Monday, July 29, 2013

Patricia Churchland - Touching a Nerve: Exploring the Implications of the Self as Brain, Parts 1 & 2 [Excerpt]

Patricia Churchland's new book, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, has received a lot of attention, including here at IOC (see this post). Scientific American has posted a two-part excerpt.

I'm sharing only the first section of each excerpt, but you can read the rest by following the links in the titles provided below. These sections appear to be from a chapter on sex and aggression from a neuroscience and evolutionary perspective.

As you all know, I am not a fan of Churchland, so I share this as a look into the worldview of those who hold a materialist perspective.

Touching a Nerve: Exploring the Implications of the Self as Brain, Part 1 [Excerpt]

Philosopher Patricia Churchland looks at aggressive impulses and sex through the lens of neuroscience and evolutionary theory

By Patricia S. Churchland | Friday, July 26, 2013

Image: Patricia S. Churchland

Excerpted from Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, by Patricia S. Churchland. Copyright © 2013 Patricia S. Churchland. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.

The Joy of Hating

Sometimes play fighting crosses the line into real fighting. Sometimes defensive combat emerges when trust should prevail. Sometimes the wiring for impulse control is overwhelmed. By ideology. By rhetoric. By fear and hate. Sometimes . . . all hell breaks loose.

Fans of the San Diego Chargers football team are full of hate for fans of another California football team, the Oakland Raiders. They taunt each other, donning costumes to intimidate or humiliate the opposing team’s fans. Some of the fans engage in ritual fight displays, not unlike those of aggressive birds such as the Noisy Miner.

Chargers fans say the Raiders are evil, disgusting, and subhuman. And vice versa. Maybe it is just play hate. Evidently it is fun. All sides hugely enjoy the hate fest. Any casual observer can see that the fans derive enormous pleasure from belonging to a group that is united in its hate for the other group. The very hate itself seems to be exciting, invigorating, and pleasurable. Not incidentally, an astonishing amount of time and expense goes into this ritualistic hostility.

Nevertheless, in the United States, fighting between the fans at football games (U.S. football) is quite rare. On the exceptional occasion when it does occur, fans generally express horror and outrage. In England, however, one group of fans having it out with another group is not rare. Fighting among male fans after matches, and sometimes during and before matches, has been disturbingly popular among a subset of men. Football brawls happen routinely. Hooliganism has been exceptionally difficult to wipe out.

The BBC documentary on football fight clubs shows that for many young men, brawls between rival groups are terrifically exciting. Brawls are a major reason for attending matches, whether in the hometown or in France, Italy, or elsewhere in Europe. In the United Kingdom, the gangs are referred to as “firms.” Football firms are well organized, with a “top lad” who plays a leadership role and organizes fighting events around football matches.

What are the men of football firms like? To judge from the BBC documentary, they are charming, articulate, and bright. They were not beating their chests or frothing at the mouth. They did not look crazed. They could be your brother or cousin. The normality of their manner seems incompatible with their love of brawling, and yet it is not. This is essentially brawling without cause. It is brawling for the sheer fun of it.

The Los Angeles riots of 1992 erupted as racial and ethnic tension boiled over following the acquittal of three white policemen who had been videotaped viciously beating a black man, Rodney King. The outrage at the unfairness was profound, and suddenly all hell was unleashed: arson, looting, and shooting were occurring all over South Central Los Angeles.

I saw the video images of the hapless white trucker, Reginald Denny, forcibly yanked from his truck at an intersection by four black youths. They savagely kicked him and smashed his head with a brick, almost killing him. Watching the event on video again now, I cannot but be stunned, as reporters were at the time, by the joyous body language of the youths as Denny lay semiconscious on the ground. They danced with joy. Mostly unconcerned, people were milling all around the intersection. Fortunately, four black citizens, having seen the Denny beating on television, went to his rescue and took him to the hospital. But for their kind actions, he likely would have died.

Utter chaos reigned in the city for several days. The police had to back off because they were so deeply mistrusted and hated that they had become a popular target of gunfire. The National Guard had held back because their ammunition had not been delivered. Some Korean shopkeepers tried to defend their property by shooting looters, while others elected instead to simply watch as their shops were looted and burned.

Here, in the midst of the frustration and anger of the rioters and looters, there was joy and some sense of justified pleasure in striking back. One woman with a video camera reported, “When I was on the streets, people were having a ball. They were stealing and laughing and having a bunch of fun.” At least 54 people were killed, and thousands more were injured.

