Monday open question: can invertebrates be ‘cognitive’?

Janelia Farm, the research center the Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently announced their upcoming research focuses. One of them was controversial: mechanistic cognitive neuroscience. Here’s what they had to say about it:

How does the brain enable cognition? We are developing an integrated program in which tool-builders, biologists, and theorists collaborate to clear the technical, conceptual, and computational hurdles that have kept the most intriguing aspects of cognition beyond the purview of mechanistic investigation. The program will establish tight links across our existing genetic model systems —flies, fish, and rodents— and exploit their complementary strengths. We aim to make the fly the benchmark for reductionist explanations of neural processes underlying complex behavior, leveraging conceptual research by mammalian neuroscientists. The fly has strong potential as a model for rapid mechanistic insights, due to its small brain size, the likelihood of obtaining a complete wiring diagram of its brain, and increasingly powerful methods for measuring and manipulating genetically defined populations of cells in behaving animals. We expect this research to reveal strategies for better understanding the more sophisticated neural and behavioral features of vertebrates. In turn, we expect our vertebrate research to expose complex computational mechanisms, some of which we can study at a detailed level in the fly.

Why was this so controversial? This sentence: “In turn, we expect our vertebrate research to expose complex computational mechanisms, some of which we can study at a detailed level in the fly“. Yes, the humble fly may or may not have cognitive states.

What are some cognitive behaviors that a fly can perform? They use reinforcement learning, can attend to things, have visual place memory. Other invertebrates can recognize faces and perform complex path integration. On the other hand, they have very poor linguistic abilities.

It’s a truth of biology that theories rarely survive contact with new types of data. There is a kind of clarity from knowing the exact neural circuitry and dynamics that a minimal neural circuit needs. If I were studying, say, attention in primates I would be interested in the precise mechanisms that another species uses to accomplish a task similar to what I’m studying. There’s no guarantee that it will be the same mechanism – but is it so unreasonable? Is there a reason that insects would not display cognitive behavior?

Neurogastronomy, neuroenology, neuroneuroscience – does it actually tell us anything?

I should think that we are all pretty well aware of the trend to neuroify pretty much everything (neuroaesthetics, neuroeconomics, uh neuroecology). In a review of Gordon Shepherd’s book Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, Steven Shapin spends some time ruminating on whether there is any actual use to all of this.

First, some comments on the ‘neuroenology’:

The distinctions between olfaction and gustation, and even between orthonasal and retronasal olfaction, are only a start. There are many more scientific facts to be understood about, for example, how wine moves around in the buccal cavity and then on to the pharynx and esophagus; how these muscle- and gravity-induced movements contribute to sensory experience; how swallowing is controlled by the sCPG (the swallowing central pattern generator); how swallowed wine leaves behind in the mouth and pharynx both a sticky “matrix” and “volatiles” which can be released when post-swallow respiration resumes; how the first expiration of breath after swallowing has the highest concentration of volatiles, which some tasters call “the aroma burst” and which they consider “the strongest contributor to the taste of wine”; how the nerves of the tongue and nasal epithelium are arrayed and what paths they take to the brain; how and where the various sensory modes are integrated into the experience of flavor; and how some aroma molecules come to elicit olfactory responses…

But: does it actually change how we perceive wine? Can it be used to broaden or deepen our appreciation for wine (or food in general)?

So does any of this newly acquired “objective” knowledge about sensory modes bear at all on the nature and quality of subjective experience? Yes, it may, and no anti-reductionist humanist should feel obliged to deny that. Nevertheless, some claims for the aesthetic significance of scientific knowledge seem dubious. For example, Shepherd writes about the importance of the mucus membranes in the mouth, assuring us that “being aware of the structure of the mucus membranes, their various receptors, and the sensations they produce will enrich the wine-tasting experience.” But other neuroscientific stories seem more plausibly experience-changing. Scientists’ accounts of the retronasal pathway, for example, have the capacity to alter the attention paid to different types of olfactory experience. Our senses engage with a field of potential experience: we can attend to some features of that field and not to others, making some sensible aspects part of our focal awareness, and backgrounding or bracketing others. Having a “private” conversation in a public room, we focus on our partner’s talk and not on the booming, buzzing “background” sound washing over us. Then we overhear someone mentioning our name and we realize that the background noise has been waiting to be turned into signal through a change in attentiveness…

