Talking Brains: Problems and Perspectives of the Neurosciences

The lectures from yet another conference on neuroscience/culture are available online.  The conference “Talking Brains: Problems and Perspectives of the Neurosciences,” took place on December 3 and 4, 2010 at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.  Below I reproduce the titles and abstracts of the talks, along with links to the audio recordings.  To hear the talks, press the play button on the right side of the screen.  The introduction to each of the talks is in German, and you may have to wait a minute or so until the actual talk begins.

Hat-tip to Ada at the excellent Cultural Neuroscience blog for linking to these lectures.

Raymond Tallis, Writer, Philosopher, and Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine, Manchester
Why Neuroscience Will Never Explain Consciousness

The belief that consciousness is identical with activity in certain parts of the brain, so that “you are your brain” is now widely accepted. It is, however, mistaken. While the brain is a necessary condition of every aspect of consciousness, from the slightest tingle of sensation to the most exquisitely constructed sense of self, neural activity is not sufficient by itself to explain consciousness. This is evident from the fact that there is no fundamental difference between that small minority of neural activity correlated with consciousness and that which is not associated with consciousness. The consciousness-neural activity identity theory faces numerous problems, arising from the fact that nerve impulses are material events in a piece of matter (the brain). First, there is no explanation of intentionality – that through which contents of consciousness are about entities other than themselves. Intentionality, which points in the opposite direction to that of the sequence of causes and effects that are supposed to bring about consciousness, is not seen elsewhere in the material world. Second, the development of the scientific notion of matter is associated with the elimination of appearance, beginning with those “secondary qualities” such as color and feelings of warmth that form the content of consciousness. Third, neural activity is unlike the experiences that it is supposed to be identical with. Fourth, there are properties of consciousness – such as simultaneous unity and multiplicity, and explicit temporal depth and tensed time – that are not seen in the material world. Acknowledging that the failure to arrive at a neural account of consciousness is not a temporary problem (which can be resolved by further research) will open the way to a fundamental re-think that will help us toward an understanding of the difference between brains and people.

Ray Dolan, Mary Kinross Professor of Neuropsychiatry; Director, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College, London
Value and Irrationality in the Brain

Normative accounts of decision making invoke the idea that we choose in order to optimize the hedonic value, or utility, of expected outcomes. However, there are myriad examples where our behavior indicates that we readily violate the prescriptions of rational decision making. For example, when a doctor recommends options for treatment to a patient the precise manner whereby this information is presented (as a probability of an adverse outcome versus a probability of a cure) leads to dramatically different treatment uptake rates. Similarly, the value we attach to an object seems to be peculiarly bound up with whether we own this object or not, with ownership leading to inflation of value. The pervasive nature of these deviations from rationality begs the question as to their origin. I will suggest that a fundamental explanation relates to our evolutionary heritage such that how information is presented, and the very nature of this information (does it predict a likelihood of reward or punishment), elicits hard-wired responses that exert a biasing effect (and sometimes corrupting effect) on goal-directed decision making. More broadly, what this seems to tell us is that the human mind is more akin to a parliament, characterized by competing interests, rather than the expression of some monolithic all knowing, and rational, chief executive.

Cornelius Borck, Professor of History, Theory, and Ethics of Medicine and the Sciences; Director, Institute for the History of Medicine and Science Studies, University Luebeck
Belatedness – Historiographical Reflections on Time and Readiness in the Neurosciences

When Hans Helmut Kornhuber and Lüder Deecke recorded what they labeled Bereitschaftspotential in the mid-1960s, they regarded this as clear evidence for the neurophysiological processes underlying voluntary action and the initiation of movement. Their findings relied on new electronic methods to retrospectively analyze stored data. A few years later, Benjamin Libet repeated their experiments in modified form, but now the data furbished his conclusion that, neurophysiologically, volition and freedom of decision making were an afterthought, created by the nervous system in addition to the action programs already initiated. Libet, though, left a small window for conscious interference, his famous vetoing function, belated for any real action but not too late for stopping ongoing preparations. With this idea, he shifted the belatedness from the side of the technical analysis to the brain, but he revived, at the same time, the old concept that interference, protraction, and inhibition qualify actions as human – in contrast to the automatic functioning of animals. Another three decades later and after further repetitions of similar experiments with more modern methods in a changed cultural setting where the neurosciences enjoyed a massively fostered position, a radical interpretation gained momentum, declaring volition a mere illusion and expurgating any freedom from the human realm by means of the experimental evidence. Have the neurosciences finally arrived at the real meaning of the data? Instead of debating once more the possible significance of Libet’s experiments, the presentation focuses on the different layers of belatedness that characterize the various stages of the experiments, the time course of their repetition, their materiality as well as their belated public resonances.

Laurence J. Kirmayer, James McGill Professor of Psychiatry; Director, Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal
Cultural Neuroscience and the Politics of Alterity

Given the ongoing biologization of psychiatry, the question of how culture shapes psychopathology can be (partly) reframed in terms of influences of culture on the brain, the central concern of the emerging field of cultural neuroscience. This presentation will explore some links between three meanings of the cultural construction of the brain: (1) the brain as an object of culture: the ways in which culturally grounded metaphors construct popular and scientific understandings of the brain; (2) the brain as the organ of culture: the ways in which cultural lifeways, knowledge, and practice are acquired through neurodevelopment, learning, and plasticity; and (3) the brain as an outcome of culture: the ways in which brains differ across cultures by virtue of developmental histories and social contexts that emphasize specific modes of functioning. Despite the appeal of social and cultural neuroscience, there are reasons for concern because locating psychopathology and cultural difference in the brain encourages views of human affliction that tend to ignore the social origins of suffering and healing. Taking culture seriously demands a psychiatry that understands the brain as part of larger social, cultural, and political systems. This talk will discuss the implications for addressing cultural diversity in psychiatric theory and practice.

One Response to Talking Brains: Problems and Perspectives of the Neurosciences

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