Sunday 16 June 2013
Photo, above: The famous Harvey Girls; here, in Somerville, Texas. The Fred Harvey Company was the owner of the Harvey House chain of restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality industry businesses alongside railroads in the western United States. The company traces its origins to the 1875 opening of two railroad eating houses located at Wallace, Kansas, and Hugo, Colorado, on the Kansas Pacific Railway. These cafés were opened by Fred Harvey, then a freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The café operation ended within a year, but Fred Harvey was convinced of the potential profits from providing a high quality food and service at railroad eating houses. His longtime employer, the Burlington Railroad, declined his offer of establishing a system-wide eating house operation at all railroad meal stops, but the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway subsequently contracted with Harvey for several eating houses on an experimental basis.
In 1878, Harvey started the first of his eating house-hotel establishments along the AT&SF tracks in Florence, Kansas. The rapid growth of the Harvey House chain soon followed. Fred Harvey is credited with creating the first restaurant chain in the United States. Harvey and his company also became leaders in promoting tourism in the American Southwest in the late 19th century. The company and its employees, including the famous waitresses who came to be known as Harvey Girls, successfully brought new higher standards of both civility and dining to a region widely regarded in the era as the Wild West. See: Hour 3, Block A: Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West--One Meal at a Time by Stephen Fried
JOHN BATCHELOR SHOW
Sunday 16 June 2013 / Hour 1, Block C: .The Myth of the Great Satan: A New Look at America's Relations with Iran (HOOVER INST PRESS PUBLICATION) by Abbas Milani (1 of 2)
Sunday 16 June 2013 / Hour 1, Block D: The Myth of the Great Satan: A New Look at America's Relations with Iran (HOOVER INST PRESS PUBLICATION) by Abbas Milani (2 of 2)
Sunday 16 June 2013 / Hour 2, Block A: . Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio (1 of 2)
Sunday 16 June 2013 / Hour 2, Block B: Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio (2 of 2)
.. .. ..
. . . For biologists though, consciousness, if not an accidental epiphenomenon, must be an evolved property with a function of some benefit to its possessor. As of course it is: being conscious gives us humans the capacity to learn from the past, to anticipate and plan for the future, to establish and maintain social relations, to imagine and create societies, technologies, art and literature. This has – so far – proved a successful evolutionary strategy. Yet human consciousness appears to be not merely quantitatively but qualitatively distinct from that of even our closest evolutionary neighbours, chimps and bonobos. And as one needs a brain to be conscious in any of the word's multiple meanings, there must be something about the human brain that differentiates us from the bonobos and enables consciousness.
It is these issues that Antonio Damasio, a neurologist now based in California, has wrestled with in a series of books over the past two decades. He has several advantages over his American neuroscientific peers. His continental European training sensitises him to the reductionist traps that ensnare so many of his colleagues. The book is dedicated to his neurologist wife Hanna, whose work with brain- and consciousness-damaged patients, brings her closer to real life than the remote context and artificial experimental set-ups of the neuropsychology lab. Inclined though he is to define consciousness narrowly ("a state of mind in which there is knowledge of one's own existence and of the existence of surroundings") and to put to one side its content – what we actually think about – his is the only one of the many consciousness books weighing down my shelves that feels it necessary to mention Freud's, as opposed to an anaesthetist's, use of the term unconscious.
Anyone who has read any of Damasio's previous three books will find Self Comes to Mind retreading some familiar territory, though here set in a firmly evolutionary context. In Damasio's terminology, even single-celled organisms such as bacteria or amoebae have a minimal sense of self, working to preserve their internal integrity against foreign incursion. They also show primitive emotions, the earliest forerunners to our own experiences of pain and pleasure, moving away from noxious stimuli and towards food sources. In accord with standard physiology Damasio calls the processes by which an organism stabilises its body state homeostatic. (I prefer the term homodynamic; stasis, after all, is death). In multicellular organisms, which appear later in evolutionary history, the cells that recognise the presence of such stimuli are separated from those that must co-ordinate the organism's responses to them. Before nervous systems evolved, the sense-receptor cells signalled to those co-ordinating the response through chemicals (hormones) that diffuse through the body. Later in evolution, dedicated signalling lines (nerves) appear, connecting the receptor cells with a central group of nerve cells – neurons – that are the forerunners to our own brains.
