Neurocriminology, Meet Human Development

Fence and GateThese are two lines of research that will hopefully increasingly merge… Neurocriminologist Adrian Raine’s new book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime presents a biological approach to criminal behavior, but a biology that increasingly recognizes developmental and environmental influences even while insisting “wait, it’s the biology…”

Infant Mental Health presents human development as relational and contextual, even as its research shows how brain development and our developmental trajectories both instantiate and shape how each of us develop as a person. It’s more the theoretical flavorings and basic orientations that keep the research apart, not some fundamental difference in what the results are showing. An encompassing paradigm – of encultured brains
- can help bring these approaches into more fruitful conversations.

So first Adrian Raine’s book is reviewed in The Guardian with the deadly wrong title, How to Spot a Murderer’s Brain. Skip over the first half and its biology vs culture framing. When it gets to Raine seeing that his own brain scan looks like a pscyhopath’s, like the same people he was studying as criminals, things suddenly get much more interesting.

Raine’s biography, then, was a good corrective to the seductive idea that our biology is our fate and that a brain scan can tell us who we are. Even as he piles up evidence to show that people are not the free-thinking, rational agents they like to imagine themselves to be – entirely liberated from the limitations set by our inherited genes and our particular neuroanatomy – he never forgets that lesson. The question remains, however, that if these “biomarkers” do exist and exert an influence – and you begin to see the evidence as incontrovertible – then what should we do about them? …

Reading Raine’s account of the most recent research into these reactions, it still seems to me quite new and surprising that environmental factors change the physical structure of the brain. We tend to talk about a child’s development in terms of more esoteric ideas of mind rather than material brain structures, but the more you look at the data the clearer the evidence that abuse or neglect or poor nutrition or prenatal smoking and drinking have a real effect on whether or not those healthy neural connections – which lead to behaviour associated with maturity, self-control and empathy – are made.

And now onto the second article, DSM, NIMH on mental illness: both miss relational, historical context of being human written by Infant Mental Health specialist Claudia Gold. Dr. Gold comes at behavior and mental health problems from a different perspective…

The growing discipline of Infant Mental Health offers just such a paradigm. This discipline is characterized by four key components. First and foremost, it is relational, recognizing that humans (and that includes their genes and brains) develop in the context of caregiving relationships. Second, it is multidisciplinary. Experts in infant mental health offer different perspectives. They come from many fields, including, among many others, developmental psychology, pediatrics, nursing, and occupational therapy. Third, it encompasses research, clinical work and public policy. The field looks at mental health within the context of culture and society. And last, it is reflective, looking at the meaning of behavior, not simply the behavior itself. The ability to attribute motivations and intentions to behavior is uniquely human, and research has shown that this capacity is closely linked with mental health.

These two approaches often think they are on separate sides of the fence. But what has happened is something a bit different. Each field placed a fence, saying “We don’t go there…” But the research has increasingly nudged the fence of each approach a bit further afield, eventually crossing into the realm of the other. The disciplinary fences are still there, but they’ve pushed so far into the other’s territory that suddenly there is a whole field in between. On that fertile land new paradigms will be grown. Greg and I outlined such an approach in our 2012 paper Neuroanthropology and Its Applications: An Introduction.

Gold mentions work on Adverse Childhood Experiences, and how the ACE people have become increasingly applied in their work. I wrote about the ACE approach and applied neuroanthropology last year in the post Neuroanthropology, Applied Research, and Developing Interventions.

This approach to intervention and policy is one that recognizes context, behavior, and meaning as equally important components alongside more targeted techniques that fields like psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience have developed. We know from previous work with mental illness that in general, a pharmacological treatment and a psychotherapy treatment work better together than either one on its own.

This approach pushes that formula one step further, recognizing the anthropological dynamics of applied work and the ways we can achieve targeted effects both matter.

Category: Brain, Development, Mind, Plasticity, Society, Stress | 5 Comments

Our Inner Voices

Mulholland Our Inner VoicesA pastiche of a post, putting together ideas and research on inner voices:

-How to document the conversations we carry on with ourselves most everyday (in the West at least)
-The importance of inner voices for rebuilding our notion of mental illness
-The role hearing voices (and working with those voices) can play in therapy for schizophrenia
-What it’s like to be without such an inner voice
-The inner voices in addiction.

