Tag Archives: Neuroscience

Religion, if it exists, is negotiation of underdetermined metaphoric cognition [UPDATED]

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Preamble

Richard Buchta - Portrait of a Zande witchdoctor

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I am an old atheist and a new agnostic. I don’t believe in God in the old-fashioned Russellian way – if I don’t believe in Krishna, Zeus, water sprites or the little teapot orbiting the Sun, I don’t believe in God and the associated supernatual phenomena (monotheism my foot!). However, I am agnostic about nearly everything else and everything else in the new atheist way is pretty much science and reason. If history is any judge (and it is) most of what we believe to be scientific truths today is bunk. This makes me feel not superior at all to people of faith. Sure I think what they believe is a stupid and irrational thing to believe, but I don’t think they are stupid or irrational people to believe it. The smartest people believe the most preposterous things just look at Newton, Chomsky or Dawkins.

But one thing I’m pretty certain about is religion. Or rather, I’m pretty certain it does not exist. It is in many ways an invention of the Enlightenment and just like equality and brotherhood it only makes sense until you see the first person winding the up guillotine. Religion only makes sense if you want to set a certain set of beliefs and practices aside, most importantly to deprive their holders of power and legitimacy.

But is it a useful concept for deliberation about human universals? I think on balance it is not. Religion is a collection of stated beliefs, internal beliefs and public and private practices. In other words, religion is a way of life for a community of people. Or to be etymological about it, it is what binds the community together. The nature of the content of those beliefs is entirely irrelevant to the true human universal: a shared collection of beliefs and practices develops over a short amount of time inside any group of people. And when I say beliefs, I mean all explicit and implicit knowledge and applied cognition.

In this sense, modern secular humanism is just as much a religion as rabid evangelicalism.

On the mundane nature of sacred thought

So, why the scientist asks, do all cultures develop knowledge system that includes belief in the supernatural? That’s because they don’t. For instance, as Geertz so beautifully described in his reinterpretation of the Azande, witchcraft isn’t supernatural. It is the natural explanation after everything else has failed. We keep forgetting that until Einstein, everybody believed in this (as Descartes pointed out) supernatural force called gravity that could somehow magically transmit motion accross vast distances. And now (as Angel and Demetis point out) we believe in magical sheets that make gravity all nice and natural. Or maybe strings? Give me a break!

What about the distinction between the sacred and mundane you ask? Well, that obviously exists including the liminality between them. But sacred/mundane is not limited to anything supernatural and magical – just look at the US treatment of the flag or citizenship. In fact, even the most porfoundly sacred and mystical has a significant mundane dimension necessitated by its logistics.

There are no universals of faith. But there are some strong tendencies among the world’s cultures: Ancestor worship, belief in superhuman and non-human (often invisible, sometimes disembodied) agents, sympathetic magic and ritual (which includes belief in empowered and/or sapient substances and objects). This is combined with preserving and placating personal and collective practices.

All of the above describes western atheists as much as the witchcraft believing Azande. We just define the natural differently. Our beliefs in the power of various pills and the public professions of faith in the reality of evolution or the transformative nature of the market fall under the above just as nicely as the rain dance. Sure I’d much rather go to a surgeon with an inflamed appendix than a witch doctor but I’d also much rather go to a renowned witch doctor than an unknown one if that was my only choice. Medicine is simply witchcraft with better peer review.

Leaving the merits of the modern world aside. The question remains why do humans seem to converge on similar content of their beliefs? Helen de Cruz and the commenters on her post about the naturalness of religious belief: http://www.cognitionandculture.net/Helen-De-Cruz-s-blog/does-atheism-challenge-the-naturalness-of-religious-belief.html give a great overview of the current debate on the topic.

They pretty much put to rest some of the evolutionary notions and the innateness of mind/body dualism. I particularly like the proposition Helene de Cruz made building on Pascal’s remark that some people “seem so made that [they] cannot believe”. “For those people” continues de Cruz, “religious belief requires a constant cognitive effort.”

I think this is a profound statement. I see it as being in line with my thesis of frame negotiation. Some things require more cognitive effort for some people than other things for other people. It doesn’t have to be religion. We know reading requires more cognitive effort for different people in different ways (dyslexics being one group with a particular profile of cognitive difficulties). So does counting, painting, hunting, driving cars, cutting things with knives, taking computers apart, etc. These things are suceptible to training and practice to different degrees with different people.

