The brain: sources

For over a year now, I’ve been studying the brain. Why? Because neuroscience might be the single most exciting area of science — nay, of knowledge in general — today. Just the other day, I found myself in a conversation with an 18-year-old cousin and heard myself saying that, if I were to enter university again today, I would choose any discipline that might lead me to neuroscience. (One feels old when spouting such counterfactuals to the young.)

So, given that my own brain is now teeming with newly-acquired insights into the brain and — much more importantly — with newly acquired insights into what is not yet known about the brain, I might amuse myself with a few posts here on the subject.

Just to be clear: This has nothing whatsoever to do with my forthcoming book, nor with my day job at The Economist (where I cover very different things). It’s just one of my little intellectual hobbies.

In this post, I’d simply like to tell you about some of my main sources. The two big ones are:

Robert Sapolsky

1) Robert Sapolsky: Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality

This is a great course in 24 lectures by a very entertaining character, whom you’ve already met on this blog here and here.

Sam Wang

2) Sam Wang: Neuroscience of Everyday Life

Another good course, in 36 lectures, organized totally differently from Sapolsky’s (as you can easily see by glancing at the lecture titles). The two are very complementary.

I also seem to be reading about specific aspects of neuroscience everywhere these days. The articles are too numerous to link to.

Here is one, by David Eagleman in The Atlantic, on how understanding the brain might or might not affect our notions about criminal justice.

Here is another, by John Tierney in the New York Times, on “decision fatigue”. Like Eagleman’s, it looks at one of many, many topics covered in the lectures by Sapolsky and Wang.

That should give you enough infrastructure to hold me to account as I pen my indubitably outrageous and provocative posts on the brain. Bye for now.

54 thoughts on “The brain: sources

  1. Sapolsky’s work was one of my great finds of the 90s; clearly I need to revisit the recent work and catch up. Right now I’m high on John J. Ratey (who cites him repeatedly) and Norman Doidge (“The Brain That Changes Itself,”) whose aggregation of work in the area of nervous system plasticity confirms what I have always intuited about the ability of conscious creatures to direct their capabilities and experience (given the will to do so and the understanding that it is possible)..

    • I’m a massage therapist. We figure out pretty fast that whatever goes on in the body, you have to figure out the brain’s involvement. I mean, we are known freaks for Candace Pert’s work on peptides (let’s not talk about her deterioration into a Science Rock Star), any work on feedback loops between the sensory and limbic systems, and any news about the neuroendocrine processing of stress. I also have to recommend Robert Scaer, whose work on the neurophysiology of post-traumatic stress and its kindling process is probably the most worthwhile hypothesis (or bundle of hypotheses) being currently advanced. I hope someone pays attention to him before the VA is overwhelmed. His titles don’t really indicate how much of his work involves brain-body interplay; more specialized than the books you are delving into, but depressingly topical.
      http://www.amazon.com/Body-Bears-Burden-Dissociation-Disease/dp/0789033356/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1316292555&sr=8-3

  2. I remember the Charles Whitman shootings fairly vividly (see David Eagleman link) and I think that started my interest in brain functions. Though I had no desire to get into neuroscience, I kept a fair interest in the subject. The most interesting thing about Whitman was that he was aware of the changes in thought processes. One wonders what might have happened if they had MRI’s back then.

  3. However compulsive this thread will be, we must guard against supposing that neuroscience will provide a complete description of human behaviour and understanding. The same error was made by physicists at the end of the nineteenth century who supposed there was little more to know and acknowledged by Stephen Hawking in his abandoned search for a Theory of Everything.

    Can the mystery of human conscious will ever be explained by human conscious will, Sledpress? That is not to say that such a pursuit is not profoundly fascinating, enlightening and useful.

  4. Douglas, it’s not that the environment affecting future generations is impossible, it’s that Burkeman completely misleads readers on what the scientific evidence demonstrates. It certainly doesn’t undermine “everything” we know about evolution or natural selection. What again are the “profound implications” of an effect that fades out after one or two generations? Oh wait… Burkeman didn’t mention that the effects don’t last, did he? http://www.springerlink.com/content/k7461r5555675481/ That’d be helpful information, but isn’t as exciting so probably not worth a journalist’s time printing.

    I’m not sure why anyone would trust a journalist or a philosopher over an actual biologist on the subject of biology. It’s not like the journalist is even accurately reporting on another expert’s research.

    Andreas, let this be a lesson on anything you write about neurobiology. If you’re going to try to overturn the entire field, please at least ask an expert what they think of the “profound implications” of any idea you present.

