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Feb
15th
Fri
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"We’re beginning to come to grips with the idea that your brain is not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order, a very dramatic vision of bureaucracy. In fact, it’s much more like anarchy with some elements of democracy. Sometimes you can achieve stability and mutual aid and a sort of calm united front, and then everything is hunky-dory, but then it’s always possible for things to get out of whack and for one alliance or another to gain control, and then you get obsessions and delusions and so forth.

You begin to think about the normal well-tempered mind, in effect, the well-organized mind, as an achievement, not as the base state. (…) You’re going to have a parallel architecture because, after all, the brain is obviously massively parallel.

It’s going to be a connectionist network. (…) [Y]ou begin to realize that control in brains is very different from control in computers. (…) Each neuron is imprisoned in your brain. I now think of these as cells within cells, as cells within prison cells. Realize that every neuron in your brain, every human cell in your body (leaving aside all the symbionts), is a direct descendent of eukaryotic cells that lived and fended for themselves for about a billion years as free-swimming, free-living little agents. They fended for themselves, and they survived.

They had to develop an awful lot of know-how, a lot of talent, a lot of self-protective talent to do that. When they joined forces into multi-cellular creatures, they gave up a lot of that. They became, in effect, domesticated. They became part of larger, more monolithic organizations. (…)

Maybe a lot of the neurons in our brains are not just capable but, if you like, motivated to be more adventurous, more exploratory or risky in the way they comport themselves, in the way they live their lives. They’re struggling amongst themselves with each other for influence, just for staying alive, and there’s competition going on between individual neurons. As soon as that happens, you have room for cooperation to create alliances, and I suspect that a more free-wheeling, anarchic organization is the secret of our greater capacities of creativity, imagination, thinking outside the box and all that, and the price we pay for it is our susceptibility to obsessions, mental illnesses, delusions and smaller problems.

We got risky brains that are much riskier than the brains of other mammals even, even more risky than the brains of chimpanzees, and that this could be partly a matter of a few simple mutations in control genes that release some of the innate competitive talent that is still there in the genomes of the individual neurons. But I don’t think that genetics is the level to explain this. You need culture to explain it.”

Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor, Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, Daniel C. Dennett on an attempt to understand the mind; autonomic neurons, culture and computational architecture, Lapidarium notes, 2013.
May
21st
Mon
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Paul King on what is the best explanation for identity

From the perspective of neuroscience, personal identity is what happens when the brain forms of a model of the environment that includes a first-person perspective and narrative history.

Eric Kandel, lead editor of the textbook Principles of Neural Science, and winner of a Nobel Prize for work on the neural basis of memory, calls memory the “neural basis of individuation.” And it is. For without memory, we could not each carry around a unique sense of self, formed from a differentiated life history.

If everyone on the planet woke up one day with amnesia, human beings would be a herd of mostly undifferentiated people. Without the ability to distinguish one person from another, or remember unique histories or events, everyone becomes a vague blur of humanity.

In addition to our sense of unique personal history, the brain also maintains a model of other people. “Theory of mind" in cognitive science refers to the brain’s ability to model and track the goals, beliefs, and behavior patterns of other human beings around us in a social context. With a little introspection, this model of others can extend to ourself. As one comedian quipped: "How can I know what I think until I hear what I say?"

Because everyone in society carries around a model of themselves and the others they know, all the brains in human society collectively comprise a substrate for the distributed representation of human identity. Our identity is shaped not only by our own beliefs about ourselves, but by what others think of us as well. Social roles are collectively determined, and personality is shaped by how others treat us as well as are predisposition to a certain character and temperament.

