Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Seeing as a way of acting.

I want to point out an accessible and fascinating web lecture with dynamic visual examples that outlines how we mentally construct our visual world (as well as the world interpreted through our other senses). The common view is that seeing is making an internal representation in our brains. O'Regan's new view is that seeing is knowing about things to do. This will make sense to you if you scan through O'Regan's very accessible introduction to the basic experiments and ideas: "Experience is not something we feel but something we do: a principled way of explaining sensory phenomenology, with Change Blindness and other empirical consequences."

One quote from the essay:
"In neuroscience today, one of the problems people are grappling with is to try to understand how a physical entity like a brain can give rise to something like the feeling of seeing, which is patently not physical.

Some as yet unknown mysterious, possibly even nonphysical mechanism has to be postulated to instill experience into the brain. But under the new view, the problem disappears, because experience is not in the brain at all.

It's in the doing of the exploration, and in the knowledge of the things that will change as you explore. Instead of the role of the brain being to generate the experience of seeing, the role of the brain simply becomes that of generating the exploratory activity which underlies the seeing, and that of holding the knowledge of current possibilities for action that underlies seeing.

Thus, the problem of finding a mechanism to generate experience in the brain disappears."

O'Regan's website provides links to his other work, and includes some excellent change blindness demonstrations, as well as a link to download his 2001 magnum opus in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Friday, March 24, 2006

How to spot a baby conservative

A friend sent me this link to an article in the Toronto Star...

KID POLITICS | Whiny children, claims a new study, tend to grow up rigid and traditional. Future liberals, on the other hand ...

"Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.At least, he did if he was one of 95 kids from the Berkeley area that social scientists have been tracking for the last 20 years. The confident, resilient, self-reliant kids mostly grew up to be liberals.The study from the Journal of Research Into Personality isn't going to make the UC Berkeley professor who published it any friends on the right......"

Important models of self and sensing, and their reviewers

You will find on the Psyche website two fascinating symposia. One deals with Thomas Metzinger's magisterial (and very long and dense) book titled "Being No One" in which he develops a model of the phenomenal self. No one has better understood and integrated the basic domains of philosophy, neurobiology, and psychology. The review by Gallagher is particularly interesting.

A second symposium deals with Alva Noe's book "Action in Perception" which argues that perceiving is a way of acting, and that perception is not something that happens to us, or in us. Rather it is something we do. The review by Clark is interesting.

How genes make up your mind

You will find a nice introduction to this topic by Thomas Ramsoy on the Science and Consciousness Review website. He gives the necessary background (showing the brain anatomy and chemistry) for understanding a paper by Harari et al. that correlates a variation in human serotonin transporter genes with fear and anxiety traits and amygdala activation.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What is happening in your brain during a sensory illusion?

This article by Blankenburg et al, "The Cutaneous Rabbit Illusion Affects Human Primary Sensory Cortex Somatotopically" demonstrates that during an illusion regions of the brain that would actually be responding to the real stimulus become active.

"We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study neural correlates of a robust somatosensory illusion that can dissociate tactile perception from physical stimulation. Repeated rapid stimulation at the wrist, then near the elbow, can create the illusion of touches at intervening locations along the arm, as if a rabbit hopped along it. We examined brain activity in humans using fMRI, with improved spatial resolution, during this version of the classic cutaneous rabbit illusion. As compared with control stimulation at the same skin sites (but in a different order that did not induce the illusion), illusory sequences activated contralateral primary somatosensory cortex, at a somatotopic location corresponding to the filled-in illusory perception on the forearm. Moreover, the amplitude of this somatosensory activation was comparable to that for veridical stimulation including the intervening position on the arm. The illusion additionally activated areas of premotor and prefrontal cortex. These results provide direct evidence that illusory somatosensory percepts can affect primary somatosensory cortex in a manner that corresponds somatotopically to the illusory percept."

What We Know May Not Change Us

Here are a few quotations from a very sane and brief essay by Barry Smith, a philosopher at the University of London.

"Human beings, like everything else, are part of the natural world...we need many different kinds of theories at different levels of description to account for everything there is.

