May 18, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Brain Science Needs a Rethink

Have the sciences of the mind, from psychology to neuroscience, really grasped what’s going on inside our skulls?

Neuroscience needs some new ideas (Nature, book review). Matthew Cobb has a new book, The Idea of the Brain: A History (Profile, 2020). Stephen Casper, the reviewer, remarks, “A history of the metaphors behind brain research faces a dark past and disquieting future.” Is the brain a map? A network? A robot? A computer? In the book, Cobb traces the history of false leads and dangerous ideas about the brain, and suggests that current thinking still falls short. Scientists tend to think in metaphors that characterize the age they live in, but “metaphors conceal as much as they reveal,” Casper warns.

New metaphors came from nineteenth-century phrenology, evolutionary theory and the doctrine of inhibition in physiology — the idea that the nervous system could repress actions and behaviours. Then came the age of communication, and with it fresh language for the brain.

A look at past metaphors reveals ideas that indeed are dark and disquieting:

The word ‘racist’ appears only a few times in his book, and then only in footnotes. But a little thought makes clear that seemingly innocent metaphors like ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ functions, or descriptions of specific anatomical structures as ‘primitive’, carry racialized baggage. When originally characterized, they spoke to the ghastly view that the nervous systems of white, upper-class men made them evolutionarily superior to those they subordinated at home and abroad. Similarly, it is discomfiting to realize that Broca’s area, linked to language processing, is named for the French physician Paul Broca, who believed in a hierarchy of peoples.

In our 22 Jan 2019 entry, Dr Jerry Bergman discussed the evolutionary basis for Carl Sagan’s depiction of some brain areas as “primitive” and “reptilian” – a popular metaphor at the time that led to a holocaust of frontal lobotomy operations. What metaphors are being used now that mislead rather than illuminate? Which ideas could have dark and disquieting consequences? Perhaps transhumanism is among them: the idea that our brains are mere software that could be uploaded to robots.

The way we think about the brain may be completely wrong (New Scientist). In this review of Cobb’s book, Simon Inge adds more doubt to the assumption that brain scientists know anything valid.

…. we take too much comfort and encouragement from our own metaphors. Do advances in artificial intelligence really bring us closer to understanding how our brains work?

Cobb’s hollow laughter is all but audible. “My view is that it will probably take fifty years before we understand the maggot brain,” he writes.

If we cannot understand a maggot brain, how can we presume to think we have even begun to understand a mind that can compose an opera or calculate cube roots?

More Bad Ideas and Mistakes in Secular Brain Science

New paper points the finger at the Rubber Hand Illusion and raises difficult questions for psychologists (University of Sussex). Look how many times a popular psychological experiment has been used that has no sound basis:

A world-famous psychological experiment used to help explain the brain’s understanding of the body, as well as scores of clinical disorders, has been dismissed as not fit-for-purpose in a new academic paper from the University of Sussex.

The Rubber Hand Illusion, where synchronous brush strokes on a participant’s concealed hand and a visible fake hand can give the impression of illusory sensations of touch and of ownership of the fake hand, has been cited in more than 5,000 articles since it was first documented more than 20 years ago.

The U of Sussex research finds that psychologists were merely altering their subjects’ responses with the power of suggestion.

Honesty “nudge” fails to replicate (Science Magazine). Tally another fail for psychology. The popular idea that human behavior can be altered by nudging was not repeatable. Can you nudge people to be honest on tax forms by the order in which you ask the questions? Experiments showed no increase in honesty. “These findings have implications for current debates about the limitations of behavioral nudge-style interventions that favor subtle, easy-to-implement changes to the environment over more costly structural reform.” For more on nudging, see 11 June 2017, “How to nudge an elitist.”

Incredible Brain Powers that Defy Evolution

When Damaged, the Adult Brain Repairs Itself by Going Back to the Beginning (UC San Diego News Center). Look at this amazing power of restoration scientists found in mouse brains, that probably works in human brains as well when cells are injured.

When adult brain cells are injured, they revert to an embryonic state, according to new findings published in the April 15, 2020 issue of Nature by researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues elsewhere. The scientists report that in their newly adopted immature state, the cells become capable of re-growing new connections that, under the right conditions, can help to restore lost function.

The complexity of human computation via a concrete model with an application to passwords (PNAS). These authors try to model the limits of human computation. They note that while most of us have limited short-term memory, “Long-term memory is potentially infinite—upper bounded only by the usable lifetime of the human and the time that it takes to store information in that memory.” They use games like Sudoku, speed chess and crossword puzzles to investigate. There is great variability in computing ability among people, however. Our biography of Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) quotes a calculus textbook that says,

His ability to solve problems in his head was beyond belief.  He worked out in his head major problems of lunar motion that baffled Isaac Newton and once did a complicated calculation in his head to settle an argument between two students whose computations differed in the fiftieth decimal place.

If neuroscience cannot understand a maggot brain, it’s doubtful they will be able to give a sufficient account of powers like this.


If you want to understand the brain, and the mind, read the Manufacturer’s Manual.

Bouncing off that article above about damaged brains that go back to the beginning, there is a good song called “Back to the Beginning” by Billy Sprague worth listening to. It’s #3 in the album “Creation: The Story of Life” – an anthology of uplifting and thought-provoking songs  about Biblical creation, sung by various artists, that has really excellent performances with orchestral backgrounds.

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