National Conference 2014: "The New Neuroscience - friend or foe ?"
Over the sunny weekend of July 4-6th was held the annual OUPS conference at the University of Warwick. This year’s conference was entitled The New Neuroscience: Friend or Foe? and concurred with OUPS 40th Anniversary celebrations.
Professor Fred Toates - who organised and selected the speakers - opened the conference by outlining the social & philosophical implications of neuroscience. Fred reviewed the main themes that would pervade the lectures. These included: the view that the brain is the basis of behaviour and how far the social context can influence cognitive and behavioural outcomes. In addition, the perennial agency versus structure debate and the extent of our moral duty for our actions would feature throughout. This relates further to the attribution of dispositional and situational viewpoints. Finally, ethical implications for society were noted.
To add some controversy to the conference, parapsychology was included with discussion monist and dualist positions. Fred justified this by reminding us that many famous scientists like Eccles, Eyesenck, Freud, Hebb, W James, Jung and Sherrington had all held dualist beliefs. Furthermore, critiques of neuroscience would also be included by some speakers.
The first lecture was by Adrian Raine, an eminent neuro-forensic psychologist based at the University of Pennsylvania who spoke on ‘The Anatomy of Violence’. Dr Raine emphasised three significant areas. Firstly that of early childhood biological risk factors increasing the odds of later delinquency. This included showing how tobacco and alcohol toxins consumed by the mother can affect the foetus. A Canadian study revealed that children born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome were 19 times more likely to be arrested by their mid-thirties. Obvious issues of free will and moral responsibility abound here.
Further risk factors were both the malnutrition of expectant mothers and the early childhood years. Research into homicide rates has shown lower homicide rates when seafood consumption is higher. Raines current research increasing Omega-3 supplements in children in Mauritius is showing another negative correlation, indicating an anti- social behavioural decrease. Omega-3 is physiologically involved in regulating gene expression and the formation of the cellular membranes.
Secondly, he mentioned some brain mechanisms involved in crime related behaviour. A meta-analysis of Pre-frontal cortex abnormalities positively correlated increasing with anti-social behaviour (d=0.6). Moreover, psychopaths have an 18% decrease in the neuronal volume in the amygdala indicating abnormalities. This adds to the evidence in the structure and function debate.
The potential implications for legal and social issues were relevant in three areas: prevention by improving nutrition and reducing drug use; prediction by examining individuals PFC and amygdala and punishment. The latter can be problematic as people who believe in free will tend to demand harsher sentencing. Raines showed a video-clip of a case- study named Michael whose severe brain tumour caused major sexual deviance; but following successful surgery the atypical behaviour ceased, thus restoring his immaculate previous criminal record.
The second lecture was delivered by Angela Ripon of Aston University on ‘Neurotrash’. Dr Rippon was concerned by the use of the neuro-prefix by media, the general public and academics. The media especially construes fMRI published images as, “Beautiful”.
Ripon stated that there are three areas of misunderstanding; firstly, anything neuro- related allows us to mind-read, which is often fictitiously portrayed in films and TV programmes especially to detect lying.
Secondly, the relationship between the natural context and the ecological validity of laboratory neuroscience research often using fMRI. Ripon cited gender difference research based upon comparative evidence from baby chickens and songbirds!
Thirdly, Ripon expressed dismay that neuroscience could create a ‘Brain Atlas’ or an ‘A-Z of the Mind’. This idea is still historically situated in 19th century Phrenonlogical localisation of function. Research was shown purporting that even the same academics publish contradictory findings five years apart suggesting two different brain areas for the same thing!
Ripon felt that the perpetuation of non- evidence based ideas from myriad sources around supposed gender differences and accurate lie detection abilities by neuroscience were, “quite worrying”.
The next lecture was a controversial position by David Lorrimer of The Scientific & Medical Network on Near Death Experiences: The role of consciousness. Lorimer argued that case studies of patients suffering cardiac arrest who experience distortions of space-time and out-of-body effects suggested that the ‘New Thought Movement’ (NTM) needed to replace the rationalist materialist position whose assumptions were rarely questioned by mainstream psychology.
The slogan of NTM is that “All mind is one mind,” with the primacy of mind over matter and Lorrimer placed his viewpoint in the context of Eastern Philosophy. He outlined the long history of the monist- dualist debate from ancient philosophy to contemporary psychology which has reinforced our enduring dependency on philosophical issues and debates.
Lorrimer reminded the audience that the hard problem of consciousness stated by Chambers i.e. how consciousness is an emergent property of the brain had not been solved with materialist methods. Instead, he argued that consciousness is not objective, but presents itself as The Ultimate Subject.
Case-studies of Near Death Experiences (NDE) and Out-of-Body Experiences (OBE) were presented, postulating a dualism instead of uncritically accepted notions of materialist monism. The latter had been unable to explain the description of OBE traits, including experience of dimension without space-time and hallucinations.
