Monday, November 24, 2014

The Humanities Are Ruining Neuroscience

Photo illustration by Andrea Levy for The Chronicle Review


Inflammatory title, isn't it. Puzzled by how it could possibly happen? Then read on!

A few days ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece called Neuroscience Is Ruining the Humanities. You can find it in a Google search and at reddit, among other places. The url is http://chronicle.com/article/Neuroscience-Is-Ruining-the/150141/ {notice the “Neuroscience-Is-Ruining” part.}

Oh wait. Here's a tweet.


At some point along the way, without explanation, the title of the article was changed to the more mundane The Shrinking World of Ideas. The current take-home bullet points are:
  • We have shifted our focus from the meaning of ideas to the means by which they’re produced.
  • When professors began using critical theory to teach literature they were, in effect, committing suicide by theory.

The author is essayist Arthur Krystal, whose 4,000+ word piece can be summarized as “postmodernism ruined everything.” In the olden days of the 19th century, ideas mattered. Then along came the language philosophers and some French historians in the 1920s/30s, who opened the door for Andy Warhol and Jacques Derrida and what do you know, ideas didn't matter any more. That's fine, he can express that opinion, and normally I wouldn't care. I'm not going to debate the cultural harms or merits of postmodernism today.

What did catch my eye was this: “...what the postmodernists indirectly accomplished was to open the humanities to the sciences, particularly neuroscience.”

My immediate response: “that is the most ironic thing I've ever heard!! there is no truth [scientific or otherwise] in postmodernism!” Meaning: scientific inquiry was either irrelevant to these theorists, or something to be distrusted, if not disdained. So how could they possibly invite Neuroscience into the Humanities Building?

Let's look at Krystal's extended quote (emphasis mine):
“...By exposing the ideological codes in language, by revealing the secret grammar of architectural narrative and poetic symmetries, and by identifying the biases that frame "disinterested" judgment, postmodern theorists provided a blueprint of how we necessarily think and express ourselves. In their own way, they mirrored the latest developments in neurology, psychology, and evolutionary biology. [Ed. warning: non sequitur ahead.] To put it in the most basic terms: Our preferences, behaviors, tropes, and thoughts—the very stuff of consciousness—are byproducts of the brain’s activity. And once we map the electrochemical impulses that shoot between our neurons, we should be able to understand—well, everything. So every discipline becomes implicitly a neurodiscipline, including ethics, aesthetics, musicology, theology, literature, whatever.”

I'm as reductionist as the next neuroscientist, sure, but Krystal's depiction of the field is either quite the caricature, or incredibly naïve. Ultimately, I can't tell if he's actually in favor of "neurohumanities"...
In other words, there’s a good reason that "neurohumanities" are making headway in the academy. Now that psychoanalytic, Marxist, and literary theory have fallen from grace, neuroscience and evolutionary biology can step up. And what better way for the liberal arts to save themselves than to borrow liberally from science?

...or opposed:
Even more damning are the accusations in Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld’s Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience , which argues that the insights gathered from neurotechnologies have less to them than meets the eye. The authors seem particularly put out by the real-world applications of neuroscience as doctors, psychologists, and lawyers increasingly rely on its tenuous and unprovable conclusions. Brain scans evidently are "often ambiguous representations of a highly complex system … so seeing one area light up on an MRI in response to a stimulus doesn’t automatically indicate a particular sensation or capture the higher cognitive functions that come from those interactions." 1

Then he links to articles like Adventures in Neurohumanities and Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities? (in a non-critical way) 2  before meandering back down memory lane. They sure don't make novelists like they used to!

So you see, neuroscience hasn't really ruined the humanities.3 Have the humanities ruined neuroscience? Although there has been a disturbing proliferation of neuro- fields, I think we can weather the storm of Jane Austen neuroimaging studies.


Footnotes

1 Although I haven't always seen eye to eye with Satel and Lilienfeld, here Krystal clearly overstates the extent of their dismissal of the entire field (which has happened before).

