Cultural neuroscience

This is a potentially very controversial term that I first learned about in Singapore, about a year ago. The notion is that culture has the ability to affect our neurobiology. This is not so far off from the question Nicholas Carr as asking a bit back–can Google make us stupid? Clearly, there’s a valid line of research on adult brain plasticity driven by our environment. My own research and that of many other colleagues completely supports this idea.

The above intriguing idea is whether a culture, in the anthropological sense, has the ability to influence brain connectivity above the between- and within-subject variability of a population?

Putting it another way, given the fact that any two of us (from the same culture) have differently wired brains, can our shared culture influence both of our brains in some measurable way that rises above the threshold of natural variance in the cultural group to which we both belong?

My gut sense is no. But as far as I can tell, there is no data out there to make a scientific case upon, one way or the other.

Note above all, that this is not the same question of whether population genetics can influence brains. Although without a doubt culture is an emergent of many brains, and the instruction manual for constructing those brains is in our genes.

But to learn more, next June in Ann Arbor….

Do we really have a cognitive surplus?

Clay Shirky’s new book puts forward the view that now that we’re watching less and less television (are we really?), we are enjoying excess cognitive capabilities–and that that surplus is being deployed on the Net. Sort of the opposite notion from Nicholas Carr’s worry that Google is making us stupid.

What if they are both right? Are we moving from the mindlessness of Gilligan’s Island to the vapidness of Googling ourselves?

My own sense is that Shirky greatly underestimates individual differences in cognitive capabilities. A few humans may always have a great cognitive surplus. And many folks may not– not withstanding how many hours they spend watching TV.

Anastasia Vasilakis’ optimistic take on Augmented Cognition

Here’s a “glass is half-full” take on the augmented cognition meme in the context of our global challenges.

In the Atlantic, partily in response to Nicholas Carr’s now seminal article on Google making us stupid, Anastasia Vasilakis has penned a smart piece that sideswipes the brain-machine interface crowd.
Money quote:

Yet in one sense, the age of the cyborg and the super-genius has already arrived. It just involves external information and communication devices instead of implants and genetic modification. The bioethicist James Hughes of Trinity College refers to all of this as “exo cortical technology,” but you can just think of it as “stuff you already own.” Increasingly, we buttress our cognitive functions with our computing systems, no matter that the connections are mediated by simple typing and pointing. These tools enable our brains to do things that would once have been almost unimaginable

Smarter or Dumber?

You’re recall Nicholas Carr’s very controversial article in the Atlantic over the summer that suggested that on-line searching was making us stupid. Today, reports on a study which purports to show the opposite! Dr. Gary Small used fMRI showed that:

Members of the technologically advanced group had more than twice the neural activation than their less experienced counterparts while searching online. Activity occurred in the region of the brain that controls decision-making and complex reasoning

Meanwhile cross town rival…

Liz Zelinski, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California, said the findings about the brain activity differences aren’t surprising and offered this analogy: “If you wanted to study how hard people can exercise, and you take people that already exercise and people that don’t exercise, aren’t they going to be different to start out?”

Don’t you think fMRI is getting a bit oversold these days?


The Carr debate morphs: the internet does not equal a brain

Charles Arthur of the Guardian evolves the debate. It’s now about the complexity of the net versus the complexity of the brain (which of course is not a scientific debate unless you are talking about the brain of a simple animal like Aplysia californica).

Money quote on the idea the hyperlinks are like synapses:

This is simply rubbish. A hyperlink is nothing like a synapse, except that both describe a connection between two points… a synapse is a responsive, organic mechanism that has been tuned by hundreds of millions of years of evolution to react more strongly to some inputs rather than others. Throw in something between 1 and 10 quadrillion (1 quadrillion = 10^16) synapses in a human brain, and you have an organism that somehow becomes conscious, and yet can also function unconsciously, which uses chemicals for its transmission systems (across the synaptic gap, which is key to how synapses can vary in behaviour).

I’m with Arthur here.