14 December 2008

Spinozan Neuroscience

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:08 pm

In injecting the slightest bit of empiricism into Kvond’s and Sinthome’s recent discussions of Spinozan psychology, I’m struck by the similarity of Spinoza’s framework (as I understand it from secondary sources) with contemporary distributed models of neural networks. Here’s a nice summary from a book I haven’t read, written by a neuroscientist who resonates with Spinoza:

The neural patterns and the corresponding images of the objects and events outside the brain are creations of the brain related to the reality that prompts the creation rather than passive mirror images mirror images reflecting that reality. For example, when you and I look at an external object we form comparable images in our respective brains, and we can describe in very similar ways. For example, when you and I look at an external object, we form comparable images in our respective brains, and we can describe the object in very similar ways. That does not mean, however, that the image we see is a replica of the object. The image we see is based on changes that occurred in our organisms, in the body and in the brain, as the physical structure of that particular object interacts with the body. The ensemble of sensory detectors are located throughout our bodies and help construct neural patterns that map the comprehensive interaction of the organism with the object along its many dimensions. If you are watching and listening to a pianist play a certain piece, say Schubert’s D.960 Sonata, the comprehensive interaction includes patterns that are visual, auditory, motor (related to the movements made in order to see and hear), and emotional. The emotional patterns result from the reaction to the person playing, to how the music is being played, and to characteristics of the music itself.

The neural patterns corresponding to the above scene are constructed according to the brain’s own rules, and are achieved for a brief period of time in the multiple sensory and motor regions of the brain. The building of those neural patterns is based on the momentary selection of neurons and circuits engaged by the interaction. In other words, the building blocks exist within the brain, available to be picked up — selected — and assembled in a particular arrangement. Imagine a room dedicated to Lego play, filled with every Lego piece conceivable, and you get part of the picture. You could construct anything you fancied, as does the brain because it has component pieces for every sensory modality.

The images we have in our minds, then, are the result of interactions between each of us and objects that engaged our organisms, as mapped in neural patterns constructed according to the organism’s design. It should be noted that this does not deny the reality of objects. The objects are real. Nor does it deny the reality of the interactions between object and organism. And of course the images are real too. And yet, the images we experience are brain constructions prompted by an object, rather than mirror reflections of the object. There is no picture of the object being transferred optically by the retina to the visual cortex. Likewise, the sounds you hear are not trumpeted from the cochlea to the auditory cortex by some megaphone, although physical transformations do travel from one to the other, in a metaphorical sense. There is a set of correspondences, which has been achieved in the long history of evolution, between the physical characteristics of objects independent of us and the menu of possible responses of the organism. The neural pattern attributed to a certain object is constructed according to the menu of correspondences by selecting and assembling the appropriate tokens. We are so biologically similar among ourselves, however, that we construct similar neural patterns of the same thing. It should not be surprising that similar images arise out of those similar neural patterns. That is why we can accept, without protest, the conventional idea that each of us has formed in our minds the reflected picture of some particular thing. In reality, we did not.

– Antonio Damasio, in Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (2003), pages 198-200



  1. Thanks for posting this. I really enjoyed Damasio’s book when I read it, and this passage reminds me how much so.


    Comment by kvond — 14 December 2008 @ 2:00 pm

  2. I’m so pleased that it pleased you, Kvond, if only to give you the opportunity to show me up by claiming to have read not only Spinoza but Damasio as well. Note also that not just the brain guys but also the empirical cognitive psychologists function primarily within this distributed associationist model of cognition and affect.


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 December 2008 @ 2:42 pm

  3. Empirical clinical psychology/psychiatry, on the other hand, hasn’t really embraced this paradigm. It emphasizes evidence-based practice, i.e. therapeutic treatments which generate desirable outcomes at a measurable level of statistical significance. The almost inevitable tendency is to engineer treatments that target the specific outcomes being assessed. Hence you get either pharmacotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy as evidence-based treatments of choice, even if the outcomes really aren’t significantly better than other modalities. They just have the right empirical “look and feel.”

    This is where I regard the so-called “talk therapies” as more in line with the way minds work. Regardless of the metapsychological theorizing about egos and castration and so on, it’s I think appropriate to encourage the client to speak in a way that’s less constrained by intentionality and image and spin. In Deleuze & Guattari’s terms, this kind of talking facilitates “deterritorialization” and “reterritialization.” It takes advantage of the distributed mind’s ability to discover and to create, reconfiguring thoughts and language and emotions on the fly.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2008 @ 5:44 am

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