Monday, November 30, 2020

The Neurohumanities: a new interdisciplinary paradigm or just another neuroword?


The latest issue of Neuron has published five thematic “NeuroView” papers proposing that neuroscience can augment our understanding of classically brain-free fields like art, literature, and theology. Two of the articles discuss the relatively established pursuits of neuroaesthetics (Iigaya et al., 2020) and neuromorality/moral decision-making (Kelly & O'Connell, 2020). 

Another article outlines the bare bones of an ambitious search for the neural correlates of collective memory, or the “Cultural Engram” (Dudai, 2020):

I consider human cultures as biocultural ‘‘supraorganisms’’ that can store memory as distributed experience-dependent, behaviorally relevant representations over hundreds and thousands of years. Similar to other memory systems, these supraorganisms encode, consolidate, store, modify, and express memory items in the concerted activity of multiple types and tokens of sub-components of the system.  . . .  ...the memory traces are encoded in large distributed assemblies, composed of individual brains, intragenerational and intergenerational interacting brains, and multiple types of artifacts that interact with brains.

The concept of the “Cultural Engram” is not new, but a research program that incorporates an animal model for cultural memory is indeed novel (regardless of its potential validity):

The search for the cultural engram ... must be paired with productive model systems. The human cultural engram is awaiting its supraorganism equivalents of Aplysia, Drosophila, or fear conditioning for it to give away its inner workings.

In other words, a model of human cultural memory in sea slugs and fruit flies.

Hartley and Poepell (2020) discuss “A Neurohumanities Approach to Language, Music, and Emotion’’ which is intriguing to me, since the domains of language, music, and emotion have a long history within the pantheon of human cognitive neuroscience research. However, they aptly summarize the limitations of these established fields: must bear in mind clear limitations: the insights remain by-and-large correlational, not explanatory.  ... we still lack the appropriate ‘‘conceptual resolution’’ to develop in a comprehensive, mechanistic, and explanatory fashion how these domains of rich individual experience are implemented in a brain.

Which leads us to the question that motivates this special collection on the Emerging Partnership for Exploring the Human Experience:

Why the Neurohumanities?

Why, indeed. Why now? This is not a particularly new neuroword. A Google search reveals a number of existing programs and conferences in Neurohumanities. From the late aughts to the mid tens, I questioned the rigor of potentially misguided pursuits such as Neuroetiquette and Neuroculture, Neuro-Gov, Neurobranding, and The Neuroscience of Kitchen Cabinetry.


One thing that's exciting and new is...

A 2016 to 2021 Wellcome Trust ISSF Award to Trinity College allows opportunities for Trinity Staff to build a new programme in “Neurohumanities” and Public Engagement and to establish or expand research programmes through new collaborations.


In support of this initiative, Carew & Ramaswami (2020) argue that...

...the time is right for a closer partnership between specific domains of neuroscience and their counterparts within the humanities, which we define broadly as all aspects of human society and culture, including, language, literature, philosophy, law, politics, religion, art, history, and social psychology.  ...  In addition to the opportunities such partnerships represent for new creative research, we suggest that neuroscience also has a pressing responsibility to engage with the canvas of human experience and problems of critical importance to today’s society, as well as for communicating with a clear objective voice to diverse audiences across professional, cultural, and national boundaries. 

Of critical importance to US society is the erosion of truth and the promulgation of political misinformation at the highest levels. We can't wait for neuroscientific solutions for this menace to democracy. Or as I said in 2017, Neuroscience Can't Heal a Divided Nation.

Additional Reading

The Humanities Are Ruining Neuroscience

Professor of Literary Neuroimaging

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Mid-Cingulate Cortex

The use and abuse of the prefix neuro- in the decades of the BRAIN



Carew TJ, Ramaswami M. (2020). The Neurohumanities: An Emerging Partnership for Exploring the Human Experience. Neuron 108(4):590-3.
Dudai Y. (2020). In Search of the Cultural Engram. Neuron 108(4):600-3.
Hartley CA, Poeppel D. (2020). Beyond the Stimulus: A Neurohumanities Approach to Language, Music, and Emotion. Neuron 108(4):597-9.
Iigaya K, O’Doherty JP, Starr GG. (2020). Progress and promise in neuroaesthetics. Neuron 108(4):594-6.
Kelly C, O’Connell R. (2020). Can Neuroscience Change the Way We View Morality? Neuron 108(4):604-7.

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At December 02, 2020 6:18 AM, Blogger DJL said...

"In other words, a model of human cultural memory in sea slugs and fruit flies."

You've reminded my, once again, why I read this blog. It's a real joy to have someone around who gets it that people are a lot more than sea slugs and fruit flies.

Of course, sea slugs and fruit flies are themselves pretty kewl. Heck, the last I checked, the folks trying to simulate the C. Elgans nervous system were having a rough time. (And someone needs to tell the AI types that the average mammalian neuron has a multiple thousand inputs, a few hundred outputs, and more computational capability than their typical "neural network model", but that's another rant.)

Whatever. Thank you.

At December 13, 2020 4:28 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

DJL - Thanks so much! (and sorry for the delay in publishing your comment).

I recently watched In Silico, a documentary film about the Blue Brain Project. Director Noah Hutton followed Henry Markram for 10 years in his absurd quest to model the human brain. What dedication!

"I started making Bluebrain in 2009 after I saw Henry Makram give his TED Talk promising to build a sentient simulation of the human brain on IBM supercomputers within 10 years."

Highly recommended!


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