Category Archives: Philosophy

Paul Bloom and Tamar Gendler Discuss Alief

My former philosophy thesis advisor from Yale is on! She is interested on the interaction between the imagination and normal cognition, and she begins by describing her newly coined concept of “Alief” (Pron: uh-LEAF). Basically, an alief describes something that is similar to a belief insofar as it guides our behavior, but different from belief insofar as we know that it is really a product of our imagination.

For instance, we might refuse to eat a piece of fudge shaped like feces even though we know that it tastes like any other piece of chocolate. Here, we allow something that we don’t honestly believe (namely, that the brown object is disgusting) to guide our behavior. Aliefs are interesting to cognitive scientists because they have important implications for how we act in the world. Bloom and Gendler discuss these implications in the context of evolutionary psychology, racial prejudice, video games, etc.


Encephalon 36

Welcome to Encephalon, the bi-weekly neuroscience blog carnival. In the 36th Edition, you will learn what STDs have to do with Alzheimer’s, how rats plan their decisions in a maze and why kids start speaking in nouns. Thanks for all the great submissions.

Brain Disease

brdu Zachary Tong at Distributed Neuron reports on new evidence that neural progenitor cells migrate towards the site of strokes. Researchers injected progenitor cells into mouse brains and then induced artificial strokes in half the subjects. They tracked the progenitor cells and found direct migration of labeled cells in the animals with brain injury.

Zachary also investigates the diverse genetic causes for epilepsy. New research demonstrates that disparate mutations associated with the disease can cancel each others’ negative effects when co-expressed.

Evil Monkey at Neurotopia provides yet another reason to practice safe sex: avoiding Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Herpes virus HSV-1 is a risk factor for AD and may accelerate the formation of amyloid plaques associated with cognitive decline.

Relatedly, Sandra Kiume at Channel N links to videos about memory loss from a conference at the University of British Columbia. The videos discuss tips for healthy aging in the context of cutting edge neuroscience research.

Computational Neuroscience

hippocampus.jpgJake Young at Pure Pedantry highlights a great paper in J. Neuroscience about how spatial information is encoded in the hippocampus. The authors made electrophysiogical recordings from rats as they chose between two alternative arms of a maze. These recordings revealed transient activation of neurons associated with each path, even before the rat embarked on either of them. This research proves that hippocampal maps are not solely for real-time encoding of spatial location but also for projections about future position.

In a related — albeit more theoretical — vein, Michael introduces his new blog Shared Symbolic Storage with a post about embodied cognition. Michael mentions a paper co-authored by Benoit Hardy-Vallée, an Encephalon contributor.

Imaging Studies

adhd-brain2.jpgEd Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science reviews new research showing that the brains of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) exhibit delayed maturation of the prefrontal cortex and accelerated maturation of the primary motor cortex. The findings are encouraging because they suggest that the brains of patients with ADHD eventually catch with those of nonaffected individuals.

The Neurocritic has a great two part takedown of the New York Times’ latest foray into pseudoscience. He links to several rebuttals and contributes a healthy dose of common sense with this rhetorical question: “Did we really need fMRI to tell us that Mrs. Clinton should try to soften the negative responses of swing voters?”


baboon meta 2

Michael at Shared Symbolic Storage offers a three part review of Baboon Metaphysics, a new book by Dorothy Cheny and Robert Seyfarth. The authors propose that social cognition preceded and made possible the emergence of language, instead of vice versa. Michael argues that this proposal neglects the mechanisms though which language can in turn influence our thought.

“Mama,” “Cookie,” “Nap.” Why do children learn nouns like these before other parts of speech? Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily reports on a creative study in which infants learning their first language were compared to older children learning a second language. This allowed researchers to figure out whether the early abundance of nouns is a function of age or an necessary feature of language acquisition.

That wraps it up for this issue of Encephalon. Bora at A Blog Around the Clock hosts Encephelon #37 on December 3rd. Email your posts to encephalon{dot}host{at}gmail{dot}com or submit using the online form.

Book Reviews, Get Your Book Reviews!

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s fantastic blog, Arts and Letters Daily links to reviews of two recent books: Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World by Chris Frith and How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. Both books receive harsh criticism, but ironically, neither review deters me from going to Barnes and Noble and buying them.

The first review dives into the ongoing debate about free will and the brain. Stuart Derbyshire, director of pain research at the Birmingham University Imaging Centre, argues that Frith has unrealistic expectations about the role that neuroscience can play in answering our most fundamental existential questions:

The fundamental mistake that Frith makes – and this is a common error – is to believe that agency or free will are products only of the human brain. The brain is necessary but it is not sufficient, and chasing agency into the brain will only yield disappointment or, in this case, a sense that agency is illusory. If agency is not merely a product of ordinary brains, then it follows that abnormal brains might not be the whole or only answer when there are psychiatric problems and delusions of agency such as in schizophrenia.

The second review applauds Groopman for recognizing the damaging role that bias and simplistic heuristics play in diagnosing disease, but chides him for offering no better alternative than clinical intuition. Instead, reviewer Charles Lambdin contends that evidence-based medicine is usually the best way to avoid mistakes. Furthermore, he attacks Groopman’s unscientific approach:

One would hope that a book entitled How Doctors Think would be about just that, how doctors make diagnoses, a topic on which much scientific research has been done. Unfortunately, Groopman by-and-large ignores this research, instead giving us a long collection of anecdotes wherein his doctor friends tell us how they think. And this is the book’s main failing, for if you were to write a book purporting to examine how some group of people thinks, you would have to do more than simply ask some of them.

Like I said, both books still sound like good reads.

What’s in a name?

Neurophilosophy has a fantastic post on The Matrix and the famous philosophical thought experiment that inspired it. Rene Descartes’ “Evil Genius” argument posits that our experience of the outer world is not accurate, and that false perceptions are being fed to us by an omnipotent being. A modern incarnation of the thought experiment asks us to imagine that our brain is sitting in a vat somewhere with a computer controlling our experience via an electrode interface. That’s where I got the name for this blog.

Would such a scenario mean that our experience is illusory? That’s the question philosopher O.K. Bouwsma raises in his wonderfully written essay, The Evil Genius. In Bouwsma’s thought experiment, the evil genius makes two attempts at tricking a poor mortal named Tom. In the end, both attempts fail and Bouwsma concludes that the skeptical doubts behind the Evil Genius argument are incoherent. In the first attempt, the Evil Genius turns the world into origami:

He took no delight in common lies, everyday fibs, little ones, old ones. He wanted something new and something big. He scratched his genius; he uncovered an idea. And he scribbled on the inside of his tattered halo, “Tomorrow, I will deceive,” and he smiled, and his words were thin and like fine wire. “Tomorrow I will change everything, everything, everything. I will change flowers, human beings, trees, hills, sky, the sun, and every-thing else into paper. Paper alone I will not change. There will be paper flowers, paper human beings, paper trees. And human beings will be deceived. They will think that there are flowers, human beings, and trees, and there will be nothing but paper. It will be gigantic.

But Tom is not deceived. He knows that he isn’t looking at real flowers because they don’t look or feel or smell like real flowers. In other words, he is able to detect the illusion with his senses. In the Evil Genius’s next attempt at deception, he decides to create a more convincing illusion. He destroys everything in the world and replaces it with with a mere replica. This time he builds it not out of paper, but out of “the stuff that dreams are made of.” For Tom, this replica is indistinguishable from reality. But this is not enough for the Evil Genius, who, swollen with pride, encourages Tom to doubt what he sees.

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