Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Neural Codes and Fields at the Microscopic, Mesoscopic, Macroscopic and Symbolic Levels

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Neural Codes and Fields at the Microscopic, Mesoscopic, Macroscopic and Symbolic Levels

Article excerpt


"The affirmation of therapeutic efficiency quantified by evaluations does not, according to him, suffice to explain the fascination which has driven numerous researchers to prefix "neuro" to their discipline; neuroeconomy, neurohistory, neuro this and that.... one imagines that one day we'll speak of neuromanagement, neuropolitics or neurojournalism" (Roudinesco, 2018; translation by this author)

This rather beautiful instance of French exasperation is an appropriate summary of one of the main themes in this paper. A generation back, one would have made reference to the "psychology of "management, politics, and so on. This was rather viciously attacked in Frege's work as psychologism; briefly, it was the assumption that any given discipline could be cashed out in the language of cognitive schemes, stimuli and responses, or whatever the psychology de jour was. It will be argued here that a contemporary Frege would--again successfully--make the same argument against "neuro this and that".

While progress in neuroscience has been disappointingly slow, there are several things we know from our own brains' functioning. We process sense data well enough to perceive the world; we function as biological organisms effectively in that world; and we can also use language and do math, and are aware we can do so. Roughly speaking, these correspond to microscopic, mesoscopic/macroscopic and symbolic levels respectively.

Between them, Karl Pribram and Walter Freeman logged over 130 years of cutting-edge neuroscience, ranging from surgery to decades of the most exquisitely precise observations in the history of neurodynamics in Freeman's Berkeley lab. Therefore, when Freeman (2014) reviewed Pribram's intellectual autobiography at the end of their very long lives, the world took notice. The news was not good; current megaprojects in brain science in the EU, Asia and the USA were doomed. This has essentially been confirmed from the inside by Fregnac (2017).

Why? One reason is the bugbear of mind science for centuries; a category error. Neural firing, in the "neuron doctrine", was misinterpreted as summarizing the informational interplay between brain and environment; indeed, to stretch the metaphor, between mind and world (Freeman 2014). In brain science, it is clear that study of neural impulses in isolation will reveal only plumbing; the recent salience of waves in neuroscience clearly needs to be supplemented with an articulated view of the field, the medium that they are waving. Is this medium the scalar field of EEG and fmri, the vector field required by any theory involving attractor surfaces, or do we assert that, since the suitably educated brain can understand tensors of rank/order 4, they too must be neurally implemented?

The reductio ad absurdum of the category error was surely the early 21st century over-interpretation of fmri results until doubts crystallized. It is not unfair to say that, following Gall's phrenology, a scalar field of subjective states was posited as explaining mind--and indeed psyche. In tandem with the recent debunking of the more absurd speculations, computer scientists began to see the virtues of transcending the scalar processing of traditional CPU's, speeding things up considerably with the vector processing of GPU's, while companies like Graphcore anticipate the next step in the tensor hierarchy as applied to computing.

In this context, it is worth noting that Freeman (ibid.) stipulates that field theory in brain science ended when Kohler mistakenly identified the vector fields of Gestalt with the scalar fields of EEG. Experimental observations confirmed that EEG did not reflect Gestalten in this manner, At this point, the floodgates opened; the concept of "Nerve energies" went the way of the ether, with impoverishment of the vocabulary of neuroscience as a result. Freeman later argued (Capolupo et al, 2013) for techniques whereby vector fields could indeed be read from the scalar fields of EEG. …

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