Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category
January 13th, 2017 by Wil
Lately I’ve been exploring this idea that we don’t know what consciousness is. I considered the the possibility that consciousness could be some kind of “force.” My theory was that when this force travels through a complex network, like our human brain, it/we/something experiences what we call subjective consciousness.
I also asked: could this force simply be electricity (or the electromagnetic force?) It seems all too simple and rather Frankenstein-ian. I’ve done a bit of reading and the consensus seems to be “no” though I need to read more.
One of the articles I read had some juicy tidbits on past experiments of applying electricity to the dead.
WIRED: What Happens If You Apply Electricity to the Brain of a Corpse?
In 1802, Aldini zapped the brain of a decapitated criminal by placing a metal wire into each ear and then flicking the switch on the attached rudimentary battery. “I initially observed strong contractions in all the muscles of the face, which were contorted so irregularly that they imitated the most hideous grimaces,” he wrote in his notes. “The action of the eylids was particularly marked, though less striking in the human head than in that of the ox.”
In 1803, he performed a sensational public demonstration at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, using the dead body of Thomas Forster, a murderer recently executed by hanging at Newgate. Aldini inserted conducting rods into the deceased man’s mouth, ear, and anus.
One member of the large audience later observed: “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”
January 8th, 2017 by Wil
I have been talking here, of late, about how computers and brains process information and know things. And the gist of my observations is that only conscious beings (e.g. humans and other living creatures) can “know” anything, or derive meaning from the world. Computers can process information, in a sense, but they don’t know the results of their information processing anymore than an abacus knows the results of an addition it just performed.
Some people do say computers could one day become conscious. And I’m open to the possibility; in fact, it ties in with what I’m about to say.
I’ve been operating in a “reasonable” mode for these discussions. Now I’m about to get crazy. I’m the first to admit that everything from this point on is entirely speculative.
So, as mentioned above, I arrived at this conclusion that you need consciousness to “know” things. At that point I need to define what I mean by consciousness. It’s a surprisingly difficult term even though we all experience it all the time. Basically I mean our sense of the reality around us, our internal thoughts, our awareness, the usual stuff.
When you think about it, there’s no reason that information processing devices, like our brains, need consciousness. They (perhaps) are just inputs (our senses) and outputs (our actions/observations), just like a computer, which we presume not to be conscious. So why do we have consciousness? We do we experience a state of being? This question is what the philosopher David Chalmers refers to as “the hard problem of consciousness.”
What if consciousness is a force, sort of like gravity? It “flows” everywhere. And when it flows through a network like a brain—a complex, self-referential, feed-backing network where “wires” (e.g. neurons) often loop back and affect their own inputs—it results in our sense of self and our awareness.
Now this is certainly not my idea. It’s the crux of many religions, Buddhism, Ekhart Tolle-ism, panpsychism, and even the notion of “the force” from Star Wars. I’m simply saying here that this idea could make sense. I don’t see any immediate objection. And, I will say again, this is speculative.
Of course, saying something is a force is a bit of a cop out. When we say gravity is a force we are basically saying that we don’t know what it is. (The same with other forces like the electromagnetic force, or the strong and weak forces of quantum theory.) It’s just a “thing” that happens in semi predictable way. Why it happens, or why it works, is beyond us (though people have theories.)
I maybe totally exposing my naïveté here but I wonder if this force of consciousness is electricity*, since that is what powers the neurons of the brain. Is consciousness electricity going through a complex, feed-backing network? If it is, then the idea of conscious computers doesn’t seem that crazy (since computers are also powered by electricity, though their architecture is obviously not biological.)
* Technically, this would be the electromagnetic force.
If I’m right, living people are sort of like a computer with the power on. Our brains have an architecture which is the arrangement of our neurons (the connectome.) When that architecture has “juice” running through it, you have a living, talking person. When that juice is taken away, you have—you got it–a dead person (similar to a computer with the power off.)
The point that I think a lot of spiritual teacher types (like Ekhart Tolle) argue is that “you” are not your architecture, you are the force flowing through the architecture. And I, a self-described atheist, am conceding that there may be something to this. From this view, becoming “enlightened” is merely the conscious force flowing through one entity becoming aware of itself.
To tackle an obvious question: does this mean we all live forever? Well, not in the sense that you might like. I think your memories, beliefs, thoughts, everything that makes up “you” are held in your brain structure (e.g. connectome). When that goes, you go. But if you are not really that stuff but are rather the force that flows through that network then it could be said we continue in some way.
