Neil deGrasse Tyson on Neuroscience

Predrag Boksic | perceptron
I was watching this interview of Neil deGrasse Tyson (via). I'm not going to post a full transcript of the segment, mostly because Neil argues that transcripts are bad about 45 seconds into the video. Click on the first link to watch this segment of the interview.

In brief, Neil states that some may not want neuroscience to explain beauty. But, if one were to record which parts of the brain lit up when viewing a beautiful painting, and if lighting up the same parts of the brain made a previously not-beautiful painting seem beautiful, we'd have demonstrated that beauty is a neurological phenomena.

What surprised me was that I immediately considered this an unsatisfactory explanation of beauty. Skeptics and non-scientists may have similar gut reactions to such an experimental result, and dismiss the mission of neuroscience completely, so its important to examine why I instinctively rejected this evidence.

The experiment would provide strong evidence of the neural correlate of beauty, but nothing more. For those entrenched in dualist beliefs ( e.g. immoral souls exist ), even demonstrating that brain activity is necessary and sufficient for subjective experience will not convince them that the brain ≡ the mind. But, people with less fantastic belief systems may still not be satisfied.

This experiment lacks two things that I think are critical for understanding how the brain gives rise to subjective experience. First, it could not explain how perceptual experience was translated into activation of beauty-related areas of the brain. Second, it could not provide a model that we could use to sample from the distribution of beautiful things.

The first is always a challenge in neuroscience. Once you think you understand what part of the brain is doing, you can begin to try to understand how it is doing it. Due to the high connectivity within the brain and the fact that the brain did not evolve to be understood, there may be no succinct explanation of how perceptual experience is registered as beautiful or not beautiful. The simplest complete model of the system may be a complete model of the brain right down to the biophysics, but we will at least have a model.

The second is a problem outside the scope of neuroscience, and is related to the P vs NP problem. Even if we simulate the mechanism for perceiving beauty, we may not be able to generate beauty. We could test whether something is beautiful, but would be left to random sampling to generate the test set. In computer science, we don't yet know whether problems that can be checked quickly also have solutions that be solved quickly without random guessing. It may be provably impossible to efficiently sample the distribution of beautiful things. How do you think skeptics of science would react to such a result?

Now, Neil DeGrasse Tyson made up that experiment on the fly, under pressure, in front of a television camera. This is impressive, and I'm not criticizing someone who is almost certainly a good deal cleverer and more awesome than I am. In other words, onward ! science !


  1. My reactions to Neil deGrasse Tyson:

    I watched him on the Daily show, where he had a little back and forth with John Stewart over the fact that if we send astronauts to Mars, they have to wait around for like a year before the orbits line up again and they even have the possibility of returning home. To which John Stewart responded "BORING." and Neil responded "See, but they aren't like you, they're EXPLORERS! They would be out, having the time of their lives, EXPLORING." To which John Stewart counters, "See but, I'm an explorer too. I've been exploring my local fast food options and now I know that Dunkin Donuts will give me a triple glazed waffle egg sandwich. [adventure, excitement, grease, etc.]".

    At this point, Neil deGrasse Tyson loses almost the entire viewership, because he argues along the lines of "See, but that's not dangerous. That's easy. If you are an astronaut, at any second the hull of your space ship could be smashed by Micrometeoroids going X million miles per hour. That's danger."

    Even small children react to that with shock. The reason to go to Mars is not because it is dangerous. You can go buy a motorcycle for $10,000 that will scare the living crap out of you -- In fact I bet that if you drive this thing like this guy does, it will be just as dangerous as if you went to Mars:


    (thank you Darbnet for link)

    The reasons Mars is a worthy adventure are basically
    1) Science
    2) Glory

    Honestly its mostly the glory. No ones ever done it before. While professing my ignorance of astrophysics, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the scientific value of going to Mars is somewhat limited. There don't seem to be a lot of experiments we really wish we could perform on Mars -- I think between Earth and possibly Zero Gravity we've covered pretty much everything. If you want to learn about Martian Geology and the planet itself, of course going to Mars is great, but I think there's probably little we can learn from these areas that will inform the rest of what we do on Earth.

    I think the account you post of Neil deGrasse Tyson above, equating "beauty" with some stimulation pattern in the cortex, "proving" that beauty is a neurological phenomenon.. is similarly superficial. Of course at a basic philosophical level, it makes no sense -- if you stimulate the neurons in my mind that make me remember images of Mike Rule, that does not prove that Mike Rule is a neurological phenomenon. And moreover, even if you could make brains feel differently by stimulating them... that doesn't provide the depth of understanding that neuroscience seeks.

    This may be unfair in many ways, however, to be honest Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds me of Alemi when he's excited about something and specifically trying to appeal to the science loving kid in you / me. There's this mode that Alemi gets into some times where he takes something simple, manages to say something cool about it, and that gets so super excited about it that he wants to hype it to everyone around him, and not get too bogged down in the details but cherish the awesome simplicity and wonder of it all. I feel like Neil deGrasse Tyson must have special pills he takes to be like that all the time so that he can go on TV going SCIENCE SCIENCE SCIENCE for the popular audiences 24/7.

    It's not bad, its just simplistic, and occasionally oversimplistic towards the "more noble goal" of getting people excited about science.

  2. [[Caveat: I did not watch the video, I am busy]]

    Mike accurately critiques why the neuro experiment for beauty is both cool, and possibly useless. Basically, does beauty exist in the natural world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio) or is it a subjective property; eg in our best understanding of the mind, a neural event?

    Discovering some kind of common beauty structure through a combination of fMRI studies and deep brain stimulation would be cool, but Mike is correct that this might not help us make beautiful things, simply tell us when something is already beautiful. And there are easier ways to tell if something is beautiful that don't involve fMRIs, like asking if it's beautiful. Brain stimulation won't make things truly beautiful, it's just an alternative to chemical stimulation, which we already regard as a cheap and shoddy simulacrum of real beauty.

    Now, onto Mars exploration. Historically, the great age of exploration was undertaken for a single reason; explorers wanted to become filthy rich by discovering new trading partners and resources. There's nobody to trade with on Mars, and no economical way to extract resources and ship them back to Earth. So the question then become pursuit of science and glory, as Beck puts it. If it's science, we should ask how much science we get from humans vs robots for a given amount of money. If it's glory, we need to ask how glorious exploring Mars would be against the very real chance all the astronauts will die out there. (and how much we're willing to spend to make America look good). So Mars exploration is not realistic.

    I haven't seen a lot of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and while I admire what he's doing, he's never grabbed me for "this is why science is cool" like Feynman, Sagan, or even Kurzweiul have. But YMMV.