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Neurobiology and Behavior, Week 1

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the Biology 202 at Bryn Mawr College. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. Leave whatever thoughts in progress you think might be useful to others, see what other people are thinking, and add thoughts that that in turn generates in you.

As always, you're free to write about whatever thoughts you add this week.  But if you need something to get you started, what do you think about brain = behavior?  about science as story telling?  about loopiness? 

Serendip Visitor's picture

Neurobiology and Behavior

brain=behaviour..? It is absolutely crazy idea if not to think about influence of collective unconsciousness.
Can be very especial cases in this range. F.e. till few persones symbio constructions. About such is little in Yahoogroup Atelepathy

nafisam's picture

The loopy model of science

The loopy model of science creates accessibility and validity to all observations, while linear science is more exclusive and authoritative. This being said, I think the linear model has room to grow and become more open. Truthfully I think that the two models cannot be separated from each other; they are two ways of viewing the same world. I think there is more overlap between the two models than separation.

On the subject of Dickinson vs. Descartes, I agree with Descartes. Often times I send out a message to my brain to make a certain decision, and end up making the opposite decision, for reasons beyond my comprehension. This leads me to believe that more than the nervous system is at play. Issues of morality begin to surface. If it is true that everything is a construct of my brain, then the world around me should be much more predictable, measured, and consistent.
Sarah Tabi's picture

Loopiness may be the best approach

If science is a dynamic process, then why should we have a static, structured manner of observing it?  The world is constantly changing, but I think human beings find it hard to keep up.  It is probably in our nature to try and understand the world we live in by creating a set of rules, and making an effort to categorize everything.  How would it be if all human kind decide to acknowledge that the universe is greater than we can even perceive, and continue our exploration from that undderstanding?
BMCsoccer01's picture

Loopy Science: Is it effective or just loopy?

As most other people enrolled in this class, I too was taught the linear scientific method. In grade school we were instructed to come up with a hypothesis, experiment, and then reach a conclusion.  Now, as a college undergraduate, I believe that experimentation in the sciences involves much more than a guessing game to predict whether you are correct. I agree with the theory behind loopy science. In order to make strides and effective advancements in the sciences one has to continually be trying to make meaning of one's observations.  The world appears different to every one of us because of the way in which each person interprets the events they experience. Thus, it is important to constantly try and perceive what we experience, test the different conditions of the event, and then summarize the outcome based upon different behavior. 

In addition, I do agree that you cannot prove that a summary is not true, because a summary involves those events up to the present date & because we are not psychics, it is pertinent that we continually try to prove our previous summary incorrect. In doing so, one will have the intent to continually improve there understanding of the world around them, the interpretation made by others, & will be able to live in the here & now with anticipation of the future, rather than living in the past.


mmg's picture

Lingering questions and loopiness

I was always intrigued by the way different people behave, what behaviours are considered normal, and which come across as strange. The very thin and sometimes cloudy line between the two makes this more interesting. The idea that brain = behaviour seems credible, yet I am curious to know where individual life experiences, culture, thought come in here. Do our different brains process these things differently? Or is the way our brain processes these and other things determined by these factors? I will be looking at how this course answers that question.

 The idea of loopy science is appealing, it makes sense. A lot of science is always changing. Even the most definitive of rules have exceptions. (F=ma included). The only problem is that the way the general public is to anticipate that anything that comes from a scientist has to be ‘true’. Look at toothpaste ads, or dandruff shampoos – ‘70% of researchers say…’ or ’96% damage control, tested and proven’. It’s a cultural thing. Now if the producers were to say that this is true only for the cases tested, not many toothpastes will sell. What I am trying to say is that while the idea of loopy science is definitely credible, it is an idea that will be hard to put across to all of the general populace.  
shikha's picture

sitting on the fence

Between the two theories, I am going to choose to sit on the fence for now. While Dickinson's theory that everything is a construct of our brain and that brain = behavior is quite appealing to me, I find it hard to believe that our behavior is a result of only the interaction of molecules. I'd like to think that there is something other than the brain that controls our behavior. Otherwise would we not behave for the sole purpose of reward? How does altruism play into this? How can something like morality simply be a result of firing neurons? However, could all these be emergent qualities of the interactions between molecules?

I cannot decide which theory I believe in more and am curious to know where I'll stand in May.
redmink's picture

From a perspective of a brain-lover.

