality embraces mental illness as well.

Here is a survey discussion of her work. In my view, her "The Displaced Person" (on line here) is the best American long short story of the twentieth century.

(Note: "Long short story" is an oxymoron to be sure, but it refers to a short story roughly over ten thousand words - much longer and the story will soon be growing up into a novella! But O'Connor makes a good use of every single word.)


Salvo 7: Just released edition features batty bioethicists, suckered scientists, senseless psychologists ...

Oh yes, and illiterate illusionists, "expert elitists," and home-grown humanists. Hey, what's not to like about this cast?

No seriously, it focuses on the New Atheism - new and unimproved, according to the contributors, many of whom you can read here.

Here, for example, Marcia Segelstsein interviews Dinesh D'Souza:
The first thing you notice about Dinesh D'Souza is an intellectual swagger that borders on cockiness without crossing over. Such confidence could be attributed to his Dartmouth education, to his position as policy advisor in the Reagan administration, to his near ubiquitous presence on television news shows, or to the library of critically acclaimed books that he has published on everything from racism to economic prosperity. But you get the feeling that it actually stems from the knowledge that, at any given moment, he is probably the smartest person in the room. Don't get me wrong; he's not arrogant in the least. It's just that he knows, deep down, that he's smarter than you; he's smarter than me; and perhaps most importantly, he's smarter than the New Atheists whom he routinely debates at universities across the nation.
Well, D'Souza might be the smartest person in the room or not, but the consistent problem with the New Atheism is that only the hostility is new, not the arguments. They are godless jihadis, for the most part, but they prefer press clippings and royalties to Afghan training camps and flying shards of bone. That preference I entirely understand but their efforts to advance their religious claims in the name of science are really getting to be quite the bore. My own quick guide to the new atheist movement is here.

My own regular Deprogram column in that isssue isn't about the New Atheism, actually. It's about the Flores man flap: DEPROGRAM with Denyse O'Leary The Hobbit That Wasn’t: A New Human Species Is Discovered, Doubted, and Debunked. Unfortunately, it won't be on line for months. Rot.

Meanwhile, here's an interesting piece from Salvo 6: Tom's Cruise-ade: Dunno Much Scientology by Regis Nicoll - on the growth of scientology among American celebs

One of my earlier Deprogram columns: Livin' on a Prayer At Least That's What One Much-Maligned Scientific Study Would Seem to Show

Hey, you know you want to subscribe. Give yourself or someone you know Salvo for Christmas, and help us new media writers continue to bring you good stuff cheap.


Coffee break: Brain transplants and the self

From Dolly the embraceable ewe to a fully downloadable you? A story available in a variety of formats from Jason Rennie's Science Fiction and Philosophy journal offers you a chance to discuss a man's plan to cheat death by getting his brain transplanted into a cloned body. Did it work? Could he prove it?