Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Sense of space

As a kid I was big practitioner of comic book style drawing. Lately I’ve been taking it up again. I’m decades out of practice, but I’m reminded that much of drawing, particular drawing from life, requires a strong sense of space. Basically, you must take an image before you, say, two coffee cups a foot apart from each other, and preserve their relational distance while you draw the image on a piece of paper 6 inches wide.

For some reason today I was reminded of a high school friend of mine. When I knew him he was a top ranked tennis player in the state of Hawaii. We lost touch when I graduated but not long after that I heard he had become become a professional painter. When I knew him he had no interest in art. It seemed quite a switch—from tennis to art. But, as I think about it, tennis is also all about strong spatial awareness. You have to know where that ball is in space. I wonder of his (likely genetic) endowment for spatial awareness fueled both his tennis and art?

Electromagnetic Consciousness

In the realm of brain studies there’s a fairly reductionist view that argues that our consciousness and subjective experience is firmly rooted in our physical brains. The idea goes that we have these incredibly complex interactions between tens of billions of neurons and out of that arises our experience of being alive. Most authors I’ve read on the topic freely concede the exact nature of how consciousness arises from this is a mystery but it seems pretty clear that our self corresponds to our neural tissue. Simply consider that someone can have a brain stroke and they become a different person — they can no longer speak or form memories or control their anger. The soul seems to exist in physical form (or more accurately, it doesn’t exist at all.)

I’m pretty sympathetic to this view. But the book “The Mind’s I” has a thought experiment that does challenge this view. First let’s consider a brain in its ideal form. It’s sitting there, neurons firing, creating thoughts. Now let’s imagine an incredible surgery where you go in and separate apart every single neuron and place each one in its own chemical bath to keep it alive. (This is, or course, impossible.) You then attach electronic signaling/receiving devices so each neuron can communicate with whatever neurons to which it was “attached” (e.g. shared a synapse with) before. So, basically, even though the neurons are now separate, their signaling is exactly the same as it was in the whole brain. Can we still envision a mind rising out of all this?

Well, I dunno… maybe…

But it gets worse. Instead of putting little signaling/receiving devices on each neuron, attach little zappers that that simply fire different amounts of electricity. Now separate these neurons by hundreds of miles. Then fire of each of the zappers so that the neurons fire the exact way the would if the brain’s owner was thinking of a cat. (There’s no signaling going on, just neurons firing in the same order as if they were receiving signals.) Would some entity somewhere suddenly think of a cat?

It seems unlikely doesn’t it? But the individual neurons in all these cases are behaving exactly the same. So this would seem to dispel the possibility of a purely reductionist (e.g. it’s all in the tissue) model of consciousness.

I just stumbled on some general theories that address this issue. They are “Electromagnetic theories of consciousness.” (Link goes to wiki page about it.) The idea is that when you have a bunch of neurons in a brain they are, because of their electrical activity, creating an electromagnetic field. And somehow this field is consciousness. The field is not only created by the brain’s neurons, it affects them as well, so the field and brain effectively pass signals back and forth. The wiki page has details.

The starting point for McFadden and Pockett’s theory is the fact that every time a neuron fires to generate an action potential, and a postsynaptic potential in the next neuron down the line, it also generates a disturbance in the surrounding electromagnetic field. McFadden has proposed that the brain’s electromagnetic field creates a representation of the information in the neurons. Studies undertaken towards the end of the 20th century are argued to have shown that conscious experience correlates not with the number of neurons firing, but with the synchrony of that firing.[9] McFadden views the brain’s electromagnetic field as arising from the induced EM field of neurons. The synchronous firing of neurons is, in this theory, argued to amplify the influence of the brain’s EM field fluctuations to a much greater extent than would be possible with the unsynchronized firing of neurons.
McFadden thinks that the EM field could influence the brain in a number of ways. Redistribution of ions could modulate neuronal activity, given that voltage-gated ion channels are a key element in the progress of axon spikes. Neuronal firing is argued to be sensitive to the variation of as little as one millivolt across the cell membrane, or the involvement of a single extra ion channel. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is similarly argued to have demonstrated that weak EM fields can influence brain activity.[citation needed]
McFadden proposes that the digital information from neurons is integrated to form a conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field in the brain. Consciousness is suggested to be the component of this field that is transmitted back to neurons, and communicates its state externally. Thoughts are viewed as electromagnetic representations of neuronal information, and the experience of free will in our choice of actions is argued to be our subjective experience of the cemi field acting on our neurons.

