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Neurobiology and Behavior, Week 2

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 the notion that the nervous system is set of interconnected boxes within boxes?  an input/output box capable of generating outputs on its own rather than a stimulus/response device?

moi's picture

Stepping Out of the Box

Now isn't that clever? Actually I don't myself see anything simplistic about the box concept of the brain
Our nervous system actually IS interconnected layers of neurons with different inputs/outputs.
The brain is no different than a spleen, we can study it and learn about it in much the same way. But . . .
There is a conflict when it comes to the brain. In fact we truly must step into the looking glass.
You see, the spleen doesn't study spleens. The brain studies the spleen, and the brain.
The brain harbors ego, self perception, philosophies passed down through the centuries.
Spleens don't care for philosophy. Whatever approach we use to study the brain will be
tainted by the genetically preconceived notions of its own importance. It is the residence of ego.

Olufemi.Nazsira's picture


The notion that our nervous system is merely interconnected boxes with different inputs/outputs does not sit well with me because not only does it seem overly simplistic, it also strikes me as an extremely mechanical approach to the interworkings of connote that these criteria are finite, where as the stimulus/response concept has a fluidity about it that is appealing in its openendedness. The only thing then is whether we choose to adapt the input/output theory or stimulus/response, where are the inputs/stimuli derived from? Surely nervous system is just as much a point of origin as the outside world. 

Anna Dela Cruz's picture

Brain is NOT a Computer?

One idea that really made an impression on me today was the unpredictability of the brain. I believe that it was Menda who asked if the input/output model suggested that the brain worked like a machine. Professor Grobstein then answered that the brain is not a machine because we cannot always predict the outcome of a stimulus. But what about Psychology? I am not a Psychology major, but the whole point of my Experimental Methods and Statistics class is to design experiments and to critically examine data all in the ultimate goal of better understanding human behavior. I mean, isn't that what Psychology is about-- to understand  and predict human behavior either through experiments or observations. One hypothetical question that was mentioned in my Expt Methods class was whether eating chocolate had any bearing on attention span. My hypothesis was that eating chocolate would increase attention span because chocolate is rich in the alkaloid, theobromine. This alkaloid facilitates seratonin production which then causes a person to feel happier. This feeling of happiness would be evident in the relaxation of the body (physiological response) thus enabling the person to pay attention easier. The point of the matter is, a test to see the affects of a stimulus (in this case, chocolate) could then be used to predict human behavior. If so, then such research would make the brain a little less mysterious.   
BMCsoccer01's picture

THE CNS: Capable of Thought by Itself?

   I disagree that the CNS is a set of input/output boxes capable of generating outputs on its own. I believe that there have to be stimlui present in order for an output to occur. Now, it could be possible that the input box does not appear full on the conscious level, however there could be a stimuli which fills the input box on the subconscious. Because human beings are capable of retaining information (i.e, recall experiences) even though one does not recognize the outside stimuli as such, it still is capable of triggering an output. For example, in introductory psychology class, one is taught to study with the same writing utensil as he/she plans on taking the exam with, or chewing the same scent of gum while studying as one does when he/she takes the exam. The reason behind this, is so that consistency in one's environment will subconsciously trigger one's memory and allow you to recall the infromation that one retains while studying.   Therefore, what may not be recognized as an input can still act as such in a deeper part of the brain.
   In addition, the absence of an input could trigger an output. When you realize that you are thinking of "nothing," essentially this is when thoughts pop into your brain again, and your brain creates outputs, based on your spontaneous thoughts. So, if our CNS is capable of creating outputs, without any inputs, then why does our brain catalog our previous experiences. What is the need for memory?  
ddl's picture

I have always been

I have always been intrigued by the notion of thought.  The idea that these pieces of

intellect or vivid recollections/memories can be drawn up without the need for an outside

stimulus is something that I’ve routinely wrestled with.  Typically, as we discussed in

class, we contend that in order for our nervous system to generate an output, it has to

receive an impetus or stimulus from the outside world.  However, as we can all attest to,

many times we find ourselves thinking, whether it be the product of careless daydreaming

or deep analysis of a certain quandary, about things that are not elicited by the world

around us or that are not capable of being physically experienced by our sense detectors

due to their absence from our immediate surroundings.

I have always been intrigued by the notion of thought.  The idea that these pieces of intellect or vivid recollections/memories can be drawn up without the need for an outside stimulus is something that I’ve routinely wrestled with.  Typically, as we discussed in class, we contend that in order for our nervous system to generate an output, it has to receive an impetus or stimulus from the outside world.  However, as we can all attest to, many times we find ourselves thinking, whether it be the product of careless daydreaming or deep analysis of a certain quandary, about things that are not elicited by the world around us or that are not capable of being physically experienced by our sense detectors due to their absence from our immediate surroundings.

