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Projects

Intelligence

Cognitive and computer sciences share a common subject of investigation: intelligence. My research agenda includes studying the foundations of organic and artificial intelligence, and expressing a philosophy of intelligence that translates across these disciplines.

My current work explores central aspects of general intelligence in humans, including fluid intelligence and cognitive flexibility. Additionally, I am working to develop predictors for general intelligence in humans that are based on functional neural imaging. Findings from resting-state fMRI and psychometric testing reveal persistent patterns in neural activity that contribute explanatory power to individual differences in intellectual ability.

Studies of organic and artificial intelligence are increasingly informing one another. Machine learning and deep learning applied to neural systems are revealing how biological intelligence is organized; these revelations subsequently have strong potential to inform the trajectory for conceptualizing and engineering synthetic cognitive systems.

Religiosity

Why are some individuals intrinsically oriented to participate in religious systems, whereas others experience disinterest or aversion to religious thought and activity? What are the relationships between psychology and belief, and how are these relationships mediated in the brain?

To address these questions, I helped design and launch "The Religious Brain Project" at the University of Utah. Our first publication on the religious brain explores the role of the reward system in Latter-day Saint (Mormon) religious experiences. The fMRI outcomes of this first study illuminate a system of neural regions that participate together in a religious phenomenon that is referred to within Mormon culture as “feeling the Spirit.”

Current work comparatively investigates how beliefs in hell are represented in a U.S. and an Iranian sample, and the ways that beliefs about damnation interact with a diverse set of psychological markers.

A personal long-term goal is to create an open access database for the neuroscientific and psychological study of religion and spirituality. The movement toward open access data in science is a universal win: it enables researchers at all career and ability levels to ask questions from datasets that would otherwise be financially or pragmatically prohibitive to independently collect. Further, open science and data sharing enable more discovery, more efficiently.

I am optimistic that such a resource would illuminate profound mysteries about the interactions of culture and brain, including ways in which language primes the mind for phenomenal content, and the socialization of values, dispositions, and beliefs. These topics are central in mapping the nature of group dynamics in humans.

The Soul

“We are all different people.” -Axiom 1, Epistemology of the Closet

I am extraordinarily interested in integrating premodern concepts of the soul with contemporary network understandings about the functions of the human brain and the nature of the human mind. Particular classical philosophers of interest are Aristotle (by way of De Anima), Aquinas, and Alfarabi. My fond ambition is to reanimate the wisdom of classical philosophers, channeled through the medium of human physiological science. I am actively cultivating collaborations in an interdisciplinary niche of peripatetic philosophy and neuroscience. If your expertise and passions are consonant with this intersectional paradigm, please contact me.

More narrowly, my current investigations examine mechanisms whereby the brain constructs and maintains the sense of self. I conceptualize "selfhood" as a mental waveform supervening on biological substrate. The function of this waveform is modulated across time by cyclical processes that include new conscious experiences and recollective contemplation. As it relates to culture, I am motivated to understand how and how come the brain incorporates cultural episodic memories, i.e., historical episodes outside of an individual's existential space and time, into an individual's personal sense of self.

To enter into an instructive metaphor about the human self, let us begin by considering the body. The body is a multilayer set of organic processes whose structure gives rise to dissociable physical functions at macroscopic, microscopic, and nanoscopic scales. The body is a concrete assembly of systems, existing with obvious physicality. The body is an example of an assembly of multilayer processes that give rise to a unitary whole process and way of being: human-being. In other words, it is meaningful to think about the body both in terms of: 1) components that exert essential "upward" influence on a whole, and 2) a whole that exerts essential "downward" influence on its components. Let us now use this conceptual template about human bodies and abstract toward the instructive metaphor about human selves. We can consider the human self, i.e., the composite identities a person sustains throughout their existence, as a multilayer set of mental processes. The structure and function of these multilayer mental processes gives rise to emergent whole-to-part (top-down) forces in the mind and, consequently, the body. In other words, the totality of human mental faculties in concert with one another gives rise to an emergent, phenomenal, causal whole: Aristotle's soul (English), anima (Latin), ψυχή (Greek). The emergent soul exerts top-down "existential transformations" on mental, neural, and--ultimately--bodily processes at macroscopic, microscopic, and nanoscopic scales. By "existential transformations," I mean the operation of these whole-to-part (top-down), emergent soul forces whose net functions are to revise life meaning and repurpose appetitive questing. Thus, "existential transformations" reconfigure the mind such that its component faculties are re-essentialized to subserve global purposes. In Aristotelean terms of existence and essence, "existential transformations" are the mental and behavioral processes which confer an ongoingly renewed essence upon the fact of human existence. In this context, Western existential thought (e.g., Victor Frankl's psychodynamic theories of will to meaning) create a bridge between classical philosophical concepts of the human soul and the empirical material methods of medicine and neuroscience.

