You are currently browsing the thoughts on thoughts weblog archives for November, 2010.

November 2010
« Oct   Dec »

Archive for November 2010

The edge question

There is an organization called Edge (here) and one of their great events is a question that is answered by many famous people in science and the arts. This year the question is from Richard Thaler. The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true? There are a few answers to do with thought and brains. I am sure you will find these and some of the other replies interesting and recommend reading the collection. Below are some excerpts that fit with this blog’s subject matter.

Alun Anderson, author of After the Ice: Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic, remembered when the Great Chain of Being was discarded. “The Great Chain of Being is another great example of a long-held, still not fully displaced, false view and also stems from the same kind of “wrongly centered” thinking. … Essentially the view is that humans stand at the pinnacle of creation (or just below God) and all other life forms are less perfect to a varying degree. Evolutionary theory teaches that all creatures are equally adapted to the niches in which they live; every branch of the tree is thus in a sense equally perfect.”

Irene Pepperberg, author of Alex and Me pointed out how birds were wrongly considered very stupid. A corollary: That parrots were not only stupid, but also could never learn to do anything more than mimic human speech. It was believed to be true because the training techniques initially used in laboratories were not appropriate for teaching heterospecific communication.”

Christian Keysers, a neuroscientist from Groningen, felt that Artificial Intelligence attitudes were misleading. “For a long time the brain was thought to contain separate parts designed for motor control and visual perception. … I believe that this wrong belief was so deeply engrained because of AI, … I call this the computer fallacy: thinking of the brain as a computer turned out to harm our understanding of the brain.”

Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds, complains about how difficult it is to get changes in education methods. “Among cognitive psychologists, there is widespread agreement that people learn best when they are actively engaged with a topic, have to actively problem solve, as we would put it ‘construct meaning.’ Yet, among individuals young and old, all over the world, there is a view that is incredibly difficult to dislodge. To wit: Education involves a transmission of knowledge/information from someone who is bigger and older (often called ‘the sage on the stage’) to someone who is shorter, younger, and lacks that knowledge/information.”

Roger Schank, author of The Future of Decision-Making, tells about different ways of learning. “The obvious candidate for failed theory in the world of learning is the stimulus-response theory (called behaviorism) that dominated psychology for many years. Yes, my dog gets excited when I make coffee because that is when he knows he will get a treat, but that kind of learned behavior is hardly all there is to learning.”

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, points of that childhood influences have been over valued. “The closest thing to a persistent flat earth belief in psychology is probably the view that experiences in the first five years of life largely shape the personality of the adult. … Personality is shaped by the interaction of genes with experience; psychologists and lay people alike long underestimated the power of genes, and they spent too much time looking at the wrong phase of childhood (early childhood), instead of at the developmental phases that matter more (i.e., the prenatal period, and adolescence).”

Scott Atran, author of Talking to the Enemy, explains how political ideas (left and right) have interfered with neuroscience. “That is why, after centuries of science, study of the mind is still in a foetal stage, and actual progress has been limited to fundamental discoveries that can be counted on one hand (for example, that human linguistic competence — and thus perhaps other fundamental cognitive structures — is universally and innately fairly well-structured; or that human beings do not think like markov processors, logic machines, or as rational economic and political actors ought to).”

Jordan Pollack from Brandeis complains that the processes of thought are not treated as biological processes. “A persistent belief is that human symbolic intelligence is the highest form of intelligence around. This leads directly to both creationism and good old-fashioned AI which seeks to model cognition using Lisp programs. … The mind, like the weather, envelopes the brain like a planet and requires dynamical and integrated explanations rather than just-so stories.”

Sue Blackmore, author of Consciousness: An Introduction, seeing evidence that believe in a life force is still around. “Human beings are natural dualists. From an early age children begin thinking of themselves not as a physical body but as something that inhabits a physical body or brain. We feel as though we are an entity that has consciousness and free will even though this is all delusion. I suggest that this delusion of duality is also the underlying cause of the hopeless hunt for the life force.”