For this reason, I believe that there must be a space within the brain that is designated for the storage of thoughts.  This would explain the idea that a person can think about something even without experiencing a particular input at any given time.  However, I also contend that many times what we think about is in fact dictated or subconsciously triggered by the outside world.  In these circumstances, we may be reminded of something we once experienced and this may in fact cause the stimulus to reopen thought processes associated with this idea or experience that we have previously stored up within our memory banks.  In this regard, the brain is essentially a search engine and a very efficient categorical organizer of the thoughts and encounters that we have accumulated over the course of our existence, capable of recalling and grouping certain outside data within storage banks within similar associated idea groupings.

As for whether or not an output can be generated as a reaction to nothing, I don’t necessarily believe that this could be the case.  This could however be possible if the thought or idea was stored previously and then recalled, but I think that something has to have previously stimulated the brain to think of the topic and then, in turn, allow it expand on that idea and generate novel thoughts or conceptions of that notion
Riki's picture

relate to me, please

Seeing the visual depiction of the box within a box model triggered a thought I have often. How much of what I experience is shared by others? I know that everyone's brain is unique, and everyone has different pathways and webs of neurons. When watching an upsetting scene in a movie, are there any two people experiencing the same kind of sadness? What does it mean when you "connect" with someone? What about when you have the same thought at the same time as someone else? At a different time? Do you have similar pathways? How similar can two brains get?
aybala50's picture

(No subject)

Leah Bonnell's picture

Modeling Behavior

I think the boxes within boxes model comes closest to what I've learned so far to modeling behavior. The stimulus response model explains many basic behaviors but does not allow for any wiggle room. As the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior states, behavior is not so easily predicted. I think the boxes within boxes and multiple inputs/outputs will allow us to model more of the diversity in animal behavior, as aybala50 also stated. 

If we believe that brain=behavior then we should theoretically be able to model all animal behavior. However, I'm not sure that scientists will ever be able to do this, which leads me to think that there may be some other better model or maybe, just that the human brain isn't smart enough to fully understand the human brain.

Leah Bonnell's picture

Modeling Behavior

I think the boxes within boxes model comes closest to what I've learned so far to modeling behavior. The stimulus response model explains many basic behaviors but does not allow for any wiggle room. As the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior states, behavior is not so easily predicted. I think the boxes within boxes and multiple inputs/outputs will allow us to model more of the diversity in animal behavior, as aybala50 also stated. 

If we believe that brain=behavior then we should theoretically be able to model all animal behavior. However, I'm not sure that scientists will ever be able to do this, which leads me to think that there may be some other better model or maybe, just that the human brain isn't smart enough to fully understand the human brain.

redmink's picture

Where I am now after the class.

It seems like the input/output box is favored by majority of the class.  However, for me, stimulus/response model is still fine.  Although I agree that input/output sounds more neutral and they add more complexity, I don’t have strong conviction to favor the input/output model yet. I think it is because I had been a strong believer who’s convinced that the function of the brain and behavior are solely based on chemical activity.  So, it is hard for me to abandon my old belief, the concept of stimulus/response.

                For example, our methodology of taking the swimming mechanism of the leech as a counterexample against the validity of spaghetti model  in class did not convince me much.  Removing the nervous system from the leech and using that nervous system to test the model seems not ‘neutral’ to me in its methodology.  I recall that Dickinson hints at us that the world is the construction of the brain.  But the brain in Dickinson’s poem is the organ still interconnected with other parts of our body still alive, ready to construct the world.  However, in the leech’s case, the nervous system is rather naked, and it seems meaningless to test the activity of the nervous system because it lost its meaning.  To me, the naked one taken out from the leech is not the nervous system any longer and thus not accurate subject to be tested on.  

                I just wanted to share that I am an example of a person who is still hanging in the middle of the two observations.  Honestly, I am afraid that I would have a trouble catching up the collective consciousness of the class due to my proclivity toward my old belief. But I will make every effort to think from different perspectives.  J

shikha's picture

input/output = computer?

The words input and output immediately brought to my mind the idea that the brain is a computer. I've been reading a book called "Why Choose This Book?: How We Make Decisions" by Dr. Read Montague in which he argues that the brain is a very efficient computer. While a computer isn't worried about having a limited power supply, the brain has to be extremely efficient because it has limited resources and thus it must have the ability to focus on certain computations that are more important. How it judges importance is by having the biological motivations of reproduction and survival. Our brain makes valuation computations of different goal states based on our experiences and the rewards we obtain by doing certain actions (reinforcement learning). Reinforcement learning is based on prediction errors which occur when something happens beyond what we expected or below what we expected, after which the brain updates the values it has placed on certain states. How exactly the brain makes these computations is still a mystery. However, research has found some neural correlates. For example, according to Dr. Montague's research, dopamine is released in an increased amount when we get a greater reward than what we expected, it pauses when we receive a reward less than what we expected, and it stays the same if we get an expected reward.