Michael Baxandall’s marvelous accounts of what he called “the period eye” in Quattrocento painting told us how late medieval people looked at paintings — the eye attending to the areas of azure and gold in the Virgin’s clothing, guided there because of the known preciousness and expense of these pigments, just as the Quattrocento period eye attended to certain shapes because of the widely distributed mercantile skill in gauging the internal volumes of barrels from their visible surfaces. Knowing this, you can look at paintings in this way too. The French sociologist Antoine Hennion — also a wine lover — has proposed a “sociology of attention” in which features of the sensory field are framed, parsed, and differently stressed, and in which subjects momentarily make themselves passive with respect to the sensed object. (“Ah, yes, now I notice that.”) So the framing impulses that can change or enhance sense experience need not derive from sensory science, and in these cases they do not, but sensory framing may come from scientific accounts of the structures and processes of sense perception. Neuroenology relates several stories that do have the capacity to change — to reframe, to reconstitute — our sensory experience. It’s an authentic debt that some pleasures might owe to some scientific accounts…

Then there are neuroscientific accounts of what areas of the brain “light up” in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) when laboratory animals sniff different volatile substances. Neuroscientists also tell us that when you — but not, in this case, laboratory animals — are told that one of two wines you’re drinking costs more, even when the wines are in fact the same, a different area of the cortex lights up for the “expensive” wine, and does so more brightly. Yet both of these findings bear as much relationship to the experience of aroma as knowing the location of the fuel pump does to the experience of driving a car: the pump and the brain area relating to odor have got to be somewhere, but knowing where they are doesn’t add to, subtract from, or change the experiences of driving or drinking.

Finally, a note on neuromania:

[T]he Italian psychologists Paolo Legrenzi and Carlo Umiltà have called “neuromania.” This is the tendency to go beyond identifying the neural bases for beliefs and sensations to the claim that beliefs and sensations really are their neural bases. The first claim is unexceptionable: of course, sensations are the result of interactions between our neural structures and things in the world and elsewhere in our bodies. In this sense, neuroscience has begotten a set of pleonasms — using more words than necessary to convey a specific meaning — and these pleonasms have metastasized through contemporary culture. Insofar as our mental life is neurally based — and who now doubts that? – neuro-whatever might just be a potentially useful way of reminding us of this fact: “neuroaesthetics” is aesthetics; “neuroethics” is ethics; “neuromarketing” is marketing; “neuroeconomics” is economics — even if traditional practitioners of aesthetics, ethics, and the like have not routinely had much to say about which areas of the brain “light up” when we see a beautiful painting, do a good deed, or buy a new car, and provided that we appreciate that what “goes on in the brain” includes what people know, remember, feel, and feel to be worth their attention.


More on the legacy of HM; or, journalists behaving badly

Well that was fast. The book excerpt on HM and Corkin has gone over like a lead balloon. Here are some excerpts of a statement by Jim DiCarlo, head of BCS at MIT:

1. Allegation that research records were or would be destroyed or shredded.

We believe that no records were destroyed and, to the contrary, that Professor Corkin worked in her final days to organize and preserve all records. Even as her health failed (she had advanced cancer and was receiving chemotherapy), she instructed her assistant to continue to organize, label, and maintain all records related to Henry Molaison. The records currently remain within our department.

2. Allegation that the finding of an additional lesion in left orbitofrontal cortex was suppressed.

The public record is clear that Professor Corkin communicated this discovery of an additional lesion in Mr. Molaison to both scientific and public audiences. This factual evidence is contradictory to any allegation of the suppression of a finding.