  5. Can’t the Epigenetic phenomena be seen in dog-breeding? Take, for instance, the Border Collie which is bred to round up sheep. Why does a Border Collie have an instinctive predilection to round up sheep? Because its ancestors did. The experience of its ancestors is obviously embedded in its brain.

    There’s something called Transpersonal Psychology, of which Stanislav Grof was one of the founders. Transpersonal Psychology postulates that if you have a phobia which cannot be explained, its genesis may lie in one of your previous incarnations.

    Hence a Transpersonal Psychologist will hypnotically regress you back through your previous lives to the traumatic event which brought about the phobia you have today.

    I remember from the only book of Grof’s that I’ve read, “Beyond the Brain”, that although past-life regressions often cure the sufferer’s affliction, Grof didn’t claim reincarnation as a fact, merely that his past-life regression technique seem to work.

    Does Epigenetics explain the vivid experiences of patients who are hypnotically regressed to past lives? If so, these experiences would not be those of the patient, but of his ancestors.

    Dan said to Andreas: “…..If you’re going to try to overturn the entire field, please at least ask an expert what they think of the ‘profound implications’ of any idea you present…….”

    This is an excuse for me, for the umpteenth time, to trot out what Bertrand Russell said about experts:

    “…..The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this; (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgement…….”

    • Is that Russell quotation supposed to support or contradict what I was arguing? If you’re attempting to help my case – I fully agree with Russell.

      On dog-breeding, no need to postulate epigenetics to explain collie behavior, selection makes perfect sense in that context. It is one of the major arguments Darwin himself used to explain evolution. Dogs presumably are able to inherit traits by through their DNA – herding is just a modified predatory behavior.

      Why assume doggy spirits are barking through the generations when we have a natural mechanism that works?

    • Let me also clarify that epigenetics is not even close to what you’re talking about with “previous incarnations” and “past-life regression.” Epigenetics is a real thing and useful to scientists. It just doesn’t overturn evolution or natural selection. When it comes to inheritance, DNA is still at the apex of importance. The experts are in agreement, Phillippe.

      This all just illustrates the dangers of writers like Burkeman trying to sex-up a topic.

  6. On dog-breeding, no need to postulate epigenetics to explain collie behavior, selection makes perfect sense in that context. It is one of the major arguments Darwin himself used to explain evolution. Dogs presumably are able to inherit traits by through their DNA – herding is just a modified predatory behavior.

    Not to create a debate but who’s to say that modification of predatory behavior isn’t the result of environmental influence on DNA? A herder trains a domesticated predator to herd rather than hunt and does the same to the pups. Their pups are then born with a propensity to herd rather than hunt as a priority. After all, domestic breeds were also created from feral stock. Something changed them in their evolution to see man as friend rather than foe.

    • Because there is no mechanism for sustaining a purely environmental influence on inheritance. Of course, the environment influences DNA by natural selection, which no sensible person disputes. But if you’re arguing that the environment can impute some stamp on offspring that lasts generation after generation you have to suggest some mechanism by which that would work. Anyone is free to suggest any hypothesis they like of how heritability works, but people are sensible to reject it until someone provides evidence and reasons to believe it and to discount the explanatory power of natural selection.

    • Dan, I think you are thinking too much in absolutes. It isn’t solely environment or solely genetic, at least as I see it. What did Foder say? “”These issues really are complicated.” An understatement. I have no proof and no background in any of this but, like most subjects, it hasn’t kept me from speculating about it. I have a story about a kitten and a dog who were the pets of my landlady. The dog had been the only pet until the landlady brought home a kitten, I believe for her granddaughter. For a few weeks, The kitten was the “plaything” of the dog and tolerated it. Then, one day, some neighborhood cats came into the yard. Coincidentally with the landlady laying out several carpets draped over chairs to dry after shampooing. This provided a kind of labyrinth in which the cats had a great advantage over the dog. The dog withdrew, stayed under the house when put out in the yard. In two days, the neighborhood cats went away and the kitten was no longer afraid of the dog and was capable of defending itself. Did the neighborhood cats teach the kitten the skills needed? [environment] Or did it just suddenly “know” how to use its claws and teeth and speed effectively? [genetic]

      I think we know very little how our organic computers are programmed.

    • I think you may have totally misunderstood what I (we’re) talking about. I never claimed that environment doesn’t affect behavior… of course it does. I didn’t even claim that epigenetics wasn’t a real thing – I went out of my way to agree that it is. But we’re talking about inheritance over the course of enough generations to have “profound implications” for evolution. There is pretty much 0 evidence that is true.

      My major claim is that Burkeman embellished and misrepresented what the science actually is and what it means, and ignored what the relevant experts think. My sub-claim is that Phillippe went even further overboard with his invocation of the spirit world to explain inheritance.

