Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Collective humans

I was strolling through the shelves of the library the other day and picked out a book titled “Global Brain” by Howard Bloom. The book’s premise—one I’ve heard before—is that individual life forms, whether they be bacteria or human, thrive by forming groups. All creatures, the book would seem to argue, are essentially social creatures. Hive or colony type creatures, like bees and ants, are especially demonstrative of this fact; they accomplish far more as a giant organism of many nodes (the individual bees and ants) than they would if they were all living separate lives.

This is true for humans as well. On one level, humans exist in societies. These societies seems to have a kind of meta-intelligence that decides to move towards democratic governments or embrace Justin Bieber. (Hmmm…) On another level, each human is really a collection of trillions of cells. Just as the decisions of a society emerge from the choices of individual humans, so to do the decisions of human individuals emerge from a chorus of cells. Your wants and needs and opinions are really the result of millions (or more) of votes. (At least this is what I think the book is gearing up to argue, as others have before. I’m only about five chapters in.)

This idea, that we as individuals are the result of many, seems both exciting and disconcerting. I don’t feel like a group, I feel like an individual. But we do have a certain sense of our compartmentalization. I say, “my stomach is telling me I’m hungry.” “My hand is tired after thumb wrestling for hours.” “My penis is aroused as it watches this naked woman walk by.” (A regular occurrence in my life.) The “I” that is the storyteller of our lives is being informed by other parts of the body. And even if we observe just the brain/mind, we can suss out how information kind of rises up to our top decision maker. We’re thinking of a way to solve a problem and the answer just arrives in a Eureka moment. Because a coterie of cells beneath our consciousness have been working at the problem and have arrived at an answer.

In theory, you could have some complex network of nodes, doing all sorts of calculations, without consciousness. That’s basically what we presume a computer to be doing: thinking (in a way) without being aware of it. But we humans have consciousness riding atop all this. Attention is a big part of it. When we are hungry our attention turns to our hunger. When we are horny our attention turns to our horniness. The conscious attention is what makes us feel like an individual as opposed to a million voters.

Which leads to that most perplexing of questions: what is consciousness?

Democracy blows

As I’ve mentioned many times now, Scott Adams has been making the argument that Donald Trump’s un-anticipated (and controversial) political rise occurred because he is great at the art of persuasion. And persuasion, according to Adams, is not a matter of appealing to reason and logic but rather the emotional brain and people’s sense of identity.

Adams further notes, as does common sense, that Trump is not the only politician to do this. All, to varying degrees, use this kind of persuasion to get elected.

Now, that argument really needs to be unpacked and examined before we can sign off on it. But I’ll say here that it at least feels right. Most political debates don’t have the feel of people arguing about math, they have a great deal of emotional element.

If Adams is right, does this not point to a deep flaw in democracy? Democracy is based on a kind of “wisdom of the masses,” but if the masses are easily manipulated dum-dums, should we not consider a different form of government?

Now, of course, “what is the best form of government?” is a question humanity has sought to answer for centuries and every system of government has had flaws. Monarchy is ok until you get a idiot king. Oligarchy has similar problems. I don’t really know the answer here but I start to find myself suspicious of the ‘rah-rah” approach most take to democracy, as if it’s clearly the superior system.

There’s a point madde in the book “Soul Machine” that ties into this. The author notes that “Locke’s tabula rasa gave philosophical and scientific standing to Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation that “all men are created equal.”" John Locke had argued that people are born as a blank slate and how they developed was determined by their environment. Put a kid in the right environment and he could be a genius scientist, put him in the wrong environment and he becomes a dull-witted criminal. But at the start, everyone has equal talents.

Now, two and a half centuries after Jefferson’s pronouncement, we know that genes do have some affect on people’s abilities. People are not created equal, some are intrinsically smarter, or more empathic, or intuitive than others. Thus a cornerstone for Jefferson’s case for democracy has fallen.

Francis Hutchenson on morality

Not long ago, in an article entitled “What is Morality,” I offered up the argument (not original to me) that moral behavior is built into our brains via evolution. I noted…

We want to believe that by being moral we are following a set of rules — perhaps divine rules, or perhaps rules dictated by some kind of universal logic. But I am saying morality is neither divine nor logical; moral rules are simply the rules of socialization that have evolved through the history of our species. Our brain applies these rules, much the same way it applies rules for emotions. When we are contemplating or performing an immoral action, we are prodded with a sting of discomfort, similar to the sting of fear. When we are contemplating or performing a moral action, we get a “good feeling,” similar to joy or pride.

