“Meta-phorin”

This is a poem I wrote about how the brain structures its own neural connectivity in order to produce metaphors, poetry, analogies, allegory, and the like, including through its use of semaphorin guidance molecules and such. So one can think of it as a type of meta-poetry I suppose.

“Meta-phorin”

Branches born from distant gardens
Fed by the fruits of senses streamed
Spreading out, a vibrant pattern
Crawling along those ancient trees
Toward the scents, hypnotic dance
Winding paths until they meet

Their tips begin to touch at last
Caressing as they’re intertwined
Hebbian journey, webs of gnosis
Embodied frames are now sublime

Synaptic waters flowing faster
Emotions growing, bearing passion
Creative means no longer foreign
By the meta-semaphorin

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Substance Dualism, Interactionism, & Occam’s razor

Recently I got into a discussion with Gordon Hawkes on A Philosopher’s Take about the arguments and objections for substance dualism, that is, the position that there are actually two ontological substances that exist in the world: physical substances and mental (or non-physical) substances.  Here’s the link to part 1, and part 2 of that author’s post series (I recommend taking a look at this group blog and see what he and others have written over there on various interesting topics).  Many dualists would identify or liken this supposed second substance as a soul or the like, but I’m not going to delve into that particular detail within this post.  I’d prefer to focus on the basics of the arguments presented rather than those kinds of details.  Before I dive into the topic, I want to mention that Hawkes was by no means making an argument for substance dualism, but rather he was merely pointing out some flaws in common arguments against substance dualism.  Now that that’s been said, I’m going to get to the heart of the topic, but I will also be providing evidence and arguments against substance dualism.  The primary point raised in the first part of that series was the fact that just because neuroscience is continuously finding correlations between particular physical brain states and particular mental states, this doesn’t mean that these empirical findings show that dualism is necessarily false — since some forms of dualism seem to be entirely compatible with these empirical findings (e.g. interactionist dualism).  So the question ultimately boils down to whether or not mental processes are identical with, or metaphysically supervenient upon, the physical processes of the brain (if so, then substance dualism is necessarily false).

Hawkes talks about how the argument from neuroscience (as it is sometimes referred to) is fallacious because it is based on the mistaken belief that correlation (between mental states and brain states) is equivalent with identity or supervenience of mental and physical states.  Since this isn’t the case, then one can’t rationally use the neurological correlation to disprove (all forms of) substance dualism.  While I agree with this, that is, that the argument from neuroscience can’t be used to disprove (all forms of) substance dualism, it is nevertheless strong evidence that a physical foundation exists for the mind and it also provides evidence against all forms of substance dualism that posit that the mind can exist independently of the physical brain.  At the very least, it shows that the prior probability of minds existing without brains is highly unlikely.  This would seem to suggest that any supposed mental substance is necessarily dependent on a physical substance (so disembodied minds would be out of the question for the minimal substance dualist position).  Even more damning for substance dualists though, is the fact that since the argument from neuroscience suggests that minds can’t exist without physical brains, this would mean that prior to brains evolving in any living organisms within our universe, at some point in the past there weren’t any minds at all.  This in turn would suggest that the second substance posited by dualists isn’t at all conserved like the physical substances we know about are conserved (as per the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy).  Rather, this second substance would have presumably had to have come into existence ex nihilo once some subset of the universe’s physical substances took on a particular configuration (i.e. living organisms that eventually evolved a brain complex enough to afford mental experiences/consciousness/properties).  Once all the brains in the universe disappear in the future (after the heat death of the universe guarantees such a fate), then this second substance will once again disappear from our universe.

The only way around this (as far as I can tell) is to posit that the supposed mental substance had always existed and/or will always continue to exist, but in an entirely undetectable way somehow detached from any physical substance (which is a position that seems hardly defensible given the correlation argument from neuroscience).  Since our prior probabilities of any hypothesis are based on all our background knowledge, and since the only substance we can be sure of exists (a physical substance) has been shown to consistently abide by conservation laws (within the constraints of general relativity and quantum mechanics), it is more plausible that any other ontological substance would likewise be conserved rather than not conserved.  If we had evidence to the contrary, that would change the overall consequent probability, but without such evidence, we only have data points from one ontological substance, and it appears to follow conservation laws.  For this reason alone, it is less likely that a second substance exists at all, if it isn’t itself conserved as that of the physical.