      I feel bad taking this thread over with this completely off-topic subject. I tried to tie it back in by reminding Andreas to not commit the same mistakes as Burkeman and other pop-science writers. I still think that’s good advice.

    • Dan, I see your point now. My only point is that science is not what these writers say it is. And that proper science is always challenged. That is, nothing is set in stone unless it has achieved “law’ status and even then that can (and should) be challenged. So I am not ready to accept that epigenetics cannot have profound implications for evolution simply because little to no evidence has been found to support that.

    • @Dan,

      Because there is no mechanism for sustaining a purely environmental influence on inheritance. Of course, the environment influences DNA by natural selection, which no sensible person disputes. But if you’re arguing that the environment can impute some stamp on offspring that lasts generation after generation you have to suggest some mechanism by which that would work.

      Although this currently applies to plants, see http://www.genetics.org/content/128/3/619.full.pdf
      (on the other hand, I have known a number of people I suspected were mostly vegetation.

  7. Well, that’s promising! I’ve been away on a trip, and return to find you debating yourselves vigorously under a post about …. two professors and their courses. 🙂

    If I can stimulate controversy just by saying who my sources are, this should be a fun ride.

  8. @Dan — “…….Phillippe went even further overboard with his invocation of the spirit world to explain inheritance……”

    I don’t believe I did this. Read carefully what I said, which was, in so many words, that the experiences of our ancestors may be embedded in our brains.

  9. Darwin used the phrase “Survival of the Fittest” as a synonym for “Natural selection.

    Will some please assist me in my struggle to understand? How do epigenetics undermine in any way the central principle of evolution by natural selection? Did Darwin ever assert finally the mechanics of his theory?

    Someone might also explain why Nature is consistent. Any theory relies upon that property.

    Without natural consistency, how could neuroscience, for example, even begin to have relevance?

    • Is nature consistent? I would say yes and no. It is consistent in general terms and inconsistent in specific details. But I would also limit that consistency part to life forms and not to geologic nature.

    • Richard, epigenetics does not undermine natural selection. Burkeman and others who claim so are making a claim that biologists have not made. I just don’t see how a journalist (he’s not even a science journalist) has any credibility asserting that epigenetics has “profound implications” for evolution.

    • @Dan

      Richard, epigenetics does not undermine natural selection. Burkeman and others who claim so are making a claim that biologists have not made. I just don’t see how a journalist (he’s not even a science journalist) has any credibility asserting that epigenetics has “profound implications” for evolution.

      I don’t see it as undermining anything, even if proven to exist. I see the concept fitting within the “natural selection” process as another factor, another influence. In that sense, it might have “profound implications” for evolutionary theory.

    • @Richard: Darwin did NOT use the phrase “survival of the fittest”.

      Herbert Spencer used that phrase and thereby forever distorted Darwinism.

      If Darwin had used any such phrase (which he didn’t) he would have said “reproduction of the fittest”.

    • … ‘arf a mo, Andreas. Google “darwin survival of the fittest” (without the quotes) and – KERPOW! – loads of entries saying Darwin did use the term.

      Now, I know we should regard all we read on the internet with a degree of circumspection, not to say suspicion, so I shall look out for the fifth edition of origin, check, and return to this spot either humbled or vindicated. 😀

    • @Richard

      I just Googled “survival of the fittest” and found support for Andreas. I quote:

      “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” -Herbert Spencer
      [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survival_of_the_fittest]

      and…

      This expression is often attributed to Charles Darwin and, although it appears in the fifth edition of his Origin of Species, 1869, it is there attributed to Herbert Spencer:

      “The expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the survival of the fittest is more accurate…”
      [http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/340400.html]

      (let us hope the dreaded italicization is no more)

    • I would say, Richard, that it means that others assumed such. And that Darwin might have eventually accepted that interpretation (5th edition of his book). But that he, himself, did not use that wording nor “coin” the phrase.

    • At the risk of being obsessive, I think it only right that I should clarify.

      I am in the process of reading Ian Stewart’s “Mathematics of Life”, have just completed a section where he discusses the use of this term “Survival of the Fittest” and I see a misunderstanding has arisen in the discussion here, Andreas.

      My purpose was only to indicate, in passing, Darwins use of the term as synonymous with “Natural Selection”. It was never my object to suggest that “Fit” meant “Healthy” rather than “Suited to the environment”. Sorry to have whipped up an issue unnecessarily, if inadvertently.

  10. I’ve been thinking about this. I might amuse myself by commenting on a few of your posts about the brain, so, for now, I want to tell you a bit about my sources.

    My main source be will be E.E. Cummings, Harvard graduate, Guggenheim fellow and pretty groovy poet.

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