Neurobabble – A Debate

The Wire recently published an article by Dr. Sumaiya Shaikh on ‘The Cognitive Neuroscience of Lynching’. Not only was it badly written, it had warped neuroscience concepts and highly false claims.

I countered the original article with a rebuttal.

Dr. Shaikh wrote her replies here.

Following this, Dr. Shaikh has refused to engage in any further discussion. I found this very unprofessional and un-characteristic of a scientist.

Since The Wire has refused to accept my response as a full article, I have responded to Dr. Shaikh, here on our blog.

Dr. Shaikh’s responses are coded in red and my responses are in blue.


SumaiyaS: Since the ongoing global terror related incidents, there is a substantial amount of focus diverted to study cognition or the neural underpinnings of areas such as violence, fear, learning and economics. The field of research in human behaviour, in particular of aggression has been fairly new and has attracted very recent interest from the field of neuroscience. Considering the advances, and limitations of human models in subjects of these experiments require them to be consciously awake while performing tasks. Hence, invasive methods are not used and inferences are made on the basis of analogies from animals, biological processes and brain imaging.

Perhaps, the author of the rebuttal has completely missed the point of the article. It was not an article submitted to a mainstream physiology journal emerging from primary data. The article was written to comprehend the social tragedy in the form of lynch aggression using biological examples to give an insight into the brain and behaviour of everyone involved in the attack. The method of dissecting on the science of the analogies shows how wrongly interpreted this article has been for the author of the rebuttal. To take the focus away from the purpose of large part of the article suggest a bias that is associated with discrediting the experiences of the people suffering from this violence.

ShrutiM: The original article was submitted as science piece to the Science Desk of the Wire with a view to give an insight into the brain and behaviour of everyone involved in the attack. If that is the case, the science in the article must be correct, easy to understand, and must be verifiable by members of the common public. It must explain the cause, effect or mechanism of lynching using cognitive neuroscience or at the very least, basic neuroscience. The original article does not fulfill any of these categories.

The goal of my rebuttal is to point out gaping holes in the logic and usage of weakly justified science to bolster the theories and arguments that condemn lynching. My personal standpoint – as should be any human’s standpoint – is staunchly against inhumane treatment of any other human being. Your main fault in this reply is to confabulate purely scientific criticism with emotion. Not only does it discredit your arguments but it also brings you closer to the worst form of civil argument – ad hominem attacks.  

SumaiyaS: The ‘empty space’ is a figurative term used here. I have also not seen such vacuums from my dissection of human brains in healthy and diseased cadavers nor in the animal brains with labelled neurons. The reduced synaptic connections are simply corresponding to the reduced connectivity from the periphery of the injured motor or sensory neurons. It would be naive to think of a physical empty patch in the brain devoid of glia, supporting cells and blood supply. A very important study of phantom pain in amputees has also shown that there was a high correlation between the magnitudes of the shift of the cortical representation of the mouth into the hand area, showing afferent reorganisation of that ‘empty’ space. This event is called plasticity – a theory of restructuring brain connectivity. However, in one study, there was indeed a space created and visualised through immunohistochemistry in much lower order neurons, i.e. in the dorsal horn, where a chemical injury at the periphery produced a physical gap of a particular type of pain afferents. This study also used the term ‘gap’ in the connectivity map of the spinal cord but it doesn’t mean that there was a physical gap.

ShrutiM: Thank you for confirming that you understand. As a scientist and a science communicator I want to emphasize a very important point. Using loosely figurative terms like ‘empty space’ to explain a complex concepts like ‘reduced inter-neuronal connectivity’ without an accompanying explanation in simple language, should be categorically avoided. The general reader is not as privileged as you or I to learn as much as we know about the brain and its functions. This increases jargon and leaves concepts ultimately open to misinterpretation. What then is the difference between people who make hyped-up fake news and scientists who try to explain their work?

The second study you have cited for the visualisation of ‘empty space’ is from 1995. Neuroscientific techniques, especially anatomy and morphology have grown by incredible leaps and bounds since then. I urge you to use more recent and relevant citations that show evidence for the case you are making. I hope we are in agreement when I say that science, particularly neuroscience is a rapidly evolving field. New techniques and technologies have massively updated what we know about the brain today.

Finally, the cited research looks at the re-organisation of neurons in the spinal cord, which is part of the peripheral nervous system. The aim of your article is explaining the “cognitive neuroscience of lynching”. Any professional neuroscientist will know that cognition, as a process, occurs largely and squarely in the cerebral cortex. Therefore, I fail to understand why this paper is cited, other than to support the wrongly-used, figurative term “empty space”.

SumaiyaS: As you may know, short term memories generally lasts between 30 and 60 minutes, and long term memory is in the context of hours to days. Mice studies rely on a 24-hour or longer cycle to study the effects of protein changes like cAMP-responsive element-binding protein (CREB) that have been implicated in the activation of protein synthesis required for long-term facilitation. I agree that there are structural or anatomical and biochemical changes but I never mentioned that it occurs on the spot.

