Reading with Your Mind in Mind: The Cognitive and Social Benefits of Literary Fiction

I recently read this article and it both aggravated and encouraged me. Overall, it was a very encouraging article, touting the importance of a liberal arts education. But, several parts aggravated me, namely, the reported views of tech company founders/executives regarding the humanities—specifically, how some of these higher-ups think the humanities to be lesser disciplines than the STEM disciplines and, therefore, not worth a student’s while, such as this quoted view of Vinod Khosla: “If subjects like history and literature are focused on too early, it is easy for someone not to learn to think for themselves and not to question assumptions, conclusions, and expert philosophies.” While I respect Khosla’s innovativeness and success, I must wholeheartedly disagree with this assertion. It is in the humanities where we are uniquely taught to think for ourselves (at least in certain ways) and to tackle unique problems. No, the humanities don’t teach all types of thinking (e.g., research via the scientific method), but how often do the sciences educate us in asking and answering important existential, ethical, or metaphysical questions? And indeed, because of these unique mindsets that are developed in the humanities, as the author goes on to say, these individuals are able to solve otherwise seemingly intractable problems…even in a STEM discipline like computer programming. Continue reading

Music Is the Food of the Brain. Play On.

Music […] gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. ~Plato

I love music. I love listening to it. I love playing it. I love talking about it. I can be a bit snobbish about my preferences for it (but I’m working on that). But, really, music is music, and that makes it great. It can be enjoyed by people of all nations, for there is no language barrier in music. (For example, when I was in Berlin several years ago, I went to see Carmen. If you’re not familiar with that opera, it’s sung in French…which I don’t speak. Being in Berlin, the surtitles were in German…which I can’t read. Needless to say, I was clueless about the plot. But, I was still able to enjoy the music and the performance, both of which were stunning.) It brings people together for a common purpose of making or listening to something beautiful, and there is something so uniquely special in an ensemble of individuals playing together as one. It speaks to our emotions and helps us express them in ways that our words can’t. It’s food for the soul.

It’s also food for the brain. Continue reading

To Be and not to Be: The Quantum Nature of Consciousness

I’m not going to try to argue that consciousness arises from some mysterious quantum activity within the atoms making up the brain’s neurons. As a scientist, I know better. As a cognitive scientist, I know that, though it is not fully understood how consciousness arises from neural activity, consciousness does indeed arise from that neural activity. No neural activity, no consciousness—simple as that. I also know just enough about physics to know that quantum phenomena are (as I understand) limited to subatomic particles (though atoms can sometimes act like quantum particles), so there’s no way that neurons, which are composed of cells, which are composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, could behave quantumly. No. Neurons must obey the laws of classical mechanics, not quantum mechanics.

Also, as Matthew Francis, with warrant and good reason, exhorts in this post, it is often a grievous error to apply quantum models to other mysterious phenomena, noting that, when this is done, the person has either misunderstood quantum mechanics or the other phenomenon of interest. However, his exhortation is against those who argue that quantum mechanics is what underlies these other mysterious phenomena. It was never my intention to argue that case for consciousness. As I said above, cognitive science tells us that’s not how consciousness works. So rather than argue that quantum processes give rise to consciousness, I will argue that quantum mechanics makes for an effective and compelling analogy for explaining how consciousness works. That is, perhaps thought functions not unlike a quantum particle and consciousness arises from brain function as a not wholly predictable process, similar to how quantum phenomena arise rather unpredictably from quantum particles. Continue reading

What Is a Renaissance Man?

Da Vinci. Pascal. Descartes. Newton. Einstein. They broke molds. They pushed boundaries—not just the boundaries of their disciplines, but of themselves, of who they were. Discontented with the gap between the What Is and the What Could Be, they pressed on; they persevered; they made progress; they advanced. And as they did, they brought with them their disciplines, their peers, and their societies; their advances advanced humanity. We owe them a great debt, these renaissance men. Continue reading