After Grobstein’s lecture, I can understand that my observation about the brain and behavior may differ from others’ because we all have different cultural/life background.  Yes, more importantly, we make different observations every day for we have distinct brains! Each person’s brain has different information passed down from one’s ancestor, shape(how curvy/coiled/complicated it is), length, size,  and many other factors shaped by different environment and culture.   I am fascinated by the brain that constitues 2% of our body in weight and yet does almost everything to control our body and world we generate.  Overall, I have this view called, I=my brain.  Right now, my brain prefers Dickinson’s view that states that it is all brain/neuron.  

I have two reasons to side with Dickinson:  the evidences that I observed in my life and the fact that we don’t know about the brain enough to consider it as a distinct entity from the mind.

First, from my summary of observations, the mind part that includes our feeling, desire, and behavior is all created and controlled by the brain/neuron.  For example, some people strive for success and have an extremely strong desire to actualize their dream because their brains are programmed to drive them that way (it is about the balance of chemicals in the body.   i.e. the more adrenaline = the more aggressive)  The sky would be nonexistent or meaningless when the brain is not active.  The daughter, wife, and family members have no meaning to a patient whose brain can’t remember any.  From these examples I observe that the generation of knowledge and consciousness/mind happens through the activities of the brain. 

Second, do we know about the brain completely?  Nowadays, people are searching for the existence of the ‘God spot’ in our brain to explain why some people are religious.  We try to unlock the secrets of the brain that would further explain the relationship between the brain and behavior but it is an ongoing process.  Without knowing the brain completely, I don’t think we can say that the dualism is right (or wrong) because the entity--the brain-- we are dealing with is not fully graspable.  So, I would rather lean toward Dickinson’s view because that opens more possibilities.

The study found that religious or mystical experiences activate more than a dozen different areas of the brain at once. Also, it is found that the region called caudate nucleus has been implicated in positive emotions such as joy, romantic love and maternal love.  So, from my observation I know that there are many more things that we don’t know about the brain than we know.  And this aspect is the reason why I am leaning toward Dickenson’s view because there are so many things about the brain yet to be discovered. Some say only 2% of the brain is being used.  I believe that the 98% part of the brain can show more examples of Dickinson’s view. 

ddl's picture

Comments on Emily Dickinson and Descartes

The senses and their primary interpreter, the tangible nervous system, in my opinion, are avenues for perceiving the world around us.  As Emily Dickinson argues, the brain is so vast that it can very easily contain, conceptualize, and provide a means of critically evaluating even the largest and seemingly boundless ideas and physical manifestations.  If this is in fact the case, why and how is this possible?  I understand that this presents the interesting quandary of whether or not anything actually exists when we are not able to perceive it or create it using our senses.  To me, this brings to mind the popular question of whether or not a tree in the forest, upon falling, makes a noise if no one is there to observe or detect it.  I believe that this is the issue which is being discussed and referred to by both Emily Dickinson and Descartes in the topics discussed in our most recent class.  If the brain is able to work with and comprehend these seemingly unfathomable things, then how does it accomplish this?

Personally, I am able to recognize that things are able to be perceived using the nervous system, but have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that the nervous system is a product of the senses.  If one has an impaired brain due to physical damage, like severe blunt trauma from a car crash or removal or decrease of its function from physical conditions such as excessive drug use or disease, then his or her ability to think and tap into this mental realm of thought or perception is also found to be impaired or altered.  I do think that there is a space for the intangible ideas and concepts which lack physical qualities, making them impossible to be completely detected using a strictly sense based logic within the tangible realm.  For example, these include concepts such as love, honor, or selfishness.  We may associate these concepts with a certain set of physical actions or perceivable features/qualities, but these collections of concrete examples are merely representations of ideas and concepts which remain ungrounded in physical reality.  The brain and the physical components of the nervous system seem to effectually be the sole gateway to this area of rational thought and reasoning that must exist outside of the realm of the physical world.  However, whether the brain is simply a vessel for reaching this space or the creator of this space and its contents remains a mystery to me.

jrlewis's picture

I have spent some time

I have spent some time thinking about Dickinson and Descartes in terms of the brain and the mind.  I definitely favor Dickinson’s description.  Her assumption is even consistent with my training as a chemist; I think.

Starting from the assumption that the brain is a material object; then chemistry, the branch of science that studies matter should have something to contribute to our understanding.  I think that biochemistry could be really useful for identifying neurotransmitters, enzymes, and other brain related chemicals.  Currently, it is possible to synthesize medications based on biochemical information about the brain.  Antidepressants are used to modify chemical imbalances in the brain that correlate with depression.  However, there are some significant issues with antidepressants specifically and psychopharmacology in general.  Some of these issues stem from a lack of knowledge about brain chemistry and some from the fact that chemical analysis ignores other significant elements of the brain. 

