Category Archives: The Brain

Notes from 11/07/2011 Meeting of The Neurosciences and the Humanities Working Group at Kent State

At the November 7, 2011 meeting of the Neurosciences and the Humanities Workgroup at Kent State University, we discussed the following articles:

Pallanti, Stefano. “Unique Contributions of Brain Stimulation to the Study of Consciousness: Where Neuroscience Meets Philosophy.” CNS Spectr 15:3 (March 2010): 154-156.

Lagercrantz, Hugo and  Jean-Pierre Changeux. “Basic Consciousness of the Newborn.” Seminars in Perinatology: 201-206.

Velmans, Max. “How to Separate Conceptual Issues from Empirical Ones in the Study of Consciousness.” Progress in Brain Research. eds. R. Banerjee and B.K. Chakrabarti. 168: 1-9.

issues of definition

will we ever understand consciousness?

if we ever do–what then?

what is the significance of understanding consciousness to us in the humanities?

what can the work in this field do for us in the humanities?

should we seek out a “consensus” of consciousness?

Chalmers and Velmans > taxonomy of consciousness > take consciousness as a given and do not try to reduce it

Semir Zeki – Splendors and Miseries of the Brain

are neuroaesthetics discourses the same as the consciousness debate? no–doesn’t seem to be a link between neuroaesthetics and consciousness–in neuroaesthetics discourse, we can take consciousness as a given

what about beauty and consciousness?

how do you communicate conscious experience to another person?

problems of relevance, historically/culturally

being too vague?

cognitive science/cognitive neuroscience/social neuroscience

work on imitation

literature > mimesis, mirror neurons

intersubjectivity > Marco Iacoboni

mind reading

Brian Boyd > fascination with stories > evolved for social interaction

Metzinger book (from last time) > connection to lit studies

creative act

how would you teach these materials?

neuronovel > undergraduates

theory class > graduate, not integrative

I had students read Oliver Sacks in my writing class before moving to Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances

racial bias – can correct for that if primed in appropriate ways

emotion regulation, affect during reading

In the Woods – Jana French – unreliable narrator

degree to which the sense of self is a story

what is the narrative basis in the neurobiology?

“pre-theoretical assumptions”

“Basic Consciousness of the Newborn” > poorly written> confirms abortion rights [cultural specificity] > newborns are fully human beings > experiments framed because the scientists had a particular idea

assumptions by the neuroscientists might form the basis of their experiments and interpretation of findings

analogical > baby response – adult, baby brain – adult brain > same experiences

argument is as strong or weak as the analogy is

they used Websters for their definition

interesting to read what counts for science

is this article typical of neuroscience articles?

consciousness is something that has been around longer than neuroscience > explains why they cited the Webster’s definition

now, we should be careful when using the word “consciousness”

literature and philosophy have definitions and concepts that are specifically on consciousness

these migrated to the neurosciences

not situated in a discernable discourse

Velmans > 1st person (phenomenology) vs 3rd person (empirical)

what do we gain/how do we benefit from Woolf’s conceptions of consciousness: 1) how the world > social construction of the subject and 2) individual consciousness > individual articulation “the tunnel back to where all consciousnesses meet” (from last time) > conversation about humaness > important issues > can neuroscience help us understand these things better?

habitual states of consciousness

generalizing beyond Woolf’s individual genius (if you choose to use that word) > these things  exist > would not attribute this to her individual genius > would not use the word genius > novel > system > rules and protocols that can be broken > genre advanced, almost exhausted > Woolf arives at a late stage > reflecting on these rules > totally rejects the idea of genius (but she was a very smart woman)

collective activity

haiku, zen practices, consciousness, intepretation, e.g., a flag is waving in the wind, but what is moving? different responses

discussing future readings for the group

rhetoric of science writing > RSQ

science writing vs science teaching

shift to active voice from passive voice

interdisciplinarity > humanities > philosophy, theory of mind > English > psychoanalytic theory, practicing clinicians writing in response to the neurosciences

we arrived at consciousness studies through a discussion of the self

Antonio Damasio’s Decartes’ Error and Ruth Leys’ important book on trauma and affect theory, article on critical inquiry

“discourse processing”

questions being asked in the neurosciences are cultural questions

what have they found that would be useful to us? what can we take from their work?

humanities influence on cognitive science

working definition > acknowledge other definitions

issues of crisis in the humanities > the written word

how do we define the human > biopolitics

why do certain things become important or capture our imaginations or direct discourse at particular times

Aristotle > anger > boiling of the blood around the heart > tool for stirring up the crowd > affects > anger | virtue and danger

you work in the concept in the way that it works in a particular field

one word, many concepts, many questions related to those many concepts

language > concepts > where is the concept?

now, there are some questions that cannot be answered only in the given discipline

the concept of disciplines itself was wrongheaded from the beginning

next time: neurorhetorics

Notes from 10/24/2011 Meeting of The Neurosciences and the Humanities Working Group at Kent State

At the meeting on October 24 ,2011 of the Neurosciences and the Humanities Workgroup at Kent State University, we discussed Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (2009). These are my notes from the meeting and the ensuing discussion.

