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Great Expectations: Conference on Brain Plasticity

Posted by ashwinbudden on March 1, 2010


Back in February, the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University in Copenhagen hosted a fantastic looking conference, “Great Expectations: The Plasticity of the Brain and Neurosciences at the Threshold: Nature and Nurture – And Beyond…” The conference was organized by GNOSIS Research Centre – Mind and Thinking Initiative.

It had a great line-up: Steven Rose, Douglas Hofstader, Maxine Sheet-Johnson, Timothy Ingold, and a host of Danish scholars whose work we can now all expore. The three days of the conference each addressed a different theme: Brain Plasticity, Awareness and Intentionality, and Beyond Dualisms.

You can read the Introductory Statement on the conference. Here’s one paragraph from the end:

Neuroscience seems to have learned from its critics. Reductive and neurocentric positions have to give way to the ideas that the plastic brain is capable of learning for life, and that both bodily movement as well as social activity leaves clearly formed traces in the development of the brain. Whenever we pray, learn to ride a bicycle, or read a book, the brain changes. The brain is not destiny. Are there no limits, human and neurobiological, to how much we can learn and to the extent that upbringing might effect changes in the brain?

The best thing is that you can get the videos from all the talks. So here is Steven Rose on The Future of the Brain – Promises and Perils of the Neurosciences (preceed by an intro to the conference), Jesper Morgensen on Any Limits to Neuroplasticity?, and Tim Ingold on The Social Brain.

You can access the entire program and all the videos at the Great Expectations conference website.

Posted in Brain Mechanisms, Embodiment, Language, Learning, Neural plasticity, Perception and the senses, Philosophy, Technology, Video | Leave a Comment »

Nature/Nurture: Slash To The Rescue

Posted by dlende on September 9, 2009

Slash is cool – creative writing, community, and alternative imaginations all wrapped in one. Like I said at the end of my post Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail, if I want to understand slash, I’d read some.

And so I have, exploring recommend pieces over at Whispered Words. Cassandra Claire’s The Very Secret Diaries on the Lord of the Rings made me laugh and laugh. Greyworlf’s Kirk/Spock And In the Darkness Bind You was erotic, intense, and well-written, a classic of slash according to Whispered Words.

But today I want to expand on what I thought was a throw-away line in that post, and connect it to some of what Greg wrote about in his post on ethnography, hard-wired assumptions, and sexuality in SurveyFail Redax. (For more on SurveyFail, see Rough Theory; you can also follow the controversy in more detail through the links rounded up at Anti-Oppression Linkspam Community.)

The throw-away line was this: “But nature/nurture is dead (except perhaps in slash?).”

Today I am making it the punchline. Slash can save the day for nature/nurture.

Nature versus nurture refers to the debate of genes versus environment, human nature versus culture, of our animal side versus our civilized side, and so forth. As Greg said, it’s a very old theme in Western thought. In SurveyFail, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam operated from a restricted and dichotomized view of nature versus nurture, where nature, dictated by evolution and primitive brain circuits, dictate sex differences and sexual interests. Here’s how Greg put it:

In their responses to some of their critics, Gaddam offers the blanket explanation that, ‘When we talk about the ‘oldest parts of the brain’ [the subcortical regions], it is in the context of the tectonic tussle between these and the prefrontal cortices that give rise to the peaks of our culture and the terrain of our behavior.’ Daniel points out that Gaddam describes an opposition in the brain between the ‘oldest’ pre-cultural, primitive elements and these newer cortices that produce culture; nature v. culture played out in brain layers.

Slash can change that. Not by having nature and nurture meet in a bar (though if someone knows some slash on that, by all means leave a comment!), but in how slash works as an imaginative process.

Quite simply, nature vs. nurture is an oppressive division. Slash reworks the relationship between nature/nurture in ways that help us in our thinking and that are closer to the actual reality of how nature/nurture works.