Interestingly, Dr. Montague describes our brains as "computers that care."
kenglander's picture

following the arrows

The nervous system is clearly a complicated web—similar stimuli lead to different responses while the opposite (varying stimuli resulting in comparable responses) can also occur. Perhaps even more perplexing is how the mind can receive input and seemingly produce no output or conversely generate an output with no noticeable input.
One of the obvious questions for me is how one can identify and quantify stimuli. Is it imperative that the stimulus is proximally temporal to the response? What constitutes the environment that triggers the response/output? If internal cues can generate responses, does that mean that our bodies are also part of the environment? If so, can we definitively state that the brain can randomly generate activity to promote an output? After all, it doesn’t seem logical that the brain would generate an idea or response without some form of input whether it is internal or external, tangible or intangible.
In addition, I am curious about the interconnected box model and its functionality. Similar inputs may produce different outputs, but I think this is because no two inputs or stimuli are exactly the same. On the other hand, differing outputs also seem to eventually follow pathways that produce the same output. The mediating factors are still unclear, they might come from boxes within boxes, some ethereal mind suggested by Descartes, or some other abstract concept we have yet to discuss. Since I am currently at a loss for how to investigate these boxes within boxes, I wonder if it is possible to explore the arrows that connect these boxes. Do they represent the neurons in the brain? If so, could technology eventually help us trace the electrochemical firings of neurons? If we can trace and predict the “arrow pathways,” maybe it will be possible to find out what lies within the “smallest box.”    
nafisam's picture

The concept that the nervous

The concept that the nervous system is a set of interconnected boxes connected to other boxes made sense in the context of the specific parts of the brain that we examined in class. However the idea that the nervous system consists of interconnected boxes is difficult to conceptualize. If all of these boxes are infinitely connected, are they really boxes in the end? Perhaps these boxes are just individual independent paths that happen to cross each other. What are the boundaries between compartments, and how are they determined?

I think that this interpretation of the nervous system would most likely fit in with Dickinson’s model. Neuronal activity and chemical reactions are responsible for the activity in these boxes which are responsible for how we react to our environment. An outside input produces an output or no output at all. Although this may seem plausible, this model does not address inputs that come from inside the brain. For example, how does this box model explain the recurrence of nightmares or images of traumatic experiences? How does the box model explain how we organize inputs once we receive them, and how we control outputs? I feel as though the box model has a foundation in its theory, but there are a lot of questions that still need to be addressed. It does not really account for individuality in my opinion.
aybala50's picture

To me

the boxes within boxes theory is a good explanation of the diversity of behavior. I mean, when thought about it makes perfect sense. Different actions bring up different behaviors in people. At the same time, a same action can result in different behavior in different people. If the process of action/behavior was as simple as a single box, people should be reacting the same way to a basic action. As this is not the case, for now in my mind the 'box within a box' theory makes the most sense.
OrganizedKhaos's picture

Thinking outside the Box

I appreciated the way the nervous system and the compartments of the brain were simplified. The idea that there are boxes inside of boxes allows for an understanding of what's going on inside the head without getting too involved and leaving room for intriguing questions.

What really interested me was the concept that genes and culture may effect the organization of the nervous system. That made me think whether the arrangement of my compartments were different from the person next to me. Also, it explains how two people with the same input may have a different output. This concept explains why certain things may be offensive in one culture but acceptable in another. But what also seems worth thinking about is, what is it that changes in the brain?? chemicals?? And is it ever too late to change one's "setup" persay?

Max86's picture



Are you implying that the phsyical structure of one's nervous system, one's anamtomy, is directly correlated to their personality or environment? In other words, do you mean to say that the layout of my nerve endings and tissues determines my decisions or reactions? Interesting to think about - even if it is absolutely not the case (I of course wouldn't know). It's pretty intriguing to think that a nervous system might develop in response to a specific society or culture (as in a nomos) or that nerve tissue is pre-determined wholly by genes, but can then alter over time. I suppose then the question becomes: Does everyone have a unique layout of nerve cells that correspond directly to their specific consciousness? How unique are they? Where phsyically is the fundamental element to consciousness located? 

bpyenson's picture

Boxes Model: Just another Structure?