I’m not agreeing with this (frankly, I still don’t really understand what electromagnetic fields are) but it does address the problems with the reductionist view.

Can metal remember?

I’ve mentioned in the past an idea that I freely concede may be crazy but it’s interesting enough to keep afloat: the possibility that consciousness is a basic property of all things and when matter interacts in complex and networked ways (like it does in a human brain or an advanced computer) higher, self-aware consciousness develops.

This L.A Times article offers more food for thought. It’s about a UCLA scientist who has developed a microchip that he claims can remember. How does it do it? Well, the science writing in this article is so vague that I’m pretty sure the reporter doesn’t understand and I sure don’t. It basically sounds like the scientist is creating neuron-like connections with metal strands and passing electricity through them.

In a lab, they placed a series of copper wire posts, mounted on a silicon wafer, into a solution of silver. As the copper dissolved, the silver formed intricate hair-like strands, as complex as the human cortex. It was the birth of the dust ball.

Building the chip is “extraordinarily simple,” Stieg says. Once the strands are created, they are exposed to sulfur, which provides electrical and ionic conductivity, and when electrical signals are sent through them, atoms migrate through each intersection of silver, each strand over strand.

Much as stimulus changes the brain by building over time synaptic patterns that can be associated to memory, the signals over time change the structure of the chip. Bridges form between the strands, further altering the chip.

What I find interesting here is the default behavior of the components of this chip seems to be to seek out “connections”, to create bridges. Much like neurons in the human brain branching and creating new synapses.

What causes neurons and silver strands to seek connections? I believe it is the fundamental need of all things to seek love!

No, seriously, I dunno. But if there’s a basic property of matter to, in some way, attract other matter, then it’s not that amazing that connections of the sort that could engender consciousness would arise.

Can plants think?

This is serendipitous. Recently, I wrote, “If we presume that consciousness arises “naturally” out of complex networks (like the human brain), then we have to concede that consciousness might arise out of non living things that are as complex.”

Today I come across an interesting New Yorker (December 23, 2013) article on the possibility of plant intelligence. At one point it states:

The hypothesis that intelligent behavior in plants may be an emergent property of cell exchanging signals in a network might sound far-fetched, yet the way that intelligence emerges from a network of neurons may not be very different. Most neuroscientists agree that, while brains considered as whole function as centralized command centers for most animals, within the brain there doesn’t seem to be any command post; rather, one finds a leaderless network. That sense we get when we think about a plant—that there is no there there, no wizard behind the curtain pulling levers—may apply equally well to our brains.

Now the article doesn’t allude to my essential point: that complex networks like brains (and according to this article, plants) may birth not only intelligence (whatever that is) but consciousness (whatever that is.) But the article does seem to imply that we are starting to break down these barriers between different forms of life. (You might recall a recent link I posted arguing that the very barrier between living and non living is false.)

To be clear about a possible confusion arising from my initial quote in the first paragraph; I was suggesting that non living things like storms might have some form of consciousness. I’m aware that plants are living things. ;)

Can storms be conscious?

There’s an observation about consciousness that I’ve seen made in various texts including “The Mind’s I” and it goes something like this: If we presume that consciousness arises “naturally” out of networks with a certain complexity (like the human brain), then we have to concede that consciousness might arise out of non living things that are as complex. Computers might be one example. So could ant colonies. (Ants themselves are alive but the colony as a unit is not.) But so could things such as ocean waves or electrical storms. Such phenomenon do “exchange information” via complex patterns of “signals” that I freely confess I don’t really understand.

This seems baffling. How could an electrical storm be conscious, even for an instant? Does it suddenly come to being in the sky and think to itself, “I am Bob Weinburger the electrical storm.”

That ridiculous of course. No self respecting electrical storm would name itself Bob. But it’s ridiculous in other ways. How could consciousness simply arise out of nothing?