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Posted in Cultural theory, Evolution, Human variation, Philosophy | 26 Comments »

Mental Health and Global Warming

Posted by Paul Mason on December 15, 2008

Two hot topics for more than a decade:
Mental Health
and Global Warming.
Two issues connected in the most profound of ways… Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Brain Mechanisms, Cognitive anthropology, Ethnography, Evolution, Philosophy, Stress | 12 Comments »

Andy Clark & Michael Wheeler: Embodied cognition and cultural evolution

Posted by gregdowney on November 23, 2008

The Cognition and Culture website has posted a link to the new edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on ‘cultural transmission and evolution of human behaviour.’ I wanted to comment on just one piece on embodied cognition and cultural evolution, by philosophers Michael Wheeler and Andy Clark (unfortunately, Philosophical Transactions B is behind a subscription wall, although there’s a one-page ‘free preview’ [ouch] here). The Cognition and Culture website has the table of contents posted here. I was vaguely familiar with Michael Wheeler’s work before this piece, but Andy Clark (it’s not much of a profile) has written some of the work that’s most influenced my thinking about the effects of varied skill acquisition on cognition, especially his remarkable book, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again (Amazon listing).

A ream of Clark’s papers can be found here. A review of Michael Wheeler’s book, Reconstructing the cognitive world: The next step, written by Leslie Marsh can be downloaded here. We’ll come back to Andy Clark’s work again in later posts.

I must admit a certain morbid fascination with how one of my favorite streams of thought — embodied cognition — would fare combined with cultural evolution — an area of scholarship that, well, to put it nicely, is uneven (before you get all defensive, let me just stop you with one word: mimetics). It’s sort of like watching one of your good friends get hit on by a sleazy guy at a bar. She looks happy, but you’re sort of cringing at the chance that she might actually take him home. In spite of this instinctual cringe, this special edition of Philosophical Transactions has some really interesting work on cultural evolution, especially because many of the pieces focus tightly on the enormously problematic issue of cultural transmission.

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Posted in Embodiment, Evolution, general, Genetics, Human variation, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Moral Sense Test

Posted by dlende on October 16, 2008

Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Riverside, is running an on-line test about moral dilemmas with his colleague Fiery Cushman, a psychologist at Harvard. Eric runs the blog The Splintered Mind, which I have quite enjoyed reading lately – it covers “the philosophy of psychology, broadly construed.”

So they want to recruit some anthropologists, neuroanthropologists, and other related ilk to take the Moral Sense Test. They need you! Otherwise the test, promoted on a philosophy site, will only get philosophy type answers. While we know that both philosophers and anthropologists can give screwy answers about moral questions, the burning question is: will they give different screwy answers?

Eric assures me the moral dilemmas will do just that, create dilemmas. But you have the power to decide! (Well, assuming your mind just doesn’t freeze up.) Plus you’ll get 15 to 20 minutes of edu-tainment, becaue that’s how long the test takes.

So mosey on over to the test site for your Moral Sense. Eric and Fiery send their splintered, burning thanks!

Posted in Links, Philosophy | Leave a Comment »

The Gay Brain: On Love and Science

Posted by dlende on June 25, 2008

A lot of controversy and blogging about the gay brain of late. Here’s the Savic and Lindstrom paper that got the fray started, with Mind Hacks’ accompanying coverage on the Return of the Gay Brain.

Shortly afterwards, Vaughan proposed “hard wired” as one of the worst psychobabble terms. For me, the fixation on biological determinism is the larger, and worse, cultural concept behind that. So I propose leaving behind biological claims for identity. It just gives us claptrap like the opening lines from the New Scientist news report, “Brain scans have provided the most compelling evidence yet that being gay or straight is a biologically fixed trait.”

Compelling evidence? While there is interesting work on biology and sexuality (the LA Times covers some of it), there is plenty to doubt about the present work, as the Neurocritic points out quite well here and here. This sort of work represents bad brain science: reported claims overreaching the evidence, an often notable lack of comparative work and appropriate controls, little longitudinal analysis, and on and on.

The worst thing about it? The science, whatever it turns out to be, cannot take us from is to ought.

