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Extravolution Blog
Figure-Ground Reversal PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Friday, 06 September 2013 15:22
‘Consciousness is irreducible,’ proclaimed John Searle in a recent TED talk. This was just after telling us that we need to learn to think of it as a wholly biological process.
So, let me get this straight – it’s an irreducible biological process. I like John Searle’s manner – the irritable, baggy-trousered old philosopher thing works well for him. He is best known for his Chinese room thought experiment: an argument against the possibility of true artificial intelligence (AI). He used an elaborate metaphor involving Chinese characters written on bits of paper being passed into a locked room where they are interpreted, using a set of logical rules, by a person who does not speak the language. The set of rules also enables the person in the room to respond in kind.
The argument, as you can see, is to do with ‘actual’ understanding. Searle was claiming that there would be no understanding of the language going on within the locked room; ergo, there would be no understanding going on inside even the most sophisticated AI subjected to the Turing test. I’ll admit that I’m a little biased against Searle’s argument, having seen it systematically disassembled by Daniel Dennett, in his book Consciousness Explained, but I don’t think it would be unfair to say that some of Searle’s claims about the nature of consciousness seem to be somewhat lacking in levels.
We know that the phenomenon of consciousness arises from the biological substrate of the brain. It’s a dualistic waste of time to argue otherwise. Searle is clearly frustrated by the endless philosophical debates over its real or illusory nature, and I’m with him on that, but not because I think we must unequivocally brand it as real; I’m frustrated by that debate because I think both words are wrong.
We often forget that there is a vast range of phenomena in the Universe for which we have no semantic classifications: What do you call that feeling of rocks changing shape by the process of erosion? What do you call that sense of thirsty tree root seeking water? You may argue that these examples have nothing to do with human consciousness. Nevertheless, there are all kinds of micro-processes going on inside you that you don’t ‘experience’ directly but which have some kind of teleonomic ‘direction’ to them.
Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature has most recently influenced my thoughts on this. The book is hard going sometimes, but I’m excited by his formalisation of the idea of a kind of ‘figure-ground reversal’ – what may be important about phenomena like consciousness is not what is presentbut what is absent. It is a theory of constraints: a whirlpool is a phenomenon produced by the constraining of water molecules to follow a range of downward-spiralling trajectories; perhaps consciousness is an inevitableresult of constraint of molecules into a very specific biological configuration. What is absent, in both these cases, is the near-infinite range of trajectories and configurations that those molecules might otherwise have followed or taken on.
Deacon’s ‘essential absences’ – ‘absentials’ – resonate with me. I think it is partly because they demonstrate just how inadequate our semantic modes in the consciousness debate have been. It’s also because I like the idea of being an absential rend in the fabric of the not-me Universe. For many, though, talk of essential absence induces a kind of existential trypophobia – an irrational fear of holes – rendering them confused, frightened, or even disgusted by the notion.
So what about the Chinese room? Well, you just fill it with a vast number of people who don’t understand the symbols, give them the correct rules, and set them to work. If it is correctly set up, the room will produce the correct answer. But, surely, the understanding is still missing. Exactly. There are many things missing from this setup – understanding is an essential one of them. It is a kind of phenomenon that is being generated despite its absence as a specific phenomenon. That is why it looks irreducible.
Strange? Yes, very. But cogito ergo sum! I suppose it’s a good enough shorthand for this: something is producing a phenomenon that other somethings producing this phenomenon and the something producing the phenomenon call ‘thinking’. Constraint steers that clumsy definition towards an essentially useful I.
As I am an inveterate reductionist, you might think I should be more concerned about the biological mechanisms that make this possible. Certainly, the mechanisms fascinate me. However, that does not mean that I expect to be able to tap my finger on a screen and say, ‘Look, that’s consciousness right there.’ I may be able to say, ‘Those are the structures from which the state of consciousness emerges’, but that’s not quite the same. Phenomenal states emerge, and they have many different characteristics. Try pinpointing the vorticity in a whirlpool.
Before I am dragged under, I’d better round this off. If this were a letter, I think it would be pleasing to sign it off with a warmly heartfelt...

