Category Archives: Neuroscience

Phantoms of Pain

One of the more interesting lessons from modern neuroscience and psychology is, I think, the idea that we don’t perceive reality as much as we create it. By this I don’t mean that there is no real reality and that “it’s all in our heads, man” but rather that we get incoming sensory data through our eyes, ears, nose, etc. and our brain then assembles that data into something we can subjectively experience. Of course, sometimes the assembly isn’t perfect—that’s what hallucinations, tricks of light, etc. are.

I was thinking about how certain kinds of pain are perceived differently than most perceptions. With most perceptions we can kind of check one sensory organ’s take on things by comparing it with another. For example, I hear an owl and look up and, yep, there’s an owl. My sight backs up my hearing. Or I see a coffee cup and reach out and grab it. My touch backs up my sight.

With certain kinds of pain, however, this isn’t possible. I feel some internal pain and… well I can’t “double-check” whether it’s real in any way (aside from going to the doctor and having him do an x-ray or something but even that is no guarantee. And the pain is likely gone by that point.) Internal aches and pains are sort of floaty sensations that come and go on a whim. It’s hard to validate them.

Thus I wonder if many of these pains are hallucinatory in some sense. I recall an article in the New York Review of Books where the author reported getting a call from his doctor that he might have cancer in his ribs. As he waited a few days for confirmation, he started to feel pain in his ribs. As it turned out, he didn’t have cancer. That pain seemingly was created by his brain based on the possibility that he had cancer.

At the site Slate Star Codex, a related observation is made.

I’ve been focusing a lot lately on the idea of the Bayesian brain and its input channels. Some input channels, like vision, are high-bandwidth; we get so much data about the real world that (optical illusions and PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME signs aside) we usually see pretty much what is really there.
Other channels, like pain, are low bandwidth. This is why the placebo effect works – we get so little data about how much pain is coming from different parts of our bodies that even our strongest percepts are wild guesses, where we fill in the gaps with predictions and smooth away conflicting evidence. If our predictions change – ie we know we just got morphine and morphine lowers pain – then the brain will happily change its guesses. This would never happen with vision – I can’t use the placebo effect to make you think an orange crayon is blue – but pain is low-bandwidth enough that it works.

This would also seem to tie in with V.S. Ramachandran’s treatment for phantom limb pain.

Alien hand syndrome and the Buddha

A recent video over at the intellectual web site aeon got me thinking about the phenomenon of alien hand syndrome. (I’ll link to it here but it’s not really essential that you watch it.) Alien hand syndrome is a condition experienced by people who have had their left and right brains separated (usually as a treatment for epilepsy) where one hand acts outside of the control of its owner. The hand may start undressing its owner, or slapping them, or doing various other often anti-social behaviors.

Concurrently to all this, I’ve been reading Robert Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True.” In a recent section, he gets into the Buddha’s notion that there is no self. Part of how the Buddha made the case was to ask whether we (our selves) really have complete control over various components such as our feelings, our perceptions, a few others, and our bodies.

Well, that would seem to get right into the alien hand syndrome and loss of control over the body. But that’s a kind of a special case, one could say. These are people whose brains have been split.

Having said that, after reading this I started paying close attention to my actions. And I do notice a kind of disconcerting lack of control. I wash my hands and wipe them on the towel and while I may in some sense control the overall plan of action, I find my hands basically running on automatic for the specific movements. Clearly they are running learned programs and don’t really ask for specific input from my conscious self (which may not exist according to the Buddha.)

This isn’t really news to anybody. We all understand that we don’t finely control our actions when riding a bike or walking. Indeed, if we try to consciously monitor and control our actions while doing these things, we can easily screw ourselves up. But I do feel like I’ve stumbled onto an insight into how automatic much of our behavior is. In a sense, we all constantly experience a mild version of alien hand syndrome.

How do we know what we see or hear is good or bad?

I was lying in bed this morning and it struck me that you can only judge the positiveness or negativeness of certain sensory modalities by how they affect a different sensory modality.

