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The Neuron and the MindReview - The Neuron and the Mind
Microneuronal Theory and Practice in Cognitive Neuroscience
by William R. Uttal
Routledge, 2016
Review by R.A. Goodrich, Ph.D.
Oct 17th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 42)

In the last of his thirty monographs, the late William Uttal continued his unstinting forensic investigation into the rapturous acclaim often greeting scientific discoveries about the human brain and how they can resolve the nature of mind and consciousness. To that extent, The Nuron and the Mind differs little from its predecessors, especially since his provocative 2001 volume The New Phrenology, in pinpointing the sheer hyperbole of hypotheses inundating professional proclamations and the popular press alike.

For all the technicalities of a topic informed by the author's dual expertise in engineering and psychology, each chapter ends with an interim summary or conclusion as readers step towards the final one entitled "Emerging Conclusions" (177-181). However, rather than simply re-iterate them, we shall primarily examine how Uttal's concerns gain traction. Two questions in particular are pursued. Firstly, is an "overarching" microneuronal theory of mental cognition possible and, secondly, how does the sophisticated technology of our day "constrain and dictate" the kinds of theories we develop (xiv)? Because this monograph explicitly acts as "a companion" to Uttal's previous foray into what he terms "macroneural" theories (2)—theories that receive attention mainly in the first of his six chapters (e.g. 16ff.)—the opening section of this review shall focus upon how Uttal initially orients his readers. Thereafter, the concluding section will focus upon what Uttal calls "the ontological assumption," the "most fundamental postulate in cognitive science" (179). If this is unrealisable, then is the very raison d'être of this basic postulate undermined?

                                                            I

Acknowledging that "substantial progress" towards erecting "a conceptual bridge" between mind and brain, between "the psychological and neurophysiological domains," has yet to be accomplished (1), Uttal contends that the dispute between optimists and pessimists about the possibility of progress "will ultimately come from empirical studies" (2). By so doing, he echoes the highly publicised call for a "national Decade of the Mind" advocated by ten prominent American neuroscientists a decade ago in a letter to Science on the 7th September 2007.  Admitting that "a fundamental understanding of how the brain gives rise to the mind is still lacking," the authors extol the virtues of "Modeling the mind" by way of "transdisciplinary and multi-agency" approaches that would allow "theoretical and computational methodologies" to be combined with "empirical findings" (2007: 1321). More crucially, what does Uttal himself mean by "empirical"? He apparently sees it as the capacity to "construct high-level behaviour or intelligence or sentience or cognition (or whatever…we…call mind) from the properties of low-level neurophysiological components" whilst doubting whether that, in itself, could ever be tantamount to "an acceptable explanation" (2; cf. 39). It is a concession that pervades Uttal's prefatory list of quotations, including a succinct analogy taken from Lisa Barrett's 2011 article in Psychological Inquiry:

If psychological states are constructed, emergent phenomena, then they will not reveal their more primitive elements, any more than a loaf of bread reveals all the ingredients that constitute it (v).

Uttal then turns to three kinds of theory of brain and mind. Purely descriptive behavioural theories, we are told, do not give us insight into "specific underlying mechanisms—cognitive or neural" (3). Moreover, he finds that cognitively reductive theories are committed to "hypothetical constructs" which at best only provide allusions to or analogies of neural processes without actually specifying what can be logically inferred (3). In other words, "neural mechanisms for mental activity" must be sought elsewhere because neither "overt behaviour" nor "covert cognition" license what can be "deductively" concluded about the "underlying brain components" which, in "some ultimate sense," are "necessary for mind" (3). Consequently, according to Uttal, we are only left with neuro-reductive theories, the "macro" variety dealing with the role of clusters or regions of neurons within the brain and the "micro" variety with that of individual neurons and their synaptic connexions.

Uttal clearly believes that neuro-reductive theories that attempt to explain mental activity in terms of cerebral activity at the cellular or neuronal level are "largely metaphors or analogs driven by available instrumentation" (xii; cf. 7, 10). In other words, decades of technological inventions ever since Johannes Purkinje first examined nervous tissues by microscope in 1832 have allowed researchers to measure previously unobservable activities of the brain which putatively accompany psychological processes. Yet they have largely remained unable to resolve "the great question of how the mind emerges from brain processes" (22). All too often their investigations are engrossed by technological and methodological issues (e.g. parallel processing, 151ff.). This state of affairs raises the following kinds of questions for Uttal. For example, what is the nature of the evidence upon which inferences about the brain's relation to the mind are based? After all, functional magnetic resonance imaging, developed in 1990 by Seiji Ogawa and colleagues (18-19), depicts changes in blood flows which are then correlated to neural activity which, in turn, is correlated with clinically or experimentally conducted perceptual tasks, memorizing tasks, and so forth. However, correlations are not evident, in Uttal's view, with "the symbolic brain representations driven by higher-order cognitive processes" (22). In addition, how secure, for instance, are attributions of psychological concepts to patterns of cerebral activity, especially when the brain's relation to behavior dominates neurological enquiries? As Uttal realizes,

psychology is replete with poorly defined terms such as attention, thinking, emotion, and consciousness at a high level of abstraction and words such as learning, recognition, detection, retrieval, and conditioning defined more operationally. Many cognitive terms have multiple meanings that vary with the particular goals of the research and, moreover, none of these fluctuating cognitive terms need necessarily map directly onto neural mechanisms…. In short, our behavioral taxonomies and those of the brain may not be speaking the same language (12).