I am very intrigued by the boxes model set forth earlier in the week, however, my biggest questions have more to do with the overall structure and design of the model.  In particular, my feeling is the following:

1. Is there any sort of valuation structure or built-in quality set in the model?  In other words, can we say whether any 'route' or any circuit is any more valuable, in the 'eyes' of the system, than any other?  My inclination, from my current understanding is to say, no, although I would be happy to hear otherwise.


2.  My reservation to saying 'no' to the above question is that I think the only thing foundational of this very relative and transient model is the input-->output poles, right?  Like a mathematical function, the model still has, for every stimulus, an output.  However, as Dr. Grobstein showed with the leech, sometimes you get spontaneous outputs, for no apparent input.  This suggests to me that in fact in this model of the nervous system, there is NO foundational properties, there are no real built-in valuation systems of saying any aspects of the model are more important for its functioning than any other components.  Maybe input is as equally valid as output.  If that's the case, why can't we just switch the model on its head and make outputs inputs and inputs outputs, and see if the model holds 'true' then?  Maybe the leech can in fact take several stimuli without emitting an output as well?  If one is true, why not the other? 

mmg's picture

Outside the boxes

I too (like others before) like this idea of loopy science as I do the idea of boxes within boxes as a representation for the nervous system. Both offer a way out/around the set ‘rules’ that science is perceived to be. I am concerned where culture and traditional outlooks come into play in these set of boxes. It seems as if certain truths or summary of observations cannot be neatly wrapped up, so to speak, and put into these boxes. To my mind, a lot of faith comes under this category. If not just religion, also faith or belief in authority – the way we take something coming from someone more experienced or such as true, without having our own summary of observations. I am a Hindu and most Hindus consider cows holy and don’t eat beef. I have never really tried beef to come to my own conclusion regarding its consumption. It’s a cultural thing, my family never had beef, I never wanted to eat it. While I am not saying that’s what the norm is, it is true that with matters concerning faith and such, it is hard to create one’s own summary of observations. Now, with science, a certain amount of distrust in the truth or existing literature is required to be able to make any progress, as we’ve been discussing in class so far. Yet, if we were to abandon the idea of truth, since it becomes hard to define, then science gets a lot more leeway to play around with many different ideas. Since a lot of scientific truths have been considered absolute truths, this will bring in an idea of abstraction to the field. And I love that, not only because it gives us more room to explore around, but also because the brain itself is so complicated and fascinating that it will be hard to pin down absolute truths for it.

In keeping with that, I also feel that we might soon abandon the input/output box model as we discarded the ones before it and move onto a modification or a new one - one that has some sort of explanation for contextual factors for indviduals (culture,faith..), and also to keep the loopiness going. :)

Adam Zakheim's picture

Considering Sensory Deprivation…in OUTERSPACE

At the conclusion of Thursday’s class, it was apparent that the nervous system could function without conventional stimuli. Rather, the nervous system seemed fully capable of generating inputs and outputs, even in the absence of an input. This idea seemed unsettling but at the same time intuitively correct. During the course of our discussion, the notion of sensory deprivation was raised to further evince the aforementioned input/output model of the nervous system.

This made me think about how modern science, with this new definition of the nervous system, is working to understand and treat sensory deprivation. In doing a little research, I found numerous studies of the effects of sensory deprivation on cognitive function. Rather than focus on the more academic studies, and also excluding those of the Guantanamo Bay theme, I found an interesting article from the American Psychological Association describing “Mental preparation for Mars.” (

The article outlines the current research of several prominent psychologists working to “lesson the mental stains astronauts might face 100 million miles away from earth.” Although one might be inclined to think that the greatest challenge facing Martian bound astronauts would be hurtling through space, dodging asteroids and space radiation, landing on a desolate planet (where we could finds aliens?) and then packing up only to repeat the process.  But as the article suggests, the dangers of delving farther into space also include a “grinding monotony.”

Being confined in a small space vehicle for approximately three years (NASA projects it will take 500 days to reach Mars, not counting the return trip) combined with the daily stress of manned spaceflight, incurs a massive strain on the human brain. Previous studies have found that being in an enclosed space “with a small group of people for long periods of time can result in cognitive decline, depression and interpersonal conflicts.” There problems can lead to disaster, since space flight is by no means an easy job.

So, NASA’s National Space and Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) is currently developing several ways to help astronauts’ coup with the long flight to Mars. These include a handheld cognitive ability test, and even a handheld computer that can stand in for a therapist.

These programs might also aid patients in a clinical setting, and aid in the treatment of depression. So, while NASA might have its heart set on Mars, these studies have applications beyond the field of interstellar travel.     

fquadri's picture

Inputs, Outputs, Boxes, Descartes, Dickinson....

