Re: NSF boosts cognitive neuroscience

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Thu Apr 05 2001 - 18:13:47 MDT

"J. R. Molloy" wrote:
> National Science Foundation boosts cognitive neuroscience
> The National Science Foundation (NSF) has established a major new emphasis on
> cognitive neuroscience...
> [N]ow, "researchers are starting to come to grips with much more basic
> cognitive processes that are not tied to diseases," says Steven J. Breckler,
> PhD, director of NSF's social psychology program and acting program director
> for cognitive neuroscience. "They're looking at fundamental questions such
> as how the brain accomplishes memory, thought and reasoning, or how our brains
> allow us to navigate in the world," he explains. "Some of these questions have
> been answered in health-related research, but now the field has gotten to a place
> where it wants to take on those questions head-on."
> Cognitive neuroscience research, with its reliance on sophisticated equipment
> and need for specialized technical support, tends to be far more expensivethan
> most other areas of behavioral research. A single experiment using functional
> magnetic resonance imaging, for example, can nearly exhaust an investigator's
> annual NSF grant budget...

This chimes with some passages from McCrone's _Going Inside_ (which I seem
bent on waving in everybody's face ;-> ).

It's striking (but hardly surprising) how much this whole business is
driven by the availability of technology to conduct research. When
the behaviorists were in full force, a book like Donald O. Hebb's
_The Organization of Behavior_ (1949), which apparently anticipated
much of what the post-cognitivists (I called them "trans-cognitivists"
earlier, but I think a more sedate term is better), like Edelman,
began talking about in the 90's, was dismissed as being completely
untestable speculation (I've suddenly recovered a memory, whether real
or false I'm not sure, of checking this book out of a university library
30 years ago, and being excited by it. But I was heavily under the
influence of behaviorism in those days, and Dr. Skinner probably persuaded
me there wasn't any reason to take it seriously). When digital computers
started showing up in universities in the 60's (a must-have toy if there
ever was one), voila -- cognitivism was all the rage. Now, functional
MRI scanners are the must-have toys.

Oh, I can vouch for what McCrone says about the wariness of folks
doing animal neuroscience. In the late 80's, I worked as a
programmer for the NYU Robotics Lab, which shared lab space and
some programming staff with the computational neuroscience project
(which was apparently a joint venture between the Courant Institute
[of Mathematical Sciences] and the NYU Medical School). The comp.
neurosci. programmers processed the stripy pictures of the visual
cortices of animals (I don't remember what kind of animals) that had
been exposed to visual stimuli and then sacrificed. Apparently, there
had been an incident involving a visit by a TV crew shortly before my
time there -- either the visit itself had turned into a confrontation
over animal rights, or the resulting TV show had been very negative and
had resulted in bad publicity for the lab. In any case, the principal
investigator was **extremely** anti-media.

Chapter 5, "A Dynamical Computation" (pp. 111-113):

"Traditional neuroscience was either years of being
locked away in a basement room dissecting pickled
brains or else doing experiments on animals -- and no
one really liked what was involved in electrode
recordings or brain lesioning work. The use of
animals could be justified by the fact that a better
understanding of the brain should lead to new treatments
for illnesses like schizophrenia and Alzheimer's. And
certainly, taking place at universities and medical
schools, any work was subject to the closest professional
scrutiny and much moral debate. There were strict
controls on suffering and the prevention of unnecessary
experiments. But no matter how solid the arguments,
animal experimentation tainted the field.

The stigma was unoubtedly one of the reasons why
neuroscience appeared so reticent about the subject
of consciousness all through the single-cell recording
years... [E]xperiments on the animal brain had to
take place in urine-soaked fortresses, deliberately
anonymous buildings with few windows and entry-phone-
controlled doors to safeguard against the threat of
animal rights protestors.

While NASA and CERN had enormous publicity machines and
courted the press at every opportunity, neuroscientists
felt forced to skulk in the shadows, hoping not to
attract too much notice. They could hardly invite the
TV cameras into a recording session where an unaesthetized
cat dangled in a steel frame, its lungs punctured to
prevent the gentle motion of breathing from disturbing
the position of the electrodes in its head... In such
an atmosphere, talking brightly about what the results
might mean for an understanding of consciousness would
seem dangerously frivolous.

Scanners changed the study of the mind completely. They
were a swell, big-ticket way of doing science that hurt

For those accustomed to animal work, there was an even
bigger culture shock. It was just so easy to do a scanner
experiment. A green student could have a good idea,
scan half a dozen volunteers the next week, and have a
paper submitted within a couple of months. Such speed
was unheard of in an animal lab. It would take that long
just to wrangle authorisation for an experiment out of
a university's ethics committee... [A] major project
could take three to five years to complete. The grinding
slowness of animal work was yet another reason why
neuroscience had seemed such a cautious field. Researchers
could not afford to take too much risk with an experiment
because it would take so long to recover from any false
start. A wrong move could sideline a career..."

Chapter 14, "Answering the Hard Question" (pp. 311-312):

"[T]he call for a properly dynamic approach [to theorizing
about the brain] has... been made frequently enough in
the past, only to be ignored. Psychology started with
Helmholtz and Wundt atttempting to measure the time-
course of mental events. In the 1940s, Hebb was particularly
clear in his descriptions of self-organising nerve
networks and how they might lead to mental states. At
the same time the Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler
was making his attack on machine theory -- the forerunner
of cognitive science -- and writing about the principles
of a dynamic approach in astonishingly modern terms.
In more recent times, thinkers like Neisser and Edelman
have only had modest impact.

However, again the difference may be scanner technology.
Never before has there been such a direct method for
studying the human brain and its states. And not only
does imaging make the dynamism of the brain nakedly
apparent, but because of the money and hopes invested in
the technique, people are having to pay attention to
the results. The single-cell recording and brain
lesioning work that dominated neuroscience during the
1980s had a low profile even within science itself.
No one wanted to dwell too much on what was involved in
experimenting on animals... But brain scanning is
exactly the kind of technically dazzling gee-whizzery
that science likes to put on show. Having splashed out
on the machines and hyped up the expectations, the
neuroscience community will feel it has to deliver

Jim F.

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