Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

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.”

Is perception memory?

I’ve talked quite a bit about the how the brain perceives sensations, particularly pain. My general take has been that our sensory processes are not totally honest – sometimes you feel something is cold when it isn’t, sometimes you see things that aren’t there or vice versa (“I looked on the couch three times for my missing keys, and on the fourth, there they were.”) To some degree, our senses can’t be trusted.

I’ve been reading an interesting book called “World Wide Mind” which covers various topics related to integrating technology into our brain and bodies. It has a section on perception that is thought provoking. The book argues that our sensory experience of doing something is based on more than just the information we get from our nerves, but from our memories of similar experiences! (From pages 81-82.)

When your fingers touch [a doorknob], confirmatory signals flow up the nerves. But… the signals from your hand constitute only a fraction of your conscious experience of the doorknob. Your brain already knows that the doorknob is round, metallic and slightly warm, so it fills in those perceptions from memory rather than generating them from your finger nerves. The reason it does this is because it is more efficient to do so. Analyzing raw perceptions takes a lot of time and energy. It is much simpler for the brain to evoke the memory you have of the doorknob and let that constitute most of your conscious experience of it.

Obviously this theory can explain subjective experience during a short term period, like when you touch a doorknob, but I wonder if it explains a longer term human behavior. We’ve all seen people who say things like, “I can’t believe I let you talk me into going to Disneyland. The last three times I was there, I hated it and I know I’m going to hate it this time.” And hate it they do. But are they really experiencing Disneyland in the now, or the Disneyland of their memories? (I’m not saying they are actually lost in some reverie of the past, but that their memories are in some way coloring their current experience.)

Our canine brothers

An interesting NY Times article argues that canine neurological function is – at least in some ways – similar to our own.

Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.

Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.

In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

It is a bit of a stretch to conclude that because dog brain components activate in a way similar to ours then they must experience life in the same manner as we do. But it is a step towards that conclusion. And if science does determine that dogs (and likely other animals of similar sentience) feel emotions as humans do, then mankind is going to have to breath in a collective gasp at how we’ve often treated dogs throughout history.

The piece reminds me of an article I once wrote on the topic of morality. It was entitled, “You Think You’re a Good Person? You’re Not!” At one point I said:

By studying the past, and gaining a sense of the evolution of morality, perhaps we can intuit where it is headed. I’ve long felt that there will be a wide expansion of animal-rights in the coming centuries. As animals are revealed to be more and more intelligent and emotive, and as the possibility of “growing meat” becomes reality, there will be increased pressure on the meat industry to soften its ways, or even dissolve completely. (The Spanish government is even currently debating vastly increased legal protections for gorillas.) And some scientists are already arguing that plants have an emotional life, so plant rights may not be far behind. Of course many a science fiction author has painted futuristic scenarios where pieces of technology — computers and robots — demand protection under the law. And in this future era, they will look back at citizens of our age — meat eating, gardening, robot abusing bastards — and be shocked at our cruelty much the same way we are appalled at the behavior of slave owning aristocrats of the 1800s.

Our defining years

Though it’s long, this Daily Beast article arguing that the Millennial generation is to the left of even the Democratic Party makes sense to me. Its core argument is that Millennials came of age in a decade of unending economic insecurity and, as a result, expect the hand of government to address this.

The article also makes an interesting point I can relate to psychology and brain science. (I’m sure everyone is excited by that.)

For Mannheim, generations were born from historical disruption. As he argued—and later scholars have confirmed—people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties. During that period—between the time they leave their parents’ home and the time they create a stable home of their own—individuals are most prone to change cities, religions, political parties, brands of toothpaste. After that, lifestyles and attitudes calcify. For Mannheim, what defined a generation was the particular slice of history people experienced during those plastic years. A generation had no set length. A new one could emerge “every year, every thirty, every hundred.” What mattered was whether the events people experienced while at their most malleable were sufficiently different from those experienced by people older or younger than themselves.

On one hand this is hardly news – it’s well known that a person’s (or generation’s) character is largely defined by the culture of their late teens to mid-twenties. I, for example, will always be defined by and partial to the music of Guns-n-Roses, Nirvana (even if I’m not a fan) and movies like “Die Hard” or “Pulp Fiction.” The article is simply carrying idea this over to politics, making the claim that political events that occur in your teen/twenty-something years have a stronger effect than political events that occur earlier or later. (This makes sense. Whenever I hear people older than me ranting about Reagan I think, “Jesus, get over it!”)

But there’s an interesting question here: Why? Why are our tastes and politics defined by experiences in our teens and twenties? I would argue it’s because that is a period when our brain is primed to most richly experience life. At that point our brains have become sharpened in the sense that we’ve learned much of what we need to become adults, but we still have an active emotional system (the somewhat controversial limbic system.) We are thinking and reasoning better than we ever have, but we are also enjoying the emotional depth of life in ways we will likely lose in coming years. Because of these brain changes, life is exciting and thus the events of those years – personal, cultural, historical and political events – have a pronounced effect on us. As a result, when we get older and jaded and tired, we don’t fully appreciate how the current teen/twentysomething generation is reacting to events.

Put your left brain in, put your left brain out…

Educated readers doubtless recall my old Acid Logic article “What is Morality?” in which I argued that our sense of morality is less a thought out, reasoned set of rules and more an ethereal sense that is actually physically felt in our body. We avoid doing bad not because we are intellectually opposed to it, but because contemplating bad acts makes us feel uncomfortable.

As mentioned, I’ve been reading Mike Gazzaniga’s book on free will, “Who’s In Charge?”, and he discusses some observations relevant to the morality issue. Gazzaniga is most famous for studying “split brain patients.” These are people, usually epileptic, who’ve had the series of neural fibers that connect their left and right brain hemispheres separated (for therapeutic reasons.) Gazzaniga came to find that in subtle ways these people are really of two minds. The right hemisphere is very literal and has no language function. The left hemisphere is the interpreter (e.g. it can construct stories and explanations – often incorrectly – from observed events), and has rich language functionality.

In the book, Gazzaniga notes the work of another neuroscientist who discovered that when we use our knowledge of other people’s beliefs and intent, we use a particular brain area in the right hemisphere. Gazzaniga was surprised by this because he presumed this would mean that the left brain in split brain patients (the talky brain) would be incapable of keeping track of people’s intentions. He designed a series of experiments to suss this out. Basically this involved asking patients questions like, “If Susie gives what she thinks is sugar but actually is poison to her boss, is she bad?” or the inverse, “If Susie gives her boss sugar that she thinks is poison, is she ok?” These questions, as you can see, are all about Susie’s intent. And, as Gazzaniga’s predicted, the split brain patients (or at least their talking left side) focused on the outcome of the actions, not the intent. It didn’t matter that Susie was trying to kill her boss if it all worked out okay.

It would seem that morality is a series of brain functions. If a piece is missing (or inaccessible), our moral function gets warped, at least by the standards of society.