Ramachandran: The Tell-Tale Brain

This book contained more idiosyncrasies than I expected. Time was spent on the Victorian sentiments of R’s research paradigm, with his preference for simple experiments with everyday tools.

R was also uncomfortably rigid in his treatment of the ape-human divide. While postulating a continuous evolutionary link between different species within our clade, R claimed that the evolutionary progress between homo sapiens and our near-neighbors are about as significant abiogenesis itself.

I wouldn’t characterize the above as an extreme position, perhaps, but R does not hesitate to remind the reader every few pages, how this behavior is unique to humans. Some of these claims were well-founded, but many lacked evidence, and some were plainly false (“apes don’t have theory of mind”, “apes don’t appreciate humor”, etc).

For a researcher seeking to democratize scientific progress, Ramachandran displayed a disappointing poverty of integrative thinking. In particular, R’s tone towards psychology is sometimes measured, sometimes awkwardly uninformed (dismissing out of hand the psychometric concept of the general intelligence factor, g, as “absurd”), but never collaborative. A more promising way to progress in the sciences: higher-level fields structure lower-level fields, and fields closer to implementation details constrain those engaged with more general abstractions.

I was unhappy with the degree to which Ramachandran leaned on mirror neuron systems. Mirror neurons are neurons discovered in apes that fire for some arbitrary action, regardless of whether it is performed by the observer, or by some other agent. To me, it felt like Ramachandran abstracted this idea to be the neurological basis of two distinct things: theory of mind, and conceptual representation. And, because these two things are such important conceptual building blocks,
mirror neurons appear practically everywhere Ramachandran looks…

All of that said, this book does have a lot to offer to those uninitiated in neuroscience. Its introduction to the nervous system felt especially competent. The section on body map failures, e.g., people whose body map for an arm is corrupted and they seek amputation, was particularly interesting. Some connections were made from these neurological structures, to sexual orientation and transgender behavior, which I bookmarked for further research. Finally, I appreciated the book’s breadth, particularly enjoying its explorations in theories of humor (Benign Violation Theory), the tri-stream visual systems, autistic savants, and neuroaesthetics.

Metzinger: The Ego Tunnel

With this book, Metzinger furthers an encouraging trend in academia: superstar theoreticians are writing accounts of their work for the layman.

His book is carved into three parts. The first summarizes his theory of consciousness, as rigorously developed in Being No One. The second introduces his theory of self-hood in the context of clinical neuroscience. The third discusses the imminent social conflict that will erupt as the public acquaints itself with the increasingly-surprising results of cognitive science.

Criticisms:

M fails to adequately consider evolutionary mechanisms other than natural selection. Some textual evidence from pg 43: “in principle, consciousness could be a by-product of other traits that paid for themselves, but [its stability] over time suggests that it was adaptive.”

While M excels at presenting cutting-edge research, he often neglects to leave his readers with tools for further research. I kept hoping that he would cite the concepts of “umwelt” and “semiosphere” but he never did. Also, pages 111-113 were stunningly eloquent, but if I had not read the physiological journals beforehand, I would have completely missed the fact that M was describing the theory of pain known as the neuromatrix.

The text is laced with insinuations of consensus. While this is often applicable in surprising ways (scholars agree that thoughts can be inferred from lab equipment), M can cast this authoritative weight inappropriately (his self-less Ego theory is itself immersed in controversy).

Praise:

M’s exceptionally lucid writing style, combined with a compelling bird’s eye view of genuinely pivotal cogsci research, makes this a compelling read. The wealth of illuminating graphics didn’t hurt either.

Three sections stood out as independently valuable. Chapter 2 explores six themes: the One-World Problem, the Now Problem, the Reality Problem, the Ineffability Problem, and the Who Problem. I found this journey to be compelling, and it left me itching to buy M’s magnum opus (Being No One). In addition to this, Chapter 3’s discussion of Out-Of-Body experiences stitched together a fascinating collection of research. Finally, chapter 7 included a well-overdue discussion of the effects of, and viable policy strategies towards, nootropics.

Conclusion:

I warmly recommend this book. A tasty quote to conclude (pg 20):

“The evening sky is colorless. The world is not inhabited by colored objects at all. It is just as your physics teacher in high school told you: Out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electromagnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths. Most of them are invisible to you and can never become part of your conscious model of reality. What is really happening is that your brain is drilling a tunnel through this inconceivably rich physical environment and in the process painting the tunnel walls in various shades of color. Phenomenal color. Appearance.”

Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow

The best popular science book I have encountered to date.

Extremely well-organized with short, self-contained chapters. Kahneman is an intellectual giant, and it shows in his writing. The book surveys an impressive amount of material. His seminal paper on prospect theory – the most widely cited article in the social sciences – is explained in detail. Every chapter ends with “water cooler quotes”, which I found to be a surprisingly-useful way to recap new material.

Kahneman’s book is organized into three distinctions:

1. Cognitive Systems. “System1” is the first system discussed, and is summarized as “fast thinking”. It is associative, subconscious, heuristic-oriented. “System2” is a more recent biological phenomenon; it is more analytical, abstract, purposive, effortful, and also more lazy. This distinction is not merely a theoretical construct of a researcher, it is the basis of dual-process theories of psychology, which is one of the most active areas of psychological research today.

2. Behavioral Agents. “Econs” are the decision making agents found in classical economic textbooks. Their preferences are constant, consistent, and geared towards maximizing utility. “Humans” are the decision making agents in the real world, cognitively driven by System1 and System2. Their preferences change, are manipulable, and are deeply inconsistent. This distinction is rooted in the modern field of behavioral economics (which Kahneman helped found).

3. Phenomenological Selves. The “experiencing self” is the self that experiences the moment, the self that perceives the world as it flies by. The “remembering self” is the self that constructs a narrative of personhood; it derives on memory to reconstruct the experiencing self, but its restorative work is – as with everything else in the book – subject to error. Here is a TED talk Kahneman gave on the subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahne…

I highly recommended this book.