Posts Tagged ‘brain’

A friend recently sent me this nifty article.

Here are some of my favorite snippets.

On “knowledge”:

“Knowing is not an activity of the
brain but of human beings, and knowledge is
not contained in the brain but in books and
computers, and is possessed by human beings,
but not by their brains. It makes no sense and
explains nothing to divide the brain up into
bits that contain different kinds of knowledge
and know different sorts of things, because the
brain does not contain knowledge or know

On “consciousness”:

“Dispositional consciousness is a general
tendency to be conscious of certain
things—money-conscious, for example. Such
a generalized tendency is indicated by various
sorts of behavior—money-conscious people
are likely to save their money, spend it
carefully, talk about it and think about it more
than others, and so forth. Such a tendency
almost certainly is learned, and therefore one
can be ‘‘better’’ or ‘‘worse’’ at it depending on
one’s experience, if ‘‘better’’ and ‘‘worse’’
refer to a greater or lesser probability of
behaving in ways consistent with the disposition.
So the authors’ assertion that consciousness
is not something we can become ‘‘good
at’’ may be argued with, both in its dispositional
sense and in its occurrent transitive sense
(a current consciousness of some thing or state
of affairs). I may not become conscious of the
subtle French horn part in a piece of music
until after I have read about the composer’s
penchant for using the French horn in subtle
ways—has my learning not enhanced my
ability to be conscious of the French horn in
the composer’s music? More broadly, is there
no sense in which the common Californian
pastime of ‘‘expanding’’ or ‘‘developing’’
consciousness is true?”

On “strange loopness” of human biology:

“Far more
difficult to achieve, I believe, will be an
understanding of the fundamental nestedness
of the brain, the rest of the body, and the
person in the world, each entity executing
processes that overlap and turn back on
themselves and each other in time and space.”

On metaphors as a tool for communication, not analysis:

“The point is
that it may be the ability of metaphors and
analogies to help researchers accomplish their
theoretical goals, and not how well they stand
up to connective analysis relative to their
conventional counterparts, that is the better
basis for approving or disapproving of them.”

Language always lacks fidelity. One can only put into words some subset of what we experience. What we “experience” is only a subset of what is happening around us. What happens around us in a way that could affect us is only a subset of what there is.

Folks have a tendency in all science (and non science) to analyze and report at our “level” of experience. No, it’s not possible to apply an analysis of single cell behavior to a scene study of Shakespeare. Though we often talk of “motivation” in both studies. It’s a terribly inaccurate description in both cases but it does, often times, communicate something of value.

For an alternative, but equal misapplication of language from the “human experience” level, let’s consider quantum physics.  We experience things in 3 spacial and 1 temporal dimensions. We have NO WAY to experience the world in any other context. Thus it is incredibly hard for one to conceptualize and explain what happens at a quantum level (where things don’t follow space and time as we experience it.) It is NONsense to describe, diagram, or otherwise model the quantum world on our “human” level with expectation of accuracy. Our description of quantum mechanics is a very gross description.

Where this all gets counter-productive to the progress of knowledge is mistaking a description (model, report…) of something (a system, situation, behavior…) as the thing itself.  The use of psychological “Freudian” terms can sometimes be useful to short cutting long winded discussions but one must be disciplined to recognize that high level concepts cannot be applied to what’s actually going on.

I think there’s another reason we accept gross descriptions of the world. They work for all practical purposes. You don’t need to have a perfect description of the world to be successful in achieving whatever it is you might be doing. In fact, WE HAVE TO MAKE THIS TRADE OFF. If we didn’t short cut and take on gross descriptions of the world few of us would be able to operate. At the very least, few scientists would be able to publish if they actually had to drill down and tie up the loose ends without these gross misrepresentations.

Oh, and for those that care, I don’t think there is something like “consciousness”. We are more or less affected by things happening around and in us. We are not “aware” of our experiences in some binary way (the lightbulb never really just flips on). The linked article gets at some of this and there are other synthesis that argue this point better than I can at this stage.  A further implication is that “thought” isn’t really a THING by itself either. We don’t THINK THOUGHTS. and yes, I lack the syntax to describe my synthesis any further at this time 😉

For more insight you might turn to this very recent Edge talk.  In particular, read the responses from Sam Harris and others.  Kinda embodies everything in this post…. from baggage terms to metaphors as description to just how far away we are from reasonably deep insight.