“ego machines” (207) “arose from evolution on this planet” “world simulation built around a center” [this material might be useful for my chapter on Philip K. Dick]

ego machines without self

self as process > self stabilization > Asimov’s robots? [more notes on Asimov chapter]

“selfing organisms”

“dynamical self-organization”

limitation of metaphors > other ways of thinking about self, but cannot ignore the “illusion” that is not an illusion

no one and a self simultaneously

“it is what it is” > is there no way to conceptualize this emergent self-that-is-not-a-self?

“embodied simulation” [connects to the first point above]

this is not strictly a scientific book > ethics and philosophy

argues we should not create an ego machine [this would be useful for my chapter on Richard Powers and Galatea 2.2]

his position is that we should not create suffering. therefore, we should not create an ego machine.


chemical alterations to the brain > effect on society and individual > each consciousness is unique

analytic philosopher, not perspective on neuroscience

Out of body experience, OBE > not much money for research into this, not popular in the sciences as a field of study

humanities to Metzinger serves a middle ground, neutral, not vying for the same funding as other neurosciences

cognitive science > from the molecule on up, think about more fundamental sciences and forces: physics, etc.

is the Ego Tunnel too simple a metaphor for the brain

the brain is a galaxy of machines, more than a single machine [more metaphors]

how does Metzinger account for Freud?

are Metzinger’s models too computer-like or computer metaphor oriented?

does this build on the beginning of the modern era of cognitive science?

a dynamical system does not mean that it is computationalist in origin

are the ways that Metzinger aligns his view with robots and AI?

how does he argue that we should not build AI/ego machines to reduce suffering? Should we not have children any longer? Should we kill everyone to end all suffering?

what about absence of consciousness like going under anesthesia?

David Chalmers > “the hard problem”

the ego is an illusion, not consciousness

the ego is quite an achievement, evolutionarily

separate noise from signal

create unity

evolutionary advantage > if you knew that the ego is an illusion, then it doesn’t work > the advantage is based on sustaining the illusion

implications for education

self in process, absence of the self

Stanley Fish > sacrosanct soul that we dare not mess with

the self as entity does not exist, but as a process it does exist

phenomenon that arises from complex processes

every little thing has/can have effect on the self

constantly changing the self > ethical and practical considerations as educators

NYT’s article this past weekend > Israeli psychologist > difficulty changing people’s minds, opinions, paradigms > create enough experiences to transform a person’s opinion or approach

Stanley Fish’s attack on Professor Bracher > “character transplants” > Bracher teaching empathy through literary studies > taboo in the humanities to change opinions, improve character, etc. > Metzinger’s evidence seems to support Bracher’s position

Ego tunnel > narrowing and dark > superstitions on limitations on the self > sinfulness and darkness > resonate with the simple metaphor

suggestive as a metaphor > not the limitation of what it actually is

Fourier transformations

predictability > patterns and pattern recognition > eyes closed/blinking > blind spot in the center of vision > focus blindspot > compensating for what we do and do not see

prefontal cortex and the visual system > temperature, orientation, etc. > we cannot control our experience of these

computing process model > memory based model, active memory based model, top-down vs. bottom-up

causal reasoning, needed to explain a looped memory that is missing, ego seems to be involved in this

highly skilled readers > do they read words or images/pictures?

cognitive neuroscience, cognitive neuropsychology, etc. > neuroscience

neuroscience and cognitive science are not the same thing, many hard and fast divisions

neuropsychology > broader

cognitive psychology > focused on meaning > is this where the humanities can best engage the neurosciences?

overlap of philosophy and literary modernism

Jonah Lehrer – Proust was a Neuroscientist

consider Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

discovery of a consciousness

self is not a soul, essential component that predates everything

Woolf also uses metaphor of “tunneling,” but in a different way

tunneled through consciousness to where all the other consciousnesses meet up > opposite kind of solipsism

humanities education > how can anyone say what is good and what is not good? how can any of this lead us to a good kind of consciousness to promote?

proposing states of consciousness > read this and think about that

what is it about humanities departments that we debate/think about ethics? musicians don’t debate ethics of what they do–or do they? they do want to get it “right”

humanities > not do we do philosophy or not, but whether we do it good or badly

produce practical results without scattershot method

how do you get in the tunnel and work within it?

