Is neuroscience really ruining the humanities?

For my latest 3QD post, I expanded on my answer to a Quora question: Is neuroscience ruining the humanities?


Here’s an excerpt:

“Neuroscience is ruining the humanities”. This was the provocative title of a recent article by Arthur Krystal in The Chronicle of Higher Education. To me the question was pure clickbait [1], since I am both a neuroscientist and an avid spectator of the drama and intrigue on the other side of the Great Academic Divide [2]. Given the sensational nature of many of the claims made on behalf of the cognitive and neural sciences, I am inclined to assure people in the humanities that they have little to fear. On close inspection, the bold pronouncements of fields like neuro-psychology, neuro-economics and neuro-aesthetics — the sorts of statements that mutate into TED talks and pop science books — often turn out to be wild extrapolations from a limited (and internally inconsistent) data set.

Unlike many of my fellow scientists, I have occasionally grappled with the weighty ideas that emanate from the humanities, even coming to appreciate elements of postmodern thinking. (Postmodern — aporic? — jargon is of course a different matter entirely.) I think the tapestry that is human culture is enriched by the thoughts that emerge from humanities departments, and so I hope the people in these departments can exercise some constructive skepticism when confronted with the latest trendy factoid from neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. Some of my neuroscience-related essays here at 3QD were written with this express purpose [3, 4].

The Chronicle article begins with a 1942 quote from New York intellectual Lionel Trilling: “What gods were to the ancients at war, ideas are to us”. This sets the tone for the mythic narrative that lurks beneath much of the essay, a narrative that can be crudely caricatured as follows. Once upon a time the University was a paradise of creative ferment. Ideas were warring gods, and the sparks that flew off their clashing swords kept the flames of wisdom and liberty alight. The faithful who erected intellectual temples to bear witness to these clashes were granted the boon of enlightened insight. But faith in the great ideas gradually faded, and so the golden age came to an end. The temple-complex of ideas began to decay from within, corroded by doubt. New prophets arose, who claimed that ideas were mere idols to be smashed, and that the temples were metanarrative prisons from which to escape. In this weak and bewildered state, the intellectual paradise was invaded. The worshipers were herded into a shining new temple built from the rubble of the old ones. And into this temple the invaders’ idols were installed: the many-armed goddess of instrumental rationality, the one-eyed god of essentialism, the cold metallic god of materialism…

The over-the-top quality of my little academia myth might give the impression that I think it is a tissue of lies. But perhaps more nuance is called for. As with all myths, I think there are elements of truth in this narrative.

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily: Is neuroscience really ruining the humanities?

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Science: The Quest for Symmetry


My latest 3QD post is up. This time I’m talking about symmetry and its relationship with science.

Here’s a snippet:

Attitudes toward science in the public sphere occupy an interesting spectrum. At one extreme there are the cheerleaders — those who seem to think that science is the disembodied spirit of progress itself, and will usher us into a brave new world of technological transcendence, in which we will merge with machines and upload our minds to the cloud. At the other extreme there is decidedly less exuberance. Science in its destructive avatar is often called scientism, and is seen as a hegemonic threat to religions and to the humanities, an imperial colonizer of the mind itself.

The successes of science give the impression that it has no limitations, either in outer space or inner space. But this attitude attributes to science somewhat magical powers. The discourse surrounding science might benefit from an awareness that its successes are closely tied to its limitations. The relationship between scientists and the rest of society needs mutual understanding and constructive criticism, rather than a volatile mix of reverence, fear, and mistrust. The veil of the temple of knowledge must be torn in two — or at least lifted up from time-to-time.

To this end, it might be illuminating to see scientific ideas as tools forged in workshops, rather than spells divined by wizards in ivory towers. The tool metaphor also reminds us that science is not merely an outgrowth of western philosophy — it is also the result of the painstaking work of “miners, midwives and low mechanicks” whose names rarely feature in the annals of Great Men. [1]

So what sort of toolbox is science? I’d like to argue that it’s a set of lenses. These lenses allow us to magnify and clarify our perceptions of natural phenomena, setting the stage for deeper understanding. The lenses of science reveal the symmetries of nature, so we might call them the Symmetry Spectacles. The Symmetry Spectacles are normally worn by mathematicians and theoretical physicists, but I think that even laypeople interested in science might find that the world looks quite interesting when viewed through them.

Read the rest at 3QD.

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Does dopamine produce a feeling of bliss? On the chemical self, the social self, and reductionism.

Here’s the intro to my latest blog post at 3 Quarks Daily.

