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The Cold Humanists

[ 9 ] January 18, 2013 |

Exploring the trend of neuro-rejectionism.

Neuroscience is in vogue. In the mainstream news and on pop-science bestseller lists, in academic departments and in deli refrigerators, interest in all things brain-related continues to grow, to be sold, and to be consumed. But the growth in public interest in the brain— and the hope that research into its vastly complex workings will unveil deep truths relevant to our daily lives— is still somewhat unspecific in its ends, for most present-day insights into the workings of the brain, gained from very specific research (and usually on mouse, rat, or fruit fly brains), examine quite basic and elementary features, ask more new questions than they answer, open more doors onto future lines of research than they solve or complete, and continually remind us of how much there is left to explore, especially when it comes to the human brain.

For the curious seeker of new insights about the brain, this can be frustrating—especially if one relies mostly on the popular press. In this age of facts at our fingertips, the reality of a surging public interest in a field being continually met with a lack of clear-cut answers to the questions we want answered can lead to cynicism about the whole pursuit of neuroscience. The research itself continues to deliver clear-cut results on its own terms, in academic journals and at conferences. But for most people, $35 is too much to pay for access to a PDF behind a paywall, the language of pure, unfiltered neuroscience can be unapproachable to those outside of the academic and research communities, and we want something easy to chew and digest.

But when results from neuroscience research do make it to the wide public for easier consumption, they can bear an aura of explanatory significance in the form of a big bold headline, a colorful picture, or an out-of-context quote from a researcher, which all can create a misleading sense of a big and final answer at hand—the TED effect, some would say. We are sometimes led to believe that the colorful fMRI images in the Science Times are—in and of themselves—revealing the seat of love circuits in the brain; we are told we can look inside children’s brains and see them learning, in real time. In these cases, healthy skepticism is necessary to guide us closer to the reality of the situation. Certain sources, such as the Neuroskeptic, are dependable whistle-blowers for what Alyssa Quart in the New York Times (in a refreshingly skeptical piece, for NYT’s own usual standards of brain science hype reporting) recently dubbed “brain porn.”

But there is a different breed of skeptics who don’t care to underscore their whistle-blowing with any kind of enthusiastic guidance towards the reality of well-done brain research (Quart, in her NYT piece, also doesn’t seem to be too keen on telling us about good neuroscience, either). This trend of skeptical voices has been arriving mostly from the humanities, and their attitude toward the brain sciences is cold, cynical, and doubtful— as if neuroscience has long overstayed its welcome, and must now be hurried out the door. We shouldn’t misread this cooling trend as another strain of the healthy skepticism mentioned earlier; rather, this strain, from the humanities, rolls the science and the cultural distribution and consumption of it into one big scapegoat, and is thus a classic mistake of confusing the message with the messenger.

For starters, take an ongoing series of essays currently being published by the online magazine Triple Canopy under the heading “Common Minds” (the series is supported by some prominent institutions, such as The Brown Foundation, The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others). In Triple Canopy editor Alexander Provan’s opening essay for the series, “A Note on ‘Common Minds’”, this cold attitude towards neuroscience is in full view, right from the opening paragraph. Speaking of the history of neuroscience as a discipline since the 1980s and 90s, Provan argues that neuroscience

turned inward—mirroring the putative narcissism of the era—and strived to reveal the immaculate mechanics lodged within our skulls. This nascent discipline cannibalized psychology, linguistics, and sociology, planting flags in far-flung realms of academia, medicine, and law. Today neuroscience is a central prism through which nearly all aspects of life are regarded.

Neuroscience is portrayed here in strangely violent terms—cannibalization, the planting of flags. Provan soon explains why he feels so let down by neuroscience:

We now know more about diseases and disorders like epilepsy, aphasia, Alzheimer’s, and Tourette’s syndrome than ever before, but none have been cured. We have an inkling of the cognitive processes that beget consciousness, which is both a product and central feature of the brain; but philosophers and neuroscientists alike still have trouble defining, much less locating, the phenomenon and explaining the emergence of subjectivity—if not the more mundane matter of self-awareness… We have not found the brain’s “God spot” or “buy button.”