I really liked the box theory (inputs/outputs). It made more sense to me than the stimulus/response theory. The box theory explains the diversity of people’s behavior, whereas the stimulus/response theory made us seem as if we’re robots run by our outside environment. I still believe that our environment is a huge determinant of our behavior, but we can’t forget about some exceptions such as outputs produced without inputs. But I’m curious about how this happens -- how can the brain create outputs without the need of an input, and when and why would it do this? Another question I have deals with the boxes themselves. It’s interesting to think that there are smaller boxes within the bigger boxes (like Russian dolls). But what is going on in these really tiny boxes that cause one person to respond to an input differently from another person?


I tried to apply this theory to Descartes and Dickinson’s views. I’m still working on it. Both the stimulus/response theory and the box theory seem to be confusing in Dickinson’s view. If the outside world is a construct of our mind, does this mean that a construct of the brain is controlling how the brain itself will act? It’s as if the brain as created a playground for itself, for which it can play in. I’m still figuring out how to bring Descartes into this. Maybe the “mind” (what constitutes our individuality, consciousness, etc.) is embedded in the “brain” (the physical matter run by neurons and such)? Maybe that’s what the tiniest of the tiny boxes are about?

jwiltsee's picture


The particular story told in class about the universe on the back of a turtle, and then on top of more and more turtles got me thinking.  Even if you say all the way down, then what does the all the way down turtle stand on.  What I'm trying to say is there must be a finite number of boxes that are within the larger boxes.  And from here I want to post the questions.  Does each decision use the same amount of boxes, or nerves, in order to create the responses to say more intricate stimuli than a simple one.  Can the process of the inputs being regulated through the brain be different in individuals.  Can this be a reason for differences in intelligence or differences in talents vis-a-vis individuals.  The differences in intelligence/talents/ anything an individual excels in stem from a faster reaction time through the nerves or more "boxes" in the bigger "box".  Also, is there a way to improve this reaction process through practice, reading, studying, ...etc.    
Bo-Rin Kim's picture

inputs and outputs

After Thursday's class, I was really baffled by the phemenon found in leeches where their nervous systems showed activity (output) in the absense of any environmental change (input). This shows that in the 'boxes within boxes' theory where 'inputs' trigger a series of reactions that lead to a final 'output', a reaction or a series of reactions can be triggered by something within the boxes that is not from the external world. An input can be created by the nervous system. I agree with Brie's post where she explained this input created by the nervous system as thoughts. While it is true many of our thoughts are stimulated and shaped by external information we receive, there are undeniably thoughts that we simply create. One example of such thinking is creativity. People can think of things that have never been seen or thought of before. Sure, these "new" thoughts can be based off of past experiences and older ideas, but the fact that people can think of these things without being cued by any external cue shows that our nervous system can act independently of its environment. Our nervous system not only detects and responds to our environment, but it can also create "inputs" like thoughts, motivation, ideas and it does not necessarily have to produce a corresponding output.


eglaser's picture

Between descartes and Dickinson

As a staunch fence sitter in the class so far I was hoping to use the boxes within boxes model of the nervous system to help me decide between the Dickinson and the Descartian models of the brain/mind. On the one hand it does support the Dickinson model in that it represents the brain as a series of interconnected nerves that receive input and create output, that are influenced by one another and can cancel each other out. This presents a distinctly physical representation of the brain. The empirical evidence for the boxes model strongly supports the concept that the brain and mind are purely physical entities. I find the physical argument to be extremely convincing.
However, it must be noted that the boxes model still leaves open the possibility that there may be a metaphysical mind that operates outside of the physical. The boxes model has unexplained portions within the smaller boxes. How are inputs processed? What happens within the workings of the mind that creates and output, or not? We have come to increase our understanding of how the brain works by an unbelievable amount in the last few decades. We understand the chemical, electrical, physical capabilities of the brain and yet, we do not understand the mind. We are able to view neurons under a microscope and recreate the psychology of ancient civilizations and yet we still know very little about how our minds form and function. To me, this suggests a lack of evidence and since we have been focusing on the physical in the studies of the last few years, it could be indicative of something that exists beyond the physical.
The boxes within boxes model is a very good story based on evidence, but it is not yet complete and so, until we totally understand what goes on within the smaller boxes, I must remain a fence sitter on the Dickinson/ Descartes question.
ilja's picture

a world without truth

The idea about boxes in boxes appeals to me, just like the idea of loopy science. It makes me curious about other concepts that I have not discovered yet and I like the idea that the world and our knowledge is always evolving. But it also makes me wonder about the things in life that we do not want to evaluate? One of the things that came to mind was religion. For me religions represent structures that are based on absolute truths. Religions give us answers that we are supposed to accept and believe in, they are based on faith, not on a summary of observations. Without this absolute truth would religions be the same? In the same sense this absence of truths puts a limit to other things in life, like love; concepts that are very important in the life of people and that gives meaning to our lives.
SandraGandarez's picture

truth is false?

