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Signatures of Consciousness
December 4, 2009 3:08 PM   Subscribe

12 years in the making, a good working hypothesis about the nature of conciousness.
"For the past twelve years my research team has been using all the brain research tools at its disposal, from functional MRI to electro- and magneto-encephalography and even electrodes inserted deep in the human brain, to shed light on the brain mechanisms of consciousness.

I am now happy to report that we have acquired a good working hypothesis. In experiment after experiment, we have seen the same signatures of consciousness: physiological markers that all, simultaneously, show a massive change when a person reports becoming aware of a piece of information (say a word, a digit or a sound)." - Stanislas Dehaene
posted by AceRock (72 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hmm. Would be interesting if every bit of data had a unique physiological effect on the brain. Maybe in the future we could microwave our brains to study.
posted by Wanderlust88 at 3:14 PM on December 4, 2009


well, I was able to read and comprehend that entire thing.
posted by shmegegge at 3:19 PM on December 4, 2009


For my money, this is the single most important scientific question of our times. Man, I wish I had gotten in on this stuff back in grad school. I might still give it a try...
posted by mr_roboto at 3:27 PM on December 4, 2009


That's a bit of a mess there. It seems that cognition and consciousness are now seen as the same animal?
posted by Burhanistan at 3:29 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]



Who are these people? And what the fuck are they doing in that hotel?
posted by bukharin at 3:35 PM on December 4, 2009 [5 favorites]


"My research addresses only the most simple meaning of consciousness. . .
Tonight I only want to talk about the simpler and addressable problem of what we call "access to consciousness". At all times the brain is constantly bombarded with stimulation— and yet, we are only conscious of a very small part of it. . . . In brief, there is a basic distinction between all the stimuli that enter the nervous system, and the much smaller set of stimuli that actually make it into our conscious awareness. That is the simple distinction that we are trying to capture in our experiments
."

So, saying he's explaining "the nature of consciousness" with no qualification is just a bit of an overstatement don't you think?
posted by oddman at 3:36 PM on December 4, 2009


I gather that it's the launch party for Edge's new cologne.
posted by Iridic at 3:37 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the money sentence is really the next one

We have a theory about why these signatures occur, called the global neuronal workspace theory. Realistic computer simulations of neurons reproduce our main experimental findings: when the information processed exceeds a threshold for large-scale communication across many brain areas, the network ignites into a large-scale synchronous state, and all our signatures suddenly appear.

Interesting, although this report is pretty vague.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:40 PM on December 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


Maybe in the future we could microwave our brains to study.

Why wait? I'm going to go try it nowawefaklasjdflaskdjflaskdjflaksdjf;askldjf;asldhvg
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:45 PM on December 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


Doesn't this fool know that consciousness is the product of the soul and that the purpose of the brain is to
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:47 PM on December 4, 2009


This question is, of course, which mental structures relate to conscious experience. Correlation, not causation.
posted by mek at 3:52 PM on December 4, 2009


Many neuroscientists would argue that he's just studying attention. His conclusions aren't nearly as ironclad as he makes them sound. Essentially, he reports that the conscious knowledge of some feature in the environment is associated with activity in the prefrontal cortex as well as increased activation in some of the earlier sensory areas. So first off, everything here is interconnected and given that the conscious/unconscious divergence doesn't occur until 300 ms after some event that is plenty time for the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to send reinforcing signals to the earlier sensory systems. This is called attention by pretty much everybody else.

Concerning the other activation, the difference in activation in PFC between conscious and unconscious awareness of an event, my prior is that yes, it's also just attention. I mean the guy is literally claiming that he's not studying consciousness, he's studying awareness of things in our environment.

Hello? That's attention. Nothing new to see here folks, move along.
posted by scrutiny at 4:10 PM on December 4, 2009 [9 favorites]


Agree with scrutiny. If you define "consciousness" narrowly, it's easy to "explain" it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:44 PM on December 4, 2009


"So how do we experiment with consciousness? For a long time, I thought that there was no point in asking this question, because we simply could not address it."

Wrong. My senior thesis was on the potential to study loci of consciousness by comparing brain images of minds that were dreaming against the same brains dreaming lucidly. People always write lucidity off as a curiousity.

Hurry up, grad schools. Looks like you're going to need to accept me (and provide funding) fast, or this guy is going to beat you to it.
posted by Eideteker at 4:47 PM on December 4, 2009 [4 favorites]


I gather that it's the launch party for Edge's new cologne.

If Edge launched a fragrance, it would be called "Snotte."

Heh, "launch a fragrance."
posted by peppito at 5:00 PM on December 4, 2009


This idea is relatively simple, and it is not far from the one that Daniel Dennett proposed when he said that consciousness is "fame in the brain". What I propose is that "consciousness is global information in the brain" — information which is shared across different brain areas. I am putting it very strongly, as "consciousness is", because I literally think that's all there is. What we mean by being conscious of a certain piece of information is that it has reached a level of processing in the brain where it can be shared.

tl;dr: It's like what Dan Dennet said.
posted by Avelwood at 5:10 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Consciousness:
That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality: it reads the summary and it sees the hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other.
-Peter Watts, Blindsight
posted by Lemurrhea at 5:24 PM on December 4, 2009 [10 favorites]


study loci of consciousness by comparing brain images of minds that were dreaming against the same brains dreaming lucidly

Well, there's two kinds of problems here. First, it seems that when dreaming in REM, your cortex basically goes through the same basic cycles as it does when it's awake - at least for the more basic visual areas. This on research group put voltage-sensitive dye in cortex and then observed network characteristics while animals were asleep or dreaming and found very similar network activity across the conditions.