Beyond that, the argument from neuroscience also provides at least some evidence against interactionism (the idea that the mind and brain can causally interact with each other in both causal directions), and interactionism is something that substance dualists would likely need in order to have any reasonable defense of their position at all.  To see why this is true, one need only recognize the fact that the correlates of consciousness found within neuroscience consist of instances of physical brain activity that are observed prior to the person’s conscious awareness of any experience, intentions, or willed actions produced by said brain activity.  For example, studies have shown that when a person makes a conscious decision to do something (say, to press one of two possible buttons placed in front of them), there are neurological patterns that can be detected prior to their awareness of having made a decision and so these patterns can be used to correctly predict which choice the person will make even before they do!  I would say that this is definitely evidence against interactionism, because we have yet to find any cases of mental experiences occurring prior to the brain activity that is correlated with it.  We’ve only found evidence of brain activity preceding mental experiences, never the other way around.  If the mind was made from a different substance, existing independently of the physical brain (even if correlated with it), and able to causally interact with the physical brain, then it seems reasonable to expect that we should be able to detect and confirm instances of mental processes/experiences occurring prior to correlated changes in physical brain states.  Since this hasn’t been found yet in the plethora of brain studies performed thus far, the prior probability of interactionism being true is exceedingly low.  Additionally, the conservation of mass and energy that we observe (as well as the laws of physics in general) in our universe also challenges the possibility of any means of causal energy transfer between a mind to a brain or vice versa.  For the only means of causal interaction we’ve observed thus far in our universe is by way of energy/momentum transfer from one physical particle/system to another.  If a mind is non-physical, then by what means can it interact at all with a brain or vice versa?

The second part of the post series from Hawkes talked about Occam’s razor and how it’s been applied in arguments against dualism.  Hawkes argues that even though one ontological substance is less complex and otherwise preferred over two substances (when all else is equal), Occam’s razor apparently isn’t applicable in this case because physicalism has been unable to adequately address what we call a mind, mental properties, etc.  My rebuttal to this point is that dualism doesn’t adequately address what we call a mind, mental properties, etc., either.  In fact it offers no additional explanatory power than physicalism does because nobody has proposed how it could do so.  That is, nobody has yet demonstrated (as far as I know) what any possible mechanisms would be for this new substance to instantiate a mind, how this non-physical substance could possibly interact with the physical brain, etc.  Rather it seems to have been posited out of an argument from ignorance and incredulity, which is a logical fallacy.  Since physicalism hasn’t yet provided a satisfactory explanation for what some call the mind and mental properties, it is therefore supposed by dualists that a second ontological substance must exist that does explain it or account for it adequately.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of any proposed mechanism for the second substance to adequately account for the phenomena, one could simply replace the term “second substance” with “magic” and be on the same epistemic footing.  It is therefore an argument from ignorance to presume that a second substance exists, for the sole reason that nobody has yet demonstrated how the first substance can fully explain what we call mind and mental phenomena.  Just as we’ve seen throughout history where an unknown phenomena is attributed to magic or the supernatural and later found to be accounted for by a physical explanation, this means that the prior probability that this will also be the case for the phenomena of the mind and mental properties is extraordinarily high.  As a result, I think that Occam’s razor is applicable in this case, because I believe it is always applicable to an argument from ignorance that’s compared to an (even incomplete) argument from evidence.  Since physicalism accounts for many aspects of mental phenomena (such as the neuroscience correlations, etc.), dualism needs to be supported by at least some proposed mechanism (that is falsifiable) in order to nullify the application of Occam’s razor.

Those are my thoughts on the topic for now.  I did think that Hawkes made some valid points in his post series — such as the fact that correlation doesn’t equal identity or supervenience and also the fact that Occam’s razor is only applicable under particular circumstances (such as when both hypotheses explain the phenomena equally, good or bad, with one containing a more superfluous ontology).  However, I think that overall the arguments and evidence against substance dualism are strong enough to eliminate any reasonable justification for supposing that dualism is true (not that Hawkes was defending dualism as he made clear at the beginning of his post) and I also believe that both physicalism and dualism explain the phenomena equally well such that Occam’s razor is applicable (since dualism doesn’t seem to add any explanatory power to that already provided by physicalism).  So even though correlation doesn’t equal identity or supervenience, the arguments and evidence from neuroscience and physics challenge the possibility of any interactionism between the physical and supposed non-physical substance, and it challenges the existence of the second substance in general (due to it’s apparent lack of conservation over time among other reasons).

A Scientific Perspective of the Arts

Science and the arts have long been regarded as mutually exclusive domains, where many see artistic expression as something that science can’t explain or reduce in any way, or as something that just shouldn’t be explored by any kind of scientific inquiry.  To put it another way, many people have thought it impossible for there to ever be any kind of a “science of the arts”.  The way I see it, science isn’t something that can be excluded from any domain at all, because we apply science in a very general way every time we learn or conceive of new ideas, experiment with them, and observe the results to determine if we should modify our beliefs based on those experiences.  Whenever we pose a question about anything we experience, in the attempt to learn something new and gain a better understanding about those experiences, a scientific approach (based on reason and the senses) is the only demonstrably reliable way we’ve ever been able to arrive at any kind of meaningful answer.  The arts are no exception to this, and in fact, many questions that have been asked about the arts and aesthetics in general have not only been answered by an application of the aforementioned general scientific reasoning that we use every day, but have in fact also been answered within many specific well-established branches of science.

