Exploring mind-brain connections
A mathematical formula on a small blackboard in Kenneth Williford’s office might one day lead to a better understanding of the brain systems underpinning Descartes’ famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am.”
The Philosophy and Humanities Department chair and associate professor ponders the significance of the formula and the quotation in his role as a researcher in UT Arlington’s new Cognitive Science Initiative. The enterprise focuses on mind and brain research involving 45 faculty members from the College of Engineering, College of Science, College of Nursing, School of Social Work, and the Southwest Center for Mind, Brain, and Education in the College of Education and Health Professions. In addition to philosophy, College of Liberal Arts areas represented include linguistics, political science, art and art history, sociology, and anthropology.
“The main idea at present is to bring together everyone at UT Arlington interested in mind-brain issues and to share what we’re doing and see if any collaborations can come out of this,” says Dr. Williford, who hopes the initiative can sponsor speakers in the future.
To date, two collaborative projects have resulted. Mary Cazzell, assistant professor of nursing, and Timothy Odegard, associate professor of psychology, are joining forces to study risk behaviors in the elderly. Alexa Smith-Osborne, an assistant professor of social work, and Hanli Liu, a bioengineering professor, are marrying their methods of evaluating post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury in veterans using an optical brain-imaging device.
What is a philosopher doing in the midst of this scientific research? Williford serves as a conduit for ideas flowing among disciplines.
“Philosophers don’t know all the nitty-gritty details of these sciences, but we do understand the general ideas guiding the research or, in some cases, putting blinders on researchers,” he says. “It’s perfect to have people who think on a very theoretical level and people who think on a very detailed level to talk to each other. Philosophers can facilitate communication between these two groups.”
Williford spent a postdoctoral year studying neuroscience at the University of Iowa and continues research on mathematical theories of consciousness with a neuroscientist and a logician there. He hopes to add a UT Arlington collaborator or two within the next year.
“My own work focuses on subjectivity and self-consciousness, on what it is to have a first-person point of view,” he says. “In the end, you want to come out with a theory that is testable. So all philosophical speculation about this must ultimately be made to relate to empirical science.
“How does consciousness get into the physical world? How does it relate to the brain? How do I get from this swarm of neurons and their complicated interactions going on at multiple scales to ‘I think, therefore I am’?”
These are questions the Cognitive Science Initiative hopes to answer.