Brain Science

I got a book from Amazon, as I said, called “The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence.” I read the whole thing in a day–or rather parts of a day–not because it was all that interesting, but it was short and with pretty big print (helpful for me, these days).

The subtitle was really misleading. Huther, the author, says very, very little about empathy and nothing at all about how empathy creates intelligence. That was disappointing. I guess the publishers wanted some sort of catchy title, though had they been honest they would have called it “A User’s Guide to the Brain” which is what Huther calls it in his introduction. I don’t know. The book was written in German. Maybe something got lost in translation.

Huther is a brain scientist. He admits to having cut up in his day lots of rats’ brains and seems to have learned a good deal about the social life of rats. In fact, what he learned about the social life of rats seems more important to his line of thought than he learned cutting up the brains of rats. He has pretty much transcended that sort of brain science. He writes:

They [certain other brain scientists] think that the amygdala is the source of fear, the hippocampus is the source of learning, and the cerebral cortex is the source of thinking. Now in case you have heard of any of this stuff, you can just go ahead and forget it. The same goes for any claims that particular genetic configurations are responsible for what goes on in your brain. There are no genes for laziness, intelligence, melancholy, addiction or egoism.

I am glad he says this because I have long been suspicious of such claims, as in Looky-Looky when we have X masturbate this part of his or her brain lights up! First of all the brain never “lights up.” That’s just some sort of digital special effect. And the whole business of making things light up and then inferring something about “intelligence” or “addiction” strikes me as no more than slightly advanced phrenology.

Hegel pretty well did in phrenology as science as far as I am concerned; he writes in part (he always writes “in part”):

Thus then, on one side we have a number of passive regions of the skull, on the other a number of mental properties, the variety and character of which will depend on the condition of psychological investigation. The poorer the idea we have of mind, the easier the matter becomes in this respect; for, in part, the fewer become the mental properties, and, in part, the more detached, fixed, and ossified, and consequently more akin to features of the bone and more comparable with them. But, while much is doubtless made easier by this miserable representation of the mind, there still remains a very great deal to be found on both sides: there remains for observation to deal with the entire contingency of their relation. When every faculty of the soul, every passion and (for this, too, must be considered here) the various shades of characters, which the more refined psychology and “knowledge of mankind” are accustomed to talk about, are each and all assigned their place on the skull, and their contour on the skull-bone, the arbitrariness and artificiality of this procedure are just as glaring as if the children of Israel, who had been likened to “the sand by the seashore for multitude”, had each assigned and taken to himself his own symbolic grain of sand!

Now that’s a long quotation, but I would point to the line that suggests that implicit in phrenology (as science) is a ” miserable representation of the mind.” I think Huther would agree. Modern day let’s light it up brain science is based implicitly up a pretty miserable representation of the brain.

He is unto something else.

Not phrenological.

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