Archive Page 2

Does the experience of being blackout drunk inform our understanding of consciousness?

Many years ago—decades really—I was at a party in Waikiki. I got completely smashed on booze (maybe pot too, I don’t recall). The next day I woke up and worriedly ran a mental rundown of the previous night. I realized I couldn’t recall leaving the party and getting home. A friend of mine had driven us to the party and presumably driven me home, but I couldn’t recall walking to her car or the ride back. The was concerning as the car had been parked many blocks from the party which meant I had no memory of walking through the populated street scene that is Waikiki on a Saturday night.

As I think back on this, it occurs to me that this kind of event is very interesting from the point of view of analyzing consciousness and it prompts some interesting questions. Was I conscious during that walk back to the car but not forming any memories? (By this I mean, was there some cohesive entity in my body experiencing the walk but not recording the experiences in memory?) Or was I not conscious at all? (Was there no entity experiencing anything to be recorded in memory?)

I admit it’s a little hard to wrap one’s head around these questions. But it makes me wonder whether what we call memory and what we call consciousness are actually the same thing. Or at least tightly integrated.

It might seem a little odd to even question whether some entity was conscious while I was walking back through Waikiki. After all I was walking, and likely babbling drunkenly at my friend. But a lot of research of the past 100 years does seem to point to the idea of a kind of unconscious or subconscious—a part of the brain that can perform actions and movements without us being aware of it. And frankly, we are unaware of some of our actions all the time in life—does you monitor each step as you walk? Are you explicitly aware when you turn the key in your car ignition while daydreaming about the weekend and chugging some coffee? Human beings can, it seems, run on automatic for at least short periods.

Let’s say you had no way of forming memories, even for a few seconds. (There are, of course, people with very limited short term memory (like the guy in “Memento”) but usually they can remember at least a few minutes.) Could you be conscious? I’m guessing this is what babies in the womb experience. My gut guess here is that they are conscious in a sense (e.g. there is an entity experiencing their perceptions and whatnot) but it’s a very different kind of consciousness that what we experience as defined, ego aware humans.

I dunno… it’s a mystery. But I’m intrigued with the idea that memory and consciousness are united in some way.

The latest head transplant news

Wrap your head around this!

Italian doc: I’ve found the key to head transplants

An Italian scientist has claimed that head transplants could be possible, after what he says is a major breakthrough in the technique. But another expert told The Local said the whole idea was potentially unethical.

Er, gee, you think?

This stuff isn’t as crazy as it sounds. A Russian scientist active in the 20th century did achieve some success with dog head transplants.

Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov was a real Soviet scientist. And he did the weirdest experiments with dog heads, keeping them alive separated from their bodies and transplanting them to other dog bodies.

He also attached heads and other parts to different dogs, resulting in weird hybrids that only survived for a few months. This research inspired the american doctor Robert White, another WW2 surgeon who followed the Soviet lead, performing the same experiments with rhesus monkeys.

Truth is, the science still seems to be in its infancy. Don’t expect human head transplants walking among us anytime soon.

However, the fact that it’s even considered as feasible is pretty astounding. And it raises all sorts of potential dramas. Will dying, mega-wealthy tycoons attempt to transplant their heads onto the bodies of teenage runaways? Will people be able to extend their life a few decades by living as mechanically supported human heads in a jar?

One can only hope.

Over the Rainbow

Here’s a video I shot of myself playing a instrumental version of Harold Arlen’s classic tune.

The danger of multitasking

I found myself observing an interesting tic of the brain last night and thought I would share it with eager readers.

I was tooling around in the garage while also reinstalling Windows 7 on a computer. I decided I would lock the garage door and around the same time the log in screen on the computer came up. As I prepared to type in my password I thought, “Caps-lock is on, make sure you turn it off” (or something to that effect.)

Of course caps lock was not on—I’d simply somehow correlated my locking of the door with having turned caps-lock on. In essence, my brain had transferred the property of “locked-ness” from one thing I was working on to another.

Thus is the danger of multitasking.

The Slenderman hallucination

I have, lately, been reading Oliver Sacks’ “Hallucinations,” a neurology focused tome about the titled subject. I’ve come away with the sense that many people, especially people with various ailments of the brain such as epilepsy, have remarkably real hallucinations—not shadows moving out of the corner of their eye, but realistic, moving apparitions. An obvious conclusion is that much of what humans have reported throughout history as ghosts or demons are, in fact, these hallucinations.