3. Allegation that there was something inappropriate in the selection of Tom Mooney as Mr. Molaison’s guardian.

Mr. Dittrich identifies some individuals who were genetically closer to Mr. Molaison than Mrs. Herrick or her son, but it is our understanding that this family took in Mr. Molaison and his mother, and took care of Mr. Molaison for many years. Mr. Mooney was appointed conservator by the local court after a valid legal process, which included providing notice of a hearing and appointment of counsel to Mr. Molaison.

So: no research records destroyed, no attempt to suppress the lesion, nothing inappropriate about asking a very-extended family member that had already been taking care of HM for many years to be his conservator.

It will be interesting to see the re-rebuttal. Assuming that the author recorded the conversation, he would have a direct quote from Corkin saying she would shred the documents. And assuming that the author has the e-mails and paper revisions, you would Corkin attempting to delete the lesion data from the initial versions of the paper – unless the author has totally taken that out of context.

I would love to hear from the fact-checkers at the publishing house…

Update – from the comments below, Neuroskeptic points to the re-rebuttal from the author of the original piece. Basically sums up my ‘interesting’ statement above which is: they have sources and evidence for all of the assertions (such as recordings, etc).

The legacy of HM; or, scientists behaving badly

There is a book about Henry Molaison (HM) that will be coming out tomorrow and it is already causing a bit of a fuss in the scientific community. There is an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine which investigates how the lead researcher (Corkin) dealt with her authority, especially after HM passed away. It kind of has to be read to be believed:

…Despite what she said during the meeting, Corkin’s central problem with the paper, the one she pushed back on hardest, wasn’t Annese’s chatty writing style. Instead she was concerned with something Annese had discovered in Henry’s brain.

Specifically, Annese’s analysis had revealed a previously unreported lesion in Henry’s frontal lobe. The lesion was in the left hemisphere and appeared to have been caused by a man-made object…As one of the paper’s anonymous peer reviewers pointed out, “much of the neuropsychological literature on H.M. has made the case that so-­called frontal function was intact.”

When Corkin sent Annese her revisions of his paper, she deleted all references to the newly discovered frontal lesion. In a note to Annese, she explained that “the frontal lobe lesion does not appear on either the in situ scans [the M.R.I. scans made while the brain was still in Henry’s skull] or the fresh brain photos” and that “any consideration of it would be highly misleading.” Annese responded with a series of images from in situ M.R.I. scans that, contrary to Corkin’s assertions, gave clear views of the lesion.

The paper has since been published here. Here is the (fairly clear) lesion which can also be seen in old (1991-92) MRIs:

HM frontal lobes

Then it turns out that the ‘next of kin’ that became his conservator, donating HMs brain and consenting to further experiments, was not only chosen by Corkin but also was not remotely his next of kin.

Eventually, over the phone, Mooney told me that he and Henry were third cousins, very distant relations.

I asked Corkin whether she was aware that when Mooney became Henry’s conservator, one of Henry’s first cousins, Frank Molaison, was living nearby — his actual next of kin — and had not been consulted. I mentioned that his name should have made him particularly easy to find.

“I was not aware of his existence,” she said.

I asked whether she had ever done any genealogical research at all into the man she had studied for almost a half-­century.

“No,” she said.

I had tracked down and spoken with Henry’s closest living relatives, and some were surprised and disturbed to learn about the things Corkin and her colleagues did with their cousin while he was alive and about the fight over his brain that took place after his death.

I asked Corkin why she arranged for Mooney to apply to become Henry’s conservator in the first place. I knew that for more than a decade before Mooney was named Henry’s conservator, Henry himself had been the only one signing the consent forms for his experiments.

“I just wanted another level of security,” Corkin said. “Another person who was not amnesiac and who had Henry’s best interests at heart.”

I asked what she meant by “security.” Security from what?

“For Henry,” she said. “For M.I.T.”

And what were M.I.T.’s vulnerabilities?

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’d have to ask our lawyers that.”

Someone posted HM’s informed consent form, which claims that HM’s close relatives had passed away which is…clearly not true if his cousin by the same surname lived nearby.

