Another rant

Since the days of John Henry, humans have been competing with machines.  These days the battle rages metaphorically, as some of us examine the brain as computer metaphor for the limits of its usefulness.  And now here is a NYT essay entitled, “Face It, Your Brain is a Computer,” that, as I see it, has missed the issue entirely.  Link:


Gary Marcus, a psychologist-neuroscientist, bemoans the loss of focus by some neuroscientists on our brain as a computer (oh, like Gerald Edelman did, who rejected the metaphor outright even as he used them to model functions?) because they miss the big picture and then refutes the arguments against, such as the brain is analog & the computer digital or brains are parallel and computers serial.  He leaves out for some reason the old two approaches to study the brain, wet (neurotransmitters, proteins holding memory, hormones etc) vs dry (electricity).  Even his organizing trope, that we use machine metaphors to help us understand, is misused, as he says the comparisons to hydraulic pumps, holograms, and steam engines have “failed.”  Excuse me, but these are heuristics and heuristics only fail if we fail to learn from or through them. Is he saying that Sigmund Freud and Karl Pribram failed to advance our learning?  Of course, Dr. Marcus holds up the computer metaphor as an important heuristic and I can agree it is, so long as we remember that it is an heuristic and that we are seeking to understand the nature of the brain (to see the object whole with all its facets), which happens, as it turns out, to be biological (surprising, yes, I know).

The computer heuristic clouds over an important aspect here, that which Susanne Langer called autogenic action, the organism’s activity, endogenous and autonomous and not contingent upon environmental impacts (Langer’s other class of organic activity).  The brain is always active to some degree: neurons fire without input, metabolism continues, the processing of information, real or imagined, current or otherwise, continues.  Understanding this is what made Dr. Marder’s essay a few posts back so important to me:  that we understand enough about the brain from the perspective of the connectome to understand that it is very “difficult to predict the outcome of a specific pattern of activity or understand the results of a perturbation.”  (The perturbation is an impact on the ongoing activity of the brain).

Connectome picture

Connectome picture

This more than hints at the truth that the organism determines what to make of information, if anything, and organisms function according to their own purpose, if to any purpose at all (besides gene replication).  As Langer put it:  the environment determines what is given, the organism what is taken [and what is to be made of it all].  Here, I think, John Henry does win.

Turn this around, the brain is a more important heuristic for understanding and developing computers than vice versa, and these tools then help us analyze data and model functions, but they soon fail as an heuristic to understand the actual nature of the brain.  Let me end by offering another metaphor, quite apt in its way, though not as useful an heuristic, because it is so very organic and complex in its structure (much like the brain).  Our brains are like estuaries, river deltas accrued over the ages with diverse structures and flows.  A cat brain is like the delta of the Columbia; the human brain is like the delta of the MIssissippi or even better, Mother Ganges.  That conveys the historical complexity of brain evolution and current functioning; when we understand how our brains are like that, computers will be old hat.

heads up

Please pardon this disjointed post–I have had several posts in my head the past few days and only time for one.  This Thursday, June 25 (or some places on 6/24), PBS premieres a new series, First Peoples, about our prehistoric ancestry.  I am looking forward to it.  For  various reasons I have been thinking about a powerful force in our humanity, the separation of others into in-group/out-group.    In prehistory this plays out in the amalgamation between Neandertals and Homo sapiens sapiens.  We know they interbred because of genetic studies and we know that Neandertals were in Europe thousands of years before modern humans arrived. How did these two groups approach each other?  Were two from each the original Romeo and Juliet?  Also, researchers are looking for evidence as to how agriculture spread.  Did hunter-gatherers wander upon farmers and see the virtues of agriculture?  Did farmers usurp land from the hunter-gatherer tribes?  Did they interbreed? (yes, to some extent).  Two periods of groups meeting other groups.  We know simians have similar in-group/out-group dynamics and they are not always nor even usually friendly.  How has this played out in our evolution?