I think that it is bothersome to think about certain things as being predetermined by our biological boxes. Most people like to think and believe things that don't have any foundation in "truth", such as love and religion. This doesn't stop people from believing in it completely and whole-heartedly. It's much easier than believing that you believe (or don't) in God because a few neurons fired off in the right way. Or that you love significant other for the same reason. I think it's easier as well as more concrete to just believe. If most people were aware that there was little to no physical foundation for these things that it would still be the same for them. After all it's a soul thing not a brain thing in most opinions.

drichard's picture

world without truth: a response

I've been entertaining the idea of a world without truth for quite some time now. I had what the Catholic church calls a "faith crisis" during my senior year of high school and ever since I have been engaging reality in a very intense, personal dialogue. There are times when I am certain only of uncertainty in this world (indeed, I often feel this way).This makes the study of science awkward for me. However, Prof. Grobstein's focus on the conceptual aspects of science rather than the technical has allowed me a way into neurobiology. The box model and the idea of science as a summary of observations, as a function of our perceptions, rather than a sterile set of prescribed rules makes much more sense to me at this point in my life.

In response to your ideas on religion, I think faith is based on a summary of observations. I don't think they are mutually exclusive. In order to have any real meaning in your relationship with God/a higher being/the object of your beliefs you must challenge your faith. From these challenges come a summary of observations that inform and define your faith. Also, Eastern philosophy and religion (for example, Buddhism) deals with the nature of reality in a drastically different way than Western philosophy. They seem much more at peace with the idea of a world in flux and an ever-changing body of knowledge. In this way, truth can be, in part, a function of culture. This disparity serves the argument for prevailing uncertainty well.

When it comes to the human experience without truth and its effect on our quality of life, we have to ask ourselves an imperative question: are we interested in comfort or truth? If the ultimate and, in effect, only truth is that there is no truth, would we rather accept this and try to make our lives meaningful in the face of it, or would we prefer to turn a blind eye to it for the sake of contentedness/happiness? Happiness, I think, resides in the truth more than it does in something artificial. 

As for love, I don't think it's ever certain; this has been my experience at least. I think this uncertainty, however, is what makes love so fascinating and wonderful. If we could "calculate" love or be totally certain of it, it would lose its mystery; romance would have no place in human lives. I like romance.

Anonymous's picture

world without truth

I am responding to your comments-

"in effect, only truth is that there is no truth, would we rather accept this and try to make our lives meaningful in the face of it, or would we prefer to turn a blind eye to it for the sake of contentedness/happiness?

Happiness, I think, resides in the truth more than it does in something artificial.

Let me suggest some questions-

Is truth then about happiness?
What is happiness?
How do you determine what is artificial?
What would truth have to be for a person to know it is truth?
Does life ever have actual meaning?

cc's picture

No input -> output?

In class we discussed how inputs entering the brain did not necessarily lead to an output, and vice versa.  I find this to make slightly more sense than the model that suggested that stimuli eventually lead to a response.  However, I have trouble grasping the concept that an output may come from a random "box" in the brain.  The experiment with the leech confused me greatly. How could the nervous system have a reaction to nothing?  Maybe when the input led to no output, it actually saved the stimulus so that a reaction could come at a time where there was no input entering the nervous system.
jlustick's picture

I'd like to begin with some

I'd like to begin with some thoughts I have in response to our conversation on Tuesday regarding the "linear model." As a child, I was taught something in-between the linear and loopy model- I was told to have a hypothesis or educated guess- is that very different than a summary of observations? Perhaps we're arguing more over language than the meanings of science. I was also taught to have a specific methodology/procedure, but that did not mean that I could not improvise or change my original goal. The purpose of my childhood science was to have fun, think, and discover something- all of which I find perfectly appropriate. In addition, I did not ever have the sense that science only happened in some sort of sterile, artificial laboratory. I always believed that science could happen in the mud, the grocery store, my living room, etc. Am I unusual? Interestingly, science became more linear once I started college and my premed courses. In my chemistry courses here, for example, there was a clear right and wrong answer and often our experiments were not fun- they were simply to prove what we already believed to be true. If something in the results seemed to contradict "the known," we simply ignored it or explained it away with experiemental error. Thus, I'd like to pose the question of whether Bryn Mawr science courses, especially those somewhat grueling introductory labs, can become more loopy? What might be the consequences of making them loopy?

It does seem to me that often the purpose of having students do science is not to have them discover something, but to instill in them certain educational values such as  dilligance, attention to detail, patience, etc.. 

