Is the Brain a Computer?

English: a human brain in a jar
English: a human brain in a jar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve just read an interesting article by Robert Epstein which tries to debunk the idea that the brain is a computer. His main thrust seems to be that the idea that the brain is a computer is just a metaphor, which it is. Metaphors however are extremely useful devices that use similarities between different systems to perhaps understand the least understood of the two systems.

Epstein points out that we have used several metaphors to try to understand the mind and the brain, depending on the current state of human knowledge (such as the hydraulic metaphor). This is true, but each metaphor is more accurate than the last. The computer model may well be the most accurate yet.

Cork in a hydraulic ram
Cork in a hydraulic ram (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The computer model may well be all that we need to use to explain the operation of the brain and mind with very high accuracy. Brain and mind research may eventually inform the computer or information technology.

It is evident that Epstein bases his exposition on a partially understood model of computing – for instance it appears that he thinks that data is stored in a more or less permanent fashion in a computer. He says:

The idea, advanced by several scientists, that specific memories are somehow stored in individual neurons is preposterous; if anything, that assertion just pushes the problem of memory to an even more challenging level: how and where, after all, is the memory stored in the cell?

This describes one particular method of storing data only. It sort of equates with the way that data is stored on a hard disk. On a disk, a magnetic bit of the disk is flipped into a particular configuration which is permanent. However, in the memory of a computer, the RAM, the data is not permanent and will disappear when the computer is switched off. In fact the data has to be refreshed on every cycle of the computer’s timer. RAM is therefore called volatile memory.

English: Several PATA hard disk drives.
English: Several PATA hard disk drives. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the early days of computing, data was stored in “delay line memory“. This is a type of memory which needs to be refreshed to preserve information contained in it. Essentially data is fed in and read out of a pipeline simultaneously, the read out being fed back to input again to complete the cycle and maintain the memory.

I expect that something similar may be happening in the brain when remembering something. It does mean that a memory may well be distributed throughout the brain at any one time. There is evidence that memory fades over time, and this could be related to an imperfect refresh process.

Schematic diagram of a delay locked loop (DLL)
Schematic diagram of a delay locked loop (DLL) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epstein also has issues with the imperfect recall that we have of real life objects (and presumably events). He cites the recall of a dollar bill as an example. The version of the bill that people drew from memory was very simplified as compared to the version that they merely copied.

All that this really demonstrates is that when we remember things a lot of the information about the object is not stored and is lost. Similarly, when an image of the dollar bill is stored in a computer, information is lost. When it is restored to a computer screen it is not exactly the same as thing that is imaged. It is not the same as the image as stored in the computer.

Newfoundland 2 dollar bill
Newfoundland 2 dollar bill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s worth noting the image file in a computer is not the same as the real thing that it is an image of, as it is just a digitisation of the real thing as captured by the camera that created the image.

The image on the screen is not the same as either the original or the image in the computer, but the same is true of the image that the mind sees. It is digitised by the eye’s rods and cones and converted to an image in the brain.

English: Stylized idea of the communication be...
English: Stylized idea of the communication between the eye and the brain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This digitised copy is what is recalled to the mind’s eye when we remember of recall it. The remembered copy of the original is therefore an interpretation of a digitised version of the original and therefore has lost information.

Just as the memory in our minds is imperfect, so is the image in the computer. Firstly the image in the computer is digital. The original object is continuous. Secondly, the resolution of the computer image has a certain resolution, say 1024 x 768, and some details in the original object will inevitably be lost. More details are lost with a lower resolution.

Computer monitor screen image simulated
Computer monitor screen image simulated (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition the resolution of the image stored in the computer may not match the capabilities of the screen on which it is displayed and may need to be interpolated which produces another error. In the example of the dollar bill, the “resolution” in the mind is remarkably small and the “interpolation” onto the whiteboard is very imperfect.

Epstein also assumes a particular architecture of a computer which may be superseded quite soon in the future. In particular in a computer there is one timing circuit, a clock, that all other parts of the computer rely on. It is so important that the speed of a computer is related to the speed of this clock.

