Peak Brain: The Metaphors of Neuroscience

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

UP UNTIL 2013, I carried a digital camera wherever I went: to the archive or the bar, and on the occasional trip. I took thousands of photos, sorting through them at odd intervals to post on social media or send to my mom. There was a rhythm to my relationship with the camera: I pointed, I shot, I uploaded, and (usually) I forgot. But that rhythm fell apart once I got an iPhone. Like many others tasks, taking and keeping photos didn’t just get easier — it fundamentally changed. If the move from film to digital lowered the bar for what was photographable, then the camera phone wiped that bar out entirely. The images seemed just as good, but they were no longer mindful records of my days so much as mindless drafts of myself. I was taking more photos and thinking less about each. It was almost as if the camera, now a part of my phone, had become an autonomous point-and-shoot, sort-and-post extension of myself. Or maybe I had become a part of it.

But this isn’t a story about the good old days. Instead, it’s about how tools like my camera and iPhone shift how we understand ourselves. They do so at a personal level, when we use them so much that we feel naked without them. But technologies have also shaped the sciences of mind and brain by anchoring conceptual metaphors. As far back as the telegraph, our tools for capturing, storing, and communicating information have served as analogies for the brain’s hidden processes. Such metaphors are enabling: they do work, as it were, as convenient shorthands that then spur scientific research and medical treatments. But metaphors also constrain our research and treatments, making some things visible while shielding others from view. In other words, metaphors have a politics. The question is: What kind of politics do they have?

. . . .

The role, if not the politics, of technological metaphors in neuroscience is the subject of Matthew Cobb’s new book, The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience. It proceeds from a simple idea that Cobb attributes to the 17th-century anatomist Nicolaus Steno. “The brain being indeed a machine,” Steno reasoned, “we must not hope to find its artifice through other ways than […] to dismantle it piece by piece and to consider what these can do separately and together.” Brains have been many things since then, as Cobb shows: voltaic piles and power grids, tiny factories and immense circuits, willful robots and programmable computers. The history of neuroscience can be read as a history of such metaphors. Whatever the tool, we find a way to see ourselves in it.

. . . .

After a brief tour of the ancient world, Cobb describes brains being dissected in early modern Europe, prodded and shocked in the 19th century, and injected and imaged in the 20th. Without falling prey to determinism or teleology, he maps metaphorical flows between neuroscience and technology. New machines do not cause theories to change, he cautions. Rather, causal arrows fly both ways. Human computers preceded digital ones, after all, and machine learning has been inspired by our own. Metaphors have slipped back and forth: our brains are special “hardware” even as my iPhone acts as “my brain.” Cobb’s history reveals something deep: the complex, codependent relationships we develop with our favorite tools do more than alter how we think. They become how we think. And we can’t do it without them!

. . . .

The year I abandoned my Nikon, it popped up in a surprising place: cognitive science. That year, Joshua D. Greene published Moral Tribes, a work of philosophy that draws on neuroscience to explore why and how we make moral judgments. According to Greene, we make them using two different modes — not unlike a digital camera. “The human brain,” he writes, “is like a dual-mode camera with both automatic settings and a manual mode.” Sometimes, the analogy goes, you want to optimize your exposure time and shutter speed for specific light conditions — say, when faced with a big life decision. Other times, probably most of the time, tinkering with the settings is just too much of a hassle. You don’t want to build a pro-and-con list every time you order at a restaurant, just like you don’t want to adjust the aperture manually for each selfie you take.

Greene’s “point-and-shoot morality” is an example of dual-process theory, made famous by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. This improbable best seller summarized decades of work, much of it by Kahneman and his longtime collaborator, the late Amos Tversky. Adopting terms proposed elsewhere, Kahneman organizes mental function into two “systems,” corresponding to Greene’s automatic and manual modes. “System 1” is fast and, often, involuntary; “System 2” is slower and more deliberate. All animals have some version of the first, while the second system is limited almost entirely to humans. We may be machines, Kahneman and Greene acknowledge, but we are reflective machines — or at least we can be.

. . . .

Mental life, on this view, is a constant, often subconscious assessment of one’s surroundings for threats or opportunities. And of course, Kahneman has a metaphor for that:

Is anything new going on? Is there a threat? […] You can think of a cockpit, with a set of dials that indicate the current values of each of these essential variables. The assessments are carried out automatically by System 1, and one of their functions is to determine whether extra effort is required from System 2.

But this raises an important issue: how helpful is the cockpit metaphor, given how little most of us know about operating airplanes? And what does it suggest about how we imagine ourselves, our capacities and purposes, and how we interact with one another? The same might be asked of the computer, or of Greene’s camera: what do we gain by framing our mental and moral lives in these technological terms, and what do we lose — in scientific or ethical terms?

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG started thinking about how his brain works, but quickly became bored. He’s not certain exactly what that might mean.

1 thought on “Peak Brain: The Metaphors of Neuroscience”

  1. The brain arranges things so that you will be bored – so that you don’t try to exert control over the brain, and it can do its work without your conscious interference.

    It has a very short time frame: now plus a bit. It wants homeostasis – no adrenaline, a steady fuel supply, rest when necessary.

    Humans have a tendency to mess things up.

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