The post points to how we might rethink clinical practice and laboratory tests in ways that reflect better the natural history of our own voices, and the power of language in our lives. That, in turn, would lead to both conceptual reworkings and applied impact.

I find myself increasingly concerned that people continue to take interdisciplinary efforts like neuroanthropology to mean that everything must be reduced to the biology, as if that’s somehow an explanation. Well, it’s certainly a socially important one right now, but I have my doubts about its scientific validity for humans.

So this post is a reduction to language, it could be said. The overall theme is the conversation we carry on with ourselves, the voices we contain within our minds, and how that is central to how we are – and needs much more research.

I’ll start with the work of inner dialogues by anthropologist Andrew Irving, bring in a post about hearing voices and hallucinations from Ruminations on Madness, address Tanya Luhrmann’s work on schizophrenia and working with inner voices, bring back some great work by Greg on language and neuroanthropology, and then speak about how language, particularly our inner voices, matters deeply in addiction.

Andrew Irving and Documenting People’s Voices

In New York Stories, anthropologist Andrew Irving captures the inner dialogues people carry on with themselves as they walk the streets of the city. He combines visual, linguistic, and psychological anthropology together, using cameras and tape recorders to record people speaking out loud the same interior monologues we carry on with ourselves.

Irving has just been featured in a great write-up by Ferris Jabr over at Scientific American, Mrs. Dalloway in New York City: Documenting How People Talk to Themselves in Their Heads.

[Irving] approached strangers at different points in the city. “Excuse me,” he would say, “this might sound like a strange question, but can I ask you what you were thinking before I stopped you?” If the stranger did not run away, he would ask them to wear a microphone headset attached to a digital recorder and speak aloud their thoughts as he followed closely behind with a camera. He would not be able to hear what they were saying, Irving explained, and they would be free to walk wherever they liked and continue their business as usual…

Irving’s videos are permanent records of fleeting thoughts, of dynamic mental processes unfurling in real time. They give us nearly direct access to a kind of internal communication we usually do not share with one another.

Here’s one of the raw videos (you can find more here (YouTube) and here (vimeo), and the Jabr article contains some amalgamations):

Irving describes this monologue, along with two prior others, in his blogpost New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens.

Continue reading »

Category: Health, Language, Mind, Society, Variation | 15 Comments

Who’s afraid of a MOOC?: on being education-y and course-ish

On Thursday, 22 March, the then-Tertiary Education Minister of Australia, Chris Bowen, registered for my new, up-coming MOOC (that’s a Massive Online Open Classroom, if you’ve somehow managed to miss it). Apparently, he’ll be taking the course, ‘Becoming human: Anthropology,’ an introduction to human evolution. By the next morning, Bowen had resigned from the Prime Minister’s cabinet and moved to the government back bench, stepping down from his post overseeing tertiary education.

Becoming human graphicI don’t think that the two events — registration and resignation — are directly related.  Well, unless Bowen was thinking that he should register for an online course because he might have more time on his hands…

But the two are definitely metaphorically related, because the discussion of MOOCs has become a forum for debating the future of tertiary education, including a host of political, economic and technological changes: public funding for universities, digitization strategy for education, economies of scale in educational cooperation, the role of entrepreneurs and for-profit institutions, student debt burden, reduced employment in academia, the un-bundling of university degrees (or here), the concentration on student outcomes, growth of university administration, the cost of a university education

Trying to keep up with even a fraction of what is being written about MOOCs is impossible — counting snowflakes in a blizzard — but there does seem to be a pattern: virtually any and every current fear about change in tertiary education is being projected onto MOOCs. You can find a column promising that MOOCs will fix almost every problem facing academe — or make it unfathomably worse — even suggesting that MOOCs are ‘digital sharecropping’ or calling for universities to declare a hiring freeze while we re-examine our long-term strategies in light of ‘MOOC mania’.

Fortunately, because they’re so scalable, everyone with an opinion could fit into a single MOOC.