Clock signal + legend
Clock signal + legend (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be that the brain may operate more like a network, where each part of the network keeps its own time and synchronisation is performed by a message based scheme. Or the parts of the brain may cooperate by some means that we don’t currently understand. I’m sure that the parts of the brain do cooperate and that we will eventually discover how it does it.

Epstein points out that babies appear to come with built in abilities to do such things as recognise faces, to have certain reflexes and so on. He doesn’t appear to know that computers also have built in certain basic abilities without which they would be useless hunks of silicon and metal.

An American Megatrends BIOS registering the “I...
An American Megatrends BIOS registering the “Intel CPU uCode Error” while doing POST, most likely a problem with the POST. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you switch on a computer all it can do is read a disk and write data to RAM memory. That is all. When it has done this is gives control to program in RAM which, as a second stage, loads more information from the disk.

It may at this stage seek more information from the world around it by writing to the screen using a program loaded in the second stage and reading input from the keyboard or mouse, again using a program loaded in the second stage. Finally it gives control to the user via the programs loaded in the second stage. This process is called “bootstrapping” and relies on the simple hard coded abilities of the computer.

English: grub boot menu Nederlands: grub boot menu
English: grub boot menu Nederlands: grub boot menu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But humans learn and computers don’t. Isn’t that right? No, not exactly. A human brain learns by changing itself depending on what happens in the world outside itself. So do computers!

Say we have a bug in a computer program. This information is fed to the outside world and eventually the bug gets fixed and is manually or automatically downloaded and installed and the computer “learns” to avoid the bug.

Learning Organism
Learning Organism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be possible in the future for malfunction computer programs to update themselves automatically if made aware of the issue by the user just as a baby learns that poking Mum in the eye is an error, as Mum says “Ouch!” and backs off a little.

All in all, I believe that the computer analogy is a very good one and there is no good reason to toss it aside, especially if, as in Epstein’s article, there appears to be no concrete suggestion for a replacement for it. On the contrary, as knowledge of the brain grows, I will expect us to find more and more ways in which the brain resembles a computer and that possibly as a result, computers will become more and more like brains.

Brain 1
Brain 1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Consciousness continues to amaze and elude


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I make no excuse for returning to the topic of consciousness. It’s a phenomenon that, apparently, everyone experiences, and almost certainly some animals experience it too. However, it is the ultimate in subjectiveness. No one except yourself knows how you experience consciousness.

It can’t currently be measured and we can only detect it by the behaviour of a person. The old chestnut of a comatose patient coming round with hovering relatives and medical staff is familiar to all. “He’s coming round!” says a person at the bedside as the patient’s eyes flicker and his muscles twitch.

English: Man in coma still not responding to s...
English: Man in coma still not responding to stimuli. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is not a reliable way of determining consciousness. People have surfaced from comas or anaesthetics and have reported that contrary to the physical evidence they were in fact conscious for at least some of the time when they were comatose. Also, deep brain scans have shown changes which may indicate that the patient was responding to question in that his brain patterns changed, which has led to a medical furore. There is disagreement as to whether or not the changes in the brain indicate that the patient was in fact conscious.

Definition of “Conscious”
1.

a. Characterized by or having an awareness of one’s environment and one’s own existence, sensations,and thoughts. See Synonyms at aware.

b. Mentally perceptive or alert; awake: The patient remained fully conscious after the local anesthetic was administered.
2. Capable of thought, will, or perception: the development of conscious life on the planet.

The fact that consciousness is an objective phenomenon (so far as we can currently tell) means that we can only subjectively assess if it exists in a person. Even if a person behaves as if he or she were conscious, feeling pain, drinking beer, doing all the things that a conscious person would do, how does one know that this person is actually a conscious person? It is conceivable that what looks like a person is a sort of zombie, programmed to behave exactly like a conscious person would behave.

English: zombie
English: zombie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(These philosophical zombies are not like the usual cinematic concept of a zombie – they look like ordinary people, they have not died and revivified, bits do not fall off them, and they don’t have a hunger for brains. It’s a technical philosophical term).

