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Neural and behavioral science senior seminar: reflections

Neural and Behavioral Sciences Senior Seminar

Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2010


What ideas/conversations/understandings/issues/contentions most stick in your mind from this semester?

some possibilities (from last week's forum)

  • "This brings things back full circle to the idea of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses and viewing mental disorders as a result of an atypical organization of the brain that may result in as many positive changes as it does negative." (categorization, norms, shared subjectivities)
  • "We have talked several times about the possibility that gaining an ability due to a disability may be because an inhibition mechanism in the brain is turned off by the disability." (distributed systems in the brain)
  • " I think photographic memory does not exist as we, as a society, would like it to." (the role culture in science, science education)
  • "What implications do "less distorted" memories have on how we understand memories? realities?" (brain function and "reality")
  • "continuing discussion of the irreducibly subjective in relation to shared subjectivity."
  • "science in its methodology depends fundamentally and importantly on shared subjectivity"

What three questions in the area of the neural and behavioral sciences would you most like to see explored over the next several years? 


EB Ver Hoeve's picture





Final Thoughts:

This semester I was enrolled in both this senior seminar class and psychopharmacology. Experiencing these two classes together has proven very interesting due to their markedly different approaches to science. Specifically, in psychopharmacology we would discuss disease from a reductionist point of view in which concepts such as receptor regulation were considered to be the full explanation/cause/therapy for a given neurological disorder. And although I actually really liked learning about the biology involved in drug-therapy, I very often found myself thinking during psychopharmacology, will the human brain ever completely understand its own behavior? It is probably this idea/theme that has resonated most with me in senior seminar. The increasingly reductionist philosophy embraced by most current neuroscientists assumes not only that the brain is responsible for all behavioral output, but that all behavioral output can be understood through analyzing the brain. At some level, I believe neuroscientists will stop being able to reduce the brain into its various components. I do not think that a structure/function or even a receptor regulation argument will ever be able to fully explain individual variation that exists within the brain. Individual variation is one of the only explanations for why the same drug does not always produce the same effect in two individuals with the same neurological symptoms.   I learned about the theme of shared subjectivity in a separate class with Paul and so while that idea continues to resonate with me, it isn’t new. I would say that the other major thought that I will come away with from this class is the NEED to figure out how to better communicate science to the rest of the world. I grew up in the Midwest with a huge extended family. My mom’s family grew up on a farm and she was the only one of her sisters (6) to go to college. This last summer, my aunt Eileen was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer and passed away. The whole experience was very hard for our family. However, while I took may things away from that experience, I will never be able to forget watching two work obsessed insensitive doctors rush to explain my aunt’s cancer (the reason why she was dying) to a crowd of women (the aunts) who clearly had NO idea what was going on.   We have made science so inaccessible that even when people WANT to understand it, those who have the knowledge are so overwhelmed by responsibility that they can barely explain it themselves.


My Three Questions/areas of further research:        

1)   Depression/Anxiety. What disorders exist within the umbrella term depression? and how to explain placebo effects on mildly depressed patients.

2)   Conciousness

3)   Neuroplasticity and new treatments for brain and spinal cord injury.


vpina's picture



Personally I thought that the topics on losing a sense and gaining another or having a “super sense” was one of great interest for me. I thought the whole idea of losing one sense meant that respecters were then turned off causing other senses to emerge was a great point and highly likely. I also liked our conversations on love just because we talked about it in a scientific manner that caused the class to really get into it and when people’s personally views were then put in the mix the discussion went even better. Our conversations on consciousness brought out many different views that I was not thinking of which helped me towards my writing of the final paper.

The three questions/topics I would like to have explored are aphasias and the broadness they cover. I know there are a lot more, though also more rare, aphasias that I think are really cool to talk about. For example there is aphasia where the individual believes they are speaking perfectly fine when in reality we cannot understand a word they are saying. Even when they try and write it comes out wrong but it seems perfectly fine to them.