So I would like to think about topics beyond simple brain chemistry.  I am not yet sure if there is such a thing as complex brain chemistry.  Maybe in terms of gene expression, RNA, and proteins?  More importantly, I want to know how the chemical reactions of the brain give rise to the complex behavior of living beings.  It seems to me, that there must be a lot of levels of increasing complexity between calcium ion messengers and a small smile.  

hope's picture

i think that saying

i think that saying everything is a construct of our own brains gives us a more important role in the world than we really have. also the fact that doctors ask you to describe how something hurts to help them know what's wrong shows that people, at least to some extent, perceive pain the same when they have the same medical problems, and what would be the chance of all those people's brain's just constructing the same feeling if there wasn't some degree of common "truth" to whatever problem they have. Some people can’t feel pain, but are equally susceptible to injury and death. So even if the pain is a construct, whatever is causing the pain is more than just a construct and has the same consequences to people whether or not they feel or “construct” pain. Also, some people can’t perceive motion.

aybala50's picture


You make a good point Hope. I mean everyone seem to feel pain etc. in the same way. Or it could be that we only perceive that we all feel pain in the same way. But we are in a way fixed the same way when we go to a doctor. Does it really matter? Dickinson was talking about how the perception of the brain not only includes the sky, but also you and me as well. So maybe everything, even pain, is just a construction of the brain. And who's to say, maybe everyone's brain works in it's own way and perceives it's own thing. I don't know I guess anything is possible. 
jwiltsee's picture

Scientific Method and Descartes

The linear method we were all taught in grade schools I believe was appropriate for use as a learning tool.  Many of the labs throughout grade school were not there to make you think about the scientific theory behind the lab topic, but to learn lab techniques and prove something at that current time.  Sure eveything changes over time and something that might be true one day might not be true the next, but at the same time there needs to be some results or there would be no grants given to science.  I believe there is a difference between the loopiness and the linear models, and they both serve their own individual purpose with the loopy model building on the linear model.

When it comes to Descartes theory, I 90% agree with him.  I've always been a firm believer that many aspects of your behavior are caused by the physical stimuli affecting your nervous system.  In many ways I believe the nervous system has power over the mind, because the nervous system can ultimately shut down the mind, through disease, injury, depression..etc.  I've also been a strong believer in sports about the physical aspect of the game over the mental aspects.  At this point I agree with Descartes theory, but I'm sure as this class progresses I may change my mind to another theory, such as Emily Dickinsons.   

fquadri's picture

Descartes or Dickinson? Hmmm.....

Brain= Behavior… I’ll believe that. After all, the brain is responsible for all of the motor functions, thought processing, memories, and much more. In class, I agreed with Descartes’ view that the brain and the mind are separate, where the mind holds consciousness and something greater that distinguishes us from one another. As discussed in class, Dickinson’s poem says that the mind and brain are the same thing and the brain is responsible for constructing the outside world as we know it to be. Dickinson’s view is very interesting but I’m having trouble grasping it. With Dickinson’s view it seems as if we’re living in a fantasy world constructed by our brains, which is fascinating to think of when writing science fiction or philosophy but I would like to think that what I’m experiencing is real and not something my imagination came up with. Dickinson’s view led me to think of some questions. For example, many of us are familiar with the famous cartoon involving the coyote and the road runner. Usually the show involves the coyote falling down from a cliff, but before he falls down, he sometimes would walk a little away from the edge before realizing that he was in the air and then falling down. In this case, if the coyote’s brain/mind constructed a situation where he would’ve kept walking in mid air instead of succumbing to the theory of gravity (another construction of the brain), would he have kept going without falling down? Also, where do schizophrenics and other people suffering from hallucinations fit into this, since their brains/minds are constructing things that are not in sync with the majority of the population?


