Saturday, April 6, 2013

Neurophobes and their neurophobia

I describe briefly a new and hitherto undocumented phobia, which I shall name neurophobia and those who display it as neurophobes. It is a somewhat new phobia, perhaps no more than 15 years old but it shares characteristics with other phobias. It is to be distinguished from the neurophobia that medical students apparently suffer from when studying neurology.

Neurophobia can be defined as a profound dislike, with various degrees of severity, for cognitive neurobiology and especially for neuroesthetics and for what these disciplines promise to show us.

Neurophobes are a motley crowd and, as with so many other phobias, they include people from different backgrounds and walks of life – philosophers of different degrees of eminence, humanists, religionists and even (surprisingly) some neurobiologists. This is not to say that all philosophers and humanists are neurophobes, far from it; many are interested and excited by the discoveries that neurobiology and neuroesthetics have to offer, but neurophobes are more vocal. Nor are all religionists neurophobes: I have had some very interesting discussions with some religionists, who have shown themselves to be hospitable to new ideas. Interestingly, I have not encountered neurophobia among artists (yet), which again does not mean that there aren’t neurophobes among them. Hence, neurophobia, like other phobias, cannot be associated with any particular grouping, either socio-economic, cultural or otherwise.

Among the characteristics of neurophobia, one may list the following:

1. An irrational fear: they invest neuroesthetics in particular with imaginary powers; these include weapons of mass destruction (WMD), for how else to interpret a statement that neuroesthetics “… will flatten all the complexity of culture, and the beauty of it as well”? and other similar statements.

2. A desire to find a place for the mind outside the brain, not perhaps realizing that cognitive neurobiology and neuroesthetics study neural mechanisms and hence the brain, and that their conclusions are to be seen in that context.

3. The use of emotionally charged and pejorative terms to dismiss neuroesthetics, terms such as “trash”, “buncombe”, “rubbish” and others like them, which have no place, or should have no place, in scholarly (and especially scientific) discourse. Hence neurophobia shares a similarity with other phobias in that it is not easy to rationalize it cognitively, an appeal to emotional and pejorative language being the only way out.

4. The pursuit of ignorance: As with so many other phobias, this amounts to the wish not to know. Hence, neurophobes don’t want any scientific ‘de-mystification’, which they would regard as a “desecration” (note again the emotive language) and prefer to live in ignorance. This is of course similar to other prejudices, where ignorance is the preferred course.

5. This arrogance displays itself in their protecting themselves against the facts. As I have said before, once they relegate our discipline to the status of “trash”, they need not bother with it. And there is, in their writings, good evidence that they have not read what we have written.

6. Arrogance of ignorance: neurophobes always assume that they know better, and hence lecture us on what they suppose we are not aware of. They never cease to tell us that art and beauty are not the same, as if we are not aware of that and have not written about it. They never cease to emphasize the importance of culture and learning in aesthetic appreciation, as if this is a new insight that we are not aware of.

7. Attack the methods: where all else fails, there is always recourse to attacking our methodology – principally the imaging techniques. They fault these for their spatial and temporal resolution (sometimes using emotive language) as if we are not aware of these shortcomings and do not take account of them in our interpretations. (I will have more to say about this in a future post.) I imagine most are scared of new technologies that will have greater powers of resolution.

This collection of characteristics is very descriptive of neurophobia, and they are interlinked. Hence if one detects one of these characteristics in an individual, one must suspect him/her of being a neurophobe and  display the other characteristics on gentle probing. Here I would advise caution; it is best to probe a little further before classifying someone as a neurophobe.

Of course, many of them preface their pejorative remarks with feint praise, such as "Neurology has made important advances" (rather like, some of my best friends are neurologists).

And finally…what one neurophobe says or writes is remarkably similar to what another one says or writes, reminding me of the famous line of President Reagan, “There you go again”. Indeed, so similar are their articles that it becomes reminiscent of another one of Reagan’s famous lines (about redwood trees): “Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Pigeons and Picassos

In 1995, a Japanese team was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for their work describing how pigeons can be trained to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet. Previous work had shown that pigeons could distinguish between the music of Bach and Stravinsky.

Receiving the Ig Nobel Prize must be a mixed blessing, as its very title implies. Often the implication is that there is something trivial in the research reported and sometimes it is awarded for what many would regard as work that is not scientifically worthy, for example a report to the US Congress that nicotine is not addictive (awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1996).

Others are frankly funny, such as the Ig Nobel Prize for Peace (2000), awarded to the British Royal Navy for a Monty Python-like command, that its sailors should not use live cannon but instead shout “Bang”, or the one awarded in Biology (2004) for showing that herrings communicate by passing wind (farting).

In fact, many of these Ig Nobel prizes go to worthy and scientifically interesting work. The one about herrings communicating by farting turned out, apparently, to be strategically and financially important because the Swedish Navy, suspecting that Swedish waters were being infiltrated by Soviet submarines, instigated a widespread but futile hunt for those submarines. After many inconclusive years, it turned out that the noises were probably coming from farting herrings. Had this been known, it is claimed, the Swedes would have saved hundreds of millions of Swedish Krones.

Science is, or should be, fun. And even apparently simple science can be fun BECAUSE it leads to new and interesting clues. The work for which the Japanese scientists got the Ig Nobel prize in 1995 really showed that pigeons, which have a well-developed visual apparatus, could distinguish between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet because they formed a concept of these paintings. They did not apparently distinguish them because of the presence of sharp edges in the cubist paintings or colour in those of Monet. Hence, in addition to a well-developed visual apparatus, they have brains that are sophisticated enough (if that is the right word) to develop visual concepts about visual stimuli unrelated to their daily lives.

Concept formation, critical for the acquisition of knowledge, is a fascinating subject, but how the brain forms concepts is not known in any detail. That pigeons should be able to form concepts around works designed by humans for consumption by humans, works which have little to do with their world, perhaps has the germs of an insight into how more complex brains form concepts. It would, in fact, be just as interesting to learn how humans form concepts around different schools of paintings.

If the Ig Nobel prize brings such interesting science to wider attention, then it is pursuing a worthy cause.