The other problem is the curse of dimensionality. Typically when scanning the brain, you divide into a whole bunch of 3mm x 3mm x 3mm cubes called voxels. Within each voxel there are hundreds of thousands of individual neurons, so the specificity isn't that great to begin with. On top of that, there are thousands of voxels in the brain, and if you try to simply look for a difference from a lucid dreaming state to a REM or deep sleep state, you may approach a .001 or even .0001 significance at some voxels, but let me be quick to say that some of those voxels will exist outside of the skull i.e., they'll be just noise. Oftentimes people will look for cluster effects, but even then the scope of the experiment you've described is far too broad to get any traction out of it...

Not that I'm trying to dissuade you from pursuing graduate study! There is a ton of stuff trying to get at the function of sleep and it's similarity to the awake state.
posted by scrutiny at 5:26 PM on December 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


Blindsight is indeed a fun read.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:43 PM on December 4, 2009


Seconding scrutiny; this dude is way overstating his case.

Heh, there's this model where small areas of the brain can be mapped that are associated with forelimb and hindlimb movement in mice. There're pretty distinct, and the goal was to figure out how it remaps after an experimental lesion to mimic a stroke. Interestingly, when you look at the whole brain using high resolution (temporal and spatial) calcium imaging (there are dyes that fluoresce when the calcium concentration in a bunch of cells increase; a very reliable marker of cells firing), when you stimulate, say, a forlimb, the forlimb motor area lights up, then the calcium waves spreads around the brain and the contralateral (other side) forlimb motor area then lights up even if you don't stimulate the other forlimb.

Sorry, long story, the short of it is, when looking at recovery after a stroke in a model where the mouse is 'asked' to grasp food with the paw who's associated motor area was lesioned this model should work, right?

Wrong. It turns out that in an unanesthetized animal, the calcium waves corresponded perfectly to whether the mouse was chewing or not.

Whole brain synchronized activity based entirely on whether the mouse was chewing or not. Stop chewing, waves stop. Doh!
posted by porpoise at 6:18 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, right. fMRI sez dead salmon show emotions.

fMRI is a great tool, when used appropriately and the results assessed knowing the limitations of the technology and the human manipulation between the raw data and the pretty pictures/movies/graphs
posted by porpoise at 6:21 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always knew the riddle of consciousness would be solved in a swank Paris hotel.

Also, what the small cetacean of the family Phocoenidae said.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 6:33 PM on December 4, 2009


I have to say, I really love that salmon story.

Who knew dead fish were so sensitive?
posted by scrutiny at 6:41 PM on December 4, 2009


Who are these people? And what the fuck are they doing in that hotel?

It's obvious. They're planning the domination of the human race.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:56 PM on December 4, 2009


The fact that they presented the theory in a Parisian hotel "to a group of Parisian scientists and thinkers" definitely gives it more credibility, n'est pas?

We all know that Paris is still the intellectual epicenter of the world.
posted by jayder at 7:08 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


jayder: fwiw, it looks like at least seven of the sixteen participants listed are not French, and furthermore the link also quotes four well-known American theorists (two of whom are critical) concerning Dehaene's research. It was also organized by an American (Brockman at edge). So it was hardly just a Gallic thing.

On a related note, Paris is host to the prestigious Jean Nicod Award Lectures in Philosophy of Mind, most of which have been given to/by Americans. Ever since the famous Piaget/Chomsky debates, Paris has been known in cognitive psychology and related fields as one of many fertile places for research of this kind.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 7:36 PM on December 4, 2009


I define "motherhood" as "the capacity to like babies". Thus, when a person moves toward a baby, I call that person "a mother". My research shows that not only is motherhood much more tractable to evolving research paradigms, but there are far more mothers in the world than we once thought possible. This radical new paradigm is going to surprise a lot of people.
posted by macross city flaneur at 7:55 PM on December 4, 2009 [4 favorites]


To wit, neuroscience is the phrenology of our age: a charlatanism so stark and white hot that it simply dizzies the mind. I know it dizzies the mind because I saw it show up in an MRI.
posted by macross city flaneur at 7:59 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


neuroscience is the phrenology of our age

Yes, attempting to discern the relationship between cognition and the brain through empirical research and scientific debate is the same as making shit up and declaring it so.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:04 PM on December 4, 2009 [11 favorites]


neuroscience is the phrenology of our age: a charlatanism

You don't really believe this do you? I mean I hope not, b/c it's just a really dumb, nonsensical thing to say. I assume you realize that working neuroscientists/neurologists have to have MD's, and that applied brain research, which is doing amazing things (such as helping people with paralysis communicate through their brains), mostly bypasses, for empirical purposes, the question of defining consciousness per se?
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:08 PM on December 4, 2009


Let's redirect with some applied neuroscience research.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:12 PM on December 4, 2009


neuroscience is the phrenology of our age

I'll admit that there have been some phrenologists masquerading as neuroscientists, but that is no reason to dismiss the entire practice of studying the brain out of hand. A lot of neuroscientists are coming out of cellular and molecular biology or psychology - places where high level statistics and advanced quantitative analysis simply aren't the norm. They've been given a new technique and they misuse it. Yes, a lot of the first papers published with MRI in the first decade were more or less "Look, it's the brain! You do shit and it lights up!", but it has come a long way from that point. We're now we're able to localize specific sections we were unable to hit before, we've developed far more accurate analytical tools, and we've even started mapping functional connectivity in the brain. I mean, things work and they are pretty awesome.

