November 28, 2022

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Learn about neurons and you will know yourself about them

Two volumes of the successful Raffaello Cortina science series devoted to the study of the mind from a neuroscience point of view have just been released. These are volumes full of recent discoveries about the functioning of the brain and nervous system. But above all, the hope is to use the neuron meter to reach the moon A conscience that refreshes authors and their avid readers. I would say that it is clear that the great editorial success of neuroscience texts depends precisely on the fact that this discipline, in a transparent manner, always presents itself as the new science of the mind and therefore of ourselves. For many, the principle of “know thyself” has become “know your mind”.

Yet, perhaps surprising to some, the fact is that at the heart of this enormous effort, which has involved nearly a hundred years of neurophysiologists of all kinds, remains an enormous void. Our mind, in its own version, that is, consciousness, remains as mysterious and invisible as ever. Every year, some famous neurologists present us with a series of results of great interest, listing the latest discoveries about the mechanisms of the nervous system, and then, when we want to finally reveal the culprit (that is, the nature of consciousness and how neurons produce ourselves) we are left with a dry mouth . Rather disappointing…

The first book we are talking about, feeling alive. The subjective nature of consciousness (Cortina, 2021), is the latest work of Christoph Koch, a well-known name in conscience studies, a tall, insightful Austrian who moved years later at Caltech to Seattle to be director of ‘Courtina’.Allen Institute for Brain Sciences. It must be admitted that Koch began studying consciousness when, in the early 1990s, he was considered a less respected subject of study with Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist for the discovery of DNA. Since then, Koch has changed his mind several times, but he held two firm convictions. First, consciousness is a fact that must be explained scientifically. Second, it produces consciousness within the brain. Motivated by these premises, he always looked for some empirical evidence to prove them. More than others, it has searched the brain for the source of our conscious experience. Did he succeed? Despite his fascination with many different hypotheses, the answer so far is no.

In this book, fascinating as always, Koch talks about his new flame, the integrated information theory of Giulio Tononi, an Italian (now very American) who worked for years at the University of Wisconsin. The book was written with the impulse (and perhaps even selective myopia) that characterizes the early stages of great passion. Which consists? The basic idea is that neurons perform causal processes that are highly intertwined with each other and that this intertwining creates an extra level of reality compared to matter, specifically integrated information or using the elegant Greek letter, phi. So consciousness will be the integrated information (or phi) that our nervous system produces internally. Whatever we hear, perceive, see, and smell will be nothing more than integrated information. We ourselves will be no more than a particularly consistent part of the integrated information. It must be emphasized that this is certainly a much-discussed theory but by no means everyone shares it.

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The main problem with this theory is the lack of conclusive evidence for integrated information. It is also difficult to calculate this size, and there are still no experiments to prove its existence, as happened with other esoteric phenomena (antimatter, black holes, dark matter, the Higgs boson). Moreover, in the present state of things, even if the existence of integrated information is shown to exist, the question of why the integrated information agrees with our experience would still be open. After all, information (whether integrated or not) has no color, smell and meaning. The assumption is that it is not an explanation, but a dictation. Fei, the proposed nickname for this greatness, can finally represent ghostphantom between neurons.

Tononi’s theory, which is well narrated in Koch’s book, is attractive in relation to an aesthetic fact, i.e. … that is, it is presented in the form of an articulated mathematical formulation. Even in science, it is often the dress that makes the monk. Ever since Galileo professed a love for the mathematical characters with which the Book of Nature would be written, the fact of being able to describe a phenomenon in abstract quantitative terms (with notable exceptions such as the theory of evolution) has always been considered. Thus, integrated information becomes the contemporary equivalent of the quantities of Galilee, which were in turn the modern deviation of the Platonic forms. Within Tononi’s integrated information we find Plato’s superuranium world. It is strange that a researcher like Koch, always looking for an empirical basis, relies on a transcendent view of reality.

The main feature of the book is the insistence that conscience must be considered the first and inescapable fact; A quality captured so meticulously in the front of the volume written by Milan neurologist Marcello Massimini. Consciousness is not just what neurons do; It is not just a function, but it must correspond to something real, and therefore to a well-defined physical phenomenon. In this direction, some of Koch’s philosophical naivety can be overlooked: sometimes it is better to make mistakes by making clear hypotheses than to remain in ambiguous situations to avoid self-disclosure.