I generally blog about the roots of humanity in a relatively affect-neutral manner, but now I must talk about our inhumanity, and it stems in part from this in-group/out-group dynamic.  A white youth went into an African-American church in Charleston and sat through an hour of their Wednesday prayer meeting before yelling racial epithets and murdering and wounding many.  He had some deluded notion that he was a member of the in-group and they, being of a different race (but really any excuse would do), were of an out-group that he felt were taking over.  Back when I was a clinical psychologist I worked with some youth like this young man, isolated, few strengths, perverted thinking, emotional control through addiction, and reliant upon aggression to solve problems. It was always ugly and I am always amazed that our culture and society has so many niches for these people to occupy until they violate the law and then they land in prison.  How is it that we, and I speak as an American here, permit our young to grow and act this way?

For an articulate howl of anguish over this, watch Jon Stewart’s monologue on the Daily Show before he interviews Malala Yousafzi about her championship of education and human rights.  For a different slant, watch Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unkown this past Sunday on Beirut and listen to a Syrian teacher in exile cry that the universe has no place for his people.

I want that teacher to know that the universe does have a place for his people, for all people, locally here on Earth, on our precious Gaia.  I hope that our heritage of in-group/out-group disappears under the enlightenment that we are all in this (on this) together and must treasure the places where all are welcome.  Such places do exist already–for proof look at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston which opened its doors again this past Sunday to everyone.  Let us carry that work forward and make it so.

Traveling on

Just back from a vacation in SW France where I had the great good fortune to see 3 caves with prehistoric art, Lascaux II, Rouffingnac, and La Madeleine.  Lascaux II is an exact (within 5 mm) replica of the Lascaux cave discovered during WWII by some teenagers (one with a good dog who actually found the cave’s entrance newly uncovered by a storm) including some from Paris visiting the countryside of un-occupied France. The paintings deteriorated greatly over time and so the cave was closed to the public with this replica (90% of the cave and its paintings) standing in its stead. It was not a deep cave; the paintings have been dated to roughly 21,000 years ago (+/- 4,000). Remember agriculture had its good start around 10,000 years ago and then cities in the Middle East grew greatly around 6,000 years ago. Here is a Lascaux figure: Lascauxhorse Rouffingnac is a strange cave, very long and deep, and the drawings are several kilometers deep into the hillside. An extinct species of large bear markings have been found down there as well. In addition to the many drawings of mammoths and other animals, graffiti was painted on the walls and ceilings before its access was controlled. Someone named ‘Iris’ was there evidently. Here is one of the prehistoric drawings, author unknown, from around 13,000 years ago: 24rouffignac-bouquetins La Madeleine is quite different. Here I saw rock etchings and carvings into the stone of an overhang. Archeologists figure the site was a village of maybe a 100 people around 11,000 (+/- 3,000) years ago. Stone and dirt covered the art over the years and it was discovered through archeological efforts. Here is a picture: 15000-BC_Magdalenian-bison_Dordogne

Now these artistic images present much food for thought. Our rather brilliant guide focused on the differences in how available the images were to someone beside their creators. La Madeleine would have been seen by everyone in the area, Rouffingnac only by those who went very deep into the cave, and Lascaux falls in between those two, in a cave but not so deep as to need many candles or torches to get to it (and possibly daylight would have penetrated almost to it). Why some very public and why some seemingly very private?

Indeed, why paint/carve at all? Humans had certainly been communicating with language (Langer’s discursive forms) for many, many generations by then. Remembering the timeline, fire-making, cooking, and burials had been done for tens of thousands of years. Susanne Langer posited two illusions underlying all artistic performance. The first is the primary illusion that is the creation of the medium itself, e.g., painting is virtual space, sculpture is virtual volume, music is virtual time and emotion. All permit the creation of vital forms rendering some specific complexity of life, or the secondary illusion, (Langer’s presentational form). By this line of reasoning, art arose when it did as our ancestors’ minds developed both the virtual capacity for rendering imaginary complex forms and the intuitive sense of ineffable vital, particular life, i.e., some feeling too complex and sacred (in a broad sense) to be spoken. And so a new learning curve began.

