Archive for March, 2007

Mar 30 2007

More on Computers and Consciousness

Published by under Neuroscience

Since the topic of artificial intelligence has garnered so much interest, and there were many excellent follow up questions, I thought I would dedicate my blog today to answering them and extending the discussion.

Noël Henderson asked: “Would a non-chemical AI unit, even with very complex processing and memory capabilities, be able to experience what we normally refer to as emotion? Is self-awareness (and in my layman’s understanding I tend to think in terms of ‘ego’) dependent upon the ability to experience emotion?”

Emotion is just one more thing that our brains do. There is no reason that AI with a different substrate cannot also create the experience of emotions. Emotions are a manifestation of how information is processed in the brain – which is why I said that an AI brain would not only have to be able to hold the information of the brain but would also need to duplicate its processing of that information. For example, the knowledge of the death of someone that the AI brain has learned to associate with positive feelings could produce the experience of sadness and loss by affecting the degree of activity in patterns of circuits that contribute to mood, focus our attention on pleasant or unpleasant details, make us anticipate our future happiness, etc. Basically, the same thing that happens in a biological brain. In other words, the experience of emotion is just as much a physical aspect of the brain as any other cognitive phenomenon.

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Mar 29 2007

Digital Immortality

Published by under Neuroscience

Many science and science fiction writers have explored the idea of uploading the information in our brains into a computer substrate – to make a digital copy of ourselves, or to actually transfer our consciousness into a machine. The idea is interesting, but the looming existential question that is never fully answered is whether or not the computer version of you would really be you – often referred to as the question of continuity. This is not a trivial question – without continuity, you die and a mental doppelganger takes your place. With continuity, this can serve as a pathway to virtual immortality. I thought I would add my neurologist’s take on this question.

First, let me dispense with the easier (but not easy) question of whether or not computer-based intelligence can be truly self-aware. Books have been written about this, but I will just summarize the bottom line as this: there is no reason in science why a machine or computer based intelligence cannot have the same property of consciousness as does a human brain. However, information is not enough – the computer brain must have the structure and function to process the information so as to generate the emergent phenomenon of consciousness.

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Mar 28 2007

Neurolinguistic Programming and other Nonsense

There is an episode of Spongebob (one of those few cartoons accessible to both young children and adults) where Patrick, upset that his friend Spongebob has won so many awards and he has won none, decides to copy everything Spongebob does. Patrick is a lazy, dumb, pathetic, (but charming) do-nothing, and he is no less so by simply mimicking Spongebob’s every move – hence the comic irony my four-year-old can appreciate. Neurolinguistic programming (NLP), at its core, takes the Patrick approach to success and counseling.

The wikipedia entry on NLP is fairly factually thorough, and I won’t waste time here reproducing it, so for background I suggest reading the entry. Also, this recent blog post by Donald Clark is a good summary of the scientific reviews of NLP – all damning. Briefly, NLP was developed in the 1970’s and is based upon the notion that success can be achieved by simply modeling the language, behavior, and thought patterns of successful people. Various versions of this have been applied to counseling by simply modeling the language and behavior of supposedly successful counselors.

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Mar 27 2007

The Well-Insulated Belief

Scientific skepticism, at its core, is about good cognitive hygiene – having respect for the evidence, using valid logic and avoiding fallacies, and having respect for the various mechanisms of self-deception and pitfalls of human thinking. These are all generic and undeniable intellectual virtues – not unique to science or skepticism. No one, not even the most strident true believer, openly advocates the use of logical fallacies or unsound arguments. Gullibility and true belief, rather, result from a significant lack of understanding of these common mental foibles.

Combined with errors in thinking is a profound human need to believe. The result is the tendency to arrive at beliefs for cultural or emotional reasons, and then to commit errors in thinking in order to defend and maintain those beliefs. The overall effect is to insulate belief from falsification.
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Mar 26 2007

The Neurology of Morality

Published by under Neuroscience

A co-worker tells you of their plans to go on a killing spree. You can tell the police, but your co-worker is likely to kill many people before they catch him. You have a gun, and your only option is to kill the co-worker in order to prevent many more deaths. Do you pull the trigger?