I was thinking about this today and I realized I was making consciousness more complex than it has to be. I am conscious right now (at least I think I am; various philosophies might argue that perception is an illusion.) This means I’m aware of my world, I recall recent and distant events, I have plans for the future, I have my internal dialogue, etc. But there’s a big difference between me—a person conscious for over 4 decades—and an electrical storm possibly conscious for a moment. I am loaded down with memories, intuitions, knowledge and categorizations about the world etc. Much of my conscious experience is really about juggling data. But if I could strip all that away, what would I be left with? By this I mean, if I took away my ability to use language, my ability to really be aware of my thoughts, to define the world around me, to even be aware there’s a difference between me and the world around me, to even have an urge to break the world up into objects, what am I left with? I’m not exactly sure—it’s probably impossible for our minds to fathom—but it might be a simple enough state. And a state that I could believe an electrical storm could achieve, if only for a moment. It’s like being a really dumb baby I suppose.

Here’s some other recent thoughts prompted by “The Mind’s I.”

UPDATE: Jan 22, 2014
I have to state that a certain thought crosses my mind here. This form of consciousness I argue storms might achieve sounds not unlike the ego-less, formless mental state people seek via meditation and whatnot. And I think Buddhism does argue that in some sense, everything is conscious. One can conceive of consciousness as a kind of property of the universe, like gravity, that permeates everything. Our mental networks, (e.g. brains) have the additional component of memory and thus we are able to form selves and identities.

I’m not saying I sign off on any of these ideas but they are interesting to ruminate on.

Splitting apart the brain

I’ve been reading a book I’ve been interested in for some time: “The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul.” The subject is probably obvious from the title. Within its pages I came across an very thought provoking line of inquiry.

First, let’s consider the “conventional” view of consciousness. The idea is that we have all these brain neurons – tens of billions of them – connected to each other by their arms and legs (or more correctly dendrites and axons.) They send signals to one another and somehow, out of this mass of connecting wires, arrives consciousness. This is largely the premise of the book “Connectome” which I discussed on these very pages.

Let’s apply a thought experiment. Suppose you take a person’s brain and tease apart all the neurons from each other. You put each neuron in its own nutrient bath (to keep it alive) and you fix some kind of radio transmitter on each of its inputs and outputs (e.g. arms and legs.) Each neuron can now pass signals to all its fellows as it did before, only now it’s using these transmitters. (This is technically impossible but go with me on this.) Is it reasonable to conclude that this brain is still conscious? Maybe, though something seems off.

Let’s get even crazier. Let’s say we observe that a particular experience – eating a cheese sandwich – causes the neurons to fire in a very precise order (as it almost certainly would.) Then, instead of placing radio transmitters on each neuron, we place little pulse devices that can zap each neuron just like a brain signal. At this point we should be able to activate (in this brain) the experience of eating a cheese sandwich just by zapping the neurons in exactly the same order (and same speed) they would be zapped during a “real” sandwich eating experience. But would our brain – a bunch of neurons lying in separate chemical baths, not even connected to each other but receiving zaps from pulse devices – be conscious? It seems hard to believe it would. What is binding these neurons together?

I can think of several possible conclusions from all this.

1) Dualists and spiritualists are right: there is an immaterial soul. Something that takes all that neural processing and in some way interprets it as a conscious experience. Of course, this is just taking one mystery – how does the brain work? – and replacing it with another – how does the soul work? (You could exchange the word “soul” with “mind” and make the same point.)

2) There’s some missing part to the connectome theory – some strange property that emerges out of complex systems like the brain, or dark matter, or weird laws of quantum physics, who knows what. This sort of thing is what I believe the quantum consciousness movement advocates.

3) Separate strands of unconnected brain tissue CAN be conscious. Maybe all sorts of weird complex systems can. Maybe clouds are conscious! Computers! The universe!

4) This one is hard to really put into words but I like it. We are presuming the brain has to correlate to this thing we call consciousness but we have never really defined consciousness. Maybe we aren’t really conscious at all? Maybe it’s just some kind of illusion? (But don’t we need to be conscious to be fooled by an illusion? Like I said, this one is tricky.)