Also anxiety and whether it is really something that was apart of our evolutionary process and that is why it has stuck around or whether it is a mutation. It also could be a manifestation in our minds that for some people it is kept more repressed than in others minds.

The third topic is consciousness. This topic is highly complicated and if there was discussion both on self awareness and consciousness, how they differ and how they are alike there might be some light shed on the topic.         

Also if you can’t find my online paper in my blog here is the url /exchange/node/7340   


dshanin's picture


As we complete our final semester I look back on this senior seminar as one of the most unusual and intriguing if not most educational classes I have taken.  While the individual topics certainly increased my experience in certain neuroscience topics I feel that it was the manner in which these topics were approached that was truly important.  Before delving into the ways my views have changed I first have to address the instructor, Paul.  While I appreciate the collaborative nature of the seminar, at the end of the day this was a class with a professor, and while Paul went to lengths to keep his personal opinions ambiguous (usually in order to foster further debate) his impact on the class cannot be discounted. 

                Firstly I recognize that the way the course was formatted was a conscious decision of Paul’s.  Besides the first topics which he selected the rest of the subjects were selected by students with almost complete freedom.  Thus I am confident that Paul true lessons were not based in a particular area of research but were instead the methods by which we evaluate a controversy or potentially important research.  In this regard I feel like this class has been very helpful.  We approached articles in a way I have never done before.  With a heightened suspicion of the author’s motives, methods and most importantly any potential conclusions that they make.  While the New York Time’s articles were an extreme example of this I have been surprised just how much creative license researches are permitted to take in connecting concepts with only scant evidence. 

                To me, the most beneficial part of the class was our attempt to view neuroscience in terms of its place in a subjective, religious and non-scientific word.  Viewed from within, neuroscience seems like a broad and sometimes unrelated field; however seeing how others use our findings (or erroneous popular impressions of our findings) to further their own agenda was both intriguing and unnerving.    Neuroscience attempts to fill one of the most philosophically troubling voids in our understanding of ourselves; the connection between what we are physically and who we are mentally.  This class’s greatest strength is that unlike traditional neuroscience courses that seek to fill this gap; we instead examined the void itself. 

Areas for further study:

Diffusion Tensor Imaging; we finally have a way to explore connectivity rather than activity.  fMRI has been a blessing in terms of its popular appeal and a curse in terms of its actual utility in answering neuroscience questions.  We are ready for imaging that can actually improve our understanding of brain interactions and hopefully avoids some of the processing folly that allows a dead salmon to have significant findings


Neuroscience as a life philosophy: Crazy stroke lady tried to use neuroscience in this manner.  While her connections were based on antiquated, now defunct, findings the use of neuroscience to moderate life views is very interesting.  We, as scientists, tend to be very uncomfortable with the application of findings to create pseudo-religious criterion to “improve our lives” but we must take care not to dismiss the desire of popular society for exactly that.  We cannot allow this field to wander so far from applicability that it takes a NYT’s reporters lack of understanding to be our only foray into pop-culture. 


Astrocytes:  (sorry couldn’t resist).  When 90% of our brains are 0% of an introductory neuroscience class something is missing from our picture.        


Sasha's picture


Grrrr... I just lost my entire post. This is what I wrote to the best of what I can remember:

Looking back on our discussions it's clear that consciousness and subjectivity thread through every topic. From topics such as love to memory, how we consciously and subjectively interpret the world is of great interest to us. Figuring out how individuals perceive the world is perhaps the holy-grail of neurological discovery. We long for an answer to questions such as- can a person tell another person if they (the other person) are in love or not or when Stephen Wiltshire draws a detailed skyline of Manhattan, does he see the same thing i see? Is the blue I see the same as the blue you see? Is the way I interpret language and grammar the same as you interpret it, is that how and why we are able to communicate or is there perhaps a communication gap that we choose to ignore- is it possible that we aren't actually fully expressing our thoughts and our feelings to others? These are questions that perhaps may never be answered, nevertheless we should still keep searching and exploring the brain for answers, even if the answers will inevitably be subjective, that's how the brain works.