Technology & The Scientific Method

It seems to me that the sciences and the various rewards we’ve reaped from them have influenced art in a number of ways and even facilitated new variations of artistic expression.  For example, science has been applied to create the very technologies used in producing art.  The various technologies created through the application of science have been used to produce new sounds (and new combinations thereof), new colors (and new color gradients), new shapes, and various other novel visual effects.  We’ve even used them to produce new tastes and smells (in the culinary arts for example).  They’ve also been used to create entirely new media through which art is exemplified.  So in a large number of ways, any kind of art has been dependent on science in some way or another — even by simply applying the scientific method by hypothesizing a way to express art in some way, even through a new medium or with a new technique, where the artist experiments with that medium or technique to see if it is satisfactory, and then modifies their hypothesis if needed until the artist obtains the desired result for what they’re trying to express (whether through simple trial and error or what-have-you).

Evolutionary Factors Influencing Aesthetic Preferences

Then we have the questions that pertain to whether or not aesthetic preferences are solely subjective and individualistic, or if they are also objective in some ways.  Some of these questions have in fact been explored within the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology (and within the field of psychology in general), where it is well known that humans find certain types of perceptions pleasurable, such as environments and objects that are conducive to our survival.  For example, the majority of people enjoy visually perceiving an abundance of food, fresh water and plush vegetation, healthy social relationships (including sex) and various emotions, etc. There are also various sounds, smells, tastes, and even tactile sensations that we’ve evolved to find pleasurable — such as the sound of laughter, flowing water, or rain, the taste of salt, fat, and sugar, the smell of various foods and plants, or the tactile sensation of sexual stimulation (to give but a few examples).  So it’s not surprising that many forms of art can appeal to the majority of people by employing these kinds of objects and environments within them, especially in cases where these sources of pleasurable sensations are artificially amplified into supernormal stimuli, thus producing unprecedented levels of pleasure not previously attainable through the natural environment that our senses evolved within.

Additionally, there are certain emotions that we’ve evolved to express as well as understand simply because they increase our chances of survival within our evolutionary niche, and thus artistic representations of these types of universal human emotions will also likely play a substantial role in our aesthetic preferences.  Even the evolved traits of empathy and sympathy, which are quite advantageous to a social species such as our own (due to them reinforcing cooperation and reciprocal altruism among other benefits), are employed by those that are perceiving and appreciating these artistic expressions.

Another possible evolutionary component related to our appreciation of art has to do with sexual selection.  Often times, particular forms of art are appreciated, not only because of the emotions it evokes in the recipient or person perceiving it, but also when they include clever uses of metaphor, allegory, poetry, and other components that often demonstrate significant levels of intelligence or brilliance in the artist that produced them.  In terms of our evolutionary history, having these kinds of skills and displays of intelligence would be attractive to prospective sexual mates for a number of reasons including the fact that they demonstrate that the artist has a surplus of mental capacity to solve more complex problems that are far beyond those they’d typically encounter day to day.  So this can provide a rather unique way of demonstrating particular aspects of their fitness to survive as well as their abilities to protect any future offspring.

Artistic expression (as well as other displays of intelligence and surplus mental capacity) can be seen as analogous to the male peacock’s large and vibrant tail.  Even though this type of tail increases its chances of being caught by a predator, if it has survived to reproductive age and beyond, it shows the females that the male has a very high fitness despite these odds being stacked against him.  It also shows that the male is fit enough to possess a surplus of resources from its food intake that are continually donated to maintaining that tail.  Beyond this, a higher degree of symmetry in the tail (the visual patterns within each feather, the morphology of each feather, and the uniformity of the feathers as a whole set) demonstrates a lower number of mutations in its genome, thus providing better genes for any future offspring.  Because of all these factors, the female has evolved to find these male attributes attractive.

Similarly, for human beings (both male and female), an intelligent brain that is able to produce brilliant expressions of art (among other feats of intelligence), illustrates that the genome for that individual is likely to have less mutations in it.  This is especially apparent once we realize that the number of genes in our genome that pertain to our brain’s development and function accounts for an entire 50% of our total genome.  So if someone is intelligent, since their highly functional brain was dependent on having a small number of mutations in the portion of their genome pertaining to the brain, this shows that the rest of their genome is also far less likely to have harmful mutations in it (and thus less mutations passed on to future offspring).  Art aside, this kind of sexual selection is actually one prominent theory within evolutionary biology to explain why our brains grew as quickly as they did, and as large as they did.  Quite simply, if larger brains were something that both males and females found sexually attractive (through the feats of intelligence they could produce), they would be sexually selected for, thus leading to higher survival rates for offspring and a runaway effect of unprecedented brain growth.  These aesthetic preferences would then likely carry over to general displays of artistic ability, thus no longer pertaining exclusively to the search for prospective sexual mates, but also to simply enjoy the feats of intelligence themselves regardless of the source.  So there are many interesting facets that pertain to likely influential evolutionary factors relating to the origin of artistic expression (or at least the origin of our mental capacity to do so).