...absentially, consciously yours,
Last Updated on Friday, 06 September 2013 15:31
228 Votes


The Myths of 5-A-Day and Other Arbitrary Health Targets PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Monday, 19 August 2013 14:29
Eat five ‘portions’ of fruit and veg per day, walk 10,000 steps per day, eat no more than 30 grams of saturated fat per day: health targets; I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of them. But where do they come from, and what do they actually mean?

I am not about to knock the benefits of a ‘healthy lifestyle’. A healthy lifestyle sounds great, a healthy lifesounds even better. It’s just that neither I, nor you, nor anyone else can pinpoint what that means. Do you really think that the delicate homeostatic and hormetic balance of your specific biology can be properly regulated by following a motley assortment of arbitrary ‘targets’?

It seems like a sensible idea to follow such government (and health-related NGO) set maximums and minimums. Government bodies have the benefit of access to a great deal of current and historical research on the outcomes of diet and exercise regimes; we, as individuals, appear to have far less expertise, scope, and data-mining capability to wield in our battles against bulges, heart problems, diabetes, and ill-health in general. The ‘common sense’ approach, then, must surely be to pay close attention to the resulting ‘advice’ issuing forth from the likes of the US Public Health Service and the UK National Health Service. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with the principleof worldwide and national health bodies giving out such advice; it’s in the practicethat the problem lies.

Let us take the NHS-issued ‘five portions of fruit and vegetables per day’ target, which is the focus of this article and the main focus for my scorn. It appears that this one was cooked up (or, better still, served raw) in California around 1988, after public health representatives and fruit and veg growers got together and decided that such a campaign would be mutually beneficial. The campaign was launched in the UK in 2003 to what was, at the time, a desperate and suggestible public; the ‘obesity epidemic’ was grabbing headlines, and according to Professor Tim Lang who had earlier advised the UK Department of Health on such issues, ‘We needed something.’

And ‘something’ was exactly what they got: the UK government got to look like it was doing something in the midst of what newspapers were branding a crisis; fruit and veg growers got a boost in sales; unfortunately, the public got only a new, shrill, guilt-inducing, and generally annoying piece of arbitrary marketing-speak.

It would be difficult (to say the least) to find out whether this campaign has brought any health benefits whatsoever to UK citizens following its advice. I would guess that it has actually made things worse. Take the advice on fruit juice, for example. The NHS tells us, in the ‘Change4Life’ section of its website, ‘If you drink juice, a 150ml glass of unsweetened 100% fruit or vegetable juice counts as one portion – but it doesn’t matter how much more you drink, it’s still one portion.’ Although the information then goes on to add that, ‘Juice can contain quite a lot of fruit sugar, so it’s best to limit the amount you drink’, even the ‘150ml’ makes no sense given that that amount of ‘unsweetened’ orange juice can contain 3-4 teaspoons of sugar. There’s less sugar in Coca Cola. I wouldn’t take 3-4 teaspoons of sugar in an entire day, never mind in one ‘portion’.

I have here in front of me a tin of Heinz baked beans that proudly proclaims in large lettering on the front of its label, ‘1 of your 5 a day’. Really? This product contains 20 grams of sugar per tin – almost all of it artificially added to the disgusting ‘rich tomato sauce’ enveloping the sorely-abused beans. The tin is marked off into four 100-gram measurements to show you just how much health benefit you are gaining with each portion of the product you eat. Nonsense.

Five-a-day is easy to shoot down because it seems too ridiculous to be true, yet the NHS and UK government have allowed it to stand for ten years. And, unbelievably, it’s still running. It is dished out to us daily, along with extra dollops of smiling wellness and spangly, colourful, childish graphics.

We have a problem here. It is one of credulity and of lag. We must be far more vigilant and far less credulous in our consumption of this kind of ‘health advice’, otherwise we end up in the kind of situation we are in – one where opportunistic food companies start using public health advice to punt their often-highly-suspect products. The ‘lag’ is to do with health advice more generally: we are discussing a relatively new and hypothetical field of study; consensus on human exercise and nutrition has not yet been reached, so a good deal of the advice given out is based upon speculation and is issued to the public before it has been properly tested (in effect, using us as experimental guinea pigs).