It's a far cry from measuring the bumps on your head.
posted by scrutiny at 8:27 PM on December 4, 2009


neuroscience is the phrenology of our age

No. That is not the case.

Neuroscience is of such complexity that popular media presents it very very poorly.

And popular media does such a good hack job of making something complicated seem even more complicated because they don't understand the science.

I'm going to do a bad thing a link to a friend.

scrutiny sounds like someone who's knowledgeable and less 'given up on correcting societal wrongs' than I,' but tell us/ask us questions and we'll (or at least I will [try]) to answer them.

There's this big problem about science reporting in that a large % of readership doesn't have the background to fully appreciate the conclusions to most things being reported. It's a general education issue; to compound it, there's a lot of misinformation that messes people up.

I think that most people are able to understand the experimental design and understand/interpret the outcomes except for that the journalists' editorialization.
posted by porpoise at 8:45 PM on December 4, 2009


Neuroscience is of such complexity that popular media presents it very very poorly.

That may be true, but clearly even a non-neuroscientist can gather enough information to know that the research is advanced (i.e. is not phrenology). After all, startling advances in the brain sciences are happening all the time, and whether or not all the current research pans out, the field is far too diverse and medically sophisticated to be dismissed out of hand.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:50 PM on December 4, 2009


"Many neuroscientists would argue that he's just studying attention. His conclusions aren't nearly as ironclad as he makes them sound. Essentially, he reports that the conscious knowledge of some feature in the environment is associated with activity in the prefrontal cortex as well as increased activation in some of the earlier sensory areas."

The entire problem with classifying it that way though is that when BALL!?

...


...


*pants*
posted by Smedleyman at 8:58 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think this guy is saying "consciousness" and talking about "attention". I'm a clinical guy, not a cognitive or neuro guy, but I swear the man is describing attention. Anyone else think so?
posted by PsychoTherapist at 9:00 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


To wit, neuroscience is the phrenology of our age: a charlatanism so stark and white hot that it simply dizzies the mind. I know it dizzies the mind because I saw it show up in an MRI.
posted by macross city flaneur at 12:59 PM on December 5



And mathematics is the new i ching.

Ah, good old anti-intellectualism.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:18 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm going to do a bad thing a link to a friend.

Actually, we welcome linking to yourself and to friends in comments, as long as we don't get the impression that you aren't just here to do that. It's the front-page where linking to yourself and things that you're close to is frowned upon.

The moooore you knooooowwww
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:21 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


For all the people saying that he is simply talking about "attention", my take on some of the experiments he describes (and it's a shame they don't link in the article to those various studies) are that the subjects are being asked to pay attention to the best of their ability, but there is a threshold over which they not only are able to describe what they've seen, their brains also have the P3 (or P300) wave accompanying that distinct change in "ability to now describe something that their brains were able to detect". This appears to be different than "attention".

It's his theory that '"consciousness" generally' is somewhere on the same continuum as this single component of brain activity, but I don't think it is misleading to describe this component as reflecting one aspect of "consciousness" as opposed to any other brain activity.

Where and to whom this talk was given is irrelevant but for the interesting reactions/opinions (especially Hoffman's), though if the medium causes people to disregard the content, that would be unfortunate, IMO.
posted by birdsquared at 11:31 PM on December 4, 2009


Hmm. So what's the bright line between consciousness, and attention?

(If you have a reply, stop, recognize the meaning of the phrase 'unconsciously realized he was in trouble, and began reacting', and then retry.)
posted by effugas at 1:57 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think this guy is saying "consciousness" and talking about "attention". I'm a clinical guy, not a cognitive or neuro guy, but I swear the man is describing attention. Anyone else think so?

I am both a cognitive and a neuro guy, of the developmental social variety to be specific, and I would have to say that's a bit of a gross oversimplification. The debate about the relationship between consciousness and attention is by no means a new one, but I personally am firmly convinced that attention can occur in the absence of consciousness. For example, few would debate that masked stimuli are attended to, but you would be hard pressed to find a subject who could report consciously perceiving them (though, of course, the 50ms mentioned in the article is by no means some sort of hard and fast rule that can be applied across the board.

Some of Michael Posner's ecent meditation research has also served to liven the debate by suggesting that consciousness can occur without attention. There are a lot of brilliant folks on both sides of the proverbial fence (though a better analogy, perhaps, would be "at a wide variety of locations in and around the moat.")

You'd be hard pressed to find a neuroscientist who could give you a really concrete opinion about what exactly it is that constitutes attention anyway though.

Hmm. So what's the bright line between consciousness, and attention?

I think one thing that almost everyone who is deeply concerned with the matter can agree on is that if there is in fact a line separating consciousness and attention, it sure as shit ain't a bright one. Moreover, to suggest that there is some sort of all or none "line" that differentiates conscious and non-consious processes is in and of itself indicative that the spectral nature of such higher order phenomena is lost on the vast majority of the population

Thank you much for the excellent post!
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:40 AM on December 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


I have to say, I really love that salmon story. Who knew dead fish were so sensitive?

Everyone who's worth a fraction of a damn in the fMRI world knows full well (and has for some time) that failing to correct for multiple comparisons is exactly the kind of slack ass, ignorant, bandwagon-jumping "ooh I'm studying the brain look at me" bullshit that leads to the sorts of pejorative phrenological associations that plague real neuroscientists every day of our lives.