Even though I support Descartes’ view, I don’t know how strongly I feel about it. It may be because of my beliefs but I don’t think a bunch of chemicals, neurons, and molecules are solely responsible for our individuality. There has to be something more, at least that’s how I feel. I think the brain can be divided into the brain (what allows us to perform our basic functions as organisms) and the mind (what makes us different from one another) but a human being cannot function and survive successfully without both of them.  

kdillard's picture

Thoughts on the Brain

Two summers ago I read an article in the newspaper about a man who attended the University of Sheffield in the UK, had an IQ of 126, and graduated with honors.  His head was slightly larger than normal due to hydrocephalus, which caused the brain cavity to fill up with cerebrospinal fluid, impeding the normal development and growth of the brain.  After undergoing several medical examinations and tests, doctors concluded that this man had no detectable brain.  His cranium, instead, completely filled with cerebrospinal fluid, yet he was able to function completely normally, and, indeed, would have been considered smarter than average.  This man makes me call into question Emily Dickenson's theory about the brain that we learned this past week.  If behavior is merely based on the firing of synapses and chemical reactions within the nervous system, then how can a human function normally, let alone exist, without the brain, the most essential part of the central nervous system?  I wonder if even Descartes theory stands up when considering the case of this man.  Even if the brain and the mind are separate entities, how can one exist without the other? 
Leah Bonnell's picture

Truth in Science

I've been thinking about loopy science, particularly the lack of truth. After years of a rigorous science education, I have a hard time believing there is no such thing as truth in science. It's hard to let go of the all the textbooks and experiments that defined my knowledge of science. But I do believe a lot of what we consider factual in science is in the actually process of “getting it less wrong.”

Scientists essentially try to understand the natural world in terms of schemas, when in reality the natural world is often too complex to be simplified. I think that as scientists uncover more of the complexities of their subject they are going through the process of "getting it less wrong." At the same I feel like scientists will always be in the “getting it less wrong” stage and never understand everynatural phenomena perfectly, because nature has some sort of inherent infinitecomplexity to it. I think it is because of this infinite complexity that it is hard, if not impossible, to find truth in science.

Thinking about truth in science has led me to think about truth in more philosophical terms. What is truth really? Does truth even exist? If everything we know as reality comes from our brain and nervous system, how do we  know what we perceive is actually reality and not out brain making things up? I don’t know, but thinking about things like this makes my head hurt. 

For the record, I'm on Dickinson's side of the fence at the moment. I think our brains are complex enough to create complex emotions and our "inner mind." However there are some aspects of life that I have a hard time fitting in Dickinson's picture. For example, I'm not sure how a mix of chemicals can lead to creative thought, like abstract painting, or how another mix of chemicals can lead to consciousness and self-awareness. These are some things I'll keep in mind during the semester. 


hamsterjacky's picture


The thing that is most human about us is this intense desire for control. As such, in my opinion, new knowledge builds on our humanness - and our ego - to know that you have discovered something no one has is an intense feeling.

As to my theory on control, and science building our humanness - we're control freaks, so to say. We try to achieve many things, and by these achievements, we can control other things. Over the weekend, I watched a Bollywood film called Fashion - it basically showed what happens to a person, the mental and physical breakdowns that occur when we don't have any control. My mind works in random tangents, and this made me think about the Miss Universe beauty peagents. Who are we to judge who's the fairest in the universe? We're just on earth! And here we are again trying to control things - we don't know if there is life beyond earth, but we're human and just because we have a more cephalized and formed brain than others, we assume we're the center of the universe. 

The peagent is just one of many examples where we try to take control - if we look at history, we see all the kingdoms being ruled - which shows we even like to control our fellow humans. It may have something to do with survival of the fittest, but isn't that about who has control in the end? The most fit? the alpha being? ie. the control freak?

I know I'm slightly denouncing the human race, but all this science, education, philosohy - it all stems from control. If we can't control our emotions, we have a mantal disorder - that reasons out our lack of control. I really hope that I'm making sense on this theory of control.

we want to control, and so we need to understand, and when we understand, we gain more control - and so we become even more human. 

ilja's picture

I was not raised in

I was not raised in absolutes or in true science, in fact I was never really a science person. I was more the humanities kind and there everything is subjective. I therefore don't like absolutes, I don't like complete truths. As for the question whether I belief Descartes or Dickinson in their analysis of the brain I tend to choose Dickinson since it helps us move forward and investigate more.  

If I understand Descartes correctly he beliefs that besides our body there is some immaterial part of us that makes us who we are. Guides our behavior, creates our beliefs and desires. To me that just sounds weak, why have all the material body if we can do it all based on this immaterial soul? And how do these two interact? Where is it? Who is it influenced by in making decisions? Since it is very hard to answer these questions if the answer is an immaterial soul that we can’t see or measure it is hard to find any answers. I know that this is not a very strong argument for saying that Descartes is wrong. But well, it is more of a gut feeling that I’m following anyway.