Anyway, this needs more thought and I realize I’m just rediscovering the wheel here. Others have said these exact thoughts (aside from some of the neuroscience stuff) for eons.
And none of this really explains what consciousness is.
For further reading: Quora answer to “Is conscioussness a form of energy?”
It’s interesting partly for the diversity of opinion and the observation that different people are using the phrase consciousness to mean different things. I’ll note one answer talks about Integrated Information Theory which is the notion that consciousness arises out of complex connection (like those in the network of the human brain.) This is similar to what I describe above (and probably where I got the idea from.)
January 3rd, 2017 by Wil
With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) there’s a lot of talk about computers knowing things, or processing information. But how does this actually work?
I’ll be upfront here and say, “I don’t know,” at least in any detailed sense. But thinking out loud on the topic might turn up some interesting observations.
Computers have been information processing for ages (and before computers, calculators, abacuses etc. were doing it.) With AI, computers are simply processing information better, faster and “deeper” than ever before.
But what is really going on when we say a computer processes “information”? What information?
Let’s first consider the notion of a “bit.” The term comes from the relatively recent discipline of information theory and refers to the smallest unit of information possible. In essence, it’s a yes or no question. For example, let’s say I was tracking information about the couches in my couch factory. These couches come in three colors—red, green and orange. So I could track that information in three bits: a bit that gets marked “yes” if the couch is red, a bit that gets marked “yes” if the couch is green and a bit that gets marked “yes” if the couch is orange. Actually I could get away with using only two bits by saying, “if the red bit is set to no and the green bit is set to no then the couch must be orange.”
When you look out at the world, you can basically describe it using bits. Look at your best friend. Are they male, yes or no? Do they have a mustache, yes or no? Do they read this blog, yes or no? Are they gay, yes or no? And on and on…
You can see how this can be a remarkably effectively tool, and this tracking of bits is what drives computing. For example, images can be “held” in a computer if you track the red, green and blue value (represented as a number which can be captured as a series of bits*) for each pixel, plus, I think, luminescence and maybe a few other things.
* More detailed explanation here, if you care.
But it’s key at this point to take a step back and realize that just because computers hold information about couches, best friends or images, that doesn’t mean they really know anything. They know nothing, because they are basically dumb electrical signals shuffling around. A computer knows the image it contains no more than an abacus knows the number value it just helped add. Both tools require a human being to come along and observe the information being represented. Without the human, a computer’s information is a bunch of yeses or nos, devoid of context or purpose.
I’m pretty sure some information theorists would disagree with some of what I’ve said here, but this is how I see it.
So that makes us feel pretty special as humans, right? We know stuff whereas these dumb computers just sit there twiddling their switches. But do we really know anything?
Like computers, we also seem to hold information in bits of a sort. We have neurons and they fire or they don’t*. (I believe I’m correct in saying neurons can actually impart more than just yes or no values because they can fire at different strengths. To be honest, I’ve never really been clear about that but for the purposes of this post we merely need to agree that neurons hold information in some way.) So, you observe a coffee cup and various neurons that activate for round shapes start firing, as do neurons that activate for the smell of coffee, past memories of coffee, the general sense of being amped up and awake and on and on. Our brain “represents” the coffee cup using a lot of bits… I dunno how many. And we are aware of this represented information with different degrees of awareness. I might be strongly conscious of the notion: that is a coffee cup, but I’m less aware of the sense that coffee tastes bitter, or that it has caffeine.
*I’m aware that information in brains is really held in the connections between neurons (synapses), but I think this explanation works for our purposes.
My point here, and I do have one, is this: with computers, we track information about objects (or concepts or whatever) but we understand that that information is meaningless until a conscious agent, probably a human, comes along and observes it. But brains also track bits* of information. So who/what is the conscious agent that is required to observe that information in our brains and “convert” it from meaningless bits to useful information? This could be another way of asking, “What is consciousness?”
While thinking about this I stumbled across this interesting quora question with fascinating answers (though no conclusive answers.) How much information does a human brain neuron store?
December 22nd, 2016 by Wil
I’ve been perplexed for a long time by what information really is. We often hear that the brain holds information. How is this so? The gist, as I understand it, is that information comes into our brains via the senses and these “bits” of sensory information are held in the activation of neurons. So, as a child I might have petted a cat and that sensory experience was encoded in my brain. Later, a cat scratched me and that experience was also encoded. Numerous similar experiences occurred (as well as more formal booklearning about cats) and now when I think of cats, all these encoded sensory experiences activate to various degrees and as a result I have information about what a cat is.