So it makes perfect sense on the available evidence that different people require different levels of cognitive effort to maintain belief in what is axiomatic for others.

In the comments Mitch Hodge contributed a question to “researchers who propose that mind-body dualism undergirds representations of supernatural entities: What do you do with all of the anthropological evidence that humans represent most all supernatural entities as embodied? How do disembodied beings eat, wear clothes, physically interact with the living and each other?”

This is really important. Before you can talk about content of belief, you need to carefully examine all its aspects. And as I tried to argue above, starting with religion as a category already leads us down certain paths of argumentation that are less than telos-neutral.

But the answer to the “are humans natural mind-body dualists” does not have to be to choose one over the other. I suggest an alternative answer:

Humans are natural schematicists and schema negotiators

What does that mean? Last year, I gave a talk (in Czech) on the “Schematicity and undetermination as two forgotten processes in mind and language”. In it I argue that operating on schematic or in other ways underdetermined concepts is not only possible but it is built into the very fabric of cognition and language. It is extremely common for people to hold incomplete images (Lakoff’s pizza example was the one that set me on this path of thinking) of things in their mind. For instance, on slide 12 of the presentation below, I show different images that Czechs submitted into a competition run online by a national newspaper on “what does baby Jesus look like” (Note: In Czech, it is baby Jesus – or Ježíšek – who delivers the presents on Christmas Eve). The images ran from an angelic adult and a real baby to an outline of the baby in the light to just a light.

[slideshare id=6059571&doc=schematicnostanedourcenost-101207060558-phpapp02]
This shows that people not only hold underdetermined images but that those images are determined to varying degrees (in my little private poll, I came across people who imagined Ježíšek as an old bearded man and personally, I did not explicitly associated the diminutive ježíšek with the baby Jesus, until I had to translate it into English). The discussions like those around Trinity or the embodied nature of key deities are the results of conversations about what parts of a shared schema is it acceptable to fill out and how to fill them out.

It is basically metaphor (or as I call it frame) negotiation. Early Christianity was full of these debates and it is not surprising that it wasn’t always the most cognitively parsimoneous image that won out.

It is further important that humans have various explicit and implicit strategies to deal with infelicitous schematicity or schema clashes, which is to defer parts of their cognition to a collectively recognised authority. I spent years of my youth believing that although the Trinity made no sense to me, there were people to who it did make sense and to whom as guardians of sense, I would defer my own imperfect cognition. But any study of the fights over the nature of the Trinity are a perfect illustration of how people negotiate over their imagery. And as in any negotiation it is not just the power of the argument but also the power of the arguer that determines the outcome.

Christianity is not special here in any regard but it does provide two millenia of documented negotiation of mappings between domains full of schemas and rich images. It starts with St Paul’s denial that circumcision is a necessary condition of being a Christian and goes on into the conceptual contortions surrounding the Trinity debates. Early Christian eschatology also had to constantly renegotiate its foundations as the world sutbbornly refused to end and was in that no different from modern eschatology – be it religion or science based. Reformation movements (from monasticism to Luther or Calvin) also exhibit this profound contrasting of imagery and exploration of mappings, rejecting some, accepting others, ignoring most.

All of these activities lead to paradoxes and thus spurring of heretical and reform movements. Waldensians or Lutherans or Hussites all arrived at their disagreement with the dogma through painstaking analysis of the imagery contained in the text. Arianism was in its time the “thinking man’s” Christianity, because it made a lot more sense than the Nicean consensus. No wonder it experienced a post-reformation resurgence. But the problems it exposed were equally serious and it was ultimately rejected for probably good reason.

How is it possible that the Nicean consensus held so long as the mainstream interpretation? Surely, Luther could not have been the first to notice the discrepancies between lithurgy and scripture. Two reasons: inventory of expression and undedetermination of conceptual representationa.

I will deal with the idea of inventory in a separate post. Briefly, it is based on the idea of cognitive grammar that language is not a system but rather a patterned invenotory of symbolic units. This inventory is neither static nor has it clear boundaries but it functions to constrain what is available for both speech and imagination. Because of the nature of symbolic units and their relationship, the inventory (a usage-based beast) is what constrains our ability to say certain things although they are possible by pure grammatical or conceptual manipulation. By the same token, the inventory makes it possible to say things that make no demonstrable sense.