Further investigation:

memory and learning- i am interested in how memory effects learning and in particular if "photographic" memory is actually conducive to a meaningful understanding and interpretation of what is being memorized and recalled. I would be really interested to see if after Stephen Wiltshire draws one of his detailed panoramas of a major city if he could then find his way around the city without the use of a map etc. Does memorization lead to understanding? How does eidetic memory effect imagination?

depression and anxiety- The CDC's website states that 1 in 5 americans suffers from mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. While that statistic is not surprising, still for 20% of our population to suffer from this disorder seems very high. I would be interested in comparing the presence of depression in america to the presence of depression and anxiety in other populations. Clearly there are issues on how depression is diagnosed in different countries, but perhaps comparing MRI's of individuals who have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety world wide could contribute to a greater pool of knowledge of how depression is manifested in the brain and could lead to a better understanding of how to not only treat depression and anxiety but also perhaps help determine environmental and social changes that need to be made in order to reduce the presence of depression and anxiety.

neuroplasticity- The brains ability to rewire itself is amazing. Further research into how the brain is capable of changing and compensating for a loss in normal functioning would be beneficial in many ways. Not only would further investigation into neuroplasticity help shed light on how the brain works, we could then perhaps use the brains ability to re-mold itself to treat disorders or disabilities that people are born with or develop by manipulating the brain to change in very specific ways. I guess that sounds a bit creepy, but you never know... it could improve lives?

Jeremy Posner's picture


  Reflecting on this semester in the Senior NBS Seminar the idea that is most salient to me is the importance of shared subjectivity even in what we may tend to think is ideally a very objective practice in scientific study, as well as in the social function of people in general.  I don’t feel that the inherent subjectivity of even what is considered good science necessarily invalidates or problematizes those observations, but it helps to emphasize the importance of reproducing experimental results and communicating clearly both results obtained and the manner in which those results were obtained, so that the shared subjectivity of scientific inquiry involves the collaboration of as many perspectives as possible.  While we (being the scientific community at large) may prefer to phrase the qualities of good science in more certain terms it seems that what good science is about, in terms of this irreducible subjectivity, is attempting to provide as many variables in an observation as possible so as to investigate causality as confidently as possible and to provide as completely as possible all components of your own subjectivity in conjunction with each observation.  It is vital that your subjectivity and observations be understood so that those observations can be recontextualized to the subjectivity of others within the scientific community in order to determine the universality of that particular observation. 


Within the neurobehavioral sciences I am particularly interested in the following questions:


  1. Non-specifically neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.  I am very curious as to the limits of the brain’s ability to adapt its function in response to damage or malfunction and for the brain to hone its function to maximize its ability to effectively perform frequently initiated tasks.   
  2. What are the limits of current fMRI technology to represent complex and abstract functions within the brain?  This is tied into the notion of consciousness as a discrete and consistent pattern of neural activity, whether or not consciousness can be observed using an fMRI style examination of the brain is also an interesting question.
  3. To what extent cosmetic manipulation of the brain whether via surgery or via pharmacological means will be tolerated by society, whether objections arise on moral grounds based upon the bounds of science or the bounds of humanity or the bounds of fairness. 
mrobbins's picture


Throughout this semester I have learned how strongly shared subjectivity has colored my perception of reality. Before this class, I always thought science was about delving into the depths of the unknown to shed light on some tangible truths. Instead, I have come to realize that scientific pursuits reflect only cultural truths rather than absolutes. Everything discovered is only an answer to a subjective question construed within the context of a society at a given time. By defining possibilities for what is “out there,” we artificially construct an ephemeral reality shifting with each cultural vogue. We, as a society, are only exploring our perceptual interactions within an irreducibly subjective environment. From depression to consciousness, these entities do not exist until we give them names. Therefore, shared subjectivity also highlights the immense power of language to term things into a subjective existence.

