Archive for July, 2011

In brains we trust, or do we?

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in o...

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Much has been written about the seductive allure of fMRI brain images accompanying research papers and giving them more credence than is deserved; similarly much has been written about the whole enterprise of fMRI based research that tries to find the neural correlates of X,Y,and Z, as if X/Y or Z being human/animal faculties could have a substrate other than neural.


In both of the above cases, while the neuro babble seemingly provides more authority to the underlying argument, it is not clear what value , if any , one gets by just identifying a brain area responsible for X/Y or Z.


Patricia Churchland‘s quest for roots of human/animal morality is similarly besieged by the allure of all things neural- it is to her credit that despite being a philosopher she gets the neuroscience part not just so-so right, but precise and accurate with all caveats included;  but what one is left at the end of reading ” Braintrust : what neuroscience tells us about morality” is the feeling that she could have spent more time bolstering her main point that morality arises from sociality rather than talking about oxytoctin or mirror neurons.


While she does treat mirror neuron hyped research with the contempt and dressing that it deserves by trying to explain more than is warranted; her own enthusiasm for Oxytocin as the magical trust molecule or the epitome of moral foundations, deserves similar treatment. Again it is to her credit that she does not shy away form discussing latest studies that have shown oxytocin in not so moral light as in when it is involved in out-group prejudice; but still the discussion of neurotransmitter or vasoprassin or mirror neurons detracts rather than amplifies her thesis that morality evolved from social living.

I am much sympathetic to her main argument that morality may have arrived as the care system became enlarged to cover self, kids, kith and kin, partners and finally strangers. That caring and sharing might be the roots of all goodness in the world was apparent even to miss universe like Sushmita Sen back in 1994, not an unremarkable achievement considering the latest miss America contestants views on evolution. But I digress. The thing is that Patricia should have spent more time on this and bridging the leap from social behavior to moral behavior by maybe using philosophical devices/arguments rather than just peppering her statements with neuroscientific jargon and assuming that that will settle the point.

Along the way she casually dismisses the important work that may support her position like that of Jonathon Haidt- she claims that morality is innate but seems reluctant to grant that it could also have a universal structure.

If you want to know the latest neuro research around sociality – go read this book; you will read all the proper studies with all caveats and without misrepresentations. However, if you were yearning for any philosophical insight into the nature of morality, how ‘is’ and ought’ are not necessarily the same and from where to derive the ‘oughts’ in life you might be in for a disappointment. At least I was.


ps: Disclosure of interest. : I received a free copy of Braintrust for review from Princeton university press.

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Genius are born or made? become or manifest?

Albert Einstein

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There is long-standing debate in psychology regrading whether ability is inborn or a result of environmental interactions? Whether it is fixed and constant over time or malleable and subject to interventions.

We have also looked at research by Dweck et al that say that no matter whether  ability be actually fixed or malleable, the belief that it is fixed and malleable has important consequences. We are better off believing that ability is malleable as that enables us to be more persistent in face of obstacle , more creative and engaged while solving problems and enables us to to tackle hard problem as we are in a learning mindset and not in a  proving ourselves/ validating ourselves  mindset.

However the issue still remains as to whether ability is inborn or learned? whether genius is 99 % perspiration and 1 % inspiration or whether one can will oneself or choose to be a genius.

Like the other false dichotomies of psychology this one as to whether genius are born or made is not only false by pitching 2 things against each other where both have a role to play but also misses on the other aspects of being a genius like it being a result of sheer will power or the attitude that one has to see thins in a creative light.

While one group claims that talent/IQ is all that is there is to the genius story, the other camp is equally adamant that the 10,000 hours of practice rule suffices to explain genius.  To some other genius is all about determination or grit; while still others think that optimism, positive framing and attitude and how we deal with ‘lucky’ breaks is all it takes to become a genius.

There are truths to each of the story, but by focusing on one aspect to the exclusion of others they all miss the point. Its only when you see a genius as a combination of these can you really appreciate the complexity and multiple facets of being a genius.


To give us a framework of reference I refer readers to my ABCD model of psychology where A is Affect(genetics) , B is Behaviors (actions and environment)  , D is Desire  (developmental unfolding of motivation)  and C is Cognition ( Conscious decisions and manifestations) .

To see a genius in the light of ABCD model is to see him/her as consisting of talent/IQ (largely genetic and inborn), hard work (need to put the 10,000 hours pf practice to achieve domain mastery), grit (motivation and determination , maybe unconscious , to succeed and overcome obstacles)  and attitude (positive re-framing, optimism and choosing to see things in a creative/positive light) .

Out of these talent /IQ is something that we can least work on while positive and creative attitude and mindset is what we can easily change by changing our conscious thought and thinking styles and patterns alone. Hard work (related to conscientiousness) or grit (related to how intrinsically motivated and determined we are) are also more or less in our control . Thus to me becoming a genius is both a choice, that is within everyone’s reach, and a difficult journey that one has to necessarily undertake (a quest that challenges you to self-actualize)

Genius both become what they want to and manifest what their hidden potentialities are . to state otherwise or to assert that they are either born or made is to continue paying homage to a false dichotomy that has longed outlived its usefulness.


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