Food Co-Op and Instruments

I love how having a “real life outside the Department”1 contributes to my work-related ideas. Most of the time, however, they remain work-related ideas, and cannot be transformed into actual reading and writing, since what I am currently working on are mainly the assigned readings for my weekly classes. Be that as it may, living the “real life” meant attending Mariposa‘s new member orientation on Sunday, where I found myself sitting next to a Penn teacher (whose name I will not tell, since I am not sure if she wants the world to know that we met, and that it happened in this specific location). Before the two-hour ideological indoctrination started, we spent a few minutes talking about our work and mutual acquaintances in the HSS Department. As it turned out, she had co-authored several papers on the history of arts and sciences with Penn HSS faculty. Thanks to our introduction-to-rule at Mariposa, I found out her name (as well as gender self-identification and food co-op experience), and was able to google her department website in the evening. Continue reading

Follow Up …

… on incompatible systems: Our brain is much more complex than the apparatuses we use to assess it. What if fMRI and brain are just like course list (where I appeared as “registered”) and PennInTouch (where I registered as “audit” for the course)? It is pretty likely that we would not just continue to be nescient, but generate false knowledge.1 Anyhow, I think this point is very clear: If it happens to paper and digital databases, it can as well happen to neuronal systems and these noisy machines. Sadly, I will not take part in the class; luckily, however, I was able to communicate it—I am wondering how neurons / neuronal networks / brain areas might try to tell us we are in the wrong, when in fact they only audit a cognitive process while we think they are about to actively take part in it in order to receive credit for it. Poor neurons! Continue reading

Localizing “Culture” in the Brain

Today was the second day of classes. Everybody still can hardly wrap their head around the fact that the new semester started before Labor Day … To me, however, it already feels like I have been at the Department for weeks: So much talking, advising, reading, having dinner and coffee together, so many skilled faculty members (with a sense of humor!!), and, of course, amazingly helpful and friendly fellow graduate students. Since I will almost certainly want to write a lot about the readings for my courses later (three to five standard history of science/technology works plus primary sources and articles each week), I want to seize today’s opportunity and share some earlier thoughts stimulated during a discussion in January: One of my professors mentioned a conference on evolutionary psychology he had attended years ago where a research group presented a paper1 explaining that they had managed to locate culture in the brain by using fMRI. Wow! How could anyone ever define “culture” precisely enough in order to allow setting up an experiment on the brain’s reactions when it is opposed to culture, let alone localize (material foundations of) culture in the brain?! Continue reading

Hello World

For a start of my blog (how did this weird abbreviation of “weblog” come about in the first place?), I want to share the main ideas of my Master’s thesis, which I handed in on Maundy Thursday this year. My thesis consists of roughly 80 pages German text dealing with the question whether fMRI research can legitimately be reproached for being “a new phrenology” or not. To tackle this extensive problem, I narrowed it down to the question in how far initial fMRI1 research in the late 1990s searching for sex/gender differences in human brains was similar to early phrenology dealing with the same question. Specifically, I concentrated on Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828), who put “organology,” as he himself called it, into practice. Gall and later phrenologists tried to localize mental faculties in the brain by palpating skulls, while fMRI tries to situate specific functions in several brain areas by scanning people’s heads. Continue reading