From this perspective of relativity, is depression really even a disease? Is savant syndrome really a product of a “disability?” Or are these merely examples of less mainstream interactions with a shared subjectivity? It is highly possible that depressed individuals are simply more in touch with an external reality that is unrecognizable by those predetermined to prescribe to popular thought. If mental health conditions interfere with the overall livelihood of the individual supposedly affected, then it should be their choice to look into treatment. However, it should be recognized that treatment is not a cure but more so a way of ascribing to a current mode of thought. In “fact,” there may be nothing to “cure.” There is just a way to “belong” a little bit more. However, these perspectives should not hinder the viability of scientific research as much as highlight potential ways in which scientific findings and terminology should be put into a more relative context. Accepting that that there is no absolute truth may just be the truest thing science has yet to reveal. Thanks to this class, I hope I have become one less sheep in the flock.



The areas I would like to see explored further over the next several years are:


1) Free will: I am very intrigued by the concept of will. Is there such a thing? Or are all of our actions predetermined by other factors? Is free will the truest form of consciousness?


2) Anxiety/Depression: I would like to see how the prevelance of these diagnoses shifts over the next few decades. Will the so-called fad run its course in due time? Will we redefine the minimum requirements to be diagnosed for these diseases/conditions if, as they stand, they become too widely diagnosed? Will we accept these conditions, to a larger extent, into the norms of society?


3) Mind-Body debate: Can we localize who we are into a bunch of neuronal connections in the brain? Can we look at patterns and interactions that make us not only conscious but also compose our identities? What are the larger implications and ramifications for this if we ever discover the answer to these questions? Is the magic of life an answerable question? Would we really want to answer the question if we could?


Bo-Rin Kim's picture

Reflective Thoughts

Our conversations regarding the effects of culture on cognition (shared subjectivity) and science stuck out to me the most from this past semester.  We addressed how mental illness fads, such as the one surrounding depression, could trigger higher levels of the illness just because people are more aware of and sensitive to it. Moreover, the concept of an illness is also culturally defined and we only see illnesses through the lenses established by society. We use science to defend and justify these labels that we create. Thus, in this way culture also shapes science research in determining its direction and adding a certain level of bias. I feel like people tend to see what they want to see, and while science follows an “objective” process, this can also hold true for science to some extent.

In some ways, I think social influences on human behavior and thinking is larger than the biological/neural determinants. For example, if the biological determinants of depression constitute the largest component of determining if someone has depression, then we wouldn’t have witnessed this sudden surge in depression rates in recent years. There is the argument that people’s neural structures may have changed to become more prone to depression, but I think culture has played a large role in bringing about this phenomenon. Similarly, while in our discussion of the neurological basis of pair bonding we discussed the biological components of mate finding and attraction, I think people tend to use social guidelines more in their search for love than their biological signals. While we may be unconsciously attracted to the pheromones of a good potential match, I think these instincts are largely overridden by desires and images of love created by society.

Thus, this shared subjectivity created by society/culture plays a very significant role in how people think and what direction science goes. This brings me to another interesting point covered during the semester, which was the individuality of the brain. No matter how much we try to localize function to areas of brain, can we ever really generalize these findings across all people? Maybe people just have different neural networks that can give rise to similar processes (and a shared subjectivity) in different, unique ways.

While culture is important because it gives us a method in which to think about things, it is also a disability in that it is hard to go outside of this shared subjectivity and see things in a different way. I think this class was a great exercise in doing exactly this—trying to see things from perspectives that are not normally taken and to challenge the accepted.


My questions:

1. Can depression be subdivided into smaller categories? Or is it the smallest category which we can use to describe a group a symptoms? Is depression an individualized condition and are we moving farther away from finding effective treatments by trying to develop generalized diagnoses and treatment plans? (This question applies to all major mental illnesses but i just wrote it in the context of depression).

2. Pheromones vs. social guidelines in finding love. I dont know how ethical this kind of research would be, but do relationships that start from pheromone compatibility do better than those that are established following social guidelines (finding someone who is attractive and a good mate in terms defined by society). THis would speak to the effectiveness of our innate ability to find a good mate.