The second volume, written by the Sienese neurologist Simon Rossi, is of a completely different kind, even if it is in the same vein, Electroencephalogram. Neuromodulation Challenges (Cortina, 2020). In this case, too, the pages scroll quickly, summarizing in a very interesting way the story of the difficult, but fascinating, relationship between our nervous system and electricity. It’s a two-way relationship: when we stimulate the brain with electricity or off when we read the content of neural activity through tools like electroencephalography (EEG).

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Even for a sigmoid neurologist, science and passion are inseparable. The life of a scientist is what he studies and what he studies is the subject of his days for him. Rossi, who has always been at the forefront of experimenting with new neuromodulation techniques, takes us by the hand and takes us into his own family and professionals. Through his view, we see and understand how today it is possible to read and write in the brain using electromagnetic activity. The volume reviews all methods of translating nerve signals into electrical signals and vice versa: from EEG to TMS, passing through a range of methods and abbreviations. Discussion is never boring and Rossi knows how to make it alive and understandable thanks to the many anecdotes that have characterized this field of study (from patients who have regained their sexual potency to the poor bull controlled by a stimulus placed inside his brain by neurologist Delgado). In general, the impression is that – compared to the duo of Koch and Tononi – Russian is more solid and closer to the nervous system as a biological system. He feels great skill in avoiding saying what he does not know yet. It does not make great hypotheses about the nature of consciousness, and as in Brecht Galileo’s book, he reminds us by his example that the greatest mistake in science is assuming knowledge of what one is still ignorant of. His trajectory always moves on the solid ground of the specific experience almost always in the first person.

Another impression is that there are two souls in a Russian book: one that is truly (accurate and empirically established) and the other that borrows from his discipline (abstract and ambiguous). The first is represented by Rossi himself in his search for neurons. It is dry and precise speech, without tears or doubt. Neurons are neurons and there is no excuse to bridge the chasm separating biology from the mind, at least as long as there is no empirical evidence. The second spirit emerges when Rossi gives a voice to neuroscience and has the imperative task of summarizing the frame of reference within which neuroscience operates. In this capacity, the author can rely only on well-established concepts and premises and his pen betrays a different voice. Suddenly many assumptions became abstract, semi-metaphysical, human. Thus the neurons “communicate”, “talk” to each other, even “feel pain”.

I am not criticizing Rossi who wrote one of the best books on the brain available today! However, he, like all neuroscientists, cannot avoid moving from a frame of reference that is, in many cases, human and metaphysical. It is anthropocentric to the extent that the brain is placed at the center of the mind universe (not the soul, but in any case an internal organ in our bodies to which special powers are attributed, as in the case of integrated information). It is metaphysical when, just like Tononi, one thinks that there is an additional level of physical reality, and it does not matter whether the label is spirit, information, or phi. Taken ontologically seriously, information is a false (or binary) thing added to the physical home, i.e. to the world of things.

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But fortunately, this hidden metaphysics is certainly not an exclusive critique of Rossi or Koch. Both are enthusiastic scientists and their pages are full of descriptions full of life, excitement, and data about how our brains work.

One last question still reveals, after all, neuroscience’s ambition to become a science of the mind: Why aren’t books on liver function, the immune system, and metabolism as popular as those on the brain? Why aren’t readers as curious about muscle fibers as they are about neurons? The answer – I say obvious – is that neuroscience presented us with their specialization as a type of Psychoanalysis 2.0 on a biological and computational basis; So real knowledge. Learn about neurons and you will know yourself! And who does not want to know himself? Once the priest, then the psychoanalyst, and today the neuroscientist! But this is again a cognitive exchange law, i.e. “I will explain”.

It’s a bit like being on a ship and trying to reach the horizon. You are looking at the far line. You are good sailors. You make progress and go with the wind in your sails, but the horizon is always there, stubborn away and forever unreachable even if you go miles and miles every day. In a sense, there is only one way to reach the horizon: stop being a sailor, learn to fly very high, and, from space, catch the entire ocean of the Earth with your own eyes. Only from this perspective orthogonal to the model used – a perspective not found in nautical charts – would sailors who became astronauts or at least astronomers be able to understand the extent and nature of the terrestrial horizon; Definitely don’t work with sail and oar. Perhaps, just as nautical art has had to transform itself into astronomy, so neuroscience will have to look beyond its limits. So far, though, neuroscience sailors have preferred to continue navigating familiar waters and “sweet shipwrecks to me in this sea”…of neurons.