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Darwinist neuroscience in trouble?: Even facial expressions are not that informative, never mind brain scans


Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience Responding to the backlash against materialist neuroscience, especially Brainwashed (pictured left), Gary Marcus warned in the New Yorker that neuroscientist will so be able to read minds one of these days:

Just because a given activity or response is spread across the brain—involving many different regions rather just a single section—does not mean it is beyond understanding. It just means we need to work harder to discern its underlying principles. And already, in 2013, using tools that will seem antiquated in a decade, there has been considerable progress in accurately imaging the brain as a way to peek into the workings of the mind. Last summer, for example, Jack Gallant, at U.C. Berkeley, reported a study in which people watched movies while having their brain scanned. After the data was collected, Gallant’s team used complex mathematical techniques to analyze the brain scans. There was no single spot that lit up when people were watching a car chase as opposed to a conversation, but, by looking at the ensemble of brain activity, Gallant’s group at Berkeley could easily distinguish between the two. Over all, they were able to reconstruct, with surprising accuracy, which parts of the movie people were watching at a given time, based on analyses of the patterns of activity displayed across their entire brain.

It is reasonable to think, based on current research, that no single spot of the brain maps to hatred. But there is no principled reason to think that we will never be able to find some neural pattern, or set of patterns, that correspond to that emotion. Another group, in Europe, recently started to analyze emotion using techniques similar to Gallant’s; they found that it may be “possible to discriminate between healthy and depressed individuals based on differences in brain-wide responses to emotional cues.” A soon-to-be-published paper from Carnegie Mellon similarly suggests that emotions can be discerned using complex, whole-brain analyses.

At the time, I was tempted to respond, you could do just as well reading facial expressions, provided you are familiar with the culture. (Famously, even facial expressions are hard to read apart from culture.)

Well, I was wrong. This just in: In Boston Magazine, Shannon Fischer writes,

For half a century, one theory about the way we experience and express emotion has helped shape how we practice psychology, do police work, and even fight terrorism. But what if that theory is wrong?


Forty-six years ago a young San Francisco–based cowboy of a psychologist named Paul Ekman emerged from the jungle with proof of a powerful idea. During the previous couple of years, he had set out trying to prove a theory popularized in the 19th century by Charles Darwin: that people of all ages and races, from all over the world, manifest emotions the same way. Ekman had traveled the globe with photographs that showed faces experiencing six basic emotions—happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise. Everywhere he went, from Japan to Brazil to the remotest village of Papua New Guinea, he asked subjects to look at those faces and then to identify the emotions they saw on them. To do so, they had to pick from a set list of options presented to them by Ekman. The results were impressive. Everybody, it turned out, even preliterate Fore tribesmen in New Guinea who’d never seen a foreigner before in their lives, matched the same emotions to the same faces. Darwin, it seemed, had been right.

So began a meteoric rise to fame. Since that first article, Ekman has consulted for not only the CIA but also the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the New York Police Department, and the Transportation Security Administration, which has spent more than a billion dollars training its airport agents in techniques based on Ekman’s theories.

… But …

Barrett is a professor of psychology at Northeastern, and for years she’s been troubled by Ekman’s ideas. People don’t display and recognize emotions in universal ways, she believes, and emotions themselves don’t have their own places in the brain or their own patterns in the body. Instead, her research has led her to conclude that each of us constructs them in our own individual ways, from a diversity of sources: our internal sensations, our reactions to the environments we live in, our ever-evolving bodies of experience and learning, our cultures.

This may seem like nothing more than a semantic distinction. But it’s not. It’s a paradigm shift that has put Barrett on the front lines of one of the fiercest debates in the study of emotion today, because if Barrett is correct, we’ll need to rethink how we interpret mental illness, how we understand the mind and self, and even what psychology as a whole should become in the 21st century.

About time. And let’s start the Big Chuck with evo psych.

Note: Yes, there is such a thing as mental illness, but much standard classification is in tatters, and any new paradigm that works will not be a materialist one.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

See also: Materialists respond to backlash against materialist neuroscience

This, which was ignored by E. Liddle from another post: E. Liddle said: “Modelling the expected distribution under some kind of process in which each “draw” is independent from prior “draws” is clearly not a model of Darwinian processes.” Bpragmatic responded: I don’t believe that in the OOL phase of “evolution”, the laws of physics and chemistry (darwinian processes are beholding to) would be anywhere near as charitable to the material formation requirements as would “independent draws” as you seem to imply with the above statement. In fact I would propose that there is a clear cut scientific case for asserting that some sort of guiding intelligence is required to overcome the IMPOSSIBILITY of certain component relationships from developing guideded purely by the laws of physics and chemical reactions. Liddles response: NOTHING. Why deal with reality questions when you can continue to pull the "discussions" down the rabbit trail to nowhere. Especially when it achieves the personal goals of: ????? Lizzy, come clean. You have no clue when it comes to applying your alleged "expertise" regarding probabilities and mathematical conclusions towards requirements of OOL. I know that if you don not respond to my statements, it might be because you think you have "bigger fish to fry". I really dont know. But, if you can respond to this post in a way that scietifically supports your position, I am looking forward to that. I hope your sink is clean. Another question: Can the paid nde propoganda machine come up with some one who can really demonstrate valid arguable positions on these issues?bpragmatic
July 3, 2013
09:52 PM
I don't think there is mental illness. I think its just interference with the triggering mechanisms dealing with the memory. There's no reason for a thinking being or soul made in Gods image to get damaged. Its just making us into a machine. Oddly enough creationism has a dog in the facial expressions fight. We want to see people as simply having thoughts. nO emotions. Emotions are just thoughts however lingering. The face is simply a thing of muscles and very sensitive. Very fast. tHats why keeping a poker face is so difficult. We therefore have the same mechanism in our faces. So we must have the same results. Smiling is just half a laugh. or rather our mouth didn't open as much as a laugh. Yet the same simple move of the muscles. Sad is shown by the cupping of the mouth as we do when we cry or moan. I think Ekman is still right. Facial expressions are the same for all because the same thoughts move our muscles for the same results in our face. Its a simple idea really.Robert Byers
July 2, 2013
02:01 AM

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