… Recent criticism in magazines and academic journals has justifiably deflated—and perhaps tempered public enthusiasm for—the tumid, reductive claims of pop-science scribes. But such venues tend be dominated by professional journalists and scientists debunking other professional journalists and scientists. Departing from the conventions of this discourse, Triple Canopy has invited artists, poets, novelists, philosophers, historians, and psychologists to contribute analytic essays, linguistic compendia, and prose poems.

This sounds like an interesting and very worthwhile initiative to me. But, as evidenced in this introductory essay and the first two essays published to date in the “Common Minds” series (which I will discuss below), these essayists seem to be using the very “tumid, reductive claims of pop-science scribes” that Provan casts aside here as the very source material for their own attempts at “debunking” neuroscience from its cannibalizing, flag-planting, attacking position. Just look at Provan’s exaggerated expectations for the field—that it should have fully cured diseases now, solved consciousness, and most problematic—have found the brain’s “God spot” or “buy button”. This last statement uses language that any humble neuroscientist would most certainly caution us against—for this is language plucked not from good neuroscience research itself, but rather from the overhyped messengers of pop-science reporting. And by doing so, the messages from neuroscience—the specific studies or general types of experiments, even the statements of scientists themselves in talking about their own work—are missing from this critique.

The violent rejection of neuroscience on these grounds leaves no room for a more interesting dialogue, free of the pop-science hype language. Instead of seeing what is out there, we get the sour “We have not found the brain’s ‘God spot.’” The modus operandi for the cold humanists, as interesting as it sounds to invite these essayists to contribute their thoughts, seems to be to do the significantly easier work of praying on readers’ suspicions that they’ve been promised some answers by big flashy pop-neuro headlines, but haven’t been given them yet. A cultural critique of the overhyping is necessary and important, as discussed above—the problem here is that all of neuroscience is under attack, not just the overhyping messengers. Similarly, Quart ends her NYT piece mentioned earlier with the following passage:

It’s not hard to understand why neuroscience is so appealing. We all seek shortcuts to enlightenment. It’s reassuring to believe that brain images and machine analysis will reveal the fundamental truth about our minds and their contents. But as the neuro doubters make plain, we may be asking too much of neuroscience, expecting that its explanations will be definitive. Yet it’s hard to imagine that any functional magnetic resonance imaging or chemical map will ever explain “The Golden Bowl” or heaven. Or that brain imaging, no matter how sophisticated and precise, will ever tell us what women really want. [my emphasis]

I would argue that Quart has misplaced the notion of “reassurance” here. It’s actually bits like this that display a more callous form of “reassurance,” a form repeated over and over in the sweeping prohibitive statements at the ends of articles, essays, and books from the cold humanists. Ending your article with a final few lines that reassure readers that neuroscience, as represented by “brain imaging, no matter how sophisticated,” will never get to answer certain deep questions, is exactly the kind of careless reassurance we would do well to replace with some positive probing into what questions real neuroscience is asking today, and what the road ahead for the field does look like, treating fMRI as just one of a plethora of techniques.

In Provan’s “Common Minds” introduction, we do get a bit of talk about the range of neuroscience work being done today. But when Provan does talk about the real work, we see what a narrow vision of the field we have before us:

To us, [Common Minds] is itself a strike against biological reductionism. There have been many enthralling, if provisional, discoveries regarding the unconscious processes underlying our behavior, the adaptive and plastic nature of the brain, and the relationship between vision and cognition. But what, besides consciousness, prompts such efforts, impels us to engineer experiments, parse data, invent theories? The core of who we are and why we do what we do—that union of memory, consciousness, and the body that marks us as human, grounding our various representations of the world in what Kant called a “single common subject”—remains obscure.

It certainly does remain obscure, and may be so for a long time to come. The cold humanists prefer to remind us of this fact— to harp on the puffed-up, unmet goals, rather than get into any positive contributions; to make it feel fine not to pay attention to neuroscience, because it’s all just “obscure” still.