So why public/private? Perhaps the beginnings of some mystic sense of helping life forms emerge from stone and darkness or of some privileged caste protective of their medium (oh, those silly priests) or that the art lasted longer in private or that the cave ambience yielded a canvas and suggested palette conducive to artistic efforts or that fewer distractions helped the mind’s eye to awaken or even that perhaps the first artists were disapproved of and needed secrecy, e.g., the clan leader or shaman believed this new mode of expression was not good, that it was evil in some manner, and thus needed to be controlled, even curtailed. 10,000 years later Plato would ban poets from his ideal republic because of their nefarious potential, and goodness knows how many invading and conquering peoples have destroyed art that they believed pernicious. Consider ISIS today. The carvings of La Madeleine were thus more permanent and perhaps from a culture that first came to appreciate openly the value of good art and its function in forming community and its memes.

Anyway, it is a good trip that leaves so many paths yet to wander. Travel on.

Questionable quibbles

Dr. Marder of the last post said that when we finally do map out the connectome, we will have only begun to understand the processes and their myriad forms. This brings up the old question, can a brain understand itself? Or will we forever (?) pursue this understanding the same as we do for the universe at large? Can a smaller, less complex (and differently grown or constructed) system understand the larger, more complex system? Only as a model or simulation is the easy, if incomplete answer here.

Connectome picture

Connectome picture

I have also finished E. O. Wilson’s On Human Nature, an excellent read. I very much appreciated his perspective on the integration among biological science, the humanities and social sciences. I obtained my PhD in psychology and have maintained that such departments would be better placed in a school of biology. Anyway, I monitor my reading with my bias towards more vitalistic conceptions and generally disagree with how some phenomena are viewed through a mechanistic metaphor. I found this same old quibble in chapter 9. Here I reacted strongly to Dr. Wilson’s statement that “The mind will be more precisely explained as an epiphenomenon of the neuronal machinery of the brain“. And there I find my difference. Reminding myself from Merriam-Webster that an ‘epiphenomon’ results from other processes and has no causal power, I bring up my usual questionable quibble: Is the mind only a secondary result that can exert no causal power, i.e., an epiphenomenon, or does the mind primarily cause some things, i.e., a phenomenon?

If you have followed this blog I hope you know that I see the mind as the latter, an exceedingly important (to us anyway) phenomenon with a special sense and agency of specific focus. In this I do not discount the evidence from meditation, hypnosis, pain, relief and, dare I say it, placebo medicine, even as I focus on the social emotions, empathic connection and symbolic communication. Memes are mental, mindful productions beyond the epiphenomenal limits, as are art and other sorts of presentational symbols (and I won’t address discursive symbols right now). It is easy to see that the mind has some power.

Some may quibble that mindful actions are determined and not free. In this I follow William James that his first act of free will is to assert that he has free will. Some may quibble that the underlying neurological processes do all the work, not the conscious (embodied) mind itself. In this I follow W.B. Yeats’ final couplet in Among School Children,

Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

And I follow Dr. Langer who certainly taught that understanding life’s vitality in our embodied mind is important to our understanding of human mentality, which brings us back to my usual quibble that remembering and conceptualizing our brains as organically vital is important and that a mechanistic view forgets this along the way, i.e., is an increasingly inept way of seeing the phenomena. While our brain does operate very rapid processes through the quantum discharge of electrical potentials, these pulses are in the service of controlling chemical (hormonal and oh, so many neurotransmitters) release and re-uptake, that then go on to manage the rather isomorphic electrical impulses. A beautiful arrangement with very few, if indeed any, hardwires. So look back at the connectome and see a wonderful soup with small, brief lightning flashes continuing to mix it up. Delicious!

Often I close by saying, “Travel on,” but this seems a lovely place to rest and let it cook for a bit.

more on cooked

An interesting report in the NYT about researchers who set up experiments with chimpanzees that showed that they would postpone eating raw food in order to take it to a simulated oven and cook it before eating it.  The chimps put the raw food in a container which was surreptitiously switched to one with the food already cooked which they preferred. This showed instrumental behavior and impulse control not to mention a good palate.  Here is the link:

Another scientist, Richard Wrangham, a few years ago made a convincing albeit circumstantial case that cooking food was indeed an important innovation that enabled our brains to grow and become the energy hogs they are, beginning around 2 million years ago.  I like it and posted here about it in connection with Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, on 8/4/14.  Let’s eat.

I'm thinking more fennel seed and tarragon with the fish, not oregano.

I’m thinking more fennel seed and tarragon with the fish, not oregano.