Part of the gist there is that I need consciousness to experience sensory input and therefore consciousness is (probably) necessary for information to exist (if “exist” is even the right term.)
Now think of computers. They too hold information (or so we are told.) Information in computers is held in on/off switches which are transistors with electrons running through them. But where is the consciousness? I think they general consensus is “nowhere.” The information in a computer is meaningless until a conscious mind observes it. (Bringing to mind the old “tree/forest” koan.)
And yet, people talk about artificial intelligence gaining consciousness.
Both brains and computers are networks in the sense that they are interconnected nodes. The basic node of the brain is the neuron and the basic node of the computer is the transistor (though it could be anything that can be in an on/off state.) But, again, computers don’t really “know” the information they hold (because they are not conscious.)
Bee hives and ant colonies are also networks and the basic nodes are the individual bees or ants. And hives and colonies seems to “know” information that the individual nodes can’t know (like how to work together to build a bee hive). They can even perform calculations.
So where is this information held? Is there a meta consciousness that must exist to appreciate the information held in the connecting nodes (ants and bees)? Or are they more like computers? Dumb nodes with no self awareness? (I’m aware ant and bees probably have some kind of consciousness but not necessarily the amount needed to appreciate the information they collectively hold.)
(Part of the answer to these question may be found here:
The Remarkable Self-Organization of Ants)
I find myself wondering if information even exists at all.
November 2nd, 2016 by Wil
I stumbled across an interesting article discussing how scientists are rendering data in musical form. This, apparently, allows them to sense patterns in the data they might otherwise be unaware of.
Scientists can listen to proteins by turning data into music
Transforming data about the structure of proteins into melodies gives scientists a completely new way of analyzing the molecules that could reveal new insights into how they work — by listening to them. A new study published in the journal Heliyon shows how musical sounds can help scientists analyze data using their ears instead of their eyes.
The researchers, from the University of Tampere in Finland, Eastern Washington University in the US and the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, believe their technique could help scientists identify anomalies in proteins more easily.
“We are confident that people will eventually listen to data and draw important information from the experiences,” commented Dr. Jonathan Middleton, a composer and music scholar who is based at Eastern Washington University and in residence at the University of Tampere. “The ears might detect more than the eyes, and if the ears are doing some of the work, then the eyes will be free to look at other things.”
If you don’t fully comprehend what this all means, well, I’m right there with you. But one can easily envision a way that different values of data could be thought of as steps away from a average value, and those steps could be represented as a musical scale. So really large musical leaps would indicate major deviations from an average.
And here’s another article also about data being transformed into music. I guess this is a “thing.”
Detecting patterns in neuronal dendrite spines by translating them into music
There’s some example of this “dendritic spines as sound” music here and it’s pretty unappealing. (Part of the problem is that it’s rendered with hideous midi instrumentation.)
August 17th, 2016 by Wil
Years ago I posted a blog posted asking whether we have multiple consciousnesses in our heads. I described the basic concept thusly:
A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.
I was, frankly, only half serious. But I’ve been reading Sam Harris’s recent book, “Waking Up,” and he takes the possibility seriously. Referring to the famous split brain experiments, he throws out the possibility of one consciousness in the right brain and one in the left. He even addresses an obvious problem: if we have multiple consciousness, how do they avoid conflict with each other (especially if they aren’t even aware of each other)? The answer is found in the theory of a philosopher quoted in the book.
The non-speaking hemisphere has know about the true state of affairs from a very tender age. It has known this because beginning at age two or three it heard speech emanating from the common body that, as language development on the left proceeded, became too complex grammatically and syntactically for it to believe it was generating… Being inured to this status of cerebral helot, it goes along. Thankless cooperation becomes a way of life.”
The idea is that you have this other consciousness sort of enslaved to “your” consciousness. It is so used to being powerless that it goes along with the dominant self.
Of course Freud’s theories were all about inner conflict. Perhaps that conflict is between these two consciousnesses.
And, I believe Harris leaves open the possibility of even more consciousnesses within one brain. What a trip that would be.
UPDATE: I feel I should clarify one thing here. In the case of the split brain patients, each hemisphere has been separated from the other and the patients seem to behave as if they are two selves in one body. Us normal folks have connections between the two hemispheres and most of us behave as one self. But Harris argues that the connecting tissue cant possibly pass all the information in one hemisphere to the other, so were are really more like two selves that have some limited communication with each other.