It is a common human conceit to think of ourselves as rational and logical beings – we do not like to see ourselves as being slaves to our emotions. The uncomfortable truth is that we make most of our decisions for purely emotional reasons, and then use our vast reasoning capability to justify or rationalize those decisions. It is therefore helpful to understand the nature of human emotions (especially those that are universal and not individual quirks) as well as the relationship between the reasoning and feeling parts of our brains.

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Mar 23 2007

Zeroing in on Dyscalculia

Published by under Neuroscience

As Steve Martin once quipped, “Some people have a way with words, and other people….Oh,… not have way, I guess.” Likewise, some people have a facility with numbers and others can’t add with a calculator. The fault lies not in the stars, but in our brains.

A new study by Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh, of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, uses a novel approach to locate that part of the cerebral cortex which is responsible for carrying out calculations – or more specifically that part which is not working in individuals with dyscalculia (a disorder characterized by difficulty carrying out calculations). They used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to temporarily disrupt function in the right intraparietal sulcus of normal subjects. This disruption resulted in the same deficits as subjects who have congenital dyscalculia.

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Mar 22 2007

UK Fight Over Anti-Science in Medicine

I’m outraged, and I am both distressed and puzzled over why more of my scientific colleagues are not similarly outraged. The institution of science has transformed our world, proven its validity and value, and stood the test of time. The rigorous methods, transparency, and aggressive self-criticism of science are nowhere more needed than in the applied science of medicine. And yet the scientific underpinnings of modern medicine are under relentless attack by ideologues, charlatans, cranks, and frauds – and the public and their elected representatives are largely buying it. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Occasionally there are shots fired by those scientists who bother to pick up their head for a moment and see what’s going on in the world around them – as with a recent article published this week in Nature. In the UK over the past decade British universities have started offering bachelor of science (BSc) degrees in subject areas that are not so scientific – including 45 degrees in so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Six universities offer BSc degrees in homeopathy. Offering a science degree in a pseudoscience is nothing short of a scandal, akin to teaching intelligent design (ID) as science in the classroom.

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Mar 21 2007

Happy Vernal Equinox!

Published by under Skepticism

It’s my favorite day of the year. The day of “equal night” when the sun spends an equal amount of time above and below the horizon everywhere on earth, when the sun crosses the celestial equator and the earth’s axis is perpendicular to the sun. In the Northern Hemisphere it is the first day of spring and in the Southern Hemisphere the first day of autumn. For me it means the end of winter weather and likely a good 6-7 months before it returns.

Humans generally like to mark the passing of time with arbitrary conventions. The equinoxes and solstices, at least, have an objective reality in astronomy and are useful in predicting the seasons.

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Mar 20 2007

Conservapedeology

Published by under Skepticism

One of the themes of this blog is that science and knowledge should not be subjugated to ideology. In fact, we should strive personally and collectively to free our thinking as much as possible from the chains of ideology. By this standard the recently created Conservapedia is an intellectual abomination.

Why am I so down on ideology? Because it is the “hobgoblin of little minds.” Essentially an ideology is an adherence to a set of beliefs or philosophies for their own sake – beyond any reasonable justification in logic or evidence. Humans, as is oft observed by skeptics, are pattern-seeking creatures. We like (need?) to make sense of our complex world by organizing the complexity into manageable conceptual containers and then attaching a label to the container as if it were a handle we could comfortably grip.

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Mar 19 2007

Do Nerves Conduct by Sound?

Published by under Neuroscience

Thomas Heimburg is a Danish biophysicist who believes our current model of our nerves propagate signals is wrong, and he has an alternative hypothesis. He believes they propagate through mechanical waves – sound waves he calls solitons. The idea is intriguing, but as a neuroscientist I don’t buy it.

There is nothing pseudoscientific or fantastical about Heimburg’s ideas. He is starting from the point of view of a physicist, asking – does the current model of axonal propagation make sense from the point of view of thermodynamics? No, he says. The now classic Hodgkin-Huxley model of nerve propagation involves an electrical current that moves down a nerve axon by the flux of ions across the nerve cell membrane. This flux of ions is controlled by the opening and closing of ion channels – proteins embedded in the cell membrane through which ions flow.

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