Nevertheless, our current materialist notions would question the plausibility of generalisations from just case-studies towards accepting and accommodating the NTM.
Raymond Tallis, author of Aping Mankind, presented a challenge to the approach of neuroscience, particularly its emphasis upon seeing itself as the ultimate explanation of human behaviour. His lecture was entitled ‘Are We Beasts?’ After working many years in this field Tallis stated that he had come to question two key assumptions.
Firstly, Neuromania, which is the notion that the biological sciences understand us and that we “be a brain” only. This further develops the idea that consciousness is congruent with neural correlates and creates awareness. This is discovered using the neuroscientists, “favourite tool” fMRI. The concept further questions prefixing so many subject areas with neuro- e.g. neuroeconomics, neuropsychriatry, neuropolitics etc. to justify authenticity.
Secondly, the concept of Darwinitis and how we humans evolved. Tallis stated he had issues with the theory of natural selection’s ability to evolve both millipedes and Mozart as stretching credulity. He took issue with the notion that, “We are just animals underneath” and argued that there are major distinctions between humans and beasts. Tallis gave examples of learning and feeding behavioural differences. Towards the end of his talk Tallis added a disclaimer, stating he was a Darwinist, but was nevertheless very sceptical about some areas.
Tallis echoed instead Merleau-Ponty’s view of humans as an embodied person who can exercise agency and lives out narratives in a social context. This talk reminds us all that assumptions can be questioned and due to epistemological issues one day be changed when new evidence emerges.
The next lecture which was to be by Iain MacGilchrist author of The Master & his Emissary was cancelled due to personal extenuating circumstances. To compensate a YouTube clip of him summarising his key ideas at the RSA two years ago was shown instead. MacGilchrist hypothesised that there is a cerebral hemisphere division, which is unlike the well-known localisation of function consensus. Essentially, we need to re-balance the use of our L-R cerebral hemispheres by utilising the right one (RH) more to incorporate a broader picture.
This imbalance has worsened gradually since the Renaissance, but LH dominance accelerated during the Enlightenment when mind-body and Reason-emotion dichotomies were introduced.
MacGilchrist postulated that these dichotomies utilise both hemispheres. However, the lateralisation is for attentional cross-modal binding processes which create the external objects we encounter daily. These change in our attentional spotlight which construes reality proportionally relative to the amount of attention we provide in different contexts including at the molecular level e.g. gene transcription.
Neurologically, the Corpus Callousm is involved by inhibiting the opposite hemisphere. Additionally, the neural hemispheric lateralisation has functional significance and comparative psychology can explain why. Birds particularly, show the RH has functions for constructing a broader picture, making connections and increasing survival. In contrast, the LH is more focused and narrower.
Whilst similar, humans have a major difference in the Pre-Frontal Cortex which comprises approximately 35% of the brain. This provides humans with more complex social skills like Theory of Mind which can be used deviously as in Machiavellianism. These lateralised attentional processes allow faculties to function optimally.
Simon Thorpe, Director of the CNRS laboratory, France outlined connectionism’s latest advancements. He underlined that some sceptics had always felt that the analogy to information processing via connectionist models was too slow and unreliable. However, with the latest technology the processing speed of computers was phenomenal thus increasing the ecological validity of this research area.
Modern computers could now be programmed to recognise both objects and visual scenes. Further, the computer could reliably learn and categorise repeating patterns. Both object recognition of motorcycles and facial recognition was also possible now with improved accuracy and because computers can learn unsupervised. Thorpe argued that this could provide, “a key to intelligence.” However, computers are still not able to produce consciousness and this continues to elude connectionist modelling; instead it just generates labels.
Furthermore, Thorpe investigated pre- consciousness or telepathy. He stated that evidence supporting dualist accounts would re-write scientific history. However, a meta-analysis of 26 studies showed an effect size of 0.21. In his recent research, US based psychologist Daryl J Bem conducted 36 trials using erotic images as stimuli and showed no effect.
With the actual conference audience, Thorpe conducted an unofficial trial of telepathy, revealing mixed results. In his published research Thorpe revealed his data showed only a 47-54% chance of telepathic success and an effect size of d=0.0036.
Despite these results Thorpe stated he was uncertain whether PSI existed. He theoretically conjectured if it did exist, it would have massive evolutionary advantages in improving the outcomes of both survival and reproduction. Moreover, it could explain the evolution of consciousness too. However, there are difficulties in attempting to get this research genre published due to academic credibility and personal reputation affecting career options.
The next talk by Morten Kringelbach of University of Oxford & Director of Hedonia focused upon the emotion of pleasure and how this may be elicited in the brain. As most emotions are negative, research on them tends to ignore more positive ones such as pleasure despite its implications for motivation and subjectivity.
