Neurolalia: Can We Talk Our Way Through the Forest and Trees of Neuroscience?

Neuro – see below
Lalia – from the Latin, lallare – to sing “la la,” the use of language

It was with great interest that I read Deric Bownds’ recent MindBlog re-post about representation of inner lives, and his current post about the utility of being vague. I think that taken together, these two concepts well describe the state-of-the field of neuroscience, and nicely frame how neuroscience and the use of neurotechnology can affect the public mindset.

Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Paul and Patricia Churchland in a February edition of The New Yorker magazine stated that the first family of neurophilosophy “…like to speculate about a day when whole chunks of English are replaced by scientific words that call a thing by its proper name, rather than some outworn metaphor.” I’m all for that, and I respect most of Paul and Pat Churchland’s work as being spot-on the mark. But we might need to be careful about replacing one metaphor with another, lest we engage this vocabulary exercise prematurely and/or get too carried away. There’s a lot of stuff going on in one’s neural networks that make up the peripheral and central nervous system, and while some of this is kind of a “toe bone leads to foot bone leads to leg bone” arrangement, such straightforward descriptions get dicey once we get inside the head bones and into the brain.

As Michael Crawford has noted, there are “limits to neuro-talk”. I believe that this is true for both the ubiquitous use of the neuro prefix (to imply or denote a form of quasi-physicalist – and often inappropriate – certainty about the way[s] that brain function might be related to particular events, circumstances, behaviors, that range from sensing beauty to engaging violence, and moral justice to going nuts over Justin Bieber, etc…), and also the penetration of “neuro-talk” into the public lexicon and working vocabulary.

While those of us who are professionally immersed in neuroscience – like Paul and Pat Churchland – might be able to relate neural events to phenomenal experiences (or perhaps more accurately, describe phenomenal experiences in terms of the neural events that might be involved in their sensation and/or perception; e.g. ‘ouch…there go my damn A-delta fibres again‘), even that stands on somewhat shaky ground. In fact, trying to discern objectivity from subjective experience is one of the problems plaguing fields such as neurology, psychiatry and pain medicine. While it’s an academic drill to describe the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of sensations (such as those important to symptoms of injury and/or disease), it’s far more difficult for even those who are well-trained in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology to contextualize how myriad pathways and networks are actually being activated to produce sensations, perceptions, cognitions and emotions. Bridging this objectivity-subjectivity gap is the focus of much of current – and proposed – neurotechnology.

Still, sometimes it can be a cool “thought experiment” to conceptualize bodily experiences so as to imagine what neural networks are sparking and squirting away in different areas of the body and brain – what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls “the feeling of what happens” (yes, I’ve done this myself plenty of times). But there really isn’t a one-to-one representation of neurological event to phenomenal/psychological experience (what’s known as type-physicalism). Instead, current neuroscience tends to reveal a more token-physicalism, in which events in the body and brain create an amalgam of activities that are experienced as our psychological ideas, feelings, perceptions and emotions.

Maybe one day we will be able to accurately depict – and describe – what’s going in the “grey stuff” (and the white stuff) of the brain to create the “great stuff” of consciousness, but we’re not there yet. While Pat Churchland calls for that glass of Chardonnay to reset her brain chemistry after a hard day, I have to wonder whether she senses (and relates to) that glass of the grape in ways that are valid to an oenophile, or whether it just makes Pat feel better. While the oenophile’s vocabulary is important to a professional appreciation of wine, words like “bouquet” “caskiness” and “woody” might be of little value, meaningless – or have very different (and perhaps inappropriate or downright erroneous) meanings – to someone who is not a professional expert or connoisseur.

Sure, it is important to employ the “right words in the right ways” to describe things, and this could be very useful when talking about neuroscience, but over-simplifying neuroscience to fit daily colloquialism can be iffy if not downright dangerous (as this then gets into issues of “my neural networks made me do it”). A-delta fibres certainly do transmit types of pain – but things get complicated once this transmission engages spinal and supraspinal networks. So while plunging mood could be representative of plummeting serotonin levels, alterations in dopamine, glutamate and a host of other neuromodulatory chemicals, and one might claim that “my dopamine levels are down”, to quote Marisa Tomei’s adorable character in the flick “My Cousin Vinny“: “…how can you be so sure?” In other words, can we accurately describe what’s really going on in our brains at a synaptic-to-network level? I think not, and in fact, it would be problematic to do so, other than in scientific or clinical settings.

That’s not to say that we couldn’t use such information and descriptions in socio-cultural and public contexts (and I’ve suggested that understanding neural mechanisms involved in a variety of experiences, such as pain, aggression, and spirituality, might be regarded in this way, so as to develop an enhanced appreciation for the nature, relevance and perhaps importance of biological, psycho-social and anthropological variables involved). There is value in seeing the forest and not just the trees, just as there is value (in the right settings and at the right times) in seeing the trees in the forest. However, in both cases, I believe that it’s important to see – and describe – the forest and the tress as clearly and realistically as possible.

I’m fond of the Thomistic maxim of using the right forms of knowledge in the right ways toward the right actions. But therein lies the rub. The right knowledge of neuroscience would need to reflect the recognition that we simply do not yet know exactly how consciousness occurs in brain, and so we continuously confront the gap between brain state and phenomenal experiences. Neurotechnology can provide some insights to fording this gap, and maybe neurotechnology will develop to the point of creating “personal apps” that enable me to ‘tap into’ my brain state(s) an any given time – so I could be more accurate in stating that my anterior cingulate is active and my sub-cortical serotonin levels are low. Such phrases could have meaning outside the lab or clinic if they had some level of utility and consistency. Or maybe not – maybe it’s just too far into the weeds. Here I have to chuckle a bit; I’ve been accused of blogging the way I write in my academic papers (which reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about the RAF pilot who comes in after a mission to report, and none of the ground crew understand his banter), and the “take home message” is that sometimes – and especially in public conversation – simplicity works best.

I’ve claimed that the term “neuro” is something of synecdoche (how’s that for stepping on simplicity!); simply put, it’s a term or phrase that represents something greater: examples include the colloquial use of terms like “Wall Street”, and “Main Street USA”. In this way, I’ve argued that the “neuro” prefix doesn’t really confer any particular materialist view or certainty to those suffixes to which it’s applied, but rather, brings forth the discourse and debate about what we know and don’t know about neural functions, the brain and consciousness.

And maybe “neuro-talk” is the same; perhaps terms like “happy”, “sad”, “love”, “hate”, “angry” and “hurt” are convenient place-holders that can – and in some instances should – be converted to “neuro-talk” if, when and where appropriate. Or, it may be that as neuroscience and neurotechnology open new vistas to brain function, we will need to replace older anachronistic terms and phrases that are laden with inextricable meanings, with new terms and phrases that more accurately and precisely define what’s going on in the brain. Still, these descriptions, new terms and phrases, while attempting to abolish certain vagaries, must be used in ways that acknowledge the vagaries and uncertainties that persist. As well, these new descriptions will likely default to simplicity, if for no other reason than to maintain public ease and access.

To be sure, there’s a lot more to this topic and it’s rich with possibility, questions and some problems, but right now my rising levels of adenosine are to the point where the consistent reticular activation of my thalamo-cortical networks are diminishing, and prompting a strong outflow of my nucleus accumbens to prompt goal-directed behavioral activation toward acquisition of a prototypical nutriceutical purinergic antagonist; I hope that the barista down in the coffee shop will understand.


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