Now, I imagine many of you are saying, “Yes, Wil, that is a wise and sage truth.” But some of you may be saying, “What the fuck are you talking about?” so I will try to explain.

Let’s consider vision. We can imagine some positive images and some negative images. A positive image might be a fuzzy kitten or our favorite meal being presented to us by a naked, attractive movie star. A negative image might be medical diagnosis paper that says “Cancer!!” or a horrible automobile accident.

But what makes them positive or negative? There’s nothing in the image that does this; it’s all how they make you feel. Positive images give us a warm, good feeling of calm and happiness while negative images may cause our heart to race, our gut to tighten, etc. In essence, we need our felt feelings, particularly in our internal body, to “know” whether this image is positive or negative.

(I believe that one test for psychopathy is showing people disturbing images and tracking their skin conductivity (which changes with stress.) Psychopaths can look at horrible imagery and not be disturbed.)

Let’s consider hearing. A positive sound might be a happy dog barking, or someone saying, “You just won the lottery.” A negative sound might be your girlfriend announcing she is leaving you because you are sexually inadequate, or your boss announcing your termination.

But, again, how do we know these things are good or bad? Because we feel sensations upon presentation of the stimulus. There’s nothing inherent in the stimulus.

We can say the same for smell, taste, even our vestibular (balance) sensation. It’s how they make us feel that denotes their character. Presumably if you simply had no feeling, you would have a hard time judging the sensations.

Of course, vision can be annoying on its own – bright lights are an example. So can sound when it gets too loud. But that has nothing to do with the object or objects being represented by the sight or sound. If you find yourself looking at an incredibly bright image of a chair, it’s not annoying because you don’t like chairs but because you don’t like incredible brightness. An overwhelmingly loud recording of a kitten mewing is just as annoying as an overwhelmingly loud recording of grating machinery.

You can think of the process by which we observe the world using our senses in this way.

1) Incoming sensory stream hits sense organ (light hits eyes, sound hits ears, etc.).
2) Our brain objectifies what it observes in this sensory stream (we recognize we are looking at a bear or hearing a pretty song).
3) Brain sets off a process by which we feel positivity or negativity about the object(s) we are observing (bear evokes fear, pretty song evokes joy).

My synesthesia

You may be familiar with synesthesia, the cross-wiring of certain sensory modalities. People who experience synesthesia (a minority of the human population) “hear” colors, or “taste” sounds, among other abilities.

For years I read about synesthesia and thought it was weird but unrelated to me. But at some point, I read about a certain type of synesthesia and realized that I had synesthesia as a child (and to some degree still do.) In the book “Incognito”, author David Eagleman describes my brand of synesthesia as “letters and numerals experienced as having gender and personalities.”

When I was a kid, numbers and letters had easily defined genders. I’ll list some numbers here paired with my sense of their gender.

1: Male
2: Female
3: Male
4: Female
5: Female
6: Female
7: Male
8: Male
9: Male
10: Male
11: Male
12: Female
13: Male
14: Female
15: Female
16: Female
17: Male
18: Male
19: Male

From there, a number’s gender was determined by the first numeral. So 26 was female because the first character, 2, was female. Same for 2,459.

But there was more to it than that. There were familial and social relationships between the numbers. 1 and 2 were married and their children were (I believe) 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. 4 was kind of a best friend to 5. 7, 8 and 9 were the older brothers of the family; they sort of bossed around their younger siblings. 10 was married to 12 and 11 was 10’s good friend.

I’m not absolutely certain about these statements but that’s my sense of my younger self’s interpretation of things.

Letters also had gender. I’ll run through the first part of the alphabet.

A: Female
B: Female
C: Male
D: Male
E: Male
F: Male
G: Male
H: Male
I: Male
J: Male
K: Female

There were also relationships at play here. A and B were good friends. A was kind of bossy, like a mom. C and D were pals. J and K were married.

It strikes me that all this makes an interesting point about gender. There’s a bit of debate these days about how fixed the binary properties of gender are—are we either essentially male or female, or do we exist on some sort of gender gradient? The fact that I saw these characters as having defined gender implies that a strong notion of gender was “built into” my brain, e.g. innate.