So if we look at Dickinson the “the brain = behavior” we can start to look for some answers in the physical mass that is our brain. But also here I have a gut feeling against the idea that our brain is completely subjective and that we thus create our individual worlds on our own. I like to think that HOW we see things (as beautiful or ugly, as blue or green) is the subjectivity of our brain but that there in fact is a physical world out there that we interact with. The world just looks different to everybody because of their individual, subjective perspectives of it.

In the end the most important conclusion that I have right now is that I just don’t know enough about the brain, the physical one that I belief creates our behavior somehow, to really give more details about why I belief what the brain and behavior is.


bpyenson's picture

Is Better Science just Better 'Understood' Science?

In exploring the issue of whether I side with Descartes or Dickinson, intuitively I wish to side with Descartes.  I believe much of my sentiment in his support stems from my training to study 'harder' sciences that seem to give way to a 'proven' truth through repeated testing and examination.

In trying to justify my decision, I've thought that perhaps my conclusion is only appealing to me because Descartes opens up neural studies to a more intelligible understanding by others wishing to explore studies of the brain and behavior.  I define intelligibility here as the ability of information to be communicated clearly from one person to another.  Inherent in my definition is a subjective determination of what is 'intelligible' for one may not be the same as another.  In that case, I further define intelligibility as the communicability of information for all reasonable people, those wishing to employ reason and rational thought in their pursuit of knowledge.  In other words, I think Descartes understanding of the nervous system makes the system most easily understood by the most number of people (assuming they are all rational), and because of this fact, it therefore seems 'more true' or 'less wrong' as Dr. Grobstein would probably prefer me to say.  For instance, by separating psyche into a physical (brain) and abstract (behavior) portions, Descartes transforms the murky object of psyche into something more open to analysis. 

Dickinson's understand, albeit elegant, I would argue is less accessible to rational inquiry.  Dickinson says, and I think I quote Dr. Grobstein here, "brain=behavior."  When one views the psyche this way,  I think it becomes a spaghetti mess of abstract and physical concepts.  If one wants to 'dissect' the psyche, given this assumption, it soon becomes very difficult, given a 'cultural' foundation to use physics and math to then understand this mess.  It seems that one would inevitably break this mind-body mess into distinct parts, and study those individually, to understand it as a whole.  Right?


Does this mean that all analysis of the psyche using Descartes' assumption is therefore more accurate than using Dickinson's?  Of course not.  I believe, on faith and feeling alone, that many artists and poets (Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, etc.) have 'figured out' how the brain-behavior combination works better than modern science has, or maybe ever will.  However, if one makes a living by pursuing rational inquiry (as a scientists), then he or she would probably favor an assumption about the psyche that allows the most number of observations and tests possible.  Yes?

Moreover, what does it say about us, as a culture, or perhaps innately as human beings, that we 'need' to break things down into smaller pieces to come to any 'certain' or 'less wrong' understanding of anything?  Does this mean science must be inherently conservative rather than ambitious in its claims?  I would argue, from my experience, yes.

kenglander's picture

Understanding observations

I agree that Descartes’ interpretation of the mind and brain as two separate entities does lend itself to more interpretations. However, I question towards what end this conclusion may lead. More specifically, if Descartes’ theory is the most commonly held idea or summary of observations, what new observations or implications can one expect that will either support or weaken this idea? Is it possible to create a solid base of observations when the central concern is one as abstract as the idea of an intangible mind?

In other words, how does the establishment of a “physical (brain) and abstract (behavior) portion” help us to better understand the psyche? Is it that professionals in various non-science disciplines (i.e. philosophy, English, fine and applied arts) may be more inclined to discuss this concept, thus making it more open to interpretation and intelligible (to use your word)? Furthermore, to what extent do these interpretations affect personal summaries of observation, and how does this progress towards better understanding?

Conversely, Dickinson’s idea, in conjunction with neurobiological information, may lead to a narrower, but more thorough exploration and understanding of the relationship between mind and brain. If we accept neurons and neurotransmitters as the basic mechanisms responsible for brain function, can we use these well-supported observations as building blocks to eventually comprehend the mind-brain relationship? Whether or not this route will contribute any evidence to the larger question is unclear, but it at least provides one avenue of methodical reasoning in which to explore the issue. In addition, this biological approach of mind and body as one unit seems to better fit the “conservative scientific claim” mold you discuss at the end of your response.

