Sunday, June 22, 2014

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature (Rerun)
Show for June 22, 2014

I’ll return with something brand-new next week, but this week I had a wedding to attend, so I replayed my 2011 conversation with psychologist/cognitive scientist Steven Pinker on his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Steve argues that, modern mayhem notwithstanding, human violence has been trending downward for centuries. We discussed whether, how and why people have been getting more peacable. Topics include natural selection, game theory, the civilizing effects of civilization, the origin and nature of morality, and Steve’s own feelings about violence.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Show for March 24, 2013. Neurologist Robert Burton on The Limits of Neuroscience.

I don’t know whether Bob Burton’s car sports this bumper sticker…

… but it ought to. Bob has spent years exploring our shaky reliance on what he calls “involuntary mental sensations”: the internal perceptions by which we come to “know” our own minds. He says these inner representations, offered up by the brain itself, are partial at best, delusory at worst. And that’s a problem not only for ordinary seekers of self-knowledge but also for an ambitious group of neuroscientists attempting to explain consciousness and the human psyche, while beholden to many of the same, suspect intuitions that bamboozle the rest of us. Of course, there’s also that matter of the yawning gulf separating objective explanation and subjective experience, and whether it’s bridgeable at all. 

Bob raises these and other problems in his latest book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell us About Ourselves. We had a long and wide-ranging tête-à-tête on the difficulties that loom when science shifts from studying the brain to mapping the mind, and the deep and dubious assumptions built into categories such as conscious and unconscious, self and other, choice and non-choice.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Show for March 17, 2013. Neurologist Robert Burton on Self-Certainty.

As a preamble to next week’s interview with neurologist and neuroskeptic Robert Burton, I re-aired this earlier conversation with Bob from 2008. In it, we discussed his book On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Wrong, about our brain’s often unreliable sense of self-certainty. Bob says our inner sensation of knowing or not knowing something, of familiarity or unfamiliarity – so critical to perception, judgment and decisionmaking – is based on neural mechanisms that can go badly awry and, even when things are working OK, is hardly a dependable arbiter of truth.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Show for Feb 17, 2013. Hear, Hear: Auditory Neuroscientist and Sound Savant Seth Horowitz.

Sound as vibration, sound as sensation, sound as means of manipulation. Sound as a state of mind and as a weapon. Seth Horowitz considers sonic phenomena from these and other angles in his new book The Universal Sense. And he’s a good one to do it: as a neuroscientist specializing in auditory phenomena, sound recordist, musician and aural explorer, not to mention the guy who proved that tadpoles can hear, Seth is a well-travelled guide to the sonic world. He and I listened to a sampling of audio curiosities while contemplating questions such as:

  • What’s faster, our ears or our eyes?
  • What’s it like to be a bat?
  • What’s it like to be Evelyn Glennie?
  • How do we build a picture of the world from auditory clues?
  • Why are low sounds ominous?
  • Can sounds kill?

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Show for March 25, 2012. Philosophy Fights Back.

In the age of science, what’s a philosopher to do? As physics, biology and other hard sciences advance, is philosophy left with only a few increasingly recherché questions? Nope, says philosopher Colin McGinn. McGinn argues that philosophy is a kind of science (though it could use some rebranding to that effect), and those other sciences would do well to pay it some mind. A dose of philosophy could help clear up many scientific confusions and save theorists from a mess of conceptual errors (homuncular fallacy, anyone?). Colin McGinn and I talk science vs. philosophy, different kinds of knowledge, the nature of objectivity, problems with the scientific study of consciousness, and his Campaign to Rename Philosophy (CRP), which he wrote about recently in the New York Times.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Show for March 4, 2012. Sebastian Seung—Mapping the Brain

And you thought sequencing the human genome was a big job. MIT neuroscientist Sebastian Seung is proposing something even more Herculean: tracing the trillions of neuronal connections in the human brain, collectively known as the  “connectome.” He believes the connectome may hold the key to understanding the brain and the self. That follows from connectionism—the notion that learning, memory and personality are  embedded in the brain’s wiring. Like so much else in neuroscience, that’s still hypothetical, and Sebastian is refreshingly candid about the limits of current understanding. We discussed what is and isn’t known about the workings of neurons, how the brain’s circuitry might encode information, the relevance of computer models, and artificial intelligence techniques that may help map the connectome. Also: the “Jennifer Aniston neuron,” whether or not to freeze your posthumous head, and the cautionary tale of the South Park underpants gnomes.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Show for Oct. 24, 2010: Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin on Musicality and Evolution

The best-selling author of This is Your Brain on Music returns to our show. Neuroscientist, musician and record producer Dan Levitin discusses his most recent book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. Levitin contends that music played a key role in human evolution. (Interview originally boradcast in 2008.)

Click the “play” arrow above to listen, or download the MP3 here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Show for March 14, 2010. The Musical Brain: Daniel Levitin

From 2007: A musical celebration and cerebration with neuroscientist, instrumentalist and record producer Daniel Levitin, author of “This is Your Brain on Music.” Dan is a natural entertainer and talented explainer. We played a lot of different tunes and had us some good fun. Worth a listen, if you missed it the first time around.

Click here to see Dan’s website.