I knew this day would come but I am still grumpy about it. Enough already with the brain as an electric information processor. I heard a NPR story last week with one of the authors of the dog jealousy research just after I had posted about it. The study sounded even better and she shared some anecdotes about dogs showing ‘jealousy’ like when she visited a family member with 3 dogs and she is petting two and the third wants in, the other two crowd it out (jealousy or dominance/pecking order?) She also described the behavior in the study more, saying some dogs became aggressive with the toy dog. All good, but then she framed the study as helping to decide if jealousy were ‘hard-wired’ or a social construct. Excuse me? Here is a simplified picture of a neuron:
The nerve impulse is transmitted through an electrochemical process involving sodium and then neurotransmitters are released to cross the synaptic cleft and initiate a signal in the next cell in the process. Sure the myelin sheath acts something like insulation on a wire and sure electrons are involved, but so are countless other biological processes involving intra-celllular actions and then within the supportive glial cells. There is no ‘hard wiring’ but even taking that as a metaphor (as poor and limiting as it is), no social constructs exist without that ‘hard wiring.’ The attempt to differentiate is false–if it happens in our mind, it is biological and must be an emergent property of our brain. Ok, so the ‘hard wiring’ is a metaphorical synecdoche for an instinctual process. Again, instinct involves no wires over countless generations of evolutionary development. How we conceptualize the phenomena we study is important.
Next up on the grumpy list is actually a good movie, Transcendence, with a brilliant AI scientist played by Johnny Depp dying but having his mind transferred into a supercomputer through, you’ll never guess, wires and electrodes. Now this is all done with complex binary code, of course, and it is science fiction, so I can enjoy the story up to a point. And the movie does throw a sop late to the chemical processes when the AI Depp notices his still human partner is getting emotional by monitoring her serotonin and oxytocin levels. Oh yes, females get emotional and their neurotransmitters and hormones show unusual elevations–I get that stereotype. But here is my complaint: our reasoning with the logic and mathematics and binary code is also dependent upon neurotransmitters and hormones. Indeed, while we do not know how memories of various types are actually encoded, we do understand that much of our autobiography is conceptually embodied and that much of our conceptual understanding is also based upon embodied processes. Oh, yeah, the movie has that as a subtext, now I remember, and so back to the fiction and the viewer’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief.”
Here is a graphic about some of the over 100 neurotransmitters in our nervous system that run throughout our body.
. Oh yeah.