Frame (or metaphor) negotiation operates on the inventory but also has to battle against its constraints. The units in the inventory range in their schematicity and determination but they are all schematic and underdetermined to some degree. Most of the time this aids effortless conceptual integration. However, a significant proportion of the time, particularly for some speakers, the conceptual integration hits a snag. A part of a schematic concept usually left underdetermined is filled out and it prevents easy integration and an appropriate mapping needs to be negotiated.

For example, it is possible to say that Jesus is God and Jesus is the Son of God even in the same sentence and as long as we don’t project the offspring mapping on the identity mapping, we don’t have a problem. People do these things all the time. We say things like “taking a human life is the ultimate decision” and “collateral damage must be expected in war” and abhor people calling soldiers “murderers”. But the alternative to “justified war” namely “war is murder” is just as easy to sanction given the available imagery. So people have a choice.

But as soon as we flesh out the imagery of “X is son of Y” and “X is Y” we see that something is wrong. This in no way matches our experience of what is possible. Ex definitio “X is son of Y” OR “X is Y”. Not AND. So we need to do other things make the nature of “X is Y” compatible with “X is the son of Y”. And we can either do this by attributing a special nature to one or both of the statements. Or we can acknowledge the problem and defer knowledge of the nature to a higher authority. This is something we do all the time anyway.

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in

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So to bring the discussion to the nature of embodiment, there is no difficulty for a single person or a culture to maintained that some special being is disembodied but yet can perform many embodied functions (like eating). My favorite joke told to me by a devout Catholic begins: “The Holy Trinity are sitting around a table talking about where they’re going to go for their vacation…” Neither my friend nor I assumed that the Trinity is in any way an embodied entity, but it was nevertheless very easy for us to talk about its members as embodied beings. Another Catholic joke:

A saussage goes to Heaven. St Peter is busy so he sends Mary to answer the Pearly Gates. When she comes back he asks: “Who was it?” She responds: “I don’t know but, it sure looked like the Holy Ghost.”

Surely a more embodied joke is very difficult to imagine. But it just illustrates the availability of rich imagery to fill out schemas in a way that forces us to have two incompatible images in our heads at the same time. A square circle, of sorts.

There is nothing sophisticated about this. Any society is going to have members who are more likely to explore the possibilities of integration of items within its conceptual inventory. In some cases, it will get them ostracised. In most cases, it will just be filed away as an idiosyncratic vision that makes a lot of sense (but is not worth acting on). That’s why people don’t organize their lives around the dictums of stand-up comedians in charge. What they say often “makes perfect sense” but this sense can be filed away into the liminal space of our brain where it does not interfere with what makes sense in the mundane or the sacred context of conceptual integration. And in a few special cases, this sort of behavior will start new movements and faiths.

These “special” individuals are probably present in quite a large number in any group. They’re the people who like puns or the ones who correct everyone’s grammar. But no matter how committed they are to exploring the imagery of a particular area (content of faith, moral philosophy, use of mobile phones or genetic engineering) they will never be able to rid it of its schematicity and indeterminacies. They will simply flesh out some schemas and strip off the flesh of others. As Kuhn said, a scientific revolution is notable not just for the new it brings but also for all the old it ignores. And not all of the new will be good and not all of the old will be bad.

Not that I’m all that interested in the origins of language but my claim is that the negotiation of the mappings between undertermined schemas is at the very foundation of language and thought. And as such it must have been present from the very begining of language – it may have even predated language. “Religious” thought and practice must have emerged very quickly; as soon as one established category came into contact with another category. The first statement of identity or similarity was probably quite shortly followed by “well, X is only Y, in as much as Z” (expressed in grunts, of course). And since bodies are so central to our thought, it is not surprising that imagery of our bodies doing special things or us not having a body and yet preserving our identity crops up pretty much everywhere. Hypothesizing some sort of innate mind-body dualism is taking an awfully big hammer to a medium-sized nail. And looking for an evolutionary advantage in it is little more than the telling of campfire stories of heroic deeds.

Epilogue

To look for an evolutionary foundation of religious belief is little more sophisticated than arguing about the nature of virgin birth. If nothing else, the fervor of its proponents should be highly troubling. How important is it that we fill in all the gaps left over by neo-Darwinism? There is nothing special about believing in Ghosts or Witches. It is an epiphenomenon of our embodied and socialised thought. Sure, it’s probably worth studying the brains of mushroom-taking mystical groups. But not as a religious phenomenon. Just as something that people do. No more special than keeping a blog. Like this.