With absolutely no pretext save losing the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins in a fair hockey series, hockey fans in June 2011 went on a rampage in downtown Vancouver, burning cars, looting shops, and causing mayhem. Yes, this was Canada, where these things are not supposed to happen. In this instance, too, the joy of the fans, mostly young men, was unmistakable. They danced on overturned cars, smashed store windows, set fire to vehicles, and taunted the police, who struggled to maintain some semblance of order.

Cage fighting, I am told by my friend Jonathan Gottschall, is his passion. This seems peculiar to me, as he is a professor in a literature department. He tells me that the appeal of cage fighting is completely different from that enjoyed in riots and brawls. As Jonathan says, this is basically a friendly form of mutual assault. One-on-one, where the fight is fair, in the sense that officials match the pugilists in age, weight, and standing, is very different from mob brawls. Fear is the overriding emotion before the fight; intense attention is the main mental state during the fight. According to the cage fighters, the only pleasure comes at the end of the fight, and only if you win. The pleasure of defeating your opponent is so incredibly intense, it makes the risk worthwhile. Some cage fighters say it is a kind of ecstasy, comparable only to sex. This connection is less surprising than it first seems. Sexual behavior and violence are linked in the brain, in a region of the hypothalamus (ventral medial). In male mice, activation of some neurons in this tiny area provokes aggressive behavior to other males put in the cage, but provokes mating behavior when females enter the cage.

Hate gets classified as a negative emotion, and we might assume that negative emotions are the opposite of pleasurable. But in reflecting on the hate of sports fans or rival gangs, you cannot but notice that it tends to be energizing. Arousal is pleasurable. Sometimes it is called being “adrenalized.” So it is.

The comedian Louis C.K. describes standing in a long queue at the post office. He looks at other people in the line. He immediately sees things about them to hate. What idiotic shoes that guy wears; what a dumb question the customer is asking; what a loser. Contempt keeps him amused until his turn comes up. Despising others, however trivial the pretext, feels wonderful.

What else is going on in the hate state? You are familiar with guilty pleasures—doing on the sly something that is only modestly bad but still forbidden, like showing each other your bare childhood bums behind the barn, for example. What fun when you are 5. What a delicious secret to keep from your parents. In watching the videos of the Vancouver riots, the joy of breaking the rules, and doing so with others, was palpable.

Women are usually bystanders in hostility rituals and murderous raids. By and large, the perpetrators are men, and mostly, apart from a leader, they are young or middle-aged adults. A long-standing hypothesis is that the males of a gang are, in part, performing for each other. Their hostility displays reassure one another of their mutual attachment, their reliability in case of attack, and their common purpose. Their bonding gives them feelings of power, the power of numbers. That is linked to pleasure. Clothed alike in white sheets, rhythmically dancing around a huge bonfire, the men of the Ku Klux Klan appear to be having a ball. If duty alone were the incentive, no one would show up.

Females are not without aggression, however. Generally, but not always, it just takes a different form. Mean gossip, unkind cuts, shunning—all are potent forms of aggression used by females. Hair pulling seems to be making a comeback these days. Here as well, some form of pleasure seems to derive from collective hating. As with the football fans, there seems to be both intense ingroup bonding and intense hostility to those in a rival group or perhaps someone excluded from all groups.

Us versus them delineates the border of one’s safe group. Within the group, individuals can count on affection and adherence to group norms. Outside the group, interactions are riskier and individuals have to be more vigilant. The form that the hostile behavior takes toward those in the outgroup depends on what is in your toolbox, which depends in part on your genes and in part on what you pick up from your culture as the right way to do things. You model yourself after those you admire. Much simplified, in many cultures boys bash, girls shun.

When I was in ninth grade, a rather homely and forlorn girl with whom we had all been acquainted from the first grade began to be visibly pregnant. Being slow in class, she had generally been shunned as “retarded.” She failed to pass through the grades and struggled to learn to read. Dorothy was, so far as the girls in their tight cliques were concerned, essentially a nonentity. How had Dorothy become pregnant? She had no boyfriend, and in our village, everyone knew who was dating whom. As we all came quickly to know, one of the local lads, a logger, had taken her out and “had his way with her.” Beer was likely a factor. Did we feel sorry for her? Did we offer condolences for what was surely rape or the next thing to it? Were we dismayed by the lad’s taking advantage of a simpleminded girl?

Not a bit of it. We wallowed in our superiority, we basked in our wholesomeness and how grand it was that we were not Dorothy. We thought that her predicament was the sort of thing that happened to a girl like her; certainly not to girls like us. Such contempt was not an emotion generated when each of us was alone; then, individually, we were pretty scared by what had happened to Dorothy. Somewhat ignored before, Dorothy now was completely ostracized. Disgraceful though our behavior certainly was, the contempt quickly, and yes, joyfully, bubbled up when three or four of us assembled. Such scorn was part of what kept us so tightly bonded together. Hate binds, and social bonds are a joy.

