Putting the “cog” in “cognitive”: on the “mind as machine” metaphor

by Yohan J. John Scientists have long acknowledged the power of metaphor and analogy. Properly understood, analogical and metaphorical thinking are not merely ornamental aspects of language, but serve as a bridge from the known to the unknown. Perhaps the most important example of this process was the one that epitomizes the scientific revolution: Isaac…

Ways of Knowing

by Yohan J. John Once, some years ago, I was attending a talk by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was engaged in his usual counterintuitive mix of lefty politics and pop culture references, and I found myself nodding vigorously. But at one point I asked myself: do I…

Why some neuroscientists call consciousness “the c-word”

by Yohan J. John As a neuroscientist, I am frequently asked about consciousness. In academic discourse, the celebrated problem of consciousness is often divided into two parts: the "Easy Problem" involves identifying the processes in the brain that correlate with particular conscious experiences. The "Hard Problem" involves murkier questions: what are conscious experiences, and why…

Decision-making: the fine art of throwing away information

by Yohan J. John Human decision-making routinely confounds our attempts at understanding. Right now, the western world is in a state of bafflement and anxiety brought on by unprecedented collective decisions. From the British public's vote to leave the European Union to Republican voters' selection of Donald Trump as their presidential candidate, the past month…

Persons all the way down: On viewing the scientific conception of the self from the inside out

by Yohan J. John Ridiculing the intellectual backwardness of our forebears is a popular pastime. How silly our ancestors were! They thought the earth was flat! They believed in dragons and fairies! And even when they started to emerge from humanity's childhood, they came up with ideas like phlogiston! And luminiferous aether! Among neuroscientists, one…

Be Careful What You Wish For: Some Wild Speculation on Goodhart’s Law and its Manifestations in the Brain

by Yohan J. John This is the era of metrics: it seems that if we are to hack a path through the information jungle of the 21st century, we must be armed with an arsenal of scores, quantities, indices, factors, grades, and ratings. Our corporate and governmental overlords seem most comfortable parlaying in the seemingly…

Information: the Measure of All Things? Part I: Communication, Code and Computation

by Yohan J. John Metaphor is a hallmark of human communication, and a vital tool of scientific thinking. Along with its more formal cousin, analogy, metaphor allows us to create linguistic and conceptual bridges from the known to the unknown. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in science began with an analogical leap between seemingly unrelated…