The short answer is that there is currently no objective was to tell. Everyone except yourself might be a zombie. Erm, although I subjectively know that I am not, which might mean that I am the only conscious person in a world of zombies. It’s probably simplest to argue, that I am conscious, and I appear to be little different to everyone else, so it would be silly to argue that everyone else is a zombie. It’s much more likely that we are all subjectively conscious in our own heads.


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Consciousness appears to be an aspect of the brain/mind. If parts of the brain are destroyed, or momentarily shocked by a blow, consciousness ceases and the person becomes unconscious. As above, though, it is conceivable that a person might not be able to move or respond, but still be conscious in the prison of their skull. It sounds like a particularly unpleasant fate.

Consciousness appears to be an emergent property of the brain/mind, because there does not appear to be a particular part of the brain that is related to consciousness as such. I think that it is fair to say this, though I haven’t delved into the subject much recently, though I do read things as I write these posts. In doing this I read an article on The Time website which hits many of the same high notes as I’ve hit here. It’s nice when I find an article that does that!

Emergent (software)
Emergent (software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An emergent phenomenon is something like a family or a sports team or a termite nest. The emergent phenomenon is not implicit in individual members of the family or the sports team or the termite nest, but all the members make up a new entity which has an identity of its own.

Emergent phenomenon rely on the synergistic effect of all the members working in a concerted way to achieve more than a single individual can achieve by themselves. (Emergent phenomenon are not restricted to social interactions – water is wet, though an individual water molecule cannot really be considered to be wet in itself).

Synergy-reaching-with-kite
Synergy-reaching-with-kite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It follows that, just as the higher animals band together into families, bands and packs, which is an emergent phenomenon seen in humans societies, that the brains/minds of some animals are likely to experience the emergent phenomenon of consciousness, as they behave as if they do. It is highly unlikely that consciousness only evolved in one species, though of course it is possible.

Opponents of the idea that animals may exhibit consciousness suggest that we are anthropomorphising when we detect conscious behaviour in animals, and that they may be be zombies (in the philosophical sense of the word), and that the apparent consciousness is merely behaviours that are instinctive.

English: A German Shepherd dog Polski: Owczare...
English: A German Shepherd dog Polski: Owczarek niemiecki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, no one knows for sure if animals do experience consciousness or not. I rather feel that it is likely that they do, and the extent to which they do is determined by how sophisticated their minds and brains. Certainly, I feel it is unlikely that consciousness is controlled by a genetic on/off switch and that it evolved in animals in the same way as any other trait, that is gradually, and our near relatives on the genetic tree are to some extent at least conscious.

If this is so, then consciousness in animals other than ourselves inform ethics – we should treat animals as if they are conscious beings, as far as we can. I read a science fiction story once in which every being on the earth got a boost in brain function as a result of the earth leaving any area of space where a brake was put on brain function by some physical field or similar phenomenon.


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The human race immediately became super-intelligent, and apes became at least as intelligent and conscious as we were. Also other animals, which we used as food sources became to some extent aware. As the story ended one of the characters was musing on this fact and suggested that maybe a religion of self-sacrifice could be given to these animals so that we could continue to eat them. I’d suspect that, more likely, the human race would become vegetarian! Or possibly, as suggested in the story, we would employ the apes to do the dirty work for us.

Animal husbandry
Animal husbandry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Time and time again


Embed from Getty Images

Well, this will be my third post in a row about time. I think I’ll discuss something else next week!

As I’ve said before, the path of a particle as it travels through space in the usual way can be represented as a line in a four-dimensional space-time system. There will be one and one line only that represents the history of the particle from the time it is created until the moment that it is annihilated. If we decide to plot only this particle’s location over time there will be no others lines in this space.

Diagram showing phase space plot of particle u...
Diagram showing phase space plot of particle undergoing betatron motion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The path will twist and turn as the particle is affected by fields and other particles. It may take a sudden turn when our particle collides with another particle. This interaction can be visualised by adding the data about the other particle to the same space-time graphs. However, since the particle is constantly jostled by other particles the diagram would quickly become crowded so to keep it simple let’s drop out the lines of all the other particles.

