[Neuroscience] Re: How many neurons are used?

Glen M. Sizemore gmsizemore2 at yahoo.com
Sun Jun 18 08:20:54 EST 2006

"r norman" <NotMyRealEmail at _comcast.net> wrote in message 
news:57ca92ldd88fbpdq739i0qhu67ve4vold7 at 4ax.com...
> On Sun, 18 Jun 2006 04:58:59 -0400, "Glen M. Sizemore"
> <gmsizemore2 at yahoo.com> wrote:
>>"Matthew Kirkcaldie" <m.kirkcaldie at removethis.unsw.edu.au> wrote in 
>>news:m.kirkcaldie-1FAE7E.09415718062006 at un-2park-reader-01.sydney.pipenetworks.com...
>>> In article <aeu792trjo2ara5fumll5sm3hm1jfv3jp2 at 4ax.com>,
>>> r norman <NotMyRealEmail at _comcast.net> wrote:
>>>> On 16 Jun 2006 23:11:06 -0700, "chadmaester"
>>>> <chad.d.johnson at gmail.com> wrote:
>>>> >How many neurons, on average, are used to make sense of a 
>>>> >commonly-used
>>>> >(i.e., well-understood) word, just in a normal conversation, and
>>>> >without regard to visual or auditory processing? For instance, when 
>>>> >you
>>>> >hear a word it makes you think of something else. That is what I am
>>>> >after.
>>>> What you ask cannot be answered because we do not understand the steps
>>>> used to process sounds into words into meanings and, especially, to
>>>> associate one idea of something related.
>>>> However we do know that what you describe involves many large regions
>>>> of the brain so that certainly many millions of cells would be
>>>> involved.
>>>> We can count the small number of cells involved in having a sound
>>>> "register" in the auditory region of the brain.  However there is no
>>>> way even to begin to describe what is involved in producing the
>>>> reaction "I heard that!".
>>> You know, I mentally drafted a response to Chad's question and it was
>>> spookily, uncannily, exactly the same.  Even down to the order of the
>>> points, the initial "no-one knows how" and then "however".  All I would
>>> add is that the most accurate answer that could be given is which
>>> regions of the brain increase their blood supply when these kinds of
>>> tasks are performed.
>>> I must be honing my didactic skills!
>>> Thanks for your questions Chad - even when there is no answer it's a
>>> great reminder of the gulf between what we know and what we would like
>>> to know ... !
>>Despite the auto-congratulatory, arm-breaking back-patting of
>>neuroscientists, we understand very, very little about how the nervous
>>system mediates behavioral function. We are about at the level where we
>>understand habituation of the gill-withdrawal reflex in Aplysia.
>>Don't get me wrong, I'm not denigrating behavioral or (rettttcccchhhh)
>>"cognitive" neuroscience. I am however, being highly critical of the
>>conceptualizations that have come to underlie the field (and for that we 
>>"thank" mainstream psychology). For example, look at Dr. Norman's* 
>>"we do not understand the steps used to process sounds into words into
>>meanings." What are the assumptions that are involved in this statement?
>>Does it really make sense to say that "sounds are processed into words 
>> *And I am not denigrating Norman, for whom I have great respect.
> I do understand what you are saying about my comments and I agree
> entirely with you except that I would guess that even the Aplysia
> gill-withdrawal still has a number of surprises for us.


>Still, the
> original poster posed a question and it is necessary to use words to
> answer that question.

Yes, of course. But I think that scientists and laymen alike must be 
reminded, or informed, that reasonable analyses of core concepts (which 
entail assumptions) has always been a part of science. We tend to formalize 
theory construction and the role of data (especially with respect to 
hypothetico-deduction) but we do not view discourse about our assumptions to 
be part of science, but the history of science suggests otherwise. Not all 
legitimate questions are empirical questions. We once asked "Are there 
really such things as atoms? Receptors? Genes? And we also asked about ether 
and phlogiston (and the decision to drop these was not wholly empirical) as 
well as the "life force," where the decision to drop it was not really 
empirical at all. Sorry for being so obsessed, but there is a coherent 
minority that thinks the "things" that populate cognitive "science" don't 
even have the sort of support that the ether did, and that these notions 
stand between our current position and a viable science of the physiology of 

>We do speak of language in terms of "words" and
> "meanings".  Whether these abstract concepts have any place inside the
> brain is another story.  Still, something is going on up there to make
> us believe (whatever THAT means) that there do exist words with
> meanings.  And we truly do not even have a clue what is going on
> except that membrane channels open and ions go in and out.

Right. But once again, the fact that we talk a particular way (there are a 
set of assumptions that underlie science or "science" - and this is not even 
really technically correct) has eventually got to be faced. Words certainly 
exist as behavior, and if "meaning" exists anywhere it is "in behavior." But 
behavioral (or now "cognitive") neuroscience has become rife with the 
mereological fallacy. The brain does not DO any of the things that people 
DO. The brain does not decide, intend, believe, or desire, anymore than it 
eats or has sex. It does not do any of these things, just as mecury atom are 
not "silvery" and "slippery." The language of physiology is "membrane 
channels open[ing] and ions go[ing] in and out." The WIDESPREAD 
interpretation of physiological measurement and manipulation in terms 
descriptive of the behavioral level [That is what is supposed to be 
explained!] gives a false sense of progress. And then when this is combined 
with modern imaging techniques we think we know "what" is happening (Oh, its 
just "executive function") and where it is going on. But this is chimerical.

Other than that I don't have any strong feelings on the matter. <grin>




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