Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Our brain dichotomies - Saeed Ahmed

Here is another guest-post written by Saeed Ahmed:

Have you ever thought about the question “Who am I?” or the question “Why do I do the things I do?”

On the surface, perhaps these seem trivial questions, and yet they have been discussed by philosophers for thousands of years, with no firm answers, and the dialog continues.

Modern neuroscience has reached a point that it can in some ways inform this dialog. Three recent podcast interviews, based on books written for lay audiences, illuminate slightly different aspects of the debate, provide some answers, and raise many more questions.

Two dichotomies are emphasized in these podcasts; conscious and unconscious mental processing, and the functions of the left and right hemispheres.

Each author has been interviewed several times, and I have posted below links for sessions with three very experienced interviewers.

David Eagleman, interviewed by Terry Gross, is a neuroscientist and talks about a competition for attention among the myriad of neural processes (central, peripheral, sympathetic, parasympathetic) that we all possess. Volition and action occur on the basis of which processes “win.” Virtually all of the competition occurs unconsciously. In a way, Eagleman provides an organic basis for what an aspect of “unconscious: may be. In the latter part of the book, he discusses implications of this, including those for our legal systems. Fresh Air - (feed)

Daniel Kahneman, interviewed by Leonard Lopate, is a nobel-prize winner in economics. While this may seem a bit odd (why economics; isn’t that about supply and demand curves, utility functions and mathematical models?), it isn’t really, because aspects of behavior, particularly “non-rational” behavior, are becoming very important in economics research, as it has become more and more apparent that participants in markets often do not act as rationally as traditional models have assumed. Kahneman describes two neural systems: one that operates quickly with virtually no sense of voluntary control and a second that allocates attention to effortful activities. He too speculates about legal implications, e.g. the effect of judicial decisions on whether judges are hungry or have just eaten. Leonard Lopate Show - Feed

Kahneman also wrote an article on the same subject matter as his book for Scientific American, which can be accessed here.

My favorite interview of the three, was of Iain McGilchrist a British psychiatrist, who sat with Phillip Adams of Australia’s Radio National, who discusses the implications of the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy. The left-right dichotomy is just as fundamental as the conscious-unconscious one (although both ultimately are reductionist). Briefly summarized, just as one may hypothesize that the phenomena of perception/conception/volition/action are determined in some way by a competition between multiple unconscious processes, so too may one say that these phenomena occur due to states generated by the cooperative/competitive “discussion” between the two “persons” who exist inside us, and very different persons they are, apparently. McGilchrist goes beyond mechanistic explanations, and it is his foray into the implications of this dichotomy that I found quite compelling, speculative though they might be. The basic hypothesis he puts forth is that due to a predominance of left-dominant thinking, certain tendencies of western civilization have become damaging. In his own words (from his book’s introduction):
“Here I suggest that it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. In the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion. In our time each of these has been subverted and the routes of escape from the virtual world have been closed off. An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.”
Right/Left brain speculations, in books and blog posts on the hidden power of the right brain, are becoming quite fashionable, but they sometimes overstate the implications of the evidence they put forth to support their claims. Gilchrist advocates balance between the left and the right hemispheres. It is always hard to judge how far one may speculate, given any line of evidence, and I don’t think Gilchrist went too far, but not everyone may see his suppositions about social and humanistic issues well-grounded in research in this area. But few will fault his effort to reach this far.

More about the three books can be found at Amazon, Wikipedia (thinking fast and slow) (the master and his emissary).