Thursday, 15 September 2011

Are we in danger of going neuro nuts?

The Neuro Revolution by Zach Lynch (with Brian Laursen) gives a great overview of all the fields where neuroscience is, or is about to, have an impact. And from the obvious (like medicine) to the unexpected (like theology) neuroscience seems to be everywhere.

Aside from 'neuro revolution", Lynch names, among other things, neuroeconomics, neurofinance, neuroenablement, neuroenhancement, neuroesthetics, neuroethics, neurolaw, neuromarketing, neurospirituality and neuroentertainment.

It's enough to send anyone neuronuts!

Lynch writes with an enthusiasm that borders on evangelism, and sometimes, I think, lets his enthusiasm get the better of him. There were a couple of times while reading the book that I picked up some errors in research, and some glossing over of important points. (But maybe I'm just jealous - the only real difference between Lynch and me is that he's got the money and contacts to support his neuro-obsession and I don't...okay, there are probably other differences, but I digress.)

No book is perfect, including this one, but that doesn't take away from the incredible range of once totally unrelated fields that neuroscience is now involved in, and Lynch does a great job of giving some insight into where each of these fields might be heading.

Which makes me wonder, are we heading into a period of 'brain worship'? By that I mean, is western culture (in particular) heading towards a place where the filter of neuroscience is layered over everything? A couple of interesting research papers that I've read for my PhD research come to mind.

In 2008 Weisberg et al published an article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that showed including “...irrelevant neuroscience in an explanation of psychological phenomena may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of [the] explanation.”. Both general public and first year neuroscience students were swayed by the irrelevant neuroscientific facts. Similarly, a study by Simon Cohn on the meanings attached to brain scans by psychiatric patients, published in 2008, found that many patients:

"...tend to assume, irrespective of the complex technical processes, that [the scan] is a straightforward picture of inside their head: ‘I think it’s weird  – to think that’s me inside [and] that those colours show what I’m thinking.’"

It's human to want to know as much about the mystery of ourselves as we can. The ability to look inside the human brain in more or less real time appears to offer us the answers to the secrets locked up inside ourselves, and this is a powerful attraction. However, just as a brain scan is not a picture but rather a complicated composite of algorithms, of educated guesses and data excluded or highlighted, the allure of neuroscience and the answers it appears to offer us is no simple thing.

Lynch writes in his conclusion, "Like the gigantic shifts of humanity's past, our emerging neurosociety is a wildcard. It holds enormous, seemingly equal promise for inducing an age of bliss or a living nightmare." I agree, and I think one of the big dangers may be people being too keen to look to the human brain for all the answers.

The human brain is incredibly complex. Life is even more complex. And we're kidding ourselves if we think all the answers to life's problems can be served up to us on a nice, neat neuroscientific platter.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Young adult fiction and the cult of the brain

I have set a deadline for myself to have my PhD confirmation seminar done and dusted by the end of March 2012. Easy peasy! Well, not really, but to get myself started my supervisor asked me to work out a draft outline for my thesis, and then draft up a rough introduction. I gave her my draft outline a few weeks ago (it was then I discovered that I was a post-structuralist of sorts, whatever that means) and today I have finally got around to drafting an intro.

Doing these two exercises has made one thing pretty clear: my PhD 'problem' has changed from what I wrote it would be in my formal proposal last year. This is, I think, a good thing. For starters, I actually think I have a real problem to solve, one that won't solve world poverty but is definitely worthwhile looking at. In a nutshell, it's this:

How should young adult fiction filter and represent the rise of neuroscience into all aspects of life – the cult of the brain - within its narratives?

Let's face it, barely a day goes by without the media using a headline with the word "neuro" in it. We have neuro-ethics, neuro-marketing, neuro-revolution, neuro-economics, just to name a few. A new book by Davi Johnson Thornton, Brain Culture: neuroscience and popular media, "looks at how the cerebral cortex has become a 21st century version of Warhol's soup cans or Marilyn Monroes". (It's on my to-read list, along with The neuro revolution: how brain science is changing our world, and a dozen or so other brain-related popular titles.) Brain-related this or that is everywhere. And yet, it has very thin representation in young adult fiction.

This intrigues me. After all, it's today's adolescents that are growing up into this brain-obsessed world. And many of the decisions being made for children and young adults are impacted by this neuro-obsession, including decisions about education and the law. It is a big thing, to big to ignore in writing for young adults.

I'm interested to know what novels for young adults are out there at the moment that people consider tackle the implications of the 21st century's 'cult of the brain' in some way. In what ways (if at all) is this topic being addressed in young adult fiction? What are some of the ways people think it should be, or would like to see it be, addressed?

Let me know, please - I need all the help with my thesis I can get!

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The road to PhD confirmation

My PhD confirmation is not due for another 12 months (because I'm part time). But for a range of reasons I want to get it done a few months earlier than that. So I let my supervisor know my plan at our last meeting.

She tells me, if I'm to present for confirmation in March, she wants to see an outline of my thesis for our next meeting in 3 weeks. That's right, an outline of my entire thesis.