Post Script on Liminality [UPDATE a year or so later]

Cris Campbell on his Genealogy of Religion Blog convinced me with the aid of some useful references that we probably need to take the natural/supernatural distinction a bit more seriously than I did above. I still don’t agree it’s as central as is often claimed but I agree that it cannot be reduced to the sacred v. mundane as I tried above.  So instead I proposed the distinction between liminal and metaliminal in a comment on the blog. Here’s a slightly edited version (which may or may not become its own post):

I read with interest Hultkranz’s suggestion for an empirical basis for the concept of the supernatural but I think there are still problems with this view. I don’t see the warrant for the leap from “all religions contain some concept of the supernatural” to “supernatural forms the basis of religion”. Humans need a way to talk about the experienced and the adduced and this will very ‘naturally’ take the form of “supernatural” (I’m aware of McKinnon’s dissatisfaction with calling this non-empirical).

On this account, science itself is belief in the supernatural – i.e. postulating invisible agents outside our direct experience. And in particular speculative cognitive science and neuroscience have to make giant leaps of faith from their evidence to interpretation. What are the chances that much of what we consider to be givens today will in the future be regarded as much more sophisticated than phrenology? But even if we are more charitable to science and place its cognition outside the sphere of that of a conscientious sympathetic magician, the use of science in popular discourse is certainly no different from the use of supernatural beliefs. There’s nothing new, here. Let’s just take the leap from the science of electricity to Frankenstein’s monster. Modern public treatments of genetics and neuroscience are essentially magical. I remember a conversation with an otherwise educated philosophy PhD student who was recoiling in horror from genetic modification of fruit (using fish genes to do something to oranges) as unnatural – or monstrous. Plus we have stories of special states of cognition (absent-minded professors, en-tranced scientists, rigour of study) and ritual gnostic purification (referencing, peer review). The strict naturalist prescriptions of modern science and science education are really not that different from “thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

I am giving these examples partly as an antidote to the hidden normativity in the term ‘supernatural’ (I believe it is possible to mean it non-normatively but it’s not possible for it not to be understood that way by many) but also as an example of why this distinction is not one that relates to religion as opposed to general human existence.

However, I think Hultkranz’s objection to a complete removal of the dichotomy by people like Durkheim and Hymes is a valid one as is his claim of the impossibility of reducing it to the sacred/profane distinction. However, I’d like to propose a different label and consequently framing for it: meta-liminal. By “meta-liminal” I mean beyond the boundaries of daily experience and ethics (a subtle but to me an important difference from non-empirical). The boundaries are revealed to us in liminal spaces and times (as outlined by Turner) and what is beyond them can be behaviours (Greek gods), beings (leprechauns), values (Platonic ideals) or modes of existence (land of the dead). But most importantly, we gain access to them through liminal rituals where we stand with one foot on this side of the boundary and with another on the “other” side. Or rather, we temporarily blur and expand the boundaries and can be in both places at once. (Or possibly both.) This, however, I would claim is a discursively psychological construct and not a cognitively psychological construct. We can study the neural correlates of the various liminal rituals (some of which can be incredibly mundane – like wearing a pin) but searching for a single neural or evolutionary foundation would be pointless.

The quote from Nemeroff and Rozin that ‘“the supernatural” as that which “generally does not make sense in terms of the contemporary understanding of science.”’ sums up the deficiency of the normative or crypto-normative use of “supernatural”. But even the strictly non-normative use suffers from it.

What I’m trying to say is that not only is not religious cognition a special kind of cognition (in common with MacKendrick), but neither is any other type of cognition (no matter how Popperian its supposed heuristics). The different states of transcendence associated with religious knowing (gnosis) ranging from a vague sense of fear, comfort or awe to a dance or mushroom induced trance are not examples of a special type of cognition. They are universal psychosomatic phenomena that are frequently discursively constructed as having an association with the liminal and meta-liminal. But can we postulate an evolutionary inevitability that connects a new-age whackjob who proclaims that there is something “bigger than us” to a sophisticated theologian to Neil DeGrasse Tyson to a jobbing shaman or priest to a simple client of a religious service? Isn’t it better to talk of cultural opportunism that connects liminal emotional states to socially constructed liminal spaces? Long live the spandrel!