Kringelbach emphasised that pleasure is ubiquitous and facilitates survival and reproduction evolutionary factors. It is also involved in cognitive processes like decision-making and resource allocation. Drugs can “hijack” pleasure which may be relevant to drug rehabilitation programmes. Thus, the optimisation of pleasure is fundamental on multiple levels in different social contexts.
Some neuroanatomical areas are structurally involved in the function of pleasure in both humans and animals. Examples included the nucleus accumbens and activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine in these regions. Further, the volume of white matter was congruent in comparative studies as well.
Nonetheless, the human Pre-Frontal Cortex is completely different in humans. For example, fMRI research shows Orbital Frontal Cortex (OFC) is active during various behaviours like eating, sex and modulation of state boundaries like decision-making, demonstrating its multi- modal abilities. This suggests pleasure may be subjectively unique to human experiences.
Moreover, MEG research reveals that in parent’s neural facial recognition areas the fusiform gyrus (the orbital part of the right temporal lobe) activated more with baby faces than adult ones. However, rather worryingly, babies with cleft lips interfered with this mechanism highlighting potential ethical implications possibly in parenting attachment style.
Based on his research, Kringelbach also explained how baby sounds activated the primary auditory cortex and simultaneously activated the OFC brain areas for pleasure according to the degree of auditory frequency of the baby’s cry. This has obvious implications in parental care with “difficult” babies and how a dyadic relationship might interact.
Finally, he spoke about how mapping neural networks could create interventions for treating depression by focusing on stimulating the brain areas which increase pleasure.
The final lecture was by Visiting Professor Lance Workman of University of South Wales who spoke upon, “Are We Conciliated Yet?” alluding to E. O. Wilson’s book published over fifteen years ago.
During the mid 70s Wilson introduced controversy by proclaiming very confidently that, “Sociobiology will eventually cannibalise the social sciences,” which Workman emphasised still aggravates even today.
Since 1999 Wilson has suggested that ‘consilience’ may be possible between the natural and social sciences along with the humanities. Workman proposed ways this may be achieved. A difficulty is that this consilience needs to adopt the scientific method of the natural sciences which is very awkward for the humanities which rarely use quantitative data. Hope for this is that David Buss notes Evolutionary Psychology utilises up to eleven varied methods from experimental to observational.
Workman strongly argued that Evolutionary Psychology can be this consilience despite it regularly receiving a very hostile reception from many facets of society including academia. This was largely based upon false assumptions made against evolution.
A key area to challenge is that of Biophobia which tends to adopt the assumptions of the Blank Slate; Eugenics and Social Constructionism. Reasons for this tend to be a fear of political inequality and a refusal to recognise similarities between humans and other animals. Evolutionary Psychology can offer explanations; but not justifications for any political ideology or the naturalistic fallacy.
Many accusations are levelled against Evolutionary Psychology, but as Workman argued, they are not convincing or are based upon misrepresentations in both student textbooks from the Social Sciences and the Arts and Humanities subjects.
Workman proposed that Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience may be this consilience in two areas. Firstly, relating structure to function as other talks had previously mentioned. Secondly, incorporating vertical integration with different levels of analysis without inconsistencies. Difficulties with the latter include integration with Social Constructionism’s incompatibility with the laws of chemistry and physics as well as its cultural relativity.
Further problems to solve are an Evolutionary explanation of qualia despite its understanding of the neural correlates of consciousness as an adaptation. Workman concluded: “I think neuroscience is a friend; not a foe... however we are a long way from being conciliated; but there are some promising signs of attempts at integration.”
In summary, a very rewarding conference that suggested the workings of the brain and especially abnormalities may change our view of human ontology. However, psychopathology has well-researched environmental influences especially in a child’s early years interacting with endogenous abnormalities. Hence, neuroscience does not prove nor disprove the existence of free will or construe anti- social behaviour as solely brain based; but it does suggest how in specific circumstances agency may be impeded. Finally at the moment, the evidence of case-studies is not sufficient to support a pan psychic view of consciousness.
Reflecting on the conference afterwards Prof Fred Toates remarked that, “I was very happy with the presentations and associated discussions. I thought that the quality was excellent. It was also very good that students were able to interact so much with the speakers over meals and at break times.”
I feel the conference presented neuroscience as a friend; but in contrast it reminded us of its often taken-for-granted materialist assumptions. However, I thought the conference went some distance at attempting to answer these issues. Moreover, it needs to be remembered that neuroscience is a very complex and vast subject and that controversial debates could not be adequately resolved in only a weekend!
Overall, OUPS celebrated its 40th anniversary with a fantastic thought provoking conference overlaid with really interesting speakers.
Ken Kilsby Bsc (Psych) Hons; Cert Soc Sci; MBPsS.
Ken graduated in psychology with the OU in 2009 and has been employed as a quantitative research assistant at a UK registered charity for children with cerebral palsy and Autism/ASDs for 13 years.