Posts Tagged ‘ Neuroscience ’

The Struggle for the (Possible) Soul of David Eagleman

Robert Jensen in Killing the Buddha:

A neuroscientist imagines life beyond the brain.

There’s a struggle inside the brain of David Eagleman for the soul of David Eagleman.

That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyond-Eagleman’s-brain at all—with or without a soul, whatever that term might mean.

Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist-writer David Eagleman, to life in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know.

Eagleman-the-scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the brain and the mind, the body and the soul. But Eagleman-the-writer knows that those machines aren’t going to answer those questions.

Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic and atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: a word to describe those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”

Taking seriously the old saying “the absence of proof isn’t the proof of absence,” Eagleman recognizes that people who don’t believe in God (at least not in God defined as a supernatural force or entity) can never say with certainty what doesn’t exist. So, the difference between agnostic and atheist is typically a matter of attitude, and such is the case with adding possibilian to the mix. Eagleman is not trying to support or rule out any particular claim but simply suggesting that it’s healthy to imagine possibilities.

While he reports on what-is in scientific journals, Eagleman’s brain and mind run free pondering the what-ifs. In his 2009 book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Eagleman imagines life beyond death, in a playful series of short philosophical musings: What if there were an afterlife in which we relive all our experiences but shuffled into a new order? What if in an afterlife we confront all the possible versions of ourselves that could have been? What if we experience death in stages: when the body stops functioning, when we’re buried, and the moment when your name is spoken by another for the last time? Sum offers 40 such what-ifs. The stories aren’t meant as serious proposals about what an afterlife may be. They are vehicles for Eagleman’s ruminations on the vexing philosophical questions of human life.

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A Neuroscientist Uncovers A Dark Secret

Barbara Bradley Hagerty in NPR:

The criminal brain has always held a fascination for James Fallon. For nearly 20 years, the neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine has studied the brains of psychopaths. He studies the biological basis for behavior, and one of his specialties is to try to figure out how a killer’s brain differs from yours and mine.

About four years ago, Fallon made a startling discovery. It happened during a conversation with his then 88-year-old mother, Jenny, at a family barbecue.

“I said, ‘Jim, why don’t you find out about your father’s relatives?’ ” Jenny Fallon recalls. “I think there were some cuckoos back there.”

Fallon investigated.

“There’s a whole lineage of very violent people — killers,” he says.

One of his direct great-grandfathers, Thomas Cornell, was hanged in 1667 for murdering his mother. That line of Cornells produced seven other alleged murderers, including Lizzy Borden. “Cousin Lizzy,” as Fallon wryly calls her, was accused (and controversially acquitted) of killing her father and stepmother with an ax in Fall River, Mass., in 1882.

A little spooked by his ancestry, Fallon set out to see whether anyone in his family possesses the brain of a serial killer. Because he has studied the brains of dozens of psychopaths, he knew precisely what to look for. To demonstrate, he opened his laptop and called up an image of a brain on his computer screen.

“Here is a brain that’s not normal,” he says. There are patches of yellow and red. Then he points to another section of the brain, in the front part of the brain, just behind the eyes.

“Look at that — there’s almost nothing here,” Fallon says.

This is the orbital cortex, the area that Fallon and other scientists believe is involved with ethical behavior, moral decision-making and impulse control.

“People with low activity [in the orbital cortex] are either free-wheeling types or sociopaths,” he says.

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Lost? Evidence That Sense Of Direction Is Innate

Katherine Harmon in Scientific American:

Not everyone has a perfect sense of direction, whether they would like to admit it or not. But two new studies have found that even baby rats have a basic spatial framework in their brains ready to use as soon as they leave the nest for the first time—which is much earlier than had previously been documented.

The findings reveal that not all sense of space is learned. They show that at least some of that sense is innate, “that the basic constituents of the cognitive map develop independently of spatial experience or might even precede it,” noted the authors of one of the new studies, both published online June 17 in Science.

For the two independent studies researchers record rats’ neuronal firings as soon as newborn pups opened their eyes and began to explore their surroundings. Both teams were surprised to find adult-level cell function in some of the directional regions.

At this age, “the animals would not yet have had a chance to explore the environment beyond their nest,”Francesca Cacucci, a researcher at the Institute of Behavioral Neuroscience at University College London and co-author of one of the papers, writes in an e-mail. “This suggests strongly that sense of direction is independent of spatial experience.”

And because the mammalian hippocampus is relatively consistent in its make-up across species, these lab rat–based findings likely mirror a similar developmental trajectory in humans.

Other abilities, such as face perception or language use, are thought to be innate. But “space is such a basic cognitive function, and to have it be partly innate is really interesting and groundbreaking work,” says Linda Palmer, a project scientist at the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, who coauthored a perspectives essay accompanying the two studies in Science.

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