Monday, March 29, 2010

Neuroscience, Funding, and The Centrality of the Military (to everything).

Now this post was inspired by an article that my mom sent me. It's called: Neuroscientists Don't Believe in Souls--But That Doesn't Mean They Can't Sell Theirs
and here is a link http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=neuroscientists-dont-believe-in-sou-2010-03-24

A brief and interesting article with a sassy title.

General idea: the neurosciences have the potential to solve some of the worlds biggest medical and philosophical mysteries.

Two issues for this author: 1. the growing trendiness of neurosciences and their promises to improve brain function, memory, etc. and 2. the growing relationship between military funding and neuroscience research.

Now I also find the neurosciences pretty fascinating and it seems like they have a lot to offer in terms of substantiating philosophical ideas about the mind, education styles, etc. In particular the idea that we can shape the way our brains function through deliberate mental exercises or through general or specific education. For me this idea always comes back to the idea that we are modifying the way our brains work on an unconscious level, and that we are deliberately crafting an intuitive world view. The book I am reading now, The Mind and The Brain, talks a fair amount about the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. A frame of mind in which you are fully present, viewing yourself and the outside world for what it really is. This author associates mindfulness with a sort of intuitive approach; the ability to just be somewhere and pay attention to whatever is happening. Ummm, so I am very curious about how we can legitimate these ideas with neuroscience and teach people to feel like they can exercise more personal judgment, so that people feel like they are capable of entering a peaceful frame of mind where they trust themselves and can just do whatever they need to do. Or don't need to do. I'm not sure what I'm saying here. But it's about cultivating peace and intuition.

So the issues with neuroscience. The danger of them becoming trendy and diluted through marketing and a folk/pseudoscientific application. The one thing the article talks about that seems curious is something he calls 'neurobics.' He specifically refers to a company called Posit Science that has invented a software that claims to exercise your neural pathways in a way that improves thinking, memory, and reaction time. I just looked at the site and they actually sell specific software packages for different skills. One for memory, one for focusing, and one for driving. The site claims it is clinically proven, but I don't feel like pursuing that to see if it's true. But the author of the article seems skeptical of the programs and says: "There is no solid evidence that these brain-fitness devices exercise the brain more than, say, playing Texas Hold ‘Em with buddies or even taking a brisk walk, which you can do for free, a Scientific American review of “brain games” concluded last year." I find it interesting that he compares it to 1. a poker game and 2. a walk. Just cause those are very different activities, both of which would do different things for your brain. Poker, social skills, thinking like other people/empathizing. A walk would probably encourage day dreaming, which is usually good form having new ideas or making connections between things you know. Letting your mind wander is good, things happen to your brain when you day dream that make you more likely to make new neural connections(i.e. have new ideas).

So anyways, I also feel a little bit skeptical of the idea that somehow solve all the problems of the mind, or explain it away. And it would be bad if a branch of pop neuroscience came out and offered itself as a flimsy quick fix sort of thing. I guess the author of the article is concerned that these software programs are putting the neurosciences in this position. Positing them as a panacea for mental problems.

I guess I feel most curious about them as a way to develop a new vocabulary. They seem like they can substantiate some new ways of thinking about the mind, or the brain. On the website of that company Posit Science they say that knowing about how your brain works can help you learn and think in different/better ways. I wonder if that is true. It seems like it might. Having new ways of talking and thinking about the way the brain works might allow us to think about our own behavior in different ways. If we know, for example, that the emotional brain exerts more influence than the rational parts of the brain, then this might bring a little balance to how we think about our own emotions and ability to act rationally. It might free us a little bit from the idea that we should be fully self controlled people. I mean, self control is important and is definitely something very real, but we could at the very least treat our emotions as something worthwhile that we need to take the time to understand. It seems like people in the neurosciences are taking these philosophical questions seriously, and that philosophers are paying attention to the neurosciences. So, I feel hopeful that they won't end up being a flimsy idea that doesn't lead anywhere, or gets transformed into a pop cultural thing.

The authors other concern, the military's interest in neuroscience, however, seems like a much more difficult problem to think about. So the military is interested in the neurosciences for a few different reasons it seems. To help train their soldiers better. Probably by exploring how the brain is affected by combat experience, how they can adapt their educational techniques to fit these new understandings of the brain. One thing I know they are curious about is how experience is able to communicate things about combat that formal courses or language couldn't offer to students. So there is an interest in things like simulation and synthetic experience in the military. They have a huge base out in middle America somewhere where hundreds of thousands of people physically reenact the situations that foot soldiers will encounter in Iraq or Afghanistan. The article also mentions the possibility of placing a chip in a soldier's brain that will perfectly record their memory and combat experiences, probably so they could have direct evidence of battle situations, because oral accounts of stressful experiences can be so unreliable. Article also mentions their interest in developing weapons that could interfere with the brains of enemy soldiers. Very odd. But anyways, onward. The author is mainly concerned with the amount of funding that will be getting from the military. He doesn't want all the research to turn in the direction of military technology. I couldn't all turn that way, but he doesn't want to see it get too big.