And hey, the whole thing only gets worse (emphasis added):

Me: Right. And what’s going to happen to the files themselves?

(She paused for several seconds.)

Corkin: Shredded.

Me: Shredded? Why would they be shredded?

Corkin: Nobody’s gonna look at them.

Me: Really? I can’t imagine shredding the files of the most important research subject in history. Why would you do that?

Corkin: Well, you can’t just take one test on one day and draw conclusions about it. That’s a very dangerous thing to do.

Me: Yeah, but your files would be comprehensive. They would span decades.

Corkin: Yeah, well, the tests are gone. The test data. The data sheets are gone. Because the stuff is published. Most of it is published. Or a lot of it is published.

Me: But not all of it.

Corkin: Well, the things that aren’t published are, you know, experiments that just didn’t … [another long pause] go right. Didn’t. You know, there was a problem. He had a seizure or something like that.

And on and on. Read the article in full, it is pretty mindblowing (and full of great gossip). Neuroskeptic wrote a review of the full book earlier in the summer which has some other interesting morsels.

As written, a charitable reading of the article is that Corkin did not want to try too hard to wrestle with the ethics of her experiments on this man’s life, wanted to willfully ignore any complicating evidence, and saw no need for others to look at her data. Charitably.


Some push back on the article from a couple of groups. First is Earl Miller and 200 neuroscientists (who?) with the following letter to the NYT:

“We are a community of scientists who are disturbed by a recent New York Times Magazine article (“The Brain That Couldn’t Remember”), which describes Professor Suzanne Corkin’s research in what we believe are biased and misleading ways. A number of complex issues that occur in research with humans, from differing interpretations of data among collaborators to the proper disposition of confidential data, are presented in a way so as to call into question Professor Suzanne Corkin’s integrity. These assertions are contrary to everything we have known about her as a scientist, colleague, and friend. Professor Corkin dedicated her life to using the methods of neuropsychology to illuminate how the brain gives rise to the mind, especially how different regions of the human brain support different aspects of memory. Her scientific contributions went far beyond her work with the amnesic patient HM (whose well being she protected for decades), with major contributions to understanding clinical disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. She was a highly accomplished scientist, an inspiring teacher, a beloved mentor to students and faculty, and a champion of women in science. While her recent passing is a great loss to our field, her passion and commitment continue to inspire all of us. We only regret that she is not able to respond herself.”

Second is Jenni Ogden who reviews the book in Psychology Today. It puts the above in more context but I don’t see it really rebutting any of the key points.

I am hearing on twitter that Corkin did not, in fact, shred documents but do not understand how that jives with the above direct quotation. “A full rebuttal” is on its way.

Should small labs do fMRI experiments?

Over at Wiring The Brain, Kevin Mitchell asks whether it is worth it for small labs to do fMRI:

For psychiatric conditions like autism or schizophrenia I don’t know of any such “findings” that have held up. We still have no diagnostic or prognostic imaging markers, or any other biomarkers for that matter, that have either yielded robust insights into underlying pathogenic mechanisms or been applicable in the clinic.

A number of people suggested that if neuroimaging studies were expected to have larger samples and to also include replication samples, then only very large labs would be able to afford to carry them out. What would the small labs do? How would they keep their graduate students busy and train them?

I have to say I have absolutely no sympathy for that argument at all, especially when it comes to allocating funding. We don’t have a right to be funded just so we can be busy. If a particular experiment requires a certain sample size to detect an effect size in the expected and reasonable range, then it should not be carried out without such a sample. And if it is an exploratory study, then it should have a replication sample built in from the start – it should not be left to the field to determine whether the finding is real or not….Such studies just pollute the literature with false positives.

At the end of the day, you are doing rigorous science or you are not.

I do have a silly little theory – which I keep meaning to write up – on the economics of science. In some cases, it may be worth doing underpowered studies as a cost-effective way to generate hypotheses. However, this depends on the cost of the experiment – and fMRI seems to fall way too far into the “too expensive per data point” field to be worth it.

