So the big news is the Eurozone crisis and what to do about it. This obscures the bigger question, which is what to do about the system of international finance. I have an idea. Let’s get rid of it. Something seems simply wrong with the idea of a system of giant, closely integrated lending firms, backed up by nationally-owned central banks. New regimes of regulation, or the ‘utility model’ – where credit institutions are treated like nationalised water or electricity suppliers – are weasly halfway houses. Let’s go eliminativist. Why not? Think Distributism, without the anti-Semitism, the leanings towards theocracy, and the social conservatism. Ok, don’t think Distributism. Just think very, very different from the way things are now.
But I’m just a historian of philosophy. I have no idea what I’m talking about. I just feel like that would be the right thing to do. Before you accuse me of being naïve, however, consider what you’re accusing me of not knowing. Is the accusation that I don’t understand economics? The problem with that is that there is no reason to think that if I did understand economics I’d be any better placed to legislate for the future. At the risk of raining on a great ongoing parade, we don’t have a social science with predictive power. We don’t even, as Jerry Fodor said in a different context, know what it would be like to have a predictive social science. If I don’t know what the consequences of a policy will be, I take comfort in the fact that nobody else does either.
In this post: some sexy news about the female brain, then, some careful caveats about brain claims in general.
First off, Time reports on the first three-dimensional movie of a female orgasm. Captured by a team of researchers led by Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University, the movie shows the brain activity correlated with the orgasm of a single subject. Like most fMRI captures, the ‘heat’ of the colours is correlated with oxygenated blood movement, and thus brain activity – the more rufous the colour, the higher the activation. In the case of an orgasm, the entire brain is dense with activity. (By the way, if you are interested in what it is like to achieve an orgasm in an MRI – the guardian has the scoop here)
In his as-of-yet-unpublished findings, presented to the Society for Neuroscience conference, Komisaruk speculatively links the sequence of brain activation to (presumably, though not mentioned) first-person experiences of such orgasms, third-person observations, and previous literature on orgasm and brain circuitry. This yields some pretty titillating conversation for a scientific finding, such as:
…facial expressions during orgasm (the “O face”) are often indistinguishable from those made in pain, and suggests this may be explained by activity in the insula.
A recent article on the BBC (and the highly recommended MIT news) breaks the news on an innovative silicone chip that models neuronal architecture and neuronal communication. The chip’s 400 transistors mimic the head of a neuron: they summate the analog signals received from other chips. When such signals reach an adjustable limit, they cascade into an action potential, just as in neurons. Depending on their arrangement and organization, these action potentials can have an excitatory, or inhibitory effect on their neighbours, analogous to their biological counterparts.
This kind of modelling is exciting and interesting – for it is profoundly different from other contemporary methods of modelling brain activity. While a great overgeneralization, most other programmes model the brain’s circuitry – the neurons, the synaptic connections, the action potentials – in a virtual space. They exist as computer code, or interacting objects created by such code. These coded objects, whatever existence they have, model the function of neurons. These chips, in comparison, are an actual model of a neuron. And this is the important difference between the two paradigms: that between modelling function and form.
Recent neurobiological research has shown that viewing art stimulates the brain in a way that mirrors the experience of romantic love. The study, conducted by Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College London, scanned and mapped the brains of participants who had been asked to look at a variety of paintings from such artists as Botticelli, Turner, Monet and Cezanne. It was found that experiencing art releases into the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain a significant quantity of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a biochemical associated with love, happiness and sociability, as well as drug use and certain psychological disorders.
The result comes at an ideal time for the art world in Britain, which has felt itself to be targeted by the extensive cuts in public spending. The correlation between aesthetic experience and happiness gives extra leverage in justifying the arts according to standards of public interest, a justification which normally consists in pointing out the economic benefits of the revenue which art institutions can generate. Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Stephen Deuchar, director of the arts charity Art Fund, said:
I have always believed art matters profoundly so it is exciting to see some scientific evidence to support the view that life is enhanced by instantaneous contact with works of art
Professor Zeki’s work in neuroaesthetics also stands to be of high value to the philosophy of art. This latest link between art and love is just one of many discoveries made by Zeki which coincide almost seamlessly with what artists and theorist about art have said for centuries, perhaps even for thousands of years. Plato, in his dialogue The Symposium, recounts a speech in praise of Love (Eros) made by Socrates which describes a journey of ascent from sexual love, through aesthetic appreciation of the body, to a spiritual love of the soul, arriving finally at the contemplation of the Platonic Form of Beauty itself. Continue reading “Art for Love’s Sake”
Hilary Putnam is being awarded The Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy 2011 by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
The Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy 2011 is being awarded to Hilary Putnam “for his contribution to the understanding of semantics for theoretical and ‘natural kind’ terms, and of the implications of this semantics for philosophy, theory of knowledge, philosophy of science and metaphysics“.
Hilary Putnam (b. July 31, 1926) is an American philosopher and mathematician who has been a central figure in analytic philosophy since the 1960s. He is most well know in the fields of philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science. Putnam is known for his willingness to apply an equal degree of scrutiny to his own philosophical positions as to those of others, subjecting each position to rigorous analysis until he exposes its flaws; as a result, he has acquired a reputation for frequently changing his own position.
Violent computer games desensitise people to violence. This is normally considered a bad thing, but perhaps this is not necessarily so. Soldiers in a warzone face a situation in which they must encounter extreme violence routinely, and a survey has revealed that playing violent computer games might well help soldiers cope with this prolonged exposure to the extreme violence of war. To be more precise, the survey revealed that soldiers who frequently played computer games that involved war and combat experienced fewer violent dreams, and when these dreams did occur they reported feeling lower levels of fear and aggression compared to their non-gaming colleagues. The gaming soldiers reported feeling more able to “fight back against whatever forces were threatening them” in their nightmares.
It’s not difficult to formulate a plausible theory that would go some way towards explaining this data. Certainly, it seems clear that the desensitising effect of playing computer games could be a contributory factor. It’s quite unremarkable that soldiers who frequently encounter war as a game – albeit in the artificial context of a computer game – subsequently find the actual reality of war less threatening when they encounter it in their dreams. They learn to associate war with a game, perhaps as a game, and as a result their natural inclinations of fear and abhorrence are suppressed. But as a philosopher who possesses a passing, though not-insignificant, level of interest in psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud, I wonder if a more interesting explanation and investigation might be available to us… Continue reading “Xbox: The Guardian of Sleep”