At one point in the book a person described seeing a hallucinated image of a threatening tall, thin man. I thought, gee, this sounds a bit like that “Slenderman” character from creepy pasta stories. Slenderman was in the news recently when two girls reported that they stabbed a classmate to appease this imagined dark demon. Lo and behold a day or two I stumble across an update to that story.

Doctors: Stabbing suspect sees fictional beings

One of two preteens accused of stabbing a classmate 19 times to please a fictional horror character was ordered Friday to receive treatment rather than stand trial, based on doctors’ testimony that she claims to see and have conversations with things others cannot — including unicorns and a Harry Potter villain.

Dr. Kenneth Robbins, a psychiatrist hired by the girl’s defense attorney, testified that the girl believes she can communicate telepathically with Slender Man and was more worried about offending the specter than going to prison.
“If she says the wrong thing, if she somehow upsets Slender Man, not only hers, but her family’s lives, could be in danger,” Robbins explained.
Dr. Brooke Lundbohm, a court-appointed psychologist, said the girl described Slender Man as “a person she has a strong bond with, she idolizes and believes to be real.”

The girl sounds a lot like some of the people described in Sacks’ book.

I’ve read a bit about similar neurological ailments and related states of odd consciousness like hypnosis. I get the sense that some people are more susceptible to these states than others; some people are more able fall into alternate realities. I find myself far removed from that phenomenon; a doctor once tried to hypnotize me and failed and I have never had any hallucination I took to be real. (I do occasionally hear sounds while asleep that I think are real and wake up, but I don’t think that’s uncommon.) As I read about people who can more easily slip into hallucinated realities, I find myself a bit jealous. I imagine there’s an element of “magic” in such people’s live that I would like to experience.

Movies continue to suck

Not long ago, in the pages of acid logic, I complained that modern, big budget movies were sucking.

Big budget movies seem less and less interesting while low budget flicks that almost fall between the cracks win my love. Another big film of the summer, “Man of Steel,” was a complete waste of time. I was so bored by Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy that I didn’t even bother with “The Hobbit.” I found no reason to waste any time with the new Star Trek. These movies seem indistinguishable from each other and I don’t think I’m alone on this view.

This trend seems to be continuing. The Hollywood Reporter notes: Box-Office Slump: Hollywood Facing Worst Summer in Eight Years
The article doesn’t specially point to stupid plots as the leading cause, but I think that’s a big part of it. Technological change is, of course, also an issue.

Filmmaker Jon Favreau agrees that the popularity of television and new technologies are altering viewing habits. “I think times are changing. We have to acknowledge that and not try to chase what used to be,” says Favreau, who is currently prepping Jungle Book for Disney.

I’d argue much of television’s success is that it has gotten much better story wise. I’m a big fan of Law & Order, and while I haven’t seen them I understand shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men etc. are well crafted. TV is doing what the great film dramas of the 70s (Scorsese, Coppola etc.) did.

All that said, I was pretty impressed with the recently released “Snowpiercer.” Part of its strength however, was that it didn’t have the “produced by committee” feel of many Hollywood flicks.

Thus I have spoken.

The golden rule blows!

I’ve mentioned in the past that while I agree with atheism I find the notion that you can have morality without religion to be, well, less obvious than many make it out to be. (I tackled this idea in detail here.)

A lot of secular humanists point to the golden rule as an easy source for morality. That rule is, of course, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog a reader makes the case.

…we also have deeply ethical atheists, agnostics, and secularists who debate the fine points of moral behavior with as much rigor and passion as theologists do, and who are building great ethical revolutions such as environmentalism on the surprisingly robust foundation of a practical, secular ethics.

Much of this success rests on the self-explanatory Golden Rule. No fear of damnation is needed to explain why it’s a good idea to treat others as you would like to be treated. It’s a contract, and you get security and stability only if you obey it. The obviousness of this contract also makes it a firm basis for moral innovation.

The problem is that while the golden rule might work some of the time, it really doesn’t work all of the time. The idea is that if I don’t want to be screwed, I shouldn’t screw others. But really you just don’t want others to know you’ve screwed them. If you can screw over other people without them knowing it, then you get all the benefits of the golden rule, plus a little extra for yourself. Also, the premise of the golden rule is that your security and safety will be harmed if you violate the golden rule. But what if I am strong enough that I cannot be harmed? Say I’m a king, or some kind of mafia boss? Then I can break the golden rule with at least some impunity and not fear for my security. As an incentive for morality, the golden rule does not work consistently and seems to have many caveats. Counter to the writer above, there are cases where one can get security and stability without obeying the golden rule.