3. How does consciousness arise? What makes the different levels of consciousness possible (unconscious, the state of sleeping, etc.)?

VGopinath's picture


The extent to which culture is a lens through which everything is viewed has become apparent due to this class.  Like many others have stated, the idea of shared subjectivity and our tendency to call that objectivity when talking with people with whom we share that culture, has been striking.  My long taught quest for scientific objectivity has been effected the most by the article concerning the Laysan albatrosss in Hawaii.  The outrageousness of people calling for rainbow flags to be placed in front of same-sex parents and to use these birds as symbolic of human homosexuality seems crazy.  Yet this imposition of our values and culture on science reminded me that it's subtly present everywhere.  The spin of general science articles after they have been "translated" from Science or Nature is sometimes obvious and sometimes not but always present.  Further, scientists think that by clearly stating obvious biases such as who funds their research, most bias can be revealed.  As we have discussed, our shared subjectivity and each person's mentality has been shaped by so many factors as to make the sources of the bias nearly unidentifiable.  We have prejudices and subtle motivations driving our behaviors and interpretations of results that we so frequently forget they exist.  

1.  I am fascinated by savants, particularly the interaction between autism and savantism.  For example, Daniel Tammet is a famous savant who was only diagnosed with autism after he reached celebrity status for his memorization capabilities.  His autism was mild enough to go unnoticed until his intellectual prowess came to light then neuroscientists wanted to diagnose him with autism.  I would be interested in looking at a correlation or perhaps causational relationship between severity of autism and degree of savantism.  This also the surprising opposite to our conversation about overlooked gains of function.  

2.  Katie and I looked at memory and one of our articles about PKMzeta, a memory blocking drug, seemed very compelling and I am interested in following the research about this drug and its therapeutic uses.  To what extent is such a drug marketable, ethically and technically?  

3.  Another issue I would be interested in exploring is the general question of whether or not we'll determine what is "normal."  I first began to consider this after our discussion about anxiety but it determining someone has too much anxiety or not enough attention to task, we are by default deciding what is normal anxiety and attention.  Thus, I was considering the extent to which neuroscience is obligated to comprehensively define normal functioning (remembering that this only "objective" in our society) so we can decide when we want to alter someone's personality.  

LMcCormick's picture


Right off the bat I was struck by our conversation about shared subjectivity.  It had never occurred to me that the world as we perceive it is simply a subjective construction of reality.  I feel that this realization poses huge limitations/difficulties on the study of the brain.  For example, what does an fMRI really tell us if we all construct a slightly different reality?  This seems particularly problematic for comparing fMRI results from different subjects.  Another topic that I was intrigued by was the concept of gaining a function in response to a disability – in particular the possibility that this is due to inhibitory mechanisms.  The brain normally must inhibit a certain amount of stimuli, but some disabilities may turn off these inhibitory functions.  I found this particularly interesting in light of my thesis research (I was sick Monday so I did not get to talk about this in class).  My research studies the role of microRNAs in hematopoietic stem cells.  microRNAs function to repress gene expression posttranslationally by binding and inhibiting the translation of mRNAs.  Thus, they are essentially inhibitory mechanisms in cells.  microRNAs were only identified recently, but they have been found to be ubiquitous in the cell.  I am fascinated by the possibility that the body – both cells in the brain and elsewhere – may rely more on inhibitory mechanisms than activating mechanisms.  I was also interested in the idea of consciousness, and what possible neural mechanisms (or not) lead to consciousness.  This is always an intriguing yet frustrating question – because it seems impossible that the processes inside and between a group of cells can lead to consciousness.  Finally, I found myself concerned by our discussion of the process of research science and what material is taught in schools.  It seems inevitable that some voices may be “louder”, people will publish false or exaggerated data, and that we will teach concepts that are plain wrong in school.  However, what choice do we have?  We must attempt to progress and teach what we find particularly important and novel at the time.


