The philosopher Alva Noe writes in the New York Times’ Opinionator on Art and the Limits of Neuroscience. It’s a piece that garnered varied reactions on the Neuroanthropology Facebook group, with its critical take on the use of neuroscience in other scholarly domains (with a focus on “neuroaesthetics”.) I quite liked it, as these sorts of critical reminders are crucial to be able to use neuroscience effectively, in measured amounts, and also to value what other fields bring on their own, either in conjunction with neuroscience or, more often, entirely on their own.
What we do know is that a healthy brain is necessary for normal mental life, and indeed, for any life at all. But of course much else is necessary for mental life. We need roughly normal bodies and a roughly normal environment. We also need the presence and availability of other people if we are to have anything like the sorts of lives that we know and value. So we really ought to say that it is the normally embodied, environmentally- and socially-situated human animal that thinks, feels, decides and is conscious. But once we say this, it would be simpler, and more accurate, to allow that it is people, not their brains, who think and feel and decide. It is people, not their brains, that make and enjoy art. You are not your brain, you are a living human being.
It is big and it is expensive, and thus exactly the right sort of gift for this time of year. And for anyone interesting in the intersection of neuroscience and society, this new edited volume from Suparna Choudhury and Jan Slaby, Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience is a must-read.
I liked this rant from Danah Boyd, Save Scholarly Ideas, Not the Publishing Industry.
What pisses me off to no end is that the same Marxist academics who pooh-pooh corporations justify their own commitment to this blood-sucking process with one word: tenure. Not like that is the end of the self-justifications. Even once scholars get tenure, they continue down the same path – even when not publishing with students – by telling themselves it’s for promotion or because grants require it or because of any other status-seeking process.
WTF? How did academia become so risk-adverse? The whole point of tenure was to protect radical thinking. But where is the radicalism in academia? I get that there are more important things to protest in the world than scholarly publishing, but why the hell aren’t academics working together to resist the corporatization and manipulation of the knowledge that they produce?
Natasha Schull is an anthropologist at MIT who is doing great ethnographic work on gambling informed by an interdisciplinary approach, including neuroanthropology. Here is a 2008 video of her discussing her research on gaming in Las Vegas, in particular how slot machines and other gambling machines are increasingly designed to extract as much money as possible from customers. She has a book coming out from Princeton in 2012 on her Las Vegas work called Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.
Greg picked this one out first, but I enjoyed it too – Maria Popova’s piece, jointly posted on The Atlantic and Brain Pickings, on ‘What It Means to Be Human’: A Historical Perspective, 1800-2011. Popova covers a broad history here, riffing off the new book by historian Joanna Bourke on, ta da, What It Means to Be Human: Historical Reflections from the 1800s to the Present. Popova writes, “Seeking an answer in the ideology of humanism, Bourke is careful to point out, is hasty and incomplete,” and then delivers this delightful quote from the book:
The humanist insistence on an autonomous, willful human subject capable of acting independently in the world was based on a very particular type of human. Human civilization had been forged in the image of the male, white, well-off, educated human. Humanism installed only some humans at the centre of the universe. It disparaged ‘the woman,’ ‘the subaltern,’ and ‘the non-European’ even more than ‘the animal.’ As a result, it is hardly surprising that many of these groups rejected the idea of a universal and straightforward essence of ‘the human,’ substituting something much more contingent, outward-facing and complex. To rephrase Simone de Beauvoir’s inspired conclusion about women, one is not born, but made, a human.
Bill Moyers: What is it about the crime scene that gives you a keyhole, the best keyhole perhaps, into how American society really works?
David Simon: You see the equivocations. You see the stuff that doesn’t make it into the civics books, and you also see how interconnected things are. How connected the performance of the school system is to the culture of a street corner. Or where parenting comes in. The decline of industry suddenly interacts with the paucity and sort of fraud of public education in the inner city. Because The Wire was not a story about America, it’s about the America that got left behind.
Bill Moyers: I was struck by something that you said. You were wrestling with this one big existential question. You talked about drug addicts who would come out of detox and then try to steel-jaw themselves through their neighborhood. And then they’d come face-to-face with the question—which is…?
David Simon: “What am I doing here?” You know, a guy coming out of addiction at thirty, thirty-five, because it often takes to that age, he often got into addiction with a string of problems, some of which were interpersonal and personal, and some of which were systemic. These really are the excess people in America. Our economy doesn’t need them—we don’t need 10 or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones who are undereducated, who have been ill-served by the inner-city school system, who have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy, we pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we’re actually including them in the American ideal, but we’re not. And they’re not foolish. They get it. They understand that the only viable economic base in their neighborhoods is this multibillion-dollar drug trade.
The Royal Society just came out with a big new study/statement piece on Neuroscience and the Law – a reasoned and reasonable piece that works against the rush to use neuroscience to declare guilt…
Stephen LeDoux writes an exacting and positive review in American Scientist, Behaviorism at 100. It’s basically a “respect piece,” to say, hey, we’ve got it, and got a lot more of it than you might think. And though I think behaviorism leaves much more out than it includes, I also find its emphasis on science and more science compelling.
During the past 100 years, disciplinary developments have led to a clarified version of behaviorism informing a basic, separate natural science of behavior. This recently emerged independent discipline not only complements other natural sciences, but also shares in solving local and global problems by showing how to discover and effectively control the variables that unlock solutions to the common behavior-related components of these problems.
This science journalism article goes well beyond the usual lite fare – UCLA neuroscientists demonstrate crucial advances in ‘brain reading’. fMRI meets machine learning? Very cool.
H. Samy Lim, a linguistic anthropologist, gives us a relevant piece, What If We Occupied Language? Or for a humorous holiday version, focused more on framing than on language, see Occupy Wall Street: A Holiday Survival Guide.
Matthew Taylor of the BBC explores Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Culture in this radio program. Brains = no conscious awareness (not “what you think”), and society powers (commerce, government) is going after that… Opens with an examination of neuromarketing vs. rational choice. Some quality journalism here, really around the idea of “does it really work?” and “how is it being put to use already?”
Finally, here’s what comes from watching afternoon television! I discovered an interesting new brother and sister duo from Mexico. Here’s the latest video from Jesse & Joy, Corre!