2 Read Professor of Literary Neuroimaging instead.

3 The author of the Neurocultures Manifesto may disagree, however.

link via @vaughanbell

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Public Health Relevance Statements vs. Actual Translational Potential



“Research on the brain is surging,” declared the New York Times the other day:

Yet the growing body of data — maps, atlases and so-called connectomes that show linkages between cells and regions of the brain — represents a paradox of progress, with the advances also highlighting great gaps in understanding.

So many large and small questions remain unanswered. How is information encoded and transferred from cell to cell or from network to network of cells? Science found a genetic code but there is no brain-wide neural code; no electrical or chemical alphabet exists that can be recombined to say “red” or “fear” or “wink” or “run.” And no one knows whether information is encoded differently in various parts of the brain.

Yet we still understand so little, they say. And most people don't care.

The Public Find Brain Science Irrelevant and Anxiety-provoking, based on the outcome of a small qualitative study of 48 London residents (O'Connor & Joffe, 2014):

The Brain Is Something That Goes Wrong

Though the brain was ordinarily absent from participants’ mental landscapes, there was one route by which this habitual inattention could be ruptured. The second theme articulates the finding that for many, neurological pathology was the only aspect of brain research that held clear personal relevance. This foregrounding of pathology constituted the brain as a vulnerable, anxiety-provoking organ and anchored brain research in the domain of medicine.

So people may not care about the brain, unless something in theirs is broken. When they'll find it's important that doctors know how to fix it. And perhaps realize this knowledge comes from basic research.

This adds new meaning to the Public Health Relevance Statement required for NIH grant applications (see p. I-65 of this PDF):
For NIH and other PHS agencies applications, using no more than two or three sentences, describe the relevance of this research to public health. In this section, be succinct and use plain language that can be understood by a general, lay audience. If the application is funded, this public health relevance statement will be combined with the project summary (above) and will become public information.

Anyone can look up grants at NIH RePORTER and read the Public Health Relevance Statement for each. Not that most people will be doing this. But what might they find for a basic science grant that studies invertebrates? Say the central pattern generating circuits found in the crustacean stomatogastric ganglion, which controls the rhythmic muscle contractions that grind and move food through the gut? Here's one:
Public Health Relevance Statement: Mental illness may result from relatively minor imbalances in circuit parameters that nonetheless result in significantly disordered functions. To understand what kinds of circuit parameters when perturbed lead to mental illness, it is necessary to understand how different neuronal excitability and synaptic strengths are in normal healthy brains, and how individual neuronal processes compensate for each other.

I chose this example because the Principal Investigator, Dr. Eve Marder, has done such groundbreaking work on neuromodulation and circuit dynamics over the duration of her illustrious career. Last year she was awarded the $500,000 Gruber Neuroscience Prize for Pioneering Contributions to the Understanding of Neural Circuitry:
...Early in her career, Marder revealed that the STG was not "hard-wired" to produce a single pattern of output, but that it was a remarkably plastic circuitry that could change both its parameters and function in response to various neuromodulators while still maintaining its morphologic connectivity. This discovery marked a paradigm shift in how scientists viewed the architecture and function of neural circuits, including those in the human brain.
. . .

More recently, Marder's research has focused on how neural circuits maintain stability, or homeostasis, over long periods of time despite constantly reconfiguring themselves. This research has broad implications for the study of many neurological diseases linked to dysfunctional neural circuitry, such as schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain.

What if PIs were required to provide a detailed description of how their findings will actually lead to new treatments? It's one thing to say “our findings will have broad implications for the study of many neurological diseases” but quite another to explain exactly how this this will happen, even if you're studying humans (not to mention if you're studying a system of 30 neurons in the crab gut). The down side here is that the public might expect too much “Hey, why haven't you cured Alzheimer's yet? Haven't we, the taxpayers, given you billions of dollars?”