The answer to the question in your subject line, “Is better science just better understood science?”, may be best responded to based on what “understanding” entails for an individual. If an artist feels that he or she understands the mind through a conceptual and spiritual interpretation better than a scientific and concrete rationalization based on personal experience and observations, it is perhaps more appropriate for him or her to accept the artistic interpretation over one that did not match their personal set of observations.

bbaum's picture


            Before coming to college I had always believed that there was absolute truth in science. I was taught that it was a fact that an airplane could fly and that the sun rises and sets in the sky every morning and evening, and I felt no reason to challenge these beliefs because they were constantly reinforced by my real life experiences. I realize that most people would find it ridiculous to spend a day, let alone a lifetime, trying to prove these “truths” incorrect.  But there are scientists out there that spend their academic life trying to find contradictory evidence to these long held beliefs, and their work has and will continue to benefit us for years to come. For instance, astronomers now know that the sun will someday die and thus fail to rise, and engineers have discovered faults in airplane machinery that may have resulted in numerous death and millions of dollars in damages. I can’t image how nerve-racking it must have been for early scientists to challenge some of the most tightly held truths such as, God made the earth in seven days or we are the center of the universe. Yet, in spite of thousands of years of evidence that the sun does rise, these scientists continue to put challenge these “truths” and, in turn, bring about positive changes to our world. In science and in life, it’s vital to be a skeptic and a pessimist

If there were absolute truth in science, science would eventually disappear. As we have discussed earlier, neuroscience is a continually changing field and that is because people have refused to accept every bit of information that they have heard as absolute truth. When humans stop being curious or forget to challenge what they hear or see, nothing new will ever be accomplished. But because of the scientists who are willing to stick out their neck for a crazyor “out-there” theory, our generation is constantly expanding and progressing. 

aybala50's picture

Does it really matter?

This may not be very traditional as people seem to thrive to find a truth in life, but does it really matter whether Dickinson is right, or even Descartes? I admit, it would be nice to know whether my brain is creating the world I live in, for me, or whether Descartes view is correct. Whether Descartes is correct or not I like to think about the world from Dickinson's point of view. It would be nice to think that the world is almost magical in that my brain is creating what it wants. My question then is- is my brain acting on it's own? I know that my brain is apart of my body, but it has so much power over me that is it possible that i am in a sense separate from my brain? 
SandraGandarez's picture

It shouldn't matter

I agree that it really does not matter whether Descartes or Dickinson is correct. I mean so what? What can we possibly do to change how our body functions once we figure out who is correct? If we are all nervous system and nothing else, there is nothing we can do to change that so why focus on it. No matter who is correct, we are how we are and frankly it is working for us. Why not put more resources and time in a subject that can have an impact on our world?
Samantha Beebout's picture

body matters

While I agree that there is no way of knowing what's going on, I do think that settling on an approach can lead to a new set of questions. I think that there is a lot of validity to Dickinson's claim, in part because it is bolstered by what we know from other sciences (like the fact that physics says we don't really touch surfaces). However, I think Dickinson also allows me to go down a path of questions that I wouldn't ask if I didn't negate Descartes.

I disagree which Descartes because I don't think the mind and body are separate. We are not brains in jars and what we perceive physically is inseparable from what we perceive mentally. Dickinson seems to go along with this by stating that everything is constructed, and she pushes on it by challenging that all of our perceptions, and what we think we perceive, is a process of imagination in large part.

We can entertain the idea of construction, but we can never really know it. I can say I know I'm not seeing this or touching this, but I can't deny it or get away from it. It is interesting to think about how although things are constructed in the brain they work well enough to keep us surviving. I wonder what things we can perceive well-enough, then, and what things, maybe our perception of the sky, we can use more imagination on. Or are our sense always after the same pursuit of knowledge and observation?

jlustick's picture

One of the things that I

One of the things that I appreciate about the "loopy science" model is the way in which it encourages constant investigation. Given that there is no absolute answer, truth, or reason, there is always more work to be done, new observations and summaries to make. If we accept our current understanding, in any field, as the final understanding, we may not push ourselves to learn and discover as much as we truly can. I also like the fact that loopy science is more inclusive than linear science. I agree that science can be performed by anyone, anywhere and feel that more mainstream image of science/research often excludes individuals with valuable ideas and observations. A narrow definition of research limits the reach of our discoveries.

 At the same time, I do wonder how useful it is to eliminate the concept of truth. To what degree, I wonder, does human nature depend on truth and how do we respond to that need? Can humans feel trust without certainty? 

I also like that loopy science acknowledges the impossibility of objectivity and gives people the freedom to combine the academic with the personal.