So we are back to the original single line we started out with. If we assume that it can’t time travel, there will be no loops and gaps in the line. In other words, for every time between its creation and destruction there will be one and only one set of three space coordinates. Of course the line will have curves and kinks as the particle interacts with other particles and fields.

English: The Markov chain for the drunkard's w...
English: The Markov chain for the drunkard’s walk (a type of random walk) on the real line starting at 0 with a range of two in both directions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Suppose we allow choice into our system. Suppose we have two choices A and B. At the point that the choice is made (at a macro level), there are two possibilities for the space-time position of the particle. From that point on the particles history could be represented by an A line and a B line, which at first glance appears to contravene the single point rule. However by making a choice we are saying that either A will occur, OR B will occur, but not both, so we really have only one line.

A choice is not the same as travelling in time though, so let’s plot A AND B, and we will get a multiply branching tree of lines as the time line splits on every point where a choice is made.

English: Tree of choice for creative commons l...
English: Tree of choice for creative commons licenses. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The question arises as to which of these lines is the “real” life line of the particle. This we don’t know in advance because we don’t know what the choice will be, which leaves us in the uncomfortable situation of having something unpredictable happening and physics deals in things that can be predicted.

When a choice is made by someone, it is highly likely that one option is much more likely than the other. Maybe the probability is 0.8 to 0.2 (80:20 in percentage terms). Another way of looking at it is to say that, all other things being equal, if the choice were to come up 100 times, A would be chosen 80 times and B would be chosen 20 times. Of course in a 100 tests, it could be that the actual figures might be 79 and 21.

Brooklyn Museum - The Life Line - Winslow Homer
Brooklyn Museum – The Life Line – Winslow Homer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It would be highly unlikely that A would be chosen once and B chosen 99 times in 100 trials of course, but it remains possible. (We have to remember that the circumstances of the choice must be identical, that is, all other things being equal)

We could incorporate this into our system by adding a “probability” axis (running from 0 to 1, or equivalently to 0 to 100). A point on this axis would represent the probability of the choice that was made and the whole sheet represents the life of the particle.


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It appears that two points on the line are axis, the ones at 0.8 and 0.2 are “special”. In the stated situation those at two probabilities of the outcomes A and B. The probability of any other outcome say Z are zero and effectively outcome Z does not exist.

All things being equal there appears to be no physical reason why someone would choose one option over another. It may be that, all things being equal, that one option gets chosen more often than the other, but the sum of all the probabilities is one – in other words it is absolutely certain that one of the options is chosen. I find this totally mysterious. A choice is an event where the outcome is not dictated by the prior history of the event and is decided by the person making the choice.

English: Figure 1. Demonstration of the decisi...
English: Figure 1. Demonstration of the decision space (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However the person’s mind is making the decision, and the person’s mind is equivalent to the state of his/her brain and the state of his/her brain is determined by physics, chemistry and biology. I see no “wriggle room” to allow for a person to make a choice.

Can we solve this dilemma by introspection? Descartes looked within himself and concluded that “I think therefore I am“. I don’t know if Descartes intended or realised it, but the implication is that thinking, which happens in the mind/brain, occurs before consciousness. In other words, consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the mind, just as the mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain.


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Why then do we think that we make choices and decide things? Well, by introspection I can look at any decision that I have made and I can always point at reasons why I made the choice. Well, of course this may be simple rationalisation. We look at the decision that we made we look at the reasons that might explain why we chose that course and we pick and choose the ones that we like.

While that may be the reasons that we give, and some of them may be true, I do believe that we have reasons for what we do, but those reasons are physical – the configuration of our brains, as a result of past events and happenings, results in a foregone conclusion – we perform an action which looks to the outside world like a decision.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging - Human brain side ...
Magnetic Resonance Imaging – Human brain side view. emphasizing corpus callosum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For instance, if we are filling in a form and we are required to check a box, we “choose” the box depending completely on what has gone before. If the boxes are “Male” or “Female” we know what sex we are so naturally we would choose the correct box. No real decision is made. If we are annoyed at the form or we are in a joking mood we might tick the wrong box. It depends on our state of mind before making the decision what we do, and it depends only on that.