Theories at these different levels may not be reduced one to another. What matters is that they be compatible with one another. The astronomy Newton gave us was a triumph over supernaturalism because it united the mechanics of the sub-lunary world with an account of the heavenly bodies. In a similar way, biology allowed us to advance from a time when we saw life in terms of an elan vital. Today, the biggest challenge is to explain our powers of thinking and imagination, our abilities to represent and report our thoughts: the very means by which we engage in scientific theorising. The final triumph of the natural sciences over supernaturalism will be an account of nature of conscious experience. The cognitive and brain sciences have done much to make that project clearer but we are still a long way from a fully satisfying theory.

But even if we succeed in producing a theory of human thought and reason, of perception, of conscious mental life, compatible with other theories of the natural and biological world, will we relinquish our cherished commonsense conceptions of ourselves as human beings, as selves who know ourselves best, who deliberate and decide freely on what to do and how to live? There is much evidence that we won't. As humans we conceive ourselves as centres of experience, self-knowing and free willing agents. We see ourselves and others as acting on our beliefs, desires, hopes and fears, and has having responsibility for much that we do and all that we say. And even as results in neuroscience begin to show how much more automated, routinised and pre-conscious much of our behaviour is, we are remain unable to let go of the self-beliefs that govern our day to day rationalisings and dealings with others.

We are perhaps incapable of treating others as mere machines, even if that turns out to be what we are. The self-conceptions we have are firmly in place and sustained in spite of our best findings, and it may be a fact about human beings that it will always be so. We are curious and interested in neuroscientists findings and we wonder at them and about their applications to ourselves, but as the great naturalistic philosopher David Hume knew, nature is too strong in us, and it will not let us give up our cherished and familiar ways of thinking for long. Hume knew that however curious an idea and vision of ourselves we entertained in our study, or in the lab, when we returned to the world to dine, make merry with our friends our most natural beliefs and habits returned and banished our stranger thoughts and doubts."

Friday, March 17, 2006

Different Brain Systems Regulating Response to Risk and Uncertainty

How much would you pay me for a deck of 100 cards, half blue and half red, if I told you that if you drew a card from the deck without looking and correctly specified its color you would get $100? Most people would off about $45 for such a deck, indicating an aversion to risk. If offered a second deck and not told how many of the cards are blue and how many are white, the offer drops to $42, indicating that much larger an aversion to risk plus ambiguity. The odds of getting the $100 are actually 50-50 in both cases, but in the first people think 'they know the probability."

Hsu et al use functional brain imaging to show that the brain treats the two decks in different ways. Ambiguity in choice (the second deck) correlates positively with activation of the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, regions involving emotional values of options, and negatively with a striatal system. Striatal activation correlates more strongly with risk and and expected reward (the first deck).

By the way, if you want to learn a bit more about the brain, and brain structures mentioned above, try Neuroscience for Kids. Or better, the more advanced Digital Anatomist or Braininfo sites.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Can physics save your soul?

Dennis Overbye writes an excellent piece in the March 14 New York Times science section.

It is as clear a debunking as I have read of the feel good new age movement, dating from the 1960's, to blend modern quantum physics and consciousness. The argument seems to be that since there are deep paradoxes we can't grasp about physics and consciousness, they must share a deep unity. So maybe reality is just a mental construct we can manipulate, etc. etc.

The popular underground movies "What the #$!%* Do We Know" and its successor "What the Bleep, Down the Rabbit Hole" raise a question for Overbye "Do we really have to indulge in bad physics to feel good?" These movies, along with new age books liek "The Tao of Physics" and "The Dancing Wu Li Master" attempt to connect quantum physic to Eastern mysticism... the movie and the books promote "the idea that, at some level, our minds are in control of reality.." The minor factual problem is that "the waves that symbolize quantum possibilities are so fragile they collapse with the slightest encounter with their environment. Conscious observers are not needed." This is the unanimous opinion of working physicists today. One of them, Dr. David Albert, a professor of philosophy and physics at Columbia, points out that Eugene Wigner, the Nobel laureate who ventured the suggestion that consciousness might be a key to understanding how the "fog of quantum possibilities prescribed by mathematical theory can condense into one concrete actuality.... framed the process in strict mathematical and probabilistic terms..The desires and intentions of the observer had nothing to do with it."