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, traces metaphors for the brain over time. “Contemporary models of the brain’s functioning draw on the popular metaphorical connection between the brain and the digital computer. My sense is that many scientific misconceptions have their roots in the dominant metaphors of the time. Metaphors are powerful explanatory tools, but they also tend to mislead by oversimplifying.”

Marti Hearst from Berkeley gives information on the repeated underestimation of the complexity of the brain. “In the early days of the field of Artificial Intelligence, researchers thought that it would not be terribly difficult to implement a vision recognition or language understanding program. … a July 1966 memo announced a summer project whose goal was to construct “a significant portion of the vision system.” Other early leaders of AI were also optimistic, including Herbert Simon who was quoted saying in 1965 that “machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do,” and Marvin Minsky, who is attributed with saying “within a generation … the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved.”

George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind, believes that real human reason is not the same as enlightenment reason and classical rationality. Enlightenment Reason and Classical Rationality have been shown over and over in the cognitive and brain sciences to be false in just about every respect. Yet they are still being taught and used throughout the academic world and in progressive policy circles. Real human reason is very different. … Given the massive failures of enlightenment reason, widely documented in the brain and cognitive sciences, why is it still taught and widely assumed?”

There may be more answers at the site later.

Ones and Zeros

Long ago when the only way to have a personal computer was to buy a kit and build it yourself, a friend was doing just that. The evening came when all the soldering and assembling was done, the machine was plugged in and the ON button pressed. What was expected was just a flashing cursor, perhaps after a logo or a boot log (whatever). But what happened was the screen filled with 1s and 0s. Someone said jokingly that all the computer had to work with, after all, were 1s and 0s, what should we expect…

I think of this when people ask how just electrical pulses in the brain can produce consciousness. Well, how can 1s and 0s in a computer produce pictures?

Computers have three things other than 1s and 0s. They have programs, hardware and peripherals. Brains have communicating cells, organized processes, a body with muscles, glands and sense organs. The difference is that humans built the computers using engineering principles that are well understood. We do not understand brains. New aspects of the brain are discovered every week. Brains are hugely complicated. We may think we can see the faint outline of how a brain works but we could be wrong about so many ‘facts’. However, there is absolutely no reason to think that brains cannot be understood. There will be a way to get from the electrical pulses to the thoughts just as there is to get from the 1s and 0s to the screen images.

This is not to say that brains are much like computers; they are quite different but share some aspects, enough aspects that the analogy is often useful.

(All this reminds me of one of the first Dilbert cartoons I ever saw, stuck on someone’s wall. It was about the old days and how everything was harder to do – the days before ones and zeros, when people had to use the letters I and O.)

Exploiting neuroscience

Pure, un-applied science does not pay for itself very quickly. Governments put money into university science in the knowledge (not the vague hope) that there will be a return for the country in new businesses, exports and jobs. Apparently, now is the time for neuroscience to be showered with money so that there will give dividends by reducing the expense of mental illness, dementia and handicap. There will also be piles of money to be made on new drugs and appliances of great interest to investors.

Recently Mark Robinson wrote a post in somatosphere (here) examining the idea of ‘translation’, the movement of knowledge from academia to the market, and how it is gaining momentum in neuroscience. Universities see a lot of income from patents and industry grants if they play the game right. There is nothing that new it this; we have seen it in computer science, chemistry, geology etc. We have also seen the great benefits and the great dangers. New materials and chemicals are spread around the globe before we find out how dangerous they are. We have the atomic energy, genetic modification, carbon dioxide production and on and on, the two-edged swords of applied science. Commerce and the military cannot be trusted to take it slowly and carefully. Applied science with a powerful knowledge of the brain/mind is going to be the same: suppose we can treat, cure and then prevent Alzheimers - wonderful, but also suppose we produce a generation of monsters with a little drug that helps very young children learn faster - disaster. Neither is impossible.

It is not a good idea to stop translation but it is a good idea to have watchdogs that insist on proper procedures, testing, licensing, labeling and whatever else it takes to keep us safe.

