Posted March 10, 2013 by Dr. Henri Montandon in altered states

Walter Freeman and the Order of William James

The Society for Mind Brain Sciences aims to quicken public and scientific interest in consciousness science. It is worth recalling that in the United States consciousness science was among the earliest topics considered in the new field of psychology emerging in the nineteenth century. William James, who remarked that the first psychology lecture he ever heard was his inaugural lecture as  assistant psychology professor at Harvard in 1876, went on to write the seminal textbook embracing consciousness science in 1890. This is the magisterial PRINCIPLES OF PSYCHOLOGY.

In the U.S., enthusiasm for the field of scientific psychology as championed by James was pummeled by the double blows of 1. dynamic or depth psychology and the associated pseudo-science of psychoanalysis; and 2. behaviorism, which made claims for scientific rigor only to encounter problems and paradoxes it could not solve either experimentally or conceptually. The 1990-1999 Decade of the Brain was preceded by 30 years of changing scientific fashion until studying the brain became respectable and then ascendant once again as neuroscience. Wikipedia now lists 36 sub-disciplines within  neuroscience.

Neuroscience seems to foster hardy, long-lived scientists. Some of the great pioneers in the field are still producing useful work as octogenarians. One of these is Dr. Walter J. Freeman, who has been at University of California, Berkeley for much of his academic career. 85 years after THE PRINCIPLES, Dr. Freeman published MASS ACTION IN THE NERVOUS SYSTEM. Dr. Freeman is one of those scientists whose work is 30 years ahead of the field. In MASS ACTION he presents, from a dynamical systems perspective, a theory of whole-brain functioning. At the time, he was one of the very few to consider the problems incumbent in searching for principles of brain function – “how the brain does what it does”. Now this question is front and center, rocket-fueled by President Obama’s functional brain initiative.

Two final points. First: The pioneering and still relevant book mentioned above is on offer as a free download at Dr. Freeman’s website along with hundreds of articles both experimental and theoretical. There are also many tutorials of considerable interest, for example: Temporal and Spatial Analysis of Electroencephalographic Signals, Predictions on Neocortical Dynamics Derived from Studies in Paleocortex, Tutorials on EEG Research , How brains make chaos in order to make sense of the world, Tutorial in Neurobiology: From Single Neurons to Brain Chaos, Tutorial in spatial EEG analysis – Parts 1 and 2, Phase transitions in the neuropercolation model of neural populations with mixed local and non-local interactions, etc. Second: What’s the fun of having a society if you don’t give out awards? If SMBS had an award, it might be something like “The Order of William James”. I hereby nominate Dr. Walter Freeman for this award.

Medallion commemorating the Order of William James. Any resemblance to the Order of Lenin is entirely due to the editor’s perverse sense of humor.

Dr. Henri Montandon