"In other words, reality is out of our control..It's a casino universe...

An extended quote from Overbye :

"Not that there is anything wrong with that. There's a great story to be told about atoms and the void: how atoms evolved out of fire and bent space and grew into Homer, Chartres cathedral and "Blonde on Blonde." How those same atoms came to learn that the earth, sun, life, intelligence and the whole universe will eventually die.

I can hardly blame the quantum mystics for avoiding this story, and sticking to the 1960's.

When it comes to physics, people seem to need to kid themselves. There is a presumption, Dr. Albert said, that if you look deeply enough you will find "some reaffirmation of your own centrality to the world, a reaffirmation of your ability to take control of your own destiny." We want to know that God loves us, that we are the pinnacle of evolution.

But one of the most valuable aspects of science, he said, is precisely the way it resists that temptation to find the answer we want. That is the test that quantum mysticism flunks, and on some level we all flunk.

I'd like to believe that like Galileo, I would have the courage to see the world clearly, in all its cruelty and beauty, "without hope or fear," as the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis put it. Take free will. Everything I know about physics and neuroscience tells me it's a myth. But I need that illusion to get out of bed in the morning. Of all the durable and necessary creations of atoms, the evolution of the illusion of the self and of free will are perhaps the most miraculous. That belief is necessary to my survival."

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

An "Apostle's Creed" for the humanistic scientific materialist?

The classical Christian apostle's creed, over 1600 years old and formulated soon after the writing of the New Testament, is a series of "I believe....." statements. Without thinking too much about it, I've decided to quickly write down a few sentences to suggest the very different creed that I follow. Here they are:

I believe the most fundamental content of our minds to be the sensed physical breathing and moving body, a quiet awareness that underlies our surface waves of emotions and thoughts.

I believe that this awareness can begin to experience a larger process, closer to the machinery that is generating a self, a process that observes rather than being completely defined by the current narrative "I" chatter of who-I-am or what-it-is-I-do.

I believe that this awareness can expand to feel its part in a a drama of evolving life on this planet and an evolving universe - a theater much more universal than conventional cultural or religious myths.

I believe that this awareness can enhance the depth, sanity, and sensed completion of each moment. It provides a sense of wholeness and sufficiency from which actions rise. It makes contact with other humans more sane and whole.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Recent Evolution of Humans

The once-prevailing orthodoxy that human brain evolution stopped well before the rise of agriculture and cities is being rapidly swept away. "The Twists and Turns of History, and of DNA" an article by Nicholas Wade (New York Times , March 12, 2006) notes works showing that "a fresh look at history may be in order. Evolutionary changes in the genome could help explain cultural traits that last over many generations as societies adapted to different local pressures."....."The Yanomamo... and Ashkenazi Jews... may be examples of a society's genetic response to circumstances. Rice farming, practiced by East Asians for centuries, may have spurred evolutionary changes in physical and psychological traits."

Wade notes the recent book by Richard E. Nisbett "The Geography of Thought." It points out "East Asians tend to be more interdependent than the individualists of the West, which he attributed to the social constraints and central control handed down as part of the rice-farming techniques Asians have practiced for thousands of years." He cites work of Jonathan Pritchard, Univ. of Chicago, "In a study of East Asians, Europeans and Africans, Dr. Pritchard and his colleagues found 700 regions of the genome where genes appear to have been reshaped by natural selection in recent times. In East Asians, the average date of these selection events is 6,600 years ago."

Friday, March 10, 2006

Evolutionary Spirituality - Evolutionary Christianity

These sites (, show efforts to blend scientific evolutionary perspectives with conventional religions. The idea would be that it is less traumatic for believers if they can nudge towards appreciating "The 14 billion year epic of cosmos, life, and humanity told as a sacred story, glorifying all".