As for the Descartes/Dickinson question, I am still on the fence. On the one hand, I agree that all concepts lie within the human brain and are not externally based,  but on the other hand, I do feel there is something material about the world that exists regardless of humans. As I mentioned in class, I also wonder how the Dickinson notion can be used when we begin to think about other species.

Brie Stark's picture

" At the same time, I do

" At the same time, I do wonder how useful it is to eliminate the concept of truth. To what degree, I wonder, does human nature depend on truth and how do we respond to that need? Can humans feel trust without certainty?"

 Grobstein brought up, several times, if learning more about the brain changes the way that we look at ourselves as human.  While many would argue that we seem "less human" by eliminating the 'mysterious' and even 'soulful' aspect of humanness, I honestly believe that it is not learning more that makes people draw this conclusion.  I believe that people consider science to be a conclusive thing -- that once a discovery in science is made, absolute truth is placed upon that knowledge.  Therefore, with so many discoveries being made about brain and behavior, I think that -- in order to eliminate the thoughts about considering ourselves less human with this newfound information -- people should instead consider that, while we have one aspect of the truth delivered by one type of science, there lie many more conclusions to be made.

Bo-Rin Kim's picture

thought in progress

One reason that I cannot make up my mind as to whether I agree with Dickinson or Descartes is because I am not sure if I am understanding each of their perspectives correctly. From how I understood it (and please correct me if I'm wrong), Dickinson is saying that the brain is the mind, and the mind constructs all aspects of reality that it encounters. And Descartes is saying that the mind and brain are separate and independent of each other. I take it that "mind" refers to consciousness, thought, emotions.

If this is correct, I disagree with Descartes's perspective that the mind and brain are separate. The mind, or thoughts and consciousness, cannot exist without the brain being active. Thus, the brain must be vital in giving rise to the mind. However, I cannot say that completely agree with Dickinson because I am having trouble accepting the perspective that we construct our reality. The brain gives rise to the mind, which can perceive and interpret the world, but does that necessarily mean that the mind creates everything we perceive? I feel like the mind is just a lens through which we experience a real world. If not, how is it that each of our minds are constructing reality, but we are able to agree on what this reality is (like things we come into physical contact with)? In that sense, I guess I agree with Descartes that the mind is not something we construct.

Okay...I don't really know where I'm going with this anymore...I guess I am somewhere in the middle between Descartes and Dickinson until I gain more understanding. I agree with Dickinson that the brain and the mind are one, but I agree with Descartes there are certain perceptions of our mind that the brain does not construct (such as the physical world). This is a really mind-boggling topic and that is the most sense I can make out of it right now... 
Lisa B.'s picture

The problem, and methods of exploration

The philosophy of the mind, especially the mind-body relationship, has been a topic of debate for thousands of years. In the 5th century BC, Parmenides was the first philosopher that supported the mind and body represented as distinct entities. Then in the 17th century Descartes expressed that mind and body had a dualistic nature. These dualistic entities were matter and mind, where the nervous system is involved in actions of matter.  Two centuries later Emily Dickinson wrote that the action of seeing someone or something was a construction of the brain. This philosophy was different from dualism. Dickinson believed that there is a nervous system and everything else is a construction of the nervous system.  Both Descartes and Dickinson communicated valid arguments, but the philosophy of the mind is still defined by a group of problems.

After class on Thursday I was indecisive about my preference of Descartes' of Dickinson's philosophy of the mind. After some deliberation, I decided to skeptically endorse dualism. The dualistic concept is unpopular among neuroscientists, but there is proof in physiological, clinical and genetic studies of cognitive functions that the performance of cognitive functions is based on complex cooperative activity of "complex" neurons that are carriers of "elementary cognition" (Arshavsky, 2006). Although I approach the mind-body debate with skepticism, I look forward to a semester of debate and discussion.

Adam Zakheim's picture

Undecided sides with science

        Originally, I was undecided and couldn’t conclude whether Dickenson or Descartes’ made the stronger argument. Dickenson’s point of view, combined with the scientific approach of Francis Crick, seemed more plausible. Truly, the nervous system, via signaling pathways and nerve cells, provides a human being with the ability to construct his or her reality. The scientific community is on the whole quite unequivocal that the senses, capacity for thought and other innate functions of the brain, are the result of various stimuli that are in turn processed and interpreted by the brain. For these reasons, I cannot discount Descartes’ view.