English: checkbox, check box, tickbox, tick bo...
English: checkbox, check box, tickbox, tick box Italiano: checkbox, check box, tickbox, tick box (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

The Psi thing

Greek psi
Greek psi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I read a book recently, a real paper book, which was called “brain wars” and was written by Mario Beauregard, who is a neuroscience professor at the University of Montreal. The book amounts to an attack on materialist philosophy, arguing that the materialist philosophy cannot explain everything, especially the phenomenon of consciousness and “psi” phenomena.

One of the cornerstones of his argument is based around the dualist notion that mind and brain are separate “things”, and indeed one key section from the text, quoted in the blurb on the dust cover as follows:

The brain can be weighed, measured, scanned, dissected, and studied. The mind that we conceive to be generated by the brain, however, remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume, and no shape and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet it is as real as neurons, neurotransmitters, and synaptic junctions. It is also very powerful.

A little later he poses the question that the opponents of Decartes posed : “How, they asked, can an immaterial, mental substance act upon the material brain?”

A diagrammatic section of human brain by René ...

Beauregard later quotes Minsky’s statement “The brain is just a computer made out of meat”. For reasons that he goes into in depth later he states that quantum mechanics “has effectively smashed the scientific materialist worldview.” He then complacently concludes that “(m)aterialistic theories, despite their stubborn persistence in the scientific community, cannot solve the mind-brain problem”.

This despite the fact that Quantum Mechanics is completely materialistic and rational!

Marvin Minsky at the KI 2006 artificial intell...
Marvin Minsky at the KI 2006 artificial intelligence conference in Bremen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe that Minsky’s view is closer to true than the view that there is more to reality than the materialistic view allows. Beauregard is not a computer scientist so he would not know, in detail, how computers work, under the covers. At a basic level running computer is all about signals. These signals flow through the computer like signals flow through the brain’s network of neurons. (Caveat: I’m not a neuroscientist like Beauregard so I may be misrepresenting his field.)

neuron fractal 1
neuron fractal 1 (Photo credit: Anthony Mattox)

At a slightly higher level, a computer runs an operating system. This is program that runs all the time on the computer, running the programs that the user requires, handling the users input by running other little pieces of code, and handling all the bits of equipment (peripherals) that are connected to the computer. Crucially, the operating system can make the peripherals do things, like print the letter “A” on a sheet of paper, or spit out the sheet from the printer. Special purpose computers are the core of the robots that build cars or assemble toasters and pack them  and label them. They can even sort letters, reading ordinary human writing, much of the time accurately.

Factory Automation with industrial robots for ...
Factory Automation with industrial robots for metal die casting in foundry industry, robotics in metal manufacturing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interestingly people don’t think of robots as mobile computers that can interact with physical objects. The computers in robots run an operating system like your ordinary laptop or desktop, but they are often special versions called “embedded” operating systems.

Open up a computer though, and boot it up. Although you can point to various named parts, like the CPU, or the memory chips, you can’t point to the operating system. It essentially just a pattern impressed on the memory and the various registers and the CPU, and it changes over time. As Beauregard said about the mind, “it has no mass, no volume, and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time”. Yet it can influence things, print a letter or paint a car chassis.

June 11, 2007
June 11, 2007 (Photo credit: HeatherKaiser)

It seems that the computer, with its operating system and subsidiary programs, is a good analogy for the brain/mind duality. A big caution here, in that this analogy is just analogy, but it could form the basis of a model of the way that the mind and brain work together. It doesn’t, per se, explain consciousness, but I think that I have, above, provided an explanation of how the supposedly immaterial mind can, through the brain, affect the body, so that we can think above moving a limb, and it happens.