Commentary on a comment

If you want to see a masterclass in dissecting a paper, go read Tal Yarkoni’s discussion of “The dACC is selective for pain“:

That conclusion rests almost entirely on inspection of meta-analytic results produced by Neurosynth, an automated framework for large-scale synthesis of results from thousands of published fMRI studies. And while I’ll be the first to admit that I know very little about the anterior cingulate cortex, I am probably the world’s foremost expert on Neurosynth*—because I created it.

…The basic argument L&E make is simple, and largely hangs on the following observation about Neurosynth data: when we look for activation in the dorsal ACC (dACC) in various “reverse inference” brain maps on Neurosynth, the dominant associate is the term “pain”…The blue outline in panel A is the anatomical boundary of dACC; the colorful stuff in B is the Neurosynth map for ‘dACC’…As you can see, the two don’t converge all that closely. Much of the Neurosynth map sits squarely inside preSMA territory rather than in dACC proper…That said, L&E should also have known better, because they were among the first authors to ascribe a strong functional role to a region of dorsal ACC that wasn’t really dACC at all… Much of the ongoing debate over what the putative role of dACC is traces back directly to this paper.

…Localization issues aside, L&E clearly do have a point when they note that there appears to be a relatively strong association between the posterior dACC and pain. Of course, it’s not a novel point…Of course, L&E go beyond the claims made in Yarkoni et al (2011)—and what the Neurosynth page for pain reveals—in that they claim not only that pain is preferentially associated with dACC, but that “the clearest account of dACC function is that it is selectively involved in pain-related processes.”…Perhaps the most obvious problem with the claim is that it’s largely based on comparison of pain with just three other groups of terms, reflecting executive function, cognitive conflict, and salience**. This is, on its face, puzzling evidence for the claim that the dACC is pain-selective.

etc. etc. Traditionally, this type of critique would slowly be drafted as a short rebuttal to PNAS. But isn’t this better? Look how deep the critique is, look how well everything is defined and explained. And what is stopping the authors from directly interacting with the author of the critique to really get at the problem? The only thing left is some way for pubmed or Google Scholar to link these directly to the paper.

Go read the whole thing and be learned.

What we talk about when we talk about color


The most recent issue of Nautilus focuses on color. As everyone who was anywhere near the internet in February knows, color is not some immutable property of the world but is instead produced through perception. Color perception is a reaction to the world we experience – but then this feeds back to shape the world itself:

Minions are the first animated characters to have their own Pantone color. Why aren’t there others?

You have to be cautious of cultural trends and meaning: They change; they are mutable. Some colors, like Chinese Red, will forever be seen in the cultural view. But today, even Chinese Red is not as pervasive as it was before. If you go to China now, people are wearing very westernized colors and clothes because that is what has currency now. When it comes to the world of entertainment, these trends change far more quickly. Several years ago, we were naming a purple, and Barney the dinosaur [from the children’s television show Barney & Friends] was very popular. Someone said, “Let’s name it Barney! It’s such a popular show, everyone will recognize it.” And I said, “I don’t know if you want to go there. What you need to consider is, 15 years from now, will people know what Barney Purple is?” If kids no longer watch Barney, that puts a “datedness” on the color.

Do people’s responses to color ever surprise you?

A great example is the color brown. Years ago, in word association tests, when we showed people different browns they would invariably say “it is dirty,” “it is soiled,” “it is unpleasant.” But then came what I like to call the Starbucks Phenomenon. Suddenly brown evokes some exotic coffee drink many of us are committed to on a daily basis.

Despite blue representing sadness in the anglosphere, it is still generally a positive color:

“For blue, most of the things that we associate with it are positive,” she says, including clear skies and clean water. Schloss found this to be the case in the United States, Japan, and China. In their U.S. study for example, 72 participants were shown a color on a neutral background and were asked to write as many descriptions of objects that were typically associated with the color before them. Then 98 different participants were shown each of the 222 descriptions written in black text on a white background, and they were asked to rank how positively or negatively they felt about each. Finally, 31 new participants were shown the color along with the associated description, and asked to rate the strength of the match between the color and description. Schloss and her colleagues found a strong, positive association between blue and clean water. Other studies support this finding. A 2013 study found major cultural differences in the color associations among the British and the Himba, a semi-nomadic group in Namibia. Yet these groups still associated blue and clean water.