Bloody hell, I thought, the woman is serious. So, being someone who doesn't like to let her supervisor down (she is a great supervisor, after all) I thought I'd better start at least collecting my ideas about what my thesis outline might look like.

In some ways I'm lucky. I'm doing a creative practice PhD so 60,000 words of my thesis is taken up by my young adult fiction manuscript (and I've already finished the first draft of that). So that's no drama, but it's the other bit - the literature review, the case studies, the literature review, the reflection... did I mention the literature review?

I came across this fabulous presentation on the PhD presentation by the fantastic 'thesis whisperer' Inger Mewburn, titled (appropriately) Help I am experiencing fear - Confirmation! This has a lot of helpful information and if you're ever going to come up against the dreaded confirmation make sure you have a look at it.

But back to my immediate problem - an outline for my thesis. I've got a few ideas from some great articles I've stumbled upon recently. First up is a great paper, which comes from a great website called Critical Neuroscience. There's a great paper by Jan Slaby on the site that gives an introduction to what critical neuroscience is all about, and it makes a great overarching framework for my thesis.

Related to critical neuroscience, in terms of the work I'm doing, is the reading I've been doing on cultural neuroscience. I'm still trying to get my head around it properly, but from what I've read, it's about how cultural practices impact on brain development. In this way it dovetails in quite neatly with neuroconstructivism in that it looks as culture as experiences and also, partially, a product of environment.

So, these elements are starting to shape the beginnings of my outline:
  • critical neuroscience as an overarching framework, leading into
  • cultural neuroscience, which with its focus on how cultural experiences impact on brain development, leading into
  • neuroconstructivism, with its focus on context dependence (nothing develops in isolation)
And somehow, I have to tie all this in with my work on young adult fiction.

But at least it's a start.

Monday, 18 July 2011

How much neuroscience is too much?

Last week I followed up reading Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil with Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. The books are interesting bedfellows. Reading them one after the other twisted my brain into some quite painful, yet interesting, contortions.

Ronson is a fantastic writer. I picked up his latest book in a local bookstore, read the opening paragraphs and was hooked (yes I bought a real book from a real indie bookstore even though I could have got it cheaper online because I had to read it straight away). I love the way Ronson puts himself into the story – all his self doubts, ruminations and recriminations about letting a journo like him loose in the world with a psychopath test and a list of possible psychopaths to interview and ‘assess’.

To be honest I admired Ronson’s restraint. Checklists have a special allure. Last week, armed with the checklists that appear in the appendices of The Science of Evil, I’d been casting my eye over colleagues and secretly assessing them against the traits for narcissism, borderline personality and psychopaths. 

It’s a habit of writers to look for the craziness in others. As Ronson points out, it’s the crazy ones who are interesting: not too crazy as to be pitied but just crazy enough to make us want to prod and poke them just a little, to see what happens. And there is probably just a little bit of the psychopath in us all sometimes.

But who should judge of how much psychopathy is too much? Or, in Baren-Cohen’s terms, how little empathy is too little? Why do these brain anomalies happen in the first place? If it is possible to ‘fix’ a psychopathic brain, is it ethical to do so? Some of the possible psychopaths identified in Ronson’s book didn’t seem particularly unhappy. They were perfectly fine with making other peoples’ lives a misery because, well, armed with a complete lack of empathy, they didn’t care.

And if zero empathy is not an anomaly so much as an evolutionary by-product, (i.e. someone has to make the hard decisions like who to fire and who to feed) should anyone be messing with it at all?

I have no answers to any of these questions. As a writer I’m more in the business of investigating ‘what ifs’ in fictional terms than making judgement calls on the merits of overhauling the justice system based on evidence provided by brain scans. But one thing is becoming clear to me. As technology in neuroscience advances, the nature of what it is to be human is becoming more and more subject to the scrutiny of the interaction and interconnectivity of our neurons. On the surface, it sounds quite reasonable. After all, neuroscience is science, right? And science is about proven facts, isn’t it?

But I’m starting to wonder if scrutinising everything from education to culture to the justice system under the ever expanding neuroscientific gaze is a bit like quietly assessing people for psychopathy with nothing more than a checklist and a head full of subjectivity.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Neuroscience and teen fiction: a winning combination?

It's been a big couple of weeks for me. I had my first ever academic journal article published in M/C Journal. Then, a few days ago, I presented a paper at the International Research Society for Children's Literature conference. All this academic type activity is starting to make me feel like a real PhD student. Plus, people at the conference seemed genuinely interested in my conference paper, so I figured maybe I should kick this blog back into gear.

So apart from practising my presentation and attending the conference, this week I've also been reading The Science of Evil by Simon Baron-Cohen (and yes, he is Sacha's cousin - it's mentioned in the book). In a nutshell, Baron-Cohen discusses the nature of empathy, where empathy can be said to be 'situated' within the human brain, and what it can mean to have 'zero empathy'.