Except that I do recall that various numerals and letters had different balances of masculinity and femininity. T, for example was a very masculine letter (perhaps because it sort of looks like a broad shouldered man?) C was more of a passive man. Most of my female letters were “mom types”; they weren’t real sexpots. (My mind did not have the notion of MILFs at that point.) Interestingly, Q was a letter I have a hard time recalling the gender of.

Anyway, that was my take on it as a kid, and I still maintain a sense of it. I just think about a character and “know” its gender.

Kids these days…

I was watching an interview with comedian/commentator Adam Corrolla yesterday. He was defending his views, views which some call conservative but what he merely saw as common sense. Part of his take on things is the idea that people who can’t afford to have kids shouldn’t have kids. Seems reasonable enough, I thought. But it sort of feels like something is missing. To simply tell young, poor kids to not have kids until they can afford them seems like a doomed effort.

So why is this? We all understand that teens and young adult just make bad choices. Neuroscience can even offer a reason why, noting that the frontal cortex of the brain—reportedly key to foresight and planning—is not fully developed until one is in their mid twenties.

But we don’t really need science to tell us that young people make stupid choices. This is because we’ve all been young people and made stupid choices. Following this tangent got me thinking about my teens and twenties and musing, “What the fuck was I thinking?” Not in a chastening sort of way but more that of mild bemusement.

I look back at the period after I graduated from high school and think, “What was my plan?” I realize I was both naive and also unaware of the real possibilities of life. Part of my plan was to start a band and become a rock star, a rather pie in the sky pursuit (though I know people who accomplished this.) On the flip side, I think I thought it unlikely, even if I went to college, that I could do something like become a lawyer or scientist. Nowadays I feel such vocations could be well within reach if I felt like committing to them, which I don’t.

As it was, I ended up working at a car wash for eight years before stumbling into a career in web development.

I feel around in my memories for some tidbit of information that could possibility serve as a guide to getting young people to value their future correctly. I don’t really find anything other than a sense of understanding how some kid raised poor with little sense of hope could turn to creating a family (or at least having lots of sex) as a source of pleasure.

But we all end up paying for that.

Neural Lace for dogs?

Elon Musk has been talking about the concept of a neural lace. This is basically a wire mesh inserted into the brain which enambles direct communication with populations of neurons. To quote this article

…the neural lace is a device that is intended to grow with your brain. Its primary purpose is to optimize mental output through a brain-computer interface, allowing the human brain to effortlessly access the internet and, thus, keep up with (and someday merge with) artificially intelligent systems.

Micheal Chorost described something similar in his book “World Wide Mind” which I discussed here.

Today I was musing on the following scenario. Could we insert neural laces into the brains of dogs and then connect those canine brains to various A.I. brain augmentation devices such that dogs would then become smart enough to communicate with us? Are talking dogs the first sign of the singularity?

Bark once if you agree!

Reactivating brains

So recently I’ve been interested in the topic of what a conscious, living creature really is. To quote myself

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.)

Today I stumbled onto this

In a paper published in Plos One in early December, scientists detailed how they were able to elicit a pattern similar to the living condition of the brain when exposing dead brain tissue to chemical and electrical probes. Authors Nicolas Rouleau, Nirosha J. Murugan, Lucas W. E. Tessaro, Justin N. Costa, and Michael A. Persinger (the same Persinger of the God-Helmet studies) wrote about this breakthrough,

This was inferred by a reliable modulation of frequency-dependent microvolt fluctuations. These weak microvolt fluctuations were enhanced by receptor-specific agonists and their precursors[…] Together, these results suggest that portions of the post-mortem human brain may retain latent capacities to respond with potential life-like and virtual properties.

That’s just a fancy way of saying it might be possible to bring dead brain tissue back to life, sort of.

This is a far cry away from reactivating a dead person and nothing here really implies that would ever be possible. But it does play into the theory I posted above. You could say they turned the juice back on.

It’s Alive! Alive!

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.”

Are hippies right? Is energy consciousness?

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 connections (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.)

So what is information anyway?

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?