Here is a philosopher’s take on color (read through for some of the history and the realist and anti-realist arguments). Hint: she thinks vision is inference.

My response is to say that colors are not properties of objects (like the U.N. flag) or atmospheres (like the sky) but of perceptual processes—interactions which involve psychological subjects and physical objects. In my view, colors are not properties of things, they are ways that objects appear to us, and at the same time, ways that we perceive certain kinds of objects. This account of color opens up a perspective on the nature of consciousness itself.

Indeed, I argue, colors are not properties of minds (visual experiences), objects or lights, but of perceptual processes—interactions that involve all three terms. According to this theory, which I call “color adverbialism,” colors are not properties of things, as they first appear. Instead, colors are ways that stimuli appear to certain kinds of individuals, and at the same time, ways that individuals perceive certain kinds of stimuli. The “adverbialism” comes in because colors are said to be properties of processes rather than things. So instead of treating color words as adjectives (which describe things), we should treat them as adverbs (which describe activities). I eat hurriedly, walk gracelessly, and on a fine day I see the sky bluely!

I have posted many of these before, but here are some pictures I have collected showing how color is affected by culture:

Words affect the colors we talk about

color words by language

Crayola is trying to name all of the colors


Color in movie posters through time


Color in paintings through time


Talking Machines (part 2: The Animals – Invisibilia)

Invisibilia is the other great new podcast that may interest people. It’s been pushed pretty heavily by NPR and the first two episodes are generally pretty good.

The first focused on thoughts – in particular, thoughts about thoughts. They told the story of Martin Pistorius, a man who, through sickness, went into a coma only to wake up four years later – but locked in. He couldn’t move. Slowly he gained control of his body but it took years before he could communicate. All he could do was sit there – and think. Now that he’s out, dude is about as smart and funny and all I want to do is read his book. But his case has got to be about as close to a “brain in a vat” experiment as you can get, right?

I don’t know anything about the cognitive science of thinking, but here are two places that might get you started.

The second episode interviewed a patient of Damasio’s who cannot feel fear because of Urbach-Wiethe disease. The disease slowly calcifies, and hence lesions, the amygdala. So this woman could feel fear at one point – but now can’t. My biggest thought: how does she remember fear? What does it ‘feel’ like if you don’t have the circuitry to generate it?

Here’s a great set of experiments that they performed on her:

SPIEGEL: Somewhere in her teens, somewhere between the catfish and walking into Damasio’s office, SM’s ability to experience fear just slowly faded out and the world around her became benign, a place populated by people and things that only seemed to wish her well. Damasio and the other scientists who have studied SM know this because they’ve done all kinds of tests that prove it’s true. They’ve exposed her to the most terrifying animals that they could find, snakes.

DAMASIO: She had to be restrained from playing with the ones that would actually be quite dangerous to her.

SPIEGEL: They’ve tried to condition a fear response into her by randomly assaulting her with the sound of a loud, jarring horn – nothing. She just seems emotionally blind to the experience of fear.

And here’s the story of her life:

SM: OK. I was walking to the store, and I saw this man on a park bench. He said, come here please. So I went over to him. I said, what do you need? He grabbed me by the shirt, and he held a knife to my throat and told me he was going to cut me. I told him – I said, go ahead and cut me. And I said, I’ll be coming back, and I’ll hunt your ass. Oops. Am I supposed to say that? I’m sorry.

TRANEL: That’s OK. It’s an intense situation. How did you feel when that happened?

SM: I wasn’t afraid. And for some reason, he let me go. And I went home.

Anyway, the podcast is worth a lesson and may have some ideas that I’ll come back to and post about.