The neurotransmitter norepinephrine is released in order to prepare the body or the brain for action, an enhanced activity  which is also linked to memory consolidation, for emotionally arousing events that create long term memories in humans and subsequent biochemical changes occur following release.

I also agree these changes happen at many levels and the physical changes underlying the encoding and processing of the information, such as a trace, that can remain in a fragile state for some time. However, a traumatic event such as this leads to retrieval and reactivation process that over the years, consolidates and stabilises with the age of the memory.

Also, I do not agree that there isn’t any long term memory consolidation here. The memories created by fear or trauma are different than a memory of simply remembering an uneventful time. An article published in 1998 discusses how the traumatic memories differ from the ordinary memories.

I disagree that any event that renders this magnitude of trauma can fail to be retried in an unaffected system and subsequently fails to be reconsolidated over time.

ShrutiM: I think you are missing my point by a mile. I reiterate my previous point that scientific concepts need to be explained properly to the public . Using catch phrases and difficult terminology is not useful while communicating science to the public, especially when done without care and incorrectly.

Long term consolidation is all that you have explained here – including CREB, neuromodulation, emotional valence – and a lot more. It is a phenomenon and a process that has been studied by many scientists across the world for the last 50 years. We are inching closer to fully understanding the role it plays in memory – but we are not in full consensus or agreement just yet.

I quote your sentence where you have used “long term consolidation” –

An attempt to rationalise the racial attack by the victim and its incomprehension can lead to a long term memory consolidation that links previous experiences of the people in the mobs with the current situation.

All that needs to be said here is that the victim remembers his/her previous associations with the people in the mob. There is absolutely no need to use technically difficult terms to explain simple concepts, when it doesnt help the lay reader to understand the concept or phenomenon

SumaiyaS: The empathetic response ‘mirroring’ or replicating other’s pain has been conducted in humans. Here are some of the highly valued studies for mirror neurons behaviour in humans (Kohler et al 2002; Kaplan and Lacoboni 2007; Chong et al 2008). The controversial mirror neurons has two sides of the story, the review you presented by Hickock can be countered by several studies that speak for the argument. My own study in pain mimicked mirrored behaviour responses in pain after unilateral nerve injury.

Also, the non-invasive techniques such as imaging (fMRI) are the only way one can record brain activity in healthy conscious humans and the study I am referring to in one such study of a colleague of mine who specialises in human empathy and pain using fMRI.

Although, I am not sure which behaviour study in contemporary neuroscience allows one to ‘record’ perception in awake human subjects using invasive methods. This is ethically not acceptable and no legitimate university will approve of this study. Perception in humans can be only recorded using questionaries using psychophysical methods unless there is an affective field maze study in mice for implied behaviour.

Specific neuronal activity studies such as cortical electrophysiology has not been conducted in humans in the brain again due to obvious ethical reasons. I have been a part of animal electrophysiology studies recording compound action potentials from the deep brain nuclei in pain modulation but animals cannot be used to record perceptual responses such as empathy or emotion.

On the other hand, the only invasive neuronal activity recordings conducted in humans can be done in periphery, using micro-neurography developed by Swedish scientists, which is currently my work of interest in Sweden. This method can only be used in the context of peripheral afferents in conscious human subjects not the brain itself.

Emotion and empathy is encoded in the brain and cannot be recorded unless you have ethic to conduct brain surgeries in healthy humans. Therefore, a PET, fMRI, and other similar imaging studies, EMG, peripheral micro-neurography, electrical stimulation (transcutaneous or transcranial) and psychophysics may be the only methods to use to understand human behaviour and none will incorporate an invasive electrode in the brain unless the human is not alive. What you are suggesting is inserting an electrode such as Gold or Tungsten needle in awake healthy human brains to ask how it feels (to study empathy).

ShrutiM: Research on mirror neurons in humans is currently underway. There are many studies and many groups that have data to establish both sides of the argument. Currently, there is no consensus in the scientific community on the existence of a ‘mirror neuron system’ in humans.

Given that is the case, your claim is both extremely premature and dangerous. As scientists, when asked about a contentious issue in science, it is our duty to provide both sides of the argument. We cannot choose a side, assume a stance and claim it to be the gospel truth.

Science advances very slowly and methodically with many missteps and stepbacks. We, as scientists, should endeavour to be as truthful and transparent as possible to the general public.

Unless you have not been in touch with current neuroscientific literature pertaining to electrophysiology in humans, you will see that it is indeed possible to record from individual and groups of neurons in the human brain. Doctors that perform human craniotomies regularly collaborate with neurophysiologists. With the explicit consent of the patient and their caregivers, neuroscientists regularly perform physiology experiments by inserting very fine silicone probes to record group and single neuronal activities.

Here is an excellent review of the state of the field with all the advances mentioned chronologically.

SumaiyaS: Although brain connectomes are not as simple as connection X (affect or sensory) to Y (motor), a study from 1983 shows the connections of amygdala and premotor cortex. Your reference from the line above is just an undergraduate ‘notes’ link of the basic limbic system.

