The Everyday Brain and Our Everyday Life

Earlier this week I wrote about Jean-Pierre Changeux and Gerald Edelman, drawing on the New York Review of Books essay by Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff, How The Mind Works: Revelations. As I blogged then, “In the end I was still left with a ‘So what?’ Their hints at subjective psychology, the acting brain, and relational representation remained the side dishes, rather than the main course. I’ll deal with that main course later this week.” It’s Saturday, so I better keep to that promise.

Let me begin by just giving you the essay excerpts.

In general, every recollection refers not only to the remembered event or person or object but to the person who is remembering. The very essence of memory is subjective, not mechanical, reproduction; and essential to that subjective psychology is that every remembered image of a person, place, idea or object invariably contains, whether explicitly or implicitly, a basic reference to the person who is remembering.

The “rigid divide,” [Giacomo] Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia write in their new book, Mirrors in the Brain, “between perceptive, motor, and cognitive processes, is to a great extent artificial; not only does perception appear to be embedded in the dynamics of action, becoming much more composite than used to be thought in the past, but the acting brain is also and above all a brain that understands.”

For Edelman, then, memory is not a “small scale model of external reality,” but a dynamic process that enables us to repeat a mental or physical act: the key conclusion is that whatever its form, memory itself is a [property of a system]. It cannot be equated exclusively with circuitry, with synaptic changes, with biochemistry, with value constraints, or with behavioral dynamics. Instead, it is the dynamic result of the interactions of all these factors acting together.

Together, subjective psychology, an acting and embedded brain, and representation and action that are dynamic and relational present us with a new starting point when we talk about the intersections of neuroscience and psychology with anthropology. Starting with their conclusions, making it the beginning of something better, that would have been a really exciting essay for me to read.

As I wrote a couple days ago, Howard Gardner does get us closer to this new individuality. “Gardner brings a refreshingly unique take, neither the individual of science, bounded and rational, or the individual of philosophy and art, lone thinker and creative genius. Nervous system, individual experience, and subjective interpretation move us into a radically different domain—an individuality that lies firmly in the continua Gardner describes.”

What do I mean? Let me go back an old post, Pattern #2, where I wrote:

[There are] a variety of ways that neuroanthropology can engage mental illness: (1) the links between specific aspects of the brain, experience and behavior, and cultural context; (2) more global human biobehavioral patterns, lived contexts, and cultural practices which can shape the expression and impact of disorders; and (3) the mix of environmental, ecological and cultural factors that connect with everyday experience in varied domains, and thus also shape mental illness… In work on mental illness and behavioral disorders, there is often a great deal of focus on either #1 or #3 (which generally carry assumptions about nature or nurture, biology or culture). But I am increasingly persuaded that basic patterns in human experience and behavior are an important way to understand variation in mental health as well as a way we might build more explicit cross-cultural comparisons in anthropology.

Subjective psychology, an acting and integrative brain, representation based on global properties and systemic dynamics—these are the concepts that will help us link pattern #1 (say, dopamine, desire, and drug use) into pattern #2 (a cycle of addiction, each experiential/behavioral step leading to the next). Categorical ideas, whether in neurobiology or in psychology (“reward” is a good example), just are not going to do the trick. The problem is, most of psychology is built on this sort of break-it-down-into-categories-and-let’s-go-all-scientific-on-it approach.

To take one example, stress is often conceived of as bio-psycho-social, with the fight-or-flight phenomenon acting as the reductive structure that shapes psychosocial stress. However, this approach completely misses both the evolutionary phylogeny of stress (we are a social species) and the social construction of stress (we disenfranchise people, poverty poisons the brain). Understanding the evolutionary and cultural dynamics of stress places renewed emphasis on understanding the experiential and behavioral dynamics of stress, whether in marathon running, in our relations with new technology, or in eating comfort food.

Recently Mo at Neurophilosophy covered six iconoclastic discoveries about the brain—but they are all recent! These discoveries—about plasticity, regeneration, and basic brain function—put us in a position to overturn old dogmas about the brain, many of which boil down to treating the brain as a computer-like machine. Many of the new metaphors, it seems to me, are about treating the brain more like a person—an acting brain, a whole more than the sum of its parts, subjective and embodied. But we still need some actual persons to put around that brain!

Vaughan at Mind Hacks pointed us this week to an interview with Jennifer Hornsby over at Philosophy Bites. Hornsby makes the same basic point—we do not need the language of mental states, reducible to brain parts, to understand human agency. (Agency is the new willpower, for the most part; our ability to do something, and thus central to understanding why people do what they do.) She makes a strong stand against the adequacy of using “beliefs and desires” and brain “twitches” as the way to provide causal explanations of human action. These create internal, hidden accounts that then get reified in scientific language and brain images.

Rather than looking inside people for causal chains (the typical approach), Hornsby proposing putting people back in our chains of causation. To do that, she proposes we begin with the sort of naïve explanations we use everyday—if a woman is crossing the street to catch the 59 bus, it’s not about the belief that the 59 bus will arrive soon, it’s about getting home. This woman is doing one thing to accomplish another, and to understand that, you have to know her and know the context in which she operates.

I would emphasize a similar point about the statement that “every remembered image of a person, place, idea or object invariably contains, whether explicitly or implicitly, a basic reference to the person who is remembering.” If there is a basic reference to a person who is remembering, then there is also a reference to a cultural context and a social history. Memory, in terms of its basic function, is as social and cultural as it is neurobiological. It doesn’t fit into any one academic category.

So what to do about that? Let’s take one concrete example, decision making. Behavioral economics and neuroeconomics are all the rage—if we blend two categories, we’ll just have to get something better! Some interesting new data and some middling concepts, I agree, but nothing like a theory of agency that Hornsby wants or a true subjective psychology per Rosenfield and Ziff. Recent research on decision making does indicate the need for real change away from a rational choice assumption; but even recognizing emotion in decision making represents but a first step towards a more contextual and grounded understanding of human choice.

Emotion and decisions gets us moving from pattern #1 into pattern #2. But pattern #3? How about what women want and our everyday appetites, the sorts of things where the cultural rubber meets the human road.

That still means developing a richer theoretical and methodological approach to what is in the middle. That remains a significant challenge. But every journey begins with a single step.

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