Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

A friend recently sent me this nifty article.

Here are some of my favorite snippets.

On “knowledge”:

“Knowing is not an activity of the
brain but of human beings, and knowledge is
not contained in the brain but in books and
computers, and is possessed by human beings,
but not by their brains. It makes no sense and
explains nothing to divide the brain up into
bits that contain different kinds of knowledge
and know different sorts of things, because the
brain does not contain knowledge or know

On “consciousness”:

“Dispositional consciousness is a general
tendency to be conscious of certain
things—money-conscious, for example. Such
a generalized tendency is indicated by various
sorts of behavior—money-conscious people
are likely to save their money, spend it
carefully, talk about it and think about it more
than others, and so forth. Such a tendency
almost certainly is learned, and therefore one
can be ‘‘better’’ or ‘‘worse’’ at it depending on
one’s experience, if ‘‘better’’ and ‘‘worse’’
refer to a greater or lesser probability of
behaving in ways consistent with the disposition.
So the authors’ assertion that consciousness
is not something we can become ‘‘good
at’’ may be argued with, both in its dispositional
sense and in its occurrent transitive sense
(a current consciousness of some thing or state
of affairs). I may not become conscious of the
subtle French horn part in a piece of music
until after I have read about the composer’s
penchant for using the French horn in subtle
ways—has my learning not enhanced my
ability to be conscious of the French horn in
the composer’s music? More broadly, is there
no sense in which the common Californian
pastime of ‘‘expanding’’ or ‘‘developing’’
consciousness is true?”

On “strange loopness” of human biology:

“Far more
difficult to achieve, I believe, will be an
understanding of the fundamental nestedness
of the brain, the rest of the body, and the
person in the world, each entity executing
processes that overlap and turn back on
themselves and each other in time and space.”

On metaphors as a tool for communication, not analysis:

“The point is
that it may be the ability of metaphors and
analogies to help researchers accomplish their
theoretical goals, and not how well they stand
up to connective analysis relative to their
conventional counterparts, that is the better
basis for approving or disapproving of them.”

Language always lacks fidelity. One can only put into words some subset of what we experience. What we “experience” is only a subset of what is happening around us. What happens around us in a way that could affect us is only a subset of what there is.

Folks have a tendency in all science (and non science) to analyze and report at our “level” of experience. No, it’s not possible to apply an analysis of single cell behavior to a scene study of Shakespeare. Though we often talk of “motivation” in both studies. It’s a terribly inaccurate description in both cases but it does, often times, communicate something of value.

For an alternative, but equal misapplication of language from the “human experience” level, let’s consider quantum physics.  We experience things in 3 spacial and 1 temporal dimensions. We have NO WAY to experience the world in any other context. Thus it is incredibly hard for one to conceptualize and explain what happens at a quantum level (where things don’t follow space and time as we experience it.) It is NONsense to describe, diagram, or otherwise model the quantum world on our “human” level with expectation of accuracy. Our description of quantum mechanics is a very gross description.

Where this all gets counter-productive to the progress of knowledge is mistaking a description (model, report…) of something (a system, situation, behavior…) as the thing itself.  The use of psychological “Freudian” terms can sometimes be useful to short cutting long winded discussions but one must be disciplined to recognize that high level concepts cannot be applied to what’s actually going on.

I think there’s another reason we accept gross descriptions of the world. They work for all practical purposes. You don’t need to have a perfect description of the world to be successful in achieving whatever it is you might be doing. In fact, WE HAVE TO MAKE THIS TRADE OFF. If we didn’t short cut and take on gross descriptions of the world few of us would be able to operate. At the very least, few scientists would be able to publish if they actually had to drill down and tie up the loose ends without these gross misrepresentations.

Oh, and for those that care, I don’t think there is something like “consciousness”. We are more or less affected by things happening around and in us. We are not “aware” of our experiences in some binary way (the lightbulb never really just flips on). The linked article gets at some of this and there are other synthesis that argue this point better than I can at this stage.  A further implication is that “thought” isn’t really a THING by itself either. We don’t THINK THOUGHTS. and yes, I lack the syntax to describe my synthesis any further at this time 😉

For more insight you might turn to this very recent Edge talk.  In particular, read the responses from Sam Harris and others.  Kinda embodies everything in this post…. from baggage terms to metaphors as description to just how far away we are from reasonably deep insight.

