plastinated head and brain

Why Jennifer Anniston is (probably) not hard wired into your Brain.

Lots of money is currently being devoted to investigating the brain e.g. The Brain Initiative Project,The Connectome Project. Like most people, I think the more we know about the brain the better. But more data about the brain is one thing. Clarifying what we are trying to investigate is another. For example, what, exactly, does the brain do? The prevailing view seems to be that the brain is an information processor. The many cells in your brain (neurons and the like) engage in highly complex patterns of electro-chemical signaling. This signaling is, in turn, understood in terms of information. Putting it crudely, brain cells shuttle information around the brain, and this is why you can think, feel, imagine, remember etc. This, however, raises an important question: what do we mean when we talk about ‘information’? For not all notions of information are the same. Indeed, there may be good reasons to think that only some notions of information actually have fully paid up naturalist credentials, that is, are compatible with brain science. And this has ramifications for how we understand what the brain does.

For example, some neuroscientists claim that there are “concept neurons” in the brain. These are neurons that signal in response to highly particular stimuli. The claim is that such neurons literally “encode […] a concept” (Koch, 2012, p65). For example, if you are a fan of Friends, then (an image of? the idea of?) Jennifer Anniston may be literally hard wired into your brain. However, the availability of different notions of information ensures that there is an alternative view. For one could instead think that what has been identified is an important statistical correlation between a certain stimulus and the firing of a particular neuron or neurons (which would still be a significant finding). Moreover, one could add that there is a conceptual gap between, on the hand, a correlation between a stimulus and the activity of a neuron or neurons, and, on the other, the claim that the neuron or neurons actually encode informational content (that is, the neuron or neurons store information about, or refer to, a particular stimulus). One could also add that there may be no easy way to close this gap. As the philosophers Dan Hutto and Erik Myin have argued, statistical correlations (or what is called informational covariances) do not give you informational content. This puts a heavy price tag on the idea of concept neurons. For if one is going to endorse this idea, then one is going to have to show how a statistical correlation demonstrates that cells in the brain actually store content (about, say, Jennifer Anniston).

My point in discussing this is to show that understanding the brain as an information processor raises key conceptual difficulties. Resolving those difficulties is needed if we are to determine what the brain does. Conceptual issues, whether you like them, loathe them, or just want to ignore them, matter. The problem, however, is that as brain technology becomes ever more sophisticated, we apt to forget this. Perhaps more worryingly, these big brain projects may actually encourage us to forget this.

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