With the politics and pedagogical debates in mind, I just want to offer some initial thoughts on my own MOOC-related experience and design goals. We can’t really evaluate the outcome yet, as the MOOC still hasn’t started its inaugural run, but we can at least talk about the design and orienting principles, however nascent they may be. This reflection is liable to run into several posts as it’s already a sprawling set of documents on my hard drive.
Continue reading »

Category: Announcements, Evolution | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Advances in Cultural Neuroscience

B_SPR595_ Journal Culture and brain.inddA lot of good stuff coming out around cultural neuroscience right now. Here are the three main things up front, so people can have them. Then I’ll go over them in turn. And finally, a reflective comment at the end highlighting potential differences between cultural neuroscience and neuroanthropology.

Cultural Neuroscience special issue in Psychological Inquiry, with a target article by Joan Chiao and colleagues and commentaries by leaders in the field.

The inaugural issue of the new journal Culture and Brain, with Shihui Han serving as editor-in-chief

A 2013 Annual Review of Psychology article, A Cultural Neuroscience Approach to the Biosocial Nature of the Human Brain, also by Shihui Han and a long-list of leaders in cultural neuroscience

Cultural Neuroscience: Progress and Promise

First off, the new issue of Psychological Inquiry has a target review article “Cultural Neuroscience: Progress and Promise” by Joan Chiao, Bobby Cheon, Narun Pornpattananangkul, Alissa Mrazek & Katherine Blizinsky. Like a BBS article, it comes with a series of commentaries by leaders in the field, followed by a response from the authors. As I write this, the target article is open-access, but the commentaries are not. Here’s the link to the entire special issue.

The abstract for the Chaio et al. review:

Contemporary advances in cultural and biological sciences provide unique opportunities for the emerging field of cultural neuroscience. Research in cultural neuroscience examines how cultural and genetic diversity shape the human mind, brain, and behavior across multiple time scales: situation, ontogeny, and phylogeny.

Recent progress in cultural neuroscience provides novel theoretical frameworks for understanding the complex interaction of environmental, cultural, and genetic factors in the production of adaptive human behavior. Here, we provide a brief history of cultural neuroscience, theoretical, and methodological advances, as well as empirical evidence of the promise of and progress in the field. Implications of this research for population health disparities and public policy are discussed.

Chiao et al. review a wide range of studies, which heartily demonstrates how this field is growing rapidly. Everything from “Individualism–Collectivism and the Serotonin Transporter Gene (5-HTTLPR)” to “SES and Neural Bases of Social Cognition”.

This section comes closest to representing the core summary of cultural neuroscience provided by Chiao et al.:

Continue reading »

Category: Brain, Culture, Plasticity, Variation | 12 Comments

The Making of a Cultural Neuroscientist

My name is Liz Losin and I’m a social and cultural neuroscientist. I’m currently a postdoctoral researcher in Tor Wager’s lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I’m delighted and honored to be joining Neuroanthropology!

Here, in my first post, I’ll tell you how I came to study cultural neuroscience and give you an insider’s perspective on how the field has grown. I’ll also tell you a bit about my specific research interests and give you an idea of what I’ll be blogging about.

I started on the path towards a career in science in the 4th grade when I read Koko’s Kitten, the children’s book about Koko, the gorilla whom Dr. Penny Patterson taught to use American Sign Language. I, too, wanted to communicate with apes and find out how they thought! I had set my sights on studying primate cognition.

In middle school and high school, my journey towards a career in primatology was facilitated by information, advice and encouragement from a number of generous scientists, which I was able to parlay into my web page for other young people interested in primatology: Primatology Future Tense. I am especially grateful that these scientists were willing to engage in science outreach at a point when this had to be done by answering my emails through Gopher and sending me books in the mail rather than simply directing me to a pertinent blog. I realized my childhood dream in college when I completed an honors thesis on chimpanzee communication with Bill Hopkins at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Although I was passionate about this work, I realized that part of what led me to study apes was a curiosity about the origins of human cognition. It seemed that some of the questions that fascinated me the most, such as the mechanisms underlying complex human cultural capacities, could not be answered from studying nonhuman primates alone.

