Neuroscience and Experience


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Executive Summary


Even before Descartes, and exemplified in Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy”, attempts were being made to explain even relatively complicated subjective states like depression on the basis of the “neuroscience” of the day. While such attempts may now seem to us to be laughably naïve, it is actually an open question whether we are not ourselves guilty of premature closure on this topic. In particular, some of our current neuroscience may be superceded; similarly, the recent attempt to bootstrap a new science of consciousness from diverse findings in neuroscience and psychology in the past decade has been considerably delayed by the restatement in new guise of old questions such as whether the world external to us is an illusion, or indeed unreal.

This course is above all an attempt to provide tools to talk and think about these issues and does not presume to give ultimate answers. It starts by considering the explananda of a theory of consciousness. How is it that many patients who have lost the use of a whole side of their body refuse to acknowledge this, and insist that they are still intact? Pathologies of conscious perception like Capgras, which compels the patient to consider his next of kin and friends to be imposters pretending to be the real thing, are then discussed. On occasion, patients have gone so far as to kill these “imposters”. Other patients lose conscious access to part of their visual field by lesions to the V1 area of the brain. These patients, though unaware of this area, show under testing that they are processing it. “Mirror neurons” in the brain show activity when one is doing a particular task, as when watching someone else do it. So do we really think that is us on the movie screen?

At the level of individual neurons as that of the concerted action of groups thereof, the course considers alternatives to the standard paradigm such as resonate and fire, and how the subthreshold oscillations ubiquitous in the brain may be exploited for neural computation. We look at methodologies such as fMRI and EEG. We then go on to consider the relatively certain knowledge we have about neural representation of the individual sensory worlds and multimodal mapping. We focus on the work of Walter Freeman Jr., whose schema allows for the fact that consciousness may just be a sample of much faster brain processes than we are aware of.

Theories of consciousness and evidence for them are then introduced. We discuss the work of Damasio, Laberge, and “blackboard architecture” theorists, as well as considering researchers like Schachter who rightly focus on how necessarily serial human agency can function in a system as noisy and parallel as the brain. With this equipment, we then consider the history of theories of the mind, and consider whether there are historical universals that give us clues, however tantalising, as to who we are. Descartes crisis of belief is contrasted with Vedantin meditations, which come to a completely different conclusion. That tension allows us access to reposing the fundamental questions in the light of modern brain science.


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Extended Course Syllabus


Course description

Subject area: Cognitive science

Position within subject area: Neuroscience and philosophy of mind

Intended audience

College students; intelligent and interested laypeople

Course objectives

When students have Completed this course, they will:

  • know the essentials of neuroscience, including the perhaps more
    veridical theories of neural function and communication that may
    currently be emerging from such areas as non- linear systems, quantum
    mechanics, and analysis of subthreshold neural oscillations

  • know the basic arguments in the philosophy of mind from Plato
    through Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Levine and such popular
    putative contributions as that of Chalmers.

  • In the absence of any certain conclusions about the nature of
    subjective experience , which this course dues not claim to give, be
    able to evaluate the many current and future claims that will be
    presented to them proposing a direct link from neural fact to
    subjective experience


Prerequisites for students

Interest in the area; commitment to engage with others in dialogue

Session by session

Week 1: Historical aspects: Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke,
Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Husserl, Levine; the advent of cognitive
science. Neurophysiological plausibility: assessment of conventional
neural networks, the integrate and fire paradigm, and approaches built
on subthreshold resonance. Introduction of the resonate and fire
(RFNN)paradigm; vocabulary of non-linear systems to be used in the
course. The Hilbert transform as superset of the Fourier transform;
its applicability to brain function. Criteria for consequences for
phenomenal experience.

Week 2: RFNs continued. The encompassing context; how does this work
relate to contemporary controversies exemplified by the
Noe/Hurley/Block debate, and the notion of a neural correlate of
conscious experience.

Week 3: Continuation of analysis of the work of RNF theorists like
Izhekevich, Reinker and Doris. The interaction of spatial and temporal
codes. Topographic maps that go point-to-point into higher-level maps
and retinotopic mapping from the retina to LGN, from there to V1, and
in the other “V areas” up to IT. How do these spatial maps interact
with spectral codes of Karl Pribram?

Week 4: Multimodal mapping. Spatial location and information
integration. What other binding mechanisms are there, for example in
Martin’s LIMSI work? ;Filling ; mechanisms and change blindness.

Week 5: The contrastive approach in consciousness studies. Axonal
versus dendritic communication. The FM radio analogy pioneered by
Izhekevich, Doris and Freeman. Meaning as AM in the work of Freeman

Week 6: Other theories of consciousness; conscious inessentialism in
Lashley and Jackendoff. Fodor versus Descartes on modularity. Freeman,
Suppes; consciousness as a sample.

Week 7: Edelman, involving the dynamic core hypothesis. Llinas and
the thalamocortical system. Pellionisz and Llinas on tensors in the
work popularized by Churchland

Week 8: Recapitulation of historical aspects and summary.. What
theory, if any, will prevail? What seem to be the relevant criteria?

Weeks 9 and 10: Student presentations.

Methods of instruction

While the instructor will prepare a detailed
presentation for each topic, the students will be encouraged to debate
the topics vigorously through the internet , and work together to give

Credit requirements and course grade

  • 50% end-of-session examination
  • 50% project work


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© 2010, 2011, 2016 Seán Ó Nualláin