Monday, February 24, 2014

Into a silent land - book summary

Broks, P. (2003) published by Grove Press.

Paul Brok's Into a silent land is a short book with an almost fiction writing style introduces many of the concepts discussed in previous post on neurobiology and neuroscience using examples from the authors’ work as a neuropsychologists.

The book has attained various awards for its ability to use narratives of human nature, to illustrate the current understanding on how the brain works. The author is also not adverse towards calling to attention the large areas of research still required before humankind can hope to understand some of how the brain works. He also does not shy away from the fact that much of his work is difficult to explain and the underlying premise of what works or not with regards to care of his often badly damaged patients, is still an ongoing work in progress. There is still the need to do so much more study within the area of neuroscience.

The stories in each chapter enlighten the reader on some of the important discoveries of how the brain works. Each chapter provides a story or two about one of Broks’ patients to illustrate our emergent understanding of how our brain works. The stories of each patient are recorded sensitively and provide examples of various brain functions.  Brok’s reflections on how he is able (or not) to assist the patient tells us much about the ethical decisions all clinicians must face on a day to day basis. How to assist patients when there seems no cure in sight. Brok's empathy and consideration for his patients comes through, modelling considered practice for young neuropsychologists. The last chapter recounts Brok’s own experiences in dealing with his wife’s illness. An appropriate closing with the message that we all have to deal with issues related to our emotions.

There is no reference listing as such but nine pages of recommended reading. Some of which I will explore. Beginning with the 10 or so books recommended on the topic of ‘consciousness’.

I enjoyed reading this beautifully written work. The stories and difficult concepts are merged together, providing a satisfying read. Of note is the opportunity to learn and understand more about the inner workings of a neuropsychologist, how they come to think through their decisions for patient treatment and the depositional traits required to maintain professional integrity and practice in a difficult and challenging field. The structure of the book also provides an example of how to merge narrative with fact to produce a book in the non- fiction genre that appeals to the general reader. We learn more when we are able to humanise the difficult.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Touching a nerve: the self as brain - book summary

I came to this book via other readings and purchased the ebook version via Amazon. The field of neurophilosophy is the topic of this book by Professor Patricia S. Churchland 2013 book published by Norton. Professor Churchland and her husband have written several books arguing for the application of the neurophilosophical approach towards understanding how the brain works. A short youtube clip provides introduction to her work and a UCTV youtube clip presents discussion of the book ' touching a nerve'. A critique and book review found here.

In this book, Professor Churchland writes an accessible book for the layperson trying to understand mind / brain and self. Her stance is that her brain and herself cannot be envisaged separately, one is bound to the next and to understand the brain and the self requires not a dualistic metaphor but a holistic approach.
‘Sometimes neuroscience knows more about myself then I do’! Brain scans only go a short way towards contributing to our understanding of how the brain works. As each part of the brain is activated, various other interfaces are also engaged, all of the interconnections are idiosyncratic to each individual. Hence, difficult to generalise across to all humans the result of brain scan studies. Much of decision making is unconscious, how can we say we have control when so much of how we think occurs subconsciously?!
Argues for a need to change how we approach understanding how our brains work and contribution to who we are. Uses examples (Galileo, Harvey’s discovery of how the heart works and Semmelwies work to have doctors wash their hands between patients) to explain the difficulties of forging a change in understanding with ingrained and ‘taken for granted’ concepts. Philosophers facing the need to come to grips with how the brain works need to make the leap. Neurophilosophy is an approach that needs to bring philosophy into the modern age. Neurophilosophy brings understandings of neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology into the realm of philosophers.

Churchland then uses her life biography, her childhood on a farm in a small Canadian farming community, to explain her learning as a young philosopher and to narrate the story of how she moved into neurophilosophy.

Chapter two provides an overview of the brain’s biological evolution and philosophy’s perspectives of brain and soul over the ages (Greek to present). The dualist argument (body and soul) is now rejected as the presence of the soul cannot be proved. Thus, we are what our brains make of us. The brain and the soul are one and the same. However, owing to the brain’s complexity we still do not understand exactly how it works, with much work still to be undertaken. Churchland undertakes a discussion in the section ‘naysaying is easier than doing science’ of why it is important to continue work on both philosophical and neurobiological understanding of brain function.

The third chapter titled ‘my heavens’, uses studies of near death experiences to explore whether there is heaven, or some form of destination after death. The conclusion being probably not. When our brain ceases to work, the memories, cognitions and feeling that go with it, also cease.

