Blatant plug: new book, Brain Rules, by John Medina

book_dvd.jpgThe publisher of John Medina’s new book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, sent me an email saying that the book might be appropriate for Neuroanthropology. Normally, I wouldn’t plug something I haven’t yet read (and you can be confident that the publisher didn’t bribe me with a review copy, as I don’t have a copy… yet…), but I thought that the website in support of the book itself was worth a look.

The website contains a wealth of Flash-based audio-visual elements from the book, bibliography, graphics, and a host of other resources. I’m struck by several things about it; first, Medina is very savvy — he’s pitched this book brilliantly for a general audience. I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment; in fact, it’s something that I aspire to in my own writing, and it’s educational to see such a good practitioner. Second, he’s done a great job of distilling some complicated ideas into bullet-point amenable, succinct statements. This sort of nested complexity (because there is more when one scratches the surface) is going to be a hallmark of neuroanthropological work, as we’re going to have to be able to write on several levels at once if we’re to persuade both specialists in the areas we’re writing about and other, non-specialists. For example, if I’m going to discuss brain modularity and it’s relationship to cultural theory, I’m going to have to be able to come up with compelling glosses for very complex research (to appeal to those more interested in cultural theory than modularity, but also vice versa), and deeper explanation so that I don’t get off-sides with the specialists.

Finally, I’m just amazed at the media support for the book — it’s excellent. As a former design ‘consultant,’ I just dig deeply the richness of the website and accompanying material. For example, there’s clever little bits of Medina giving audio versions of some of the book’s main points, but they’re much slicker and better produced than the usual head-on or 45-degree-to-the-side, video-camera-on-tripod, wide-angle-to-catch-powerpoints-and-speaker footage. He comes across as profoundly and engaging and funny. Frankly, he’s providing a really accessible counter-point to some of the simplistic ‘public intellectual’ versions of the brain sciences that we rail against frequently. For those of you with better access to well-stocked bookstores, you might want to check it out.

How your brain is not like a computer

At the end of my last post, or the one before that, I had a late-night ‘inspiration’ that must have sounded a bit like an outburst about how our brains are not like computers. There’s lots of good reasons for making that assertion, whether or not it’s an outburst. But one of the key issues is concern about ’embodiment’ in cognitive science and the discussion of embodied cognition. Daniel, in his comments, put a link to the posting by Chris Chatham, 10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers, which is excellent. There’s also an interesting discussion of this going on at Dr. Ginger Campbell’s blog on her Brain Science Podcasts, both of which (discussion and podcasts) I strongly recommend. See the first two topics on the list you can find here on ‘Artificial Intelligence.’

For the anthropologists in our audience, however, the term ’embodied cognition’ is a bit unfortunate, not because it’s not a great term, but because an earlier intellectual movement in anthropology already snagged the adjective ’embodied’ and then didn’t push the issue far enough to actually deal with physiological and biological dimensions of being embodied. That is, in anthropology, the term ’embodiment’ has not been allowed to really stretch its wings, and has instead been more narrowly constrained to dealing with phenomenological, interactional, and theoretical issues deriving primarily from feminism, Foucauldian post-structuralism, and Bourdieu-ian sociology. All of these streams are important, but they do not yet engage with the sort of material that cognitive scientists mean when they use the term ’embodied.’ The danger is that anthropologists will see the term, ’embodied cognition,’ and it will not seem quite as disruptive to anthropology-as-usual as it should be.

Chatham’s posting makes this key issue clearer in his tenth reason that brains are not like computers: brains have bodies:

This is not as trivial as it might seem: it turns out that the brain takes surprising advantage of the fact that it has a body at its disposal. For example, despite your intuitive feeling that you could close your eyes and know the locations of objects around you, a series of experiments in the field of change blindness has shown that our visual memories are actually quite sparse. In this case, the brain is “offloading” its memory requirements to the environment in which it exists: why bother remembering the location of objects when a quick glance will suffice? A surprising set of experiments by Jeremy Wolfe has shown that even after being asked hundreds of times which simple geometrical shapes are displayed on a computer screen, human subjects continue to answer those questions by gaze rather than rote memory. A wide variety of evidence from other domains suggests that we are only beginning to understand the importance of embodiment in information processing.

Continue reading “How your brain is not like a computer”

Wednesday Round Up #2

On Brains

Susan Greenfield, Bewitched by Bacchae
Meaning, neuronal connections, and Euripides—perfect!

Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, Radio Lab: Into the Brain of a Liar
How big was your fish?  Big-time liars have “more connections in the part of their brains responsible for complex thinking”

Charles Choi, Tiny Brain-Like Computer Created
This chip has dendrites!

Lauran Neergard, Study: Creativity Jazzes Your Brain
Stick a keyboard and a jazz musician in an fMRI, and this is what you get

The Internet

Gamespot, Study Uncovers MMORPG Gender-Swapping Epidemic
“54 percent of all males and 68 percent of all females “gender swap”–or create online personas of their opposite sex”

David Pogue, How Dangerous Is the Internet for Children?
Not as dangerous as the media sometimes says.  Surprise, the context of how you manage the Internet and your children at home makes a big difference in how they interpret what’s online

General Interest

Penepole Green, What’s In a Chair?
Psychiatrists’ offices matter!

Also see Vaughan’s take on this article at Mind Hacks

Nicholas Cristakis, Social Networks Are Like The Eye
The dynamics of social networks

Kevin Lewis, Uncommon Knowledge: Surprising Insights from the Social Sciences
The Boston Globe’s own round up

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Cognitive Science and the Advance of Ideas

Here’s a link to the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Minnesota top 100 cognitive science papers of the last century.  Definitely a useful reference.  Debates about modularity, connectionism, the mind as computational, limits on human rationality, and so forth all emerged from these papers.  Not a lot of culture, inequality or anthropology in the bunch, and a definite bias towards psychology as universal rather than also being variable and contextual–but, hey, this site has to work on something…

And if you haven’t seen it, Edge asked top scholars in 2008, What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Why?

In looking at the first page of answers, I am struck by how much scientists are now reworking the views developed in those top 100 cognitive science papers.

So, Joseph LeDoux: “Like many scientists in the field of memory, I used to think that a memory is something stored in the brain and then accessed when used. Then, in 2000, a researcher in my lab, Karim Nader, did an experiment that convinced me, and many others, that our usual way of thinking was wrong. In a nutshell, what Karim showed was that each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessible later. The old memory is either not there or is inaccessible. In short, your memory about something is only as good as your last memory about it.”

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Looking for more blogs to pass the time?

I’ve added some new blogs to our blogroll, including ones that I have enjoyed recently.  

I am particularly impressed by Laura Kilarski’s Psique, which contains insightful commentary as well as summaries and links to recently published literature by topic.  Most useful! 

Jonah Lehrer’s The Frontal Cortex is another great addition.  Jonah is the author of Proust Was A Neuroscientist, a former Rhodes Scholar, and interested in how neuroscience and everyday intersect, as well as the fostering of a Fourth Culture, a genuine dialogue between arts and sciences. 

Finally, Deric Bownds’ MindBlog which “reports new ideas and work on mind, brain, and behavior.”  Deric covers many of the same topics that we do here, with more emphasis on the biology (but less on the anthropology).  He also provides good excerpts from current neuroscience research, and is author of The Biology of Mind.