Archive for November, 2008

This is a fancy title to say that I’ll write here about a textbook, a PhD dissertation and a Powerpoint audio podcast, all on the topic of this blog. I found all the 3 very useful to get acquainted with social neuroscience.

First, Michael Gazzaniga et al. textbook on Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of the Mind (Sept 2008, 3rd edition). This textbook is worth presenting here because I found it poorly advertised on the web, despite its great value to the beginner in cognitive neuroscience (your Google search is most likely to turn up the previous edition, which is old from 2002).

This wonderful bookstore in Leiden, Netherlands

This wonderful bookstore in Leiden, Netherlands - pic by sprklg

Even if I picked it at random on the minuscule psychology section of my local bookstore specializing in egyptology and Asian cultures, it turned out to be the most relevant buy. As I learned in the first pages, Gazzaniga happens to be the guy who coined the term “cognitive neuroscience”, in the back of a New York cab in the late 70s.

Anyway, Gazzaniga et al. present in outstanding clarity all the broad topics of the field: basic physiology, memory, language, attention, emotion, control of action, sensory and motor systems. The textbook is intended, I suppose, for undergrad students in biology or psychology, and anybody who was taught in high school what a synapse is can follow it. It comes with plenty of illustrations, and special textboxes which highlight “toolkits” for the social neuroscientist. It is 666 pages long so you do spend some time on it, but always learning essential things.

But two things seduced me in particular.

First, this was the first textbook I ever read with such an engaging narrative line. In fact, the authors explain in the preface that the text was thoroughly polished by “Professor of Writing and Neuroscience” Megan Steven to make it like a conversation with the student.

Gazzaniga et al. (2008) - Cognitive Neuroscience

Gazzaniga et al. (2008) - Cognitive Neuroscience

Almost like:

“Ok, this brain area is thought to be involved in this and that cognitive function. But hey, how do we know whether these functions are independent from each other, or if they are co-dependant? Well, here is the clever experiment designed by Smith and al. in 2008 …”

Which brings me to the second point: the book has astonishingly up to date references. You can actually find some from 2008, and really a lot from 2005-2007. So that in reading this textbook, you feel like being introduced to the frontier of the discipline, rather than being patronized as a student.

Careful, this is not a textbook in neuroeconomics (they just have 3 pages on the topic, somewhere after page 600…). But this is a vital preliminary step to understand neuroeconomics: it teaches you what is the brain, and the basic functions it performs. After reading it, you are ready to go “social”!

Well, the two other items on the list will wait for the next post, because they desserve some extensive treatments as well!


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Arminius - 20 Sept 2008

Arminius - 20 Sept 2008

The conference organized by the EIPE in the Arminius Centre, Rotterdam was well attended – about 40 people in the audience for each of the 3 days. Speakers where mainly philosophers, and the audience was a mix of economists, philosophers, and neuroeconomists. So, hype or hope?

Speakers and members of the audience seemed to make a distinction between two kinds of neuroeconomics, to start with. One of them is the “Camerer – Glimcher” variety, and is supposed to  represent a solid extension to behavioral economics.

Arminius - 21 Nov 2008

Arminius - 21 Nov 2008

This got some praise, which was not the case of the second brand of neuroeconomics – loosely if ever defined, but criticisms often seemed to include in it Paul Zak’s way of doing neuroeconomics: brash claims, fMRI scans all over the place, amateurish statistics and no clear scientific agenda but a well-rounded rhetoric. Zak was attending the conference and surely seemed himself hype, with his looks of young and sportive Californian athlete.

Paul Zak

Paul Zak

So when he presented his talk on Saturday morning, surprise: not an fMRI image in sight, but plenty of measuring of blood samples. Many subjects (around 80) for every task, and a simple-steps way to describe his experimental protocol and conclusions. Strong conclusions, by the way: in the experiments (dictator’s game but not only) this oxytocin stuff demonstrates a clear influence on trust in simple monetary transactions. Suddenly, this brand of neuroeconomics looked much less hype (does it generate hope or fear is another issue). You could almost feel the audience reckoning that after all, that kind of neuroeconomics was indeed sound and interesting science.

This left me with the impression that listening to and actually frequenting neuroeconomists (or any scientist for this matter) is a healthy prerequisite upon commenting on their work. Reading reviews about their work and programmatic statements is not enough, and can actually be misleading. The conference talked a lot about the neuroeconomic approach to empathy – more empathy is surely needed before pronouncing final judgments on neuroeconomics.

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A recurring aspect of the discussions in social neuroscience is the big, indeed massive, hopes generated by the field. Social neuroscientists claim they will one day help cure diseases, handicaps, improve memory, learning capacity,  etc.