So what of the middle ground between dense academic research papers on one hand, and the puffed-up pop-science articles on the other—the ground occupied by the accessible and responsible books by the likes of David Eagleman, Patricia Churchland, or V.S. Ramachandran? What about, for example, the fascinating research into the seat of morality in the brain, done by Rebecca Saxe of MIT, which doesn’t rely on fMRI? Or—perhaps of particular interest to those in the humanities—the neuroscience of language processing, as explored by Stanislas Dehaene, or the neuroscience of visual art, as explored by Margaret Livingstone and Semir Zeki? Well, it turns out Provan is bothered by how, for example,

Eagleman uses Ulysses to analyze the housing bubble: By bounding himself in anticipation of his ship passing the Sirens, Ulysses shorted the same “instant-gratification circuits” that produced the subprime-mortgage crisis. But this account neglects predatory lending practices and the failure of government regulation—anything besides the cognitive processes of homeowners…  such books tend to strip away the construction of subjective experience from objective reality in order to reveal the gears at work and marvel at the mechanics… Often this means pitching a ream of case studies and summaries of academic papers as a “journey,” “search,” or “quest.” At the end of the road there tends to be either a solution to everyday problems—leadership, love, sales, addiction, productivity—or a sense of pure wonder. Dwelling on the magic of cognition, while insisting on its biological basis, returns the brain to a fantastical realm just as it is being demystified.

Eagleman’s “instant-gratification circuits” analogy is a new voice in the conversation, drawing new parallels and provoking us to consider a new layer of behavioral analysis of a complex sociopolitical issue—another tool in our belt. The analogy is not what Provan makes it out to be—a take-all, flag-planting cannibalistic account seeking to sweep away the voices of social and political science in a wash of ignorant reductionism. It’s a shame Provan casts him away so bluntly— Eagleman is one of the most positive, accessible and humble communicators of brain science around today. But he won’t see the light of day in the cynical passage at hand—indeed, the formulation here: “such books tend to strip away the construction of subjective experience from objective reality in order to reveal the gears at work and marvel at the mechanics…” is quite telling in its reliance on the cold, lifeless imagery of gears and mechanics, and in its strangely dualistic suggestion that subjective experience happens somewhere else, besides the brain. That’s not to say we’ve solved the deep questions of binding subjective experience to neural activity—but if you start from a position of vague dualism, always talking about the brain with a certain scorn, like it’s a lifeless chamber of gears and mechanics—what hope do we have of moving the conversation forward? Is it still that threatening to consider that that cognition, in all its “magic,” might have a fully biological basis? Apparently so, and Provan indicates his stance on the matter by suggesting one of the central tenents of, yes, the quest of modern neuroscience—that cognition does have a biological basis—is akin to a fantasy. And fantasy, here, is meant not as an interesting comment about the nature of brain-based cognition, but rather as another attempt at “debunking”  the whole endeavor of modern neuroscience.

Following Provan’s introductory piece, the first two full essays in the Triple Canopy “Common Minds” series display a similar central philosophy. “Popular Science” by Jena Osmon draws a line from phrenology to contemporary fMRI work, making the case that the former’s festishizing of specific, localized functions of the mind (based on the shape of the exterior surface of the skull) has birthed its modern equivalent in the latter, and that we should guard against such reductionists’ games of localizing complex cognitive states.

Where did she arrive at this criticism? Osmon, “while passing time at an airport magazine kiosk… noticed several magazines with cover stories on the brain…” and deduced that “The soft science of Whitman’s day—with its desire to attach character traits to specific regions of the brain—is alive and well in the popular press. Internet browsing confirms the trend.”

This is a very fair criticism of the popular press’ handling of fMRI studies, which too often places emphasis on localization results above all else, declaring their significance to a degree beyond what the actual scientists behind the study at hand would likely say about it themselves. And it is true that at times fMRI experiments, as they are initially designed, may simply try to put their explanatory arms around too much. So, if you want to take this one step beyond a cultural media critique, you could criticize the amount of funding allocated to fMRI work, while reminding us of the proportions of the field– that fMRI is only one of the plethora of research techniques currently at play in modern neuroscience. But to enter into a direct critique of what fMRI is looking at, as is suggested Osmon’s essay, takes us somewhere else—somewhere these authors aren’t really interested in going into with any more detail than a quick dismissal leaning on a tenuous parallel: “The link of location to behavior provides a seductive narrative structure of legible cause and effect. The power of that structure is just as evident today as it was in Whitman’s phrenological era.”

Many have fairly critiqued fMRI for providing only an indirect measure of brain activity, and thus being somewhat misleading about true cause and effect, like Osmon does here. But even given the indirectness, the fMRI signal is still tightly correlated to neural metabolism and local field potentials, and it does show us something that is going on inside the brain— a something that seems to be fairly well correlated with the reporting of distinct mental states. It’s the interpretation of that data that’s often the problem, be it in the discussion section of a paper itself, or an article in the popular press.

