The Pentagon of Neuroscience — A Listicle for Understanding the Neuroculture


brainzNeuroscience has hit the big time. Every day, popular newspapers, websites and blogs offer up a heady stew of brain-related self-help (neuro-snake oil?) and gee wiz science reporting (neuro-wow?). Some scientists and journalists — perhaps caught up in the neuro-fervor — throw caution to the wind, promising imminent brain-based answers to the kinds of questions that probably predate civilization itself: What is the nature of mind? Why do we feel the way we do? Does each person have a fundamental essence? How can we avoid pain and suffering, and discover joy, creativity, and interpersonal harmony?

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On sleep and creativity

800px-francisco_josc3a9_de_goya_y_lucientes_-_the_sleep_of_reason_produces_monsters_28no-_43292c_from_los_caprichos_-_google_art_projectJust came across a nice little article by Ed Yong on how the two major phases of sleep — REM and slow-wave sleep — might contribute to creativity. These ideas have been floating around for a while, but it’s nice to see them in a pop sci article.

A New Theory Linking Sleep and Creativity

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Why human memory is not a bit like a computer’s

DisintegrationofPersistence(This is a cross-post of a 3 Quarks Daily article I wrote last year.)

A few months ago I attended a rather peculiar seminar at MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. A neuroscientist colleague of mine named Robert Ajemian had invited an unusual speaker: a man named Jim Karol, who was billed as having the world’s best memory. According to his website, his abilities include “knowing over 80,000 zip codes, thousands of digits of Pi, the Scrabble dictionary, sports almanacs, MEDICAL journals, and thousands of other facts.” He has memorized the day of the week for every date stretching back to 1AD. And his abilities are not simply matter of superhuman willingness to spend hours memorizing lists. He can add new items to his memory rapidly, on the fly. After a quick look at a deck of cards, he can recall perfectly the order in which they were shuffled. I witnessed him do this last ‘trick’, as well as a few others, so I can testify that his abilities are truly extraordinary [1].

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How many minds can one organism have? (Answer: One.)

I was asked this question on Quora:

Do the two halves of the brain have wills of their own? Can they dislike each other or fight?

Here’s my answer:

It’s very difficult to define what exactly the will is in neuroscientific terms. It seems best to reserve this word for the whole organism, rather than some part of it.

Some philosophers would say that attributing will to some sub-component of an organism is an example of the “mereological fallacy”. It’s like saying the stomach eats, or the brain thinks, or the legs walk. We use these kinds of phrases as a kind of poetic shorthand, but only a complete organism can be said to eat, think, or walk.

In the case of the two hemispheres, we also know that the left brain right brain story — that one is “rational” and the other “holistic/artistic” — is wildly misguided. Some neural processes are lateralized, but most normal tasks that humans perform require close integration and communication between the hemispheres.

But we do have to make sense of a common experience — being “in two minds” about something. Most people know what it is like to be in a conflicted state — multiple goals or biases seem to be tugging at us. Clearly decision-making involves a sort of “parliamant” in the brain, in which multiple vested interests vie to enact legislation that suits them. 🙂

But the parliament metaphor should not be taken too seriously. There is little to be gained in anthropomorphizing neurons or groups of neurons. Neural ensembles might sometimes seem to behave as if they have a will, but that idea will not really help us understand decision-making, or the subjective feeling of having a will.

So brain areas don’t have likes or dislikes — organisms do, and brain areas mediate the processes by which these likes and disliked become manifest.

For more on the problems with anthropomorphizing neural processes, see these two essays I wrote:

Persons all the way down: On viewing the scientific conception of the self from the inside out | 3 Quarks Daily (This essay is partly a gentle critique of the Pixar movie Inside Out.)

Me and My Brain: What the “Double-Subject Fallacy” reveals about contemporary conceptions of the Self | 3 Quarks Daily (This essay explores the tendency of people, including neuroscientists, to think of the brain is a separate agent from the person as a whole.)

