Sources of information on neuroscience

It’s been a while since I listed good sources to learn about neuroscience and the brain. I think anyone interested in consciousness and the mind should get a grounding in the basics. It’s a bit of work, but the introductory accounts aren’t anything unmanageable for someone who can parse philosophically dense material. And it enables you to recognize a lot of the dubious stuff out there for what it is.

John Dowling’s Understanding the Brain: From Cells to Behavior to Cognition, is an excellent introduction, and probably an easier read than anything mentioned below. Dowling’s book isn’t much of a reference, but after reading it, neuroscience Wikipedia becomes a pretty useful resource. Another good introduction, albeit one focused on the visual system, is Richard Masland’s We Know It When We See It.

The best sources of detailed information are introductory textbooks, such as Mark Bear’s excellent Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain, or Marie Banich and Rebecca Compton’s Cognitive Neuroscience. Unfortunately, these aren’t cheap, particularly Bear’s. You can usually find a used copy of one of the older editions for a reasonable price. (I actually started with a used copy of one of Bear’s older editions.) It won’t have the latest developments, but for an introduction it’ll get the job done. These two textbooks are often my go-to source when questions of neuroscience pop up in our discussions.

If paying outrageous prices for a textbook isn’t your speed, you don’t want to buy something dated, or you’d rather not read dense textbook material, another good source is Frank Amthor’s Neuroscience for Dummies. Don’t let the title fool you. The Dummies books are often pretty good. (Although they do sometimes put out stinkers.) This one will take you on a pretty comprehensive tour of the nervous system. There are some things I wished it covered in more detail, like the midbrain region, but again we’re talking introductory material here. Amthor also seems invested in a language centric version of consciousness, but he only mentions it in a few places, and it doesn’t detract from the book’s overall value. You can get a feel for the style in the book’s cheat sheet site.

After getting a good grounding, the trick is to stay somewhat up to date. Finding reputable sources of information on the brain can be a challenge. Two podcasts I’ve found to be excellent channels are Ginger Campbell’s Brain Science and Paul Middlebook’s Brain Inspired. Campbell’s podcast is more aimed at non-technical readers and includes interviews with many of the authors of books I’ve reviewed here on the blog. Middlebook often gets more into the technicalities, and explores the intersection between neuroscience and AI. If you really want to get hardcore, check out Grace Lindsay’s Unsupervised Thinking, which focuses on computational neuroscience, although it’s been on hiatus for a while now.

Finally, the blog, The Spike, is worth checking out. Unfortunately, it’s on Medium, which has gotten obnoxious lately about wanting paid subscribers, so perusing its archives might be a headache.

So, those are my sources in May, 2021. I think the only source left over from the last time I did this is Amthor’s book. The rest is all new, although I did allude to the textbooks last time. As I noted back then, this is a subject I’m always interested in learning more about.  If you’ve read any books on this stuff that you think are worth checking out, I’d love to hear about them.

12 thoughts on “Sources of information on neuroscience

  1. What would you recommend for me Mike? But first some background, much of which you’re probably aware of already, but still.

    My interests largely concern the psychological element of our function. This is to say identifying our nature itself beyond the mechanisms which create that nature. I’ve long been skeptical of the apparently gratuitous use of neuroscience to suggest that one’s psychological model happens to be solid. Psychology is such a soft science that the right neurobabble often seems to justify various bad psychological models.

    The reason for my recent interest in neuroscience however is to potentially improve my conception of how to practically test McFadden’s cemi. If consciousness exists in the form of certain parameters of the brain’s endogenous EM field, then it seems to me that we ought to be able to produce exogenous EM radiation in the head that would directly affect consciousness, that is if we could get in the ballpark on frequency and amplitude. Thus a person should be able to report various phenomenally funky things which correlate with our exogenous EM field.

    Apparently our best neural correlate of phenomenal experience lies in synchronized neuron firing, though this is far more subtle than the highly detectable delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma frequency bands common to standard brain function. For example it’s been demonstrated that when someone can’t find something on their cluttered desk, but then spots it, that associated synchronous neuron firing occurs. So theoretically that radiation in relation to a larger conscious field is “the recognition” part. In practice however we’d need to know things like how many neurons fire here, and so on, in order to construct something which could produce radiation that tampers with this theorized element of the brain’s EM field.