And lastly, while personal identity feels unique, unified, and permanent, it is not. Identical twins are often confused. In institutions, people are identified by role (e.g. sales representative for the western region) while the actual person may change. And someone’s personality can change with mood. In children, we see personal identity form, and in senior dementia, we see it unravel.” “
Paul King, visiting scholar at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at University of California, Berkeley, working on computational models of vision, What is the best explanation for identity (in a philosophical, neuroscientific, or psychological sense)?, Quora, Jan 18, 2012. (tnx wildcat2030)
Apr
29th
Sun
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Culture does leave its signature in the circuitry of the individual brain. If you were to examine an acorn by itself, it could tell you a great deal about its surroundings – from moisture to microbes to the sunlight conditions of the larger forest. By analogy, an individual brain reflects its culture. Our opinions on normality, custom, dress codes and local superstitions are absorbed into our neural circuitry from the social forest around us. To a surprising extent, one can glimpse a culture by studying a brain. Moral attitudes toward cows, pigs, crosses and burkas can be read from the physiological responses of brains in different cultures.
David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action, bestselling author, ☞ David Eagleman on how we constructs reality, time perception, and The Secret Lives of the Brain, Lapidarium notes, The Observer, 29 April 2012.
Mar
8th
Thu
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You could double the number of synaptic connections in a very simple neurocircuit as a result of experience and learning. The reason for that was that long-term memory alters the expression of genes in nerve cells, which is the cause of the growth of new synaptic connections. When you see that at the cellular level, you realize that the brain can change because of experience. It gives you a different feeling about how nature and nurture interact. They are not separate processes.
Eric R. Kandel, American neuropsychiatrist, Nobel Prize laureate, A Quest to Understand How Memory Works, NYT, March 5, 2012
Mar
1st
Thu
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What are memories made of?

“Our memories are not inert packets of data and they don’t remain constant. Even though every memory feels like an honest representation, that sense of authenticity is the biggest lie of all. (…)

“The brain isn’t interested in having a perfect set of memories about the past,” “Instead, memory comes with a natural updating mechanism, which is how we make sure that the information taking up valuable space inside our head is still useful. That might make our memories less accurate, but it probably also makes them more relevant to the future.” (…)

The memory is less like a movie, a permanent emulsion of chemicals on celluloid, and more like a play—subtly different each time it’s performed. In my brain, a network of cells is constantly being reconsolidated, rewritten, remade. (…)

Reconsolidation provides a mechanistic explanation for these errors. (…) Why every memoir should be classified as fiction, and why it’s so disturbingly easy to implant false recollections. (…) The larger lesson is that because our memories are formed by the act of remembering them, controlling the conditions under which they are recalled can actually change their content. (…)

Being able to control memory doesn’t simply give us admin access to our brains. It gives us the power to shape nearly every aspect of our lives. There’s something terrifying about this. Long ago, humans accepted the uncontrollable nature of memory; we can’t choose what to remember or forget. But now it appears that we’ll soon gain the ability to alter our sense of the past. (…)

The fact is we already tweak our memories—we just do it badly. Reconsolidation constantly alters our recollections, as we rehearse nostalgias and suppress pain. We repeat stories until they’re stale, rewrite history in favor of the winners, and tamp down our sorrows with whiskey. “Once people realize how memory actually works, a lot of these beliefs that memory shouldn’t be changed will seem a little ridiculous,” Nader says. “Anything can change memory. This technology isn’t new. It’s just a better version of an existing biological process.
Jonah Lehrer, American author and journalist, in ☞ What are memories made of?, Wired Magazine, Feb 17, 2012
Jan
10th
Tue
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Metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are “metaphors we live by”—metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them. (…)

We are neural beings, (…) our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything – only what our embodied brains permit. (…)

The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.
George Lakoff, American cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, cited in Daniel Lende, Brainy Trees, Metaphorical Forests: On Neuroscience, Embodiment, and Architecture, Neuroanthropology, Jan 10, 2012. See also: ☞ George Lakoff on metaphors, explanatory journalism and the ‘Real Rationality’
Nov
16th
Wed
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The same statistical errors – namely, ignoring the “difference in differences” – are appearing throughout the most prestigious journals in neuroscience.
Ben Goldacre, British science writer, doctor and psychiatrist, The statistical error that just keeps on coming, The Guardian, Sept 9, 2011
Nov
7th
Mon
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This flexibility of learning accounts for a large part of what we consider human intelligence. While many animals are properly called intelligent, humans distinguish themselves in that they are so flexibly intelligent, fashioning their neural circuits to match the task at hand.
David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize, DISCOVER Magazine, Oct 27, 2011.
See also: ☞ David Eagleman on the conscious mind
Nov
6th
Sun
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Consciousness: The Black Hole of Neuroscience

