23 May 2014

NeuroPun: Neurologian

Published here by permission of Ngan "Kim" Le.

20 April 2014

Jonah Lehrer's New Blog

Jonah Lehrer has started a new blog (link here). I am personally of the opinion that he should be given a third (if last) chance.

Forgiveness is a virtue known only to humans. Forgetfulness is a still better advantage. I think we all would do well to exercise both more frequently. Am I wrong?

31 March 2014

NeuroPun: RAF Brain Centre

From the awesome New York Public Library Digital Collection (link here).

05 January 2014

Humanities scholarship is incredibly relevant

Natalia Cecire gives a roaring defense of the humanities - one to which I would love to see the usual suspects actually respond (not that they will). She observes:

The humanities are often represented as an irrelevant, moribund, and merely preservationist field, passing on old knowledge of old things without producing anything new. That's why it keeps having to be "defended" by people saying, "no! old shit matters too!"
The reality, however, is more complicated than that pictures suggests:-
Do you know a black child who grew up knowing about America’s great traditions in African American literature, visual art, music, and film? Are you glad Their Eyes Were Watching God and Cane are in print? Then thank the scholars, artists, and activists who have recovered that work—often obscured by a racist publishing culture and by an academy that didn’t think it was important at the time. There’s a reason that students protested and sat in to fight for the establishment of ethnic studies and women’s studies departments in the 1960s and 70s. It wasn’t a fashion statement: serious formal engagement with the cultural contributions of women and ethnic minorities was urgently needed. No one can credibly say in public that women cannot be great authors anymore, for example, and when the writer V.S. Naipaul tried in 2011 (and David Gilmour in 2013), everybody knew how ridiculously wrong he was. How did they know? Thank the humanities. Thank those horrible feminist critics from the '80s who allegedly ruined literary scholarship. They worked like hell to change the language, and most of them never got famous.
It is obvious, of course, that some cranky and usually male academics did everything they could to prevent the very positive cultural changes prompted by research, curiosity, and resistance in the humanities. But the point is that there are very few cultural changes that have transpired - ever - that don't fundamentally represent a collision between humanistic ways of knowing. While many, and often those working in the biological and psychological sciences, for instance, were proclaiming the fixity of human nature, humanists and lovers of the humanities demonstrated that human nature was either plastic or non-existent. And that's just one example for your Sunday reading.

27 December 2013

Why Academics Should Blog (Part II)

A peer-reviewed article published in "Studies in Higher Education" quotes our blog extensively in an analysis of blogging among academics. The authors of the study - Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson - are justifiably proud that their research article has already been accessed around 2000 times thanks to "gold access" (and no doubt their article will become a citation classic). That said, our original article has been access 8489 times and never needed "gold" or "green" access. Need we say more about the value of blogging for academics!

24 December 2013

"Neuro" & Integration

So I'm finally getting around to reading closely Rose and Abi-Rached's Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind, a book that I am sure will at times provoke me and at other times impress me. I'm reviewing it for the "Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences", and so readers will have to await for my general reaction for some time still. But already on page 4 I'm finding myself thinking - "huh - that is how you both understand that?" The authors, citing Roger Smith, write:
Nor is there anything particularly novel in the challenge that contemporary neuroscientists mount to dualism. For example, in the early decades of the twentieth-century, Charles Sherrington sought to develop an integrated theory of brain and mind, and this was the prelude to a host of neurological, psychological, and philosophical attempts to clarify the mind-body relation; it also led to a host of worries about the implications for the higher human values of morality, autonomy, wholeness and individuality.

Now the authors have already mentioned that Sherrington never really abandoned his claim that the relationship between mind and brain was unclear and fraught. So kudos. But it is also a very strange reading of the "Integrative Action of the Nervous System" and indeed Sherrington's later work to say that it aimed for an integrated theory of brain and mind. One might say that Sherrington's work was a studied attempt to see how far one could go in studying the action of reflexes all the way to the level of the cerebrum without actually postulating anything about "mind" at all! Oh I admit that there are a few coy references here and there in all of Sherrington's books to behavior, to responses, etc., and these are mainly cast in ethological terms, but I doubt that they amount to anything so forceful as an attempt at an integrated theory of brain and mind. So...hmmm seems in order.

16 December 2013

Updated: The book is coming out in June!

A poster I presented a long time ago at the Association of British Neurologists meeting at the Royal College of Physicians London. The book will tell you the story of British neurology - from 1789 to 2000.

10 December 2013

Neuroscience & Society - readings for Spring Term.

If you are taking neuroscience & society with me next term, then these are the books we will be reading together.

Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind Paperback by Nikolas Rose (Author) , Joelle M. Abi-Rached (Author) ; ISBN-13: 978-0691149615

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience [Hardcover] Sally Satel (Author), Scott O. Lilienfeld (Author) ISBN-13: 978-0465018772

Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain Paperback by Nicolas Langlitz (Author) ISBN-13: 978-0520274822

Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus [Hardcover] Erika Dyck (Author) ISBN-13: 978-0801889943

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference Paperback by  
Cordelia Fine (Author) ISBN-13: 978-0393340242

Pharmaceutical Reason: Knowledge and Value in Global Psychiatry (Cambridge Studies in Society and the Life Sciences) [Paperback] Andrew Lakoff (Author) ISBN-13: 978-0521546669

Appropriate research paper topics might include: 
  • reverse engineering the brain; 
  • the neurochemical vs the neuro-tech self in sports medicine; 
  • brain-technology interfaces in treatment of neurological diseases; 
  • mathematical and statistical translations in neuroscience; 
  • the origins of computational neuroscience, 1930-2000;
  • neurological determinism and contemporary jurisprudence;
  • psychometric thinking in neuroscience;
  • virtual reality and visual neuroscience;
  • the social construction of concussion disorders;
  • the history of imaging technology;
  • cold war politics, militarism, and brain science
  • a biography of any neurological disease 

05 December 2013

About that PNAS Article: Journalism and Neurosexism

"...to those interested in gender equality there is nothing at all frightening about good science. It is only carelessly done science, or poorly interpreted science, or the neurosexism it feeds, that creates cause for concern."