Note on foretelling the future

So, a reputable group has found evidence of foretelling the future. The results are just significant – that means they are very unlikely to have occurred by chance, certainly not impossible but unlikely to have occurred by chance. Every once in a while such results are going to happen by chance even if the method is sound and the people are honest. That is the nature of statistics. I am not going to take this seriously until it has been repeated enough times, with enough variation in method and people, to be convincing to a level similar to its scientific opposite. And my reason is: that to accept this esp is to throw away almost everything else I currently accept in science, philosophy, history and common sense. It is just too big an ask on too little evidence.

Extremes of introspection

Of all the people who use introspection, probably the most interesting are the poets. Their raw material is their conscious thoughts. How they use those thoughts varies but it is rarely confined by aspects like logic or usefulness or accuracy. No, all that matters is affect and beauty in the language used to dress those thoughts.

MindHack recently had a posting including a quote of Ted Hughes (here)

There is the inner life of thought which is our world of final reality. The world of memory, emotion, feeling, imagination, intelligence and natural common sense, and which goes on all the time consciously or unconsciously like the heartbeat.

There is also the thinking process by which we break into that inner life and capture answers and evidence to support the answers out of it.

And that process of raid, or persuasion, or ambush, or dogged hunting, or surrender, is the kind of thinking we have to learn, and if we don’t somehow learn it, then our minds line us like the fish in the pond of a man who can’t fish.

In my mind, I contrast this reliance on introspection with the attitude of the master of martial arts. The person looking for reliable action, fast, accurate and appropriate, needs to avoid introspection. They need to practice until meta-cognition is not required and, in fact, is in the way. Their thoughts go “on all the time consciously and unconsciously like the heartbeat”, but there is a wall against introspection “breaking into that inner life”.

There we have the extremes of introspection.

A step towards correlates of consciousness

There are only a few ways to watch the brain in action and one is to follow its electromagnetic waves. Doesburg and his group have looked at the waves that accompany conscious awareness. They use binocular rivalry to mark when the content of consciousness changes (If different images are sent to the two eyes, we are not conscious of a mixed image but of one or the other alternatively and the changes can be reported.) and a key press to indicate a change in the conscious perception. The work confirms previous EEG measurements of conscious processes including:

  • Low gamma-band (30-50Hz) synchronization between neural groups codes the various features of objects and binds them into the perceptual experience. Neurons in synchrony communicate.

  • Remote gamma-band EEG phase synchronization index the onset of coherent visual perception and is associated with conscious rather than unconscious processes.

  • Gamma-band synchronization between the hemispheres is required for integration of sense input from the two hemispheres into consciousness.

  • Synchronized gamma waves between the thalamus and cortex as well as within the cortex is associated with consciousness. Disruption of thalamo-cortical communication is the nature of anesthesia.

  • Gamma-band synchronization increases and decreases in an oscillation. This gives the attentional blink when the synchronization is low and accounts for the ‘frames’ of working memory.


The study also adds valuable insights:

  • Large-scale gamma-band synchronization constitutes an oscillatory substrate for the stream of consciousness. The oscillation is due to the gamma waves being found in only one portion of the theta-band waves (4-7Hz). “onset of a new percept … time-locked bursts of gamma-band activation that recur at a theta rate.

  • The prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe are essential parts of the ‘consciousness network’. Probably the prefrontal cortex is relevant for integration and self-awareness and the parietal cortex supplies the multimodal representation of space. The primary visual cortex was not generating time-locked gamma rhythms. “This supports the view that the large-scale oscillatory network detailed here is essentially related to perceptual experience itself, and not to those unconscious functions to give rise to changes within it.” In other words, the gamma synchronization that is local to the visual cortex is not to be confused with the remote synchronization that occurs from the parietal lobe.

  • The content of consciousness need not be completely new in each ‘frame’. “continuous viewing of a single unchanging stimulus will yield a procession of theta cycles in which the content remains the same.” When there is a change of content, the inferior temporal cortex is involved in the synchrony and when motor response is required so is the motor cortex.

