Thursday, January 10, 2013

The "New Phrenology"

Labeling something often suggests a haste to catalogue it and be done with it. It also implies some level of understanding of that which is labeled. But labels, especially pejorative ones, also commonly help to insulate one from the need to enquire further. Why would anyone who has labeled something as “trash”, for example, be bothered to read or learn anything further about it?

Every now and then, someone who is seemingly exasperated by the profusion of neurobiological facts describing a localization of some function or other in the brain, labels the whole enterprise as nothing more than the manifestation of the “new phrenology”. Nor does such labeling come only from those outside the field; sometimes the same dismissive label is used by neurobiologists themselves.

Essentially, (the old) phrenology supposed that mental faculties are localized in the brain and that an especially well developed mental faculty would result in a corresponding bump in the skull. By measurement of the skull and its bumps one would therefore be able to infer something about character, moral qualities and personality. Its originator was Franz Josef Gall, who took refuge in France after his ideas had been disapproved of in Austria and was shocked when the Institut de France, at the instigation of Napoleon, did not promote him to membership. 

There were some good reasons for dismissing phrenology and especially the use that was later made of it to promote racists ideas. But there is nothing wrong with its implicit assumption that the brain is the seat of the mind.

Those who label the tendency of modern neurobiological research to find that special cortical areas are associated with distinct functions as nothing more than a manifestation of the “new phrenology” do both the subject and themselves a disservice. That distinct cortical areas are associated with distinct functions does not mean that they can act in isolation; indeed all cortical areas have multiple inputs and outputs, both to other cortical zones as well as to sub-cortical stations and the healthy activity of an entire system is critical for a specialized area to execute its functions. It is trite to suppose, as some (non-scientists) have, that an area that is specialized for a special function, for example colour vision, can be isolated from the rest of the cortex or the brain and still mediate the experience of colour. No biologist has ever made such a claim and those outside biology who make it know nothing of biology or the brain.

It is equally untrue that the whole of the brain is involved in all its functions, as was believed in the 19th century. No one could possibly deny that there is an area of the brain that is specialized for vision or for some attributes of vision, such as visual motion; nor can anyone deny that there are areas of the brain that are specialized for audition. Nor would any reasonable person want to deny that lesions in these different zones of the cerebral cortex have different consequences.

More recently, with the advent of brain imaging studies, neurobiologists have shown that even the experience of subjective mental states does not mobilize the entire brain with equal intensity. Rather the results of such studies commonly show that a set of areas is especially involved in some subjective state or another. But activity in the areas comprising that set does not necessarily correlate only with one subjective state. An area of that set may do “double” or “multiple” duty and be active during the experience of several subjective states, even contradictory ones. But one nevertheless commonly finds that the set of areas especially active during some experiences is different from the set of areas active in another, or in other, subjective experiences, even if they share common areas.

This, of course, is a far cry from those who, usually anxious to stigmatize the findings of neurobiology, write of neurobiologists as having discovered the “love spot” or the “beauty spot” in the brain. Or to dismiss them as nothing more than “modern phrenologists”.

The “unity” of mind

A fertile terrain for questioning the localizationist claim – that cortical areas with characteristic histologies and specific sets of inputs and outputs can be associated with special functions - lies in the so-called “unity of mind” which makes us act holistically.

But let those who ridicule the efforts of neurobiologists consider what has been the greatest success of cortical studies on the one hand and what has been its greatest failure on the other.

The greatest success - which almost links the history of cortical neurobiology in one unbroken thread – is the association of special functions with distinct cortical areas. This theme has run through cortical studies since the day in April 1862 when Broca announced that the third left frontal convolution is critical for the production of articulate language.

The greatest failure has been its inability to account for how these specialized areas “interact to provide the integration evident in thought and behavior” as the American neuropsychologist Karl Lashley put it in the 1930s. He also added, however, that just because the mind is a unit, it does not follow that the brain is a unit.

Those who dismiss all these “localizationist” studies as nothing more than a “modern phrenology” may want to ask why neurobiology has failed so miserably just when it might have been expected to succeed spectacularly in light of its findings.

Perhaps a good first step in this enquiry would be to stand back – even if momentarily – and ask whether the mind is an integrated unit after all. The answer may come as a surprise.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Old age and the biology of hate

In his last speech to the House of Lords as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams lamented society’s attitude towards older people. He said: "It is assumptions about the basically passive character of the older population that foster attitudes of contempt and exasperation, and ultimately create a climate in which abuse occurs" and referred to estimates that a quarter of the older population is abused one way or another.

This comes against ghastly stories of the mis-treatment of older people by their nurses in old peoples’ homes, often verging on outright cruelty, stories that are repeated annually throughout the country, and probably mirroring similar stories in many other countries as well.

I believe that the Archbishop showed wisdom and compassion in choosing the theme for his last speech and in speaking up for older people, but he did not go far enough in his analysis.

I have long wondered whether we are not biologically programmed to dislike and even hate older people for being older, just as we seem to be biologically programmed to love vulnerable and defenseless young children just because they are younger. The latter merit our attention and care while the former our avoidance and, where occasion permits, our cruelty and mis-treatment of them.

I have no scientific evidence for this belief, though there might be such evidence somewhere. But if my analysis is correct, or turns out to be correct, then it is not that we have “assumptions about the basically passive character” of older people that leads to their mis-treatment, as the Archbishop believes, but something biological and therefore much more difficult to control.

Of course, the hatred is probably more easily directed against those older people who are not members of the family, or at least the immediate family. But even in that context, older people are not immune. In the Prologue to his autobiography, Bertrand Russell wrote that one of the things that had made him suffer was the sight of “helpless old people a hated burden to their sons”. 

If we are biologically programmed to dislike older people at best and hate them at worst, especially when they are not members of our family, then it is right, as the Archbishop suggested, that they should be given some kind of state protection, for example by appointing a national Older People’s Commissioner.

Society does, after all, police other biological urges that are difficult to control. It is perhaps time to introduce severe punishment for those who heap so much misery on the helpless in our society.

But that of course leaves another aspect which society simply cannot control. The dislike of old people, and their avoidance, are no doubt the source of much misery and alienation for them, and I just don’t know how society can combat that. We cannot, after all, legislate against dislike though we should be able to do so against its consequences