To add my two anthropological cents, human sexuality is varied. Trying to shoehorn sexuality into one socially and politically charged box just does not work well from an anthropological point of view. As one example, men in some cultures go through different life stages, and in some of those stages homosexuality is the normal way of being, whereas at other times heterosexual relations are the norm. To speak personally, I’ve known people who have had an array of partners in their lives, individually recreating what cultures like the Etoro have shown us ethnographically.

On the neuroplasticity and experience/behavior side, this type of approach generally leaves out something every consenting adult knows. Sex matters! The experience of a sexual encounter helps shape our desires, our pleasures, our associations.

But there is something that matters more to me, and most of the people I know, than sex. LOVE. All this debate about cerebral asymmetries and biological determinism misses the human point. Love matters.

Who cares whether sex between whatever combination of men and women is or is not natural? Love makes a much bigger difference in people’s lives. Love between two committed partners, love of a parent for a child, love of family and friend and groups finding common bond.

Love holds us together, whereas the debates over how gay our brains may or may not be aims to divide us, to heighten identity politics at the expense of those experiences and behaviors whose impact lasts longer. We sacrifice the strength of intimacy to proclaim the supposed facts of science.

There are those who will say that knowing the nature of the problem (how easy to slide from one sense of the problem to another) will help us make better determinations about what to do, that more information will lead to better decisions. Or that being able to claim the mantle of biologically innate will help in the fight against the other side.

I would counter that these sorts of assertions cut entirely against the grain of the society we have built, whether that is a liberal vision of equality before the law or a conservative vision that government should not dictate people’s private choices. But that vision gets sacrificed at the altar of proclamations of moral superiority and the exercise of vindictive power.

Science, with its claims of facts and evidence, steps so easily into that arena, declaring this and that truth. In doing that, the scientists are forgetting what matters, both about science and about human experience.

Posted in Gender, general, Human variation, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships, Sex | 3 Comments »

We hate memes, pass it on…

Posted by gregdowney on June 12, 2008

Vaughn at Mind Hacks has a short post, Memes exist: tell your friends (clever, Vaughn, very clever), which links to a couple of meme-related talks at TED. Daniel linked to a lot of the TED talks back in April (TED: Ideas Worth Spreading), but Vaughn focuses on videos of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, both of whom are ardent meme advocates.

I’ve watched both talks, more than a half hour of my finite lifespan that I will never get back (okay, I’ve wasted part of my finite life doing worse… I think), so I need to unburden myself. I think ‘memetics’ is one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades, hiding in the shadow of respectable evolutionary theory, suggesting that anyone who doesn’t immediately concede to the ‘awesome-ness’ of meme-ness is somehow afraid of evolutionary theory. Let me just make this perfectly clear: I teach about evolutionary theory. I like Charles Darwin. I have casts of hominid skulls in my office. I still think ‘memetics’ is nonsense on stilts on skates on thin ice on borrowed time (apologies to Bentham), as deserving of the designation ‘science’ as astrology, phrenology, or economic forecasting.

What’s hard for me to understand is that I LIKE some of Daniel Dennett’s work, and I can’t cite Dennett’s other work confidently when he has picked up a ‘meme franchise,’ and is plugging away with the ‘meme’ meme, making it appear that I’m down with this later material. Blackmore, on the other hand, is a reformed para-psychologist, so she’s, at worst, made a lateral move in terms of respectability. I get particularly irritated during her talk because I think she does an enormous disservice to Darwin’s Origin of Species, but I will try not to late my irritation show too much (even though our regular readers know I won’t be able to manage). I wasn’t going to really heap scorn on Blackmore until I read her own account of TED on the Guardian’s website; gloves are now off.

But I digress, back to the content of the concept and Vaughn’s comments…

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Posted in Cultural theory, Evolution, general, Human variation, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | 37 Comments »

Wired for Belief?

Posted by dlende on June 11, 2008

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life brought together the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and the journalist David Brooks (yes, of neural buddhists fame) for joint presentations back in May, followed by a round-table Q&A discussion with a prominent group of journalists. The transcript of the entire event is now up, and that includes the audio as well as plenty more of the pretty brain graphics that you see here and some good event photos.