  • There are differences in the phase of the theta wave during which area pairs become synchronous. In other words along a part of the theta wave various areas join and leave the gamma synochrony. This is probably not a single event but an ordered process.


Here is their abstract:

Consciousness has been proposed to emerge from functionally integrated large-scale ensembles of gamma-synchronous neural populations that form and dissolve at a frequency in the theta band. We propose that discrete moments of perceptual experience are implemented by transient gamma-band synchronization of relevant cortical regions, and that disintegration and reintegration of these assemblies is time-locked to ongoing theta oscillations. In support of this hypothesis we provide evidence that (1) perceptual switching during binocular rivalry is time-locked to gamma-band synchronizations which recur at a theta rate, indicating that the onset of new conscious percepts coincides with the emergence of a new gamma-synchronous assembly that is locked to an ongoing theta rhythm; (2) localization of the generators of these gamma rhythms reveals recurrent prefrontal and parietal sources; (3) theta modulation of gamma-band synchronization is observed between and within the activated brain regions. These results suggest that ongoing theta-modulated-gamma mechanisms periodically reintegrate a large-scale prefrontal-parietal network critical for perceptual experience. Moreover, activation and network inclusion of inferior temporal cortex and motor cortex uniquely occurs on the cycle immediately preceding responses signaling perceptual switching. This suggests that the essential prefrontal-parietal oscillatory network is expanded to include additional cortical regions relevant to tasks and perceptions furnishing consciousness at that moment, in this case image processing and response initiation, and that these activations occur within a time frame consistent with the notion that conscious processes directly affect behaviour.
Doesburg, S., Green, J., McDonald, J., & Ward, L. (2009). Rhythms of Consciousness: Binocular Rivalry Reveals Large-Scale Oscillatory Network Dynamics Mediating Visual Perception PLoS ONE, 4 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006142

Summary Nov 15 2010 part 8

Methods and instrumentation concerns

(19 Jul 09 EEG questions) (5 Sep 09 fMRI scans astorcytes) (2 Oct 09 dead fish and voodoo) (14 Oct 09 effects of brain waves) (19 Nov 09 astrocytes) (2 Feb 10 a decade of neuroscience) (25 Mar 10 materialism) (18 May 10 discounting science) ( 27 May 10 important noise) (1 Aug 10 brain’s electrical field) (19 Aug 10 reverse-engineering the brain) (25 Aug 10 connectome) (1 Sep 10 memristor) (3 Oct 10 neurons are not magic) (6 Oct 10 watch out for modules)

Miscellaneous bits and pieces

(30 Aug 08 do grandmother cells fly?) (20 Apr 09 A kluge?) (31 Jul 09 revisiting grandmother cells) (3 Aug 09 reading brain patterns) (30 Aug 09 innate categories) (11 Sep 09 wisdom) (23 Oct 09 fruits of introspection) (2 Dec 09 where are the concepts?) (19 Dec 09 the missing hierarchical level) (22 Dec 09 working in the missing hierarchical level) (9 Jan 10 the content of consciousness) (18 Jan 10 the big C) (25 Mar 10 a possible reason for consciousness) (27 Apr 10 the connection is important) (5 Jun 10 Eureka at the neural level) (8 Jun 10 two theories of mind) (30 Sep 10 follow the beat)

Summary Nov 15 2010 part 7

Some ‘how’ hypotheses

There are some hypotheses that seem very convincing. So far we have taken a quick look at the following:

Summary Nov 15 2010 part 6

Old ideas that get in the way

There are ways of thinking that interfere with understanding the brain. (12 Dec 08 a different angle) (25 Dec 09 folk knowledge)

  • Computer metaphor:

Some people take the metaphor between computers and brains a little too seriously. (19 Jun 08 brain-computer metaphor)

  • Denial of continuity with animals:

Many people are resistance to there being a continuity between our brains and those of other animals. (4 Aug 08 are animals conscious?) (23 Aug 08 a birds eye view) (28 Oct 08 dogs) (24 Nov 08 Occams razor and rules of thumb) (12 Dec 08 hangover from the Great Chain of Beings) (27 Dec 08 not just a few animals) (19 Jun 09 anthropomorphism) (16 Jul 09 walking like a duck) (28 Nov 09 Size is not everything) (20 Feb 10 baggage2-Skinner) (20 Jul 10 the brains of birds) (6 Sep 10 worms and us)

  • Language too central:

I have encountered a strict identification of language with consciousness that I think is counterproductive. (7 Aug 08 the inner voice) (24 Sep 08 unconscious meaning). But there is some connection – see language and communication group above.