    So that’s my present motivation, or to gain a bette grasp of how to practically test McFadden’s theory.

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    1. I’m not sure Eric. If I were in your shoes, the first thing I would do is what I think you’ve already done, ask McFadden himself. He’s held this theory for several years. I would think he’s given it considerable thought. If he doesn’t respond, you could read his material and get into the details. A well written scientific account should include the prospects for testing, as well as the limitations and obstacles.

      If you want to do it yourself, then I fear you’re faced with a pretty deep dive. If I were doing it, I’d probably start with an introductory neuroscience textbook like Bear’s. Although Banich’s has a pretty good section on various scanning methods. You’d want to be familiar with the electrophysiology of neural processing, as well as how its measured.

      But that would only be the start. I think I’d next review the neuroscience curricula at various universities (look for their course catalog). You’re looking for courses on neuroscience experimental methods, I think. I’d then try to find what advanced textbooks are required for those courses. Warning: these will likely be outrageously expensive. But they’d give you insights into EEG, MEG, PET, fMRI, and other scanning techniques.

      Once you’ve ingested that material, you might have insight into what testing is plausible. Note the emphasis on “might”. On the plus side, you’re guaranteed to know a lot more about neuroscience by that point. 🙂

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      1. Mike,
        Yes McFadden seems to have given his cemi considerable thought to say the very least. As I recall it was the Penrose quantum stuff that incited him to instead take this classical route, and even given his affinity for quantum biological explanations. I guess he mentioned his general proposal way back in his 2000 quantum biology book. His two 2002 papers on the subject seem to have established his position formally, though there may have been previous efforts.

        His papers suggest that he’s been generally on the lookout for papers with evidence relevant to his theory so that he could include them in his papers. I should explore the details of those further. As a person who shares his perspective such evidence does help add to my own convictions, though I doubt they’ll convince many others in themselves. To me they seem kind of like “sloppy seconds” that people needn’t only use his theory to explain, and even though his theory does seem to do so pretty well.

        Over the past couple of decades, has my proposal to test his theory also occurred to him? That seems quite likely to me in at least some form. But if that’s the case then why has he failed to mention this in any of his papers?

        First consider a scenario in which scientists were subsequently able to repeatedly demonstrate that under the right parameters, human subjective experience may be manipulated in all sorts of reportable ways by means of nothing more than fabricated EM fields in the head. Here he’d surely claim this as powerful evidence for the validity of his theory. If any other theory were to have anywhere near as parsimonious an explanation for such evidence (and I doubt any would), then further testing should settle the matter. Surely you believe that he’d claim such evidence as a great victory for his cemi, at least as strongly as he already does for repurposed evidence?

        So from this scenario there would be no reason for him not to propose such testing. But what if his advanced grasp of the associated dynamics tells him that even if his cemi happened to be an extremely effective model, it would be incredibly difficult for scientists to produce EM radiation with the proper parameters? In that case he might fear that a worthy model would be unfairly dismissed given human incompetence. That might be why he’s never publicly proposed such testing, or answered the short letter I sent him with this simple proposal. So today at least he might feel better about going with “sloppy seconds”. Though I’m only guessing at his perspective, I consider myself far more ambitious here, come what may.

        In any case thanks for your “deep dive” thoughts on what I’d need to do to potentially decide if such testing were plausible. But then as a big picture person who enjoys blogging, it seems to me that another way to go would be to ask people more educated than I am on this about their thoughts on the plausibility of such testing. I’ve been quite pleased with my discussions with you and James on this matter so far over at his site. And even if McFadden doesn’t feel like discussing this with me, it could be that some of his supporters would. I wish he were more of a blogger than a tweeter, though it’s possible that I could meet some informative people over there.

        One thing that was tripping me up earlier with my implanted charge emitter idea, is that like actual neurons I was thinking they’d need individual power sources for independent firing. So if you had a line into the brain rigged up with 1000 charge emitters, like neurons you’d need 1000 unique power sources to each one (not to mention a return line that could be combined). But then I realized that because they’re all suppose to fire at once, a single power line could enter to ignite each of them. So technically it shouldn’t be too difficult to simulate the sorts of radiation that thousands or even millions of synchronous neurons produce. The question would be how to do it as similarly as possible as the neuron firing which scientists have found to be most correlated with conscious experience. That’s mainly where I was talking about needing more education.