            Since the nervous system is of critical importance to life, it would seem right to suggest that the brain is the seat of the soul. This idea is typified by the Uniform Determination of Death Act (1981), which defined death as the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.” The function of the brain, legally and medically speaking, determines life and death.             Regardless, the overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that Dickenson and Crick are correct. The mind is part of the nervous system. And, the central nervous system controls behavior either by activating muscles, or by causing secretion of chemicals, such as hormones. Although modern science has endeavured to elucide the functions of the brain, there are still gaps in our knowledge. In the meantime, however, I will agree with Dickenson and Crick.
Crystal Leonard's picture

Descarte vs. Dickenson

I agree that we interpret all outside stimuli through our brains, and so what we know of the world is a construction of the brain. However, I still lean toward Descarte's view because I just can't understand how a bunch of chemical interactions could create a person's inner being/consciousness/sense of self/whatever you want to call it. Neither view can be proven to be true, so until one is proven false, I'm sticking with Descarte's.
BeccaB-C's picture

Belief in science?

I think there is a lot of validity in Emily Dickenson's concept that all human experiences, and therefore science, are constructions of the mind. In studying natural processes through scientific methods (however cut-and-dry or loopy you choose to do it), and in considering the results meaningful as a step in the dierection of understanding our environment (whether or not they are "truths"), the scientist must have some belief in a rational, systematic, mathematically sound world. In this way, science is a construction of the mind. Without that construction, a belief in a systematic, scientific environment, results would have little meaning.

Once this construction of belief is established, though, and we have some unwavering faith that there is mathematical consistency and rational, systematic organization in the world/universe, we can follow that faith through discovering the body, world, science through Descartes'perspective. In scientific exploration, within a rational, scientific world, everything is made up of/happens because ofatoms , protein chains, neurotransmitters, the scientific method. Once we establish and believe in the construction of the mind that is science, there can be definitive truth.

OrganizedKhaos's picture

Mind over Matter?

 The idea from Emily Dickinson's poem, that the mind is all that matters and that everything else is a construction of the mind or better yet MY OWN mind is an extremely mind boggling concept. When stated it makes sense and it seems quite understandable but then questions start to arise which leads me to sway more toward the DesCartes way of thinking. For example, didn't it all start with matter? Didn't life itself start from a spec of dust? And if this is not "truth" persay but rather a good summary of observations wouldn't it suggest that mind and matter are two different realms as suggested by DesCartes?

So I guess until I really get a grip on the answers to these questions that I  would have to agree with DesCartes until further notice. But then again Dickinson makes such a good point because nothing would be understood without the mind. Matter would be nothing had the concept of it not been a construction of the mind, or would it?? 

Brie Stark's picture

Held back.

As I'm sure most other people in the class experienced in grade school, I too was taught the procedure of "scientific research," which all began with a definitive hypothesis which could not be changed in any way, shape or form during an experiment and subsequent conclusion.  However, my junior year of high school I participated in a new half-day school program sponsored by my neighboring technical school and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.  At the zoo, I wrote a thesis on the behavior of the dominance hierarhcy of the female drill monkey -- but I constantly found myself stuck in ruts.

I would observe on a daily basis, but I found that every time I observed, I wanted to tweak my hypothesis just a bit in order to encompass what I had just observed.  As I continually approached my advisor about this, I was turned down; there was no way to change a hypothesis until you proved or disproved it.  Not only did it impede my learning about the drill monkey, but I was also frustrated that I could not do more. 

The "loopy" way of looking at science is what I was striving to do, but I didn't have the labeling for it.  I had been striving to conceive an observation, then to continuously add observations and make a new observation.  The passive and aggressive behaviors of the monkeys constantly changed when enveloped in new circumstances, but because of my original hypothesis (which I had had to have formed after only two weeks of observing these monkeys), I could not incorporate this into my 'true' hypothesis.

So, learning about this new way of thinking about science basically put into words what I had been striving to do that whole year but was held back from. 

I now have more of a palette with which to construct ideas, and to build off of.

OrganizedKhaos's picture

Feels good to be wrong

I too was only taught the linear way of exploring science and it was never too fun for me. I found myself going into lab and writing a hypothesis that I knew was expected just for the grade and then doing the experiment and learning nothing. It wasn't until first semester my freshman year at Bryn Mawr that I was able to really explore science and have fun. That feeling occurred the first time in Bio 103 lab when I proposed a hypothesis then after doing all the summaries of observations proved it wrong. I actually smiled.

I agree loopy science does offer a better way to approach science and construct ideas.