This interest in studying human culture and cognition solidified when, in a single semester, I took Joe Henrich’s Psychological Anthropology class and Jim Rilling’s Social Neuroscience class at Emory University. Psychological Anthropology opened my eyes to cultural diversity in cognition and behavior, but I was left wondering how this diversity was instantiated in the brain. In contrast, Social Neuroscience provided insights about the neural correlates of human social behavior using functional neuroimaging. I was surprised, however, that none of the studies we discussed in class, not even studies of racial perception, considered subjects’ own cultural backgrounds.

I realized that neither discipline was providing a complete picture of human behavior and its underlying mechanisms, and this realization led me to my next goal, the one I am still pursuing: to use my training in anthropology and neuroscience to study the bidirectional interactions between culture and the brain.

When discussing this career goal in my graduate school interviews 7 years ago, studying culture and the brain was practically unheard of. The reactions I got from many of the faculty in the neuroscience programs to which I applied gave me a clue as to why. They ranged from questioning the feasibility of studying such high-level questions with neuroscience methods to telling me, in as many words, that I was committing career suicide.

It was clear that in 2006, the disciplinary boundaries between the social and natural sciences were a formidable barrier to studying culture and the brain at many of the universities where I interviewed. Although many of these boundaries still exist today, the field has come a long way. We now have a journal, Culture and Brain, a conference, the International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium conference, and a summer school, The University of Michigan Center for Culture, Mind, and the Brain Summer Institute in Cultural Neuroscience (which will be in it’s 4th year this summer). In addition to a host of empirical papers, there have been a number of review articles, special issues and conference symposia devoted to cultural neuroscience. The field has a Wikipedia page, and searching for “Cultural Neuroscience” on Google yields over 21,000 hits.

As for my own growth as a cultural neuroscientist, although I did not accomplish the goal I expressed to my graduate school advisor of being the first researcher to use the term cultural neuroscience- I believe that honor goes to  Joan Chiao at the Northwestern University- I was able to find an academic home in the FPR-UCLA’s Culture, Brain and Development program and participate in the growth of this promising new field.

My dissertation research (supervised by Mirella Dapretto and Marco Iacoboni) focused on examining the neural mechanisms underlying cultural learning.

I began by considering anthropological theories about imitative biases, theories to which I was introduced to in that Psychological Anthropology class as an undergraduate. According to those theories, people’s tendencies to imitate certain kinds of individuals over others (e.g. to prefer others like them, or those high in status) would likely increase the efficiency of cultural learning. I used functional MRI to investigate a) what neural systems support these imitative biases and b) how they may differ depending on one’s own cultural background.

This work was supported, both intellectually and financially, by the FPR-UCLA Culture, Brain and Development Program (CBD). CBD is an interdisciplinary, cross-departmental program that provides students training, mentorship and funding to facilitate research that combines theory and methods from these three disciplines. I believe that such programs will be critical in advancing fields that bridge the social and biological sciences, such as cultural neuroscience, because they help students overcome what might otherwise be insurmountable disciplinary boundaries, and provide financial support for work that might be considered too risky for some traditional funding agencies.

In my postdoctoral research, I’m taking my cultural neuroscience research in two new directions that I hope will further increase the potential impacts of its findings. First, I am investigating socio-cultural influences on human health. Specifically, I am investigating how socio-cultural norms and sociocultural similarity between doctors and their patients influence pain perception and other aspects of the medical care experience. I believe that asking cultural neuroscience questions in the context of research on human health is one of the best ways to allow this work to have a direct impact on the lives of others. I also believe that this work represents an important, but mostly overlooked, aspect of human health and disease.

Second, I’m applying new multivariate statistical analysis methods, such as machine learning, to cultural neuroscience questions. Such techniques are better than traditional neuroimaging analysis methods for establishing close connections between brain and behavior. For this reason, I think these new methods will be especially useful in tackling the often thorny questions posed by cultural neuroscience.

In broader strokes, my research interests encompass the use of neuroscience methods to investigate the reciprocal interactions between social and cultural processes in the brain. I’m equally passionate about science outreach. I hope to integrate these interests and my own research experience into my blog posts here on Neuroanthropology.