July 21st, 2016 by Wil
A while back, I linked to this page on, among other things, sound waves and how they relate to music. If you scroll down to the section titled “Musical Beats and Intervals” you see three diagrams showing three different pairs of overlaid wave forms. One is a very consonant octave set (something like a low C played over a high C), one is a relatively consonant 5th interval and the final one is a dissonant, ugly sounding interval. The point these diagrams make is that consonance and dissonance are not abstract properties of music, they are related to how two or more sound waves overlay on top of each other. Waves where the peaks and valleys generally line up sound good; waves where the peaks and valleys don’t consistently line up are weird.
The same is true with rhythms. If I take a drum groove played at 100 beats per minute and lay it on top of a drum groove at 200 beats per minute, everything should sound all right since the hits in the 100 beats per minute groove will correspond with every other hit in the 200 beats per minute groove. But if I overlay a groove at 157 beats per minute over a groove at 100, not much will line up and it will sound chaotic.
Now, this is no different in the first example using notes. Notes are really sound waves vibrating at certain frequencies. You could think of the peaks of sound waves as the “hits” in a drum rhythm. If you take two sound waves and the peaks line up most of the time you have something consonant. But the less they line up, the more dissonant they get.
So basically, when you hear consonant sound waves (or drum rhythms) your brain is comparing the peaks or hits and determining that they match and delivering a pleasant sound to your mind. But this comparison, this brain processing, is something we are unaware of. With two dissonant notes, we aren’t aware that the sound wave frequency rates are out of sync, we are just aware they sound bad.
And I suspect this is true with a lot of things. Our brain looks for patterns, for synchronicity. When it finds the pattern, it says, “yay, I like this.” When it doesn’t find the pattern it gets frustrated. But much of this processing goes on “under the hood;” we aren’t consciously aware we are doing it.
June 23rd, 2016 by Wil
I recently picked up a booked called “The Game.” It’s a memoir of the author’s time spent as part of a particular group of pick up artists who slept with hundreds of women while operating primarily in LA, but also New York, Miami, and various other cultural hot spots.
This might sound like a departure from my usual reading material which tends towards neuroscience, psychology and philosophy. In fact it fits right in there. What these guys were doing was using a deep study of theories rooted in various psychology paradigms—particularly evolutionary psychology—to “game women. And it seemed to have worked quite well, though the toll the endless pursuit of dames takes is starting to show by the chapter of the book I am at.
In general, a pick up artist presumes that there are rules to how the mind works and these rules can be gamed to lure a prospective partner into bed. And the rules aren’t what conventional wisdom would argue. The official rulebook on romance says a man earns a woman’s affection by being kind and buying her flowers etc. “The Game” argues you do it by “negging” them (neg = a kind of light hearted diss), appearing disinterested, peacocking (dressing outlandishly) and creating a “yes chain” (basically asking a bunch of questions where the answer is yes in order to get the gal used to saying yes to whatever you propose.)
None of this is really news. We’ve all heard the complaint that women really like jerks. Pick up artists just make a point of being (somewhat likable) jerks.
I think there are some caveats to all this. These techniques probably work best on women of a certain age who want to experience the wild side of life but maybe don’t want to admit this to themselves. And there’s also, as the author admits, a “play the numbers” element to it. Guys who hit on lots of women with these techniques are bound to catch a few. That said, I believe the techniques make a difference; it’s not merely a numbers games. I say that partly because I did have period of some success with women (after years of failure) and I did some of the stuff mentioned in the book, albeit on a limited level. (When I read the section of peacocking I was reminded of a girl who told me she’d only gone out with me because she liked my glasses. At the time I had a pair of stylish, black rimmed glassed that had been picked out by an ex-girlfriend and replaced the hideous, dorky glasses I wore through my mostly celibate 20s. I’m convinced that original pair was a women-repellant.)
As I read through the book, its ideas seem familiar. And that’s because this is exactly the kind of stuff Scott Adams says Donald Trump is doing: using subtle cues to “persuade” people to support him. Adams himself often mentions Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) in relation to this kind of persuasion. NLP is (probably) a pseudoscience* that studies how to subconsciously get people to do what you want. It gets mentioned a lot in relation to sales and negotiation. And NLP is touted by all the pick up artists in the book. (After all, picking up women is all about sales and negotiation.)
* Like all pseudosciences, however, there’s some truth to it.
It all points to rather dismal news. The way to get political power is not by being a standup individual, it’s by brainwashing people into supporting you. The way to satisfy your sex drive and its desire for variety is by tricking cosmo-guzzling 22 year olds into sleeping with you. Honesty and integrity have no place in these realms.
But that’s not really news, is it?
April 18th, 2016 by Wil
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?
April 3rd, 2016 by Wil
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.