Cordelia Fine Delusions: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (Norton 2010), 238.

A couple of days ago the Critical Neuroscience Facebook linked to a splashy article in The Guardian entitled "Male and Female Brains Wired Differently, Scans Reveal". The Independent (hat-tip Cordelia Fine) followed up with an article titled "The Hardwired Difference between Male and Female Brains could explain Why Men are 'better at map reading'". Both articles referred to a recently published academic article appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the lofty title "Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain". (Hardwired has a rather interesting history as a keyword in neuroscience.)

In the original paper, the authors use a large sample population sufficient to "elucidate sex differences in networks reliably" and from there they segment their sample into three distinct age groups: 8-13 (n= 158 females and 156 males); 13-17 (180 females - 131 males), and, 17-22 (183 females and 141 males). The authors write: "these groups correspond roughly to the developmental stages of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood" (page 2). Thereafter, the study explored the so-called human connectome of men and women (connectome is a new neuro-culture buzzword which appears historically as a rather new iteration of the old holism vs localism argument that has traditionally plagued the short history of neurology). Using "fiber tractography", the authors describe gender differences via a structural connectome, and thereafter they show many fine illustrations of wiring differences between men and women, and they then provide a series of boilerplate assessments about the ways these differences translate into behavioral practices. I'm always rather surprised by the tin-ear of authors of studies such as these - intuition? really?

Now while the journalists have been very excited to discover that men and women are different and that their brains are different (here comes boilerplate neurosexism), a whole number of rather interesting science studies question arise in the context of this particular paper. I don't want to violate copyright, so I'm not going to copy and paste in Figure 1 from the original paper. But it is a fascinating example of a series of ontological, technological, and statistical translations leading to a 'wiring diagram', i.e. an ostensibly metaphoric image standing in for a series of evidently absent but detectible and determinative differences. These differences in wiring are then cast into normative social frames and categories. Cordelia Fine does a pretty good job in this essay of unpacking those normative claims both in the paper and also in the the subsequent journalism, but there is a great STS paper waiting there also for someone to come along and look at the 'house of cards.' I'm guessing, but I think the real STS story awaits in the difference between functional connectomes and structural connectomes (I stretch but does this not conjure the old debates in anthropology between structuralism and functionalism?!).

Don't ignore that point, but let me add an observation about this paper (I'm thinking aloud here). The authors parcellated with the Deskian atlas using "FreeSurfer" to label the nodes of each subjects' brain into 95 regions of interest, "68 cortical" and "27 subcortical" (a source here). From there, the authors conjectured fiber tracks to the other regions of interest - they say probabilistically! It sounds reasonable. But here is the thing: if the brain differences between women and men are as great as the authors claim, then why do the authors start with a baseline assumption that their 95 regions of interest would be the same between the genders. In other words, why should the authors get to start with a uniform set of regions of interest for both genders, when they have claimed that they show that human brains are allegedly profoundly different. Now I could be mistaken here - the paper is very dense. But to me, the authors appear to have imagined a Platonic ideal brain connectome that is uni-sexed. One has to ask then: could there be 95 different regions of interest that show the brains are more alike then we thought - probabilistically that is! If not, then it would seem that their model doesn't really reflect the one with which they began. 

Like you, I can't wait for the headlines that say - "men and women, different, but not because of their brains."      

04 December 2013

The Greatest Unknown Intellectual of the Nineteenth-Century: The Neurophysiologist Emil Du Bois-Reymond

By Gabriel Finkelstein

My book (link)

Gabriel in the archives.

At the most general level my book concerns the intersection of neuroscience, politics, and identity. It does this by analyzing the career of Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896), a physiologist best remembered for his profound and controversial essays and for his mechanistic view of life. Du Bois-Reymond wanted to eliminate all reference to vital forces in biology; to this end he virtually created the modern discipline of electrophysiology. His innovations in this field earned him widespread respect, and ultimately he was awarded a number of prestigious academic positions and a leading role in the direction of German medical education.

01 December 2013

Past Monisms

The organs of special sense are adapted to cause the experiences that come to us through their mediation to appear externalized. Recent experiments show that a person who wears glasses so adjusted as to invert the field of vision will soon come to see the world as before, right side up, proving that the conception of position and relation in space is due to a reaction between the experiences of the various organs of sense and that it is not a direct “intuition.” Experiences which reach consciousness through other channels do not have this peculiarity of external reference and seem to belong more directly to us. This distinction is not a primitive one and to a man born blind who suddenly receives his sight the visible world seems to rest on the eye just as the felt objects rests on the finger tip.

The late C. L. Herrick “Energism: The Fundamental Principles of Dynamic Realism” The Monist (January 1905), pp. 46-84 in The Metaphysics of a Naturalist: Philosophical and Psychological Fragments p. 53

25 November 2013