Imagers who do not correct for multiple comparisons have a special place in hell reserved for them, one circle about ticket scalpers.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:58 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


failing to correct for multiple comparisons is exactly the kind of slack ass, ignorant, bandwagon-jumping "ooh I'm studying the brain look at me" bullshit that leads to the sorts of pejorative phrenological associations that plague real neuroscientists every day of our lives

Yes. Oh God yes.
posted by scrutiny at 4:39 AM on December 5, 2009


In the past, the major problem was that people barely looked at the brain and tried to generate theories of consciousness from the top, based solely on their intuitions. Excellent physicists, for instance tried to tell us that the brain is a quantum computer, and that consciousness will only be understood once we understand quantum computing and quantum gravity. Well, we can discuss that later, but as far as I can see, it's completely irrelevant to understanding consciousness in the brain. One of the reasons is that the temperature at which the brain operates is incompatible with quantum computing.

Yeah. I hate it when people bring up this "quantum computing" nonsense when talking about the brain, usually in the context of trying to explain why a computer could never be 'conscious', since it's not 'quantum'. Never mind that, obviously, some day we may have quantum computers, but it's highly unlikely that the brain is doing any kind of quantum computing at all.
posted by delmoi at 5:03 AM on December 5, 2009


their brains also have the P3 (or P300) wave accompanying that distinct change in "ability to now describe something that their brains were able to detect". This appears to be different than "attention"

Yes and no. I mean, the people who are huge proponents of attention tend to throw any sort of awareness related activation or focusing of signal underneath the umbrella of attention. I'm not a huge proponent of this as it may lead to gross generalizations that mask the more interesting parts of the data, but I'm not sure that's the case here.

I am interested in the sort of ballistic processes he describes, where you set up the network to interpret a string of characters and if you throw up a different string of characters while this is going on the new characters will be unintelligible. However, this doesn't seem to be consciousness per se either. It's more like the brain simply cannot stop the process it's already working on to assimilate this new thing. In the natural world this isn't be a problem since you are never required to process the meaning of a word in under 100 ms. Saying that has to do with consciousness is like saying the property of your eyes where they don't detect changes in the environment during saccades is also a separation between consciousness and unconsciousness. While technically true, I don't think it actually sheds light on the problem of what goes on in the brain when you become aware of an object.

Regarding the P3 wave, I am leary of calling it some sort of awareness signal, but I do see your point. However, and this is the insidious bit about attention, it is still more parsimonious to label this as a signal for attention. How were these stimuli shown? Were they abrupt-onset? Detectable changes in the environment automatically grab our attention as soon as we can perceive them. It is almost impossible to become consciously aware of something novel in the environment without attending to it.

Of course, without a real solid definition of what we mean by consciousness and attention, all of this is really semantics. We've been having a huge argument in the lab about what is meant by 'self control'. Everyone seems to have an intuitive understanding, but when you actually try to define what makes it different from, say discounted values over time, it becomes very hard to find evidence of it that isn't better explained by other theories. I feel like the same thing is going on here.
posted by scrutiny at 5:12 AM on December 5, 2009


Sorry to be so long in posting back here.

First of all, I should say that I apologize for being trolly and provocative. I don't think all neuroscience is bunk, but I do think that its weakest moments comes when it proceeds as an attempt to map terminology that is as variously defined colloquially - even "internal" phenomena - as "consciousness".

Dehaene sees this disagreement as an obstacle to research, and it most certainly is one - so great an obstacle that pursuing it as a research goal is probably wrong-headed. He would have been better served by developing his own terminology or proceeding much more modestly to identify a much smaller range of phenomena. One day in the distant future, a large body of such work might, just might, be mappable to that colloquial term. But as a starting point, "consciousness" sucks.

One thing about a phenomenon like "motion", as fraught as even it is as a term (Zeno of Elea, you are still with us), is that it is fairly straightforward to give a definition that immediately provokes wide agreement. Alteration of position in space, etc. And as people have noted here, neuroscience complicates even notions like "attention" that are much more straightforward to define than consciousness. Seemingly simple things become complex in the context of the brain - so starting with complex things magnifies this problem exponentionally unto nonsense. As the field marches on - and I think the current body of research already bears this out - it will move away from colloquial terminology and develop a vocabulary of its own that is far less fraught.

A basic problem of neuroscience, is that the crudeness of the means we have of studying the brain is a total mismatch for the claims that researchers most want to make - to get funding, attention from the public, etc. It's harder to make a career saying "this is a vast domain of inquiry, and I will likely only scratch the surface over the next 40 years of my career" than it is to say "after 12 years, we can see consciousness through encephalography". This pressure results in huge leaps from neuroscientists, and Dehaene is not alone - e.g. defining the "emotion" of "disgust" as equivalent to the physiological feeling of nausea (Rizzolatti et al, 2004). This makes the research more tractable but makes the relationship to the original intentions of the work harder to trace. So then why not just study the much narrower domain of "nausea" in the first place, declare your highly physiological orientation to the body from the outset, etc.