At about the same time that we scorned Dorothy’s predicament, a chore befell me at the farm. Our white leghorn hens, generally a sociable crew, had ganged up on one miserable hen that had somehow acquired a scratch on her neck. The flock would not leave her alone. Swarming around her, the other hens pecked at any sight of blood, opening her wound further. They would have killed her, but my father told me to remove her and make a special pen to put her in until she healed. She still had a year or so of good laying, not yet old enough for the stew pot. Why, I asked, do hens behave in such a horrible way? “Well,” came the reply, “I don’t know. They just do.” The analogy with Dorothy was not lost on me. I regret to say, however, that it made not one whit of difference to my behavior.

Many years later, my friends and I looked back on the Dorothy episode with unequivocal self-loathing. Having matured, we assessed our adolescent behavior with something akin to disbelief. How had we allowed ourselves—even encouraged each other—to be so mean? Could we really have been like that then? Will our daughters be like that?

* * * * * * *

Touching a Nerve: Exploring the Implications of the Self as Brain, Part 2 [Excerpt]

Philosopher Patricia Churchland looks at aggressive impulses and sex through the lens of neuroscience and evolutionary theory

By Patricia S. Churchland | Saturday, July 27, 2013

Image: Patricia S. Churchland

Excerpted from Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, by Patricia S. Churchland. Copyright © 2013 Patricia S. Churchland. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Diverging Paths in Human Sexual Development

The basic account of a typical brain-hormone interaction for XX and XY fetuses has been outlined. But not all cases conform to the prototype. Variability is always a part of biology. For example, unusual chromosome arrangements can occur. Rarely, an egg or a sperm might actually carry more than one chromosome, so the conceptus ends up with more than just a pair of sex chromosomes. About 1 in 650 males are born with XXY, a condition known as Klinefelter’s syndrome (as I mentioned in Chapter 1, my brother has this condition). The outcome can be quite variable, but basically what happens is that the testosterone supply dependent on the Y chromosome gets swamped by the estrogen production linked to the two X chromosomes. This affects gonad development, musculature, and fertility. There are cognitive costs, too, mainly having to do with the role of the prefrontal cortex in impulse control and the capacity to delay gratification.

Other chromosomal variations are also seen: XYY occurs in about 1 in 1,000 male births. It frequently goes unnoticed because there are no consistent symptoms. At one time it was claimed, mainly on a priori grounds, that XYY persons are especially aggressive, but this turns out not to be correct. XXYY, which is much more rare (about 1 in 20,000 male births), has many deleterious effects. This condition is linked to seizures, autism, and developmental delays in intellectual functions. In about 1 in 5,000 cases, a fetus may have only a single chromosome—an X—a condition known as Turner’s syndrome. The damaging effects are very broad, including short stature, low-set ears, heart defects, nonworking ovaries, and learning deficits. If a conceptus has only a single chromosome—a Y—it probably fails to implant in the uterus and never develops.

So just at the level of the chromosomes, we see variability that belies the idea that we are all either XX or XY. What about variability in the genes that leads to variability in brain development? Various factors, both genetic and environmental, can deflect the intricate development of a body and its brain from its typical course.

Consider an XY fetus. For the androgens (testosterone and dihydrotestosterone) to do their work in its brain, they must bind to special receptors tailored specially for androgens. The androgens fit into the receptors like a key into a lock. The receptors are actually proteins, made by genes. Even small variations in the gene (SRY) involved in making androgen receptors can lead to a hitch. And small variations in that gene are not uncommon. In some genetic variants, the receptor lacks the right shape to allow the androgens to bind to it. This prevents the process of masculinizing the gonads and the brain. In other genetic variants, no receptor proteins are produced at all, so the androgen has nothing to bind to. In these conditions, the androgens cannot masculinize the brain or the body, despite the XY genetic makeup. In consequence, the baby, though a genetic male, will probably have a small vagina and will be believed to be female when born. This baby will grow breasts at puberty, though she/he will not menstruate and has no ovaries. This is sometimes described in the following way: the person is genetically a male, but bodily (phenotypically) a female. These individuals usually lead quite normal lives and may be sexually attracted to men or to women or in some cases to both.