Brains are by no means the only game in town; bacteria and plants of course flourish quite well without, and will probably outlive humans. But our ancestors took a different route, building bigger and more complex brains. Within such brains neurons communicate with each other by myriad connections. These fluctuating patterns can form representations of both the external world and the body state of the organism that owns them. Such brains enable their possessors to learn and remember, to recognise the present in the context of the immediate past and the imminent future. To Damasio this means that they are, or possess, selves. In animals with big brains, emotions – mere bodily responses – become translated into feelings, and with feelings, a mind – "a subtle flowing combination of actual images and recalled images in ever-changing proportions" – emerges from the brain. Many large-brained creatures thus have minds, however alien they may be to our own. But consciousness emerges only when – to quote the book's title – self comes to mind, so that in key brain regions, the representational maps of sensory experience intersect with the encoded experiences of past that self provides. This, enabled by the evolution of language, makes possible autobiographical memory – the narrative of our lives that we humans all possess and which is the basis for consciousness.
This, briefly summarised, is the latest version of Damasio's theory. The story is told in prose of intermittently easygoing lucidity, but his primary training as a neurologist compels him into passages of detailed neuro-anatomy, locating brain regions functionally responsible for enabling particular aspects of consciousness. But which bits of the brain might be involved, though of passionate concern to neuroscientists, isn't the crucial issue – which is whether Damasio has thereby solved what has been called the "hard problem" of consciousness studies by relating third-person "objective" accounts to first-person subjectivity. I fear that however convincing his evolutionary story may be, simply to state that these brain processes translate into mental experience leaves us, despite some very elegant hand-waving, exactly where we were before. And herein lies the paradox of the book's subtitle. Brains are not conscious; people are. Our brains enable our consciousness, just as our legs enable our walking, as the anthropologist Tim Ingold has pointed out. But to attribute the property of a whole to that of a part is to commit what philosophers refer to as the mereological fallacy (one that I confess I have not been entirely innocent of in my own writings).
In everyday thought and speech we have reasons, intentions, feelings. In brainspeak we have synapses, firing patterns, neurotransmitters. For the mechanical materialist, the latter causes the former – and in his routine use of causal language Damasio reveals himself as just that. This is why the weakest part of the book is the concluding chapters, where he extends his central principle of homeostasis to embrace human history, society and culture. But it is possible to be a non-reductionist materialist. The language of mind and consciousness relates to the language of brains and synapses as English does to Italian; one may translate into the other, though always with some loss of cultural resonance. But we do not have to assign primacy to either. Long may pluralism reign, and we conscious beings continue to employ our minds and brains to enhance our understanding of both.
.. .. ..
Sunday 16 June 2013 / Hour 3, Block A: Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West--One Meal at a Time by Stephen Fried (1 of 2)
Sunday 16 June 2013 / Hour 3, Block B: Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West--One Meal at a Time by Stephen Fried (2 of 2)
Sunday 16 June 2013 / Hour 3, Block C: Peter Bogucki, Princeton, in re: the Iceman.
Scientists have recreated the face of "Oetzi," who is believed to have been slightly over 5 foot, 2 inches tall and around 46 years old.
Sunday 16 June 2013 / Hour 3, Block D: Carl Zimmer, in re: Neanderthals
When the Society for Neuroscience gets together for their annual meeting each year, a city of scientists suddenly forms for a week. This year’s meeting has drawn 31,000 people to the Washington DC Convention Center. The subjects of their presentations range from brain scans of memories to the molecular details of disorders such as Parkinson’s and autism. This morning, a scientist named Svante Paabo delivered a talk. Its subject might make you think that he had stumbled into the wrong conference altogether. He delivered a lecture about Neanderthals.
Yet Paabo did not speak to an empty room. He stood before thousands of researchers in the main hall. His face was projected onto a dozen giant screens, as if he were opening for the Rolling Stones. When Paabo was done, the audience released a surging crest of applause. One neuroscientist I know, who was sitting somewhere in that huge room, sent me a one-word email as Paabo finished: “Amazing.”
You may well know about Paabo’s work. In August, Elizabeth Kolbert published a long profile in the New Yorker. But he’s been in the news for over fifteen years. Like many other journalists, I’ve followed his work since the mid-1990s, having written about pieces of Paabo’s work in [more]
Sunday 16 June 2013 / Hour 4, Block A: Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness by Frank Brady (1 of 2)
Sunday 16 June 2013 / Hour 4, Block B: Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness by Frank Brady (2 of 2)
.. .. ..