This is not a post-modernist view. I’d say it’s a profoundly empirical one. There are real things that can be said (provided we are aware of the limitations of the medium of speech). And I leave open the possibility that within science, there is a different kind of knowledge (that was, after all, my starting point, I was converted to my stance by empirical evidence so I am willing to respond to more).

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The brain is a bad metaphor for language

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Note: This was intended to be a brief note. Instead it developed into a monster post that took me two weeks of stolen moments to write. It’s very light on non-blog references but they exist. Nevertheless, it is still easy to find a number of oversimplifications,  conflations, and other imperfections below. The general thrust of the argument however remains.

How Far Can You Trust a Neuroscientist?

Shiny and colored objects usually attract Infa...

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A couple of days ago I watched a TED talk called the Linguistic Genius of Babies by Patricia Kuhl. I had been putting it off, because I suspected I wouldn’t like it but I was still disappointed at how hidebound it was. It conflated a number of really unconnected things and then tried to sway the audience to its point of view with pretty pictures of cute infants in brain scanners. But all it was, is a hodgepodge of half-implied claims that is incredibly similar to some of the more outlandish claims made by behaviorists so many years ago. Kuhl concluded that brain research is the next frontier of understanding learning. But she did not give a simple credible example of how this could be. She started with a rhetorical trick. Mentioned an at-risk language with a picture of a mother holding an infant facing towards her. And then she said (with annoying condescension) that this mother and the other tribe members know something we do not:

What this mother — and the 800 people who speak Koro in the world — understand that, to preserve this language, they need to speak it to the babies.

This is garbage. Languages do not die because there’s nobody there to speak it to the babies (until the very end, of course) but because there’s nobody of socioeconomic or symbolic prestige children and young adults can speak the language to. Languages don’t die because people can’t learn them, they die because they have no reason (other than nostalgia) to learn them or have a reason not to learn them. Given a strong enough reason they would learn a dying language even if they started at sixteen. They just almost never are given the reason. Why Kuhl felt she did not need to consult the literature on language death, I don’t know.

Patricia Kuhl has spent the last 20 years studying pretty much one thing: acoustic discrimination in infants (http://ilabs.washington.edu/kuhl/research.html). Her research provided support for something that had been already known (or suspected), namely that young babies can discriminate between sounds that adults cannot (given similar stimuli such as the ones one might find in the foreign language classroom). She calls this the “linguistic genius of babies” and she’s wrong:

Babies and children are geniuses until they turn seven, and then there’s a systematic decline.

First, the decline (if there is such a thing) is mostly limited to acoustic processing and even then it’s not clear that the brain is the thing that causes it. Second, being able to discriminate (by moving their head) between sounds in both English and Mandarin at age 6 months is not a sign of genius. It’s a sign of the baby not being able to differentiate between language and sound. Or in other words, the babies are still pretty dumb. But it doesn’t mean they can’t learn a similar distinction at a later age – like four or seven or twelve. They do. They just probably do it in a different way than a 6-month old would. Third, in the overall scheme of things, acoustic discrimination at the individual phoneme level (which is what Kuhl is studying) is only a small part of learning a language and it certainly does NOT stop at 7 months or even 7 years of age. Even children who start learning a second language at the age of 6 achieve a native-like phonemic competence. And even many adults do. They seem not to perform as well on certain fairly specialized acoustic tests but functionally, they can be as good as native speakers. And it’s furthermore not clear that accent deficiencies are due to the lack of some sort of brain plasticity. Fourth, language learning and knowledge is not a binary thing. Even people who only know one language know it to a certain degree. They can be lexically, semantically and syntactically quite challenged when exposed to a sub-code of their language they have little to no contact with. So I’m not at all sure what Kuhl was referring to. François Grosjean (an eminent researcher in the field) has been discussing all this on his Life as Bilingual blog (and in books, etc.). To have any credibility, Kuhl must address this head on:

There is no upper age limit for acquiring a new language and then continuing one’s life with two or more languages. Nor is there any limit in the fluency that one can attain in the new language with the exception of pronunciation skills.

Instead she just falls on old prejudices. She simply has absolutely nothing to support this:

We think by studying how the sounds are learned, we’ll have a model for the rest of language, and perhaps for critical periods that may exist in childhood for social, emotional and cognitive development.

