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Posts Tagged ‘Brain

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”*…

 

Mind

 

I have a confession. As a physicist and psychiatrist, I find it difficult to engage with conversations about consciousness. My biggest gripe is that the philosophers and cognitive scientists who tend to pose the questions often assume that the mind is a thing, whose existence can be identified by the attributes it has or the purposes it fulfils.

But in physics, it’s dangerous to assume that things ‘exist’ in any conventional sense. Instead, the deeper question is: what sorts of processes give rise to the notion (or illusion) that something exists? For example, Isaac Newton explained the physical world in terms of massive bodies that respond to forces. However, with the advent of quantum physics, the real question turned out to be the very nature and meaning of the measurements upon which the notions of mass and force depend – a question that’s still debated today.

As a consequence, I’m compelled to treat consciousness as a process to be understood, not as a thing to be defined. Simply put, my argument is that consciousness is nothing more and nothing less than a natural process such as evolution or the weather. My favourite trick to illustrate the notion of consciousness as a process is to replace the word ‘consciousness’ with ‘evolution’ – and see if the question still makes sense. For example, the question What is consciousness for? becomes What is evolution for? Scientifically speaking, of course, we know that evolution is not for anything. It doesn’t perform a function or have reasons for doing what it does – it’s an unfolding process that can be understood only on its own terms. Since we are all the product of evolution, the same would seem to hold for consciousness and the self.

My view on consciousness resonates with that of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who has spent his career trying to understand the origin of the mind. Dennett is concerned with how mindless, mere ‘causes’ (A leads to B) can give rise to the species of mindful ‘reasons’ as we know them (A happens so that B can happen). Dennett’s solution is what he calls ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’: the insight that it’s possible to have design in the absence of a designer, competence in the absence of comprehension, and reasons (or ‘free-floating rationales’) in the absence of reasoners. A population of beetles that has outstripped another has probably done so for some ‘reason’ we can identify – a favourable mutation which produces a more camouflaging colour, for example. ‘Natural selection is thus an automatic reason-finder, which “discovers” and “endorses” and “focuses” reasons over many generations,’ Dennett writes in From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). ‘The scare quotes are to remind us that natural selection doesn’t have a mind, doesn’t itself have reasons, but is nevertheless competent to perform this “task” of design refinement.’

I hope to show you that nature can drum up reasons without actually having them for herself. In what follows, I’m going to argue that things don’t exist for reasons, but certain processes can nonetheless be cast as engaged in reasoning…

Distinguished neuroscientist and psychiatrist Karl Friston argues that the special trick of consciousness is being able to project action and time into a range of possible futures: “The mathematics of mind-time.”

See also: “How the Brain Creates a Timeline of the Past” (source of the image above).

* Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

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As we get our minds around our minds, we might spare a thought for Oliver Wolf Sacks; he died on this date in 2015.  A neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author, he had an active clinical practice, but is more widely-remembered for his writing, mostly case studies from his clinical experience and memoir in which which he treats himself as a clinical subject.  Awakenings, for example, recounted his experience treating post-encephalitic patients with a new drug (levodopa); it was a best seller that served as the basis of a BBC Discovery documentary and was adapted into a feature film.  Widely honored for his prolific work, Sacks was the recipient of the 2001 Lewis Thomas Prize for excellence in scientific writing.

250px-9.13.09OliverSacksByLuigiNovi source

 

Written by LW

August 30, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness – to save oneself trouble”*…

 

Lion-man-angles-Vergleich-drei-Ganzkörper-Ansichten

 

Like all other animals, our species evolved by gradual processes of natural selection that equipped us to survive and reproduce within a certain environmental niche. Unlike other animals, however, our species managed to escape its inherited biological role and take control of its own destiny. It began to innovate, actively reshaping its way of life, its environment and, eventually, the planet itself. How did we do it? What set our species, Homo sapiens, apart from the rest?

Searching for just one event, a decisive change in culture or brain structure, would probably be a mistake. For more than 1.5 million years, archaic humans (earlier Homo species, such as Homo erectus) had been slowly diverging from the other great apes, developing a way of life marked by increased collaboration. They made simple stone tools, hunted together, might have cooked their food, and probably engaged in communal parenting.

Still, their lifestyle remained largely static over vast periods of time, with few, if any, signs of artistic activity or technical innovation. Things started to change only in the past 300,000 years, with the emergence of our own species and our cousins the Neanderthals, and even then the pace of change didn’t quicken much until 40-60,000 years ago.

What caused our species to break out of the pattern set by archaic humans? Again, there were probably many factors. But from my perspective as someone who studies the human mind, one development stands out as of special importance. There is a mental ability we possess today that must have emerged at some point in our history, and whose emergence would have vastly enhanced our ancestors’ creative powers.

The ability I mean is that of hypothetical thinking – the ability to detach one’s mind from the here and now, and consciously think about other possibilities. This is the key to sustained innovation and creativity, and to the development of art, science and technology. Archaic humans, in all probability, didn’t possess it. The static nature of their lifestyle suggests that they lived in the present, their attention locked on to the world, and their behaviour driven by habit and environmental stimuli. In the course of their daily activities, they might accidentally hit on a better way of doing something, and so gradually acquire new habits and skills, but they didn’t actively think up innovations for themselves…

The story at “Our greatest invention was the invention of invention itself.”

* Agatha Christie (who would surely have agreed that invention is also, sometimes, aimed at explaining ourselves to our selves… and sometimes simply at delivering delight)

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As we contemplate creativity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that the trial of John T. Scopes in Scopes vs. The State of Tennessee (aka “the Scopes Monkey Trial”) began.