“The  osmosis of neuroscience into popular culture is neatly symbolized by a  phenomenon I recently chanced upon: neurochemical-inspired jewellery. It  appears there is a market for silvery pendants shaped like molecules of  dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine and other celebrity  neurotransmitters. Under pictures of dopamine necklaces, the  neuro-jewellers have placed words like “love”, “passion”, or “pleasure”.  Under serotonin they write “happiness” and “satisfaction”, and under  norepinephrine, “alertness” and “energy”. These associations presumably  stem from the view that the brain is a chemical soup in which each  ingredient generates a distinct emotion, mood, or feeling. Subjective  experience, according to this view, is the sum total of the  contributions of each “mood molecule”. If we strip away the modern  scientific veneer, the chemical soup idea evokes the four humors of  ancient Greek medicine: black bile to make you melancholic, yellow bile  to make you choleric, phlegm to make you phlegmatic, and blood to make  you sanguine.

“A dopamine pendant worn round the neck as a symbol for bliss is  emblematic of modern society’s attitude towards current scientific  research. A multifaceted and only partially understood set  of experiments is hastily distilled into an easily marketed molecule of  folk wisdom. Having filtered out the messy details, we are left with an  ornamental nugget of thought that appears both novel and reassuringly  commonsensical. But does neuroscience really support this reductionist  view of human subjectivity? Can our psychological states be understood  in terms of a handful of chemicals? Does neuroscience therefore pose a  problem for a more holistic view, in which humans are integrated in  social and environmental networks? In other words, are the “chemical  self” and the “social self” mutually exclusive concepts?”

– Read the rest at 3QD: The Chemical Self and the Social Self

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From Cell Membranes to Computational Aesthetics: On the Importance of Boundaries in Life and Art

My next 3QD column is out. I speculate about the role of boundaries in life, curiosity, and identity.

This image is a taster:

If you want to know what this diagram might mean, check out the article:
From Cell Membranes to Computational Aesthetics: On the Importance of Boundaries in Life and Art

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The Mysterious Power of Naming in Human Cognition

I’ve written a long-form essay for the blog/aggregator site 3 Quarks Daily

Boundaries and Subtleties: the Mysterious Power of Naming in Human Cognition

Here’s a taster:

I’ve divided up the essay into four parts. Here’s the plan:

  1. We’ll introduce two key motifs — the named and the nameless — with a little help from the Tao Te Ching.
  2. We’ll examine a research problem that crops up in cognitive  psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence, and link it with  more Taoist motifs.
  3. We’ll look at how naming might give us power over animals, other people, and even mathematical objects.
  4. We’ll explore the power of names in computer science, which will facilitate some wild cosmic speculation.
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The neural shadow-play: A metaphor for how we infer how the brain works from a variety of methods

Can we say that a particular brain area mediates some function? My answer to a good Quora question:

Understanding the brain is like understanding the shape of a very complex, dynamic and multifaceted object by looking at the shadows projected by it on a wall.  The color of the light source and its orientation with respect to the object (and the wall) will change the nature of the shadow. Different scientific techniques are like different light sources. Different experimental protocols are like different angles. We have to look at the sequence of shadows and imagine what the object’s actual form is — it is not possible to view this object simultaneously from all angles and with all illumination sources. So there is a degree of creativity and freedom in each person’s own conception of the true nature of the object. Nevertheless, the conception that scientists eventually agree on is likely to be one that tempers this freedom with rationality and responsibility.”

I elaborate on this here:

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Metaphor: the Alchemy of Thought

In the murky centuries before the dawn of the scientific age, alchemists used the phrase “As above, so below” to convey their belief that the neat order observed in the heavens could also be discerned amidst the chaos on earth. Thus the alchemists hoped to understand the one in terms of the other — the complex in terms of the simple. They viewed macrocosm and microcosm as reflections of each other. This remained an esoteric ideal rather than a formula for practical knowledge until Isaac Newton — himself a dabbler in alchemy — brought the stars and the earth closer together by showing that they could be understood using a unified language: mathematics.

“As above, so below.”

Metaphor is the alchemy of thought: not “as above, so below”, but “as known, so unknown”. According to linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” It might not be an exaggeration to say that metaphorical thinking is the basis of our ability to extend the boundaries of human knowledge.  For those of you who only remember the word from middle school English class, I imagine this dramatic inflation of the importance of metaphor comes as a surprise. Isn’t metaphor just a linguistic flourish? “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”? “Now is the winter of our discontent”? Surely this kind of frippery is only for poets and artists? For the cafe and the studio, rather than the workshop and the laboratory? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Is it possible to speak plainly and just name things and processes without recourse to metaphor? The answer is not as straightforward as many of us would like it to be. Concrete concepts often evaporate into metaphorical abstraction upon careful examination. Conversely, even the most abstract concepts usually begin their lives as metaphors constructed from day-to-day human experience.