Becoming music

Towards the end of Jaron Lanier’s book “You Are Not a Gadget” he talks of the technology that he’s most famous for: virtual reality. He worked on it quite a while ago, back when VR essentially consisted of strapping on goggles and seeing a wireframe alternate reality. (A bit like early first person shooter video games I suppose.) But while experimenting with VR Lanier noticed something interesting—he could redefine his body in the VR world in some dramatic way, but it wasn’t difficult for his brain to master this new form. In the book, he describes one of his hands becoming very big and, at another time, adding on extra mini-arms and becoming a VR human lobster. He describes this a bit here:

I had the experience of my arm suddenly becoming very large, because of a glitch in the software, and yet still being able to pick things up, even though my body was different. And that sensation of being able to alter your body is different from anything else. I mean, it’s almost like a whole new theater of human experience opens up.

I find this notion that the human brain can easily adapt to new body formation interesting but not all that surprising. The neuroscientist Miguel Nicolellis, who’s working on connecting paralyzed people to robotic body parts, talked quite a bit about this in his book “Beyond Boundaries.” He’s connected monkeys to fake legs and the monkeys “get it” pretty quickly. It’s another example of the plasticity of the brain.

So now I’m going to get a little out there. On Thanksgiving I was lying around listening to some music (Grieg, not that it really matters.) and I started thinking. Lanier’s point seems to be that people can easily adapt to sensations coming from virtual body parts. They easily accept that “I’m feeling a sensation on my giant thumb” for example. As such, we should be able to easily inhabit new forms. But do those forms have to be physical, e.g. body shapes of some type? Can we enter forms made of of things like sound? Music, for example? While thinking about this, I made a basic effort to “become” the music I was listening to. And I did have a certain oddball glimmer of a sense that my interpretation of the music changed from something I was listening to to something that I was. Like a part of my consciousness entered the “shape” of the music.

This was not a mind bending experience; it was merely a slight change of how I viewed the world, not unlike saying, “I wonder what it would like to be that guy over there” (except in this case the guy was music.) And I recognize that I don’t totally understand the experience and probably couldn’t capture it into words even if I did. (It does remind me of the time I “became” water.)

Maybe it works something like this: we tickle our arm and we understand that this sensory experience is something that we are doing to ourselves. But when we listen to music or see a plane crash into a mountain, we understand that to be something we have no control of— events caused by a foreign entity (e.g. the cd player playing the music or the idiot pilot.) But what if we change our conception to be that the cause of these events is us (in the same way Lanier in his virtual environment accepted the giant hand to be his)? Do we not then, in some way, become something we are not?

Our idiotic natural state

I’ve spent quite a bit of time here arguing that technologically enabled fast paced communication (e.g. email, twitter, texting, facebook etc.) has had the effect of making us easily distractible, constantly searching for the next “hit” of information. But this op-ed piece by the author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” makes an good point: being easily distracted was our natural state for a long time.

Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. The innate bias of the human brain, after all, is to be distracted. Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food.

It was only after we achieved levels of relative peace and security that we could focus in on things. It would not surprise me if the distracting presence of the interweb completely rolls back tens of thousands of years of human progress within a generation.

Does “this sucks” suck?

Over at Andrew Sullivan’s site, a reader writes in to condemn the phrase “sucks” (as in “this sucks” or “you suck”) as being homophobic. His allegation is that the phrase refers to the sucking of a penis which is a common homosexual act and therefore, by the logic of the insult, homosexuality itself is being condemned.

There’s probably something to this and the same could be applied to the term “blows” (like “this restaurant blows, man!”) But of course not only gay men suck or blow; heterosexual women have been known to engage in the practice. (Thanks gals!)

But I think there’s more to the story. Let’s consider the mother of all swear expressions: fuck. Like “you’re fucked” or “fuck you!” (We can also consider fuck’s lesser cousin, “screw.”) Fucking is not a behavior limited to homosexual men. But the term is considered pejorative. So what do fucking, sucking and blowing all have in common? A person on one side of the equation is being penetrated. Some orifice of their personhood is being violated. They have lost control of or ceded the limits of their body. It’s this logic that ultimately drives the insult value of these terms, and I even made this case while explaining the titling of my article “Dean Koontz Can Blow Me!!!

Who or what can be a target of an “…Can Blow Me” article? Anyone really… Obviously this is not meant to be literal… The “…Can Blow Me” concept is based on the simple premise that during the fellatio, the “blower” is subservient to the “blowee.”

