Home > Determinism, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Science > Digital Schizophrenia and Reductionism

Digital Schizophrenia and Reductionism

Recently researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have been able to induce Schizophrenia-like symptoms in their computer system nicknamed DISCERN. Capable of remembering the details of simple narratives as well as processing languages, grammar, and story structure, DISCERN was created to hopefully mimic the way the human brain can process this type of information.

Suspecting that dopamine levels might play a causal role in Schizophrenia in humans, researchers attempted to give DISCERN higher than normal capabilities of retaining information in an attempt to uncover whether the inability to filter relevant information could be a partial culprit for Schizophrenia. In the human brain, dopamine has been linked to “memory learning and consolidation.” Increasing DISCERN’s abilities was one of many approaches attempted in order to mimic schizophrenic behavior, and the results were quite interesting.

DISCERN claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack (which clearly it did not commit) and when prompted for information on a specific memory or story, it would emit a string of disjointed sentences that, while grammatically correct, lacked meaning or even a consistent perspective. According to Ralph Hoffman from Yale University, the test dubbed the “hyperlearning” test gave the closest results yet to the behavior of Schizophrenic individuals. While this study is certainly not conclusive, in that it does not leave us with a final conclusion as to the cause of the disorder, I believe a different benefit can be drawn, namely a stronger defense of reductionism.

The largest obstacle facing opponents of reductionism is to demonstrate a behavior, capacity, or ability of the human being that appears irreducible to brain chemistry or other neural interactions. While these can (and I argue, must) play a role in a nonreductionist theory, there must be some sense in which human behavior cannot simply be explained through brain activity. What studies like this most recent one grant us is an ability to create neural systems quite similar in behavior and structure to human neural systems and then experiment. The possibility of inducing an otherwise human disorder in a digital network points toward one of a few conclusions: (1) such a neural network possesses the same irreducibility which human beings do and therefore must be granted all of the rights and privileges of human beings, or (2) disorders and aberrant behaviors are explainable through manipulation of the lowest common denominator, i.e. the structure of the neural network, and thus the disorder is reducible to the state of the neural network over a period of time. I do not mean to create a false dichotomy, but rather to illustrate how I have arrived at reductionist concerns.

Now, (1) does not appear to be a viable option, since for all intents and purposes, DISCERN has a very low-level ability to recall information when prompted by stimuli. While human beings are certainly capable of such behavior, human agency necessarily encapsulates much more than simple memory recall. (2) is more appealing, especially in its narrow scope. I think nonreductionists might be willing to agree that aberrant behavior might surely be symptomatic of lower-level structural problems. So, for example, I do not believe nonreductionists would claim that delayed or damaged motor skills could not be caused by damage to the brain IF they subscribe to some sort of supervenient relationship wherein the brain supports but does not fully describe the behavior of human agents.

So, does DISCERN prove reductionism? No. But these findings certainly appear to be a step in that direction.

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  1. May 10, 2011 at 9:45 PM

    Great find, Jared, and excellent analysis. I read a similar article yesterday, but it took the research in an entirely different direction. It discussed the concept of cognitive disinhibiton, or the inability of the brain to filter out irrelevant information (as is symptomatic of patients with schizophrenia). Researchers found that cognitive disinhibition was also prevalent in people with high levels of creativity and eccentricity, suggesting that highly creative people may inherit dopamine-altering genes symptomatic of schizophrenia without inheriting the disease itself. It would certainly help explain why artistic geniuses are often the loony, recluse type.

    Anyway, sorry for the digression, just thought you might be interested.

    • May 11, 2011 at 11:11 AM

      Thanks Chris! This article also discussed the inability to filter information as well.

      I think you have a good point that artistic geniuses or brilliant scientists often lack the ability to filter their information, straddling the line between schizophrenia and creativity. This, in my opinion, has a corollary in Taoism as well when some of those who have “gone up the mountain” appear to be a little cracked when they come back down the other side.

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