Because you don't make a reputation by studying the cognition of vomiting. Unfortunately, the cognition of vomiting is about what we can usefully study right now.
posted by macross city flaneur at 5:58 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dehaene's work seems to me to be interesting, not because it tells us anything about our preconceived notions of consciousness or attention, but precisely because it helps us to refine our language in discussing such notions. Both terms are in sore need of unpacking, dismemberment, and refinement. Pulling back a little, and avoiding the traps that come with both problematic terms, what is being studied here are brain states and dynamics that are reliably associated with the ability to report on experience. It does not further our understanding to suggest that there are two things, consciousness and attention, and that Dehaene is studying one or the other.
posted by fcummins at 6:26 AM on December 5, 2009


That said, Dehaene's use of language is typical of neuroscience and somewhat annoying. When he says:
We can see a lot of cortical activation created by a subliminal word. It enters the visual parts of the cortex, and travels through the visual areas of the ventral face of the brain.
the reader is misled to think of the stimulus as being passed around, transformed, and operated upon in the brain. This is a classical Cartesian mistake.

If I have a basin of water, and I tap the side, waves propagate through the basin, but my tap is not propagating, and there is an important distinction between the wave pattern and the tap. Yet neuroscientists talk as if stimuli were being passed around in the brain. An important insight of the enactive tradition (vide Francesco Varela, Humberto Maturana, Evan Thompson) is to clearly separate between the tap and the waves, or between a perturbation to the dynamics of the organism and the effect of that perturbation.
posted by fcummins at 6:36 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


First of all, I should say that I apologize for being trolly and provocative.

Not exactly an endearing apology, all told. Are you sure it's Dehaene (and the rest of the entire neuroscience field flopping around in the tar from your ample brush) who's misleading?

You aren't dealing with any of his claims at all; instead, you attack an entire (well established, reputable, non-pseudo-) field of study and then, when forced to back off a little, set up a nice straw man analogy with whom to starwarskid joust.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:42 AM on December 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


the cognition of vomiting is about what we can usefully study right now.

Another absurd, unsubstantiated, and intellectually dishonest rhetorical flourish.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:07 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


the cognition of vomiting is about what we can usefully study right now.

Could you tell me how vomiting is a remotely cognitive process? Perception of the urge to vomit could be regarded as such, but the actual vomit reflex? I seriously doubt it. Awareness of the vomit sensation, however, seems pretty closely tied to disgust to me. If the same neural networks are involved in perceiving or engaging in disgust and perceiving or engaging in vomiting, I don't see how that is not a worthwhile course of action.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:45 AM on December 5, 2009


Come now, Macross CF, we know that because you have a smidgen of doubt about pop neuroscience you're a pinko continental pomo/crypto-Christian intent on defending the soul, denying global warming and bringing The Handmaid's Tale to pass (or destroying civilization in a cloud of Gitane-smoke tainted librul-arts Luddism), so everyone else is right to patronizingly dismiss you instead of arguing the point or anything.

So just shut it! It's not as if grandiose claims like this could affect our freedoms or anything!
posted by mobunited at 12:40 PM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


The basic amino acids are a natural consequence of the mathematical laws of chemistry and are an inevitability in this particular universe. You just can not have this particular periodic table of the elements, in the quantities more or less found through-out the universe, with the energy kick of a big bang, and not end up with life. Mathematically improbable and, in the infinity of time and space, impossible. Those atoms want to hook up that way.

Consciousness is the equation behind it all. From the most primary binary consciousness of amino acids to the complexity of the human brain, which models our external world through quantum effects created through electro-chemical mechanisms in a dense neural cellular network. Our next step should be to connect our brains through instant communications and social media, so that we may develop a higher consciousness of the need to ensure that the most-likely long-term successful continuation of ours species DNA is given the highest priority.

It's a mean universe out there. Life is inevitable, but permanent advanced consciousness is not. If we don't get our shit together, we stand a very good chance of letting the human species go extinct by inevitable global disaster — whether that be caused by a rogue asteroid, the big freeze, an over-achieving virus or prion, or thermonuclear war.

Anyhoo, point is that absurd, unsubstantiated, and intellectually dishonest rhetoric is a dime a dozen. IMO we're likely to find that life and consciousness are fundamental laws of the universe: it's just how it works, omgwtfbbq!

tl;dr; Life is inevitable and humans have to gtfo this little planet before we're wiped out. Big words and silly ideas are fluff.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:24 PM on December 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


wat
posted by Burhanistan at 2:32 PM on December 5, 2009


Didn't I hit the mark? Absurd, unsubstantiated etcetera PFA?
posted by five fresh fish at 3:02 PM on December 5, 2009


Phew. I thought you were sincere there.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:06 PM on December 5, 2009


To be fair, it is the most cogent explanation I've yet heard.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:54 PM on December 5, 2009


starwarskid joust

I thought starwarskid jousting was what metafilter was about? I keep getting blue balls from trying to start real debates on metafilter, only to be told to get my own blog. Unfortunately, comments threads don't bear footnoting very well.

Another absurd, unsubstantiated, and intellectually dishonest rhetorical flourish.

If the same neural networks are involved in perceived or engaging in disgust...

Yes, if they are. Unfortunately, rather than attempt to prove such a link through a great deal of observation of what is colloquially known and felt as "disgust" in the wild, the paper assumes the relationship between emotional disgust and nausea, and then goes about "proving" how the brain deals with emotion by extrapolation from a physiological reflex action. And yes, nausea is cognitive - it is a reflex response with a highly recognizable and duplicable neural response pattern (a little spoiled milk and voila). "Disgust", or some subforms of it, might be too, but the paper I cited does not prove this. It assumes it, and it further assumes its transparent relationship to the physiological reflex.

