Neuroscience 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?
Someone contacted me through Quora recently because they were having an existential crisis — it was stimulated by the ostensibly scientific notion that humans do not have free well.
Any theory that insists that we do not actually make choices is going to causes distress among many people who valorize academic thinking. Many hard-nosed metaphysicians simply don’t care about the mental well-being of the general public. I find this attitude simultaneously patronizing and irresponsible.
Some tentative conclusions based on my reading of epidemiological models and qualitative reports:
1. The most effective strategy so far involves a combination of widespread testing, social distancing, elevated hygiene, and tech-enhanced contact tracing. If these steps are done well, lockdowns might be fully avoidable. This has been the strategy of Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong.
2. Many if not most countries simply do not have the resources for widespread testing yet, and may not have the political will for invasive social monitoring.
3. Given the situation, lockdowns should be understood as a way to buy time for manufacturers of testing kits, and for vaccine and treatment researchers. For both economic and psychological reasons, lockdowns cannot continue indefinitely.
4. Vast sections of the world may have to practice periodic lockdowns, until either (i) governments are ready and willing to enforce widespread testing *and* contact tracing, or (ii) a vaccine or effective treatment becomes widespread. Privacy concerns and economic concerns will have to engage in a direct debate if this stage is reached. Also, lifting a lockdown prematurely can cause a bounce-back of the infection rate.
5. A lockdown does not necessitate economic collapse or starvation: countries, provinces, and communities can do a great deal to ensure money and food reach people. The policies enacted in the UK and Denmark guarantee 75-80% of wages, and preserve crucial employer-employee relationships, enabling a speedier return to employment. And even a poor country like India always has vast amounts of foodgrain in storage (which often goes to rot). International cooperation is needed to ensure distribution and prevent wastage. Protection of farmers is also essential. Cash crop growers will be particularly badly hit by the almost inevitable collapse of demand for non-essential products.
6. Some form of basic income is essential for workers in what is known as the ‘gig economy’ in advanced countries, and the ‘unorganized sector’ in poor countries. An additional challenge in poor countries is that many people still do not have bank accounts.
7. Given that the economic consequences of the shutdowns are already being felt, there is little to be gained for the time being in speculating about whether governments have overreacted in the recent past. Governments clearly underreacted in January and February, but there is nothing we can do about that now. Having convinced ourselves of this, we might ease our anxieties a little by leaving detailed analysis of should-haves, would-haves, could-haves and might-haves for the post-crisis reckoning, and focus on what is in front of us. Less what-ifs and more what-nows.
8. The very concept of over- and under-reaction is too blunt an instrument when planning actions in the present. Each region and polity faces unique challenges, so there cannot be a one-size-fits-fall response to the pandemic. Instead of a one-dimensional ‘scale of reaction’, the key for the present is the alignment between responses and the specific circumstances they are responding to.
9. The crisis now is not just the coronavirus, but a causal web that includes our prior reactions to it. This is inflammation at the level of the body politic.
I wrote this on Facebook, but thought it might be useful to share it more widely. This is not a neuroscience post.
Last weekend is when I started to take the coronavirus issue seriously. ‘Seriousness’ doesn’t imply panic, but it does imply taking the time to read about what is happening and to find out how each of us can act to mitigate the crisis.
The death rate is hard to assess, but it seems likely to hover between 1 and 3 percent of *reported cases* for now. That’s a lot more than seasonal flu, which has a mortality rate of around 0.1%. With early testing and good medical care, this rate can come down. But sadly in the US there are institutional pressures that prevent optimal responses, despite plenty of money and human capital.
Increased vigilance when it comes to hygiene is the first step. Wash your hands. Use sanitizer (if you can get some). Avoid touching your face (this one is very hard for me). If possible, work from home. Masks are not necessary for the general public, as far as I can tell, and buying them is already creating shortages for the medical community. We really don’t want large numbers of doctors and nurses to get sick.
