Waiting for Brain Science

It was back in High School that I became fascinated by the workings of the mind. I was doing lots improvisational theater and acting in plays and saw how I and others could transform into new identities at will. I realized that we did this in everyday life as we slipped between hanging out with friends and behaving (or not behaving) according to norms in school. Mind altering substances were everywhere, so reality could be easily demonstrated to be a mental construct, not the universal truth we all pretended it was.

Eventually, I put the arts into the background of and pursued the science of mind. A combined MD / PhD program led to training in Neurology and now a long career in developing new treatments for brain diseases. Given the state of cognitive science at the time, the practical pursuit of understanding neurological disease seemed more likely to lead to a real contribution.

I now have the luxury of returning to exploring cognitive science 30 years later. Real progress has been made on many fronts, much remains obscure. I’m particularly struck by how clearly we see the process of perception of complex scenes and symbols. When I was in college we were just beginning to understand the tuning of neurons in the primary receiving areas of the cerebral cortex. Now we have a picture of how shapes and words are recognized in the visual regions of brain through activation of tuned networks across the regions of cerebral cortex devoted to sensing the visual world.

Decision making plays a very specific role in the sensory systems. If the system is primed by a preceding stimulus, say a lion’s roar, the sensing areas are readied and more likely to detect a cat among the noise. Or, deciding to look for the color red, suddenly every red shape jumps out from the background, even though just before they were just part of the background.

Most remarkably, these sensory decisions take place in primary receiving areas, preventing the perception of anything else. And these decisions generally are not at all accessible to consciousness. We’re not aware of how we change our perception to fit context since it occurs via basic feed-forward mechanisms.

This is unconscious bias, but of a sort never imagined by philosophers and sociologists. It’s built into the apparatus of perception from the very first steps of visual perception, impossible to control directly, just influenced by the ongoing flow of brain action and reaction.

Not really where I thought cognitive science would end up, making deciding better so much more difficult if the decision process begins by these brain circuits determining what is seen in the first place.

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