Tag Archives: neuroscience

Brain Behavior and Behaving like Brains

Musings on Zacks, the Hippocampus, and Kafka

NOTE: This arti­cle has been mod­i­fied slight­ly since I orig­i­nal­ly post­ed it.  The sec­tion on the hip­pocam­pus has been sub­or­di­nat­ed to an inline note.  It is inter­est­ing (at least I think so) but not part of the main argu­ment I’m try­ing to make here.

A few weeks ago I had the good for­tune of see­ing Jeff Zacks give a talk enti­tled “Film, Nar­ra­tion, and Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science” at the Cur­ry School of Edu­ca­tion at U.Va.  He was invit­ed to speak by my col­league Glen Bull as part of the school’s Tea & Tech­nol­o­gy series (every Thurs­day at noon in Ruffn­er Library if you’re around).  It was an excel­lent talk not only for its con­tent, but for Zacks’ gift of clar­i­ty.   At no point did the sci­ence over­whelm, and the talk had the use­ful effect of rais­ing lots of inter­est­ing ques­tions in
my mind and in the minds of oth­ers.

Zacks’ the­sis is rel­a­tive­ly straight­for­ward: human beings have the capac­i­ty to per­ceive events as a series of dis­crete seg­ments, and this capac­i­ty to seg­ment events is cor­re­lat­ed with the long-term mem­o­ry of those events, as well as the abil­i­ty to focus on and form con­cepts about the goings on in an event.  There are big cog­ni­tive pay-offs to per­form­ing this work of seg­men­ta­tion, pay-offs which  (pre­dictably) are thought to cor­re­late to evo­lu­tion­ary advan­tage.   Inter­est­ing­ly, the bound­aries that peo­ple spon­ta­neous­ly define for events — such as a sequence in a French film or a film of a man wash­ing dish­es (two exam­ples used in Zacks’ exper­i­ments) — are wide­ly shared.  Where there is vari­ance, sub­jects are either old­er or suf­fer­ing from demen­tia (which gives me a real­ly good feel­ing about the aging process).  The mech­a­nism for seg­ment­ing thus appears to be hard-cod­ed and deeply root­ed, prob­a­bly in the hip­pocam­pus.

One of the things that intrigues me about Zacks’ work is the light it sheds on the hip­pocam­pus — the odd, chili pep­per shaped organ that sits in the cen­ter of the brain. Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom (based on research with rats’ brains, it turns out) is that this region of the brain is devot­ed to spa­tial ori­en­ta­tion and  long term mem­o­ry.   This is what a neu­ro­sci­en­tist friend of mine told me in the ‘80s, and it’s reflect­ed in the Wikipedia arti­cle linked to above.  These two func­tions may appear to have no obvi­ous rela­tion­ship, but as a struc­tur­al cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist, it has always made sense to me — to my way of think­ing, the hip­pocam­pus must be involved with the process of sym­bol­iza­tion, the encod­ing of expe­ri­ences into sym­bol­ic struc­tures, many of whose struc­tur­al arma­tures map onto spa­tial metaphors, such as left|right, up|down, etc.

Now what Zacks (or some recent research he builds on) adds to the pic­ture is that the hip­pocam­pus also plays a role in seg­men­ta­tion where time per­cep­tion and short term mem­o­ry are in oper­a­tion.  So there is some sense in which the pro­por­tion — short-term mem­o­ry : time :: long-term mem­o­ry : space — links these core onto­log­i­cal dimen­sions at the basis of cog­ni­tion.  I find this idea very inter­est­ing because (1) it cor­re­lates mem­o­ry with ontol­ogy, and (2) it’s the oppo­site of what you might think — sure­ly time per­cep­tion (per­cep­tion beyond the present) involves long-term mem­o­ry, and space per­cep­tion would scaf­fold  short-term mem­o­ry.  Per­haps in the trans­duc­tion of expe­ri­ence into mem­o­ry, such a rever­sal is nec­es­sary.  (Or per­haps this view is the prod­uct of too philo­soph­i­cal a mind, one prone to see­ing con­nec­tions between abstrac­tions where there are none.)

