Borges Was A Neuroscientist

The neuroscientist Rodrigo Quian Quiroga has written a lovely appreciation of Jorge Luis Borges in the latest Nature (not online). Quiroga focuses on Borges interest in neuroscience, which led him to write his classic short story Funes the Memorious, about a man who cannot forget:

In the story of Funes, Borges described very precisely the problems of distorted memory capacities well before neuroscience caught up...In a study using electrodes to probe the hippocampus in epileptic patients for clinical reasons, we identified a type of neuron that fires in response to particular abstract concepts. For example, one neuron in a patient fired only in recognition of different pictures of the actress Jennifer Aniston; another responded only to images of another celebrity, Halle Berry. It is thus possible that these neurons link perception and memory by creating the abstract encoding we use to store memories -- especially considering that we tend to remember concepts and forget irrelevant details. If these neurons are lacking, the ability to generate abstractions may be limited, leading to pathologies such as autism or characters like Funes.

Even without this scientific knowledge, Borges's intuitive description is sharp: Funes, he wrote, was "virtually incapable of general, platonic ideas ... His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them ... To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars."

I've written about Funes before, but it's worth pointing out that the short story isn't Borges' only work with neuroscientific implications. One of my favorite Borgesian parables is The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, which describes a "certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge". What makes this encyclopedia so peculiar is its division of knowledge. The animal kingdom, for instance, has been parsed into the following categories:

(a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.

The moral of the story is that all categories are arbitrary; there is no natural way to subdivide nature. Of course, our own classification schemes don't seem strange at all - they seem necessary and true. That faith, however, is a mere side-effect of the mind, which has a weakness for essences. This is known as essentialism, and it's reflected in our instinctive belief that there is something intrinsic to every thing, from tigers to chairs to water, that make it that particular thing. (A tiger born without stripes is still a tiger, right?) Look, for instance, at Platonic idealism, which argues that behind the chaotic confusion of details - there are so many different kinds of chair - there is an ideal chair, which reflects the essence of all chairs.

Children are natural essentialists. Frank Keil, a psychologist at Yale, has done some interesting work that captures this tendency at work. He begins by showing his young subjects a variety of visual transformations: a tiger that's been dressed in a lion suit, a porcupine that has been turned into a cactus, a real dog that resembles a toy. Not surprisingly, the children dismiss these transformations as irrelevant and superficial. The porcupine is still a porcupine. The dog is still a dog. The tiger is still a tiger, even if it looks like a lion. It was only when Keil told the children that the transformations also took place on the inside - their internal essences had been altered - that the little kids were convinced the animals had changed categories. The tiger was now a lion.

The lesson is that even a kid would find the Borgesian encyclopedia peculiar. Plato thought it was possible to "cut nature at its joints, like a good butcher". But this faith assumes that nature has joints, and that the essences we perceive are real and everlasting. Unfortunately, those essences are mostly figments of the mind, projections of a brain that is born believing in Platonic forms.

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"That faith, however, is a mere side-effect of the mind, which has a weakness for essences."

While this would seem to be broadly true, isn't it unfortunate that this leaves us in the same bind we're trying to escape? If the mind has a weakness for essences, that would seem to be an essential characteristic of the mind, no?

But maybe this meta-level contradiction can be sidelined by saying that the mind has a historically and culturally variable vulnerability to essentialism. This wanders away from "universal mind" and the essentializing that concept would seem to invite.

Determining just how proclivities for essentialism vary over time and place, however, would be a daunting research project in itself.

I think we can see characteristics as typical of the human mind without falling into essentialism, so I don't think Ryan is pointing to a deep problem -- though it is a risk we need to keep in mind.

The last sentence of the post intrigues me, though: "those essences are mostly figments of the mind". Does this open the door to some essences being real? Or to more fairly follow the context, are there some real "joints" which are perhaps not essences?

I think this is quite an important question, actually. Does the world have some intrinsic structure that we can grasp in some sense, or are we really just swimming in a relativistic soup? Since this is a science blog, I guess we do believe there's structure accessible to us, and that science helps us to grasp it. But how do we rely on that belief, and still advocate robust anti-essentialism?

My own feeling is that our "built in" essentialism is adaptive in the same way as our "built in" judgements about what is animate or how things get contaminated -- they are very crude and easily applied heuristics that do reflect some more complex and subtle structure in the world -- at least the slice of the world we had to navigate during our recent evolution.

Damasio's somatic markers and much of "How We Decide" is about minds recognizing patterns of reward and punishment - and using those patterns to guide behavior that supports our survival. (At least that's the theme I found there.) I'd add that there is probably less to lose in a survival sense from over-generalizing - than from not recognizing possible patterns from sparse data. It's good not to step on any snake in the grass.

Science is also about generalizing and classifying natural entities scientifically. In such cases the goal is objective inferences that can be dependably used for predicting large scale human behavior - such as how we might address climate change.

Both kinds though are "figments of the mind" because only minds can conceive of kinds. Both kinds are used for predicting the future results of human behavior. One of them is more rigorously defined and applied is all. And that is the essence of that kind.

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 05 Feb 2010 #permalink

More from Jorge Luis Borges on an anthology of fantastic zoology is available in his "The Book of Imaginary Beings," (ISBN: 0670891800).