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Here’s a new study to be released soon about biological evidence of how the brain retrieves a memory. Your network of neurons and the unique paths taken by signals are the memories, there isn’t some central repository of memory.

I’m looking for the actual results, methods and some supporting work.

It’s not a groundbreaking idea, but it’s great to see some evidence.

It feeds a bigger notion at work in many disciplines that The Network Is The Thing.    There’s a growing body of evidence that space itself is a network. (wolfram)  Check out Network Theory and Graph Theory for more.

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Make no mistake. 

These things were not said in this fashion and were not said in this manner in an interview between Mind Matters editor, Jonah Lehrer and neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni in American Scientist magazine.


What you have here is a reinterpretation of the article as it appeared in American Scientist magazine – with my edits and additions.  Deletions do not show up because they don’t make for a cogent flow of the main idea that I noted in 2006 when this research broke…


[or…] = Square parentheses are all JHB’s

So, here goes…


Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni discusses mirror neurons, autism and the potentially damaging effects of violent movies.

Mind Matters –  July 1, 2008

Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is best known for his work on mirror neurons, a small circuit of cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex. What makes these cells so interesting is that they are activated both when we perform a certain action—such as smiling or reaching for a cup—and when we observe someone else performing that same action. In other words, they collapse the distinction between seeing and doing. In recent years, Iacoboni has shown that mirror neurons may be an important element of social cognition and that defects in the mirror neuron system may underlie a variety of mental disorders, such as autism. His new book, Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect to Others, explores these possibilities at length. Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer chats with Iacoboni about his research.

LEHRER: What first got you interested in mirror neurons? Did you immediately grasp their explanatory potential?


I actually became interested in mirror neurons gradually. [Neuroscientist] Giacomo Rizzolatti and his group [at the University of Parma in Italy] approached us at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center because they wanted to expand the research on mirror neurons using brain imaging in humans. I thought that mirror neurons were interesting, but I have to confess I was also a bit incredulous. We were at the beginnings of the science on mirror neurons. The properties of these neurons are so amazing that I seriously considered the possibility that they were experimental artifacts. In 1998 I visited Rizzolatti’s lab in Parma, I observed their experiments and findings, talked to the anatomists that were studying the anatomy of the system and I realized that the empirical findings were really solid. At that point I had the intuition that the discovery of mirror neurons was going to revolutionize the way we think about the brain and ourselves. However, it took me some years of experimentation to fully grasp the explanatory potential of mirror neurons in imitation, empathy, language, and so on—in other words in our social life.
LEHRER: Take us inside a social interaction. How might mirror neurons help us understand what someone else is thinking or feeling?

IACOBONI: What do we do when we interact? We use our body to communicate our intentions and our feelings. The gestures, facial expressions, body postures we make are social signals, ways of communicating with one another. Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions. Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people. [One can speculate that…]

the way mirror neurons likely [operate] related to others is by providing some kind of [bridging of the relationships between some specific cues – unspecified – and sensorimotor activation where the sensory information is visual rather than muscular.   By attending to those cues] of the actions of other [organisms allows for the test organism to] “simulate” the [actions of the trainer organism.  It is presumed that with that neuromuscular activity there is a parallel emotional component or as Iacoboni refers to it] “intentions and emotions associated with those actions.” When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling [presumed to exist] fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes [whatever feelings have been conditioned to the smiling of a stranger interviewing me about an idea that not everyone could possible comprehend the way I do – smile or…] the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly [experience my form of smile that’s related to my neurons through conditioning or through parallel imitation of a different set of mirror neurons] (in a milder form, of course) [that is presumed to be like] what you are experiencing.
LEHRER: In 2006 your lab published a paper in Nature Neuroscience

linking a mirror neuron dysfunction to autism. How might reduced mirror neuron activity explain the symptoms of autism? And has there been any progress on this front since 2006?
IACOBONI: Patients with autism have hard time understanding the mental states of other people; [they also have a hard time with language and eye gaze and eye-hand coordination to mention a few other deficits;] this is why [one reason at least] social interactions are not easy for these patients. Reduced mirror neuron activity obviously weakens [lowers, reduces, impairs, inhibits, gates, blocks, etc. ] the ability of these patients to experience immediately and effortlessly what other people are experiencing, [these connections between the things going on in the environment and their uptake of what’s going on in the environment] thus making social interactions particularly difficult for these patients.