I admit that it is often fun to anthropomorphize neurons, which is what I do in the essay below. I paint a picture of a neural city and a neural economy, complete with start-ups and investors. 🙂

Be Careful What You Wish For: Some Wild Speculation on Goodhart’s Law and its Manifestations in the Brain | 3 Quarks Daily

Further reading

Yohan John’s answer to Is the left brain and right brain concept a myth, or is it true?

Yohan John’s answer to What happens to consciousness when the brain’s two cerebral hemispheres are disconnected?

A Clockwork Orange? (A brief musing on the concept of a neural “code”)

I was asked this question on Quora:

Are there many layers of neural codes from the human retina to the optic nerve and the optic nerve to the brain, or are they essentially same signals relayed?

Here’s how I responded:

Here’s a question: in a system composed of clockwork, is there a “code”?

I ask this because I find that the “code” metaphor is often misleading when thinking about biology. Codes are composed of symbols. But it is not clear that neurons communicate using symbols.

The way a neuron affects other neurons is more like how a gear affects other gears. There is no code — there is causality. An active neuron releases some neurotransmitter, and this in turn makes other neurons more active. It’s like a complex network of dominoes.

Does the idea of a “code” help us understand how one domino affects the next one in the chain?

I admit that by the time a human is thinking in terms of words and symbols, “code” is probably a useful metaphor for what is going on. But the origin of coding schemes remains a great mystery in neuroscience, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. So I recommend starting with a much less loaded metaphor, such as clockwork or dominoes. Thinking in mechanical terms helps us realize what exactly neuroscience and AI research are trying to achieve.

For now, there is a fascinating gap in our understanding of what exactly codes are in the first place.

Anyway, if you are interested in the causal “domino effect” that starts at the retina, have a look at this answer:

Yohan John’s answer to In which format is information stored in the brain?


“Are thoughts just a bunch of electrical and chemical signals being tossed around inside the brain, or is there more to it than that?”

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of…”

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis

I really like the quote above, which is from the Chronicles of Narnia. It raises a neat little metaphysical question:

Why do we assume that what a thing is made up of is what a thing is?

As a neuroscientist I have to point out that no one really knows what a thought is from a scientific perspective. This means that we don’t know what we would need to measure in order to ‘decode’ a person’s thoughts. For the foreseeable future, I cannot look at a brain scan and say, “This person is definitely thinking about pineapples!”

Of course, thoughts seem to be closely linked with neural patterns in the brain, and those patterns are clearly linked with electro-chemical signaling. Tinkering with the signaling clearly tinkers with the thinking. Otherwise the effects of drugs such as alcohol and coffee on thought would be a mystery. Perhaps some day we will have a scanner that tells us what a person is thinking of.

Matter and form

While I admit that electro-chemical signals being tossed about is a necessary precondition for thinking — no phenomenon that lacks such tossing will be unanimously labeled as thinking — I think that material constituency is a less than stellar guide for thinking about what something is.

Consider charcoal, diamonds, graphite, and graphene. These are made up of carbon. But is that all there is to the story of what they are? I hope the answer is an emphatic no, since they all have radically different properties. Charcoal is black and relatively soft. Diamonds are transparent and exceptionally hard. Graphene and graphite conduct electricity whereas other forms do not.

What explains the differences between the various allotropes of carbon? Clearly it isn’t what they are made of — it’s the same stuff in each case.

Eight allotropes of carbon: a) diamond, b) graphite, c) lonsdaleite, d) C60 buckminsterfullerene, e) C540, Fullerite f) C70, g) amorphous carbon, and h) single-walled carbon nanotube. Source: Wikipedia


What differs among the allotropes is the arrangements of carbon atoms. In other words, form is as important as ‘content’. Depending on how you arrange carbon atoms, you will end up with something soft and opaque or hard and transparent. Clearly the properties of the substances are not to be found in the properties of the atoms.

This is generally true for most complex and interesting objects and processes. You can boil them down to some set of elements — and these elements maybe subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, genes, cells, neurotransmitters — but some defining feature of the overarching process will be missing from the constituent parts considered in isolation, just as transparency or opaqueness are missing from individual carbon atoms.