I'm also interested in the question of whether students can be assessed in a "loopy way"? I'm not sure what a loopy assessment looks like because it would require the instructor to have no expectations as to what the student should know. In addition, it seems "non-loopy" to even have an instructor assessing because it implies that there is one person who is a superior judge of intelligence/performance. Clearly, standardized tests, like the SATs, are linear tests, but what about IQ tests? Those also seem to be linear. Is there such a thing as a loopy test that allows individuals to be measured against one another? Is that a loopy concept? Can individuals' brains be compared? Are some individuals more "intelligent" than others or simply intelligent in different ways?

Paul Grobstein's picture

loopy science education

VERY interesting set of questions that I hope others are listening to as well. Along which lines, see Evolving Science / Science Education.
hamsterjacky's picture

culture as a box

During the week, I was reading an article about culture-bound syndrome. Basically, this talks about "disorders" that are only seen in specifical cultures, like the western culture. Two disorders they brought up were ADHD and anorexia. Although our culture says we're very liberal, we're really not. People care about how others react or view them. This leads to a certain type of reactions - a specific course of behavior or outputs. for anorexics, our input is that we have to look a certain way. The output can be that the person seeing the commericial (a possible input) has no reaction (reaction a) or starts trying to diet (reaction b).

we are in a a world where there is a box within a box within a box and then some. Our culture can be considered the mother of boxes, with all major inputs bouncing into us from our culture, and our reactions are to react within that box.  sometimes our outputs stay within the box of the culture, and sometimes it bounces out. That way, our culture ends up effecting other culture boxes - which explains why nowadays there is a rise of anorexia in the eastern culture. That makes sense, doesn't it?

Serendip Visitor's picture

"cultural" disorders

Anorexia is not about western culture. My son, who doesn't have access to TV and whose father is Chilean, manifested a very serious eating disorder at age 7 1/2. It's about brain chemistry.

Sam Beebout's picture

culture on how the brain works

I am interested in the way the brain is formed and the way the brain develops. I'm interested in learning more about the way that culture may influence the brain and the way we process information and the way we remember.  Culture controls our instincts. In thinking about the boxes model, culture determines which reactions become outputs and which don't as well as where the boxes are and what they are.
BeccaB-C's picture

I think that whether or not

I think that whether or not culture influnces our brains, there is certainly evidence that certain components of our environment during development, and our actions/abilities during adulthood have affects on the physical formation of the brain. Research has indicated that critical periods exist and are correlated with neuronal development (aka, neurons atrophy or gentrophy in relation to languages a child is exposed to, visual stimuli present in the environment, etc). Studies have also looked at the brain responding to behavior changes in adulthood--people who learned to juggle in an experimental setting developed newly fortified brain regions, all of which atrophied or became smaller after the subjects stopped their juggling.

All of this is to say that each individual experiences a highly unique environment, whcih may very strongly affect the brain. While Sarah Tabi mentioned that "a group of people in the same room with the same set of stimuli display various types of responses, or don't respond at all" as support for the fact that the brain does not follow a simple stimuli-response model, I feel that there may be a lot of stimulus-response reaction to the way the brain works to create and respond to our lives. While the box model may offer some more individuality and more room for a non-brain presence in our thoughts and behaviors, we also cannot ignore the fact that each individual responds to stimuli differently in part due to differences in environmental, developmental conditions.

jrlewis's picture

I would like to offer an

I would like to offer an alternative interpretation of the behavior of the leech nervous system when severed from the leech body.  What if the absence of signals from the body is actually a signal to the nervous system.  Presumably, the nervous system is used to receiving inputs from the body and the absence of signal marks a departure from the normal state.  I think something similar happens with phantom limbs.  The nervous system is unsure of how to interpret the lack of input or response from a missing limb and so generates sensations. 
Sam Beebout's picture


I think somebody asked the question in the last class of what counts as a response, and it brought to mind our larger conversation of what is going on if it is all just chemicals. I understand the concept of responses happening without a stimulus, but weren't the signals coming from the leech just electrical/chemical reactions, like a chicken spasming when its head is cut off? Then, when I really start thinking about it the whole thing comes back to Dickinson again and that if this experiment were done with a human we would not be able to distinguish the signals coming from the brain as anything but just signals. Even if there was no body to communicate them would inner thinking still be going on?
bbaum's picture

Brain Size

When I was a child, I once stepped on a small caterpillarand saw promptly started to cry. An older friend came over to comfort me butwhen he learned that I was distressed over killing the bug, he quicklyexplained that it was alright because caterpillars felt no pain-they had tinybrains. I think that in our culture, bigger is better, and this principle hascarried over to brain size. Many people believe that our unique intelligencecomes primarily from the size of our brains; because our brains are larger,they are able to hold more information. I think that this basic theory has somemerit- humans do have very large brains, but are they proportional to our bodysize, or are they actually abnormally large. The human brain, while largecompared with other animals of similar size, is not the largest animal brain.In fact, when Cuvier’s fraction (E/S E=brain weight, S=body weight) is used,humans and mice have roughly identical ratios. (Source: /bb/kinser/Int3.html)If size does not play a significant role, then what accounts for ourintelligence?