“The simplest description of a black hole is a region of space-time from which no light is reflected and nothing escapes. The simplest description of consciousness is a mind that absorbs many things and attends to a few of them. Neither of these concepts can be captured quantitatively. Together they suggest the appealing possibility that endlessness surrounds us and infinity is within.” “
— Megan Erickson, Consciousness: The Black Hole of Neuroscience, Big Think, Nov 6, 2011.
Oct
25th
Tue
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Iain McGilchrist on how the ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society

“The left hemisphere is detail-oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things, and is inclined to self-interest. It misunderstands whatever is not explicit, lacks empathy and is unreasonably certain of itself, whereas the right hemisphere has greater breadth, flexibility and generosity, but lacks certainty.

It is vital that the two hemispheres work together, but McGilchrist argues that the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, resulting in a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure and self-interest hold sway. (…)

Whatever the relationship between consciousness and the brain – unless the brain plays no role in bringing the world as we experience it into being, a position that must have few adherents – its structure has to be significant. It might even give us clues to understanding the structure of the world it mediates, the world we know. (…)

The structure and experience of our mental world. In this sense the brain is – in fact it has to be – a metaphor of the world. (…)

I believe that there are two fundamentally opposed realities rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. But the relationship between them is no more symmetrical than that of the chambers of the heart – in fact, less so; more like that of the artist to the critic, or a king to his counsellor. (…)

I hold that, like the Master and his emissary in the story, though the cerebral hemispheres should co-operate, they have for some time been in a state of conflict. The subsequent battles between them are recorded in the history of philosophy, and played out in the seismic shifts that characterise the history of Western culture. At present the domain – our civilisation – finds itself in the hands of the vizier, who, however gifted, is effectively an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart. Meanwhile the Master, the one whose wisdom gave the people peace and security, is led away in chains. The Master is betrayed by his emissary.” “
Oct
3rd
Mon
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David Eagleman on Time and the Brain

Clocks offer at best a convenient fiction. (…) They imply that time ticks steadily, predictably forward, when our experience shows that it often does the opposite: it stretches and compresses, skips a beat and doubles back.

A sense of time is threaded through everything we perceive. (…)

The interesting thing about time is that there is no spot. It’s a distributed property. It’s metasensory; it rides on top of all the others.” (…)

The brain, he writes, is like Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperor of the thirteenth century. It sits enthroned in its skull, “encased in darkness and silence,” at a lofty remove from brute reality. Messengers stream in from every corner of the sensory kingdom, bringing word of distant sights, sounds, and smells. Their reports arrive at different rates, often long out of date, yet the details are all stitched together into a seamless chronology. The difference is that Kublai Khan was piecing together the past. The brain is describing the present—processing reams of disjointed data on the fly, editing everything down to an instantaneous now. (…)

[Eagleman] thought of time not just as a neuronal computation—a matter for biological clocks—but as a window on the movements of the mind. (…)

Reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully censored before it reaches us. (…)

Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.
David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, paraphrased by Burkhard BilgerThe Possibilian, The New Yorker, Aprill 25, 2011
Sep
18th
Sun
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Yo-Yo Ma: “Perhaps neuroscience can create bridges because the brain is the crucible within which art, science and culture are forged.

This is the seat of the creativity that we channel into discovery and expression: looking out and looking in. For Ma, the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, a professor at the University of Southern California, reveals something of where these creative impulses come from. Damasio is interested in homeostasis – the tendency of all living things to maintain the internal conditions necessary for their continuation. He considers all non-conscious aspects of this self-preservation to be forms of emotion, whether they are basic reflexes, immune responses or feelings such as joy. “Life forms are always looking for homeostasis, equilibrium,” says Ma.