A paragraph like this may get her some extra funding but I don’t see any other justification for it. Actually, I find it quite puzzling that a serious scholar would even propose anything like this today. We already know there is no critical period for social development. Well, we don’t really know what social development is, but there’s no critical brain period to what there is. We get socialized to new collective environments throughout our lives.

But there’s no reason to suppose that learning to interact in a new environment is anything like learning to discriminate between sounds. There are some areas of language linked to perception where that may partly be the case (such as discriminating shapes, movements, colors, etc.) but hardly things like morphology or syntax, where much more complexity is involved. But this argument cuts both ways. Let’s say a lot of language learning was like sound development. And we know most of it continues throughout life (syntax, morphology, lexicon) and it doesn’t even start at 6 months (unless you’re a crazy Chomskean who believes in some sort of magical parameter setting). So if sound development was like that, maybe it has nothing to do with the brain in the way Kuhl imagines – although she’s so vague that she could always claim that that’s what she’d had in mind. This is what Kuhl thinks of as additional information:

We’re seeing the baby brain. As the baby hears a word in her language the auditory areas light up, and then subsequently areas surrounding it that we think are related to coherence, getting the brain coordinated with its different areas, and causality, one brain area causing another to activate.

So what? We know that that’s what was going to happen. Some parts of the brain were going to light up as they always do. What does that mean? I don’t know. But I also know that Patricia Kuhl and her colleagues don’t know either (at least not in the way she pretends). We speak a language, we learn a language and at the same time we have a brain and things happen in the brain. There are neurons and areas that seem to be affected by impact (but not always and not always in exactly the same way). Of course, this is an undue simplification. Neuroscientists know a huge amount about the brain. Just not how it links to language in a way that would say much about the language that we don’t already know. Kuhl’s next implied claim is a good example of how partial knowledge in one area may not at all extend to knowledge in another area.

What you see here is the audio result — no learning whatsoever — and the video result — no learning whatsoever. It takes a human being for babies to take their statistics. The social brain is controlling when the babies are taking their statistics.

In other words, when the children were exposed to audio or video as opposed to a live person, no effect was shown. At 6 months of age! As is Kuhl’s wont, she only hints at the implications, but over at the Royal Society’s blog comments, Eric R. Kandel has spelled it out:

I’m very much taken with Patricia Kuhl’s finding in the acquisition of a second language by infants that the physical presence of a teacher makes enormous difference when compared to video presence. We all know from personal experience how important specific teachers have been. Is it absurd to think that we might also develop methodologies that would bring out people’s potential for interacting empathically with students so that we can have a way of selecting for teachers, particularly for certain subjects and certain types of student? Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning.

But this could very well be absurd! First, Kuhl’s experiments were not about second language acquisition but sensitivity to sounds in other languages. Second, there’s no evidence that the same thing Kuhl discovered for infants holds for adults or even three-year olds. A six-month old baby hasn’t learned yet that the pictures and sounds coming from the machine represent the real world. But most four-year olds have. I don’t know of any research but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. I have personally met several people highly competent in a second language who claimed they learned it by watching TV at a young age. A significant chunk of my own competence in English comes from listening to radio, audio books and watching TV drama. How much of our first language competence comes from reading books and watching TV? That’s not to say that personal interaction is not important – after all we need to learn enough to understand what the 2D images on the screen represent. But how much do we need to learn? Neither Kuhl nor Kandel have the answer but both are ready (at least by implication) to shape policy regarding language learning. In the last few years, several reports raised questions about some overreaching by neuroscience (both in methods and assumptions about their validity) but even perfectly good neuroscience can be bad scholarship in extending its claims far beyond what the evidence can support.

The Isomorphism Fallacy

This section of the post is partly based on a paper I presented at a Czech cognitive science conference about 3 years ago called Isomorphism as a heuristic and philosophical problem.