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  2. I have the Dummies book and refer to it periodically. A missing piece in a lot of this are neurotransmitters, which usually get talked about briefly in almost all the books but probably don’t get dealt with in depth. I went out and bought a book on neurochemistry but, unfortunately, it seldom seems to hook up with the rest of neuroscience in a meaningful way. It was also too technical for me. There is a lot of stuff around but nothing seems to tie together comprehensively both of those pieces.

    There was an article in The Royal Society special issue that actually argues that chemistry came first as the communication mechanism in the development of nervous systems.

    https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2019.0761

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bear has a pretty good chapter on neurotransmitters, or more specifically, neurotransmitter systems. I’ve only skimmed sections of it, but it has diagrams of the pre and post synaptic sites, as well as a lot of discussion on the various proteins. (Skimming it now, if I’d ever read it straight through, I would have known about Dale’s rule.)

      The problem with these kinds of discussions is they’re about something that exists on top of molecular biology. There’s actually a dummies book on that, a good part of which I’ve read, but it often drops into organic chemistry, including long lists of chemical equations. I struggled mightily with organic chemistry in school, and that hasn’t changed. (The part of Ginsburg and Jablonka’s book I struggled with was when they dropped into proteins and organic chemistry.)

      From what I understand, neurotransmitters are thought to have evolved from hormones and other intercellular signaling, so that could make sense. But intracellular electrical mechanisms go back to unicellular organisms, so the whole toolkit is ancient.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks James. FYI, I modified your comment slightly to kill the Amazon embed, which wasn’t working right on the site.

      It looks like the price at that specific link is due to the hardback being out of print. The other editions are more reasonable. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00556DY1Q/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1

      Amazon also reminded me that I have his newer book, which I haven’t read yet: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07QMY6MQ9/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

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  3. Just wanted to add a couple of papers I picked up recently which seem like good summaries of the state of the art with respect to a couple of brain areas:

    1. Untangling the cortico-thalamo-cortical loop: cellular pieces of a knotty circuit puzzle. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41583-021-00459-3
    Unfortunately this is not free, but the subject was of significant interest to me so I forked over some bucks for the PDF, and I’m not sorry. It’s a good, readable summary. If someone really wants a copy there’s almost no chance I can send them a copyright-violating copy by email, as that would violate copyright.

    2. Making decisions in the dark basement of the brain: A look back at the GPR model of action selection and the basal ganglia
    https://arxiv.org/abs/2104.14364
    This one’s about the basal ganglia and what it’s for. Long story short: it’s for selecting which among competing actions gets the go ahead.

    *
    [almost no chance]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve usually read that the basal ganglia are one of the layers involved in actions selection. They selectively allow or inhibit lower level motor circuitry in the midbrain. But they themselves are effected by circuitry in the the frontal lobes. Usually reflexes are associated with the midbrain, habits with the basal ganglia, and conscious deliberation with the frontal lobes. Of course, just about everywhere I read this says it’s an oversimplification. But in the case of the brain, it’s hard to say much of anything without oversimplifying.

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  4. Great recommendations Mike. I have a slightly tangential observation you might enjoy.

    You mentioned in your article that one of the authors has a language focused understanding of the nervous system. You seemed to think this is a weakness (I don’t know if it is or not).

    I mention this because I’m beta reading a book on language right now and it makes an interesting case that everything we experience, especially the laws of physics, are best understood as languages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ben!

      On language and consciousness, I might have worded in a way that it sounded like a weakness, but it’s more a minority viewpoint among consciousness researchers, and I didn’t want people thinking the book is preoccupied with that viewpoint.

      The laws of physics as language? That is interesting. It seems somewhat similar to Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis, except in terms of language. Although you could argue that mathematics is a language. The question though, is whether we’re discussing a tool to describe the universe, or the universe itself. Or, similar to Tegmark, are we saying the language is the prime reality, with physical reality just a special case of it? (I might be reading far more into it than they intended.)

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