One of the most inter­est­ing parts of Zacks’ the­sis is the process by which event bound­aries are per­ceived, or rather, defined by the brain.  Appar­ent­ly, bound­aries are insert­ed where the brain expe­ri­ences what Zacks calls “pre­dic­tion error” — when things break a pat­tern of rep­e­ti­tion and thus sig­nal to the brain a bound­ary that is used to con­struct the tem­po­ral mod­el for the event — its typ­i­cal sequence.   Zacks did not men­tion this, but I would be sur­prised if this capac­i­ty were not in some way con­nect­ed with the capac­i­ty of the brain to per­ceive infor­ma­tion in Shannons’s sense.  For pre­dic­tion error is an excel­lent name for the new­ness that his neg­a­tive entropy equa­tion defines.  My ten­ta­tive hypoth­e­sis is that we must be wired to both per­ceive infor­ma­tion in this sense, and to make use of it in the for­ma­tion of per­cep­tu­al struc­tures which, in turn, become the mate­ri­als from which cog­ni­tive struc­tures are built.

Now I men­tion this because the response of the audi­ence — com­prised main­ly of edu­ca­tion­al experts — and of Zacks him­self is that one prac­ti­cal les­son from his research is that cre­ators of nar­ra­tive con­tent, such as film, should make an effort to pro­vide more obvi­ous seg­men­ta­tion in their prod­ucts.  Clear­ly, if this is how the brain works, we should work this way too.

I think this is a major fal­la­cy that per­vades the recep­tion of brain sci­ence research.  Peo­ple tend to assume that if the brain works a cer­tain way, then so should we. I call it the fal­la­cy of brain-behav­ior mir­ror­ing (at least until I come up with a bet­ter name), a more recent vari­ant of the mir­ror of nature fal­la­cy described by Rorty.  For exam­ple, since we know (since Kant and then Gestalt psy­chol­o­gy) that the brain active­ly con­structs objects from expe­ri­ence, then, the argu­ment goes, we should have stu­dents active­ly con­struct things too.    But clear­ly, if the brain already works a cer­tain way, then it works that way — in spite of, or per­haps because of, how we behave, obliv­i­ous to a detailed descrip­tion of its work­ings.  In the case of event seg­men­ta­tion, it seems clear to me that Zacks’ research sug­gests an oppo­site les­son — it says that peo­ple who can per­ceive pre­dic­tion fail­ures can also seg­ment expe­ri­ences, and there­by gain cog­ni­tive­ly.   If so, then the les­son is to get good at per­ceiv­ing and cre­at­ing event bound­aries, which requires not pre-seg­ment­ed media, but the oppo­site — hard to grasp art, stuff that vio­lates expec­ta­tions and rewards the per­ciev­er with a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.   In fact, giv­ing stu­dents media with well defined bound­aries may cause their capac­i­ty to con­struct bound­aries to atro­phy, much as caf­feine caus­es our adren­al glands to shrink. (I know, it’s a good rea­son to stop drink­ing cof­fee.)

Now it turns out that some research form the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at San­ta  Bar­bara cor­rob­o­rates this view.  Accord­ing to the head­line of the New York Times,’ piece in this work, non­sense — such as the absur­dist work of Kaf­ka — sharp­ens the intel­lect.   (Anoth­er sum­ma­ry of this research is enti­tled This is Your Brain on Kaf­ka.)    Essen­tial­ly, your brain has to work hard to make sense of things, which it is evolved to do, and this has the side effect of mak­ing you smarter, or at least sharp­er in the peri­od fol­low­ing the effort to make sense where there is none.  And what is non­sense but pre­dic­tion fail­ure on a large scale?

So, what is the ped­a­gog­i­cal and media design les­son here?  Learn­ing Teach­ing is not about mak­ing con­tent easy to ingest, it’s about cre­at­ing envi­ron­ments where stu­dents can play this game of mean­ing for­ma­tion, which isn’t always stress-free.  Mar­keters may dis­agree, but they are in the busi­ness of indoc­tri­na­tion, not teach­ing.