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Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience

Social Neuroscience

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The 1990s were designated as the “decade of the brain”.  This spurred significant advances in basic brain research.  It also spawned a new discipline called cognitive sciences or cognitive neuroscience (a multidisciplinary approach to study brain function – yours truly was one of the early graduates of this fledgling field of study). A critical development out of this interdisciplinary approach was functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (commonly referred to as fMRI). fMRI has proved to be a very important tool in advancing our knowledge of the brain. With this tool, researchers have been able to peer into functioning brains. Over the last two decades, there has been prolific output from a multitude of labs across the country and the world. Beautiful, psychedelic pictures of brain slices color coded by intensity of activity has filled the pages of journals and popular press.

That the human brain is highly modular in function has been known for a while (thanks to studies involving individuals with lesions in very specific regions of the brain – check books by Oliver Sacks for fascinating stories).  fMRI further reinforced this fact and extended it in important ways by revealing more nuanced modularity in the brain.

 

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at UC, Berkeley, has this to say in a recent article entitled – How the Brain Really Works  

 

For the last 20 years neuroscientists have shown us compelling pictures of brain areas “lighting up” when we see or hear, love or hate, plan or act. These studies were an important first step. But they also suggested a misleadingly simple view of how the brain works. They associated specific mental abilities with specific brain areas, in much the same way that phrenology, in the 19th century, claimed to associate psychological characteristics with skull shapes.”

Her insinuation is that this modern day phrenology is not sufficient to explain how the mind works. In fact, she goes on to cite some newer research that demonstrates multiple areas of the brain being engaged in certain activities. More importantly the pattern of activity changes depends on context and focus of attention. She writes

 

People often assume that knowing about the brain is all that you need to explain how the mind works, so that neuroscience will replace psychology. That may account for the curious popular enthusiasm for the phrenological “lighting up” studies. It is as if the very thought that something psychological is “in the brain” gives us a little explanatory frisson, even though we have known for at least a century that everything psychological is “in the brain” in some sense. But it would be just as accurate to say that knowing about the mind explains how the brain works.”

It turns out Gopnik is arguing for the importance of her own profession: Psychology, for brain research and making a case for why she should get a raise.

 

Joking apart, her arguments have important implications in a broader societal context. In a previous post, I wrote about neuroscience and the law.  There I warned about Neuromarketing. Now there is an established discipline called Neurocriminology. A psychiatry professor, Adrain Raine, has written a book called, the Anatomy of Violence. He has peered into the brains of murderers and found evidence for reduced functioning in certain brain areas compared to “normal” folks. The upshot is there is predisposition to violence in certain individuals and it can be picked up in brain scans. You can read his take in the article – Neurocriminology: Inside the Criminal Mind.  It tackles issues related to the implications of neurocriminological (that must be a new word) research for crime, punishment and the law. Very interesting. A interview with the author can also be heard on Fresh Air – Criminologist Believes Violent Behavior is Biological .  This is a must hear, Terri pins him down on his own contradictory beliefs vis-a-vis what his own research means.  Gazzaniga (cited in my previous blog- link above), has reviewed the book, and he offers this assessment

 

The belief that violent behavior can be explained—and needs to be understood—is certainly admirable. I join Mr. Raine in believing that it’s our duty to consider all of this research kind of interesting, even though it is going to take a long time to figure out how it all works. And I believe we can learn more about the biological mechanisms of violence, and that we may someday come up with interventions that help us predict with greater accuracy future antisocial behavior: Such knowledge would greatly enhance society’s ability to be more rational, even in such mundane procedures as parole hearings.

But we live in a layered world: There are the physical, the biological, the mental and the social layers, and each builds upon the last. At this point in history they interact in ways we don’t fully understand. Mr. Raine raises this issue, and urges us all to think hard about what steps we should take. When he suggests that we undertake action on the social level—the “top” layer—in order to prevent crime or prescribe individual interventions, I get off the train. In my view, someday, somehow, someone is going to figure out that the social layer simply can’t do all the things we ask of it.

Next stop, Social neuroscience?

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Written by asterix98

May 6, 2013 at 3:55 am

Neuroscience and the law

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Michael Gazzaniga, a Professor of Neuroscience at UC Santa Barbara, is considered the father of Cognitive Neuroscience. This was a nascent discipline when I entered graduate school, in the early 90s. Since then it has blossomed into a vibrant area of scientific inquiry and has revealed much about the functional/systems neuroscience of the brain. Specifically, functional MRI as a research tool, has been instrumental in helping neuroscientists peer into the inner workings of the brain. This has spawned many sub disciplines including neurotheology, but the most insidious offshoot is neuromarketing: the pursuit of research specifically targeted at influencing buying behavior. Out of curiosity, I participated in one such study in Berkeley, and got paid $100 for it!!

Nevertheless, all of this exciting new information about the brain has also caught the attention of the judicial system. Gazzaniga has been involved in helping people in the legal profession understand the ramifications, of the state of the art brain research, for defendants: juvenile delinquents to psychopaths. The crux of the problem is this: neuroscience tells us that there is really no such thing as free will, so if the “hardware” drives certain people to commit heinous crimes, who is responsible for these actions? In fact, his new book on the topic is entitled – Who’s in charge? . You can also watch his very interesting lecture on the same topic at the Edge.org:Neuroscience and Justice .  In a sense, the upshot is, as Hobbes noted,  as a society, without some commonly agreed upon rules, left to our own devices, we would be at each other’s throats. Given the new insights into the nature of free will, how should the existing social contracts be upgraded? This is a topic of discussion for society at large.

Written by asterix98

November 24, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Posted in neuroscience

Tagged with , ,

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