Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Social Account of Suffering

50,000 cultured brain cells sit in a petri dish. Through a combination of electronic sensors, software engineering and robotic sculpture, the physiology of the cells interacts with the psychology of some patrons of an art gallery [1]. From this transaction, judgments arise - the audience might report feelings of being watched, of play, or simply of remotely observing an oblivious 'seizure machine.' One particular type of audience member, the Animal Ethicist, might even wonder if we should be worried that the culture of brain cells (as a former animal) might be in pain.

Brain cells, electrodes, and tiny Peter Singer (image from here). 
While in most cases it is fairly straightforward to determine that a human is in pain, when one starts to asks if non-humans (or even humans with severe communication problems, such as locked-in patients) are in pain, it is common to turn to neuroscience for help. The idea is that while mental states (such as pain and suffering) can only be deduced from behavior if the behaviors are 'wired up correctly,' mental states are always (or non-contingently, to borrow the language of Dr. Martha Farah [2]) related to brain states. Thus, the tools of neuroscience can give us direct access to the amount of pain an organism is experiencing, bypassing a body that might hide this information from us (which could happen because of injury, or because the body was never equipped with a human face). We are obligated to perform this scientific investigation, as we have an obligation to prevent pain and suffering.

Pain is something the brain does.  Nociception sends information about tissue damage (1) through the spinal cord, where such information can be modulated (2).  However, pain doesn't really become that nasty, unpleasant experience until it weasels its way into your limbic system (4).  Image retrieved from here.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Appreciating Neurodiversity: Learning from Synesthesia

By Guest Contributor Katherine Bryant
PhD Candidate, Neuroscience
Emory University

Who are synesthetes?
[Describing the experiences of subject MMo] Eights are yellow, for example, a square feels like mashed potatoes, and the name Steve is somehow like poached eggs. (Cytowic p. 26)
“…I [asked the vendor] what kind of ice cream she had.  ‘Fruit ice cream,’ she said.  But she answered in such a tone that a whole pile of coals, of black cinders, came bursting out of her mouth, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy any ice cream after she’d answered that way…” (Record of patient “S”, Luria p. 82)
Colored alphabet,
via Wikipedia Commons
The unexpected sensory pairings described above are the experiences of a minority of people, perhaps 4% of the population (Simner et al., 2006), known as synesthetes. Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which unusual linkages occur between sensory modalities – sounds may evoke colors, tastes may evoke shapes, or numbers may evoke spatial patterns – in all, over 40 unique pairings have been documented.  Synesthesia creates problems – it defies normal categories of clinical pathology, and yet is clearly different from what we might call “normal” or neurotypical perception. But examining the phenomenon can help us gain a greater understanding of how synesthetes perceive the world, how others perceive them, and in what ways neuroscience can help us better understand unusual neurological phenotypes – what we might call neurodiversity.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Neuroconservationism: A Neural Pathway to Preservation

Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist and environmentalist, has proposed an idea that may galvanize conservation movements based on neuroscientific evidence that suggests our brains deeply crave the ocean. In fact, he launched what he calls a mind-ocean initiative named BLUEMiND, with the hopes of merging the fields of cognitive science and oceanography. The group will be holding its third conference this May to facilitate discussions regarding the burgeoning field of neuroconservationism, with a major focus on exploring the biological basis of our emotional connection with the ocean and the environment.
Your brain on ocean

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Being Careful About How We Use Evidence for the "Reality" of Social Pain


Images courtesy of the
Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory
at UCLA.
Neuroscience is changing the way we view the brain. It is also changing the way we view ourselves. Discoveries announced in journal web pages one day find themselves as fuel for debate on newspaper op-ed pages the next. Some of these discoveries have practical implications and point toward promising new medical therapies. Others suggest new - and often troubling - approaches for dealing with social or legal problems. Many simply shed new light on long-standing questions about human nature.

Like it or not, the evidence that supports these discoveries turns out to be quite persuasive. Wearing the mantle of science, decorated with images that hint at the workings of the human mind, it commands a special, and perhaps not entirely deserved, authority. This evidence is also subject to being appropriated for purposes beyond that supported by conclusions of the research which gave rise to it. Consequently, we must be careful when we enlist neuroscience evidence in the service of even the best of causes, lest we unwittingly find ourselves endorsing the kind of erroneous thinking that we should be trying to correct.

I will offer two examples - one here and another in a blog post to follow - of what I consider to be incorrect applications of neuroscience evidence to well-intentioned efforts to change public attitudes. I will also point out the fallacies that I believe are at play.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Misophonia: Personality Quirk, Symptom, or Neurological Disorder?

When I first learned about misophonia, it was described as a severe annoyance by certain specific sounds, most commonly bodily sounds such as chewing, breathing and slurping, or repetitive sounds such as ceiling fans, beeping, etc.  A quick Wikipedia search described it as, “a form of decreased sound tolerance… believed to be a neurological disorder characterized by negative experiences resulting only from specific sounds, whether loud or soft.”

Immediately, I had a number of questions: if misophonia is just a hatred of certain sounds that leads to annoyance or anger, how is this classified as a neurological disorder?  Wouldn’t everyone have this disorder to some degree?  Everyone has their pet peeves as far as sound goes; I cannot stand the sound of people chewing, and while it is sometimes very irritating, I would by no means say that I have a neurological disorder.

The Wikipedia entry stated, “Intense anxiety and avoidant behavior may develop, which can lead to decreased socialization. Some people may feel the compulsion to mimic what they hear.”  If everyone has sounds that they hate, but some people get uncontrollably angry or anxious when they hear their hated sounds, then isn’t this disorder a behavioral issue?  I initially had two hypotheses about misophonia: 1) someone who cannot control their behavior in response to certain sounds probably has trouble controlling their behavior in response to other stimuli as well, and therefore misophonia is the side-effect of another neurological or psychiatric disease, not its own one.  And 2) misophonia is one of those “disorders” that just seems like a scheme to sell more drugs to hypochondriacs.  But this was Wikipedia, so I first looked to the DSM-IV to learn more about misophonia.