Rat philosophy : Nobel Prize rhetorics and interdisciplinarity

Last month I was surprised, but also very happy, to learn that the Nobel Prize in medicine for the first time was awarded to someone I have actually read. Given my background, the question of having read literature prize winners has been a topic, of pride and sometimes of slight embarrassment. Never so for the medicine prize.

As people interested in maps, spatial description in texts, and wayfinding should know: this year’s prize winners, John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard I. Moser, shared the prize “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.” In my very simple understanding, having no training in neuroscience or nearby fields beyond high school, the awardees and their groups have found cells in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex of rat brains which are activated based on specific aspects of the animal’s location in the environment. Their model contains four cell types of core importance for orientation: place cells, grid cells, head-direction cells, and border cells. Together they form a system for spatial orientation.

This system is claimed to be similar to what we find in humans. For ethical reasons, many types of experiments are only made on other species than humans. The results from research into the human brain are consequently less clear. It is an open question how applicable the findings are to humans. One could assume similar systems are used by humans as by rats, as it is often the case that similar systems are used by different species; still, it is not uncommon that quite different systems are evolutionarily developed to solve similar problems. In the fact sheet from The Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine describing the research it is laconically stated that “The positioning system in the human brain appears to have similar components as those of the rat brain.”

My interest in their research has been based on the understanding of wayfinding among humans and other animals it could give, in addition to what we can learn from other areas of research such as anthropology and psychology, and in addition to introspection. Of special focus to me in my PhD thesis was the use of the word ‘map’. The presentation of their research given here is partly based on pages 44–45 of my thesis.

The word ‘map’ is used in neuroscience to denote the system described above, in scholarly as well as popular articles. However, it follows from the system of four cell types that the representation in the mind is not an image, but a structure from which an inner image is a possible reconstruction. Further, with the head-direction cells, on the one hand, and on the other, the fact that a place cell fires when the animal moves close to the place in the real world connected to that specific place cell, it is clear that the location of the animal in the world is a part of what is acted on in the brain. And indeed, in the fact sheet the expression ‘inner GPS’ is used for this system.

So, given an analogous system in humans, what we have in our brains are not maps. They are neither pictorial nor decontextualised, but rather dynamic representations where our current location is expressed in a network of places. This is more in line with Gibson’s and Ingold’s views than it is with the idea of a conceptual map. It can easily be seen as a network of places in a region. Acquiring information and organising it into a stable representation also seems to work better when one moves around in an area than when one looks at it—at least if one is a rat. That is, landscape learning is better when the animal moves around in an environment than when it observes it, just as Gibson described.

I find the neuroscience research described here useful, meaningful, and enlightening. It should be understood in the context of other areas research working on the wayfinding systems of humans and other animals. Even given the reservations pointed out above, the mass of evidence points towards it being more rather than less applicable to human wayfinding. And the model presented is indeed in line with research in other disciplines, as we saw.

However, the press release from the The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine announcing the prize includes a peculiar statement; “The discoveries of John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries — how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?”

What are the problems with this statement?

The main problem is the use of the word ‘solve.’ It signals that this is a conclusive evidence for how humans find our way. But how can the finding of these cell types be used to understand how a human uses a printed map to find her way? How she remembers a song and uses the text and the tone pattern to understand where she has to go to find the cottage she is looking for? How one can listen to the meaning of the parts of a Sami place name and use the understanding gained to re-find a long lost campsite? The latter examples is a real one, described by Hans Ragnar Mathisen.

If we accept that similar systems to the ones found in rat brains also exist in humans, how does this related to language? How does it relate to the wide variety of language expressions for places documented, among others, by Levinson? How can it explain the ability for dead reckoning? The research by O’Keefe, Moser, and Moser is important and impressive. The story of the development of the understanding is exciting as a crime novel. Even more exciting: the story will go on, to develop better understanding of how rats find their way — are there more cell types involved? Other parts of the brain? How similar are human systems really? How does this relate to language? To visual understanding? Claiming that their research has solved the problem of how we can navigate our way through a complex environment just makes it look silly. It takes the excitement away.

I find that an interdisciplinary attitude is not only wanted, but indeed necessary when working in areas where basic human capabilities are explored. My starting point is media expressions, maps and text. In order to understand the context of what is expressed in maps and texts we need to understand better how humans, the creators and users of such documents, operate in the landscape. Neuroscience plays an important part in understanding this puzzle. But that part becomes harder to play if the discipline attempts to take over the whole game.

To me, a claim that a problem is solved means that it is done, concluded, go on to the next problem. This is not at all the situation in this case. To make this perfectly clear: I am not criticising the research of O’Keefe, Moser, and Moser or any of their publications I have read. I do not criticise the prize. I criticise the tone of the press release, and specifically one sentence in it. This is not being difficult over details. Press releases following Nobel prizes are important parts of the image of research presented to the public. We should not take the excitement of science away by claiming that now we know what there is to know.


“The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – Press Release”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 4 Dec 2014. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2014/press.html

“The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – [Fact Sheet]”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 4 Dec 2014. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2014/med_image_press_eng.pdf

Eide, Øyvind. “The area told as a story. An inquiry into the relationship between verbal and map-based expressions of geographical information.” PhD thesis, King’s College London, 2012.

Gibson, James J. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1986.

Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment. Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill. Abingdon: Routledge, 2000.

Levinson, Stephen C. Space in language and cognition: explorations in cognitive diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Mathisen, Hans Ragnar. “Tanker om kart.” In Filosofi i et nordlig landskap: Jakob Meløe 70 år, edited by Anniken Greve and Sigmund Nesset, 120–33. [Tromsø]: [Universitetetsbiblioteket i Tromsø], 1997.

Moser, Edvard I., Emilio Kropff, and May-Britt Moser. “Place Cells, Grid Cells, and the Brain’s Spatial Representation System.” Annual Review of Neuroscience 31, no. 1 (2008): 69–89.

Rowland, David C., Yelizaveta Yanovich, and Clifford G. Kentros. “A stable hippocampal representation of a space requires its direct experience.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 35 (2011): 14654–58.

Solstad, Trygve, Charlotte N. Boccara, Emilio Kropff, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard I. Moser. “Representation of Geometric Borders in the Entorhinal Cortex.” Science 322, no. 5909 (2008): 1865–68.

2014-11-30 Øyvind Eide

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