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Things As They Are

[ 1 ] June 22, 2015












The Los Angeles Review of Books has a review of the new book by philosopher of mind John Searle. Building on his 1983 classic IntentionalitySeeing Things As They Are, argues for perception as a form of direct realism. “The central claim of direct realism,” the critic John Armstrong writes, “is that perception puts the external world into contact with the subjective one.” Searle looks to visual science for his theoretical process; our sensory receptors sense light rays, which are processed by a module in our brain, which generates a perceptual representation with content. This perceptual representation is encoded as either accurate or inaccurate, based on the initial information from the outside world. According to Searle, perception is different from other mental states because its representations created with objective data, without subjective intervention. I am always wary of the word realism, which we use as an absolute but is always masquerading as an adjective. Nevertheless, Searle is an important thinker, to say the least, and this book offers an exciting new theory for neuroscience and philosophy fans to behold.

Inside Out

[ 0 ] June 20, 2015

imgresThe new film Inside Out from Disney/Pixar claims to be inspired by neuroscience. The “major emotion picture” is about the mental life of an 11-year-old girl, Riley (based on the daughter of writer/director Pete Docter). Joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust operate a control panel that dictates her behavior. In an elaborate, Willy Wonka-esque system, memories are colored with feeling, keyed into a core formation, stored on long-term shelves, or dropped into the abyss of the unconscious. “Personality islands” float in the sky, and experiences strengthen these floating monuments to personhood. Characters scrounge through heaps in Imagination Land and an especially deconstructive jaunt through Abstract Thought. In no way doctrinaire, Inside Out nonetheless introduces kids to to the mechanisms of their inner worlds, which may lead to more investigation (and is at least better than the emptiness of Frozen). “What character are you now?” a little girl asked her mom on the way out of the theater. “I’m Sadness,” she said, “because the movie’s over.”

Super-Organic Evolution: Nature and the Social Problem

[ 0 ] June 2, 2015

11335 (1)In 1905, the year before his Nobel Prize, “the father of modern neuroscience” Santiago Ramón y Cajal became more outspoken about his socialist views. Perhaps this was because of the brief rule of the liberal party in Spain, led by Segismundo Moret, who would offer Cajal the position of Minister of Public Instruction (the famous scientist declined). After twenty years, Cajal released a collection of short stories called Cuentos de vacaciones, which has been translated by Emory University scholar Laura Otis as Vacation Stories. Some of the characters depict greedy characters who torment others. Indeed, Cajal expressed a hatred for people who sought only capital, the lazy aristocracy. In his preface to a book called Super-Organic Evolution: Nature and the Social Order, written by the philosopher Enrique Lluria (who also wrote “Humanity of the Future”) and re-published by Forgotten Books, which brings hard-to-find original books from before 1923 back into print at reasonable prices, Cajal talks about how far humankind has strayed from evolutionary laws. The world is unjust, and only the brain, through its discoveries in science, can return us to equilibrium. His vision is prescient. As always, he is at his best when describing the brain:


Our mind is nourished on waves gathered from all parts of the cosmos, and its principal mission consists in classifying, combining, and reflecting them, with reference to their origin. Perceptions, ideas, the spoken word, even muscular contraction, what are they, in their ultimate analysis, but palpitations of heat, of light, of chemical energy, of electricity, etc., transformed, refined, and converted into other palpitations more subtle and spiritual? Like a lens of singular virtue and power, our nervous system gathers all the noises and minute tremblings in the world, in order to concentrate them, now in the splendid form of an idea, now in the flame of will and of passion.

Ted Chiang

[ 1 ] May 29, 2015

imgresWhen I first became interested in neuroscience, someone sent me a science-fiction story about a scientists who dissects his own brain. In “Exhalation,” by Ted Chiang, brains are made of gold leaf, and the prevailing theory of memory holds that our experiences are engraved on these sheets. The narrator of the story reveals that soon there will be no consciousness, due to a lack of air pressure that needs to flutter through the brain, and he is writing a testament for other inhabitants of the universe—us—to find. “Through the act of reading my words,” he writes, “the patterns that form your thoughts become an imitation of the patterns that once formed mine. And in that way I live again, through you.” Chiang’s collection Story of Your Life is definitely worth reading; the title story, in which a narrator weaves together the birth and death of her daughter together with the visit of an alien race whose unique language reflects their simultaneous sense of time, is almost a masterpiece. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker are attached to the film project, which sold at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival to Paramount Pictures and is expected to release in 2016, directed by Dennis Villanueve.


“Bad Poetry Disguised as Science”

[ 0 ] May 28, 2015
Image credit: Peter Gamlen for The Guardian

Image credit: Peter Gamlen for The Guardian

Nautilus has a fascinating article about the psychologist Julian Jaynes, author of the influential cult classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In it, he argues that ancient peoples were not conscious; one half of their mind spoke to the other with ugidance in the voice of the gods until about 3000 years ago, when self-awareness emerged. Jaynes conducted animal behavior research as a graduate student at Yale before moving to England to become a playwright and actor. “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences,” his only book begins, “this insubstantial country of the mind!” Jaynes’ theory treats consciousness as a cultural rather than biological phenomenon, which is not a popular view these days. However, more than one neuroscientist that I know has cited Julian Jaynes and his The Origin of Consciousness as an inspiration for entering the field.

Happy Birthday, Cajal!

[ 0 ] May 1, 2015

Happy Birthday to Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “the father of modern neuroscience,” who would be 163 today. Cajal was born in Petilla de Aragón, a tiny village high in the mountains of northern Spain. On this same date, when he turned 36, Cajal declared the independence of the nerve cell in his self-published journal Revista Trimestral de Histología normal y patológia. (Images courtesy of the Cajal Institute in Madrid.)



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