Some of the areas I plan to cover are: 1) recent advances in cultural neuroscience and related fields, 2) the interaction between this work and society, including its potential applications and impacts on human health, and 3) how cultural neuroscience can inform, and learn from, research on non-human animals. I’m looking forward to being part of the Neuroanthropology community, and I encourage you to add your own thoughts to the conversation in the comments section below! Thanks!

Photo Credits:
Portrait: Neil Losin
Race Research Image: Race modulates neural activity during imitation (abstract)
Liz Demo: Cynthia Lee

Category: Announcements, Brain, Culture, Learning, Mind, Plasticity, Society, Variation | 2 Comments

Introducing Liz Losin, Cultural Neuroscientist

Greg and I are happy to welcome Liz Losin to Neuroanthropology PLOS as a contributor. Liz is a cultural neuroscientist who from the earliest days of her education has sought to bring together neuroscience and anthropology. She’s now a post-doc in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at The University of Colorado Boulder after doing her PhD at UCLA through the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program and the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development.

Liz first came to my attention through her work on science outreach, in particular the video she made on Neuroplasticity for the Society for Neuroscience 2011 Brain Awareness Video Contest.

One of Liz’s early papers, written with her Ph.D. advisors Mirella Dapretto and Marco Iacoboni, remains one of the most explicitly neuroanthropological pieces written by a neuroscientist – Culture in the mind’s mirror: how anthropology and neuroscience can inform a model of the neural substrate for cultural imitative learning (pdf). Liz is someone who takes anthropology very seriously, even as she continues to develop outstanding expertise and breadth of knowledge within neuroscience.

Look for plenty of good stuff coming from Liz. She has an introductory post which should be up soon, and then plans to blog on cultural neuroscience, the impact of neuroscience on society and health (and vice versa), monkeys and apes and humans (a long-standing interest of hers, dating back to her undergraduate work on ape learning and communication), and more.

Category: Announcements | Comments Off

Andreas Roepstorff on Neuroanthropology

Andreas Roepstorff is one of the leaders of neuroanthropology. A professor in both anthropology and integrative neuroscience at Aarhus, Roepstorff is co-director of the MINDLab there.

MINDLab is based on fruitful collaborations among leading research groups across Faculties and Institutes at Aarhus University… addressing central scientific problems within culture, music, language and memory. Combining this knowledge with research on novel technologies to examine the living brain, and on the most devastating neurological and psychiatric disorders, we hope to create new means to preserve and recover function and quality-of-life in relation to diseases accounting for 35% of the disease burden in Denmark. MINDLab will also develop new forms of teaching and sharing of knowledge, exploiting crucial synergies across traditional disciplines.

LEVYNA – the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion – has posted an interview with Roepstorff where he discusses his synthetic work in neuroanthropology.

It’s a real pleasure to hear Roepstorff, as I’ve never met him in person. Big hat-tip to Micah Allen for bringing the video to my attention.

If you want more from Roepstorff, you can access a list of all his publications here. One of the best overviews of his approach to neuroanthropology is the paper co-authored with Jörg Niewöhnerc and Stefan Beck, Enculturing brains through patterned practices (pdf available here).

LEVYNA also features a series of interviews with other great scholars, including Harvey Whitehouse and Paulo Sousa.

Category: Brain, Culture | Leave a comment

X-Labs: Science Communication Meets A Rock Concert

A fire tornado! Tesla coils playing music! Exploding microwaves! That’s the X-Labs at the University of South Florida, a student initiative to promote science and engineering.

Take stage production, add in social media skills, and apply that to science. That’s what the X-Labs delivered at the USF’s 41st Engineering EXPO last weekend. I went to the Expo with my ten-year old son, and we had a blast seeing all the great projects geared towards kids and adults alike. The X-Labs show was our grand finale.

Smoke rings and candy liberally doused the audience even before the event began, all part of getting the audience geared up. Then the show started, with a robot playing drums, music and fire mixed together to show sound waves, and spinning chicken wire to create a flaming spiral. That one was entrancing! The photo above doesn’t do it justice. It was like the best souped-up campfire ever.

Then came the video of the thermite explosion – yes, just a video, not a live demonstration.

And finally the music-playing Tesla coils. Followed afterwards by a Q & A about each of the demonstrations, which really got into the science and engineering behind each project. It was definitely one of the most innovative science communication projects I’ve seen. Makes a blog seem all fuddy-duddy. Obviously my ten-year-old loved it!