In the acknowledgements Baron-Cohen opens with "This isn't a book for people with a sensitive disposition." Human beings are capable of appalling cruelty, and in case you have any doubt about this he provides some harrowing examples. However, Baron-Cohen believes that it is in the best interests of humans to take a dispassionate, scientific look at what makes people capable of treating others as objects. He argues that the notion of evil, with all the emotions it evokes, does nothing to help us deal with cruel acts whereas "empathy has explanatory power".

As a layperson, reading books based on neuroscience can be confusing at times. For example, in one section Baron-Cohen talks about the role of the gene MAOA (monoamine oxidase-A), which he says has been "controversially" called the "warrior gene". But when I was researching my Masters a couple of years ago, I came across some articles that wrote about the "resilience gene" - MAOA. So, which is it? Well, it's MAOA and it low levels of it are associated with aggression whereas people with high levels of it are less aggressive.

Like most people scientists like to come up with memorable names, which are especially good for science journos to use when they're writing articles to catch the eye of a reader (like me) who has an interest in science subjects but no formal training. But the difference in this type of 'naming' highlights an important issue - there are as many grey areas in science as there are in politics and culture.

Science is highly political (climate change, anyone?) and Baron-'Cohen's Science of Evil is politically charged. There is much in there to cause fiery debate, particularly when he suggests that knowledge of a scientific basis for acts of cruelty poses important questions for us around how the perpetrators of cruel and 'evil' acts should be viewed and treated. In light of the overwhelming evidence, provided in this book and others, that 'cruel' people are made not born then should we not focus on the good qualities they do have with a view to rehabilitation?

Although the neuroanotomical explanations can be a little dry at times, this is a fascinating and thought provoking book. For fiction writers interested in matters of the brain and human behaviour (especially of psychopaths), it's a great resource.


Saturday, 26 March 2011

Top five reasons why I am doing my PhD

There are five main reasons for why I decided to do a PhD.  I’ll rank them here from bottom to top.

Number 5
So that, in my old age, when my best friend (who’s also doing her PhD) and I are living together and raising hell in some retirement village somewhere, when the phone rings I can answer: “Dr Ryan’s and Dr Kimberley’s residence. To which doctor do you wish to speak?”
Of course, her PhD is in psychology so if people need a ‘real’ doctor, she may be able to help them. I, on the other hand, will only be able to provide advice on cutting out dead words and sentences. Although, of course, I may manage to pick up a bit of neuroscience during my research and so may also be able to assist with a dodgy diagnosis of a neuropsychological problem (callers are warned to hang up straight away if I mention scalpels or lobotomies).

Number 4
So that my older brothers and sisters (I’m the youngest of five) will have to show me some respect and call me Doctor Kimberley. This is to compensate for years of having to relive the trauma of having the childhood nickname of ‘reek-a-russy-bubby-girl’.
Clearly, I want people to call me ‘Doctor Kimberley’. Of course, I could just pretend I was a doctor of some kind and lie to strangers, but I’m a very bad liar. Some of my siblings claim that they will refuse to call me Dr Kimberley whether I complete my PhD or not. I will have my ways of making them conform. They will pay for that ridiculous nickname and the fact that none of them ever even had a nickname at all. Ever.

Number 3
I’m a library nerd and I love books, and the best way to get the cheapest (as in free) and best access to books is to be a post-grad student. I just can’t get over the fact that I can ask for a book from any library in almost any place in the world and it will get sent to me. For nix. It’s like having a magical power.  Of course, it’s not a magical power like flying, but it’s close.

Number 2
Not only am I a library nerd, I am a nerd nerd. It’s taken some years for me to come to this realisation. I was never a nerd in school – I was the rebel. I demonstrated all the classic (and not so classic) rebellious behaviours, including (but not limited to)
-smoking in the toilets at school (and scoring a suspension)
-turning up to school stoned
-having a hallucinatory flashback at school and hiding behind a friend and pointing at the principal screaming “keep her away from me”
-starting my own communist party
-walking out of religious classes
-constantly challenging and arguing (always logically, of course) with teachers
-flashing my arse from the windows of the Year 12 corridor
-getting everyone in my extended friendship group to wear their pyjamas on free dress day (still not exactly sure why that one caused such outrage, but Catholic girls schools can be strange places)
But rebellion is for the young. So now it’s my time to be a nerd.

Number 1
All these are excellent and valid reasons. But the number one gong I’m doing a PhD is because it will make me a better writer. Doing a PhD involves research, lots and lots of research. And if I learnt anything from doing my Masters, it’s that research makes me a better writer. It gives me new ideas. It makes me think about those ideas in different ways. It opens up whole new worlds I never knew existed. It adds layers and depth to my writing. It makes me really think about the world I’m creating and the internal logic that holds it all together. The creative writing and the research weave in and out of each other, not seamlessly, exactly, but each feeding into and off the other. But research alone is not enough. The PhD also provides rigour and discipline. It doesn’t let me get away with anything. And that’s just what a rebel needs. No matter what you call her.