The State of Tennessee had responded to the urging of William Bell Riley, head of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, by passing a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution– the Butler Act.  In response, The American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend anyone accused of violating the Act.  George Rappleyea, who managed several local mines, convinced a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, a town of 1,756, that the controversy of such a trial would give Dayton some much needed publicity.  With their agreement, he called in his friend, the 24-year-old Scopes, who taught High School biology in the local school– and who agreed to be the test case.

The rest is celebrity-filled history, and star-studded drama.

Scopes in 1925

 

Written by LW

July 10, 2020 at 1:01 am

“So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being”*…

 

Human skull

A Neanderthal skull shows head trauma, evidence of ancient violence

 

Nine human species walked the Earth 300,000 years ago. Now there is just one. The Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, were stocky hunters adapted to Europe’s cold steppes. The related Denisovans inhabited Asia, while the more primitive Homo erectus lived in Indonesia, and Homo rhodesiensis in central Africa.

Several short, small-brained species survived alongside them: Homo naledi in South Africa, Homo luzonensis in the Philippines, Homo floresiensis (“hobbits”) in Indonesia, and the mysterious Red Deer Cave People in China. Given how quickly we’re discovering new species, more are likely waiting to be found.

By 10,000 years ago, they were all gone. The disappearance of these other species resembles a mass extinction. But there’s no obvious environmental catastrophe – volcanic eruptions, climate change, asteroid impact – driving it. Instead, the extinctions’ timing suggests they were caused by the spread of a new species, evolving 260,000-350,000 years ago in Southern Africa: Homo sapiens.

The spread of modern humans out of Africa has caused a sixth mass extinction, a greater than 40,000-year event extending from the disappearance of Ice Age mammals to the destruction of rainforests by civilisation today. But were other humans the first casualties?…

More at “Were other humans the first victims of the sixth mass extinction?

* “… so profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms to desolate the world, or invent laws on the duration of the forms of life!”
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

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As we wonder about our lost siblings, we might spare a thought for Marie Jean Pierre Flourens; he died on this date in 1867.  A physiologist, he was the founder of experimental brain science and a pioneer in anesthesia.  He was the first to demonstrate the general functions of the major portions of the vertebrate brain; more generally, through the study of ablations on vertebrate animals, he was the first to prove that the mind was located in the brain, not the heart (as was then believed).

Ironically, he was a Creationist– an opponent of Darwin and the theory of natural selection.

220px-Pierre_flourens source

 

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”*…

 

mind internet

 

Imagine that a person’s brain could be scanned in great detail and recreated in a computer simulation. The person’s mind and memories, emotions and personality would be duplicated. In effect, a new and equally valid version of that person would now exist, in a potentially immortal, digital form. This futuristic possibility is called mind uploading. The science of the brain and of consciousness increasingly suggests that mind uploading is possible – there are no laws of physics to prevent it. The technology is likely to be far in our future; it may be centuries before the details are fully worked out – and yet given how much interest and effort is already directed towards that goal, mind uploading seems inevitable. Of course we can’t be certain how it might affect our culture but as the technology of simulation and artificial neural networks shapes up, we can guess what that mind uploading future might be like.

Suppose one day you go into an uploading clinic to have your brain scanned. Let’s be generous and pretend the technology works perfectly. It’s been tested and debugged. It captures all your synapses in sufficient detail to recreate your unique mind. It gives that mind a standard-issue, virtual body that’s reasonably comfortable, with your face and voice attached, in a virtual environment like a high-quality video game. Let’s pretend all of this has come true.

Who is that second you?

Princeton neuroscientist, psychologist, and philosopher Michael Graziano explores: “What happens if your mind lives forever on the internet?

* Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

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As we ponder presence, we might spare a thought for William “Willy” A. Higinbotham; he died on this date in 1994.  A physicist who was a member of the team that developed the first atomic bomb, he later became a leader in the nuclear non-proliferation movement.

But Higinbotham may be better remembered as the creator of Tennis for Two— the first interactive analog computer game, one of the first electronic games to use a graphical display, and the first to be created as entertainment (as opposed to as a demonstration of a computer’s capabilities).  He built it for the 1958 visitor day at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

It used a small analogue computer with ten direct-connected operational amplifiers and output a side view of the curved flight of the tennis ball on an oscilloscope only five inches in diameter. Each player had a control knob and a button.

 source

The 1958 Tennis for Two exhibit

source

 

Written by LW

November 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Neuroscience for the last couple hundred years has been on the wrong track”*…

 

In 2009, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara performed a curious experiment. In many ways, it was routine — they placed a subject in the brain scanner, displayed some images, and monitored how the subject’s brain responded. The measured brain activity showed up on the scans as red hot spots, like many other neuroimaging studies.

Except that this time, the subject was an Atlantic salmon, and it was dead.

Dead fish do not normally exhibit any kind of brain activity, of course. The study was a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the problems with brain scanning studies…

More on why we should be cautious of the “breakthrough insights” in neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, et al. at “BOLD Assumptions: Why Brain Scans Are Not Always What They Seem.”

Pair with “Electrified- Adventures in transcranial direct-current stimulation.”

* Noam Chomsky

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As we practice phrenology, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to John Hughlings Jackson; he was born on this date in 1835.  A neurologist, he was one of the first to observe that abnormal mental states may result from structural brain damage; and his studies of epilepsy, speech defects, and nervous-system disorders arising from injury to the brain and spinal cord remain among the most useful and highly documented in the field.  Jackson’s definition (in 1873) of epilepsy as “a sudden, excessive, and rapid discharge” of brain cells has been confirmed by electroencephalography; his epilepsy studies initiated the development of modern methods of clinical localization of brain lesions and the investigation of localized brain functions.

 source

 

Written by LW

April 4, 2015 at 1:01 am

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