Ma’s experiences among the Kalahari bushmen of southern Africa, who he visited for a documentary 15 years after he had studied them in his anthropology courses, convinced him that music can perform that stabilising function. “They do these trance dances that are for spiritual and religious purposes, it’s for medicine, it’s their art form, it’s everything. That matches all I’ve learnt about what music should be or could do.”

But how does that magic work? I suggest that music is exploiting our instincts to make sense of our environment, to look for patterns, to develop hypotheses about our environment. It’s setting us puzzles. (…)

I mention Damasio’s insistence, in Descartes’ Error (1994), that the self cannot be meaningfully imagined without being embedded in a body. This must be resonant for a musician? He concurs and suggests that the role of tactility in our mental wellbeing is under-appreciated: “That’s our largest organ.” Ma sees this separation of intellect and mechanism, of the self and the body, as pernicious. “We’ve based our educational system on it. At the music conservatory there’s a focus on the plumbing, not [on the] psychology. It’s about the engineering of sound, how to play accurately. But then, going to university, the music professor would say ‘you can play very well, but why do you want to do it?’ Music is powered by ideas. If you don’t have clarity of ideas, you’re just communicating sheer sound.” (…)

How can music be made central to education, rather than an option at the periphery? His response makes the vision he has hinted at already a little more concrete: it is about finding ways to communicate ideas in a manner that yields the greatest harvest of creativity. “There is nothing more important today than to find a way to be knowledge-based creative societies. My job as a performer is to make sure that whatever happens in a performance lives in somebody else, that it’s memorable… If you forget tomorrow what you heard yesterday, there’s really not much point in you having been there – or me, for that matter. Now, isn’t that the purpose of education too? That’s when I realised that education and culture are the same. Once something is memorable, it’s living and you’re using it. That to me is the foundation of a creative society.”

Yo-Yo Ma, French-born American cellist, virtuoso, orchestral composer of Chinese descent, and winner of multiple Grammy Awards, interviewed by Philip Ball, In pursuit of neuroscience: Yo-Yo Ma, The Financial Times, Sept 16, 2011
Sep
14th
Wed
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What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the ‘turning inward’ aspect of the self — its recursiveness — that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.
V.S. Ramachandran, neuroscientist best known for his work in the fields of behavioral neurology and psychophysics, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego, The Neurology of Self-Awareness, Edge, Aug 1, 2007
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The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution — which I speculate on in this essay — is the single most important ‘unreported’ (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.
V.S. Ramachandran, neuroscientist best known for his work in the fields of behavioral neurology and psychophysics, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego, Mirror neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution (pdf) (2000)
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Steven Pinker: ‘The mind doesn’t work by fluid under pressure or by flows of energy; it works by information’

“Most of the assumptions about the mind that underlie current discussions are many decades out of date. Take the hydraulic model of Freud, in which psychic pressure builds up in the mind and can burst out unless it’s channeled into appropriate pathways. That’s just false. The mind doesn’t work by fluid under pressure or by flows of energy; it works by information.

[L]ook at the commentaries on human affairs by pundits and social critics. They say we’re “conditioned” to do this, or “brainwashed” to do that, or “socialized” to believe such and such. Where do these ideas come from? From the behaviorism of the 1920’s, from bad cold war movies from the 1950’s, from folklore about the effects of family upbringing that behavior genetics has shown to be false. The basic understanding that the human mind is a remarkably complex processor of information, an “organ of extreme perfection and complication,” to use Darwin’s phrase, has not made it into the mainstream of intellectual life. (…)

You can’t understand the mind only by looking directly at the brain. (…) The difference comes from the ways in which hundreds of millions of neurons are wired together to process information. I see the brain as a kind of computer—not like any commercial computer made of silicon, obviously, but as a device that achieves intelligence for some of the same reasons that a computer achieves intelligence, namely processing of information. (…)

I also believe that the mind is not made of Spam—it has a complex, heterogeneous structure. It is composed of mental organs that are specialized to do different things, like seeing, controlling hands and feet, reasoning, language, social interaction, and social emotions. Just as the body is divided into physical organs, the mind is divided into mental organs.” “
Steven Pinker, Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist, ☞ Organs of Computation, Edge, January 11, 1997