Neuroscience & The Arts

One final aspect I’d like to discuss that pertains to the arts within the context of the sciences, lies in the realm of neuroscience.  As neuroscientists are progressing in terms of mapping the brain’s structure and activity, they are becoming better able to determine what kinds of neurological conditions are correlated with various aspects of our conscious experience, our personality, and our behavior in general.  As for how this relates to the arts, we should also eventually be able to determine why we have have the aesthetic preferences we do, whether they are based on: various neurological predispositions, the emotional tagging of various past experiences via the amygdala (and how the memory of those emotionally tagged experiences change over time), possible differences in individual sensitivities to particular stimuli, etc.

Once we get to this level of understanding of the brain itself, when we combine it with the conjoined efforts of other scientific disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology and psychology, etc., and if we collaborate with experts in the arts and humanities themselves, we should definitely be able to answer a plethora of questions relating to the origin of art, how and why it has evolved over time as it has (and how it will likely continue to evolve given that our brains as well as our culture are continually evolving in parallel), how and why the arts affect us as they do, etc.  With this kind of knowledge developing in these fields, we may even one day see artists producing art by utilizing this knowledge in very specific and articulate ways, in order to produce expressions that are the most aesthetically pleasing, the most intellectually stimulating, and the most emotionally powerful that we’ve ever experienced, by design.  I think that by putting all of this knowledge together, we would effectively have a true science of the arts.

The arts have no doubt been a fundamental facet of the human condition, and I’m excited to see us beginning to learn the answers to these truly remarkable questions.  I’m hoping that the arts and the sciences can better collaborate with one another, rather than remain relatively alienated from one another, so that we can maximize the knowledge we gain in order to answer these big questions more effectively.  We may begin to see some truly remarkable changes in how the arts are performed and produced based on this knowledge, and this should only enhance the pleasure and enjoyment that they already bring to us.

Neurological Configuration & the Prospects of an Innate Ontology

After a brief discussion on another blog pertaining to whether or not humans possess some kind of an innate ontology or other forms of what I would call innate knowledge, I decided to expand on my reply to that blog post.

While I agree that at least most of our knowledge is acquired through learning, specifically through the acquisition and use of memorized patterns of perception (as this is generally how I would define knowledge), I also believe that there are at least some innate forms of knowledge, including some that would likely result from certain aspects of our brain’s innate neurological configuration and implementation strategy.  This proposed form of innate knowledge would seem to bestow a foundation for later acquiring the bulk of our knowledge that is accomplished through learning.  This foundation would perhaps be best described as a fundamental scaffold of our ontology and thus an innate aspect that our continually developing ontology is based on.

My basic contention is that the hierarchical configuration of neuronal connections in our brains is highly analogous to the hierarchical relationships utilized to produce our conceptualization of reality.  In order for us to make sense of the world, our brains seem to fracture reality into many discrete elements, properties, concepts, propositions, etc., which are all connected to each other through various causal relationships or what some might call semantic hierarchies.  So it seems plausible if not likely that the brain is accomplishing a fundamental aspect of our ontology by our utilizing an innate hardware schema that involves neurological branching.

As the evidence in the neurosciences suggests, it certainly appears that our acquisition of knowledge through learning what those discrete elements, properties, concepts, propositions, etc., are, involves synaptogenesis followed by pruning, modifying, and reshaping a hierarchical neurological configuration, in order to end up with a more specific hierarchical neurological arrangement, and one that more accurately correlates with the reality we are interacting with and learning about through our sensory organs.  Since the specific arrangement that eventually forms couldn’t have been entirely coded for in our DNA (due to it’s extremely high level of complexity and information density), it ultimately had to be fine-tuned to this level of complexity after it’s initial pre-sensory configuration developed.  Nevertheless, the DNA sequences that were naturally selected for to produce the highly capable brains of human beings (as opposed to the DNA that guides the formation of the brain of a much less intelligent animal), clearly have encoded increasingly more effective hardware implementation strategies than our evolutionary ancestors.  These naturally selected neurological strategies seem to control what particular types of causal patterns the brain is theoretically capable of recognizing (including some upper limit of complexity), and they also seem to control how the brain stores and organizes these patterns for later use.  So overall, my contention is that these naturally selected strategies in themselves are a type of knowledge, because they seem to provide the very foundation for our initial ontology.

Based on my understanding, after many of the initial activity-independent mechanisms for neural development have occurred in some region of the developing brain such as cellular differentiation, cellular migration, axon guidance, and some amount of synapse formation, then the activity-dependent mechanisms for neuronal development (such as neural activity caused by the sensory organs in the process of learning), finally begin to modify those synapses and axons into a new hierarchical arrangement.  It is especially worth noting that even though much of the synapse formation during neural development is mediated by activity-dependent mechanisms, such as the aforementioned neural activity produced by the sensory organs during perceptual development and learning, there is also spontaneous neural activity forming many of these synapses even before any sensory input is present, thus contributing to the innate neurological configuration (i.e. that which is formed before any sensation or learning has occurred).