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 05 Feb 2010 #permalink

just a clarification: plato and his ideal forms is a form of noumenalism, which sets ideal forms as being above or perception of reality, essentialists see essences as being alongside our perception, and when you speak of particulars not adding up to a general concept, you are referring to existentialism, which puts our perception of reality as being equal to actual reality.

for a good take on Borge's comment on the division of the animal kingdom as seen in the Chinese encyclopedia have at look at the intro to Michel Foucault's "the order or things"

Just last week I read BORGES' story about FUMES in The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss by Jonathan Lethem, who suggests stories on amnesia may be a genre of its own.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 05 Feb 2010 #permalink

Im not sure what you mean when state that " even a child would find the encycloedia peculiar", you aware that Jorge Luis Borges was a poet, right?

We are born believing more in Platonic functions than forms, because we are more attuned to purposes than their facades. Thus we "see" an essential function that denotes a chair, but have never regarded that function as ideal.

Just out of curiosity, would Borges have known of Luria's Mnemonist as of writing his story?

add comment moderation to your blasphemy blog, you little fool...

By atheismisdead (not verified) on 06 Feb 2010 #permalink

Perhaps not all. Based on my experiences with adult learners who had never finished high school, I'm not so sure the neuroscientist is finished with knowing about people categorizing, experiences with just ordinary appearing, talking people, none diagnosed as slow learners.

The first instance that stunned me, after SIX weeks of instruction and study was a question to me, "How can that be a noun and a subject at the same time." Whoa, Time to back up and rethink the approach by the teacher. And after that I encountered their classification problem of mutuality beyond particularity more times as we read poetry and literature, and it had affected their reading comprehension.

In case it is hard to follow, I had been asked about a concept in effect, 'How can you be a father and a man at the same time."

No lack showed on the surface of these students, (and their second identified common trait was that they did not know how to reward themselves for learning well done.)

If what they were dealing with was the philosophical noumen, it is no wonder if they would be subject to various fantasies of society and religion. It seemed to me they were both vulnerable and loyal.

n 10: challenging question; as far as I could research there is no evidence that JL Borges saw that Luria's work, although not impossible. Maybe it could be the other way around?? Given date of publications? Interesting parallel. Thank you

Jonah, have I missed some sort of distinction? As of now, I completely disagree with what this post seems to be communicating.

In the post, an "essence" seems to more specifically refer to a "personal mental model". We're able to recognize something even when the details change. Our personal mental models may be arbitrary, and perhaps often incorrect. However, this does not mean that the "essence,"an object's intrinsic and absolute qualities, do not exist.

Case in point: Our mental models work. People that have the correct mental of nature are able to develop technology that exert mastery over nature. Thus we can create circuit boards, skyscrapers, etc

When we learn, we update our personal mental model--it gets closer to being a correct representation of the "essence."


Science - a uniquely human endeavor - is in many ways the process of translating an "analog" world into a "digital" world.

Please pardon my not addressing various commenters directly, but it is easier just to throw a jumble together. Borges, along with being a piet with 2500 poems to his credit and a writer of short fiction (more distilled later in his life), was a librarian. Between that background, inspired by his being surrounded by books at home before beginning his formal schooling at age 8, would have inspired him to think about classification from a young age. Furthermore, stories such as "Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius" and "The Library of Babel" suggest that he was fascinated by real encyclopedias, probably having devoured them alongside "The Arabian Nights" and other works we know inspired his fiction.

What matters, insofar as Borges is concerned here, is the astounding breadth of influences he brought to his writing. If we look at those groundbreaking thinkers of the last few centuries, we will find that all share this same trait. What he may have expressed without meaning to was a concept others who were well read would also develop, though within the frameworks of their own areas of expertise. This is not to say that concepts such as essentialism were foreseeable or inevitable, but that they had better odds than that infinite group of monkey pounding away at typewriters had of composing Hamlet.

Move the discussion beyond whether or not these assertions and conclusions are correct and into the realm of how these connections might teach is something about the operation of learning and discovery.

Now I will return to pursuing my belief that Borges was a mathematician and theoretical physicist.

The error started here..

"In a study using electrodes to probe the hippocampus in epileptic patients for clinical reasons, we identified a type of neuron that fires in response to particular abstract concepts. For example, one neuron in a patient fired only in recognition of different pictures of the actress Jennifer Aniston; another responded only to images of another celebrity, Halle Berry."

The essence of the error is that those abstract concepts are not without material reality. They really and truly exist in the physical brain as a series of synapses to which in conscious reflection (Dialectically) we attach identifiers. That whole gestalt exists as concrete, specific, structures in our concrete material brains.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise, that a neuron structure in our brain recognizes, even without the identifier, that particular synapse arrangement and fires in recognition.

I could take the rest of the article apart in the same manner because unlike its author I never forget that what I am thinking, that whatever my thinking recognizes outside my brain, like Haille Barry, actually exists as part of the material structure of my brain, be it the original starting structure or the developed trained structure.

There is no thought, conscious or otherwise, that does not exist in mind as a real, concrete, material, construction of brain.

I did find the neuron trigger interesting insofar as it underlines all else I have said here.

The article is in essence a lapse into idealism.


By Jack Jersawitz (not verified) on 08 Feb 2010 #permalink

Methinks you missed the point of the article, J.

>> Unfortunately, those essences are mostly figments of the mind, projections of a brain that is born believing in Platonic forms.

You're arguing the same thing the "article" was arguing: that it's all in the mind/brain and *not* necessarily a reality in the external world.

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