MIND AND PERCEPTION
“Constructing the World from Inside Out,” by neuroscientist György Buzsáki, is a fascinating and slightly troubling read. What the author explains exceptionally well for a nonscientist reader such as me is how various “outside-in” models of cognition fail in their basic methodological approach: these models have long assumed that the brain must work like a computer, with something akin to a central processor handling the duty of arranging sense data into coherent perceptions. As Buzsáki points out, this entails something like a “homunculus,” a separate experiencer sitting in a mental theater and taking in what the brain “shows” it. As his research demonstrates, this approach is an outdated, overly simplistic and now, it seems, experimentally disproved argument about how cognition works. A better model would be one that shows cognition to arise from “inside out,” as he says, from the interplay of neurons and action, which in turn means that perception is always bound up with action and is therefore always embodied perception.
What the article fails to mention is that this is not a new idea. There has been long-standing criticism in the philosophy of mind of the very argument Buzsáki attacks: computationalism, the idea that a centralized cognitive “processor” exists in the mind. His conclusions' similarity to philosophical arguments against computationalism is striking. For example, philosopher Hubert Dreyfus's thesis in his 1972 book What Computers Can't Do was that cognition cannot be codified in the symbolic language of computers. And he took computationalism to task for assuming that cognition can even occur absent the “background” of lived human experience, the very interplay of neurons and action Buzsáki describes.
The absence of even a brief mention of such debates is yet another symptom of the breakdown of discourse between science and the humanities. While not wishing to diminish the importance of the author's work, I can't help but wonder: If cognitive neuroscientists spoke more often to their colleagues in philosophy departments and if those philosophy departments were more inviting and less insular, would this breakthrough have happened sooner?
ZACH SHARP Austin, Tex.
Buzsáki's article reminds me of my dad reproaching me and my siblings by saying, “You look with your eyes, not your hands.” I think little kids are compelled to check things out physically by picking them up and feeling and testing them.
JOHN DITRAGLIA Portsmouth, Ohio
FIGHTING COVID ON A GLOBAL SCALE
Steven W. Thrasher's piece on how “One Million Dead from COVID Is Not Normal” [Forum] has a major global corollary. The acceptance of the scale of deaths as normal in the U.S. facilitates a view that nothing further needs to be done to fight COVID in the Global South. This global normalization sets aside the science that the virus that causes COVID can mutate anywhere in the world. As I have argued in the report The Three COVID Crises and Multistakeholderism, domestic acceptance of high national deaths and of vaccine and antiviral hoarding creates conditions, if not legitimation, for what can best be described as a “silent COVID war” between the Global North and South.
The corollary is that a stand-back-and-take-no-action approach by the North—in the face of well-documented scientific research showing that responding to COVID requires a global campaign—means that the normalization of COVID deaths in the North and the acceptance of a silent COVID war in the South are two sides of the same unhealthy coin. In this sense, the silent COVID war and its devastating impact on the Global South join other silent wars, such as those on climate and hunger, where there is a strong domestic Northern denialism and clear scientific evidence that illnesses and deaths will occur unless there is a coordinated global response.
Senior fellow, Center for Governance and Sustainability, University of Massachusetts Boston, and research affiliate, Transnational Institute, Amsterdam
PLANETARY GENDER ALIGNMENT
Thank you to Spencer Greenberg and Holly Muir for “Men Aren't from Mars, nor Are Women from Venus” [Mind Matters]. Ever since its publication, I have objected to Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and the frequent references to it in movies, television and other media. Ignoring the vast variations in individual personalities, which Greenberg and Muir acknowledge in their discussion, the book generalizes some differences between some men and women—perhaps the types who would read dating guides to begin with—and exploits those differences without recognizing basic commonalities between the two genders. Men and women are two parts of the human whole, and humans are from Earth!
CHARLES WEST Salem, Va.
CALLING ALL EXTRATERRESTRIALS
Scientific American is interesting to read because it occasionally brings out disagreements in the scientific community. For example, in “Long-Distance Call” [Advances], Daniel Oberhaus reports on a team led by Jonathan H. Jiang of the nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory that designed a new potential message intended for extraterrestrials. Oberhaus says that “Jiang and his colleagues propose aiming the message toward a dense ring of stars near the Milky Way's center that are likely to host promising planets.”
On the other hand, the September 2018 article “Alone in the Milky Way,” by John Gribbin, points out that “stars are packed more densely toward the center, so there are many supernovae, which produce energetic radiation—x-rays and charged particles known as cosmic rays—that is harmful to planets of nearby stars. The galactic center also is home to a very large black hole, Sagittarius A*, which produces intense outbursts of radiation from time to time.” Gribbin also mentions gamma-ray bursts that could sterilize the core of the Milky Way and are more common in the inner regions of galaxies.
Let's hope this conflict will be sorted out before time and money are expended.
FRANK IERARDI Gaithersburg, Md.
In “Constructing the World from Inside Out,” by György Buzsáki, the opening illustration should have been credited to Stefania Infante, not Islenia Milien.
“Skin Cancer around the World,” by Clara Moskowitz [Graphic Science], should have said that Earth's elliptical orbit, not its tilt, is what causes the Southern Hemisphere to be closer to the sun during its summer than the north is during its summer. And it should have clarified that there are additional reasons New Zealand has stronger ultraviolet radiation than corresponding latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere.
“Discrimination Is Heartbreaking,” by Jyoti Madhusoodanan [Innovations In: Health Equity], incorrectly said that Shivani Patel's work has focused on tribal communities in rural India for the past two decades. Her work focuses on community health issues across the country.