Thus, the subsequent hierarchy formed through neural/sensory stimulation via learning appears to begin from a parent hierarchical starting point based on neural developmental processes that are coded for in our DNA as well as synaptogenic mechanisms involving spontaneous pre-sensory neural activity.  So our brain’s innate (i.e. pre-sensory) configuration likely contributes to our making sense of the world by providing a starting point that reflects the fundamental hierarchical nature of reality that all subsequent knowledge is built off of.  In other words, it seems that if our mature conceptualization of reality involves a very specific type of hierarchy, then an innate/pre-sensory hierarchical schema of neurons would be a plausible if not expected physical foundation for it (see Edelman’s Theory of Neuronal Group Selection within this link for more empirical support of these points).

Additionally, if the brain’s wiring has evolved in order to see dimensions of difference in the world (unique sensory/perceptual patterns that is, such as quantity, colors, sounds, tastes, smells, etc.), then it would make sense that the brain can give any particular pattern an identity by having a unique schema of hardware or unique use of said hardware to perceive such a pattern and distinguish it from other patterns.  After the brain does this, the patterns are then arguably organized by the logical absolutes.  For example, if the hardware scheme or process used to detect a particular pattern “A” exists and all other patterns we perceive have or are given their own unique hardware-based identity (i.e. “not-A” a.k.a. B, C, D, etc.), then the brain would effectively be wired such that pattern “A” = pattern “A” (law of identity), any other pattern which we can call “not-A” does not equal pattern “A” (law of non-contradiction), and any pattern must either be “A” or some other pattern even if brand new, which we can also call “not-A” (law of the excluded middle).  So by the brain giving a pattern a physical identity (i.e. a specific type of hardware configuration in our brain that when activated, represents a detection of one specific pattern), our brains effectively produce the logical absolutes by nature of the brain’s innate wiring strategy which it uses to distinguish one pattern from another.  So although it may be true that there can’t be any patterns stored in the brain until after learning begins (through sensory experience), the fact that the DNA-mediated brain wiring strategy inherently involves eventually giving a particular learned pattern a unique neurological hardware identity to distinguish it from other stored patterns, suggests that the logical absolutes themselves are an innate and implicit property of how the brain stores recognized patterns.

In short, if it is true that any and all forms of reasoning as well as the ability to accumulate knowledge simply requires logic and the recognition of causal patterns, and if the brain’s innate neurological configuration schema provides the starting foundation for both, then it would seem reasonable to conclude that the brain has at least some types of innate knowledge.

The Placebo Effect & The Future of Medicine

The placebo effect has been known for a long time, and doctors and medical practitioners have been exploiting its efficacy for a number of ailments.  Whether it is sugar pills, a fake surgery, or even prayer, the power of belief and the psychological effect on our physiology is real and undeniable.  While the placebo effect may have its roots (or been most thoroughly exploited) in various religions, through the power of belief, it has been used by non-religious medical practitioners for quite some time now, and it is starting to be investigated much more thoroughly in cognitive neuroscience, and psychology.  Scientists are beginning to design and implement new techniques that take advantage of this effect of the mind helping to heal the body.  It’s become a fascinating area of research with some potentially huge benefits that may prompt a significant paradigm shift in the future of medicine.

A major advantage of placebos (at least those in the form of a pill or injection) is that they don’t require the expensive R&D and drug-synthesis manufacturing processes that traditional treatments do, which means that there are likely billions of dollars that can be saved in the future, as well as the very important benefit of greater environmental sustainability, by consuming less energy and creating less hazardous waste in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process.  In the case of placebic-surgeries (which have been successfully performed), if surgeons simply have to make a far less complicated incision or two, along with some other protocol and ambiance considerations and requirements to produce the desired effect, then the costs of the far simpler operation are drastically reduced, as well as any chances of malpractice or other long-term complications resulting from the surgery.

One thing that will have to be considered as we start making greater use of these placebic treatments (specifically “drugs” and surgeries), is how the pricing and costs associated with placebo options will be decided for a patient.  Will placebos be as expensive as normal drugs (if they are comparably effective), or will the decreased cost of placebo manufacturing offset/reduce the cost of other drugs so that the average trip to the doctor will be cheaper for everyone?  As always, we will likely have to continue battling with pharmaceutical companies and or medical practitioners that take advantage of the cost savings just to increase their own profit margins while giving no trickle-down savings to the patient.  In the grander scheme of things, having healthier people at the same cost that we currently have is still better, but nevertheless, we can only hope that these discoveries will continue to reduce the costs for the patient as well.