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So it’s not that will doesn’t exist; it’s that the free part is problematic — a lot of people see free will and say, “Well, you’re showing there’s no free will; therefore, people have no intentions or will.” No. There is will, and will can be shaped by a host of factors: your genetic background, your early experience with your home and your family, your caretakers, you playmates, cultural influences bombarding us through the media and through socializing with your peers (and, thus what they like and what they think and what they believe from their parents). All this is being soaked up like a sponge by little kids.

John Bargh, Conversation on EDGE.org

and more zingers…

we’re much more accurate about predicting other people than we are at predicting ourselves. All these things going on inside of us get in the way, and especially the positive illusions about ourselves.

It’s a great read.  if I put a link right here, I bet you’d read it (you’re expecting the link but it’s here instead!)

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Boston.com has a feature about baby minds and development. It’s really unfortunate that we continue to try and refute or confirm this whole mind/consciousness (duality) thing is a concept we made up.   I’m not doubting that we are consciousness and that is something worthy to understand.  No, it’s the idea that we’re still trying to justify some 300 year old conception of mind.  I’m frustrated that we are “surprised” by finding out the baby brain has more neurons or higher “brain activity” and that the adult brain is more concentrated.. blah blah blah.  Here’s a particularly frustrating passage:

One of the most surprising implications of this new research concerns baby consciousness, or what babies actually experience as they interact with the outside world. While scientists and doctors have traditionally assumed that babies are much less conscious than adults – this is why, until the 1970s, many infants underwent surgery without anesthesia – that view is being overturned. Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting. “For a baby, every day is like going to Paris for the first time,” Gopnik says. “Just go for a walk with a 2-year-old. You’ll quickly realize that they’re seeing things you don’t even notice.”

There’s something slightly paradoxical about trying to study the inner life of babies. For starters, you can’t ask them questions. Young children can’t describe their sensations or justify their emotions; they can’t articulate the pleasure of a pacifier or explain the comfort of a stuffed animal. And, of course, none of us have any memories of infancy. For a scientist, the baby mind can seem like an impenetrable black box.

In recent years, however, scientists have developed new methods for entering the head of a baby. They’ve looked at the density of brain tissue, analyzed the development of neural connections, and tracked the eye movements of infants. By comparing the anatomy of the baby brain with the adult brain, scientists can make inferences about infant experience.

a) Yes babies have less history, less shaping by the environment (in their brains, muscles, cells, etc. etc.).  Yes, this means they will be more sensitive to things adults have long habituated to or learned to ignore

b) even if babies could tell us their “emotions” it wouldn’t help because they’d have no context for those emotions or sensations.  Those kinds of concepts only come from experience.  AND… having adults describe their “inner life” isn’t exactly precise…

c) The Infant Experience… oh boy.  I sense a reality show on TLC coming on…

Read the whole article.  It’s really a self help article for being creative.  Here’s the punchline: Think Like a Baby.

My wife thinks I do that enough.  At least now I can scientifically justify my behavior.

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‘Thinking’ as a class of potential behavior is hard to study and thus, makes it ripe for speculation and interpretations beyond the data. As things are today, thinking is made more significant because it is presumed that humans are the only ones that do it making is a signature feature on what is human and what isn’t. “Mind”, “consciousness”, thought and all sorts of covert related properties are offered as evidence that humans are different and somehow more substantive than other animals. The past and existing organizations of what is going on inside the ‘vault’ [read: brain, head, mind, neural node, CNS] have been dismal. Answers are as elusive as they were 2000 years ago and are made more mysterious for some by being out of reach.

We have made no progress in regards to our understanding of what goes on there and how those things relate to subjective or empirical states of man or our institutions, including governance and law. They have suffered most while we hack away at deciphering the muddled mess of metaphysics and logically indefensible postulates that are put forth to explain how man behaves and why.

the verbal community has not yet been able to connect with what is going on that the community cannot experience. Any reinforcements that are delivered are not contingent on specific behavior because they can’t be seen in time or space. This comes to create a response class that looks like behavior that is reinforced on a VI schedule independent of a specific response on the part of the target organism. Yes; the prime requisite for development of superstitious behavior is non-contingent VI delivery of a reinforcer.

thinking may occasion in a person a fixed gaze, unblinking or reduced eye blinks, change in gate, or time insensitivity to many external stimuli, changes in galvanic responses and lowered heart and breathing rates. However, these are not thinking per se but may be part of what is inferred to be happening when one is doing any covert behaviors including thinking. All are part of other behaviors as well as behaviors with parameters of their own.

