Friday, September 21, 2007


My interest in learning more about "wet brain" behavior led me this morning to SPIEGEL ONLINE, which ran an extended feature by Gerald Traufetter (translated into English by Christopher Sultan) on recent research into the phenomenon of error-related negativity (ERN). Traufetter described the phenomenon as follows:

It refers to a characteristic wave of voltage beneath the skullcap, which can be measured whenever the brain detects that an error has been made. Especially surprising is the fact the ERN signal already begins to flicker even before a person is aware of his error.

Traufetter then elaborates on the significance of the concept:

In the early 1990s, Michael Falkenstein, a neurophysiologist from the western German city of Dortmund, observed for the first time how voltage declines by at least 10 millivolts in a specific group of nerve cells, and that this occurs only 100 milliseconds after a person has made an error -- about the time it takes for your cursor to respond to a click of the mouse.

Falkenstein's discovery marked the beginning of a period of systematic study of the brain's fine-tuned error detector. It paved the way for fascinating new theories on questions such as why compulsive disorders occur or why some people hesitate while others make confident decisions. It also shines a new light on the development of addiction.

Suddenly it becomes clear why a person can often avoid making a certain mistake based purely on gut feeling. "The experiences of the error system provide precisely that subconscious knowledge on which intuition is based," explains [project manager Markus] Ullsperger.

Needless to say, for all the thoroughness of Traufetter's exposition, it should be read under the assumption that today's scientists, beholden to funding organizations as they are, tend to take a small-boy-with-a-hammer view of every discovery. Thus, much needs to be done before ERN can be taken as evidence that the brain has an "error system," let alone that this "system" will provide us with new insights into the nature of addiction and/or intuition. Nevertheless, it is certainly an interesting result, particularly in light of recent findings concerned with the memory of emotionally charged events (given how emotionally invested we tend to be in the mistakes we make).

Since I am far from an expert in this discipline, I can do little more than view it through a philosophical lens. That lens is heavily informed by Augustine, whom I cited in my previous blog for his insight into the nature of the concepts of past, present, and future:

What is by now evident and clear is that neither future nor past exists, and it is inexact language to speak of three times—past, present, and future. Perhaps it would be exact to say: there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come.

The anxieties that arise from those memories of emotionally charged events are very much "a present of things past." ERN may provide us with physiological evidence of that "present of things to come." If so, it will not be the first brick in this particular wall. That previous blog entry cited results from Washington University, which indicated that the "present of things to come," is localized in the left lateral premotor cortex, the left precuneus and the right posterior cerebellum. Presumably ERN researchers will begin to investigate connections between these voltage drops and activity in the regions identified by the Washington University team, in which case it will be rather nice to see such an eminent medieval philosopher getting his due in such a contemporary scientific issue!

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