BRIGHT IDEAS shone forth on many pages in Scientific American Mind issue Number 1 for 2005, starting with the image on the cover itself. “Unleashing Creativity,” by Ulrich Kraft, offered suggestions for tapping the inner muse. David Dobbs's “Fact or Phrenology?” explored the search for the mind arising from the activity of intricate physical mechanisms in the brain. “Neuroscience and the Law,” by Michael S. Gazzaniga and Megan S. Steven, posited that a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying behavior could absolve criminals of fault—something to think about. More about these topics—and others—follow below for readers with curious minds.
Ulrich Kraft's “Unleashing Creativity” confuses artistic ability with lateral thinking. There is a difference between “thinking outside the box,” which is really the subject of Kraft's discussion, and innate artistic abilities, such as drawing, musicianship or creative writing, which require genetic inheritance as well as a cultural environment to develop. Kraft equates creative problem solving with artistic skills, but they are different entities that sometimes coexist.
I fully agree with Kraft that creativity is often lost during the first 20 years of development. To encourage creativity, my friend Paul Aron and I have been working for more than two years on an online gallery called TheRightBrain—it is our attempt to enrich the right hemispheres of many in the medical profession: www.therightbrain.co.uk
BRAIN AND MIND
The cover promised a discussion of “Does Brain Equal Mind?” but in the article “Fact or Phrenology?” David Dobbs discusses the rather narrow aspect of fMRI. Everyone approaching the subject of brain-mind from a scientific stance takes for granted that the mind arises from activity in the brain. That activity consists of far more than certain regions consuming more or less oxygen than others. Rather it is what is actually going on in and between those regions at the fine level of individual neurons and synapses that is important—and we do not understand those processes at all, as other Scientific American Mind articles have made abundantly clear. How the almost infinite complexity of the brain gives rise to any aspect of mind is a near-total mystery and likely to remain so for a long time.
Imaging can certainly give interesting clues. But using MRIs to learn how the brain—much less the mind—actually works is like studying human civilization solely by recording patterns of electrical consumption across the globe. That critique aside, the controversy over MRIs barely touches on the subject of the relation between brain and mind.
The essay on “Neuroscience and the Law,” by Michael S. Gazzaniga and Megan S. Steven, is also disappointing for its once-over-lightly treatment of the question of free will in the light of the deterministic stance of neurophysiology. Particularly surprising is the omission from the Further Reading of The Illusion of Conscious Will, by Daniel M. Wegner, a Harvard University professor of psychology. To oversimplify Wegner, free will is best understood as an emotion. Like all emotions, it has an inescapable psychological reality, no matter what its presumed underlying neurophysiological cause. There is no conflict between scientific determinism and free will any more than there is a conflict between determinism and the fact that people fall in love.
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
Gazzaniga and Steven may be right to argue that moral responsibility is a human construct and not a physical property of the brain. Just as it is a mistake to argue that metals are not hard simply because their constituent molecules are not themselves hard, so it is also a mistake to argue that people are not responsible simply because responsibility is not a property of our neurons.
But it does not necessarily follow that neuroscience has no contribution to make. After all, a metal's macro hardness does depend on micro facts about its structure. Just because the two levels are distinct does not mean they are not closely linked. Might not society's notion of responsibility similarly depend on physical presuppositions about our physical brains—such as, say, nondeterminism—which neuroscience is in a perfect position to illuminate?
DREAMS OF DJ VU
“Strangely Familiar,” by Uwe Wolfradt, about dj vu made no mention of those instances in which one has a dream and then, at a later point, gets the dj vu feeling. I personally have dreams of events or instances and then get the dj vu feeling at a later date, and it is absolutely identical to the dream.
Elk Grove, Calif.
PROBLEMS FOR PRODIGIES
Regarding “Watching Prodigies for the Dark Side,” by Marie-Nolle Ganry-Tardy: somehow there is an idea that a child with an IQ of 50 needs special support and provision from appropriately trained staff but that at the other end—an IQ of 150 and beyond—children will muddle through with a spot of differentiation by a busy teacher, no assessment and no extra money. I know because one of my sons is a prodigy.
The inadequate provision and isolation he experienced in school would make you cry. In the end he switched off; his teachers thought he might have “one or two talents” but was “nothing special.” After a secondary school teacher came to work with him at school, all of a sudden he was “profoundly gifted” and all the rest. That is, for those five hours a week; the rest of the time he was disengaged, isolated and undermotivated. Ultimately we moved him to a selective school with the staffing ratios and facilities to address his needs.
If you fight for provision for your low-IQ child, you are a hero; for your high-IQ child, a pushy parent. There is very little understanding and help. The word “gifted” itself takes your breath away. Who says being abnormal (especially when very young) is a gift?
Reader Erik Gfesser in the Letters section improperly demands special privilege for Christianity when he criticizes Gunther Klosinski's “Casting Out the Demons” for treating magic and the Holy Spirit as “occult.” Klosinski's grouping appropriately reflects my dictionary's definition of occult, however: “Of, relating to, or dealing with supernatural influences, agencies, or phenomena.” On that basis, faith in the Christian God is no less occult than faith in Shiva, Baal, Thor or witchcraft.
Science is an inherently secular pursuit in which no transcendental belief system is privileged, whatever its status in the larger culture. Scientific American Mind reports on, and should to some degree reflect, a scientific community that by a substantial margin finds neither Christianity nor any other supernatural belief system compelling.
Editor, Free Inquiry magazine
I thoroughly enjoyed the latest issue of Scientific American Mind. But I disagree with question 8 in Head Games, which asks the reader to find which word in line two best belongs with the words in line one. The answer provided is the word “hamburger.” But “always” is also correct, because it is the only two-syllable word in line two and all the words in line one are two-syllable words. That makes question 8 invalid—and it was the only one I missed in what was an otherwise perfect score!