In complex systems theory and in condensed matter physics, the word emergence is often used to describe the phenomenon by which collections of matter acquire new properties as a result of arrangement or sheer scale. Chemistry is full of examples. Oxygen is a gas. Hydrogen is a gas. But when they combine together in the right way, they produce water, which is a liquid — and one with all kinds of properties that can’t be predicted from first principles through analyzing the constituent parts.

Are thoughts emergent?

Since we don’t know exactly what thoughts are, we cannot say for sure whether they are emergent phenomena or not. But we can indirectly infer that they are by considering properties of thoughts and comparing them with properties of chemicals being tossed around in the brain.

A hallmark of thoughts is that they are about things. When you are thinking about a pineapple, there is an “aboutness” relation between the thought and the pineapple. Thoughts refer to things — which may be real things in the world, or imaginary things like dragons. This is a distinctive feature of mental phenomena, and the philosophers call it intentionality. (Note that intentionality has nothing to do with intentions or motivations — it’s not the best term, but that’s where you’ll find the relevant writings.)

This “aboutness” or “intentionality” is not a feature of chemical tossing patterns. A pattern is a pattern is a pattern, and isn’t intrinsically about any other pattern. At the very least, we can say that modern physics and chemistry have had no reason to invent an “aboutness” concept so far. In other words, there is no purely physical theory of reference.

So it seems reasonable to at least consider the possibility that the property of “aboutness” emerges when matter is arranged in just the right way.

“Is there more to it?”

This admittedly abstract concept is not really going to satisfy people who were hoping that thoughts were actually composed of “magic dust”, as Sam Moss quite rightly termed it. Thoughts are not “made up” of some special secret sauce. If you look at a brain — or any other tissue — under a microscope, all you see are cells. And cells are made up of atoms — mostly carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, with some crucial cameos by nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, sulfur, sodium, potassium, magnesium and choride.

So is that all a brain or a body is? A stew of a dozen elements? If you followed the story with carbon, then you’ll know that the answer is no. The arrangement of the atoms makes all the difference in the world.

But does this mean that “there is more to it”? If “more” implies a substance of which thoughts are made, then the answer is most likely no.

In any case, given that matter makes up everything, saying that something is “just” matter seems a bit unfair to matter — it’s about as magical a dust as you could possibly hope for!

Matter gives you the universe and you ask if there is more to it?! 😉

If you like, you can call arrangement or form the special “something more”. Arrangement is the “something more” that distinguishes charcoal from diamonds, and thought from nonsense.

But arrangement will not fulfill all the duties of magical dust. It is not the same as the traditional notion of a soul. A soul can live on without a body. But a form has no meaning without the constituent matter that is arranged.

So here’s the compromise: thoughts are made up of electro-chemical signals tossing around, but that is not what they are, since this definition does not distinguish in any useful way between thoughts and perceptions, feelings, moods, emotions or sensations — or even unconscious neural processes for that matter — all of which are also made up of electro-chemical signals.

So saying thoughts are electro-chemical signals is about as useful as saying diamonds are carbon. It’s true, but not in an especially interesting or informative sense.


If you’ve made it this far, well done! I guess I was having a slow Friday evening! 🙂

I know that what I’ve written is quite abstract, but that goes with the territory if you are thinking about thoughts.

Here are some answers that may be of interest:


This post was originally a Quora answer.

Yanny or Laurel? A perspective from the science of mind and brain

I really like the Yanny versus Laurel meme, which exploded yesterday. It helps illustrate some key points about human perception:

  1. In some situations people can differ wildly in their experience of low-level perception.
  2. Active top-down expectations (and other, weirder processes) have a strong effect on low-level perception.

So basically, it’s an auditory version of #ThatDress.

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What are emotions?

What indeed?

My research is on cognitive-emotional interaction, so I suppose I am qualified to answer this question. 🙂

But my answer cannot be the answer, since there is actually no consensus among scientists concerning the definition of emotions.

[Illustration of grief from Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.]

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