Woolf and the neurosciences > what is it that enabled her to come to her insights? she didn’t read “brain books.” system or genre of the novel > Woolf refelecting back the very system of the novel > the novel itself has something to do with this reflection, introspection

do we want out of the tunnel? doesn’t this predispose that the tunnel is a bad thing? is the tunnel sustainable? should we get out of the tunnel?

reasoning with heuristics > bad probabilistic reasoners

David Chalmers > consciousness is irreducible entity, stop reducing it and figure out what we are going to do with it

ego and consciousness

scientists teaching literature > encroaching on other domains or interdisciplinarity?

issues of criticism, bad neuroscience, neuroscience writing, neuroscientific approaches for next time

Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole Episode on Consciousness

I sent this out to the Neuroscience and the Humanities Workgroup earlier today, so I thought that I would share it here, too.

Today, the Science Channel is running a marathon of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole pop science series. There is one episode that I wanted to share with you if you can spare 45 minutes to watch it on Youtube (it is divided into three parts):

The episode, “Is There Life After Death?” could have been alternatively named “What is consciousness, and what happens to it when we die?” There are good (albeit short) interviews with Stuart Hameroff (the anesthesiologist who collaborated with Roger Penrose on a quantum theory of consciousness), Douglas Hofstadter (Godel Escher Bach), and Steve Potter of Georgia Tech (he has built computer chips that interface with rat brain cells that control robots |

The discussions of anesthesia and consciousness might be the most enlightening ones for our recent conversation about consciousness.

Also, it is a good show. Freeman is a long advocate of science and education, and I believe that his series (he is executive producer) now in its second season demonstrates his commitment to these things.

I have written about Freeman’s Through the Wormhole series before here.

David Eagleman, Neuroscientist Interview on BoingBoing

I ran across this interview by Avi Solomon of the neuroscientist David Eagleman on I wasn’t familiar with Eagleman’s work, but it looks interesting and promising for my own work. He has a lot of content including video on his website here. Worth checking out for the neuroscientific crowd.

Notes from 10/14/2011 Meeting of The Neurosciences and the Humanities Working Group at Kent State

Today, the Kent State University working group on the neurosciences and the humanities held its second meeting of Fall 2011 semester to discuss, among other things, Neil Levy’s “Neuroethics and the Extended Mind” from The Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics edited by Judy Illes and Barbara J. Sahakian (Oxford UP, 2011).

These are my stream-of-consciousness notes on the conversation from the meeting:

Empathy and mirror neurons

Marco Iacoboni’s Mirroring People book

Thomas Metzinger

Martha Nussbaum’s article “Not for Profit”, cursory account of empathy, her argument won’t fly in modernist circles, making it fully linguistic–can we do this?

language puts us right in there with these issues

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf, neuroscience and reading

Keats talked about seeing a bird pecking the ground–being there, as if experiencing as the bird

(what about Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to be a Bat?”)

Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” similar argument to Nussbaum

Me: Evolutionary questions around empathy, altruism and conserving resources–why did we evolve this resource wasting/non-gene passing along adaptation?

Some others: Lots of sentimentalism about what it means to be human, but I don’t think that we are getting to the core of where this came from. Simply saying that we are different from animals (not something that I buy anyways)

Philosophers debate two aspects of empathy: 1) imagining what someone else feels or projected empathy, and 2) motivating someone to do something as a result of emapthy

Hardwired empathy–it would seem so.

Levy article:

narrow view of what the mind does–propositional knowledge

Why is it important that he is only focused on propositional knowledge? Is he favoring language as the medium of thought?

Godel’s theorem = undefinable propositions

Language always leaves something out (Lacan)

How do we think? in language? natural language?

Ganlan–mental activity that language rests on

Gotsky–the dialectical

Indeterminacy, thinking of the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle applied to language

Speech act theory, language does something that only language can perform


Machines that count as humans

Selfobject–can be a literal object, a person, an environment or setting, need that relationship to otherness

Damasio–core self consists of feedback loops, don’t really change over the whole life, those core states don’t changes, other things self

Science of consciousness and emotion, tree of emotion, drives > basic emotions > complex emotions

Clumping emotion and feelings together

Does consciousness begin in the body?

Community integrity–deaf persons and their children, for example

Functional intervention–someone needing a drug to enhance mental performance, memory, alertness, etc., then taking that drug away, what then?