Quantum Physics
Quantum Physics (Photo credit: Jonathan Thorne CC)

Beauregard fastens on “quantum physics” as a possible enabler of psi phenomena, arguing that in quantum physics there is no separation between the mental and the physical. He bases this on what he calls the observer effect : “particles being observed and the observer are linked, and the results of the observation are influenced by the observer’s conscious attempt”.

Hmm. Wikipedia defines the “observer effect” as follows :

In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. A commonplace example is checking the pressure in an automobile tire; this is difficult to do without letting out some of the air, thus changing the pressure. This effect can be observed in many domains of physics.

This is a purely physical effect of measurement – the measuring photon knocks the observed particle slightly off course. Nothing to do with the observer. (A related effect, the Heisenberg principle puts limits on the accuracy with which we can know both the original values of a pair related properties and the subsequent values – roughly speaking).

An optical illusion. Square A is exactly the s...
An optical illusion. Square A is exactly the same shade of grey as square B. See demonstration. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think that Beauregard is actually referring to is an interpretation of quantum mechanics known as the “Copenhagen Interpretation” otherwise known as the “Collapse of the Waveform”. As such he interprets it as saying that the act of observation affects the result of the observation. This is fundamentally not true, because what really happens is that the act of observation merely determines which of probabilities is true. As Wikipedia says :

What collapses in this interpretation is the knowledge of the observer and not an “objective” wavefunction.

In no way does the observer influence the results of the experiment except as a result of the real “observer effect” above, so there is no room there for psi effects.

English: Example of a subject in a Ganzfeld ex...
English: Example of a subject in a Ganzfeld experiment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may think that I didn’t enjoy the book, but I did! There are unexplained and challenging events described in the book, but I don’t think that it goes anywhere near challenging the materialistic philosophy of science. The only part that I have issue with is when Beauregard challenges what he calls “pseudoskeptics”, those who profess to be skeptics and who are unwilling to look at the evidence for psi phenomenon.

USE IT...
USE IT… (Photo credit: Demetrios Georgalas aka brexians)

In fact these so called pseudoskeptics have probably looked into psi phenomenon at some stage and decided that further consideration is pointless given the diffuse and dubious nature of some evidence and the lack of any information about how this could tie in to or extend in some logical way existing materialistic physics.

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Consciousness, in mice and men and flatworms

Deutsch: Phrenologie
Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of all emergent phenomena consciousness is the most mysterious, probably because we don’t seem to have a handle on the concept. We don’t understand how it arises and probably not much about what it comprises and how it works. We know that it, apparently, can be switched on and off, as when we go to sleep or are sedated or knocked out by some accident or other.

It is only marginally under our control. In general terms we can be conscious or awake, but not conscious of anything specific. We can be in a reverie or day dream, or we can be doing something semi-automatically, like driving. But we can “snap to” and be conscious of something specific, as when some event happens while driving that needs our full attention. Or the door bell snaps us out of our reverie, or we notice a cloud that looks like a dog, or cat, or, more likely, a sheep!

English: We're following the leader! What caus...
English: We’re following the leader! What caused the car in front to brake? Was it a horse and rider? Was it someone coming off the public footpath on the brow of the hill? That’s the pleasure of nose-to-tail driving on the A158. It just keeps your brain alert all the time! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even when we are fully awake and concentrating on the idiot who just pulled out in front of us, we perform actions of which we are not fully aware, such as change down a gear or put on the brakes. We are aware of these actions to some extent as they are not fully automatic, like the movement of our legs when we walk, but we don’t have to think about which pedal to press or how to move the gear lever to change gear, as we did when we were learning to drive.

Washoe
Washoe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I might have said before, in a previous post, that I don’t think that it is feasible that consciousness is only found in mankind. Chimpanzees share 98.8% of our genes, so it reasonable that they share many of our abilities and they can certainly use tools and reason. It is unlikely that consciousness is an expression of something in the 1.2% of the genes that are unique to humans. Chimpanzees show fear and happiness , they sulk, they get angry and show other emotions. While the expression of emotions doesn’t prove that they are conscious, I find it hard to imagine a conscious entity would not express its consciousness through emotions, and that a non-conscious entity would show any emotions.