New project partnerships in the Lab for Brain Network Imaging and Modulation (PI: Michael D. Fox, MD, PhD) will be targeting aspects of depression related to existentiality (i.e., nihilistic thought, meaninglessness, purposelessness, suicidal ideation and behavior, etc.). This will bring full circle my aspiration to integrate philosophy and medicine, and constitutes my platform for launching an independent research program: The Culture and Brain Lab.

Gender & Sexual Minorities

In Fall 2016, I taught an undergraduate course titled Gender and Sexual Minorities through the Department of Human Development at Cornell University. PDFs and supporting educational material for the course Preamble and Lecture 1 are available here in the interest of public education about these crucial topics.

Syllabus HD3840 FALL 2016

PREAMBLE: Neurophilosophy

Lecture 1: Cognition of Categorization

“To understand the mind, we must understand the brain.”
-Patricia Churchland

In this lecture, we seek to appreciate the cognitive and neural processes for perceptual categorization. The systems supporting perceptual categorization of visual input are particularly sophisticated for human bodies and faces.

The inescapable categorization machine in your head is dynamically responsive to socially normative conditions during development. In fewer places does this become clearer than the comparative criteria for gender and sexuality across time and culture, as we shall see throughout the semester.

Readings:

Thorpe, S. J., & Fabre-Thorpe, M. (2001). Seeking categories in the brain. Science, 291(5502), 260-263.

Seeking_Categories_Figure_1.medium
‍Figure 1 (High resolution file)

Logothetis, N. K., & Sheinberg, D. L. (1996). Visual object recognition. Annual review of neuroscience, 19(1), 577-621.

SECTION 1: Fundamentals of Gender and Sex

Lecture 2: Biology of Gender and Sex

This lecture will lay an empirical, biological foundation for our future theoretical conversations about gender and sex.

Chapter 3 Of Molecules and SexFausto-Sterling, A. (2012). Sex/gender: Biology in a social world. Routledge.
Chapter 4 Of Hormones and BrainsFausto-Sterling, A. (2012). Sex/gender: Biology in a social world. Routledge.

Lecture 3: Sexed Behavior and Gender Performance

We will critically explore human and non-human animal research on sexed behavior during early childhood play. From here, we will begin to examine the rich sociological work on the phenomenology and performance of gender.

Hassett, J. M., Siebert, E. R., & Wallen, K. (2008). Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children. Hormones and behavior, 54(3), 359-364.

Berenbaum, S. A., & Hines, M. (1992). Early androgens are related to childhood sex-typed toy preferences. Psychological Science, 3(3), 203-206. Butler, J. (2003).

Performative acts and gender constitution. Performance. Ed. Philip Auslander, 4, 97-110.

Human Sexual Development

In Spring 2017, I taught Human Sexual Development at Cornell University. This was an undergraduate course on the developmental biology and psychology of human sexuality across the lifespan, from fetuses masturbating in utero to swingers in senior communities. Specialty topics covered in the course included sex and sexuality as it relates to physical and mental disability, as well as bondage, discipline/dominance, and kink. The course surveyed historical and contemporary sexology research, and culminated in an end-of-semester student symposium titled Cornell Has Sex: A Symposium for a Sexually Intelligent Campus.

fMRI Methods

During the Spring 2012 semester, I co-instructed a graduate course on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) methods through the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Utah. Course topics included an introduction to physics of MRI, fMRI experimental design, introduction to Matlab scripting, introduction to SPM (Statistical Parametric Mapping) software, and a computational laboratory practicum component for hands-on experience analyzing both task and resting-state fMRI data.