This makes me think about three things related to the military 1. How central it is to the state and how that means it will be a large source of funding. 2. How it is that many of the insights and advancements made in military technology/ideas/whatever are of a more general nature and have an application in society. 3. How it is that the military can begin to think of itself as a much more 'general' institution, and potentially work to spread its advancements to the whole of society; or perhaps how it is that they are unwilling to do that.

So in undergrad I studied history and my concentration was military history. Mainly because I met Jon Sumida and thought him the only professor who was really wrecking my mind. But anyways, I then started taking classes in the military sociology department at UMD. So, I got a fair amount of education and reading on the military done. Overall, I became convinced that the military is an institution that is pretty much essential to the functioning of all modern states. Almost all political happenings rest on the implicit threat of military force. Clausewitz's most famous line: 'war is the continuation of politics by other means.' All politics rest on the possibility of war. Foucault inverted this phrase: 'politics is the continuation of war by other means.' He was trying to figure out how it is that relations of power function in society. Foucault basically says that everything that involves relationships of power, which is pretty much everything, can be considered political. So I mean this seems to suggest that almost all of civilized existence as we know it depends on our ability to resort to physical force. All civil interactions come down to the fact that they can be enforced through violence? I'm not sure. But here is a thought I had in a lobby once. Suppose someone were to come up from me and take my ipod out of my hand and refused to give it back. At some point it would have to come down to physical force. I would have to call cops, fight him for it, do something. I am making this case lazily, but, it seems that all civilized life comes down to the idea that physical force is regulated within society, but that it can always be reverted to. So, I mean, the establishment of society coincides with the development of reliable militaries and police forces, so, I mean, that seems like something. So it just seems like society and violent control can be separated. Also, the bulk of government spending historically and presently has been on military forces. So I guess this ties in to all the neuroscience stuff because we can't avoid having the military funding sciences and looking into things because it has such a central role in all of civilized life.

But I find one thing very curious about military studies. A lot of the lessons drawn from military history, sociology, or technology are of a much wider import than it would seem. They apply to all sorts of parts of life, not just military performance. In terms of history, my old professor Sumida has a quote I really like, 'war is like peace, only much more so.' Basically meaning that the intense circumstances of war are comparable to the conditions of peace, intensity being the major difference. In war people are making very difficult decisions with too many factors to handle rationally and with extreme contingencies and possible results. So decision making in war, I hear, comes down to mostly intuition. No time to focus, too many things to consider, information too incomplete. Soldiers and commanders just have to rely on their experience to make hard decisions. One idea is that studying history can stand in for experience in case there is a long peace, or a lack of experience somehow. So when the military is asking questions like: how can we improve people's ability to make difficult decisions intuitively? how can we use history and other things the replicate the effects of experience? how can sociology help us understand how people make difficult decisions, or how can neuroscience help us understand how to train people? it seems like we could apply these answers to lots of people's lives. All of us are making hard decisions that will have serious outcomes and we have no idea what it is going to lead to or if what we do is right. So in terms of what the military is trying to improve, or what they are trying to overcome when they get involved in the humanities, social sciences, or neuroscience, are things that we can learn from. It is unfortunate, however, that it is typically aimed at killing people better. But again, it seems like the existence of the state depends on the existence of the military.

The idea of technological improvements and the military also go together but I don't want to talk about that much. But most of the great technologies I love and live with seem to have come about because of war. WWII forced a lot of technologies to be developed that we use now. Radar, good radio communication, internet. All sorts of things. War, it makes people invent things pretty rapidly.

But lastly I just want to talk about how it seems like it would be difficult to get the military to recognize itself as an institution that is central to society. In America especially, it seems like we are pretty isolated from what the military does. Wars are happening, sure, and it came to the states sometimes, but the all volunteer military means most of us don't have to do anything for it. What if there was something like state service? Not military necessarily, but some form of mandatory state service. Might be curious. Might make sure the military were acting in the people's best interests somehow. Maybe I am just making that up I am not really sure. But what I am really thinking about is whether it would be good to just exist as some sort of intellectual or technological leach on the military, or whether it would be possible for the military to be interested in developing technologies or techniques or ideas of a more general nature. But that doesn't seem to be possible. They have highly specific purposes and that is what they deal with it seems.

So how to overcome the fact that the military is at the heart of technological development and in particular the funding aspect. I'm not sure. Interact with the military I guess might be a good answer. But that is probably challenging to break into that field. But maybe not. Who knows.

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