As for other types of placebos, such as meditation, prayer, various rituals, etc., since these placebos do not require any physical mediums or materials per se (or at least not in many cases), they are relatively inexpensive, if not entirely free in some cases.  Modern medicine, however, is also making more use of similar placebo methods, that is, placebos that don’t require the intake of a chemical nor require any surgery.  In fact, one can certainly argue that modern medicine has been utilizing these “non-material” placebos for quite some time already.  For example, various psychological treatments have been used to help heal people with all kinds of ailments, many of which are psycho-somatically induced, and all of which can be exacerbated by hypochondria, pessimism, and other causes of stress — and the placebo effect is certainly a likely contributing factor in many of these successful treatments.  These kinds of treatments could very well be applied in many (if not all) other cases that aren’t currently considered “psychological” ailments.  Putting this all together, I think we are going to start seeing a shift in medicine where psychology, cognitive and neuroscience are going to combine with modern “material” medicine to form a more obvious hybrid.  This integration will be significant, as currently many medical practitioners or schools of thought within medicine have a large divide between what are believed to be either psychological or physical ailments.  In reality though, it appears that every ailment is actually a combination of the two that can be more effectively treated, when both aspects are treated rather than merely one or the other.  After all, the brain and the rest of the body operate as a single unit, and so they should be treated as such.

Another positive discovery relating to the placebo effect is the fact that even if people know that they are being given a placebo, it is still effective, as long as they believe that the placebo is effective.  A more common concern regarding the placebo effect is that it will lose all efficacy if patients are informed that they are receiving some kind of placebo, however it turns out that this isn’t the case at all.  To give an example, in a recent study at the Harvard Medical School, people with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo and they were informed that the pills were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”  Then the researchers found that despite being aware that they were taking placebos, the participants rated their symptoms as “moderately improved” on average.  This seems to imply that it is the belief in efficacy of a particular treatment that houses the placebic potential for healing, regardless of the substrate used to implement it, and this solves a lot of ethical complications regarding the desired disclosure that a patient is receiving a placebo.

If the belief in the efficacy of a placebo is the primary factor for the placebo’s effectiveness, this would imply that stronger belief will produce a stronger placebo effect.  So it appears that one of the most major challenges in producing ever-more effective treatments within this domain, is going to be finding ways to increase the belief in a treatment’s effectiveness (as well as other psychologically beneficial factors including being generally optimistic, reducing stress, and other factors that haven’t yet been discovered).  It may even be possible one day for this “belief” maximization (or the neurological effect that it causes) to be accomplished by physically altering the brain through various types of electrical stimulation or other neurologically-based treatments, so a person wouldn’t need to be convinced of anything at all.  On a related note, I’d like to mention that we also need to consider that the opposite effect, that is, the “nocebo” effect, also exists and presumably for the same psychological reasons.  That is, by a person believing that something will harm them or that they are getting sick, even if there is no actual pathogen or physical medium to produce the illness, they can actually get sick and make things much worse.  For a powerful example, there were chemo-therapy participants in a certain study, some of which only got a placebo, and they still developed nausea and had their hair fall out (alopecia) because of their expectations of the treatment.  So the placebo effect works both ways, and this means that medical treatment will also likely change with regard to finding new ways of countering the “bad news” of a diagnosis, etc., possibly through the same kinds of psychological and neurological techniques.

Nobody is sure exactly when the placebo effect was first discovered, but it was likely unknowingly discovered many thousands of years ago in various cultures with particular religious beliefs, including those that involved prayer and faith healing, shamans and other medicine men, etc.  Without seeing any material cause or knowing what was causing its efficacy (i.e. dynamics in the brain), people no doubt chalked up many positive effects to the supernatural, whether by the interventions of some god or a number of gods, magic, etc.  So this appears to be one of many examples of how natural selection favors not only certain genes, but also certain memes.  If people began to spread certain religious memes (ideas) that promoted self-healing by utilizing the power of belief, they would be more likely to survive, and this would be yet another factor in explaining why religions formed, why they’ve been as ubiquitous as they have, and why they’ve propagated for so long throughout human history.  To be sure, it could have been the case that humans long ago experienced the placebo effect (without knowing it) and this led to the development of certain religious rituals or beliefs (because the cause was mis-attributed or unknown), or it could be that certain religious beliefs that were formed for other reasons happened to produce a placebo effect (and/or to strengthen it by other psychological factors).  Either way, it was a very valuable discovery indeed.  Now that we are starting to better understand the real physiological/neurological/psychological factors that produce the placebo (and nocebo) effect, we can continue advancing a scientific world-view and continue to increase our well being in the process.

Neuroscience Arms Race & Our Changing World View

At least since the time of Hippocrates, people began to realize that the brain was the physical correlate of consciousness and thought.  Since then, the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and several inter-related fields have emerged.  There have been numerous advancements made within the field of neuroscience during the last decade or so, and in that same time frame there has also been an increased interest in the social, religious, philosophical, and moral implications that have precipitated from such a far-reaching field.  Certainly the medical knowledge we’ve obtained from the neurosciences has been the primary benefit of such research efforts, as we’ve learned quite a bit more about how the brain works, how it is structured, and the ongoing neuropathology that has led to improvements in diagnosing and treating various mental illnesses.  However, it is the other side of neuroscience that I’d like to focus on in this post — the paradigm shift relating to how we are starting to see the world around us (including ourselves), and how this is affecting our goals as well as how to achieve them.