The Mario video doesn’t quite do justice to the final live demonstration, where they had two coils in action!

But you can see the two of them in action, and get a sense of the show itself, in this video of the 2012 X-Labs Engineering Expo production.

Link to USF Engineering Expo, and a story on the 20,000 parents and children who attended it

Link to USF X-Labs webpage

X-Labs on Facebook

X-Labs on YouTube

Category: Fun | 5 Comments

Funny Depictions of Reactions to Peer Review

Today I was speaking with my graduate students on the basic format of a peer-reviewed paper, and how following that format will help with the inevitable criticisms that come from peer review. I immediately recalled a very funny animation of how grad students, post-docs, and assistant professors react to negative reviews that I saw awhile back.

Thanks to Matt Craddock, I was able to track it down for my students – and now for you! It’s over on the great Research in Progress Tumblr. This particular post is called We regret to inform you that your paper has not been accepted.

And, yes, that’s the grad student reaction in my opening image. Go over to “we regret to inform you” for all three animated reactions. Really priceless.

But, wait, there are more!

Elizabeth Quinn highlighted a very amusing depiction of the different types of peer reviewers using a Team Fortress 2 video game theme. As someone who has played this game, I immediately liked it. Here’s just one image with the accompanying quote from Peer Fortress: The Scientific Battlefield.


Reviews from Pyros need to be held in oven mitts.

Your topic is out of scope.

Your writing is terrible.

Your problem is not worth solving.

Your idea sucks.

Your solution doesn’t work.

Your theory is broken.

Your experiments are hopelessly flawed.

Plus, you’re duplicating the classic result from [Smith and Jones, 1955].

In searching some on my own for the handling of peer review, I came across one that uses the internet meme of Downfall – Hitler Reacts. The way the meme works is to take a climatic scene from the film Der Untergang on Hitler’s final days and use the sub-titles to create the parody.

So here’s Scientific Peer Review, ca. 1945:

As if that isn’t enough, there is actually one journal out there brave enough to publish annual highlights of the funny, absurd, and over-the-top things that reviewers actually say in their comments.

Environmental Microbiology features an annual Referees’ Quotes (sadly, I couldn’t find one for 2012!). So here’s Referees’ Quotes – 2011. And some choice quotes:

Our referees, the Editorial Board Members and ad hoc reviewers, are busy, serious individuals who give selflessly of their precious time to improve manuscripts submitted to Environmental Microbiology. But, once in a while, their humour (or admiration) gets the better of them. Here are some quotes from reviews made over the past year, just in time for the Season of Goodwill and Merriment.

• I do not understand why the co-authors of this manuscript have allowed their names to be in the author list.

• It is rare when a reviewer receives a genuinely flawless manuscript to review on an interesting new topic, but the ms by X clearly fits the bill.

• As in many other examples, producing a big dataset of pyrosequencing data does not make a good story. Sometimes I wonder if the ‘wonderful’ old times of serious analysis of 16S rDNA data are over. I am afraid that I am starting to show worrying signs of ageing . . .

• The authors have taken on board my comments from the previous submission of this study. I can only imagine that the previous submission was a pre-submission draft that was accidentally submitted. Or I might just be being nice for once.

Category: Fun | 2 Comments

Cornelia Bargmann and the Building Blocks of Behavior

Cornelia Bargmann, professor of neuroscience at Rockefeller University, has done decades of work on the C. elegans nematode to understand the links between genetics, the molecular functions of neural circuits, and behavior. Bargmann and her work have received quite a nice write-up in Nature with the open-access piece Neuroscience: As the worm turns.

I urge you to read all of it, but here’s the piece later in “As the Worm Turns” that caught my eye:

Bargmann suspects that this broad picture of nervous-system organization sends a counter-intuitive message about the evolution of behaviour: that the sensory apparatus in each species is evolving rapidly and is highly divergent, creating a different set of behavioural cues and responses for different animals, whereas the overarching behavioural coordination exerted by neuropeptides remains largely evolutionarily conserved. “This is not the way we [usually] think of things in neuroscience,” says Bargmann. “We always think the simplest part will be the sensory part, and maybe that will be the most conserved part. But in fact the sensory periphery is crazy unconserved between different animals.”