Computer mouse
Computer mouse (Photo credit: Pockafwye)

If chimpanzees are conscious animals as we are, then it follows that other animals are conscious entities to some extent or other. Some people believe that it has been demonstrated that most animals have consciousness, but I consider to be very likely, but not yet proved. Even a mouse, a “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” as Robert Burns put it, demonstrates its fear, and with its own species, anger. It is unlikely that a mouse is *as* aware as a human or even a chimpanzee, and it would be very difficult to find self consciousness in a flatworm though.

English: The planarian Schmidtea mediterranea
English: The planarian Schmidtea mediterranea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But then again, consciousness is related to mind and to the brain, and the brain is the major part of the “Central Nervous System” in mammals. It is possible that the more complicated a brain the more consciousness a animal possesses. Even a flatworm possesses a very simple brain-like structure called a ganglion. So, maybe, a flatworm posses a spark of consciousness, an atom of awareness of the most rudimentary sort.

English: Main regions of the vertebrate brain,...
English: Main regions of the vertebrate brain, shown for a shark and a human brain (the human brain is sliced along the midline). The two brains are not on the same scale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or there may be some threshold below which consciousness is impossible. A simple eyespot, such as flatworms possess cannot form an image. To form an image a much more complicated eye structure is required, so there must some limit of animal complexity at which vision can be said to be possible. A fuzzy limit, maybe, but a limit nevertheless.

If consciousness is truly an emergent phenomenon of the brain, the what properties of the brain could enable consciousness? Just as the chemical and electrical properties of water molecules are what enable the emergent property of wetness, some features of the brain and its shadow partner, the mind, must lead in some way to the phenomenon of consciousness.

English: Two water molecules
English: Two water molecules (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most obvious characteristic of the brain that really differentiates the brain from other organs is the concentration of neurons, billions of them, each connected to thousands of others by synapses. The number of connections is immense, but sheer complexity in itself does not imply consciousness.

In the case of emergent phenomena in general, it seems to me that it is easier to work from the top down as it were, the macro and consider what micro properties could feasibly cause the phenomenon. If we look at the wetness of water and consider that water is made up of molecules with physical, chemical and electrical characteristics we can at least speculate that the wetness of water is at least partly caused by the way that the molecules stick to and move across other molecules in a surface such as the skin. The water molecules are able to stick and let go and move over other molecules in a way that wets a surface, and forms a concave meniscus in a tube in a characteristic way.

English: Pendle Water, Nelson, Lancashire At t...
English: Pendle Water, Nelson, Lancashire At the South end of Victoria Park, Pendle Water flows out of the park, for a couple of miles to join the Lancashire Calder, which after a few miles westward, itself will flow into the River Ribble and hence to Preston and the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Who knows where the water molecules that we see here passing in December 2008 will have got to by now? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In  comparison mercury atoms have different electrical chemical and physical characteristics. They don’t form molecules in the same way, and while they slide over one another, they don’t stick to other molecules and let go in the way that water molecules do. Consequently mercury atoms don’t wet surfaces like water molecules do and a mercury meniscus is convex not concave.

Close-up of a mercury-filled maximum thermomet...
Close-up of a mercury-filled maximum thermometer. The break in the column of mercury is visible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, we can work out, in rough terms, why water is wet, by comparing water and mercury, and noting their micro-properties. Can we achieve the same with the phenomenon of consciousness? Well, the brain is a computation engine of sorts, and so maybe we can compare it to a computer. Computers are not (yet) conscious and brains contain minds which are conscious. Can we make any guesses based on that?

Babbage difference engine
Babbage difference engine (Photo credit: tolomea)

You can probably tell from the questioning way that I am discussing this topic that I don’t have any firm opinions on the matter. There are a couple of differences that I will point out though.