The idea being that we literally sense which behaviors feel good and which feel bad. At the time I thought this was a fascinating development in moral psychology. But, while reading the book “Soul Machine,” a history of the development of the concept of the mind, I find…

Hutchenson accepted Locke’s argument that sensations created ideas which then furnished the mind, but he also believed with Shaftsbury that an innate moral sense was the primary motivation for humans, and the source of their emotions. Sentiments arose from that moral barometer—joy from acts of charity and remorse from deceit. Through this moral sense, we experienced another’s emotional state deeply and directly. Ethics and social stability rested, not on the Good Book, but on this natural state of shared compassion, what he called “sympathy” between human beings. Like muscles in the body, this shared emotion balanced private desires and yielded both personal and social harmony.

This Hutchenson fellow basically nailed the idea back in the early 1700s. Interestingly, his idea of experiencing others’ emotional states ties into the the recent, still somewhat controversial, discovery of mirror neurons.

The general sense I get with this book is that all the great philosophical thoughts were thunk centuries ago. Now people are just arguing around the edges.

Decartes’ Error and Donald Trump

I continue my mental exploration of the idea that Donald Trump is a master persuader who is using brilliant tactics to convince a needed segment of the population to grant him the Republican nomination (and eventually the presidency.) I’ve mentioned that Scott Adams has been talking a lot about this idea but so have many people interested in the science of persuasion.

It strikes me that this ties in with a book I often talk about: “Descartes’ Error” by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. I’ll quote a description of one relevant point of the book:

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions, such as what to eat. Many decisions have pros and cons on both sides—shall I have the chicken or the turkey? With no rational way to decide, these test subjects were unable to arrive at a decision.

The article continues…

This finding has enormous implications for negotiation professionals. People who believe they can build a case for their side using reason are doomed to be poor negotiators, because they don’t understand the real factors that are driving the other party to come to a decision. Those who base their negotiation strategy on logic end up relying on assumptions, guesses, and opinions. If my side of the argument is logical, they figure, then the other side can’t argue with it and is bound to come around to my way of thinking. The problem is, you can’t assume that the other party will see things your way.

This describes some people’s frustrations with followers of Donald Trump, doesn’t it? Detractors of Trump don’t get how he can blatantly lie and exaggerate and still have fans. But, if you allow that people are not rational decision makers, but rather emotional ones, then the facts (or un-facts) Trump uses are not the relevant factor. Rather it’s the emotions he generates in his audiences.

As I’ve said before, if this is really true—that people are not swayed by facts—than democracy itself is a joke or at least can be manipulated to rather unpleasant outcomes. I return again to the idea that we should nominate a philosopher king to make society’s decisions. I humbly offer myself.

More on Trump the persuader

I still find myself fascinated by Scott Adam’s arguments that Donald Trump, in his attempt to become President, is employing persuasion techniques used by master salespeople and politicians. To quote Adams

As far as I can tell, Trump’s “crazy talk” is always in the correct direction for a skilled persuader. When Trump sets an “anchor” in your mind, it is never random. And it seems to work every time.

(“Anchors” are a particular kind of persuasion technique. See a description here.)

I’m finding that Adams is not the only one making these claims. For instance, here is an article that goes into the subject of what are called triggers. These are essentially switches in the mind that activate specific emotional responses. Once the trigger has been switched, the theory goes, a person’s decision has been made. Any reasons provided for the decision are merely rationalizations to support the emotional decision.

Trump is activating what in neurological terms are referred to as emotional triggers, which the brain uses to avoid the energy and difficulty of analytical thinking. Whether consciously or by instinct, great persuaders tap into the functions of the emotional brain, where decisions are made with great speed and intensity.

One especially potent emotional trigger Donald Trump is clearly activating in the limbic brains of his most ardent supporters is the contrast trigger. Sales and marketing people know the contrast trigger well enough. They use it to varying degrees of success all the time. Differentiation is a well-worn corporate branding trope used to emphasize the importance of distinction — of being different from the other brand or product.

Do I buy this concept? Not entirely, I think the mind is messier and more complex. But I will say that the idea of triggers corresponds to a lot of what neuroscience and psychology have observed in the past 30 years (particularly in the work described in Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error.”)

Also, keep in mind that these persuasion techniques doesn’t have to have 100% successful to be worth using. A persuasive car salesman doesn’t have to convince everyone who comes on the lot to buy a car, just many people. Trump doesn’t have to convince all voters that’s he’s the best choice, just slightly over 50%.

Another assertion from Adams is that when Trump makes outrageous statements, he is doing so intentionally to capture the public and media’s attention. I see here that even Mario Rubio is wising up to this.

“Look, this is a pattern. This is a game he plays. He says something that’s edgy and outrageous and then the media flocks and covers that and then no one else can get any coverage on anything else,” Rubio said.

