Re-examining neurosexism

My dad brought this interesting book review to my attention: Peeling Away Theories on Gender and the Brain (NYT)

In her book Delusions of Gender (which I have not read though am intrigued to do so), cognitive neuroscientist Cordelia Fine places several modern studies of early differences in brain anatomy/function into a long line of sexist explanations for supposed differences in male and female behaviors.

The basic argument is that there has been no convincing connection made between any measured structural differences (which she argues might not exist) to behavioral differences. Just another case of correlation (maybe) and not causation.

Here’s a description of study that you might already be familiar with and Fine’s take on it:

Dr. Baron-Cohen’s lab conducted research on infants who averaged a day and a half old, before any unconscious parental gender priming. Jennifer Connellan, one of Dr. Baron-Cohen’s graduate students, who conducted the study, showed mobiles and then her own face to the infants. The results showed that among the newborns the boys tended to look longer at mobiles, the girls at faces.

Dr. Fine dismantles the study, citing, among other design flaws, the fact that Ms. Connellan knew the sex of some of the babies. Because it was her face they were looking at and she was holding up the mobile, Dr. Fine says, she may have “inadvertently moved the mobile more when she held it up for boys, or looked more directly, or with wider eyes, for the girls.”

Although I am unsure about the scientific merits, it is refreshing to see a new viewpoint in this debate. It provides some food for thought on this interesting topic:

Summarizing the research, she writes, “Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralization, mediated by nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills.”

What all this adds up to, she says, is neurosexism. It’s all in the brain.

Where are we with this whole free will thing?

Haim Sompolinsky has written an excellent book chapter on the scientific view of free will and choice, pulling in good ideas from physics and neuroscience along with contemporary philosophical commentary.

I think this chapter might be helpful for neuroscientists outside of the lab. Often a dinner table discussion has moved to the idea of “quantum consciousness” or “quantum free will”. Often, someone will mention Roger Penrose, who has become something of a poster boy for this idea that quantum indeterminacy (eg. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) is one possible way that free will is really free. And then, people look around and say, “Well, you’re a neuroscientist. Do we have free will?” (And that’s when I take another big drink or bite while I figure out something semi-coherent to say.)

Sompolinsky does a nice job of evaluating such claims (in the end, he says we cannot rule out the possibility that the brain is an indeterministic system but it seems unlikely) and provides nice scientific insight. In his view, it is far more likely that the brain’s apparent randomness (eg. individual cell spike rasters vary across repeated presentations of the same stimulus) is more simply explained by thermal noise (think of varying channel gating properties) and chaotic brain dynamics. (Recall, a chaotic system is still deterministic; it simply exhibits aperiodic behavior due to exquisite sensitivity to initial conditions. It is difficult to predict the long-term behavior of chaotic systems. The more we know the initial conditions in detail, the better our prediction.) On the other hand, he argues that the relevant length and time scales for neurons (micrometers and milliseconds) are far larger by many orders of magnitude than those of quantum noise. Chaos might amplify such quantum events, but this is far from being the simplest, most parsimonious explanation. Given the current level of neuroscience understanding, this is almost idle speculation. Regardless of the (in)determinacy of the world, Sompolinsky effectively argues against any non-physical, purely mental (ie. dualistic) agent of causation.

Thus, in sum, the world and our brains might not be determined but, even given that, there’s no reason to believe we have any causative ability to change things in the sense of traditional free will. These observations seem right on the mark to me. I hope they bring some insight for others. Or at least a way to fend off the dinner-table-free-will-conversation barrage of questions.

"Proust was a neuroscientist" on Salon

Jonathon Keats (no, not that one) has written a scorching review of neuro grad student Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Proust was a Neuroscientist.

I saw this somewhat more favorable review a few weeks in the NYT and was intrigued by the book. As an undergrad, I majored in cognitive science and English and, naturally, was fascinated by the cultural differences of academics in these disparate fields.

As in the Salon article, I also think attempts to unify the “two cultures” (ie. arts and sciences) are misguided. A work like Lehrer’s book (which I have not read) will need to work hard to “prove” its thesis and likely sound very forced. What can we really say about arts vs. sciences? For that matter, is it important to make value judgments on this topic? I’d say, no. We seem to have a natural urge to categorize our activities and then try to order them. Science is more worthwhile. Art is a more creative endeavor. Are these blanket generalizations productive?

But there is overlap between the two cultures and those regions seem more and more important to me. And I think neuroscience in particular has a lot to say here, too. If we know what makes good art good (in a scientific way), will we stop appreciating it or enjoying it? (This is similar to the idea that if someone told you free will was simply an illusion would the illusion be any less powerful than it is right now?) Often, the surprise of creative thought underlies the best science and the best art. Okay, there’s my attempt at a unification!

On a separate note, there certainly seems to be a hunger amongst the reading public for neuroscience books, despite our incomplete picture of how the brain works. For those frustrated with slow progress in research, maybe we should just go write a book.

Your Brain Is A Cartographer

The concept that the brain holds maps of the surface of the body in the primary sensory and motor cortex is a fascinating but well known fact to the field of neuroscience since the early work of Wilder Penfield. What is less broadly appreciated is the concept of “peripersonal space”. A new book by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee describes peripersonal space in the following way:

The maps that encode your physical body are connected directly, immediately, personally to a map of every point in that space and also map out your potential to perform actions in that space. Your self does not end where your flesh ends, but suffuses and blends with the world, including other beings. […] Your brain also faithfully maps the space beyond your body when you enter it using tools. Take hold of a long stick and tap it on the ground. As far as your brain is concerned, your hand now extends to the tip of that stick. […] Moreover, this annexed peripersonal space is not static, like an aura. It is elastic. […] It morphs every time you put on or take off clothes, wear skis or scuba gear, or wield any tool. […] When you eat with a knife and fork, your peripersonal space grows to envelop them. Brain cells that normally represent space no farther out than your fingertips expand their fields of awareness outward, along the length of each utensil, making them part of you.

What I appreciate about this, besides the stretchy comic book characters that it makes me think about, is that it provides a powerful perspective to begin piecing together a mass of disparate neuroscience data, which the Blakeslee’s capitalize on.

Continue reading

Book Review: The Three-Pound Enigma

Shannon Moffett, author of The Three Pound Enigma [book website; Amazon], was kind enough to send us a copy of her book to review. To be honest, when I first took a look at the book, I was pretty sure that — while it might be a great, general-neuroscience-interest book for the public — it would certainly not appeal or be informative for the specialist in our Neurodudes audience. Now, after reading her wonderful book, I realize how wrong I was.

Full review is after the jump.
Continue reading

Review: Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near

Although Bayle and I are always surprised when we see how many people are actually reading Neurodudes every day (“you really like us! you really do!”), I think we realized we had hit a new milestone when Ray Kurzweil’s book agent called to give us an advance copy of his new book. Let me be clear here: We will gladly review any AI-/neuro-related books you send us. Free books are great! (Heck, we’ll even do an occasional historical biography, if you send us one.)

There’s a lot to say about Kurzweil”s new book, The Singularity is Near (book website; book on Amazon). This book is similar to his previous books (Age of Intelligent Machines, Age of Spiritual Machines) in style and research but the thesis here is that we are on the precipice of a major change in human civilization: We are soon going to create entities of superior intelligence in all aspects to our own selves. This is the Singularity.

Full book review after the jump Continue reading