Paradigm Shift of Our World View

Aside from the medical knowledge we are obtaining from the neurosciences, we are also gaining new perspectives on what exactly the “mind” is.  We’ve come a long way in demonstrating that “mental” or “mind” states are correlated with physical brain states, and there is an ever growing plethora of evidence which suggests that these mind states are in fact caused by these brain states.  It should come as no surprise then that all of our thoughts and behaviors are also caused by these physical brain states.  It is because of this scientific realization that society is currently undergoing an important paradigm shift in terms of our world view.

If all of our thoughts and behaviors are mediated by our physical brain states, then many everyday concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making can take on entirely new meanings.  To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly mention the well known “nature vs. nurture” debate.  The current consensus among scientists is that people (i.e. their thoughts and behavior) are ultimately products of both their genes and their environment.

Genes & Environment

From a neuroscientific perspective, the genetic component is accounted for by noting that genes have been shown to play a very large role in directing the initial brain wiring schema of an individual during embryological development and through gestation.  During this time, the brain is developing very basic instinctual behavioral “programs” which are physically constituted by vastly complex neural networks, and the body’s developing sensory organs and systems are also connected to particular groups of these neural networks.  These complex neural networks, which have presumably been naturally selected for in order to benefit the survival of the individual, continue being constructed after gestation and throughout the entire ontogenic evolution of the individual (albeit to lesser degrees over time).

As for the environmental component, this can be further split into two parts: the internal and the external environment.  The internal environment within the brain itself, including various chemical concentration gradients partly mediated by random Brownian motion, provides some gene expression constraints as well as some additional guidance to work with the genetic instructions to help guide neuronal growth, migration, and connectivity.  The external environment, consisting of various sensory stimuli, seems to modify this neural construction by providing a form of inputs which may cause the constituent neurons within these neural networks to change their signal strength, change their action potential threshold, and/or modify their connections with particular neurons (among other possible changes).

Causal Constraints

This combination of genetic instructions and environmental interaction and input produces a conscious, thinking, and behaving being through a large number of ongoing and highly complex hardware changes.  It isn’t difficult to imagine why these insights from neuroscience might modify our conventional views of concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  Prior to these developments over the last few decades, the brain was largely seen as a sort of “black box”, with its internal milieu and functional properties remaining mysterious and inaccessible.  From that time and prior to it, for millennia, many people have assumed that our thoughts and behaviors were self-caused or causa sui.  That is, people believed that they themselves (i.e. some causally free “consciousness”, or “soul”, etc.) caused their own thoughts and behavior as opposed to those thoughts and behaviors being ultimately caused by physical processes (e.g. neuronal activity, chemical reactions, etc.).

Neuroscience (as well as biochemistry and its underlying physics) has shed a lot of light on this long-held assumption and, as it stands, the evidence has shown this prior assumption to be false.  The brain is ultimately controlled by the laws of physics since every chemical reaction and neural event that physically produces our thoughts, choices, and behaviors, have never been shown to be causally free from these physically guiding constraints.  I will mention that quantum uncertainty or quantum “randomness” (if ontologically random) does provide some possible freedom from physical determinism.  However, these findings from quantum physics do not provide any support for self-caused thoughts or behaviors.  Rather, it merely shows that those physically constrained thoughts and behaviors may never be completely predictable by physical laws no matter how much data is obtained.  In other words, our thoughts and behaviors are produced by highly predictable (although not necessarily completely predictable) physical laws and constraints as well as some possible random causal factors.

As a result of these physical causal constraints, the conventional perspective of an individual having classical free will has been shattered.  Our traditional views of human attributes including morality, choices, ideology, and even individualism are continuing to change markedly.  Not surprisingly, there are many people uncomfortable with these scientific discoveries including members of various religious and ideological groups that are largely based upon and thus depend on the very presupposition of precepts such as classical free will and moral responsibility.  The evidence that is compiling from the neurosciences is in fact showing that while people are causally responsible for their thoughts, choices, and behavior (i.e. an individual’s thoughts and subsequent behavior are constituents of a causal chain of events), they are not morally responsible in the sense that they can choose to think or behave any differently than they do, for their thoughts and behavior are ultimately governed by physically constrained neural processes.

New World View

Now I’d like to return to what I mentioned earlier and consider how these insights from neuroscience may be drastically modifying how we look at concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  If our brain is operating via these neural network dynamics, then conscious thought appears to be produced by a particular subset of these neural network configurations and processes.  So as we continue to learn how to more directly control or alter these neural network arrangements and processes (above and beyond simply applying electrical potentials to certain neural regions in order to bring memories or other forms of imagery into consciousness, as we’ve done in the past), we should be able to control thought generation from a more “bottom-up” approach.  Neuroscience is definitely heading in this direction, although there is a lot of work to be done before we have any considerable knowledge of and control over such processes.

