Frontiers in Neuroscience Journal

The journal, Frontiers in Neuroscience, edited by Idan Segev, has made it Volume 3, issue 1.  Launching last year at the Society for Neuroscience conference, its probably the newest Neuroscience-related journal.

I’m a fan of it because it is an open-access journal featuring a “tiered system” and more.  From their website:

The Frontiers Journal Series is not just another journal. It is a new approach to scientific publishing. As service to scientists, it is driven by researchers for researchers but it also serves the interests of the general public. Frontiers disseminates research in a tiered system that begins with original articles submitted to Specialty Journals. It evaluates research truly democratically and objectively based on the reading activity of the scientific communities and the public. And it drives the most outstanding and relevant research up to the next tier journals, the Field Journals.

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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.

Levels of analysis

Salon features an interview today with Steve Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein:

Proud atheists: Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein interview | Salon Books

After reiterating the physicalist view of the mind, the article ends with this quote from Pinker (reminiscent of Marr’s levels of analysis):

[…] But just by looking at the brain itself, will you ever be able to understand the creative mind?

PINKER: I suspect not. In fact, the reason I’m not a neurobiologist but a cognitive psychologist is that I think looking at brain tissue is often the wrong level of analysis. You have to look at a higher level of organization. For the same reason that a movie critic doesn’t focus a magnifying glass on the little microscopic pits in a DVD, even though a movie is nothing but a pattern of pits in a DVD. I think there’s a lot of insight that you’ll gain about the human mind by looking at the whole human behaving, thinking and reporting on his own consciousness. And that might be true of creativity as well. It may be that the historian, the cognitive psychologist and the biographer working together will give us more insight than someone looking at neurons and brain chemistry.

I think the analogy with the DVD is disingenuous. In the case of the DVD, we know precisely how the low-level pits are combined to form the high-level representation (the movie). The system is not mysterious. To be fair, Pinker doesn’t say that neurobiology is always the wrong level of analysis. Maybe he would have been correct 50 or 100 years ago, but I think it’s clear now that neurobiology is on the path to providing a complete synthesis (certainly, with the help of cognitive psychology) that cannot be achieved without it.

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.

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