If you are aware that there is wide disagreement over the meaning of a term and its experience in actual human subjects is various, I'm afraid the first step to any research project is to attempt to correlate the varying definitions with observed instances. Unfortunately this is hard, because its hard to duplicate many such varieties in the lab. It requires exhaustive and creative experimental design. But doing so is nonetheless simple due diligence. Even if it's hard, financially infeasible, or impossible, you can't simply substitute your observable in-lab phenomenon and say those who call bullshit are resistant to the empirical study of the phenomenon.

That is the definition of intellectual dishonesty.
posted by macross city flaneur at 6:14 PM on December 5, 2009


I should add that studying cognition "in the wild" is not impossible. Jean Lave has conducted an excellent series of studies on "street math", and found, contrary to years of previous studies, that regular folks have substantial math skills.

But even in the subjects' own environment she didn't impose her standards of competence at the outset. Rather, she observed the "natural" behavior of the subjects for prolonged periods and conducted interviews first - of house wives shopping for example - before developing her criteria. And in the case of street kids, instead of simply administering tests, she followed them into those situations - like playing dice and talking sports - where they were most likely to reveal their situated mathematical approaches.

This narrow research has taken up most of her career.
posted by macross city flaneur at 6:27 PM on December 5, 2009


Unfortunately, rather than attempt to prove such a link through a great deal of observation of what is colloquially known and felt as "disgust" in the wild, the paper assumes the relationship between emotional disgust and nausea, and then goes about "proving" how the brain deals with emotion by extrapolation from a physiological reflex action.

Disgust is one of the so-called "basic" emotions, and the sort of stimuli that can evoke it and the consequent affective facial displays have been studied quite a bit. I cannot find any study from Rizzolatti in 2004 (or from any year, in fact) that mentions nausea in any context. Perhaps you were referring to this study:

Does It Look Painful or Disgusting? Ask Your Parietal and Cingulate Cortex

(The Journal of Neuroscience, January 23, 2008, 28(4):923-931; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4012-07.2008, authors: Francesca Benuzzi, Fausta Lui, Davide Duzzi,2 Paolo F. Nichelli, and Carlo A. Porro)

which does cites a 2004 paper on which Rizzolatti was final author (Gallese V, Keysers C, Rizzolatti G (2004) A unifying view of the basis of social cognition. Trends Cogn Sci 8:396–403.), though that paper would not be cited "Rizzolatti, et al. (2004)" but rather "Gallesse, et al. (2004)."

Neither of those articles, however, mentions nausea once. Moreover, while an accurate parenthetical citation is all well and good, unless you follow it up with an actual reference, it's really little more than name-dropping. It's a little overboard to suggest that APA format is required for the purposes of backing up an online debate, but it's quite simple to link to the finding you're talking about, or at least mention the name of the article in question.

You state that accusing those who question the real world salience (or, in your words, "call bullshit") of one's experiments of being resistant to the empirical study of observable in-lab phenomena "is the definition of intellectual dishonesty."

I am of the mind that falsely attributing one's own ideas to the published an established scientist is a much more potent example of intellectual dishonesty.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:18 PM on December 5, 2009


Damn. I intended to hit preview rather than post. I fully intended follow up that rather strong statement with the caveat that, while I am quite familiar with Rizzolatti's work in general, my search skills are by no means flawless, and I may well have simply missed the paper you're talking about. If so, please do point me to the article in question, and I will gladly extend a full retraction and sincere apology.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:21 PM on December 5, 2009


Yes, it's the Trends paper, I have it in PDF form and was not aware of a universally accessible online source, because I received it from the course website of the graduate course I read it as a part of. It was presented to me by my instructor as a "Rizzolatti" paper, which at the time I assumed meant he either had a big part in writing it or supervised the research.

If you'd like to have an argument about why you think my interpretation of the paper in question is inaccurate, I'd be happy to do that. But I think you'll agree that simply claiming that I am attributing my ideas to the paper is not really making an argument.

Again, I am happy to have that discussion. I maintain that the paper does exactly what I described. Which is extrapolating broad conclusions about emotion from the observation of reflex response, without any prior attempt to define the range of emotions that qualify as disgust.

Now, if your claim is that it is widely accepted that such a link between disgust and reflex response is uncomplicated, I'd be happy to review the research that is supposed to bear that out.
posted by macross city flaneur at 11:56 PM on December 5, 2009


I should further note that the paper cites no such widely held belief. It cites monkey data on action observation and human observations of facial expressions of disgust. It neatly sets aside the question of whether the monkey and human emotional capacity is the same, choosing to focus, in this section of the paper entirely on the physiological similarity of the physical human and monkey brain. What's more, both bodies of research cited involve the observation of external physical stimuli.

This, I am arguing, is highly dubious. One can no more extrapolate from the observation of facial expressions of disgust to the wide-ranging emotional category of disgust than one can extrapolate from the observation of pained facial expression to the emotion of anger or sadness. Pain does not equal emotion. And neither does nausea.

The paper is remarkable precisely in finding exactly zero reason to distinguish between disgust and physical nausea, nor adducing any evidence to support their equation, nor adducing any widely held assumption that they can be considered equal in the neuroscience community. Instead, it quite conspicuously does not recognize any difference between disgust as an emotion and physical disgust.

This is why, as a paper on "emotion", the research is, in a word, "bullshit". On the other hand, it might be a very good paper on physical reflex response and the mirroring of physical reflex reactions. But this is not what the paper claims to be. For the authors, disgust just IS nausea.
posted by macross city flaneur at 12:08 AM on December 6, 2009


I've just emailed you the paper. The reason the word nausea does not appear in the paper is, again, that the authors do not distinguish between nausea and disgust, so they see no need for the fine linguistic distinction. The research they cite for disgust registration, however, involves "gustatory [35,36] and olfactory stimuli" - smelling unpleasant odors, watching food being spit out, hearing retching, etc. In other words, it all involved physiological response - i.e. what I'm calling (in what I hope you will agree is not a leap of interpretation) nausea.