Bargmann views neuropeptides like oxytocin and vasopressin as doing fundamental organizational and regulatory work in the nervous system, in particular bringing together coordinated behaviors. Just as Hox genes help organize development, so too these genes, and their accompanying peptides, help to organize basic behaviors related to survival and reproduction.

The Nature article relates this view to Bargmann’s work on reproduction in C. elegans.

Other research groups had defined, in exquisite detail, the series of discrete behavioural steps that male worms have to complete to succeed in mating (searching for a mate, contact, reverse turns, prodding for the vulva, insertion of spicule, transfer of sperm) as well as the motor neurons and muscles that rapidly fire and contract to drive these steps. But when Bargmann and her team analysed how the absence of nematocin affected each of these steps, they realized that each one remained intact.

“It’s not that he can’t turn. It’s not that he can’t do the backing movement. It’s not that he can’t transfer sperm. It’s that he doesn’t know when to do them,” she says. The neuropeptide, in essence, had a “global organizing role” and gave reproductive behaviour a forward drive. “There’s something that’s a much slower input that says something more like ‘continue’ or ‘move forwards’, sort of providing momentum that’s superimposed on it. So the nervous system is doing both fast and slow information processing, in parallel, to drive the behaviour.”

In other words, the pieces of the puzzles don’t “naturally” fit together; rather, that depends on mechanisms that help organize the pieces into a more robust and coordinated behavior.

Bargmann expounds at much greater length on this aspect of her work in this 2012 talk at the Allen Institute for Brain Science Symposium on “Open Questions in Neuroscience.”

I am struck by the parallels of analysis to Paul Griffiths’ examination of emotion, particularly evolutionary explanations of emotions, in the book What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories (Science and Its Conceptual Foundations series). Griffiths discusses work by Paul Ekman and others on cross-cultural similarities in the expression of certain basic emotions, making a distinction similar to to Bargmann between “sign stimuli” and “releasing mechanisms” that she draws from classic studies in ethology. Griffiths writes:

The input side of a response is the stimuli that cause it. The output side is the response itself – the organism’s behavior. All the experiments I have discussed deal with the output side of emotion. The experiments of Ekman and others show that people in all cultures respond in a similar way to things that frighten them. They do not show that people in all cultures are frightened of the same things. It is an entirely separate question whether the input side of emotion can be explained in evolutionary terms (55).

In other words, Griffiths is arguing that for basic affects (and not more cognitively mediated emotions), there can be relatively stereotypical emotional expressions, as revealed by work by Ekman and others. For a recent review by Ekman, see this 2011 paper, What Is Meant by Calling Emotions Basic; for a really fascinating study, using more advanced experimental methods (with a reductive East vs. West contrast), see this 2012 paper, Facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal.

In his analysis of emotion, Griffiths is highlighting that the stimuli/sensory side is where a lot of the action happens, whereas on the mechanistic/reactive side, we have some deeply conserved reactions. These can form some of the basic building blocks of emotions, even if cognitively-mediated emotions get reworked. Here I would return to Bargmann’s idea, that once again there are mechanisms that bring all the different elements together, and make new and novel things happen in a coordinated fashion. For two articles that reflects on that, see A functional architecture of the human brain: emerging insights from the science of emotion (2012) and Human Emotions: Universal or Culture-Specific? (2009).

Final thought for the day – and one that I find quite intriguing: Cultures can be conceived as extended sensory systems, in the way that Bargmann describes and where Greg has done foundational work. Cultures have quite a tremendous diversity, even within particular societies. Our systems of symbols, our human sensory periphery, is “crazy unconserved”, as shown quite well in the book Culture and the Senses. Culture gains traction through how it intersects with embodied nervous systems, which have some of their own organizing effects.

Culture as sensory systems, and how that can radically change the sensory inputs that the encultured brain receives.


Photo credit: Cornelia Bargmann. I found the original here.

Nature News: Neuroscience: As the worm turns

Link to the Bargmann Lab. You can access a lot of her papers there.

Category: Brain, Mind, Perception, Plasticity | 2 Comments