Me: not troubled by extended mind, all for a posthuman future and the rapture of the nerds, related my own experience with identity transformation through medical interventions, that is not any different than non-intervention changes, though it is mediated by technology–cyborg? yes! (on the way home, I was thinking that I should have suggested steering the conversation towards haves-and-haves-nots for pharmacological and other technological interventions).

Identity–changeable and transformative over time | interventions in identity, drugs, plugging things into our brains, cyberpunk

Consider adding things to mind, but also the possibility of taking things away from mind

PTSD and Mrs. Dalloway–story of a woman who commits suicide and story of a woman hearing the story of the woman who commits suicide

Neuroscientists > PTSD is for past traumas more than the trauma that triggered PTSD, maybe forgetting the trigger event won’t help, this is why out of a group of people who experience the same trauma only some develop PTSD while others do not

extended mind–countering externalized soul?

Interventions > “you are playing god” > not consistent, hyperreligiosity

Milton > Blake, Milton lives on in him but not in the sense of reincarnation

Damasio–all about the self, the protoself is purely brain, core self built upon the brain

Denett–qualia and mind

Thomas Metzinger–The Ego Tunnel, he argues that there is no self, for next meeting

SFRA 2011 Paper Crystalizes into “A Cognitive Approach to Science Fiction”

My paper for SFRA 2011, which I have retitled “A Cognitive Approach to Science Fiction,” is nearly at a first draft stage. Its argument is central to my dissertation, which I have been working on for a short time now. However, I am finding new ways to craft my argument while cutting down how much I have to say for the purposes of a conference presentation. I believe that this exercise is becoming a useful one for my thinking and sharing my work abroad. I am hopeful that my presentation will generate questions and comments in Poland.

Caught the Tail End of NOVA Musical Minds

Last night, I caught the ending of Oliver Sacks’ Musical Minds on NOVA. According to the website here, it originally aired in 2009. Luckily, you and I can watch the complete episode online and we can learn how the brain processes music and how important music is to the human brain. There are also special features available on the Musical Minds website.

Scientific American on Boosting Your Intelligence in Five Steps

Originally spied on Lifehacker, Scientific American has a guest blog entry by Andrea Kuszewski on how, “You can increase your intelligence: 5 ways to maximize your cognitive potential.” Kuszewski brings together things that I have heard in different places into this one post. The main idea is that intelligence, like the brain itself, is plastic, and there are five ways to boost your intelligence over time through continual work:

1. Seek Novelty

2. Challenge Yourself

3. Think Creatively

4. Do Things The Hard Way

5. Network

For her complete explanation on how to achieve your own intelligence boost, read her original article here.

Check Out Mind Hacks Blog for Your Regular Fix of Neuroscience and Brain Stuff

Mind Hacks is one of my favorite brain and neuroscience blogs. Here are some recent links to things that I found interesting on their site.

The cool thing for me about reading blogs like Mind Hacks is that, as you see in second and third summaries below, they helped me generate new connections related to your research or teaching.

Burying your head in the sand
In this post, they link to a video of anatomically correct sand carvings on a beach. The event was organized by a neuroscientist.

Why the truth will out but doesn’t sink in
Vaughan Bell discusses a recent study that demonstrates how initial reports often cloud any subsequent corrections in the news media. For example, the reports of Bin Laden using his wife as a human shield while brandishing a pistol–two things initially reported by the White House, but later retracted. According to the research, even those people aware of the changing narrative may not remember or believe the updating information. It is possible that this effect is used on purpose by governments (I would say corporations might do this too–consider the recent PSN/Sony case and the changing stories).

The death of the mind
In this post, Bell discusses a Business Week article about corporations using large data sets of human behavior to model and influence outcomes in favor of their business models. Technology to anonymize or combat what I see as an eventual abuse of human behavior might be one solution. I am also envisioning a future course that raises student awareness of how their behavior is used, studied, and exploited by big corporations. It would be a theory course with several modules on application.

The Zombie Neuronovel: Steven Schlozman’s The Zombie Autopsies

CNN’s Elizabeth Landau covers zombies and the Dr. Steven Schlozman’s new book, The Zombie Autopsies. Schlozman is a child psychologist who explores the possibility of a zombie-inducing virus through its effects on the human brain in a fictional journal. It is a new kind of neuronovel that brings together the experience of a fictional neuroscientist with zombies. I haven’t read The Zombie Autopsies yet, but it sounds like a fascinating exploration of a deeply embedded cultural what-if through science. Read more here: Inside zombie brains: Sci-fi teaches science – Buy The Zombie Autopsies on Amazon here.