ShrutiM: I agree – brain connectomes are not as simple as connecting ‘X’ area to ‘Y’ region. But, this knowledge is not useless. Such connectivity patterns can be used to validate and better understand the data obtained from other physiological experiments.

To resolve the scientific issue of whether the amygdala projects to the motor cortex of the brain, I stand corrected. My first claim was incorrect – there are indeed neuronal projections from the amygdala to the motor cortex.

But the important question here is to ask what information this connections carries? What is the behavior that recruits and involves this connection? That is not explained in the paper that you have cited.

To fully understand your claim, I quote your exact sentence The amygdala, a part of the brain related to empathy, is thought to be involved with the premotor cortex in initiating a mob response that requires physical action.

Referencing a study performed on primates in 2014,  the researchers conclude that the connection between the amygdala and the motor cortex is “critical for selecting the expressions that are more appropriate for a given social context”.

In other words, the neurons that project from the amygdala to motor cortex are necessary for ‘choosing a facial expression, in response to an emotionally charged environment’. Neurons from the amygdala send signals to the motor cortex to help initiate muscle movement on the face so that that primate can react with an appropriate facial expression.

Not a physical action, not a mob response – just a simple facial expression. Your original claim still stands as incorrect.

SumaiyaS: The example of autoimmunity was explaining a behaviour with a different biological analogy. My last sentence did indeed discuss the perils of nerve regrowth and the return of abnormal and painful sensations to the hand and the subsequent mutilated hands experiencing long term hypersensitivity and pain – in reference to the changing in social conditions for irreversible damage.

ShrutiM: The current reply still does not justify why the section and the article is titled ‘Cognitive Neuroscience of lynching’. There are deviations into explaining and creating analogies with everything else including autoimmune diseases, peripheral nerve injury, abnormal sensations during nerve regrowth after autotomy – none of which have anything to do with cognition or lynching.

This article has failed to explain any cognitive neuroscience related to lynching.

SumaiyaS: I believe the motive of this rebuttal was to discredit each of the original arguments and analogies I had made. As mentioned earlier, these were analogies or parallels drawn from what I observed through my own research and some of my peers and are true in scientific merit, especially where I had quoted references.

ShrutiM: That is correct. The very motive of a rebuttal is to discredit each of the arguments and analogies made in the article. This is because not only are they false, mis-cited and misused, they do not do anything to advance the general reader’s understanding of cognition, neuroscience or even basic brain function, let alone ‘the neuroscience of lynching’.

SumiayaS: The author also needs to acknowledge the fallacy in the rebuttal where I am inferring references from animal work. Preclinical and invasive testing is based on animals, and there is no discomfort in acknowledging that we do not understand the whole picture, and that inferring human behaviour from animal studies is a legitimate work in mainstream science.

ShrutiM: I take this opportunity to state that my own research in neuroscience is performed on rodents. Thus, I feel no discomfort admitting that indeed – animal behavioral work is used to infer human behavior.

When research from animals is used to understand human behavior, it must be clearly and plainly stated beforehand. The original article does not do this. Not only is there no clarifying statement, the author plays fast and loose with any and all results from animal studies. There is no transparency and no caveats to any of the claims made.

SumaiyaS: The original article is based on the discussions of the current situation and my comprehension of the traumatic events more than picking on the controversies of the mirror neurons for example. Such controversies have exist through the medical field. Perhaps, the author of this rebuttal hasn’t acknowledged how young the field of neuroscience is and it is from providing such hypothesis and inferred mechanisms only that we can make sense of the system, biological or social, presented to us.

ShrutiM: If the author wanted to write about their views, opinions and  impressions about lynching as a social phenomenon, then it should be re-titled as an opinion piece – not a science piece. Unless it attempts to explain something very fundamental about the neural processes involved in mob mentality and violent behavior, to the lay person, such writing should not be exposed to the general public. There is a very real and present danger of inciting and propagating false science and information.

SumaiyaS: Perhaps this reflects a bias in your thought process where an attempt such as this to familiarise the readers with the victim’s and perpetrators’ cognition (mental action or process) triggered you to focus, instead, on the controversial sides of the medical analogies that I have used to explain to a largely non-scientific readership.

ShrutiM: My aim – as a neuroscientist, a science communicator and a human, is to make sure that I communicate my work and my science in the clearest and simplest way possible. If I come across a piece of work, such as this, where neuroscience is misused to support personal opinion, I consider it my duty to point it out.

As a professional scientist, I can confidently state the following – Not only have you used the wrong analogies, you have used them badly and are currently trying to backtrack and justify your incorrect choices. There is an overarching lack of logically correct arguments and analogies from other areas of biology are blatantly misused. Finally, there is a severe lack of any neuroscientifically supported arguments to explain mob behaviour and lynching. None of these can be explained away by blaming the history of neuroscience research or the need to explain scientific concepts to people.

I advise you to reconsider your current position and refrain from publishing more of such articles where you cannot qualify, justify or even verify the neuroscience you cite.


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