But there is another line of criticism regarding fMRI that questions the actual necessity of the work, (the 19th-century botany-styled correlating of regions with mental states or behaviors, with unclear explanatory significance), within the field as whole, as compared to other methods of neuroscientific inquiry—and I find this line of criticism much more intriguing. It was perhaps best articulated by Jerry Fodor back in 1999:

I had supposed that dualistic metaphysics was now out of fashion, in the brain science community most of all. Brain scientists are supposed to be materialists, and materialists are supposed not to doubt that distinct mental states have ipso facto got different neural counterparts. That being so, why does it matter where in the brain their different counterparts are?

While Fodor questions the point of excessive localization research within the field, Osmon is one step removed— she sticks to a questioning of the seductive localization narratives themselves, as presented in airport kiosk magazines, which of course speaks more to popular press than it does to actual, peer-reviewed, good fMRI work.

In ending her piece, Osmon pastes in a selected passage from a notorious letter to the editor of the New York Times from November 14, 2007, which arrived in response to a particularly onerous pop-science hype article entitled “This is Your Brain on Politics.” The letter was signed by seventeen cognitive neuroscientists. Osmon’s selected passage from the letter:

We know that it is not possible to definitively determine whether a person is anxious or feeling connected simply by looking at activity in a particular brain region. This is so because brain regions are typically engaged by many mental states, and thus a one-to-one mapping between a brain region and a mental state is not possible.

But while the above passage serves Osmon’s argument neatly, and makes it seem as though this letter was an indictment of the entire technique of fMRI, it’s telling that Osmon didn’t include the final passages of that letter. Here they are:

Unfortunately, the results reported in the article were apparently not peer-reviewed, nor was sufficient detail provided to evaluate the conclusions.

As cognitive neuroscientists, we are very excited about the potential use of brain imaging techniques to better understand the psychology of political decisions. But we are distressed by the publication of research in the press that has not undergone peer review, and that uses flawed reasoning to draw unfounded conclusions about topics as important as the presidential election.

The cold humanists aren’t interested in the fact that real scientists, like these ones who signed the NYT letter, are hashing out the line between good and bad science, and managing to remain “very excited” about the future use of brain imaging techniques. And they’re not interested in the fact that some articles about the brain, by some great science journalists, contain solid, peer-reviewed results, while others, like this one, apparently do not. These nuances fall away amid the broad strokes of their neuro-rejectionism.

The second essay in the series, Jan Estep’s “Semblance of Fact: How brain scans are presented and consumed as photographs” does a better job of critiquing fMRI results as presented through the lens of the popular press, yet there is again a coldness towards neuroscience, an unwilligness to let go of vague dualism and see neuroscience as anything more than an overstepping discipline full of lifeless, mechanical answers to the deepest questions.

In her essay for Triple Canopy, Estep leans on a quote from another cold humanist, Alva Noë, near the end of her piece (I have previously responded to Noe’s views on the limits of neuroscience, as published by the New York Times last year), before declaring that

Despite the persistence of hardcore materialists, cognitive scientists increasingly understand that the relationship between mind and brain cannot be reduced to a matter of neural correlates…Brain scans provide a certain image of the powerful biological forces that condition our experiences, but our understanding of ourselves is also culturally coded. Like photographs, our selves never exist in isolation: They are embedded in specific contexts, they depend on one another, and they are historically situated.

Estep, like Noë, dismisses the endeavor of neuroscience by reminding us that we don’t know everything right now from the fMRI work done so far—that fMRI isn’t able to move from correlation to any degree of causation, and therefore we should be skeptical of all of neuroscience, here on out. At this point, we would do better to tune in to another voice from the humanities, the brilliant Garry Kennard, who is well aware that fMRI is just one of many tools at work in these early days of exploring the brain, and who rightly keeps the relationship between mind and brain where it belongs—inside the brain. Here’s Kennard, in a passage from his new book “Essays and Images” that relates directly to the Noë-Estep “Out of Our Heads” formulations above:

There are those who say we cannot exist solely in our individual brains. That consciousness depends on an interaction of brains and that this interaction is where we live our essential lives—existing as truly sentient beings only in what we call ‘culture’… No. We may from time to time communicate with our fellows and gain from this all that is said of community—enlarged ideas, possibilities of action and thought, affection. But the reality is that for the most part we talk to ourselves in an endless solipsistic conversation, alone in our divided, multiple, shifting selves. And in the end we must admit that there is nowhere else for the experience of this ‘culture’ to exist than our individual brain and it is there we are obliged to begin any explorations of our perceptions of the world. (49)

These suggestions may be disorienting for those in the humanities who remain firmly opposed to the idea that the mind is what the brain does, like Provan, Osmon, Estep and Noë. It may even seem threatening, compelling them to turn a cold shoulder on neuroscience and all its techniques, and, in their writing intended for a wide audience, to keep the mind safely embedded in a diffuse web of externalities, avoiding the “gears” and “mechanics” between our ears. But Kennard’s ideas should not be read as flag-planting cannibalization—for they are far from that—and they need not provoke coldness. Rather, if taken with a proper dose of openness and humility, they allow new doors to be opened in the conversation between the humanities and the brain sciences. Kennard’s “Essays and Images” is a stellar presentation of these ideas, the beginnings of new conversations—it’s one of the best examples I’ve come across of the possibility of this truly interdisciplinary dialogue. When he discusses religious experience and visual art in the context of the mind, Kennard is not out to “debunk” neuroscience and point fingers at “biological reductionists,” for he seems able to differentiate between the pop-science hype and the insights gained from well-done research. Himself an artist, Kennard’s warmer and significantly more receptive approach to the field is a welcome antidote to the cold skepticism and threatened stance that these humanists feel when they brush up against contemporary neuroscience.

Unfortunately, however, some contemporary voices in the dialogue between the visual arts and brain sciences seem to be stuck in attack-mode. Take the recent essay “Sensing God and the Limits of Neuroscience” by Richard Gunderman, published on The Atlantic’s site on New Years Eve. Like Raymond Tallis, Gunderman seems altogether fed up with neuroscientific approaches to questions of art and religion. Check out Gunderman’s line of reasoning in this passage, and his choice of language:

What are we to make of the fact that some experiences attributed to a divine presence or an encounter with a transcendent reality are associated with characteristic changes in the function of a particular part of the brain, and that stimulating a part of the brain can produce such experiences in experimental subjects? Does this indicate that these experiences, and perhaps all such experiences, are therefore false? … Are such experiences of the transcendent mere misfirings of the brain?

For me, this passage communicates more about the author’s own cold disposition towards the brain, and neuroscience as its explorer, than it does about the question of reality versus unreality. My answers to his questions are all no— this does not indicate that all experiences are “false”—it actually shows us the reality of the very fact that he seems to deny, that we’re poking around in the seat of the mind. We have to be ready—and not threatened—by the fact that the physical body, and specifically the brain, may be where all these experiences exist it their totality. Indeed—the very fact that stimulating a brain region, as described here, is correlated with that subject’s reporting of a particular subjective experience, holds within it the vastly more revolutionary kernel of truth.

Again, Kennard, in “Essays and Images,” avoids negative attitudes towards the brain and neuroscience, and is much more instructive and truly progressive when it comes to discussing religious transcendence and the brain:

What I am calling a contact with the subconscious others will call a transcendent contact with a god or gods or some other religious experience. If any progress is made on this subject, we must reject the notion of a supernatural god existing somewhere outside our brains. I am quite aware that the vast majority of the world’s population will still, at this time, disagree with me. However, we must recognize that the projections that humans make on the physical world—to help them make sense of it and to give themselves a sense of identity—are entirely of human construction—conscious or not. It is becoming progressively clear from research into the way our brains function that we are in effect ‘dreaming’ the world and only have to alter that dream when we, as it were, trip over a piece of matter.

Gunderson moves from his discussion of religious transcendence to the experience of great art, hoping to expose neuroscience for being overly reductive when approaching the most profound expressions of human subjectivity:

 A neurologist might come along and explain that I am merely experiencing the transduction of kinetic energy into electrical energy as processed by neurons in the auditory and higher associative cortices of the brain. And yet, there is something about the music that is hard to reckon in such terms. It would be like saying that a passionate embrace is merely the pressing of flesh on flesh… The mere fact that neurochemical changes are taking place does nothing to help us distinguish between good and bad, the great and the merely insipid. The truth or falsehood of such expressions is not simply a matter of correspondence with some verifiable material state. It is also a matter of elegance, rhythm, balance, and above all, beauty, qualities that are to some degree transcendent. Ultimately, we cannot define the beautiful in strictly material terms.