I will not be eating my ‘5-a-day’ today. This is not because I am thrawn(although I can be) but because the message is unscientific: it is neat, tidy, easy-to-follow hokum. I will eat some vegetables, I might even eat some fruit; I will also eat some other foods containing high percentages of protein and fat. My brain and body will receive adequate fuel. I will question, I will rail, I will think before I swallow. I might even take some steps once this cup of coffee has made it to my bladder; they will not number 10,000.

That is my front-of-the-can message. It isn’t neat, it isn’t sweet, may well be hard to stomach, and may not amount to a hill of beans. Why not ask some pertinent questions, and then design one of your own? The spangly graphics are optional.
Last Updated on Friday, 06 September 2013 15:30
208 Votes


The Art of the Archivist PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Sunday, 07 July 2013 08:00

My friend’s approach to dealing with the accrued data of his life is different to mine: He treats his with reverence; I treat much of mine with cold pragmatism.
This makes little sense. I have experienced the trauma of losing personal-meaning-suffused data when, many years ago, a lightning strike fried my PC and, along with it, the hard-drive containing the sole copies of songs I had written. Losing such data feels a lot like grief, probably because it is grief. You can see such grief in the expressions of those who have lost all their possessions to fire or flood. The rationalist in us may shrug and say, ‘Well, nobody died’; clearly, however, something died – the part of the person that was implicit in their now-destroyed archive.
To a large extent, we take our personal data for granted. It has become easy for us to create (and back-up) vast amounts of it. For some, physical things that cannot be converted into easily-storable binary data have become a burden; for others, an MP3 file could never substitute for a cherished disc of grooved vinyl. But consider, for a moment, the burdens (both physical and metaphorical) of earlier archivists: inscribed stone tablets; purport-laden sheets of carefully-prepared Cyperus papyrus; symbol-etched tree bark, bamboo, bone; ‘illuminated’ codices on parchment of goat skin; and, of course, delicate and easily-corrupted networks of interconnected neurons (present in the brain of the skilled storyteller – in effect, an oral archivist – charged with memorising and relating the history of his/her people).
Ancient archive disasters such as the destruction (by various fires, spaced over hundreds of years) of the Library of Alexandria demonstrate the vulnerability of some of those early systems. Though less vulnerable to complete destruction, well managed modern-day digital archives are still burdensome and, regrettably, still prone to corruption.
For cryonicists like me, the understanding of self as potentially-preservable pattern demands a practical/radical approach to archival. I am my own medium, so my approach to the storage of this particular archive has been to choose a method by which the important parts of the pattern might just survive my death: the cold, radical pragmatism of cryonic suspension. The other practical strand of the required approach (which I have not yet fully addressed) is to do with the archival of the externalised parts of myself – the valued data that I have acquired, created, and sometimes stored, that constitutes my distributed avatar-halo.
An article by Mike Anzis in the April 2013 issue of Cryonics magazine goes into the issues of ‘very long-term storage of personal information and materials’ at length. It’s all delightfully practical. I already knew that the head would be going in the liquid nitrogen ‘box’, but Anzis has the other bases covered too: the physical possessions go in the Alcor storage box; the data archives go onto a Millenniata M-Disc (‘a DVD made out of stone that lasts 1,000 years’), or up to cloud storage services such as Google Drive or SkyDrive. None of this sounds much like encapsulation of an avatar-halo, until, that is, we get to ‘mind files’. LifeNaut and CyBeRev are secure, cloud-based services that allow the user to create a central hub linking together their various online presences, to upload files for secure storage, and to generate (from photos) an avatar that can relay stored information to those granted access to their profile.
My friend already has part of my mind file. Whereas I have misplaced much of the music we created together and the photos taken when we were in a band together, he has kept it all. And he knows where to find it: it is all neatly stored and clearly labelled. Because of his diligence, parts of my life have been preserved that would otherwise have been lost. I admit that I have been careless with my own past, but, paradoxically, that’s not because I don’t care about it; I think it has to do with the fact that the connections to it that remain are painfully tenuous. That’s no excuse, though. I care deeply about the preservation of life, so I should also care deeply about the preservation of the stacked or scattered elements that go together to make a whole one.
Perhaps what is missing from my attitude to archival is the art. My friend feels and knows how to enhance the significance of the objectified data in his hands. For him, a cassette tape containing old songs is more than just that; the spine and the song titles have been inscribed – in his inimitable jagged-pen style – with care, with love, and with moment. He, like other archivists through the ages, makes the object itself, not just the data, radiate significance. This ability to capture meaning and moment is an integral part of his personality. It is what makes him both artist and archivist.
Today is his molybdenumbirthday. This piece of writing is my cheapskate gift to him. Happy birthday, Scott. Keep on caring. And keep on keepin’.
Last Updated on Friday, 06 September 2013 15:31
115 Votes