When they briefly mention pain studies, linguistic non-equivalence requires them to use the term "pain empathy" - since obviously an extrapolation from pain to an indicated emotion would sound dubious. But "nausea empathy" or some such would have been only slightly closer to the mark. Even the word "empathy" here (and in the pain studies) is highly debatable, since mirroring of pain response rising to the colloquial term "empathy" is unproven. Again, the researchers are making an assumption, and that is that mirroring is sufficient to equate to "empathy". I disagree. The mirroring process, assuming it operates the way the authors say, must necessarily be the beginning of "emotional" registration, not the end. What they've shown is that part A of the brain lights up both when humans respond to a physical stimulus, and it lights up again when they respond to the sight and sound of other humans reacting in a way indicative of the same physical stimulus. That is all. This they call "empathy" or "emotion".

That's not what I call it.
posted by macross city flaneur at 12:35 AM on December 6, 2009


And just to be absolutely clear - disgust is an ambiguous term. We english speakers use it to refer both to physical response and an emotional one (though notably, we have a SEPARATE word to describe that response, while "disgust" is sufficient for the emotional range).

Rather than acknowledging that distinction and admitting there's no research to support the equation of the two, the authors of the paper EXPLOIT the linguistic ambiguity to make broad claims about "emotion".

THIS is what I'm calling "intellectual dishonesty". You be the judge. I'm happy to email anyone the paper who'd like to read it.
posted by macross city flaneur at 12:41 AM on December 6, 2009


I've just realized that even I am being too generous in using the term nausea. Because there's another word indicating a whole other category of experience (and who knows, perhaps many others) called "distastefulness". When we taste something bitter, we don't necessarily experience nausea. We simply experience a bad taste. So, we should more properly state that the paper fails to even distinguish physiological nausea and distastefulness responses. Since the stimuli in question involved ambiguous human reactions (both retching AND simply smelling unpleasant odors, or spitting out food), it doesn't merely fail to distinguish emotion and physiology. It fails to even distinguish two DIFFERENT physiological responses.
posted by macross city flaneur at 12:49 AM on December 6, 2009


Now see, this is so much more interesting and fruitful than "neuroscience is the phrenology of our age: a charlatanism so stark and white hot that it simply dizzies the mind."

I'm quite enjoying this & hope you two keep it in the thread instead of private correspondence.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:56 AM on December 6, 2009


Thank you for the excellent response, and for going to the effort of sending me the paper. It seems that at least one other MeFite feels that this discussion is appropriate for the thread, but if the mods do not agree, I would suggest that we take it to Google Wave (I’ve sent you an invitation). Google Wave seems like the perfect medium for this sort of debate, and we could readily invite any interested MeFites to join in. For the time being, if anyone would like copies of the articles cited but does not have access to them, please send me an email and I will happily get you a copy.

Please allow me first to apologize on multiple fronts. I would very much like to continue this discussion, and I hope that I have not been to uncivil. I did not fully understand the claims that you were making, and while I still disagree, I was a little defensive and reactionary. Also, after reading your response, I feel like I have a much better sense of the criticisms you were making, and that they aren't the sort of casual indictment that I initially perceived them to be.

Also, the Gallese, et al. (2004) paper does in fact include the word "nauseous." I only searched for vomit and nausea, and skimmed but did not reread the entire paper before responding. I was under the false impression that your claims about nausea were not grounded in the actual work to which you were referring.

I’d like to preface this with a brief explanation of my overly defensive stance, and then I’ll reply to your specific comments.

Social and affective neuroscience have draw a lot of heat this year, However, a recent article (Vul, et al. 2009), originally titled ‘Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience,’ took an extremely hostile and inflammatory tone, was widely disseminated before peer review, was based on a number of incorrect assumptions about fMRI data anaylsis, and garnered us a lot of bad press. The May 2009 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science (http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/92v2k0hm) contains several arguments surrounding the controversy from multiple angles, and it was also discussed on MeFi (http://www.metafilter.com/79560/Social-Neuroscience), several months before legitimate publication of the article after peer review).

There is, however, quite a bit of social and affective neuroscience research that has been well conducted, with rigorous standards and operationally defined variables based on a complement of similar studies. Though our current set of tools may not be flawless, there is a good deal of progress that can be made with them if they are applied judiciously.

While there are many fundamental issues concerning the way that fMRI is used to draw inferences about brain-behavior correlations, empirical research on the experience of emotion is by no means novel. Affective neuroscience may still be in its infancy, but research on the physiological correlates of emotion dates back more than a hundred years (James, 1884). I can say, with a fair degree of confidence, that we can study a great deal more than the cognition of vomit. It is most certainly important to keep in mind that viewing an emotional expression is the same as experiencing that emotion. However, the notion that viewing an affective facial display likely engages some of the same neural mechanisms as experiencing the emotion itself is one that has received quite a bit of attention in the literature. The review with which you take issue (Gallesse 2004) deserves a thorough dissection and analysis. I fully intend to follow up with one, but for now, just a few quick points. About the article, you said:

It cites monkey data on action observation and human observations of facial expressions of disgust. It neatly sets aside the question of whether the monkey and human emotional capacity is the same, choosing to focus, in this section of the paper entirely on the physiological similarity of the physical human and monkey brain. What's more, both bodies of research cited involve the observation of external physical stimuli.