The word “matter”, for instance, comes from the Latin materia, meaning source, which in turn may have come from the Proto-Indo-European word for “mother”. At the other end of the spectrum, the word “abstract” comes from decidedly non-abstract roots: it stems from the Latin abstractus which means to “draw (tractus) away (abs)”, and stems ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *tragh-, from which we also get the English word “drag”. So the act of abstraction travels down through the ages from a time when it meant something as mundane as dragging out. “Metaphor”, interestingly enough, comes from the Greek for “carry over” or “transfer”. Thus metaphor and abstraction both have their roots in the physical act of carrying or drawing something from one place to another — metaphor carries meaning from the known to the unknown, whereas abstraction drags meaning from the specific to the general.

Here one might justifiably point out that when the primeval metaphorical quality of a word fades from memory over the centuries, we are left with dead metaphors — mere labels that have long since lost their original signification. Perhaps metaphor is only of interest to the archaeologists of language? I think not. To speak only in terms of old names and dead metaphors is to asphyxiate thought: to deprive it of the opportunity to make unforeseen connections and unanticipated leaps. These connections, these leaps, are essential to creativity and exploration.

For the purpose of investigating metaphor further, I think we can use some of the terminology invented by Julian Jaynes in his magnificent and idiosyncratic work  The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes described a metaphor as comprising of two parts. The metaphrand is the thing to be described or understood, and the metaphier is the more familiar thing with which it is compared. The human body is a very common metaphier; we speak of the head of a table, the foot of a mountain, the face and hands of a clock, and the mouth of a river.

The human body is a rich source of metaphiers. (Click to enlarge and en-gif.)

Consider the metaphors we use to talk about a table. If we decide on the metaphor of the “head” of the table, we might ask: what are the other parts of the body mapped to? The “foot” of the table is on the opposite side from the head. But the legs of the table are underneath. The metaphor does not invite us to wonder what the arms of the table are.

Where is the foot of the table? What about the arms  and legs? (Click to enlarge.)

Extended metaphors offer much more scope for description and discovery. We can now introduce two more Jaynesian terms: paraphiers and paraphrands. Paraphiers are properties or aspects of the metaphier that cast more light on the metaphrand. It is as if the first association leads to many more. One of the most evocative examples of this kind of   expansion is when we see human society as a human body. The metaphrand is society, and the metaphier is the body. The paraphiers are the head, the arms, and so on, as well as other concepts we associate with the body, such as health. So we not only have a head of state and the long arm of the law, but also a sick society. Here the paraphiers are especially handy — their corresponding paraphrands in society don’t always have non-metaphorical names.

In a passage from the Incredible String Band’s song “Maya” this metaphor is extended to almost comical degree.

The great man, the great man, historians his memory
Artists his senses, thinkers his brain
Labourers his growth
Explorers his limbs
And soldiers his death each second
And mystics his rebirth each second
Businessmen his nervous system
No-hustle men his stomach
Astrologers his balance
Lovers his loins
His skin it is all patchy
But soon will reach one glowing hue
God is his soul
Infinity his goal
The mystery his source
And civilization he leaves behind
Opinions are his fingernails

What we see here is a kind of feedback and resonance. In the case of man and society the microcosm and the macrocosm often seem equally unknown, and in this extended metaphor it seems as though we might understand both better through comparison. Not only do we see the various sections of society as parts of a “great man”, we also come to see the individual man as a meeting of impulses that are analogous to the forces operating in a society or economy.

Another rich example comes from seeing ideas or opinions as food. Ideas are the metaphrand, and food is the metaphier. Thus we have food for thought. Some ideas smell fishy, some are half-baked, some are hard to swallow. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Additional paraphiers jump out at us, inviting us to uncover their paraphrands. Which ideas are nutritious? Which are like junk food? Which are acquired tastes? An extended metaphor lurches forward into the unknown, its paraphiers reaching for more paraphrands to domesticate.

Food as a metaphor for ideas. (Click to enlarge.)

These examples may still seem more ornamental than useful. Perhaps some time is saved when pointing to the foot or head of an inanimate object rather than having to use precise geometric language, but knowledge is hardly expanded. To fully appreciate the power of metaphor (and it’s more formal cousin, analogy), we must look to its oft-neglected role in science and technology. We speak of a genetic “code” or “blueprint”. We explain the structure of the atom  to schoolchildren by analogy with the solar system. We think of the brain as a machine, or a computer, or a social network. These metaphors and analogies can help impart new ideas to the student and the layperson. But metaphor is more than a classroom aid. It is a crucial element of discovery and invention. Scientists are not blessed with a magical ability to apprehend the world as a vortex of symbols and equations, as Neo appeared to do in the film The Matrix. Scientists, like everyone else, seek to cast what they see in terms of what they have already seen.

Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace) (1926). From Fritz Kahn (1888–1968). Chromolithograph. National Library of Medicine, Stuttgart. (Click through for a paper on metaphors of mind and brain.)

One example suffices to illustrate this point. A prominent advocate of the use of metaphor in science was James Clerk Maxwell — the man who unified previously unrelated observations and equations in electricity, magnetism and optics into a consistent electromagnetic theory. Maxwell asserted that metaphors are not only “legitimate products of science, but capable of generating science in turn”. He and Lord Kelvin explicitly acknowledged the metaphors that helped them formulate their ideas: from the “lines of force” notion of magnetism to the view of heat as a “fluid”. An extended quote from Maxwell seems appropriate here:

The figure of speech or of thought by which we transfer the language and ideas of a familiar science to one with which we are less acquainted may be called Scientific Metaphor.

Thus the words Velocity, Momentum, Force, &c. have acquired certain precise meanings in Elementary Dynamics. They are also employed in the Dynamics of a Connected System in a sense which, though perfectly analogous to the elementary sense, is wider and more general. These generalized forms of elementary ideas may be called metaphorical terms in the sense in which every abstract term is metaphorical.

Sadly, modern academic writers frequently obscure this aspect of their thinking, preferring to hide the metaphorical leaps behind terse technical jargon. Many of my college science textbooks present the history of science as a rational progression of self-evident experiments and theories. A plodding, inexorable march of logic replaces the wild adventure that is scientific exploration: from the height of curiosity, through the forest of bafflement, around the wasteland of false starts, leading finally, for the fortunate and the steadfast, to the garden of earthly insights.

Despite using metaphor and analogy to take their work forward, scientists often leave the task of sharing these metaphors to a separate class of writers whose aim is a mass audience. I think we are missing an opportunity here. Perhaps human knowledge does not benefit from a partition between those seeking new knowledge and those seeking to understand and use what is already known. Perhaps we can do better than a Temple of Knowledge: where pop sci oracles transcribe the revelations of the scientists in the inner sanctum into self-help sermons for the confused congregation. Perhaps the veil of this temple must be torn in two?

As science becomes a more complex and resource-intensive activity, drawing more and more money, prestige, and power from society, it is imperative that we have as many outsider perspectives as possible to assess its merits and failings — the alternative is a scientific world that is hermetically sealed. Perhaps only a tiny minority of people will ever be capable of understanding opaque terminology and higher mathematics, but a much larger number may well be capable of testing out metaphors and analogies — seeing where they are successful, and where they break down. In the hypertextual world of rapid communication we inhabit, metaphors may be more important than ever, serving as the bridges by which knowledge and experience are carried over from one domain to another. Without these bridges, society may splinter ever further into mutually distrustful tribes of “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening” —  a cacophonous electronic tower of Babel.


If metaphor does prove to be as important as I suspect it is, we will have to move this discussion beyond academia. In any case, it seems to me that no one is really an expert on metaphor. No one can claim to know how metaphors works — how we form them, and how we decide whether they are successful or not. I’m keen to open up the discussion to the readers: what are your favourite metaphors and analogies? Which ones do you find most enlightening or useful? And which ones ring false in your ears? A broad nontechnical discussion of metaphor must start somewhere, so perhaps it can start here! Feel free to share your thoughts in the commentspace!

I’d like to end with another quote from Maxwell — he gives us a vivid metaphor of the workings of the human mind:

But the mind of man is not, like Fourier’s heated body, continually settling down into an ultimate state of quiet uniformity, the character of which we can already predict; it is rather like a tree, shooting out branches which adapt themselves to the new aspects of the sky towards which they climb, and roots which contort themselves among the strange strata of the earth into which they delve.


  • An exhaustive list of common metaphors can be found in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By. This wikpedia page also elaborates on their ideas: Conceptual Metaphor. Some of the examples here (society as a body, ideas as food) are from their book, but can be found in many discussions of metaphor.
  • My thoughts on metaphor and its centrality to the mind have been informed in large part by Julian Jaynes’s book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It’s a strange book with plenty of questionable details, but in the main I think it provides a unique take on consciousness that that many people will find rewarding to grapple with.
  • The quotes from James Clark Maxwell can be found here. I discovered them today via a book chapter by Robert R. Hoffman.
  • Here is a TED talk on the importance of metaphor.
  • Here’s the Incredible String Band’s song “Maya“.
  • Clipart used in the figures was found here, here, here and here. Black and white figures were generated using Inkscape.
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