“The evolution of human cognition and neuroscience:
a dialogue between scientists and humanists” 15-22 May 2006


Andy Blunden

The 6-day Conference in a beautiful country estate in the Provence was attended by 16 participants, who I will categorise as follows:

1. Rat-racers: these are scientists who work on the assumption that every thought function is the specific function of one specific part of the brain, and by doing various cruel things to mice, or various deceptive things to human beings, measuring brain activity and observing behaviour, they endeavour to locate the part of the brain responsible for vision, “self,” “intuition” and so on.

Firstly, everyone knows that, while the work of identifying the function of tissue types and numerous sections of the brain has made enormous progress, identifying the visual cortex, the audio cortex, the role of the hypothalamus in short-term memory, etc., etc., in fact, the brain will re-organise itself in response to stresses, e.g., under appropriate conditions, the audio cortex can adopt both the structure and function of the visual cortex; also, the various sections of the brain are constructed during specific phases of ontogenetic (i.e., personal) development, and may fail to mature, or develop very well, according to factors in the social environment of the organism.

Secondly, it is just not true that one group of neurons performs a certain function; there is specialisation amongst cells, despite the limited variety of morphology amongst neurons (most neurons are pretty much like any other), and cell migration, but all the important modes of brain activity are at the very least whole-of-brain activities, and simply cannot be understood as the function of a specific group of cells. This is now firmly established.

Thirdly, these people make quite exaggerated claims for their work. The ‘agency part of the brain’, turns out to refer to the identification of a part of the brain which was active when a person identified a trace on a computer screen as being made by their own hand movement, rather than the experimenter, who was deceiving them with traces, similar but different to what they were trying to trace themselves.

Sometimes a presenter would be criticised by the other neuroscientists for making unwarranted claims. The objection that the various functions that they ascribe to a part of the brain can only rationally be ascribed to a whole person, never meant anything to these people. Given that in many cases the experimental ‘subjects’ were mice, it is hard to see, of course, how anything could be learnt about consciousness. We will come to the definition of ‘consciousness’ later.

Of the four ‘rat-racers’, John Allman, stood out; although his claim to have located the neural site of ‘intuition’ was based on a narrowed definition of intuition (as rapid decision-making utilising more than one sensory input), his talk brought together a wide variety of approaches to the same problem, and convincingly located a part of the human brain involved in this kind of activity. Allman regularly collaborates with people in other disciplines and was impressive as a scientist. He remains nonetheless trapped in the same paradigm as the other rat-racers.

2. ‘Gestaltists’, or whole-brain neural scientists. These people treat the brain as a single whole, or at least look at activity across a whole cortex using systemic methods. Their work is very impressive. It appears that neurons fire at certain frequencies, e.g. in the 40Hz band, much like radio broadcast bands, but also use phase differences to ‘communicate with each other’ and ‘hold information’. Yves Fregnac, who works with the visual cortex showed us patterns of neuronal electrical activity corresponding to various visual stimuli. Still, he is not yet able to reproduce from a scan of the activity in the visual cortex, what the subject is looking at. The work of the gestaltists was very effective in debunking the exaggerated claims of the rat-racers, and despite the impressive progress of this relatively new science in describing a practical level the various electrical signatures of brain states such as of alertness, drowsiness, light sleep, deep sleep, dreaming sleep, etc., and roughly what happens to signals that reach consciousness; but they still cannot describe what characterises the activity of the brain of a person who is conscious[1], i.e., aware, other than that a flat EEG indicates a lack of consciousness,[2] and cannot explain how the how millions of microscopic neural nets create an experience of the world.

It is also worth noting that when you are thinking about doing something, you will exhibit about 90% of neuronal activity corresponding to actually doing the same thing. Thinking about doing something is consequently an effective method of training for doing that activity.

