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?
My latest modeling paper has been published in Computational Psychiatry.
Here’s the abstract:
“Schizophrenia is associated with diverse cognitive deficits, including disorders of attention-related oculomotor behavior. At the structural level, schizophrenia is associated with abnormal inhibitory control in the circuit linking cortex and thalamus. We developed a spiking neural network model that demonstrates how dysfunctional inhibition can degrade attentive gaze control. Our model revealed that perturbations of two functionally distinct classes of cortical inhibitory neurons, or of the inhibitory thalamic reticular nucleus, disrupted processing vital for sustained attention to a stimulus, leading to distractibility. Because perturbation at each circuit node led to comparable but qualitatively distinct disruptions in attentive tracking or fixation, our findings support the search for new eye movement metrics that may index distinct underlying neural defects. Moreover, because the cortico-thalamic circuit is a common motif across sensory, association, and motor systems, the model and extensions can be broadly applied to study normal function and the neural bases of other cognitive deficits in schizophrenia.”
Here’s Figure 1, which shows the circuit we modeled.
A very important point about dopamine (DA) and reward, from a recent review paper:
“The DA hypothesis of reward is a ubiquitous feature of the scientific literature, as well as popular media, the internet, and film. Yet, despite the almost automatic tendency of some to explain virtually any aspect of DA function as somehow being dependent on reward, there are critical theoretical and empirical problems with this, many of which have been reviewed in detail elsewhere (Salamone et al., 1997, 2007; Salamone and Correa, 2002, 2012; Floresco, 2015; Nicola, 2016). First and foremost, the term reward has no consistent scientific meaning (Salamone et al., 2005; Salamone and Correa, 2012), and, depending upon the paper, or even the paragraph, this term is used variously to refer to subjective pleasure or hedonic reactivity, appetite, preference, and even reinforcement learning. Given the slippery and imprecise nature of this term, it is wholly inadequate to attribute specific effects in experiments simply to reward without any qualification or explication.” [Emphasis added]
Salamone, J. D., Correa, M., Ferrigno, S., Yang, J. H., Rotolo, R. A., & Presby, R. E. (2018). The psychopharmacology of effort-related decision making: Dopamine, adenosine, and insights into the neurochemistry of motivation. Pharmacological Reviews, 70(4), 747-762.
This post, which mostly provides useful citations, was originally written as an answer to the following Quora question:
I was asked the following question on Quora some time ago:
Here’s my answer:
Just 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.
(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 .
I was asked this question on Quora:
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, 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:
(This essay is partly a gentle critique of the Pixar movie Inside Out.)
(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. 🙂