My friend, Louis Sass, has said he thinks people attracted to philosophy are at least schizotypal. Seems a bit confining to me, but explaining oneself and one’s academic colleagues can be challenging. And it is not just all fun and giggles. Apparently Kissinger said that the reason academic politics is so nasty is that the stakes are so small. I’m inclined to think it’s the reverse; academic politics is so nasty because many academics are the sort of people to fight over very small stakes.
One of the things I have found attractive about cognitive neuroscience is that it gives us a largely new take on what in the world is going on with us. And it is one free of the dark weapon that Freudian approaches can turn out to use. In too many people’s hands, Freudian explanations completely epistemically disenfranchise the subject, and then advance demeaning explanations. People who cannot understand creativity, for example, happily tell themselves that someone dedicated to a project is really self-promoting. “You may think you were trying to help, but you were really trying to … ” goes a too familiar refrain. Even feminists who are skeptical about objective truths will be convinced they understand another’s soul.
But cognitive neuroscience invites us to think about the complexity that can underlie a pattern of human behavior. At what points in that complex of person and environment is that problem arising? And the explanation of behavior can be enlightening. Or it can be extremely puzzling.
One thing many cognitive neuroscientists endorse is the view that human beings need to act and react much more quickly than reason can accommodate. (Yes, just as Hume said.) And, simplifying a bit, that need is served in part by structures in the brain that can send send something like alarm signals. The alarms go off very quickly, more quickly than we can think. For example, most human beings get a negative kick when they have visibly hurt someone. Think of scolding a colleague and see their eyes well up. Most of us will stop and back up. Not everyone. I have a friend who will later call you up and start in again, perhaps just to make sure the message got in. It’s a good bet he doesn’t have much in the way of von economo cells in his anterior cingulate cortex, since they provide the kick in human beings.**
I think chimps have some sparse amount of von economo cells, and elephants remain a possibility. But frankly, my dear, most of our animal friends don’t give a damn, though some learn to fake it. (OK, there’s a bit of speculation there.)
And another alarm goes off when norms are broken in most people. If I’m in some supposedly cooperative game with you and I give you a mean share, or you do that to me, an alarm will go off in my anterior insula. And maybe yours too. But not in everyone’s. A recent article in Science claims to have found a neural marker for borderline personality disorder. And it is precisely a deficit in the anterior insula.
The classic description of BPD people is that they are unstable. They have emotional swings and rages and an inability to establish long term relationships. They also fear abandonment; they are a sort of natural tragedy since their behavior seems geared to bring about what they most fear. Other characteristics include harming themselves; they can be cutters. They apparently go in for splitting; that is, things are black or white, people are good or bad. A friend of mine who was a therapist tells me that they are very manipulative and typically very successful at it. Some people claim that the BPDs among academics have very distinctive characterisitics, though others say we’re unlikely to have it (which is one down, anyway).
It is very recent work in Science claims that a distinguishing factor in BPD is a deficit in the anterior insula, In particular, the BPD participants had no trouble detecting that they were doing an injustice. What they didn’t seem to get was when an injustifice was being done to them. Or at least they didn’t get the rapid alerm going off.
It is very difficult to understand how a lack of a perception of injustice inflicted upon one would lead to any of the syndrome’s features. The authors conjecture that BPDs really have severe problems understanding other people, which perhaps brings the marker in closer to the syndrome.
I suggest there is a whole area for philosophical investigation here. What is it about norm violation and the failure to detect it that might play an explanatory role in BPD? We are learning from cognitive neuroscience that traditional distinctions among perception, action and emotion may be quite mistaken and that there is something like affective perception. We might wonder whether a knowledge of norm violation has a first and third person variations, some of which are more tied into something like the automatic and instinctive kind of reactions the anterior insula may give us.
So back to Freud: what’s the fole of unconscious desires, the id and the ego? What seems to me to be the highly capitalistic assumption that we are doing what we want may be passing away. Instead, we are products of a much larger complex that includes the environment and our ability to see what is going on.
There is a new science of the self being constructed. It would be wonderful to have more feminist scholars participating, though the women already in the field are certainly doing their share.
**Much of the work on von economo cells has been done by John Allman at Caltech.