Diversity of Tactics in the Neurobiology of Language

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If you are looking for something to eat in San Sebastiàn early in the evening — as you might be if you were, like me, a jet-lagged scientist forced to walk in the dark to the inaugural lecture of the Neurobiology of Language Conference that morning, or, more pressingly, like one of my travel companions, a jet-lagged eight-year-old from Beijing, where dinner typically starts around six — you will invariably end up in a bar, eating pintxos.

This is not a bad deal. Making a meal of pintxos — usually mini-open-faced-sandwiches on a thick slice of baguette — typically involves ordering a drink, asking for a plate, and then grabbing whatever looks interesting. Starting simple with tortilla española, some anchovies, a slice of jamòn iberico, and working up to elaborate genre-benders at places like A Fuego Negro, where, well, just look at this craziness.

Poster sessions can be a bit like this. You are standing up the whole time, occasionally stumbling upon something unexpectedly interesting, shouting over the noise and ignoring cross-talk from nearby conversations, worrying about your breath, although the likelihood that you’ve just eaten sardines is much lower at a poster session than at a pintxos bar. Afterward, you’re not quite sure you remember what you’ve seen, but you’re pretty sure you’re done looking at science for the evening, and should turn your focus to drinking and chatting with your far-flung friends and colleagues whom you only get to see at conferences and meetings anymore.

Casually browsing the posters — there were only a hundred or so at each session — gives one a good sense of the theoretical and methodological anarchy of the field at large. Still under the sway of the Feyerabend book I discussed previously and, more generally thinking about what what lessons horizontalist and anti-capitalist theory and practice might have for cognitive neuroscience (it’s a recurring theme, I guess) I couldn’t help but wonder whether this is how the phrase “diversity of tactics” would pay out in terms of a scientific field of inquiry: A number of people are testing different theories about the role of the motor system in speech perception by looking at the conditions under which motor cortex does (and doesn’t) get activated by listening to speech. Arguments about how semantic concepts are organized are playing out using increasingly sophisticated approaches to decoding activity throughout the temporal lobe. Some people are into decoding just for the sake of seeing what they can decode. Others have developed new ways of analyzing structural data, and are finding that these measures are related in interesting ways to individual differences in behavior.

Often the methods generate more excitement than findings, because people can see immediately how they want to use them in their work. Findings are often trickier, especially when presented at conferences — who knows whether they’ll replicate, or even see the light of day in publication? This belies the fact that new methods are often as messy and provisional as new findings. A recent example would be the heartbreaking story of resting state functional connectivity in development and disorders (which, by the way: massive respect is due to the team that reported this, because a lot of their work over the past few years has depended this technique).

There were arguments about what particular areas do — this year’s debates focused on the insula and the angular gyrus — and these wound up turning largely on arguments about what sorts of data are most trustworthy, and what sorts of things we we want to countenance as functions. There were also arguments about whether it even makes sense to have arguments about what areas do. There was a poster about gossip, one presenting the results of a study in which participants touched the experimenter’s face while listening to speech sounds, and a study in which people learned to read an alphasyllabary composed of faces with different emotional expressions.

It is easy to get overwhelmed. At a meeting tailored so specifically to my interests, I should feel like a kid in a candy store — or, I suppose, at a pintxos bar — but the sensation of a second poster session after a morning plenary session and two sets of talks interrupted only by an impromptu meeting over lunch more readily calls to mind this brilliant description of dating in New York: “it’s more like being a kid at Home Depot, where there’s tons of shit and you don’t want any of it, and you just want to leave.” But as frustrating as it can be at times, this kind of shambolic, town-hall meeting is probably the most productive way to proceed, given the current state of the field. I’d be more concerned if the posters reflected a monoculture, or a desire to pretend that we have identified a small number of critical issues, and have a standard set of tools to address them.

As the conference wound down, people headed back to the east coast started to get annoying news about their flights home, and then more worrying news about what might happen to their homes, as Sandy approached regions woefully unprepared for tropical storms. In the past week, as life has gradually begun to return to normal, what’s been inspiring to watch is how the Occupy movement has been able to mount a spontaneous volunteer relief effort that has addressed gaps left by less nimble organizations like FEMA and Red Cross. If you’re in the area, you can find out more about pitching in here. Diversity of tactics indeed.

Image: the delightfully random and often deserted Monte Igueldo amusement park, with a view of San Sebastiàn in the distance. The rickety old funicular that takes you from the end of Ondaretta beach to the top of the hill is in danger of being replaced. Warning to the humorless “modernizing” elements at the Chamber of Commerce: if you mess with the Rio Misterioso, you will find me chained to the water wheel.

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