The question of whether the monkey and human emotional capacity is the same is not one that can be answered directly, because we can’t ask a monkey how it feels. However, by studying the neural correlates of similar processes across species, we can move toward a better understanding of the various components of higher order social cognitive processes. A 2004 paper by Rizzolati and Craighero, “The Mirror Neuron System” provides an more in depth review of the physiology of action understanding and shared neural representations between humans and monkeys.

Now, if your claim is that it is widely accepted that such a link between disgust and reflex response is uncomplicated, I'd be happy to review the research that is supposed to bear that out.

I certainly do not maintain that the link between the emotion of disgust and reflexive response is uncomplicated. I do, however, support the idea that emotional experience of disgust is based on cortical response to visceral sensation out carried by the autonomic nervous system that is also implicated in reflexive action. In order to address your concerns about the neuroscientific investigation of emotion understanding, it is first necessary to consider the putative bases of emotion perception. Gallese et al. (2004) frame the issue as follows:

“So far, we have discussed the neural mechanism underlying
action understanding. Does a similar mechanism
mediate our understanding of the emotions of others? In
the next sections we will show that a similar mechanism is
also involved in our capacity to understand and experience
the emotional states of others. We will focus on the
emotion of disgust, for which rich empirical evidence has
recently been acquired. We will discuss in particular the
role of the insula that appears to play a fundamental role
in the feeling and understanding of this basic emotion.”


I have stayed up way too late researching and crafting a response. Rest assured, I am just getting started, and will gladly provide a more comprehensive explanation of my stance regarding their findings and the studies that led to them on the morrow.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:32 AM on December 6, 2009


That page comes across like a remake of "Last Year at Marienbad" where they'd done a find and replace on the script to change all instances of philosophical noodling with footnoted science.
posted by Pliskie at 7:54 AM on December 6, 2009


The reason that these studies are about consciousness and not about attention is that the subjects ARE paying attention to the stimulus, but because of the masking effect are prevented from becoming conscious of it.
posted by empath at 3:02 PM on December 6, 2009


Neuroscience is an emerging discipline with a flood of raw data coming in.

We are now experiencing difficulty in coming up with valid interpretations of this complex thingy.

Now is the time that the art of philosophy can assist science in crafting the proper framing devices.
posted by ovvl at 4:40 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Now is the time that the art of philosophy can assist science in crafting the proper framing devices.

I could not agree with this more, though I also maintain that this has always been the case. Science itself is an outgrowth of philosophy. It wasn't until the 19th century that the word "scientist" even came about, but that doesn't mean that science as we now think of it is a recent pursuit. The level of widespread knowledge of and access to the fruits of science is more recent. Consummate with the increased dissemination of scientific knowledge have come a host of misapprehensions about what it is that scientific articles say or intend to demonstrate.

Many of the issues that I perceive macross city flaneur taking with work like Dehaene's or Gallese's seem rooted in what I imagine to be a widely held notion concerning empirical investigation of complex constructs (like self, theory of mind, or consciousness). I get the sense that a lot of folks think that neuroscientists just come out of nowhere with broad generalizations about folk psychological concepts. This is not true. Emotion is a completely legitimate topic for scientific inquiry. Whether the tools involve carefully designed metrics for self report, combinations of facial muscular contractions, or patterns of neural activity as measured by single cell recordings, EEG, PET, MEG, neuropsychological studies with lesioned patients, or even the current darling of popular misconception about neuroscience, fMRI, the rigorous study of emotion is one that simultaneously acknowledges the subjective nature of its target while applying consistent, objective standards to its measurement.

Not only have we identified a number of consistent and strictly identified neural structures that coincide with subjective reports of a particular emotion, but we have demonstrated that the same neural structures implicated in experiencing an emotion are involved in perceiving that emotion in others. This idea is at the core of shared neural representation. The mirror neuron system has been studied extensively in primates, and a number of neuroscientific enquiries in humans have found what appears to be an analogous system in humans. Of course, MNS has its opponents, but the existence of mirror neurons is rarely contested outright.

In the social and affective neurosciences, the idea that observing an emotion and experiencing that emotion is well supported with a fair number of replicable experiments Meta analyses of thousands of studies have identified common anatomical structures that are implicated in a large number of tasks that all approach particular emotions in slightly different ways. The synthesis of all these different approaches to a singular concept of emotion have implicated consistent neural structures that are involved in fear or disgust.

No one is saying "look! There it is, that one red dot in the brain. Disgust!" What we are saying is: the spectrum of experiences people regard as involving disgust have their roots at the visceromotor reaction to bad tastes. If a taste is so bad it makes you vomit, does a slightly less bad taste involve the same system? Yes. If we electrically stimulate the particular components of that system that are active when you taste something that is subjectively unpleasant but does not make you vomit, can we induce the same subjectively reported sensation? Yes. What if we stimulate it harder? Will it make you vomit? Yes.

What if we show you a picture of someone else who is experiencing induced disgust? Are the same neural structures implicated?

Yes.

Empathy is intractable from the study of perception of emotional displays. I wouldn't ever suggest that you can't experience an emotion without the presence of others. But if we were solitary creatures, what would be the utility in having a reaction to a stimulus (like spoiled milk) that readily conveys information about that stimulus to others?
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:08 AM on December 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


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