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. 

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