My questions/future research:


1) I think that it is particularly important that we study the role of inhibitory mechanisms in the brain.  It may not seems as interesting at first – but it may be just as important to recognize what regions of the brain are not active during a particular task (like with fMRI) as what areas are.


2) Although this is hard to study, it would be intriguing to look further into consciousness.  Can we replicate consciousness in a machine?  Are animals/infants conscious?  Are there certain neural mechanisms that are essential to consciousness, while others can ablated while retaining consciousness?


3) Lastly, (although I wasn’t as struck by this conversation), I feel that it is important that we further characterize and explore depression because it is such a prevalent problem in our society.  What exactly is depression?  Is depression just a fad?  Should depressed people be medicated?  Is there an evolutionary benefit of depression?


Claire Ceriani's picture

I have been most struck by

I have been most struck by our discussions of gain-of-function versus loss-of-function.  Cases like Jill Bolte Taylor, Unraveling Bolero, and savants illustrate the fact that new cognitive abilities may be unlocked as a result of brain damage, even though we generally think of damage as causing only loss.  We might still classify these abilities as abnormal, but we need to recognize them as potentially useful functions of the brain.  When the brain “recovers” a lost function, it may be more likely that it is reconstructing it out of existing functions.  Understanding this is an important part of treating people with brain damage.  We’ve also discussed subjectivity a lot.  A person’s interpretation of a particular aspect of cognition might be very different from society’s interpretation as a whole.  The particular set of emotional and psychological symptoms that one person might classify as “generalized anxiety disorder” might be classified as “motivation to succeed” by another.  Differences like this should make us reevaluate the way we think about psychological disorders and cognitive states.  Our discussion of love is also a good example of these kinds of subjective differences.  Do we define love as the specific neural activity we observe in most people who claim to be in love?  If so, can we then tell people who do not fit this neurological pattern that they are not in love, no matter what they say?  Or do we define love as whatever cognitive state you’re in when you claim to be in it?  In which case, we lose a lot of scientific rigor in studying it.  In the case of something so psychologically complex, I think that’s okay.


My questions:

1.      1. What is intelligence?  Is it theoretically possible to “see” intelligence through highly advanced imaging?  Can people of supposedly differing intelligence be told apart and classified through such imaging?

2.      2. What is the extent of neuroplasticity?  Can a lost function truly be recovered exactly as it was before, or will it just be a similar function made by adapting other functions?  How often do markedly differently functions emerge as a result of this adaptation?

3.      3. Is it theoretically possible to observe the mind by observing the brain?  We’ve talked a lot about consciousness in this class, and whether or not we can account for it just by looking at physical neurons.  And presumably, being “watched” (through imaging) will change the way you’re thinking, because you know you’re being watched.  Is there an uncertainty principle here?  Does the very act of observing consciousness change consciousness?


sberman's picture


One of the main things I realized through our discussions this semester is that perhaps we are too attached to the scientific method and the idea that "hard science" trumps all else. When I entered this class in January, I would have been the first person to call out a study for not containing the appropriate controls or not having a large enough sample size. But our discussions on the subjectivity of many illnesses (such as depression, anxiety, and stroke) have caused me to reevaluate my stance. The sessions we spent debating Jill Bolte Taylor's experience of stroke, which was dominated by her urging to "step to the right of our left brains" to experience nirvana were especially influential in helping me to recognize the value of the subjective experience. Although her book has many things that are scientifically a bit off or rooted completely in personal experience, I realize that her memoir is still a valuable contribution to the study and treatment of stroke. Also, the psychology of love discussion where we voted on the best science article (the oxytocin/vasopression article vs. the gay albatross article in the New York Times) made me recognize that even if we do follow the scientific method (as did the oxytocin/vasopression article), if we cannot communicate our findings appropriately, convincingly and even interestingly, our work will not have that much of an impact (evidenced by the gay albatross article being perceived as more interesting and having a larger impact than the oxytocin/VP pair bonding article). With my slowly coming to terms that there is an irreducible subjectivity of science, I have begun to realize that the scientific method is not the be all and end all that I once thought it was.