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Visual Illusions

My colleage Nansi Colley sent me this link to a great visual illusion involving color and motion adaptation. This motivated me to post this link to a library of visual illusions, also assembled by Michael Bach, that are great fun. This library was accessed from, using its 'demonstrations' link. Most illusion effects have their basis in the visual pathway, not in the optics of the eye, and some of the demonstrations are accompanied by a suggested explanation of their neural basis.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Dangerous Ideas...... is a website sponsored by the "Reality Club" (i.e. John Brockman, literary agent/impressario/socialite). Brockman has assembled a stable of scientists and other thinkers that he defines as a "third culture" that takes the place of traditional intellectuals in redefining who and what we are.... Each year a question is formulated for all to write on... In 2004 it was "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" The question for 2005 was "What is your dangerous idea?"

The responses organize themselves into several areas. Here are selected thumbnail summaries most directly relevant to human minds. I've not included cosmology and physics. Go to to read the essays

I. Nature of the human self or mind (by the way see my "I-Illusion" essay on my website):

Paulos - The self is a conceptual chimera
Shirky - Free will is going away
Nisbett - We are ignorant of our thinking processes
Horgan - We have no souls
Bloom - There are no souls, mind has a material basis.
Provine - This is all there is.
Anderson - Brains cannot become minds without bodies
Metzinger - Is being intellectually honest about the issue of free will compatible with preserving one's mental health?
Clark - Much of our behavior is determined by non-conscious, automatic uptake of cues and information
Turkle - Simulation will replace authenticity as computer simulation becomes fully naturalized.
Dawkins - A faulty person is no different from a faulty car. There is a mechanism determining behavior that needs to be fixed. The idea of responsibility is nonsense.
Smith - What we know may not change us. We will continue to conceive ourselves as centres of experience, self-knowing and free willing agents.

II. Natural explanations of culture

Sperber - Culture is natural.
Taylor - The human brain is a cultural artifact.
Hauser- There is a universal grammar of mental life.
Pinker - People differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.
Goodwin - Similar coordinating patterns underlie biological and cultural evolution.
Venter - Revealing the genetic basis of personality and behavior will create societal conflicts.

III. Fundamental changes in political, economic, social order

O'donnell - The state will disappear.
Ridley - Government is the problem not the solution.
Shermer - Where goods cross frontiers armies won't.
Harari -Democracy is on its way out.
Csikszentmihalyi- The free market myth is destroying culture.
Goleman - The internet undermines the quality of human interaction.
Harris - Science must destroy religion.
Porco - Confrontation between science and religion might end when role played by science in lives of people is the same played by religion today.
Bering - Science will never silence God
Fisher - Drugs such as antidepressants jeopardize feelings of attachment and love
Iacoboni - Media Violence Induces Imitative Violence - the Problem with Mirrors
Morton - Our planet is not in peril, just humans are.

Pursuing Happiness

The Feb. 27 issue of the New Yorker has a review by John Lanchester of several books on happiness. Jonathan Haidt, "The Happiness Hypothesis"; Darrin McMahon, "Happiness, a history"; Richard Layard, "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science".

A first point is that we are hardwired to emphasize the negative, because being cautious and apprehensive makes us more likely to pass on our genes than being open, risk-taking, and happy. "Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures." But, "are we, left to our own devices, and provided with sufficient food and freedom and control over our circumstances, naturally happy?" It depends on circumstances. People living in poverty become happier if they become richer, but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. Americans are twice as rich as they were in the 1970's but report not being any happier. Data from all over the world show that people get stuck on a "hedonic treadmill": their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach.

There is considerable evidence (from identical twin and other studies) that we each have a natural "set point" level of happiness that is largely inherited. In the long run, it doesn't much matter what happens to you. Whether you win the lottery or break your neck, within a year you feel pretty much the same as you did before.

