“Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box”: A problem for professional philosophy?

Here are some relevant claims which track a line of thought from cancer to a problem for professional philosophy.

(1) Aromatase inhibitors, very commonly used in post-op treatment for breast cancer patients, lower available estrogen.

(2) Lower estrogen means less available dopamine.

(3) Less available dopamine creates some cognitive problems.

You can find these three discussed on this blog here  One thing I had discovered before learning about aromatase inhibitors is that dopamine gives you your get-up-and-go.  Losing dopamine can bring you to a halt, at least in some ways.  I give an example in the earlier post.  I also note that a recent long  list of side-effects of aromatase inhibitors does not list any cognitive deficits, unless one counts depression and mood swings.

Another cognitive role dopamine has is giving one focus.  Less dopamine means less focus and filtering; more signals reach the frontal lobes where ‘executive functioning’ is located.  There’s more to think about, more to consider possibly relevant.  More technically, having fewer dopamine receptors in the thalamus means less filtering.  And that appears to be a central grounding for divergent thinking and creativity.

This grounding for creativity is not unproblematic, since in this respect schizophrenia appears to be caused in much the same way.  As a comment on recent work has it:

Now research from the Karolinska Institute has shed light on a possible connection to dopamine. Looking at the dopamine receptors (D2 receptors) of ‘highly creative’ people, they found that the dopamine systems were similar to those observed in people suffering with schizophrenia in particular. The researchers postulate that dopamine receptor genes may be linked to the capacity for ‘divergent thought’.

The study, which was led by one Dr Ullen and used psychological tests to measure divergent thinking, found specifically that ‘highly creative’ types, as with schizophrenics, demonstrated a low density of D2 receptors in the thalamus. The role of the thalamus, among other things, is as a ‘filter’ which decides which thoughts and which information should make it to the cortex for reasoning to take place.

Having fewer D2 receptors then might cause less signal ‘filtering’ meaning that you have more information available to the cortex and are better able to come up with ‘novel’ solutions as a result and to ‘think outside the box’. On the negative side however, these sometimes illogical associations and connections could also be partly responsible for the kind of thinking seen in schizophrenic patients.

As the original research paper has it, highly creative types think outside a less intact box.  And I think we should ask what will be the fate of  such types in today’s academic philosophy.  One part of the question concerns what journal referees will think of a paper with a number of original ideas commending different ways of looking at what the writer may think of as one topic, but the referees may not.  One might find the reports say things like “I just don’t get this,” or “Too implausible to publish.”  It may be very difficult for such a person to amass enough for a tenure case, given today’s stress on quantity of peer-reviewed items.  As someone remarked to me very recently in discussing this sort of situation, there may not be any peers for the work in question.

Hopefully the person in question will get help from grad school mentors.  In a more extreme case, if one or more powerful figures, recognising the creativity, get the person tenure despite a thin record, then the problem will be the lesser one of the resentment felt by others who cannot understand the work and don’t see why tenure was possible.  I know of one case like this.

One might want to say to the floundering scholar, picking up a paper with five significant new ideas, “Just pick one and developed complete arguments for it”.  That’s just what may be outside the person’s ability.  To use a vivid but regrettably unflattering analogy:  A very creative landscape artist might continually mess up colouring books.

Here’s the bottom line:  Some valuable philosophers may find our current standards of number of peer reviewed publications excessively difficult to meet.  One can now be almost too creative to be a professional philosopher.

Concluding comment:  I’ve sat in a number of discussions of why “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” doesn’t have any good arguments in it.  What would its fate be today?  Probably it would be foolish to try to answer this question, but we are fortunate to have it in the canon, since it’s got a number of great ideas in it.

11 thoughts on ““Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box”: A problem for professional philosophy?

  1. I remember being so surprised when I first noticed the lack of arguments in two dogmas. Later I realized the dissonance between what I was being given to read–all sorts of things–and what I was being told– that philosophy was about arguments (and the Bly arguments)

  2. Wouldn’t a link between estrogen and cognition have huge consequences for pregnancy and breastfeeding, not to mention menstruation and contraceptive medicines?

  3. Ellen Clarke, great question. One problem here is that there iisn’t much research done on humans. Rats are something else. One researcher remarks that it is very difficult to do the standard, preferred double-blind studies. However, dopamine does affect short term memory and there has been at least one study of young women and a couple on post-menopausal women. Estrogen reduction in a part of a menstrual cycle does affect short term memory negatively. And post menopausal women do have some short term memory problems, or at least a significant number do.

    I was well and truly shockked to find that there is nothing in the reserach literature about the effects of aromatase inhibitors on cognitive functioning, but anecdotal evidence suggests to me that people vary in their reactions. I’d say that over time my activity was reduced by something like 50%, at least for some things. I wrote as much, but I was disinclined to act on a desire for tea, for example. I quit taking the pills afrter three years, and came back to life.

    One doctor told me some of her patients relied on post-it notes to get them through a day at work. I’m wondering if the cases of people severely affected are people with low dopamine to start with. Of course, we know that there’s a wide variety of reactions pre-period days.

    I have talked to cancer specialists who say that once menopause started they took estrogen meds. “Life without estrogen is not worth living,” one said.

    I’m going to suggest to female friends that they moght look into estrogen. Apparently, so far it doesn’t seem to benefit men.

  4. HPefo:

    That’s amazing. I didn’t know that.

    It’s especially surprising since “Two Dogmas” was published in Phil Review (Vol. 60 (1951), pp. 20-43). Must be the only case ever of a paper being both accepted and rejected by Phil Review.

  5. Your description of those potential side effects sounds a lot like ADHD, which I’ve got. As a grad student, I’ve certainly struggled with some of the difficulties you mention. Who knows whether it’s because of the kind of thing you’re hypothesizing, but I’m also quite creative in my work. Seemingly unavoidably so. Given the kind of trouble it’s been causing me recently, I’m not so sure it’s a strength. The difficulty hasn’t been the plausibility of my ideas, but their ambitiousness. “Out of the box” ideas can be difficult to fit within established theoretical frameworks or debates. Without that scaffolding, you have to build everything from the ground up. Which, as far as I can tell, is impossible within the scope of a normal article or conference presentation. At least, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it. I’ve been told I have book-sized ideas rather than paper-sized ideas. Somehow, though, I have to first manage to get to a stage in my career where book-writing is an option.

    Your “just pick one idea” scenario made me laugh. It reminded me of well-intended feedback I’ve gotten. “Just chill out. You don’t have to do so much or be so original in every paper. Just focus in on one small part of your idea to develop.” Oh man, I wish I could figure out how to do that.

  6. Flailing, were you officially diagnosed with ADHA?
    I think writing book-deserving papers is a pretty clear mark of divergent thinking. I think that I’m thinking that have a set of firm data – generally difficult in philosophy – could make things easier. Then one might not have to go back to set up the foundations.

    There are some firm facts about texts in the history of philosophy. I wonder if the reason many women end up in the history of philosophy is because they are less easily dismissed.

  7. I’ve been diagnosed by professionals, but I guess there’s some formal diagnostic testing that I’ve never gone through. I’m not sure whether that counts as official or not.

    I think you’re right about how firm facts can help. Perhaps that’s one more reason to try to incorporate research from adjacent empirical fields into my work. On the other, that strategy might be just as ambitious in a different way.

  8. Flailing, I’m glad you returned. I want to suggest another contained project, and that’s undertaking a criticism of an important article or set of articles. ‘Important’ here means ‘getting notice’.

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