The presentations and discussions covered a wide range of topics, ably summarized and linked at the beginning of the transcript, including the physiology of beliefs and brains in meditation and prayer from Newberg and the revolution in brain research and neuroscience and soft-core Buddhism from Brooks. The discussion was also wide-ranging, going over issues such as Is religious Darwinism valid? and Brain physiology in party politics. As befits a Pew gathering, there is a considerable amount of attention focused on religion, atheism, and the like.

Newberg covers a lot of his take on the biology of belief as well as imaging research he has done on people praying or meditating. Here’s an excerpt on belief:

So our brain is trying to put together a construction of our reality, a perspective on that reality, which we rely on heavily for our survival, for figuring out how to behave and how to act and how to vote. But again, the brain is filling in a lot of gaps and helping us think certain things that may or may not really be there… So what are beliefs? Again, I apologize, but I always come at this from a scientific perspective. I am defining beliefs biologically and psychologically as any perception, cognition, emotion, or memory that a person consciously or unconsciously assumes to be true. The reasons I define beliefs in this way are several-fold. One is that we can begin to look at the various components that make up our beliefs. We can talk about our perceptions. We can talk about our cognitive processes. We can talk about how our emotions affect our beliefs. And we can also look at how they ultimately affect us. Are we aware of the beliefs we hold? Or are they unconscious? And which ones are unconscious and which ones are conscious?


And an excerpt connecting belief to the practice of religion.

The practices and rituals that exist within both religious and non-religious groups become a strong and powerful way to write these ideas into our brain. Again, go back to the idea that the neurons that fire together, wire together. The more you focus on a particular idea, whether it is political or religious or athletic, the more that gets written down into your brain and the more that becomes your reality. So that is why when you go to a church or a synagogue or a mosque, and they repeat the same stories, and you celebrate the same holidays that reinforce that, you do the prayers, and you say these things over and over again, those are the neural connections that get stimulated and strengthened. That is a strong part of why religion and spirituality make use of various practices valuable for writing those beliefs strongly into who you are.

Brooks aims to place these sorts of ideas into a social and cultural context.

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Posted in Brain imaging, Meditation, Philosophy, Psychological anthropology | 2 Comments »

Morris vs. Hauser, or What’s Universal about Morality?

Posted by dlende on June 2, 2008

Seed Magazine featured this debate/discussion between the evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser and the documentary film maker Errol Morris in a recent Seed Salon. The two sat down to discuss morality, given Hauser’s recent book Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong and Morris’ recent film Standard Operating Procedure on Abu Ghraib. So they are coming at the question from a wee bit different angle…

Hauser wants to argue for a universal moral module (or at least emotions) while Morris is the relativist. Hauser mentions the categorical imperative and selfish genes. Morris mentions social psychology and interpretations. In their explanations they talk past one another.

But what’s interesting is that the best part of their conversation revolves around the conjunction of people and context. This people/context conjunction is a universality both miss. Given how people and contexts and their interactions vary, it’s also relative.

I think Morris and Hauser miss understanding what they agree upon because we haven’t built a very good framework to give people like Hauser and Morris other ways to talk and to think.

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Posted in Philosophy | 1 Comment »

The Emerging Moral Psychology

Posted by dlende on May 30, 2008

Dan Jones writes on The Emerging Moral Psychology in April’s Prospect Magazine, an article I came across through The Situationist. He could just have easily called it the emerging moral neuroanthropology, for here is his opening, “Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, primatologists and anthropologists, all borrowing liberally from each others’ insights, are putting together a novel picture of morality… The picture emerging shows the moral sense to be the product of biologically evolved and culturally sensitive brain systems that together make up the human ‘moral faculty’.”

Jones takes us through “hot morality,” morality guided by intuitions and emotions and not universal laws, drawing on the work of Jonathan Haidt. Then we get “the tale of two faculties,” highlighting the dual processing view (emotion and cognition) of Joshua Greene. Finally we get “A Moral Grammar” via Marc Hauser. Hauser gives us a moral code based on three principles derived from 5000 people who have taken the Moral Sense Test worldwide via Internet (no snarky comments as Greg might say):

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Posted in Philosophy, Psychological anthropology | Leave a Comment »

 
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