Related to all this: here’s an article that argues that Trump is using extreme statements to cover up his liberal past.

The thought of a world in which Donald Trump is president feels more like an apocalyptic nightmare to most reasonable Americans. His bigoted statements regarding Mexican immigrants and Muslims, as well as his hotheaded temper, make him appear especially dangerous for international relations. But given certain evidence, one must wonder whether some of Trump’s behavior is part of a strange but strategic charade designed only to win him the Republican nomination.

I have some complaints about that article but it does correspond to my sense that Trump himself doesn’t believe some of his own touted opinions.

I will say, this argument—that we are not really rational in our own decisions—”feels” right to me and I find evidence in myself all the time. I’m finding myself analyzing everything from why I like the politicians that I do to why I buy a certain brand of beef jerky and I have a hard time coming up with really solid, logical reasons. What I experience is more in the vein of gut reactions that I then have to qualify. Adams blogs on this topic have really got me noticing this.

On a final note: I recognize that Adam’s has planted this idea in my head (an anchor) that Trump is a master persuader. Is that why I take notice whenever I see articles like the ones above that support this notion?

The Sarno-Sacks connection

It’s been a while since I’ve written on the theories of Dr. John Sarno who argues that much of physical pain and distress is caused by the upset mind. (I have to concede I don’t really believe in a “mind” anymore, at least as an entity in any way unattached from the brain, but the word will have to do.) I’m reading through Oliver Sacks’ autobiography and he makes some rather Sarno-esque observations. Sacks started out working at a migraine clinic and had a patient who had recurring migraines every Sunday. Via a pill, Sacks managed to banish the migraines. But they were then replaced with asthma. He offered to give the patient something for the asthma, but…

“No,” he replied. “I’ll just get something else…”
“Do you think I need to be ill on Sundays?”

I [Sacks] was taken aback by his worlds but I said, “Let’s discuss it.”

We then spent two months exploring his putative need to be ill on Sundays. As we did, his migraines got less and less intrusive and finally more or less disappeared. For me, this was an example of how unconscious motives may sometimes ally themselves to physiological propensities, of how one cannot abstract an ailment or it’s treatment from the whole pattern, the context, the economy of someone’s life.

This kind of talking cure is exactly the sort of thing Sarno recommended to his patients. It’s always interested to see these ideas mention by a different source.

The anti-guilt pill

For a while now I’ve heard of a particular drug that purports to dull the formation of painful memories. I’ve always been a little unclear on how it works but I believe it takes away the emotional sting of the memory while leaving the recollection of the events. Ideally it could aid people who have suffered horrible crimes or soldiers suffering from PSTD. I had not heard of a more controversial use: the pill as a way of ducking emotional damage caused by committing heinous acts, especially in war time. This article, from 2003, describes a scenario.

The artillery this soldier can unleash with a single command to his mobile computer will bring flames and screaming, deafening blasts and unforgettably acrid air. The ground around him will be littered with the broken bodies of women and children, and he’ll have to walk right through. Every value he learned as a boy tells him to back down, to return to base and find another way of routing the enemy. Or, he reasons, he could complete the task and rush back to start popping pills that can, over the course of two weeks, immunize him against a lifetime of crushing remorse. He draws one last clean breath and fires.

That sounds a little overdramatic but makes the point. The rest of the article is a very even handed look at the whole issue. Some might say we can never use the pill in this way as it will destroy our humanity. But the response is that, look, if a killer is wounded during his crime, he still gets medical treatment for his physical wounds. Why would we deny him treatment for his psychological wounds? And if the person is a soldier why should he be doomed to a lifetime of guilt why the politicians who put him in the position get off scot-free*? It’s quite an interesting ethical debate.

* Writing this sentence made me consider how the term “scot-free” came to be. You’d think it was based on some story about a guy named Scot, but not so. it’s derived from an old english term that means exempt from royal tax.

Can you be an atheist and a believer?

Occasionally I mention people known as split brain patients. These are folks, usually epileptics, who’ve had their left and right brain hemispheres separated for therapeutic reasons. Numerous experiments have been done showing that these patients are, eerily, kind of like two people in one body. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran took things in an interesting direction when he asked a split brain patient whether he (they?) believed in God.

The curious case of Thad Roberts

I was just over at youtube watching an interesting video titled “Visualizing 11 Dimensions.” The video attempts to demonstrate how to think about a concept popular in physics, that the world is made up of more dimensions than the three spatial dimension (and one of time) that we see around us. Frankly, I still struggle with the idea after watching the video.