The Sapiens and the Sea Urchin PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 27 March 2013 13:28
Echinus esculentus – the species of sea urchin I sometimes find on the shore in front of my house at a very low tide – can live for up to sixteen years. Kim Suozzi, of Homo sapiens, got twenty-three. What shall we make of this?

Kim was undoubtedly more complex than a sea urchin, so the cancer that killed her had a much greater bulk of DNA from which to emerge as random mutation. Her complexity was also manifest in a quick and pragmatic mind; a mind booted up from a brain equipped for vastly greater outreach than the simple boundary definitions of our spiny Echinus.

The last dead sea urchin I saw had been killed by a seagull. A powerful, expertly-aimed peck to the top-mounted gonads, and the sea urchin’s cells were off on a new helter-skelter branch of the carbon cycle, beginning in the digestive tract of a Larus argentatus. Some of the seagull’s far-flung excrement may have lodged in a receptive crack in a rock, there to nourish new life – pretty sea-pinks, daisies, bacteria.

The Echinus cells that entered my own digestive tract the last (and only) time I ate one, fed back into the cycle far less efficiently; putrefying in the base of a septic tank for several months prior to removal to a processing plant by a big yellow tanker.

Don’t you find that the idea of dead Echinus gonad cells processed through the digestive systems of Chordata makes for a poetic illustration of the majesty of the cycle of life? No? Why not? What about the prosaic old one about the tree planted over a buried dead body. Better, yes?

If you are the sort of person that insists on trotting out such Pagan banalities then you’re going to have to learn to take the rough with the smooth.

Without such cycles there would be no life. That is true. But our response to this truth is entirely open to revision. If it is not open to revision then we are thinking in a primitive and simplistic way, ignoring the burgeoning complexity thrown up by the strange state of self-awareness birthed, in us, by the cycle of life, feeding and filth.

Despite her youth, Kim grasped the complexity. She removed her outreach/inreach organ – her brain – from the accidental tyranny of the cycle. It has been cryopreserved.

If you choose to behave like Echinus esculentus, you’ll find a myriad ways to surrender to the whims of the chain of endless, dumb, recycling. But no poetry. If you choose to really think like a sapiens you’ll take the truth of the cycle on board; then, after weighing up your slim options, you’ll do your damnedest to break free of it.
Last Updated on Friday, 06 September 2013 15:32
112 Votes


Thinking with my Gut PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Tuesday, 15 November 2011 18:49
I have been practising mindfulness. It's an attempt to get my 'noisy' thoughts under control: I seem to have a 'wordy' brain and the crosstalk can get intrusive to the point where my thoughts sometime feel like the reception of a badly-tuned radio.

Mindfulness can bring odd sensations to the surface. One that has been strengthening is the notion that I have been thinking with my gut. It feels like my gut is contributing to the neural 'interference' and that there is a corrosive 'looping' of disquiet between my gut and my brain. Conversely, a conscious effort to relax my gut during meditation seems to quieten my thoughts.

Gut neurons are much underestimated. Your gut contains a quantity of neurons approximately equivalent to that of a cat brain. It seems perversely brain-centric (and I've certainly been guilty of this) to assume that our total emotional state stems entirely from the limbic system, but it's somehow hard to imagine how our gut might contribute to our state of mind. But contribute it does, and strongly. The 'enteric nervous system', as it is known, is a network of neurons with a complex and quite independent circuitry all of its own. It is entirely capable of sending signals up to the 'head brain' as well as receiving 'afferent' (incoming) signals.