Computers are highly organised and computational functions and memory functions are completely separate, physically and computationally. A computer is also clock driven, with each operation taking up exactly the same number of “clock ticks” each time it is performed. In contrast, while a brain does have areas in which functions seem to reside, and a particular area may “light up” every time one raises a finger for example, memory seems to be more diffuse in its location, as compared to a computer.

English: Thalamus. Part of the brain. MRI image.
English: Thalamus. Part of the brain. MRI image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Secondly, a brain’s “architecture” changes over time, whereas a computer’s does not. A brain may make new connections (which may have something to do with memory), while a computer stays as it was when built.

Thirdly, a brain is enormously more complex than any computer yet built, at least in terms of the number of interconnections in it and its ability to re-wire itself with new connections.

Synaptical transmission (chemical). A: Neuron ...
Synaptical transmission (chemical). A: Neuron (Presynaptic) B: Neuron (Postsynaptic) Mitochondria Synaptic vesicle full of neurotransmitter Autoreceptor Synaptic cleft Neurotransmitter receptor Calcium Channel Fused vesicle releasing neurotransmitter Neurotransmitter re-uptake pump (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know if these differences are significant in terms of explaining the problem of consciousness. I suspect that they are at the root of the problem, but I could be totally wrong. It may be the “programs” that run in the brain and computer that make the difference, but that just moves the issue to another arena.

And I’ve run out of space. I could touch on the “android” question, but I’ll leave that for now.

English: This is a photograph of EveR-2, a fem...
English: This is a photograph of EveR-2, a female android developed by the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology and demonstrated to the public in October 2006. It is 165cm tall and weighs 60kg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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There’s a Song in my Head.

Delicate (album)
Delicate (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(“There’s a song in my head” by Martha and the Muffins 1985 – NOT my kind of music by the way.)

 

The way the brain works fascinates me. It seems to favour the most unexpected linkages between memories. What brought this to mind was the fact that when I do some daily activity I often find myself humming a particular tune which my brain somehow for some reason links to that task. Now, sometimes it is easy to remember why there is a connection, but other times, I can think of no idea why that particular tune relates to that task.

 

Cassatt Mary The Cup of Tea 1880
Cassatt Mary The Cup of Tea 1880 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously, it is probably true that at some time in the past there was an event, or even events which have caused that linkage to be formed. It may be that the linkage was indirect, through some other occurrence, but in any case the cause of the linkage has been long forgotten.

 

Evidently linkages can outlive the events that caused them. It may be that some traumatic event caused the linkage, and I have suppressed it. I think that this is unlikely, since it happens too often, and I don’t have that much trauma in my life, I believe!

 

It may be that my brain favours musical themes as mnemonics. Songs, poetry and repetition (chanting) are often used in schools to help student memorise things. How many days are there in June? And how many of you started mentally reciting that rhyme – “30 days hath September…”?

 

Knuckle mnemonic for the number of days in eac...
Knuckle mnemonic for the number of days in each month of the Gregorian Calendar. Each projecting knuckle represents a 31-day month. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I make a cup of tea and the tune springs to mind, what is my brain trying to do? (He said, anthropomorphically). Is it trying to remind me of something important? If so, it is likely that the thing that it considers important is important no longer, so my response, when it occurs to me, is one of puzzlement.

 

There’s another category of “songs in your head” and that is the “mind worm”. I can think of several. There’s the tinkly accompaniment to Gotye’s “Somebody that I used to know”, There’s the Disney “Small World” theme, which may be merely more pervasive and not a true mind worm. Just recently there’s been the rail safety commercial “Dumb ways to die”. By the way, don’t click on the links unless you want the songs in your brain. Too late!

 

The hidden auditorium of my skull
The hidden auditorium of my skull (Photo credit: id-iom)

I can’t think of a good reason for musical mind worms. Maybe, as an offshoot of the remembering process the brain is so susceptible to simple musical phrases that it picks up these tunes because they are simple and memorable and this is the sort of thing that the brain finds easy to recall as well as remember, and each recollection reinforces the memory in a self maintaining endless cycle.

English: Animated Atkinson cycle.
English: Animated Atkinson cycle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)