Now we can argue who is really subservient to who during these sex acts. I’m sure more than one guy in history has literally begged his partner for a blow job. But you get the point.

Interestingly, I just came across a section in Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget” that relates to this. He makes the point that there may be a correlation between how we interpret language and how we we interpret smells. He first notes that there are two kinds of smells. There’s general smells, like a daisy or old books, then there’s pheromones: “strong odors given off by other animals (usually of the same species), typically related to fear or mating.” He continues…

Language offers an interesting parallel. In addition to the normal language we all use to describe objects and activities, we reserve a special language to express extreme emotion or displeasure, to warn others to watch out or get attention. This language is called swearing.

There are specific neural pathways associated with this type of speech; some Tourette‟s patients, for instance, are known to swear uncontrollably. And it‟s hard to overlook the many swear words that are related to orifices or activities that also emit pheremonic olfactory signals. Could there be a deeper connection between these two channels of “obscenity”?

Could phrases like “suck,” “blow,” “fuck,” “screw,” “cunt,” “twat,” “asshole,” “balls,” “ballsack,” “dick,” “cock” etc. have strong emotional connotations because they are connected to powerful, pheromone related smells?

Shapes and Symbolism

Endless college lectures and books have discussed the use of symbolism in fiction writing. The discussion continues because symbolism is a very effective technique for drawing attention to themes in a story that otherwise might not be clear.

Blogger C.S. Lakin has a lot of interesting bits of writing advice. In this post she discusses using shapes symbolically.

Shapes are probably the last thing on a novelist’s mind when constructing a scene or an image system for a novel. Most of us probably pay little attention to shapes. Shapes of what? Well, everything has a shape, and even if you don’t think about shapes consciously, there are universal feelings that tend to go along with certain shapes, and throughout time and across cultures, shapes hold meaning and often symbolism.

Think about a character who feels stuck in a rut, her life like a treadmill. She feels as if she is going in circles, getting nowhere. Each morning she runs three miles on her treadmill. Her life is a merry-go-round of colorful painted horses that are not real. Without stating anything specifically, circles can be used in an image system throughout the novel. She could live at the end of a cul-de-sac with a circular driveway in front of her house. Her daughter could even have a pet hamster that runs in a hamster wheel, something she looks at every day and relates to. Her job could entail her doing some kind of repetitive motion that is circular (stirs sauces as a sous chef in a kitchen).

She makes a good, if obvious, point: we infer meaning from shapes. Jagged, spikey things are dangerous. Round, curved things are friendly. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has a whole theory of neuroaesthetics that gets into the idea that we were wired by evolution to find patterns (which are a form of meaning) in what we experience. If we hear a strange moan, and then hear it again louder, and yet again louder—a repeating pattern of moans—it would behoove us to presume something dangerous is getting closer. Creatures who figure that out survive, those who don’t get eaten. (This might explain the menace in the JAWS theme.)

In essence, Ramachandran argues that when we “get” the meaning in an experience (be it “Wow, the monster’s getting closer,” or “Ah, her life is going in circles just like the hamster!”) we get rewarded with a good feeling—an emotional pat on the back. One could then theorize that if you insert such meta meaning in fiction (through symbolism and other techniques like metaphor) you set up opportunities for readers to “get it” and pat themselves on the back. And readers like books that make them feel clever and recommend them to their friends.

But here’s the beef I have with all this. Reality is not really filled with meaning. By this I mean, not every person going in circles has a hamster (some might have an iguana), not every evil person wears black (or has a name like “Dr. Satanus”), not every hero who hides their emotions beneath a hard exterior drives a Hummer etc. There’s some truth to these tropes and clichés, but I think programming them into fiction at a granular level makes the writing seem phony and unrealistic.

I think man seeks stability and predictability—that’s fairly obvious looking at human history. And I think we use myths, stories and even religion to explain the confusing and often meaningless world we live in. I understand the desire to create fiction that feeds those needs, but I also think that on some level fiction should be confronting people with reality, making them a bit uncomfortable.

I’m reminded of a passage from David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” (which I discussed in this blog.)

At one point Byrne quotes the views of English author John Carey who said, “Meanings are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them.”