The Los Angeles Review of Books has a review of the new book by philosopher of mind John Searle. Building on his 1983 classic Intentionality, Seeing 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.
The 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.”
When 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.
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 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.)