IMG_7845The fundamental problem underlying the overreach of basic neuroscience research is the fallacy of isomorphism. This fallacy presumes that the same structures we see in language, behavior, society must have structural counterparts in the brain. So there’s a bit of the brain that deals with nouns. Another bit that deals with being sorry. Possibly another one that deals with voting Republican (as Woody Allen proved in “Everyone Says I Love You“). But at the moment the evidence for this is extremely weak, at best. And there is no intrinsic need for a structural correspondence to exist. Sidney Lamb came up with a wonderful analogy that I’m still working my way through. He says (recalling an old ‘Aggie‘ joke) that trying to figure out where the bits we know as language structure are in the brain is like trying to work out how to fit the roll that comes out of a tube of tooth paste back into the container. This is obviously a fool’s errand. There’s nothing in the tooth-paste container that in any way resembles the colorful and tubular object we get when we squeeze the paste container. We get that through an interaction of the substance, the container, external force, and the shape of the opening. It seems to me entirely plausible, that the link between language and the brain is much more like that between the paste, the container and their environment than like that between a bunch of objects and box. The structures that come out are the result of things we don’t quite understand happening in the brain interacting with its environment. (I’m not saying that that’s how it is, just that it’s plausible.) The other thing to lends it credence is the fact that things like nouns or fluency are social constructs with fuzzy boundaries, not hard discrete objects, so actually localizing them in the brain would be a bit of a surprise. Not that it can’t be done, but the burden of evidence of making this a credible finding is substantial.

Now, I think that the same problem applies to looking for isomorphism the other way. Lamb himself tries to look at grammar by looking for connections resembling the behavior of activating neurons. I don’t see this going anywhere. George Lakoff (who influenced me more than any other linguist in the world) seems to think that a Neural Theory of Language is the next step in the development of linguistics. At one point he and many others thought that mirror neurons say something about language but now that seems to have been brought into question. But why do we need mirror neurons when we already know a lot of the immitative behaviors they’re supposed facilitate? Perhaps as a treatment and diagnostic protocol for pathologies but is this really more than story-telling? Jerome Feldman described NTL in his book “From Molecule to Metaphor” but his main contribution seems to me lies in showing how complex language phenomena can be modelled with brain-like neural networks, not saying anything new about these phenomena (see here for an even harsher treatment). The same goes for the Embodied Construction Grammar. I entirely share ECG’s linguistic assumptions but the problem is that it tries to link its descriptive apparatus directly to the formalisms necessary for modeling. This proved to be a disaster for the generative project that projected its formalisms into language with a imperfect fit and now spends most of its time refining those formalisms rather than studying language.

So far I don’t see any advantage in linking language to the brain in either the way Kuhl et al or Feldman et al try to do it (again with the possible exception of pathologies). In his recent paper on compositionality, Feldman describes research that shows that spacial areas are activated in conjunction with spatial terms and that sentence processing time increases as the sentence gets removed from “natural spatial orientation”. But brain imaging at best confirms what we already knew. But how useful is that confirmatory knowledge? I would argue that not very useful. In fact there is a danger that we will start thinking of brain imaging as a necessary confirmation of linguistic theory. Feldman takes a step in this dangerous direction when he says that with the advent of new techniques of neuroscience we can finally study language “scientifically”. [Shudder.]

We know there’s a connection between language and the brain (more systematic than with language and the foot, for instance) but so far nobody’s shown convincingly that we can explain much about language by looking at the brain (or vice versa). Language is best studied as its own incredibly multifaceted beast and so is the brain. We need to know a lot more about language and about the brain before we can start projecting one into the other.

And at the moment, brain science is the junior partner, here. We know a lot about language and can find out more without looking for explanations in the brain. It seems as foolish as trying to illuminate language by looking inside a computer (as Chomsky’s followers keep doing). The same question that I’m asking for language was asked about cognitive processes (a closely related thing) by William Uttal in The New Phrenology who’s asking “whether psychological processes can be defined and isolated in a way that permits them to be associated with particular brain regions” and warns against a “neuroreductionist wild goose chase” – and how else can we characterize Kuhl’s performance – lest we fall “victim to what may be a ‘neo-phrenological’ fad”. Michael Shremer voiced a similar concern in the Scientific American:

The brain is not random kludge, of course, so the search for neural networks associated with psychological concepts is a worthy one, as long as we do not succumb to the siren song of phrenology.

What does a “siren song of phrenology” sound like? I imagine it would sound pretty much like this quote by Kuhl:

We are embarking on a grand and golden age of knowledge about child’s brain development. We’re going to be able to see a child’s brain as they experience an emotion, as they learn to speak and read, as they solve a math problem, as they have an idea. And we’re going to be able to invent brain-based interventions for children who have difficulty learning.

