Day 103: Making delusions of reference work for you

The thing that strikes me about cognitive science, every time I go to a conference, is how many people are doing it, and how little progress we all seem to be making.  Take MRI scanning.  We spend tens of thousands of pounds on a study in which we play a bunch of participants carefully designed and balanced stimuli, and spend hundreds of hours analysing the output, and come to the conclusion that some brain region is probably implicated in some aspect of the process under study.  Or maybe a different region.  Or maybe several.  Or maybe none of them.  How precisely it’s implicated, if it is – no idea.

From a more theoretical standpoint, I suppose a career goal has to be to lighten this load somewhat – to help produce some kind of theory that makes these results more readily interpretable.  Something that tries to bridge the gap between the macro- and micro-levels, in effect.

The problem in thinking this way is that many people have attempted to do this and few have succeeded to any extent, so it’s pure vanity to suppose I might be able to help out.  The advantage to thinking this way is that, if I consider my contribution purely in terms of trying to help people out – to make other people’s work more successful, to ease the burden of analysis, or what have you – I can get away from the fear that the overall goal of such work has such profound ethical implications that it’s dangerous to pursue it.  (These ethical implications are so evident that even Charlie Brooker, in a recent Guardian piece, managed to spot some.  Overall it was too vapid a treatment to merit a link, though.)

Another problem is, there are some things here that can’t be short-circuited.  You could probably get a computer simulation together of some of the aspects of cognition, perception, intelligence and so on – but it would be very limited, and a bit flaky around the edges.  Cynics might say that sounds a bit like our reality: but we’re at least the beta version.  Being the alpha would be tough.

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