Then chapter four discusses the issue of how we acquire moral thought, where does it lodge in the brain and how do we come about with decisions or take stands of items of morality. This topic is explored in greater detail in a previous Churchland book ‘Brain trust: What neuroscience tells usabout morality‘ and this chapter provides a summary of where our values may come from, the biological evolution of mammals’ caring for their young and each other and the links toward humans’ development of morality.

The less palatable aspects of humanity ‘aggression and sex’ are discussed in the next chapter. Our predilection for aggressive solutions is again explained through evolutionary biology. Social, economic and political forces added to the mix, bring out some of the worse acts of human atrocities against each other. The difference between male and female and the influence of sexualism are also discussed in this chapter.
Chapter 6 continues the themes presented in the previous chapter with discussions on whether genocide is in our genes and the influences of institutional norms of shaping behaviour.

The next chapter explores the contributions towards ameliorating the aspects of ourselves presented in the previous two chapters. Chapter 7 discusses aspects of free will, habits and self-control. The definition of free will takes up about ¼ of the chapter as it is difficult to pin down what is free will due to its contextualised application. So free will could be if you intend an action, know what you are doing, are of sound mind, and are not forced to make the decision.

Chapter 8 ‘hidden cognition’ is of interest towards informing our understanding of how learning works. The unconscious part of our mind is often underestimated or unrecognised. Yet, much of what makes us who we are is predicated on how others read our unconscious actions. Our reading of the unconscious ‘vibes’ from others also contributes to how we interact with others. The work of Freud and Helmholtz are reviewed with regards to what we now know about our unconscious selves. Thinking, does not need language, we possess concepts that are difficult to articulate (Johnson & Lakoff - metaphors we live by). Each of us is an integrated package of thoughts, feelings, both conscious and unconscious.

Then chapter 9 continues on with ‘the conscious life explained’ with an overview of research in sleep psychology and neurobiology. The relationships between our conscious and unconscious self are also discussed. Sensory signals of which we are conscious are highly integrated and processed by our unconscious brain. When required in a ‘novel’ situation, the unconscious thoughts become availed to our conscious self. Note, our conscious self has a limited capacity, so we continually shuffle items back and forth between conscious and unconscious. Novelty calls attention to selected items to dredge from our unconsciousness and we can select from a vast store. The key is we are able to select the right items as and when required (Barrs, global workspace theory).

The last chapter closes an enlightening read with the ‘balancing act’ between reporting new learnings in the neurosciences with the need to not over generalise or sensationalise findings. Each study adds parts to parts of the whole in understanding how the brain works. Isolating studies and reporting them out of context does not assist the general public. Also, the neurosciences are still continually finding new applications and discoveries, refuting old concepts and requiring new understanding to be applied. Recommends as one way to keep up to date through access to proven findings.

In all, a good book to read for an overview of the present discussion on brain and mind. Professor Churchland writes clearly and uses examples many lay people can relate to. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

The evolved apprentice - book summary

Sterelny, K. (2012). The evolved apprentice: How evolutionmade humans unique. Cambridge, MA; London, UK: MIT Press.

This was the first book I explored in the area of evolutionary psychology. Mainly because my various digital alert systems search for ‘apprentic*’ and this book came up a few times via various alerts. I parked the book for summer reading and am happy I did finally make time to study it in greater detail. This book is easier reading than Sterelny’s previous book ‘Thought in a hostile world’ as briefly over viewed in last week's blog. “Evolved apprentice’ concentrates on the ‘social intelligence hypothesis'. Examples from primate studies, archaeology and ethnography are used through the book to illustrate the thesis. In summary, the book explores how the human brain evolved due to the need to learn quickly to cope with a challenging environment. Living together in family groups provided proto-humans with the opportunity to learn from each other. This ensured ‘technology’ was not lost from one generation to the next and small incremental improvements or flashes of inspiration could be actioned.

The book has 8 chapters. Short summaries of each chapter follow:

1)      Challenge of novelty – the social intelligence hypothesis is summarised and discussed. The need for increased learning in early hominids was premised on the increasing complexity of tasks required to sustain the hunter-gatherer life. Humans have many needs requiring reciprocity in group relationships. Division of labour within human groupings both horizontally and vertically required specialised communication skills. Humans also are comparatively long lived, with good memories leading to options for inter-generational verbal transmission of cultural skills. Learning of social skills also involve learning both the good and bad about human nature.