To see a perfect example of this rethoric, have a look at this short video by the University of Reading. I just have to say: it worked on me, I was amazed. Have a look by yourself:


[from a post by Sylvain on this very good French forum on neuroscience, Ovule Neuroscience.]

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memoryI have always thought of memory and the ability to retain information as something akin to a filing system. You learn something new, and duly the mind makes a copy on a piece of paper and stores it in the relevant drawer, ready for being picked out when it is needed. Some people may have more space than others, file faster or simply copy things quicker, but the filing cabinet was always the analogy of choice. That could be why teachers are so keen on covering the same thing again and again, as this will create highlights in our filing system, and why course outlines and bulletpoints are so popular, as we imagine that students add to some existing mental archive.

Imagine my surprise when I came across research that argues that memory is not like a filing system, but rather it works like Velcro (cf. Rubins (Ch. 2), Mayer [1980], Fiske & Taylor [Ch. 4-5]) … This “velcro theory of memory ” argues that when we get a new piece of information we instantly try to relate it to other things that we know (using a ‘Schema’) in our head. For example if you are going to learn about a new fruit – The Pomelo – and you don’t know what a Pomelo is (or if you do, pretend that you don’t), I can give you the facts:

“The Pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The Rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart”

Look away, and explain to me what a Pomelo is… … If you didn’t know a Pomelo, odds are that you will remember maybe the colour, or the tangy option, or something else. This is all correct knowledge but it is not connected to any pre-existing ‘schema’ in the mind, so your knowledge of the Pomelo is probably not very good, and one would struggle to relate to others what a Pomelo is, without reading the above statement again and again. Now if we use a ‘schema’, one can describe the Pomelo as: “basically a big grapefruit with a thick and soft rind.” (Pomelo example from Heath & Heath (2008: 53))

Money says that the latter description is both easier to remember, and that you would be able to relate both what a Pomelo is quickly, and know quite a bit about it. It connects with things we know (pre-existing schemas) about grapefuits and builds on top of them. So metaphors are very helpful not just because they may illustrate a point, but they tug at existing memories (and schema’s) and thus help retain information more easily. (cf Lakoff & Johnson on metaphors)

How one can apply this in teaching and business is then the next step, although I suspect that marketing departments around the world are already in the know… But maybe not? This was news to me, but what do the scientists make of this claim?

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Carwash companies are watching your brain

Carwash companies want to monitor your brain

Pop music has a distant cousin: pop science. I first encountered the “pop” adjective before “science” when reading about ethology, the continental tradition in the study of animal behavior. The revival of the notion of instinct (Konrad Lorenz), and the flourishing of animal studies in natural conditions (apes in particular) led to the publication of books claiming that humans had deeply-rooted instinctual behaviors, after all. Culture would just be a superficial layer sliding on top of our strong biological nature.  Those books became massive best sellers: The Naked Ape by British zoologist and surrealist painter Desmond Morris is a representative example. Published in 1967, it had sold 8 millions copies by 1979. To compare, the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins has sold “just” over a million copies in 30 years.

Pop-ethology often includes among distinct features: a taste for human-animal analogies in any form (“humans are just apes” or “apes are remarkably human”), a penchant for conservative orientation (to choose from: homosexuality is a behavior caused by urban overcrowding, gender inequalities perform an adaptive function, …), a romanticizing of the scientific endeavor, and a glorification of untouched nature.

I had ended by thinking that pop-ethology was distinctively unique, a genre caused and circumscribed by human / higher primate analogies, in the 60s and 70s. But I come to realize that it could be better understood as just an instance of a broader pop-genre that renews itself regularly. And pop-neuroscience is the new trend, it seems.

The same way pop-ethology was primarily a literary genre, but was also expressed in documentaries and cinema movies, one has a variety of pop-neuroscience media. My favorite so far is a the website of a carwash company trying to make sense of how focusing on the reptile brain can boost its sales.

I think there are “areas of development” for the pop genre in neuroscience, and I see at least two: evolutionary claims, and over-optimistic mapping.

Evolutionary claims is when carwashers try to bypass your consciousness and speak directly to your reptilian brain, to make you choose extra options (“calming fear in the customer will make him/her choose the shiny polish at $8.”). This kind of pop-neuroscience is very much like pop-ethology used to be: that’s still the old “Humans are just like apes” brand argument, except that you climb a step further down on the evolutionary ladder, from apes to reptiles.

