Princeton’s Michael Graziano recently published a fascinating, controversial piece about the nature of consciousness for The Atlantic. A choice quote:
Arguably, science is the gradual process by which the cognitive parts of our brains discover the profound inaccuracies in our deeper, evolutionarily built-in models of the world.
Neuroscientist Michael Graziano’s work highlights consciousness as, to put it simply, the brain’s construction of a model of itself. In Graziano’s view, this model is quick, imprecise, and just good enough to get the job done:
The consciousness we describe is non-physical, confusing, irreducible, and unexplainable, because that packet of information in the brain is incoherent. It’s a quick sketch.
The poster for a 2013 of the same name.
Will Smith stars in the new film CONCUSSION, based on a 2009 exposé in GQ magazine, about a South African doctor named Bennet Omalu and his discovery of a disease called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Previously known as “dementia pugilistica,” CTE results from blows to the head over a period of time that cause traumatic brain injury, whose cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms do not become noticeable until years later. Along with his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Omalu was the first to publish findings about NFL football players in America (“Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy in an NFL Football Player,” Neurosurgery, 2005) , conducting an independent and self-financed autopsy of the brain of a deceased offensive lineman, whose brain looked normal at first but contained large accumulations of tau protein, also associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The tragic suicides of beloved athletes such as Junior Seau, who suffered from the disease, Unfortunately, definitive tests can only be made post-mortem, and the NFL, with a record $13 billion in revenue this year, is a classic American institution, as ignorant, greedy, and morally corrupt as the United States Congress. The film is directed by Ridley Scott (see Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and The Martian) and also features Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Albert Brooks, and Arliss Howard.
The Neuropolitika logo, via Facebook
The New York Times article, “Neuropolitics, Where Campaigns Try to Read Your Mind” is a perfect example of the popular fascination with superficial brain research. “Consumer neuroscience,” as the field is at least honestly called, aims to apply neuroscience methodologies in order to help companies sell products and people communicate their messages. The article talks about embattled Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, among other politicians, who have employed consultants to this effect. “We warned well in advance of the high rejection level towards the three main Mexican parties,” Dr. Jaime Romano Micha, of the firm Neuropolitika, said. “Through our neuronal studies, we saw how voter sympathy levels, approach/withdraw and voting intention variables were shifting.” This could be a bad translation, but, as even the New York Times, notoriously seducible by imaging results, will note, “the phenomenon probably would not have required a scientist to point out.”
Powerhouse intellect Arne Dietrich, of the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, has published a new book, How Creativity Works in the Brain (Palgrave Macmillan) that will be sure to shake up your ideas about the mind and brain. A dedicated mechanist, Dietrich devotes himself to dispelling bogus ideas in psychology, such as right brains, divergent thinking, defocused attention, low arousal, alpha enhancement, dream states, or unconscious processes. “Current experimental work on the neural basis of creativity satisfies the criteria of phrenology,” Dietrich damningly writes, with characteristic wit and flare. He argues that, like political orientation or religious conviction, creativity does not exist as a cohesive entity on the neural level. Culture, he says, evolves from the coupling of variation and selection. Unfortunately, according to Dietrich, no one in neuroscience has investigated this idea, and so the field has failed to progress for decades. Popular scientists had better take note; Arne Dietrich may be the smartest guy in the room, and he means business.
Federica Bordoni for Nautilus Magazine
When I was in Spain, last spring, I visited the National Library in Madrid, where original manuscripts of Don Quixote and other classics are preserved. I searched for every single book about Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Throughout my research, I had already seen most of them. But I hadn’t seen Los Sueños de Santiago Ramón y Cajal, published earlier that year. I took the book to the central reading room and could not believe my eyes. The father of modern neuroscience kept a dream diary from 1918 until 1934, when he died. He wanted to disprove the theories of Freud. I had known about his work as an experimental psychologist, studying hypnotism and suggestion out of his own home. I knew that his ultimate goal was to understand the human mind by examining the anatomical substrate of the brain. But I had no idea that he would have kept such a personal account of his own unconscious. Perhaps this is why he chose not to publish his findings, in the end. I was deeply moved by some of the dreams. Here was a side of the great genius that no one knew. The story of the book was stuff of legend; thought lost during the Spanish Civil War, it was guarded by a Spanish psychiatrist during his travels throughout Europe and uncovered just recently by Spanish scholars. Read more about it all in Nautilus Magazine, which published some of my translated excerpts along with an introduction.
The Los Angeles Review of Books has a terrific short review of the new Pixar film Inside Out by Yale Professor of English and American Studies Wai Chee Dimock. Dimock points out that although the film employs the “greatest hits of mind theory,” according to the producer, it leaves thinking out. Berkeley professor of psychology Dacher Keltner, who was consulted on the film, argues that emotions are important for our evolution. The film tries to leave us with empathy for the confusion and anxiety within our own heads and the heads of others, that which thought can never seem to penetrate.