On the other hand, politicians are falling all over each other saying, “I'm not a scientist, but...” I'll go ahead and make ignorant policy decisions and second guess independent peer review of grants. So it's critical that neuroscientists can communicate the “broader implications” of their work and yes, how their research may eventually lead to improved treatments for brain diseases.

For that reason, I've been pondering the relative translational potential of neural engineering, pharmacological, and regenerative medicine approaches to neurological and psychiatric disorders... We'll see what (if anything) I can come up with, at least from a comparative perspective.

Cheesy Bench to Bedside Image Credit: UAMS

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Saturday, November 01, 2014

Fright Week: Fear of Mirrors



When I was a kid, I watched this scary TV show called One Step Beyond. It was kind of like The Twilight Zone, except the stories were more haunting and supernatural.

An especially frightening episode was called The Clown. Everyone loves the circus. Everyone loves a clown.1





John Newland, the show's narrator: "Laughter is an international language, and the clown, the prince of laughter."

"Look, a clown!"

A jealous husband behaves in a physically and verbally abusive fashion towards his young wife any time she's near another man. Why, he's even jealous of Pippo the Clown, a simple and silent entertainer who brings balloons and joy to the diner patrons.

Mr. Abusive sees the clown touching his wife's blond hair and freaks out. He grabs Pippo's scissors and cuts off a chunk of her hair. The wife screams and runs away into the carnival campgrounds, which is conveniently nearby. Pippo acts in a menacing fashion and scares the husband away.

The wife wanders around the carnival grounds and into the clown's tent, where she cries into a wig. Pippo returns and tries to fix her hair and cheer her up. She eventually starts laughing and hugs the clown.

Then the obnoxious lout hears laughter and enters the trailer, finding his wife with the clown. "You dirty cheap one, I've had it..." He grabs her and slaps her and throws her down to the ground.

Pippo gets defensive and angry and starts choking the husband, who grabs those handy scissors and stabs........ HIS WIFE! Killing her!

Pippo picks her up, husband drops the scissors and slips away, and guess who becomes the leading murder suspect. The simple clown, who keeps trying to revive the dead girl by making her laugh.

The Strong Man: "Help, help, somebody help, the clown's killed a dame!" [it's 1960]

The husband wanders around in a daze, stopping in front of a pawn shop with a mirror in the window.




Mr. Killer glances away from the mirror for a moment and guess who appears, trying to strangle him.




He whips around to see the clown and.... there's no one there!!




This happens a few more times, where the clown appears in the mirror, the guy turns around and there's nobody there...




Now this was very scary and horrifying when I was a small child. I was afraid to look at a mirror for weeks. The thought of seeing Pippo the Clown standing behind me, strangling me, was terrifying. For a brief period I had Spectrophobia (also known as Catoptrophobia), a fear of mirrors:
Generally, an individual that deals with Spectrophobia has been traumatized in an event where they believe they have seen or heard apparitions or ghosts. The individual could also become traumatized by horror films, television shows, or by nightmares. This fear could be the result of a trauma involving mirrors. It could also be the result of the person’s superstitious fear of being watched through the mirror.

"Traumatized" is a bit excessive... I got over it. Watching the episode today, I see how campy and cheesy it is, with its soundtrack of "vampy" music as a stand-in for the wife's sex appeal. Her aura of youthful innocence was over the top, and the husband comes off as a creepy pedophile.2







And fortunately, I never developed a fear of clowns...




But I have to say, I didn't make it through the OCULUS Trailer, not on Halloween night. And I think I'll have to try the ‘strange-face in the mirror' illusion another night.


I hope you enjoyed Fright Week. Check out the other spooky posts:

The Stranger in the Mirror

The Waking Nightmare of Lord Voldemort



Footnotes

1 Everyone knows about coulrophobia, the very common fear of clowns.

2 The Flaming Nose TV Blog informs us that the actors playing the husband and wife were 40 and 18 years old, respectively. No wonder he comes off as an abusive pedophile... The strangling clown gif is also from the Flaming Nose.

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