Some Possibilities:

-The presence of the neocortex- this is absent or reduced inless intelligent creatures, and it seems to show the greatest variety. From myunderstanding, the neocortex is in control of all higher order thinking, whichmay be a distinctly human process. I also think that the highly convolutednature of the neocortex allows for more efficient packing of brain matter.

-Do humans simply have more neurons that allow for moreconnections to be made throughout a lifetime, or are human neurons lessvulnerable to destruction?

-Does our intelligence come from the presence of the “mind?”Do other, less intelligent creatures possess a mind, or do they only have abrain?

jrlewis's picture

I've spent a lot of time

I've spent a lot of time contemplating the mental capacity of other mammals, particularly horses.  My strategy is to try to extrapolate information about their brains from their behavior.  My pony has a lot of what I would term, common sense.  For example, we were once charged head-on by a buck during mating season and my pony responded by standing up on her hind legs, rearing, to return the challenge.  This was definitely aggressive behavior. 

Yet horses are generally considered flight as opposed to flight animals.  I wonder why she behaved in a way that was counter-instinctual.  What in her experience could have led her to think that it was an appropriate course of action?  Did she in fact think about it at all?  Does she possess a neocortex capable of problem-solving?  Or is this simply an example of my anthropomorphizing my pony?  If not, how would her brain compare to another horse's brain?  

Lisa B.'s picture

Box Theory

In my opinion our view that the brain is a series of interconnected input/output boxes was overly simplistic. However, I thought that box theory was a good starting point to learn the structures of the brain. I equate box theory with coloring books. When I first learned to draw I needed structure to not scribble. Learning the nervous system is similar to learning to draw, where divisions of the brain break larger boxes into smaller boxes. Now that we have a basic nervous system model as a reference I think we can confidently explore neurobiology and behavior. 
Brie Stark's picture


The most intriguing thing about the discussion this past week was the possibility of the nervous system creating an “output” without an input.  The first thing that came to mind was: is this the process of thought?  When we are thinking, without conscious input from the outside world affecting this thought—compare it to aimless wandering, even—does this thought get converted into an output?  Could the tangible term of “thinking” be created as the box with no input?

The nervous system is the center of all mental activity including thought, learning, and memory.  While memory is often associated with the hippocampus, thought’s tangible whereabouts are often hard to discern—and perhaps this could lead to a more definite conclusion.  Because thought seems to range from all over the cerebrum, it seems plausible that thought could be the construct of the nervous system to create new outputs when no input is being received, or—in another aspect—triggered by subsequent ideas of the input that is being received.

I’m not sure if I’m making sense at all, but it seems to me that the essence of thought could really be compared to this box with no input signal.  I’ve always thought of “thinking” as much of a turning wheel, a constant replaying of thoughts that have been formed from memories and experiences.  Perhaps our brain has sensed a stimuli in another form, been reminded of an occurrence associated with that stimuli, and dispatched an output with no direct stimuli spawned from that association and thought.

Sarah Tabi's picture

Interconnected boxes = diversity in behavior?

Well, I disagree with the notion that the human nervous system is simply interconnected boxes in which a particular stimulus brings about a particular response.  I say this because a group of people in the same room with the same set of stimuli display various types of responses, or don't respond at all.   Perhaps the best way to describe the human nervous system is to describe it as interconnected boxes within boxes because at least this explanation reflects the complexity of the causes of our actions.  It's not clear to me still how a box can produce output with no input, and vice versa.  Maybe it is this very phenomenon that makes each person unique in behavior since the same input for a group of people may not necessarily produce an output in all of them. 
Crystal Leonard's picture

internal voice

So I've been thinking about the whole boxes inside boxes that create outputs without any inputs idea. I've always been fascinated by the internal voice. What is it? How is it created? Obviously the internal voice doesn't have a specific input that leads to its formation, so it's created by one of the boxes within the box. But is the internal voice an output? For the internal voice to happen does the nervous system affect anything outside of itself? It seems to be completely contained within the brain, so I don't think it is an output. But what is it? Inputs can stop in the brain and outputs can start in the brain, but what about things that are neither related to inputs or outputs? How does the model explain these things? How can we explain them?