Preparing for a voluntary quarantine period also makes sense. Have stocks of food and prescription medications (if any) to last you around two weeks or so. If this becomes expensive for you, try to stock up gradually.
I was asked the following question on Quora recently:
Thinking   is very poorly understood, but broadly speaking in seems to involve the prefrontal cortex (PFC), with a special role for the dorsolateral PFC. Other important areas include the hippocampus and parietal cortex. Ultimately, thinking involves many brain regions, and cannot be localized to one place. Thinking is a distributed process that can incorporate many different parts of the brain. And the specific content of the thoughts will influence which brain areas are involved. If you are thinking about images, visual areas will be involved. If you are thinking about movement, motor areas will be involved.
In my opinion, the distinction between “linear” and “creative” thinking is somewhat vague. At this point, the most important thing to note is that the idea that the “left brain is rational/logical and the right brain is creative/artistic/emotional” is totally wrong  . Both hemispheres contribute to logic as well as creativity. Moreover, the use of logic can itself be a creative activity.
There are two ways to define thinking: each leads to a different answer to the question of whether thinking is conscious or not.
- Thinking as a subjective experience. If someone asks you what you are thinking about, you can introspect, and describe your thought process. You can also say that you weren’t really thinking at all.
- Thinking as the cause of ideas and thoughts. If you discover a thought, then you can infer that the process that led up to the thought was a form of thinking, even if there was no subjective experience associated with the process.
We can test our preference for definition 1 or definition 2 by considering an example.
Sherlock Holmes was a good chemist. When he found himself stuck while attempting to solve a mystery, he would sometimes distract himself by doing a chemistry experiment. At the end of such an experiment, he often found that a solution simply popped into his head.
No measurable physical quantity is ever infinite. In other words, only theoretical concepts can be definitively labeled as infinite. But that is perhaps an epistemological claim that is unnecessary here. So let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of how visual ‘resolution’ is actually measured. As we shall see, the number of light sensitive cells in the retina does not tell us what the ‘resolution’ of the visual system as a whole is. In some circumstances our visual ‘resolution’ exceeds that of the eye considered in isolation.
Visual acuity  is the sharpness with which we can distinguish patterns of light on the retina of the eye. This depends on the exact location of the light falling on the retina.
Interested in participating in a (totally unscientific) survey on consciousness and related questions? The link is in the preceding post. Once you complete the survey, you’ll be able to see the results. It should take between 20 and 45 minutes to complete, and will hopefully be stimulating, at least somewhat.
The password for the post is the last name of the philosopher who coined the term “Hard Problem of Consciousness”. It is very easy to google the answer. Capitalize in the standard way.
“There has been occasional talk of “sensory cells” located in particular regions, or of sensitive or sensorial “special cells”. People have invented acoustic or optic special cells and even a “memory” (*12) cell, and have not shied away from the fantastic “psychic cell”. Apart from the fact that such so-called “special cells” have only been described in young or foetal brain with the Golgi method and mainly only in animals, and therefore lack confirmation in the adult human brain, and quite apart from the fact that no attempt has been made to determine the precise regional location of the zone within which such cells appear exclusively, it seems to me that to pose this problem is wrong.” [emphasis added]
And here is a news item from a couple of years ago:
Psychic cells indeed! Or perhaps we should call them zombie cells.
(Zombie concepts keep coming back from the dead to eat our brains. Other examples include ‘selfish genes’ and ‘pleasure molecules’.)
This is a potentially controversial issue, since there is no consensus yet on the evolution of the brain, beyond a very coarse-grained chronology. Broadly speaking, neocortical areas are new, hence the term “neo-cortex”. But among cortical areas, there is still some disagreement about which areas emerged most recently in primates.
Based on what we know about development in the womb, along with structural findings, my labmates, who are neuroanatomists, suggest that the “eulaminate” areas — the ones that have sharply defined layers — may be the most recent, evolutionarily, compared to the “agranular” and “dysgranular” cortices, which have less sharply defined layers. These less sharply defined areas are also labeled as “limbic”.