  • Freud:

A leftover from Freudian theories is a distrust of unconscious thinking. (6 Oct 08 bad press for unconscious) (18 Feb 10 baggage1-Freud)

  • Neo-cortex too important:

The idea that the neo-cortex is the only part of the brain involved in producing consciousness is counter production. The thalamus as well as the cortex is important in producing consciousness, prehaps many more regions (11 Sep 08 Grand Central Station) (21 Dec 08 thalamus waves) (13 Dec 09 include the thalamus) (6 Jan 10 brain stem involvement in attention) (12 Jan 10 the cortex is not the hub) (7 Mar 10 turning off consciousness)

  • Philosophical baggage:

There may be some resistance from philosophers to scientists looking at an area that has until now been only examined by them. Thankfully, not all philosophers. (29 Jan 09 New philosophical research project) (30 Mar 09 Reductionism is necessary) (05 Apr 09 Biology and culture) (14 Sep 09 criticizing a critic of Pinker) (16 Nov 09 science and philosophy) (23 Feb 10 Baggage3-economic man) (26 Feb 10 baggage4- Descartes) (1 Mar 10 baggage5-Locke) (3 Sep 10 cognitive science and neurobiology) (27 Oct 10 Hacker on consciousness) (27 Nov 08 not inside us)

  • Religious ideas:

But religious fundamentalists are not happy with recent developments. (12 Mar 09 Fundamentalists will challenge) (2 Apr 09 No conflict with science)

  • Media hype:

Science is sometimes ill served by reporters. (26 Jun 10 confusing writing) (2 Jul 10 pop science)

Summary Nov 15 2010 part 5

Some posts look at more specific problems in understanding consciousness

  • Memory:

Personally I suspect a close relationship between consciousness and memory. (4 Feb 09 Towards understanding working memory) (7 Feb 09 Memory) (10 Feb 09 Memories in time) (13 Feb 08 Implicit and explicit memory) (15 Mar 09 Keeping echoes in mind) (11 Apr 09 Visual memory) (8 May 09 limitations of working memory) (4 Dec 09 working memory) (16 Dec 09 holding something in mind) (24 Jan 10 a bit of working memory) (10 Mar 10 phases to separate memories) (29 Mar 10 several ways of remembering) (12 Aug 2009 property of consciousness 3) (30 May 10 past, present and future) (5 Jul 10 types of cognition) (29 Jul 10 reconsolidation) (18 Sep 10 remember doing that?)

  • Attention:

The focus of attention is related to consciousness. (14 Apr 09 Attention 1) (17 Apr 09 Attention 2) (16 Jun 09 attention brain waves) (17 Sep 09 awareness of the internal) (20 Sep 09 controller of alert status) (3 Apr 10 controlling attention) (30 Apr 10 the delete key) (3 May 10 mind wandering) (16 Aug 09 Property of consciousness 4)

  • Language and communication:

There may be some special relationship between conscious awareness and language. But as listed elsewhere, the identification is not strict. (14 Jun 10 hearing yourself speak) (17 Jun 10 the little engine that could – maybe) (17 Jul 10 the effect of a word) (23 Jul 10 without language) (4 Aug 10 communication between brains) (16 Aug 10 communication) (28 Aug 10 synchrony in social interaction) (12 Nov 10 syntax in the mind)

  • Access within brain:

Consciousness may be the best way for some parts of the brain to exchange information. (5 May 09 Top down processing) (22 Nov 09 a radio metaphor) (7 Jul 10 access through consciousness) (15 Oct 10 the where, when, how and why)