[Alternatively, the lack of the mirror neurons reduces the initial conditions or blocks the secondary conditioning that some imply exists in the actions of motor behavior and internal emotions related to that motor behavior.  These two or twenty things don’t get paired mysteriously in autistic people.  They get paired and strengthened by many pairings over time in non-autistic people.  Those pairings fit a learning paradigm of conditioning and, lacking that conditioning over time, may be the deficit that we observe in the autistic people.] Patients with autism have also often motor problems and language problems. It turns out that a deficit in mirror neurons can in principle explain also these other major symptoms [as outlined above as learning paradigms]. The motor deficits in autism [are involved] because mirror neurons are special types of premotor neurons, brain cells essential for planning and selecting actions. It has been also hypothesized that mirror neurons may be important in language evolution and language acquisition. [While people that have hearing loss at very early age show some similar speech deficits as found in some autistic people, it can be corrected by speech therapy at a later date if the loss is corrected.  It will be interesting to see if, with the ignition of related speech mirror neurons, the speech deficits of autistic people can be repaired or if there is some ‘critical period’ in development that is needed for speech development to proceed optimally.] Indeed, a human brain area that likely contains mirror neurons overlaps with a major language area, the so-called Broca’s area. Thus, a deficit in mirror neurons can in principle account for [involvement in]

three major symptoms of autism; the social, motor and language problems.
LEHRER: If we’re wired to automatically internalize the movements and mental states of others [wooo Nelly… that is a hypothetical construct that gets headlines but has not been demonstrated since ‘mental’ states are impossible to define across indiviuals and empirically…  Ok, point taken, but given it is just one-for-one as empirically demonstrated,.. ]

then what does this suggest about violent movies, television programs, video games, etcetera? Should we be more careful about what we watch?

IACOBONI: I believe we should be more careful about what we watch. This is a tricky argument; of course, because it forces us to reconsider our long cherished ideas about free will and may potentially have repercussions on free speech. There is convincing behavioral evidence linking media violence with imitative violence. Mirror neurons provide a plausible neurobiological mechanism that explains why being exposed to media violence leads to imitative violence. What should we do about it? Although it is obviously hard to have a clear and definitive answer, it is important to openly discuss this issue and hopefully reach some kind of “societal agreement” on how to limit media violence without limiting (too much) free speech. [Otherwise, we’ll have to deal with the consequences that exist and humans have excelled at doing for millions of years.]

LEHRER: Are you worried about mirror neurons getting over-sold or over-hyped?

IACOBONI: I am a bit concerned about that. The good news is, the excitement about mirror neurons reveals that people have an intuitive understanding of how neural mechanism for mirroring work. [Yes, it also reveals that we are in new areas here and that perhaps a new form of conditioning has been uncovered that makes sense biologically, environmentally and genetically.  Will it evolve and will it shed light on other things we don’t like to deal with like free will, conditioning, determinism, causality, and responsibility?  Yes, it may but that is not the primary concern of science for many scientists.  The primary concern is to find out “how things work out there.”] When told about this research, they can finally articulate what they already “knew” at some sort of pre-reflective level. However, the hype can backfire and mirror neurons may lose their specificity. I think there are two key points to keep in mind. The first one is the one we started with: mirror neurons are brain cells specialized for actions. They are obviously critical cells for social interactions but they can’t explain non-social cognition. The second point to keep in mind is that every brain cell and every neural system does not operate in a vacuum. Everything in the brain is interconnected, so that the activity of each cell reflects the dynamic interactions with other brain cells and other neural systems.


The original interview can be found @:





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