In describing thinking there is a lack of external conformation possible that any observer or the free-floating reinforcements can access. Thus, there is no connection between a specific covert behavior and a potential reinforcer. Thus, there is no way to show an increase in the future probability of occurrence of a target covert behavior occurring when the potential reinforcer was delivered.

Our covert behavior [including thinking] has several problems as a behavior class.

  1. it is not sensed and can’t be verified or falsified
  2. it does not have standard units of measurement
  3. results will depend on the way it is measured
  4. it is experiences through filters that transducer it to something else based on history and context
    1. vocabulary
    2. environment context
    3. culture
    4. in articulation of aspect (what parts are of interest – dreams, impulses, value, etc.)
    5. unknown empirical properties

Ultimately, the products of processes generated from within the ‘vault’ of the listener are routed and locked there. Everyone will continue to investigate how and what is going on there with whatever methods that can be mustered. Today the neurosciences are taking their shot at deciphering the relationships between what is going on inside our head and what we experience. To that end they are using 19th century models of man and behavior mixed with decrepit autonomous man inklings and sophisticated 21st century technology and chemistry. For some there is value in how they postulate the working of man and his mind. Those values are the same as postulated 2000 years ago and haven’t benefited our species as much as science methods have benefited biology, chemistry and anthropology. The value to science will depend more on changes in approach to man than the power of the magnet used in a portable fMRI.

Any set of the things related to what happens when someone is thinking is all just that, related to thinking for that person and not thinking itself. All the covert events can be related to things associated with other behaviors done when a person is not thinking as well as when some are thinking. The set of responses become associated as events related to a state that may be referred to as ‘thinking’ for that person who, when asked, “What are you doing?” or “Why don’t you answer me?” may report, “I was thinking…” and otherwise communicate something the other person will probably relate to as a set of private covert actions (events) that can be arbitrarily called ‘thinking.’

Of course it is very true that if thinking were an operant the people in the examples above would not have to ask, “What are you doing?” or “Why don’t you answer me?” If thinking were doing something overt, the observer could learn from observing or measuring behavior and would know the answers to those questions after learning to discriminate what was/is thinking and what is something other than thinking.

Psychotherapists, bosses, clergy, spouses, friends, parents etc., all have a version of why we do what we do. They have a story about what relationships exist between us and the world around us; the environment. There is a good chance that, after some time experiencing a person, that each could be right. Of course their story is riddled with inaccuracies as well seeing how they only see what they were trained to see. Seems impossible but consider that each of us has a VERY broad and complex behavior repertoire. Our complex behavior allows us to behave differently and distinctly in the different environments and contexts of different people. Sometimes the people we are, how we behave, overlaps. Sometimes they don’t.


Great thinkers as well as the delusional philosophers, pontiffs, despots and princes and even the man and woman on the street have been reinforced for reporting their internal covert musings in subjective and fantasy terms focusing on the exhaust of the human thinking process – emotions and feelings. These 3 thousand years of focus has outdistanced the empirical study of thinking by overlooking histories of the individuals and the use of the least productive research methods NOT found in 17th century science! In the not-so-grand scale of things, it is more interesting for the lay person and the scientist alike to be enamored by the fantasy than by the environmental contingencies. We pay for that interest every day we live on this earth.

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Here’s a new study to be released soon about biological evidence of how the brain retrieves a memory. Your network of neurons and the unique paths taken by signals are the memories, there isn’t some central repository of memory.

I’m looking for the actual results, methods and some supporting work.

It’s not a groundbreaking idea, but it’s great to see some evidence.

It feeds a bigger notion at work in many disciplines that The Network Is The Thing.    There’s a growing body of evidence that space itself is a network. (wolfram)  Check out Network Theory and Graph Theory for more.

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