The gestaltists also share with the rat-racers the conviction that everything about thought can and eventually will be understood by the study of brain activity. With better instruments and more work, just like the problem of the computer which thinks, the solution to the problem of consciousness is always just around the corner. And this is where more and more government and business funding is going. In fact however, apart from further concretisation of knowledge about localisation of brain functions and its variability, and some insights into ‘how the brain works’ which go way beyond what the rat-racers can see by their methods, the gestaltists arrive at a dead end.

One systems theorist went so far as to insist that one brain can influence another only by rhythmic pulses such as at rock concerts and saw no possibility that language, for example, could play such an influential role. Yves Fregnac and Wolf Singer, however proved to be quite sophisticated thinkers, though they both remained convinced that ‘one day’ processes like linguistic communication will be understood entirely in neuronal terms.

3. Stephen Rose, I mention next in a category of his own, inasmuch as he is himself a scientist who experiments on the cognitive abilities of small chickens, but in fact he is in full agreement with the ‘Cultural Psychologists’. Rose has a whole-of-body position on cognition – he points out that there are more neurons in the gut than there are in the brain, and strongly argues for the necessity of seeing thinking as a function of the whole person, not just a brain.

Rose said nothing that I would disagree with, but he frankly admits that there are certain questions which cannot be resolved at the moment, including those questions which I am trying to address as current problems of philosophy. Rose is (like most of the non-medicos at Les Treilles) an old Marxist, remains committed to social justice, and has been fighting this particular fight against social-Darwinism, behaviourism and biological reductionism in its various forms, for about 50 years now.

4. Philosophers. Apart from the two organisers whom I will treat separately, there were three philosophers at the conference, of which I was one. One I have nothing to say of, and the other was John Searle. Searle was interesting in that he has ‘specialised’ in this argument for 40 years, but he is very much an analytical philosopher and much closer to the neuroscientists at Les Treilles than to the cultural psychologists, the other philosophers or the organisers. He insisted on a definition: “Consciousness is those states of awareness that last from waking to sleep or death,” which you share with insects and dogs. (“Anyone who thinks that dogs are not conscious should speak to my dog, Gilbert.”) All the rest is secondary, because it is the very existence of a unified, ‘first person perspective’ (which he sees as identical to ‘awareness’) in a world containing only material processes, which needs to be explained. All the rest: language, art, science, politics and literature – the production and use of material objects and institutions – is secondary; the idea of ‘extended mind’ he described simply as ‘crazy’.[3] The material foundations of ‘consciousness’ in this sense appears therefore as a classical ‘emergence’ problem: consciousness ‘emerges’ as a property of a specific material system (i.e., the nervous system) as it becomes more and more complex, and all the phenomena of consciousness are phenomena of a different ‘level’, a level of consciousness, which has ‘emerged’ from the increasing complexity of an array of nerve cells, whose individual properties and reactions can be measured by existing technical means. This view of course excludes entirely that consciousness is a phenomenon of human beings engaged in social life and culture; it is the property of the nervous system of a single organism. The omission of this intermediate (social) stage makes consciousness unsolvable as a problem of ‘emergence’.

An outstanding ‘binding problem’ which Searle mentions is the following: if shapes, colours, sounds and names are processed in separate parts of the brain, how does the brain bring them all together at some point and present to the ‘subject’ a unitary ‘representation’ of (say) a ‘red trumpet’? On this question, John, the rat-racers and gestaltists all flounder, and they know it; they know it, of course, because it is a problem of their own creation. Another observation mentioned by Mike Cole is this: when we are looking at something, our eyes are continuously moving around; if an experimental situation is contrived so that the image projected on to the retina is constant, we actually cease to see the image at all – it is only by looking and looking away and looking back and blinking etc., that we are able to hold a constant image in the mind. This observation is very challenging to any simplistic idea of how vision is achieved. And of course learning to see involves the active mobilisation of hands, arms and mouth as well as eye movement, not to mention social interactions.

A point which John Searle made repeatedly and effectively against the rat-racers is that these people were always explaining how this or that intervention can modify consciousness, but they never address themselves to the emergence of consciousness itself, the something which can be modified. The rat-racers always begin with a (in their view) conscious being (e.g. a rat) and then change its consciousness (e.g. train it). But generally, Searle shares the point of view of the neuroscientists. As a good positivist, he seems to see his own role as systematising the results of positive science.