The second is over-optimistic mapping. Cognitive neuroscientists have even a name for it: grandmother cells. Briefly, this is the belief that high order social phenomena (like the seeing of a grandmother’s face) have a one-to-one relation with the firing of single neurons (the neuron for recognizing grandmothers). How nice would it be for cashwashers if they could find the stimulus that triggers the firing of the “washing my car frantically” neuron! Ah, dreams, fantastic dreams…

The trick is, some single neurons do fire for quite complex phenomena, like with the visualization of faces or hand-shaped stimuli. But from there to the “grandmother cell”, there is still a gap. Pop-neuroscience loves to bridge the gap, by claiming regularly that this or that brain’s area is responsible for this or that complex social function.

Anyway, I have not yet any big conclusion on that, it just strikes me how strong the pop-genre seems to be in social neuroscience. To the point of overshadowing the rest?

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The Baptism of Christ, Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, 1472-1745

The Baptism of Christ, Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, 1472-1745

In speech and writing, it occurred to me that I could simply not name the scientific field I was studying. “The neuro- approach in social science” is a clumsy definition for a field that has not been been labeled yet. For now, we just have the above definition, or a repetitive list: neuro-marketing, neuro-management, neuro-linguistics, neuro-politics, etc…

“Naming” might be seen as a trivial thing, not closely as interesting as the substantive subject that labels designate.  But it can almost always reveal things. To mention something I know well, “sociobiology”, the name in itself had an interesting impact. Edward Wilson said that he chose it in reference to an existing sub-field in animal social behavioral studies, and hence it would be a sufficiently known term to designate his own work in social behavior, Sociobiology (Wilson 1975).

As it turned out, nobody knew about the obscure sub-field Wilson referred to, but some critics said that this name did remind them of something: the German and nazi “social-biologie”. Critics used this to support their claim that Wilson’s book was Social Darwinism in new clothes. With such a negative association, a number of biologists a priori sympathetic to Wilson’s research either refused to be called sociobiologists, or if they accepted the label, were indicted for that. Today, “sociobiology” is used in some very specialized articles about the social behavior of monkeys, but that’s about all.

This episode is not forced to happen again, even if that it is still a very open possibility [for an on-going feud about Social Darwinism in economics, – “I am not!”, “Yes you are, and a fascist one!” -, look at here. I’ll blog it soon in the Playground).

So… what for a good name for the field? “Cognitive neuroscience”? To me, it is more a designation of basic capacities such as language, vision or memory, not for a choice between 2 lotteries or attitudes on the financial market. “Neuroeconomics”? This is more or less the direction taken for now, but with an understandable reluctance from other social scientists to be taken under the imperialist covering arm of economics. So far, neuroeconomists I have met are themselves keener to be considered as students of “decision making”. That, I think, showcases their strong relationship with psychology, something they do not want to give up.

The game is then open: “neuro-social science?” “social neuroscience?” “brainomics”? My own preference goes for social neuroscience. A label will appear soon anyway, as journals have to named, and short titles for grant application have to be found. Just wait for a year or two, that’s my guess.

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A few days ago, I attended a seminar on tacit knowledge, organized in the Rotterdam School of Management. Nigel Holden was talking about the difficulty of analyzing and communicating tacit knowledge, for the good reason that tacit knowledge is by definition hard to communicate in a formalized way!

The speaker and the audience came with a lot of different examples of tacit knowledge to express their points: how to ride a bike, how to test the temperature of melting iron, how to greet a visitor… what struck me then is that those examples were involving vastly different kind of experience.

Riding a bike has often been consciously learned (with help of parents), while greeting someone from one’s culture has been learned unconsciously, surely by imitation.  If the problem is to communicate tacit knowledge, maybe that it would be useful first to distinguish between different sorts of tacit knowledge?

And here comes (neuro)psychology. I had been reading a chapter about memory in Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of the Mind. One of the basic distinctions they made is between declarative and non-declarative memory. Declarative memory is stored knowledge which once retrieved, can take the form of statements. “When I was a kid, I had a red bike”. “World War II happened in the XXth century.” “If the photocopier is broken, one has to call this phone number.”

“Non-declarative memory” covers what is called “tacit memory” by Michael Polanyi and the management people. Where it gets interesting is that psychologists distinguish between a lot of different types of non-declarative memories:

From Cognitive Neuroscience by Gazzaniga et al. (2009, p. 361).

From Cognitive Neuroscience by Gazzaniga et al. (2009, p. 361).

This chart shows that “tacit knowledge” covers things as different as the ability to speak a language (procedural memory) or the knowing of when the temperature is right for melting iron (perceptual priming). It is interesting because if the issue is “how can tacit knowledge be transmitted through organizations, or even transculturally”, then it would help to make a difference in treatment between these different types of things. One thing might be more learnable through careful imitation, while the other might involve repeated experience.
The psychologists might have a great key to the comprehension of tacit knowledge!

Whether neuro-psychologists have even more definitive answers (as the chart claims, at the bottom level),  seems to be still research in progress.

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