Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Consciousness: Best understood as like dancing, not digesting?

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness by Alva Noë. Hill and Wang, 2009

Alva No, a University of California, Berkeley, philosopher and cognitive scientist, argues that after decades of concerted effort on the part of neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers "only one proposition about how the brain makes us conscious ... has emerged unchallenged: we don't have a clue." The reason we have been unable to explain the neural basis of consciousness, he says, is that it does not take place in the brain.

Consciousness is not something that happens inside us but something we achieve
it is more like dancing than it is like the digestive process. To understand consciousness the fact that we think and feel and that a world shows up for us we need to look at a larger system of which the brain is only one element.
Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body and world. "You are
not your brain. The brain, rather, is part of what you are."

I must get this book and read it.

The typical materialist, of course, wants to understand consciousness as like digesting, not dancing - and that position has been a total flop that makes the American auto sector look prosperous.

Here's a review:
Although Noë is a philosopher, his argument is carefully built on scientific evidence, as he considers everything from studies of cells in the visual cortex to examples of neural plasticity. In each instance, he interprets the data in a startlingly original fashion, such as when he uses experiments showing that ferrets can learn to "see" with cells in their auditory cortex as proof that "there isn't anything special about the cells in the so-called visual cortex that makes them visual. Cells in the auditory cortex can be visual just as well. There is no necessary connection between the character of experience and the behavior of certain cells."

Certainly, many of the scientists cited by Noë would disagree with his interpretations, but that's part of what makes this book so important: It's an audacious retelling of the standard story, an exploration of the mind that questions some of our most cherished assumptions about what the mind is.


Neuroscience: Your local marketing research pest is getting into the action ...

Here's a type of study I would like to see less of:

From Nature Precedings: Prepublication research and Preliminary Findings, here's part of the abstract:

Received 30 January 2009 08:57 UTC; Posted 09 February 2009

Subjects: Neuroscience

Tags: neuroimaging Methods Marketing research Neuromarketing

We now stand at a juncture where cognitive function can be mapped in the time, space and frequency domains, as and when such activity occurs. These advanced techniques have led to discoveries in many fields of research and clinical science, including psychology and psychiatry. Unfortunately, neuroscientific techniques have yet to be enthusiastically adopted by the social sciences. Market researchers, as specialized social scientists, have an unparalleled opportunity to adopt cognitive neuroscientific techniques and significantly redefine the field and possibly even cause substantial dislocations in business models. Following from this is a significant opportunity for more commercially-oriented researchers to employ such techniques in their own offerings. This report examines the feasibility of these techniques.
I hope this goes nowhere. Market research is a big enough social pest already.

It's tolerable if we understand it as part of a sales strategy (those people gotta make a living). But pretending it is science is a fringe too far, I am afraid.

I believe that neuroscience should stay anchored closely to medicine. Urgent issues confront medical professionals - how to help children with development or behaviour disorders, adults with mental problems, seniors with reduced mental abilities, recovering victims of accidents and disease. What works and what doesn't are worthy challenges.

Figuring out what happens when someone decides to buy red hot scarlet pants as opposed to mean green ones is trivial - and may not really be knowable, precisely because it is so trivial.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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Psychology: Intelligence does not lead to better judgement, decision-making

Dennis Prager, who interviewed Mario and me about The Spiritual Brain, argues,
Most Americans upon hearing that someone has attended Harvard University assumes that this person is not only smarter than most other people but is actually a more impressive person. That is why, for example, people assume that a Nobel laureate in physics has something particularly intelligent to say about social policy. In fact, there is no reason at all to assume that a Nobel physicist has more insight into health care issues or capital punishment than a high school physics teacher, let alone more insight than a moral theologian. But people, especially the highly educated, do think so. That's why one frequently sees ads advocating some political position signed by Nobel laureates.

Intellectuals, e.g., those with graduate degrees, have among the worst, if not the worst, records on the great moral issues of the past century. Intellectuals such as the widely adulated French intellectual Jean Paul Sartre were far more likely than hardhats to admire butchers of humanity like Stalin and Mao. But this has had no impact on most people's adulation of the intellect and intellectuals.

So, too, the current economic decline was brought about in large measure by people in the financial sector widely regarded as "brilliant." Of course, it turns out that many of them were either dummies, amoral, incompetent, or all three.
Prager is making the classical distinction between being smart and being wise. It is wisdom that is the worthwhile pursuit and the source of whatever real happiness we may find in this life.

By the way, if you want to know what is wrong with modern secular intellectuals, read Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, a magisterial study of people who thought ideas were more important than people, and what really happened.

(Note: No one doubts that clinical developmental delay creates problems with judgement. But it does not follow that brilliance leads to good judgement. The two situations are not commensurate.)

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