If researchers are still beholden to seeking a single resolution that accounts for "how the brain encodes mental activity," then they need to confront the further problem that "the brain is not necessarily modularized in the same manner as are cognitive processes," that is, that there is a "fundamental mismatch between our psychological and neurophysiological languages and concepts" (13). Nowhere is this better illustrated than in "the most abstruse entity of all—consciousness" (158).

          Whilst reviewing recent efforts to re-conceptualise the brain as functioning in a more holistic manner under the banner of distributed networks "over broad multifunctional regions" (as distinct from "localized, function-specific regions") (21), Uttal alights upon ten attempts to correct the mismatch. For example, Lisa Barrett and colleagues deny that specific emotions have specific locations within the brain. Instead, Barrett and Ajay Satpute in the June 2013 issue of Current Opinion in Neurobiology contend that "[o]ver two decades of brain imaging data point towards a framework where the human brain is intrinsically organized into domain-general, distributed functional networks" (2013: 361). Underlying appeals to "psychological 'faculties'" still persist in the task contemporary neuroscientists set themselves (2013: 361). These include "emotions (e.g., anger, disgust, fear, etc.), social cognitions and perceptions (the self, person perception, etc.), as well as non-social cognitions (e.g., memory, attention, etc.) and perceptions (visual images, auditory sounds)" (2013:361).

          Now, leaving aside whether Barrett & Satpute have inadvertently conflated perceptions and sensations, let alone agitations and moods, attitudes and appetites, our next section will begin to probe the belief here that all supposedly "can be thought of as mental events…constructed within and between…networks that compute domain-general functions" (2013: 361). For Uttal, "leading investigators" (including Barrett) (31) collectively herald the future path of cognitive neuroscience, namely, one of rejecting the quest for "neural codes for cognitive processes" towards one "more concerned with the properties of neural networks per se," that is, with their "anatomy and physiology" (32).

II

Should Uttal's prognosis come to pass, it is little wonder that our understanding of the relationship between mind and brain appears condemned to endless postponements. In other words, the "ontological" threat to the "ultimate theoretical goal" of cognitive neuroscience (179) looms large. Is it possible that Uttal amongst others has sought a connection in the wrong place, so to speak? Taking our cue from Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker in their December 2001 and May 2002 contributions to Progress in Neurobiology, is Uttal not in danger of committing a twofold error? Firstly, by attributing mental or psychological capacities to the brains of human beings, the question arises of the legitimacy of attributing to a part what conceptually is characteristic of the whole, formally known as the mereological fallacy (2001: 512ff., 540-541; 2002: 15, 49). If so, then, simply presuming the primary bearer of psychological attributes is the brain, the case for it being the person as a whole has been banished. Secondly, such an unchallenged cognitive neuroscientific commitment historically derives, as Bennett & Hacker (2002: 12-13) contend, from its intellectual antecedents in the revolution identified with René Descartes.

          To elaborate briefly, what Descartes in effect upended was a former conception of person in which the psukhe (commonly but misleadingly translated as "soul") was reconfigured, to quote Bennett & Hacker (2002: 12), not "as the principle of life, but as the principle of thought or consciousness." By identifying psukhe solely with the thinking mind (res cogitans), its other functions enumerated by Aristoteles were reclassified as material or bodily features (res extensa). Because Descartes conceives of thinking as (self) awareness or consciousness, thinking therefore comprises volitional, ratiocinative, and imaginative powers as well as sensory apprehensions ranging from perception to passions. Hence, for almost four centuries, a bifurcation between mind and body has been upheld which generations of neuroscientists from Thomas Willis onwards pursued in terms of interactions between mind and cortex (2001: 510ff.; 2002: 15ff.).

          Let us conclude with a dialogic remark figuring in Ludwig Wittgenstein's 1945 Philosophical Investigations:

"But doesn't what you say amount to this: that there is no pain, for example, without pain-behaviour?" – It amounts to this: that only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious (1945: §281; cf. §579ff.) (trans. Anscombe, Hacker & Schulte).

Hence, we may claim, a brain is not thoughtful or thoughtless, a person is; a brain is not imaginative or unimaginative, a person is; a brain does not perceive or misperceive, a person does; a brain does not operate with or without passions, a person does. This is the basis of the debate first initiated by Aristoteles in the Peri psukhes (De Anima (B.C. 350±)). There, in the first book, Aristoteles remarks:

We speak of the soul [psukhe] as being pained or pleased, being bold or fearful, being angry, perceiving, thinking….  Yet to say that it is the soul which is angry is as if we were to say that it is the soul that weaves or builds houses. It is doubtless better to avoid saying that the soul pities or learns or thinks, and rather to say that it is the man who does this… (408b1, 11-15) (trans. J.A. Smith).

Despite his many insights into the shortcomings of theory and practice within the cognitive neurosciences, Uttal is hardly alone amongst those in the field to misconstrue the brain as potentially providing a causal explanation for or bodily equivalent of the mind. It is at best a precondition.

 

© 2017 R.A. Goodrich

 

R.A. Goodrich is affiliated with the A.R.C. Centre for the History of Emotions (University of Melbourne) and the A.D.I. European Philosophy & History of Ideas (Deakin University), co-edits the online refereed arts journal, Double Dialogues, and co-ordinates with Maryrose Hall a longitudinal project investigating linguistic, cognitive, and behavioural development of higher-functioning children within the autistic spectrum and related disorders.


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