I am also extremely intrigued by the "ability within disability" issue that served as the focus of many of our discussions in seminar. I am fascinated by how depressed patients may be more accurate in identifying things or more likely to spend time alone and make discoveries (a la Darwin) and how anxiety prone individuals are often higher achievers (better grades, many CEO's suffer from anxiety). Although depression and anxiety are undoubtedly extremely difficult for those who suffer from them, I enjoyed thinking about these illnesses  from a different perspective than they would be viewed in an abnormal psych class. My questions:

1. Over the next few years, I would like to learn more about how the brain does or does not recover after illness. Jill Bolte Taylor obviously recovered fully from her stroke- she is a world renowned speaker, has written a novel etc. But why do some individuals with similar afflictions not recover as much as Taylor, if they recover at all? And what are the mechanisms for recovery? Are old circuits simply reformed? Or are new circuits formed differently than the circuits that were destroyed in the illness but still allow for the same functions performed by those old circuits?

2. I'd also be interested in learning about the underlying mechanisms of savant syndrome- for example, what gives Wiltshire his amazing memory? Is it because he lacks faculties in other areas, so his brain is compensating? Or is it simply that the areas in his brain that are normally used for social interactions, for example, are grossly underused and thus essentially "taken over" by memory mechanisms, for example?

3. I'd also be interested in to what extent specific memories could actually be manipulated- which would hopefully allow for the successful treatment of PTSD and other related conditions. We know that the formation of memories requires protein synthesis, but I doubt that we'd be able to pinpoint the protein or circuit responsible for a particular memory, because memories are inextricably intertwined with thoughts, emotions etc. Could we selectively edit one specific memory without destroying or "deleting" other things in the brain?

aliss's picture


Throughout this semester, the one issue that we returned to over and over again was the issue of a shared subjectivity.  How can we know what another person is experiencing, if he is experiencing the same thing as we are, and how his brain is interpreting whatever it is that he is experiencing?  We have to assume that we are all having the same experience in order to create a functional society and world in which we can all live with one another.  We brought up the idea of a shared subjectivity in most of our class discussions, although I think the idea was especially interesting in our discussion of love and whether or not we could ever tell someone that they were not in love.  Another important topic for our group seemed to be the struggle to classify certain conditions that we consider psychological disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders that are considered perfectly normal in other cultures.  Are these states of being actually disorders or do we simply see them that way because they do not fit in with our shared subjectivity of what is "normal"?  Our explorations of what made good science and how technology helps our hinders our understanding of the brain were also thought-provoking.  Can we really make conclusions based on what we see on an image from an MRI machine?  Do we hold certain beliefs just because it is more profitable to explore those areas of science, leaving the "truth" unexplored and unknown?  Can we really ever say that we have found the truth, the right answer, and stop our explorations?
Beyond these questions, three major areas of neuroscience that should be explored are the following:
1. What is intelligence?  Is this another term that cannot be defined without creating a list of qualities that add up to intelligence, like we tried to do with love, or is there a specific definition of the term?  What makes the brain of a person that we deem "intelligent" different from the brain of a person who is not intelligent?
2. Does consciousness come from the connections of neurons that we have?  We learned about a group of researchers who examined consciousness by examining the number of connections in a brain, but computers have at least as many connections as our brain does; the internet has many more connections than out brains.  Will we ever be able to build a brain and call it conscious, or is there something special about the organization of our biology that gives us consciousness outside of the structure of the brains?
3. Is there a limited amount of "brain space"?  What determines the amount that a person can hold in their mind and remember?  Can molecules like PKMzeta increase the amount of brain space that a person has to work with, and if these molecules can increase memory, what are they really doing?  What neurons or brain areas are they affecting, and are there any abilities lost in the gain of memory for these molecules?