There’s a third complaint I’d make which is the golden rule isn’t really moral in any kind of purist sense. According to the golden rule, you should treat others well not because you really want to but because you wanted to be treated well. It’s selfish. This may be acceptable, but I think the realization takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of people like the above person who righteously tout the golden rule as something almost holy.

Is religion the way to morality then? As I’ve said in the past, even it is flawed. The Christian argument is that one should be good to avoid burning in hell. Again, the is really a selfish argument: Do this to avoid pain (and lots of it!)

I do suspect morality evolved as a social practice that tended to work for most of those who engaged in it. Those who followed the golden rule flourished and were successful at passing on their genes etc. I presume it is, in some hard to imagine way, encoded into our genes. But morality and the golden rule are not really “logical” in any sense.

The war within!

I’ve argued that there’s a certain disconnect wired into the human body. On one hand, our genes want us to engage in certain behaviors that ensure the continuation of our genetic material. These behaviors are basically eating, sex, and the pursuit of status (status essentially being a tool to get people to have sex with us.) But we are in some ways at war with these voices prodding us to feed and get laid. We know that if we eat too much we get fat. We know that simply pursuing hedonistic sex ruins our relationships.

A recent NY Times article captures this.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we are wired to seek fame, wealth and sexual variety. These things make us more likely to pass on our DNA. Had your cave-man ancestors not acquired some version of these things (a fine reputation for being a great rock sharpener; multiple animal skins), they might not have found enough mating partners to create your lineage.

But here’s where the evolutionary cables have crossed: We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. My brain says, “Get famous.” It also says, “Unhappiness is lousy.” I conflate the two, getting, “Get famous and you’ll be less unhappy.”

But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.

Enjoying Audioslave?

A band I’ve never been impressed with is Audioslave (comprised of members of Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden.) But a while back I was jogging and put on some of their music. After I finished my run I was listening and thinking, “You know, I’m kind of enjoying this.”

But it occurred to me that maybe I was just experiencing a pleasurable runner’s high and then attributing that enjoyment to the music I was listening to. Maybe it was that the music put me in a pleasant state of mind but rather I was in a pleasant state of mind and attributed it to the music I was listening to.

The truth is, I suspect many things were happening there. Maybe the rocking Audioslave music did help boost my already exuberant feeling. Maybe to enjoy some music you need to be in a certain physical state. But this opens up a whole other debate—does much of our reaction to art and entertainment have to do with things outside those products? If I eat a Twinkie and watch “Game of Thrones” (which I’ve never seen) how much of my pleasure is from the Twinkie and how much from the show? If I take a soothing bath and listen to Mozart, again, from where does the pleasure originate? I think the answer is a little of both sources, but it does seem we are more willing to give credit to the entertainment product than our pleasant environment.

This would explain these experiences we’ve all had where we listen to an album we’ve loved in the past and for some reason it just doesn’t do it anymore. Maybe the enjoyment was never in the album.

The artist as madman

I continue reading “The Immortalist” and discover an interesting passage that both lauds and condemns “the artist” in society. Harrington, the book’s author, argues, as many have, that the artist creates art to achieve immortality, to live forever, if only in name. When this dream is foiled, ugliness ensues.

The artist still risks his identity and self-respect to an extent undreamed of by the man of business. He must always live with the fearful possibility that his work is no good, his daring departure from the safe world a bore to everyone else. And if he lacks talent, no one will care one way or the other what revolutionary notions he may entertain. Even after he attains some success, he can go dry and lose his talent. Or he may be taken up and dropped as tastes change. He remains exposed and on the firing line. When things go wrong the outcome becomes doubly unbearable. He fails twice—in his own mind dwindling alarmingly before the gods, and also in the public mind. The sensitive failed artist runs the risk of dying twice, spiritually and materially, which is why, as Eric Hoffer has shown in The True Believer, frustrated individuals of this kind have turned into the most dangerous people on earth: Hitler, Goebbels, Mussolini, etc.

I am, by any fair definition, a failed artist. Am I on the verge of becoming a power mad dictator casting millions to their doom?

Hmmmm…