I have no doubt that there are some learning difficulties for which a ‘brain-based intervention’ (whatever that is) may be effective. But it’s just a relatively small part of the universe of learning difficulties that it hardly warrants a bombastic claim like the one above. I could find nothing in Kuhl’s narrow research that would support this assertion. Learning and language are complex psycho-social phenomena that are unlikely to have straightforward counterparts in brain activations such as can be seen by even the most advanced modern neuroimaging technology. There may well be some straightforward pathologies that can be identified and have some sort of treatment aimed at them. The problem is that brain pathologies are not necessarily opposites of a typically functioning brain (a fallacy that has long plagued interpretation of the evidence from aphasias) – it is, as brain plasticity would suggest, just as  likely that at least some brain pathologies simply create new qualities rather than simply flipping an on/off switch on existing qualities. Plus there is the historical tendency of the self-styled hard sciences to horn in on areas where established disciplines have accumulated lots of knowledge, ignore the knowledge, declare a reductionist victory, fail and not admit failure.

For the foreseeable future, the brain remains a really poor metaphor for language and other social constructs. We are perhaps predestined to finding similarities in anything we look at but researchers ought to have learned by now to be cautious about them. Today’s neuroscientists should be very careful that they don’t look as foolish to future generations as phrenologists and skull measurers look to us now.

In praise of non-reductionist neuroscience

Let me reiterate, I have nothing against brain research. The more of it, the better! But it needs to be much more honest about its achievements and limitations (as much as it can given the politics of research funding). Saying the sort of things Patricia Kuhl does with incredibly flimsy evidence and complete disregard for other disciplines is good for the funding but awful for actually obtaining good results. (Note: The brevity of the TED format is not an excuse in this case.)

A much more promising overview of applied neuroscience is a report by the Royal Society on education and the brain that is much more realistic about the state of neurocognitive research who admit at the outset: “There is enormous variation between individuals, and brain-behaviour relationships are complex.”

The report authors go on to enumerate the things they feel we can claim as knowledge about the brain:

  1. The brain’s plasticity
  2. The brain’s response to reward
  3. The brain’s self-regulatory processes
  4. Brain-external factors of cognitive development
  5. Individual differences in learning as connected to the brain and genome
  6. Neuroscience connection to adaptive learning technology

So this is a fairly modest list made even more modest by the formulations of the actual knowledge. I could only find a handful of statements made to support the general claims that do not contain a hedge: “research suggests”, “may mean”, “appears to be”, “seems to be”, “probably”. This modesty in research interpretation does not always make its way to the report’s policy suggestions (mainly suggestions 1 and 2). Despite this, I think anybody who thinks Patricia Kuhl’s claims are interesting would do well do read this report and pay careful attention to the actual findings described there.

Another possible problem for those making wide reaching conclusions is a relative newness of the research on which these recommendations are based. I had a brief look at the citations in the report and only about half are actually related to primary brain research. Of those exactly half were published in 2009 (8) and 2010 (20) and only two in the 1990s. This is in contrast to language acquisition and multilingualism research which can point to decades of consistently replicable findings and relatively stable and reliable methods. We need to be afraid, very afraid of sexy new findings when they relate to what is perceived as the “nature” of humans. At this point, as a linguist looking at neuroscience (and the history of the promise of neuroscience), my attitude is skeptical. I want to see 10 years of independent replication and stable techniques before I will consider basing my descriptions of language and linguistic behavior on neuroimaging. There’s just too much of ‘now we can see stuff in the brain we couldn’t see before, so this new version of what we think the brain is doing is definitely what it’s doing’. Plus the assumption that exponential growth in precision brain mapping will result in the same growth in brain function identification is far from being a sure thing (cf. genome decoding). Exponential growth in computer speed, only led to incremental increases in computer usability. And the next logical step in the once skyrocketing development of automobiles was not flying cars but pretty much just the same slightly better cars (even though they look completely different under the hood).

The sort of knowledge to learn and do good neuroscience is staggeringly awesome. The scientists who study the brain deserve all the personal accolades they get. But the actual knowledge they generate about issues relating to language and other social constructs is much less overwhelming. Even a tiny clinical advance such as helping a relatively small number of people to communicate who otherwise wouldn’t be able to express themselves makes this worthwhile. But we must not confuse clinical advances with theoretical advances and must be very cautious when applying these to policy fields that are related more by similarity than a direct causal connection.

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