David F's picture


 Like Melissa, the issue of consciousness was one that seemed to pervade most of the topics we discussed. The question of consciousness was present in addressing some of the most abstract questions (e.g., whether one can know the emotional state of another and make judgments about the correctness of their self-reports), some of the most mechanistic questions (e.g., whether consciousness must be involved in relocating function from one set of circuits to another), and some of the most technological (e.g., whether fMRI can lend insight into mental states). These three examples just scratch the surface of a growing body of research that is increasingly pressured to deal with the notion of consciousness; some of the "hardest" sciences are beginning to require an articulation of the floofiest concepts in order to even approach usefulness. This tension is also apparent in another topic that stuck out to me: the irreducibility of neuroscience. I had not previously considered how disastrous the consequences might be if neuroscience turned out to be fundamentally irreducible. Moreover, I had not realized how true this probably is. Neuroscience fundamentally assumes that the trends, associations, and mechanisms that it discovers generalize, that what it finds is not confined to a single experiment. Thus, implicit in the very endeavor is the identification and prediction of patterns, of similarities between disparate entities. But it seems, based on our discussion of religion and shared subjectivity, that these patterns are inherently fraught; there will always exist some diversity among these trends. This illuminated for me a fundamental tension in neuroscience between its hope of categorizing/explaining all things and its inability to understand each instance. Rather, it turns out that maybe neuroscience is a lot like laws of nature (e.g., gravity): we observe general trends, but have no necessary reason to believe that they could not be broken, or why they are so.

These thoughts informed my questions that should be addressed in the future:

1. Can consciousness be given an appropriate neural explanation? We think of the study of the brain as a study of the mind, but is this misled? Might it turn out that the mind contains socially-contingent or floofy features which cannot even in principle be reduced? If so, what will the usefulness of neuroscience turn out to be?

2. Can neuroscience account for the diversity in trends? Will it be able to formulate "laws" that can eventually explain even the most disparate circumstances? Or will it eventually give up? And if so, how will this affect our notions of religion, of consciousness, or of self?

3. And now for something completely different: I'll be interested in learning how neuroscience develops the concept of free will. Some of the most accomplished neuroscientists, who know best how every behavioral nuance can be explained by neurons, simply assume that free will must exist. But what does it mean if every action, every thought is the necessary result of preceding causal factors? Why stop at the insanity defense? How do we reconstruct free will out of the reductionist rubble of neuroscience?

meroberts's picture


The most prominent idea that resonated with me throughout the semester has been the issue of consciousness. I also found the issue of a shared subjectivity/lack of objectivity in the world very important. I thought this was fundamental to each of our discussions in class. Consciousness was also relevant to most of our class discussions, but I think the concept of a shared subjectivity rightfully had to precede the topic of consciousness. Consciousness is influential because everything relates back to it, or is affected by consciousness in some way. From mental illness to research ethics, consciousness impacts our decisions, helps us to make new observations, and helps us integrate information.

The three questions that I would most like to see explored in the neural and behavioral sciences are:

1) As Sara mentioned in her presentation, the role of certain chemoattractants/chemorepellants in the process of axon guidance should be further explored as a possible intervention/treatment for specific degenerative diseases and maybe even to be used as a therapy for people after experiencing a traumatic head injury. It could also be helpful in some neuronal migration disorders, such as Lissencephaly, in which the neurons don't migrate to their target regions to make proper neural connections and a fully functioning and average-sized brain (with a developed cortex).

2) I also believe that the field of neuroscience should explore ways in which consciousness could be used to effectively treat certain mood and/or mental disorders. For example, mindfulness and yoga are frequently used to enhance one's perception of the self- these techniques could be implemented as part of treatment regimen to lessen symptoms of mood disorders.

3) A final topic that I feel should be explored in the area of neural and behavioral sciences is that of the myriad connections in the brain that are made and re-made continuously. This is not to say that I endorse the practice of "assigning" a function to each structure or sub-structure of the brain. I believe the brain is plastic and that most behaviors are the results of a distributed system, one involving much collaboration and synthesis. However, this synthesis between different regions/bundles/pathways of the brain could lead to new observations about human behavior and how it is produced and maintained over time.

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