2)      Accumulating cognitive capital – precepts of the apprentice leaning model are discussed in this chapter. The 4 virtues of apprentice learning are identified and discussed. Virtues are: apprenticeship learning can be structured incrementally; complex tasks and high-fidelity / high band-with knowledge can be learnt; skill transmission may occur ‘informally’ without adult teaching or formal explicit instruction; and ethnographic studies have shown that learning through apprenticeship works – due to reciprocal balance between productivity and returns from learner.  

3)      Adapted individuals, adapted environments – here the understandings of Sapiens and Neanderthal evolution are unravelled to explain why one species carried on and the other became extinct. One explanation is the ability of sapiens to think symbolically and this allowed concepts to be carried from one generation to the next. At various stages, abrupt ‘technological leaps’ occurred, pushing development of sapiens ahead. These innovations were not lost from one generation to the next but were then further refined, leading to sufficient knowledge accumulation to allow for the next progressive leap.

4)      Human cooperation syndrome – co-evolution of “cooperation, information-guided foraging and niche construction” of context specific knowledge are premised to have been the difference between hominins and other apes. The ‘grandmother hypothesis’ is put forward as one advantage hominins could use to advance. Grandmothers provided a source for intergenerational knowledge. They also were able to mind young children while parents hunted / foraged, increasing the group’s ability to maintain a sustainable life. Activities like foraging and hunting required more complex communication techniques. Laying down the ground work for evolution to select for a species which had brains to handle the needs of cooperation and group living.

5)      Costs and commitments -  this chapter tidies up loose ends in the social intelligence hypothesis. For example why ‘freeloaders’, bullies etc. and their opposites of altruism have evolved. The cost of cooperation is weight up with the advantages afforded. Costs may be investments for the future and honesty creates long-term advantages perhaps not for the individual but for the larger group.

6)      Signals, cooperation and learning – here the discussion expands on the role of signals and communication and the role of honesty. Cultural learning’s advantages and disadvantages are discussed.

7)      From skills to norms – the ethical connotations to the social intelligence hypothesis are introduced and discussed in this chapter. Why and how morals have developed and how they are learnt, transmitted through cultural norms and the implications are introduced and extended.

8)      Cooperation and conflict – this last chapter, brings the various contributions to the social intelligence hypothesis to a close. The need for how humans have evolved to  acknowledge ‘give and take’ and how individuals, societies etc, balance ‘strong reciprocity’ brings the book to a close.

The book has notes for each chapter, 25 pages of references and index. References provide good overview of the relevant literature from anthropology, archaeology, ethnographical studies and evolutionary psychology. All in, the book provides good background leavened with many pertinent examples from contemporary work on understanding how evolutionary pressures of our pre-history contributed to how we now communicate, learn and live.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Evolutionary psychology - some interim concepts

Various meanders and exploration of literature on learning a trade  has led to encounter with a few books on evolutionary psychology.

So this post offers some brief book summaries and impressions .

First up, Before the dawn: recovering the lost history of our ancestors, by Nicolas Ward. Reviewed with some summaries here
This book lays out the evolutionary path taken by our ancestors with emphasis on how our genetical heritage evolved. Of importance is the work completed over the last several decades whereby learning on genetics confirms the ‘out of Africa’ theory. Our ancestors evolved over many millennium in Africa and due to hypothesised climate change 50,000 years ago gradually migrated out to inhabit the whole world. Therefore, there was a bit of a genetical bottleneck back then. Africans have the most varied genome. Whereas all other ‘races’ have much less diversity. 

Secondly, the evolved apprentice by Kim Sterelny, to be summarised in next week’s blog. This is the book that started my explorations into evolutionary psychology.

The evolved apprentice has several references to Professor Sterelny's previous book, Thoughts in a hostile world: The evolution of human cognition. This book discusses the various ways in which humans’ hunter and gatherer lifestyle, led to the development of how we now learn, behave, cooperate, make decisions etc. Examples from studies of primates are used to understand some of the roots for human behaviours and practices. Two theories are discussed in detail through the book: - social intelligence hypothesis and  massive modularity hypothesis. Both concepts still areas of contention, so critique of social intelligence found here and massive modularity, here.Thoughts in a hostile world does layout the arguments for evolutionary psychology approaches and the book provides a good overview and introduction to the subject.