5. The Cultural Psychologists are the next group, of which there were two: Mike Cole and Kathy Nelson, plus (5a) Merlin Donald who deserves to be mentioned separately as his discipline is tracing the phylogenetic evolution of the human species from the point of view of cognitive development. Before Les Treilles, I was a little sceptical of Donald’s work, but after hearing his presentation I am satisfied that his theory is very sound. Donald shares the point of view of the cultural psychologists and is an advocate of the notion of ‘extended mind’. In addition, he has made important contributions to understanding how the human organism and the brain have developed, phylogenetically as well as ontogenetically and culturally. One of the conclusions of this work is that the epoch of the biological development of the human body considerably overlaps with a very extended period of cultural development, that cultural and biological development worked in tandem to create the human being, rather than it being a case of first a long period of Darwinian evolution, followed by a rapid period of cultural evolution.

The cultural psychologists I cannot sum up easily because I agreed with everything that Kathy and Mike said!! The main point which separates Stephen Rose, Merlin Donald, myself, Mike Cole and Kathy Nelson from the others is the notion of ‘extended mind’ – that people are in thought, rather than thought in people. Mike was able to give a thoroughly convincing demonstration of this, but it was water off a duck’s back for the positivists.

A good feature of Kathy Nelson’s talk was her insistence that babies do not have a ‘theory of mind’ or any kind of ‘theory’; coming to grips in a realistic way with just what goes on the consciousness of an infant, and avoiding this kind of ‘anthropomorphism’ was a strong point.

The tradition which Kathy and Mike represent has a long and rich experience in learning, and teaching, across a vast range of cultures and circumstances, from the development of sign-language in isolated communities of deaf people, to the rectification of brain defects through practical therapy, etc., etc. They have many questions which they would like the help of the neuroscientists to get answers to, but in fact there was little progress in achieving a common framework in which such questions could be asked and answered.

6. The organisers are the final group I will mention: Nancy van Deussen and Alan Smith. Nancy is a mediaeval musicologist, and a very interesting person, but it utterly escaped me what she was trying to contribute on the issues being discussed at the conference. Without any disrespect to Nancy, whose understanding of pre-Enlightenment culture is deep and nuanced, she just did not seem to touch on the issues in dispute.

Alan Smith is a former medical scientist turned philosopher. His inspiration is the work of Harry K Wells, which resembles Gerry Healy’s presentation of ‘dialectical logic’ in the early 1980s, and which Alan presented as an improvement on ‘Aristotlean logic’. Unfortunately, this ‘dialectical logic’ went down like a lead balloon with the others at the conference. Hegel was already a closed book for the positivists anyway, so there was nothing lost.

To Alan and Nancy’s credit they did a great job in bringing this diverse group of very busy people together, and even though it produced little by way of an outcome, it was and remains a great idea and it is to be hoped that Nancy and Alan are able to repeat the event every year or two until something can be produced.

Andy Blunden, 30 May 2006


1. Thanks to Merlin Donald for this form of words.

2. Thanks to John Allman for this form of words.

3. My notes on Searles' talk contain the following:

Consciousness is the states of awareness that last from waking to sleep or death, etc. Its main features are 1. the first person perspective, that it is subjective; 2. All conscious states have a qualitative character. 3. Conscious states come as part of a unified conscious field. 4. Conscious states are directed to the external world.

The following facts have to be address by any theory of consciousness. 1. Consciousness is real and irreducible. 2. All conscious experiences are caused by neural activity. 3. Consciousness is itself a higher level feature of the brain. 4. Consciousness functions causally, it can move things.

The following tasks need to be achieved: 1. to find the neural correlate of consciousness, 2. to find causal correlations between neural and subjective events, 3. find a theory of how neuronal phenomena cause these events of consciousness.