If an XX fetus is exposed to high testosterone levels in the womb, her gonads at birth may be rather ambiguous, with a large clitoris or a small penis. This condition is known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, or CAH. This usually results from a genetic abnormality that causes the adrenal glands to produce extra androgens. As a child, she may be more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play and to eschew more typical girl games such as “playing house.” When at puberty there is a surge of testosterone, she may develop a normal penis, testicles will descend, and her musculature may become more masculine. Though raised as a girl, persons with this history tend to live as heterosexual males. A male XY fetus may also carry the genetic defect, but in that case, the extra androgens are consistent with the male body and brain, and the condition may go unrecognized.

Some of these discoveries begin to explain things about gender identity that otherwise strike us as puzzling. A person who is genetically XY with male gonads and a typical male body may not feel at all right as a man. So far as gender is concerned, he feels completely female. Conforming to a male role model may cause acute misery and dissonance, sometimes ending in suicide. Conversely, a woman who is genetically XX may feel a powerful conviction that she is psychologically, and in her real nature, a man. Sometimes this disconnect is characterized as a female trapped in a man’s body or a male trapped in a female’s body. Statistically, male-to-female transsexuals are about 2.6 times as common as female-to-male transsexuals.

Is this conviction on the part of the person not just imagination run amok? In most cases, the matter is purely biological. Once we know something about the many factors, genetic and otherwise, that can alter the degree to which a brain is masculinized, it is a little easier to grasp a biological explanation for how a person might feel a disconnect between his or her gonads and his or her gender identity.

For example, in fetal development, the cells that make GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone) may not have had the normal migration into the hypothalamus. If this happens, the typical masculinization of the brain cannot occur. For some individuals, the explanation of the chromosome-phenotype disconnect (XY but has a female gender identity) probably lies with GnRH, despite the existence of circulating testosterone in the blood. It is noteworthy that the data indicate that most male-to-female transsexuals do have normal levels of circulating testosterone, and most female-to-male transsexuals do have normal levels of circulating estrogen. This means that it is not the levels of these hormones in the blood that explains their predicament. Rather, we need to look at the brain itself.

Examining brains at autopsy is currently the only way to test in humans whether an explanation for a behavioral variant in terms of sexually dimorphic brain areas is on the right track. Here is some evidence that it is. First, there is a subcortical area close to the thalamus called (sorry about this) the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST). The BNST is normally about twice as large in males as in females. What about male-to-female transsexuals? Because the data can be obtained only at autopsy, they are limited. Nevertheless, in the male-to-female transsexual brains examined so far, the number of cells in the BNST is small. The number looks closer to the standard female number than to the standard male number. For the single case coming to autopsy of a female-to-male transsexual, the BNST looks like that of a typical male.

What are the causal origins of this mismatch of gonads and brain? The answers are still pending, but in addition to the many ways in which lots and lots of genes could be implicated, various drugs taken by the mother during pregnancy are possible factors. What drugs? Among others, nicotine, phenobarbitol, and amphetamines.

Like many others of my generation, I first learned about transsexuality when the British journalist and travel writer James/Jan Morris was interviewed on the BBC in 1975. A highly gifted and clearheaded writer with a wonderful sense of humor, Morris discussed her long struggle with the dilemma of feeling undeniably like a female from the age of 5 and yet possessing a male body and presenting to the world as a male. In Morris’s forthright book on the subject, Conundrum, she provides one of the deepest and most revealing narratives on what it is like to be unable to enjoy that calm sense of being at home in your own skin, of being one with yourself. Morris had married a woman to whom he was deeply attached and had five children. By all accounts, he was a wonderful and devoted father. But as the years went by, he became ever more miserable until in his 50s, and with the blessing of his wife, he underwent the long and difficult process of a sex change. Here are Morris’s heartfelt words describing the change:
Now when I looked down at myself I no longer seemed a hybrid or chimera: I was all of a piece, as proportioned once again, as I had been so exuberantly on Everest long before. Then I had felt lean and muscular; now I felt above all, deliciously clean. The protuberances I had grown increasingly to detest had been scoured from me. I was made, by my own lights, normal.
Gender identity is one thing, sexual orientation another, and the vast majority of homosexuals have no issue with gender identity at all. They just happen to be attracted to members of their own sex. This tends to be true also of cross-dressing males, who are fully content in the male gender identity but who enjoy dressing up in women’s clothing. How is sexual orientation related to the brain? There are undoubtedly many causal pathways that can lead to homosexuality or bisexuality, most involving the hypothalamus in one way or another. Sometimes sexual orientation can be affected by the chromosomal and genetic variations discussed earlier. The hypothalamic changes are likely to be quite different from those found in someone who is transsexual or transgendered.
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