What if elegance, rhythm, balance, and beauty are words we use to describe sensations that feel transcendent in what we might hope to be an immaterial, dualistic sense, but are, as neuroscience instructs us in the very experiments Gunderson references, entirely contained in our bodies? That this transcendence  may be, as Kennard describes it, a glimpsing of the non-conscious, non-verbal depths resting just below our tip-of-the-iceberg consciousness in the brain, provoking in us profound, unspeakable feelings of “depth”?

This notion seems to be too frightening to authors like Gunderson, who still view the “material” as some sort of cold netherworld of gears and mechanisms– certainly not us. They refuse to entertain the notion that these states described as immaterial and transcendent are themselves “verifiable material states” (this language still sounds cold—as if the states of transcendence were trying to pass through a fluorescently-lit security line to be given a ‘verified’ stamp), and that neuroscience is just beginning to explore the material seat of these states. If that sounds alarming or overly reductive, ask yourself why you feel that way. Are you, in all your staggering biological complexity, not enough, on your own, to feel beauty, to feel elegance? If you follow the cold humanists to the end of their logic, the answer is no—there is something about it that is not in your body. I disagree—I believe it is, and I believe you are. I can’t be certain of this yet, but I can be certain that I will pay attention to neuroscience for all it is worth, as long as I’m around.

Comments (9)

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  1. [...] H/T to David Livingstone-Smith for pointing to this article. [...]

  2. Julie says:

    If “they” fear the possibility that the complexity of the human experience could possibly lie entirely within the body, then aren’t you showing an equally strong fear that it doesn’t? Or at least an equally strong disinterest in exploring outside of your respective inclination (neuroscience) for answers. It just seems like recapitulating an old story– of people sticking to the fields that interest them and resonate as truth with them. And wouldn’t it be more novel to find some truth that might lie in areas we fear to go? Just as you wish they would more sincerely consider the advances and contributions of neuroscience, couldn’t you consider the work of philosophy?

    • vrood says:

      The only way enlarge the knowledge in your field is to explore laterally, so I am sure many neuroscientists have considered philosophy, religion, LSD, etc. in a search for information. I would think that any highly intelligent and creative neuroscientist has had as much exposure philosophy as a liberal arts major.

      Ultimately, though, this is scientific method and requires documented facts and processes that can be repeated. This is why it seems slow to our modern, ADD world. They are going amazing places when can’t even dream of now, but it’s going to take a while.

      By the way, I am an artist, and I love hanging out with neuroscientists because they are so creative and stimulate they way I think about my art. I’m sure it’s vice/versa.

  3. Danielle says:

    Probably the best piece I’ve read yet on the public view of neuroscience. Thank you for articulating this point of view so clearly. I especially appreciate the even-handedness in this article as both a scientist and musician, a lover of both the arts and sciences. I’m a neural-prosthetics researcher and I’m always trying to dampen the media’s sensationalist portrayals of fMRI and prosthetic studies for my family and friends to create realistic expectations of neuroscience for those outside the field. And to some of your points, I think there are things that we as a neuroscience community could do better to try to create realistic public expectations and then execute on what we promise. An annual visit to the Society for Neuroscience conference quickly reveals that a fair amount of funding is being allocated to redundant and ill-conceived fMRI and P300 studies. We haven’t quite come together to take a systems approach to unraveling the brain’s mysteries in the way that say the genetics community did with the Human Genome project. And there are perhaps too few neuroscientists trying to write well-informed pieces for the general public, free of both the dense language and paywall of journal articles and the sensationalist hype of pop-science media. But there is a remarkable neuroscience study for every poorly conceived one, even if we have not yet found the outlet and the language for communicating those studies to the public. And it is far easier, as you note, to critique and reject all neuroscience than to find the intersection of the sense of purpose that those in the arts seek and the measurable phenomenology of the brain.

  4. Nigel says:

    Rhetorical pot calls rhetorical kettle black.

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