Likewise, learning seems to consist of a certain type of neural network modification (involving memory), leading to changes in causal pattern recognition (among other things) which results in our ability to more easily achieve our goals over time.  We’ve typically thought of learning as the successful input, retention, and recall of new information, and we have been achieving this “learning” process through the input of environmental stimuli via our sensory organs and systems.  In the future, it may be possible to once again, as with the aforementioned bottom-up thought generation, physically modify our neural networks to directly implant memories and causal pattern recognition information in order to “learn” without any actual sensory input, and/or we may be able to eventually “upload” information in a way that bypasses the typical sensory pathways thus potentially allowing us to catalyze the learning process in unprecedented ways.

If we are one day able to more directly control the neural configurations and processes that lead to specific thoughts as well as learned information, then there is no reason that we won’t be able to modify our personalities, our decision-making abilities and “algorithms”, etc.  In a nutshell, we may be able to modify any aspect of “who” we are in extraordinary ways (whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing is another issue entirely).  As we come to learn more about the genetic components of these neural processes, we may also be able to use various genetic engineering techniques to assist with the necessary neural modifications required to achieve these goals.  The bottom line here is that people are products of their genes and environment, and by manipulating both of those causal constraints in more direct ways (e.g. through the use of neuroscientific techniques), we may be able to achieve previously unattainable abilities and perhaps in a relatively miniscule amount of time.  It goes without saying that these methods will also significantly affect our evolutionary course as a species, allowing us to enter new landscapes through our substantially enhanced ability to adapt.  This may be realized through these methods by finding ways to improve our intelligence, memory, or other cognitive faculties, effectively giving us the ability to engineer or re-engineer our brains as desired.

Neuroscience Arms Race

We can see that increasing our knowledge and capabilities within the neurosciences has the potential for drastic societal changes, some of which are already starting to be realized.  The impact that these fields will have on how we approach the problem of criminal, violent, or otherwise undesirable behavior can not be overstated.  Trying to correct these issues by focusing our efforts on the neural or cognitive substrate that underlie them, as opposed to using less direct and more external means (e.g. social engineering methods) that we’ve been using thus far, may lead to much less expensive solutions as well as solutions that may be realized much, much more quickly.

As with any scientific discovery or subsequent technology produced from it, neuroscience has the power to bestow on us both benefits as well as disadvantages.  I’m reminded of the ground-breaking efforts made within nuclear physics several decades ago, whereby physicists not only gained precious information about subatomic particles (and their binding energies) but also how to release these enormous amounts of energy from nuclear fusion and fission reactions.  It wasn’t long after these breakthrough discoveries were made before they were used by others to create the first atomic bombs.  Likewise, while our increasing knowledge within neuroscience has the power to help society improve by optimizing our brain function and behavior, it can also be used by various entities to manipulate the populace for unethical reasons.

For example, despite the large number of free market proponents who claim that the economy need not be regulated by anything other than rational consumers and their choices of goods and services, corporations have clearly increased their use of marketing strategies that take advantage of many humans’ irrational tendencies (whether it is “buy one get one free” offers, “sales” on items that have artificially raised prices, etc.).  Politicians and other leaders have been using similar tactics by taking advantage of voters’ emotional vulnerabilities on certain controversial issues that serve as nothing more than an ideological distraction in order to reduce or eliminate any awareness or rational analysis of the more pressing issues.

There are already research and development efforts being made by these various entities in order to take advantage of these findings within neuroscience such that they can have greater influence over people’s decisions (whether it relates to consumers’ purchases, votes, etc.).  To give an example of some of these R&D efforts, it is believed that MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans may eventually be able to show useful details about a person’s personality or their innate or conditioned tendencies (including compulsive or addictive tendencies, preferences for certain foods or behaviors, etc.).  This kind of capability (if realized) would allow marketers to maximize how many dollars they can squeeze out of each consumer by optimizing their choices of goods and services and how they are advertised. We have already seen how purchases made on the internet, if tracked, begin to personalize the advertisements that we see during our online experience (e.g. if you buy fishing gear online, you may subsequently notice more advertisements and pop-ups for fishing related goods and services).  If possible, the information found using these types of “brain probing” methods could be applied to other areas, including that of political decision making.

While these methods derived from the neurosciences may be beneficial in some cases, for instance, by allowing the consumer more automated access to products that they may need or want (which will likely be a selling point used by these corporations for obtaining consumer approval of such methods), it will also exacerbate unsustainable consumption and other personal or societally destructive tendencies and it is likely to continue to reduce (or eliminate) whatever rational decision making capabilities we still have left.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, neuroscience has the potential to (and is already starting to) completely change the way we look at the world.  Further advancements in these fields will likely redefine many of our goals as well as how to achieve them.  It may also allow us to solve many problems that we face as a species, far beyond simply curing mental illnesses or ailments.  The main question that comes to mind is:  Who will win the neuroscience arms race?  Will it be those humanitarians, scientists, and medical professionals that are striving to accumulate knowledge in order to help solve the problems of individuals and societies as well as to increase their quality of life?  Or will it be the entities that are trying to accumulate similar knowledge in order to take advantage of human weaknesses for the purposes of gaining wealth and power, thus exacerbating the problems we currently face?