The video lecturer, Thad Roberts, turns out to have a personal history almost as interesting as his ideas. Intellectually gifted he went to work as an astrophysicist as Nasa. Then…

At age 25 Thad fell in love with a bril­liant and beau­tiful Biology intern at NASA. Wanting to give her­ the moon (lit­er­ally), Thad mas­ter­minded the infa­mous moon rock caper and made off with lunar sam­ples. 33 years to the day after Neil Armstrong first picked up a piece of the moon, Thad sold some of those pieces and landed in the middle of a gov­ern­ment sting.

Thad was sen­tenced to 100 months in fed­eral prison for his actions. Though he would never repeat those acts, Thad doesn’t regret how things turned out. Despite the iso­la­tion, lone­li­ness, and hard lessons that defined those years, he notes that without that time of intense ded­i­ca­tion and con­stant focus he may have never dived so deeply into ques­tions about the con­struc­tion of our Universe. After coming face to face with his own inse­cu­ri­ties, Thad decided to over­come the odds of his past mis­takes and to once again strive for his dreams. His days in prison were spent teaching, exer­cising, wrestling with the mys­teries of modern physics, and exploring new axiomatic assump­tions that might explain them.

Thad left prison with some­thing more valu­able to him than a safe full of moon rocks – a man­u­script over 700 pages long that lucidly describes how he was led to a new geo­metric axioms for the struc­ture of space­time. The result was quantum space theory (qst), a spe­cific form of super­fluid vacuum theory (SVT), which now stands as a can­di­date for the theory of quantum gravity.

As a side note, I’ll point out one aspect of Robert’s ideas that interests me. I generally tout the belief people are deterministic, that free will does not exist. My general reason, summarized in a sentence, is that our thoughts and actions arise from the firing of our neurons and those neurons are subject to the deterministic laws of classical physics. Critics of this idea often point to the seemingly indeterminate nature of quantum physics as a way out of this challenge. Robert’s view, as I understand it, is that quantum behaviors that appear to be random to our eyes, are in fact determinist when understood as part of a world with more than four dimensions.

The dangers of uploading your mind to a computer

I pause to ask my readers a question. Are any of you considering uploading your mind into a computer? I think you should be aware of some potential problems.

The idea might sound crazy, but the possibility of such a thing is oft-discussed by scientists and psychologists who think it may be a real possibility in coming decades. How would such a thing work? First let’s consider what is probably the now mainstream view of the mind. The mind, this view advocates, essentially arises out of the complex, dense circuitry that is the human brain. (Each “circuit” could be thought of as an individual neuron of perhaps group of neurons that perform the same basic function like moving your index finger.) According to this view (which I basically subscribe to) your mind is your brain.

Now, if we could map out a person’s brain network down to very small details—and we seem to be getting closer and closer to this—we could then program that network into a computer and thus recreate that person—their personality, their essence—on a computer. And that person could conceivably live forever.

There are a couple problems so far. One being is that you aren’t really uploading your consciousness to a computer as much as you are simply cloning your mind. That consciousness—the uploaded mind—will live forever. The flesh and blood you will still eventually die as flesh and blood does. Also, it’s still unclear how our subjective consciousness arises our of our complex neural machinery. I could program a robot to respond to the wavelength of light we call red, but would it “see” red in any way comparable to the way we see red? It’s that perception that is really the magic of living. Would an uploaded mind possess this subjective magic or would it merely be a very complex robot? I don’t think anyone can authoritatively say.

Now let’s consider another view of the mind, this one advocated by philosopher David Chalmers among others. This view advocates that the mind extends beyond the realm of the brain into the rest of the physical world. To grasp this notion, take stock of your experience right now. You are seeing things, probably hearing things, maybe tasting and smelling things if you’re reading this over lunch. Your experience, your mindstate, would be very different without this particular outside stimuli. So, in a sense, this stimuli is part of your mind.

Here’s another way to think about it. The more popular “your-brain-is-all-you-are” theory I first mentioned says that your brain arises based on various electrical signals zipping through the circuitry of your brain. But what happens when I look at an apple. Photons bounce off the apple into my brain which results in the firing of neurons that somehow result in the subjective experience of seeing the apple. Is not this pathway of photons going from the apple to my eye similar to the pathway of a firing neuron. So is not every outside component (the apple, photons bouncing off it, etc.) part of my mind?

If Chalmers is on to something then we have a problem with mind uploading. If we upload only the brain part of your mind, not the external environment, we are only uploading part of the mind.

Now, maybe this could be solved. Maybe sensors could be created that would duplicate our senses, even augment them. For example, you could have some chemical sensor that, when provided cheese, fired the neural circuits in the uploaded mind that correlate to the neurons that fired when tasting cheese. But this idea seems a lot more complex than the already vastly complex task of uploading a mind to a computer.