Positive psychologists, however, argue that there are conditions most likely to generate contentment or happiness. Csikzentmihalyi's studies show that people are more content when are are experiencing what he calls "flow", a state ot total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one's abilities." In this view, happiness is a by-product of absorption. The trouble is that asking yourself about your frame of mind is a sure way to lose your flow. If you want to be happy, don't ever ask yourself if you are.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Our Wayward Minds

I want to mention the excellent book by Guy Claxton - THE WAYWARD MIND, an intimate history of the unconscious (2005, Little, Brown, and Co. Great Britan, published only in Britan but available from with 4-6 week wait) Here is a excerpt and paraphrase from pp. 348-252:

"What we call our "self " is an agglomeration of both conscious and unconscious ingredients, cans, needs, dos, oughts, thinks - the temptation is to assume that the "I" is the same in all of them - so that instead of having an intricate web of things that make me ME, I have to create a single imaginary hub around which they all revolve, to which they all refer - the attempt to keep this fiction going, to "hold it together" can become quite tiring and bothersome - If "I" am essentially reasonable, if I imagine that my zones of control - over my own feelings for example - are wider and more robust than they are, then I am going to get in a tangle trying to "control myself." If I have decided that who I am is clever, attractive, athletic, stable, creating the hub of "I" locks everything together and prevents it moving. It stops Me expanding to include the unconscious, or graciously shrinking to accommodate old age. I can not enjoy my waywardness, nor see it as an intrinsic part of ME - (note: he gives Ramachandran's two foot nose pinocchio demonstration as evidence of plasticity of self image), and then says - The orthodox sense of self is thrown by such experiences, and tends to suffer a sense-of-humour failure. It sees all waywardness as an affront, and tends to become earnest or myopic in response. In a nutshell: it is bad enough to have a nightmare, without your rattled sense of self telling you that you are going mad. Weird experience can never be just funny (as the pinocchio effect can be) or matter-of fact (as possession is in Bali), or transiently inconvenvient (as a bad dream is), or wonderful (as a mystical experience can be), or just mysterious (as a premonition might be). For the locked-up self they have to be denied, explained or dealt with. All the evidence is that a more relaxed attitude toward the bounds of self makes for a richer, easier and more creative life. Perhaps, after all, waywardness in all its forms is in need not so much of explanation, but of a mystified but friendly welcome. We can explain it if we wish, and the brain is beginning to a reasonable job. But the need to explain, when not motivated by the dispassionate curiosity of the scientist, is surely a sign of anxiety: of the desire to tame with words that which is experienced as unsettling.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

No Two Alike - Why do even identical twins have different personalities?

No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality by Judith Rich Harris (Hardcover, W.W.Norton, 2006) ..... Harris argues that three brain systems contribute to making each individual unique: a socialization system figures out how to conform to (mirror) your group. A relationship system figures out how to get along with each different person. A status system figures out how to compete. These adaptable and plastic mental systems we all share also make each of us uniquely different from each other. They generate different behaviors in different contexts (home, school, work, etc.) in which our relationships and status are different.

The Folk Psychology of Souls

From the abstract of an article by J. M. Bering, currently under review and to be published in Behavioral and Brain Research (copyright Cambridge Univ. Press. PDF or WORD download here) : "the present article examines how ... belief in an afterlife, as well as closely related supernatural beliefs, may open an empirical backdoor to our understanding of the evolution of human social cognition. ......The central thesis of the present article is that an organized cognitive system dedicated to forming illusory representations of (i) psychological immortality, (ii) the intelligent design of the self, and (iii) the symbolic meaning of natural events evolved in response to the unique selective pressures of the human social environment. "

Altruistic and cooperative behavior not unique to humans.

More behaviors proposed by some to be unique to humans prove not to be. Warkenin and Tomasello show altruistic cooperation in young chimpanzees and in prelinquistic children at 18 months. Melis et al. show that Chimps recruit the best collaborators.

Friday, March 03, 2006

More on how meditation may increase the thickness of some cortical areas

An interview with Sandra Lazar. in Science and Consciousness Review. "The most significant ... difference was in the right anterior insula. The right anterior insula has been identified in many studies of emotion processing, as well as in studies of attention and cognition. It has also been shown to be involved in modulating physiology, and has strong connections with other brain areas that are more centrally involved in these processes (for example the amygdala, brain stem and frontal cortex). It is thought to relay and integrate these signals between the various areas, in order to influence behavior (i.e., it connects emotional regions with the decision-making part of the brain, so that emotions can influence your decisions). It is not yet clear what increased thickness means; those experiments are just beginning. However we hypothesize that increased thickness will correlate with increased ability to perform certain tasks that require the integration of emotion and cognition --- for example, handling stressful situations.