So where in the system does the disquiet start? Perhaps that's a redundant question. Who's to say that feelings of anxiety, upset or depression must always start in the brain then feed into the enteric nervous system. Maybe, at least sometimes, we start with an uncomfortable gut and that feeds into the loop a message that something is wrong or 'out of kilter', leading to general disquiet throughout the system. I am trying, for my own reasons at least, to see the problem as not starting at any specific point in the system: it doesn't really matter where it started - if it has become a loop of corrosive thinking and feeling then it needs to be calmed in order to restore balance.

I think that the mindfulness practice helps to reveal the action of these interacting systems. The partial sensory deprivation bubbles these other, more subtle, cues to the surface. But what to do if your gut feels anxious? A command and control strategy seems inappropriate: I don't want to instruct my gut to behave, I just want to regain equilibrium. There's no easy way to visualise how one might go about mediating the 'dialogue' between the brain and the gut but I am fairly confident that this is something that will come to me in time if I keep up the mindfulness practice. The smooth muscle of the gut wall does seem to respond to gentle persuasion but being able to frame that persuasion at will does not come easily to everyone.

We hear a lot about serotonin because of its involvement in feelings of well-being (or of depression where levels are too low). Antidepressants such as Prozac are part of a class of drugs known as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). But many are not aware that serotonin is predominantly a neurotransmitter of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. You are having literal 'gut feelings' and scientists are using this fact to try to control your emotions. There is some evidence, however, that the effectiveness of these drugs declines over time as receptors become 'desensitised' and begin to revert to their former states.

We're also well used to hearing of people taking 'stomach pills' such as Losec or omeprazole. These drugs are PPIs (Proton Pump Inhibitors) and are highly effective at inhibiting acid secretion in the stomach. These are powerful drugs but we tend to take them for granted and I wonder about their potential effects on the ability of the enteric nervous system to find its own comfortable level of secretion in harmony with the brain.

I'm fortunate that I've never had to take antidepressants, or indeed PPIs. I sometimes find my mental 'noise' unsettling but it is not distressing to the point where I would consider medication. I have a pervasive feeling that a state of prolonged equilibrium should be possible if I work at it. This may just be wishful thinking but it is a type of wishful thinking that my gut seems to approve of.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 November 2011 19:06
130 Votes


A Leadership of Empaths PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Friday, 04 February 2011 18:52
I wrote, a while back in a post called 'Cognitive Democracy', about the idea of intensive psychological evaluation of political candidates in order to find out their true motivations, before they ever have a chance to gain power.

My proposed barrage of tests was something of a blunt instrument in that the specifics of the testing methods were a little ill-defined. My interest in the subject of empathy has now led me to think that the ability to empathise is one of the main defining characteristics of an emotionally-rounded human being. Perhaps, then, scientific evidence of this ability in a given individual should form the core of the "fitness for Office" evaluation.

The definition of what constitutes true empathy may be a human construct but the faculty to empathise is formed of real structures in the brain. It seems odd for me to have to point this out, as it seems self-evident. But empathy strikes many as a woolly concept, too mired in Freudian psychobabble and gender stereotyping to take seriously as a measure of worth. Regardless of these outdated views, progress towards a scientific understanding of the 'mechanics' of empathy has moved on apace.

I remember being fascinated and delighted to find out, a few years ago, about the existence of what became known as 'mirror neurons'. These are a class of neurons that fire both when an animal is undertaking a given action itself and when it observes that action being undertaken by another. Scientific opinion on the role of mirror neurons in empathy, is divided. But it's clear why scientists might form such a hypothesis. If we see another creature, particularly another human, experiencing physical or emotional pain it's likely that the overall strength of our resulting mirror neuron firing can be correlated with the strength of what one might call our 'empathic response'.

In summation of the above, this hypothesis suggests that if we have trouble 'mirroring' the feelings of others then we have may be unable to sustain a coherent 'theory of mind' about them and, therefore, may be unable to relate to them as thinking, feeling entities in their own right. This brings to mind Kant's 'Categorical Imperative': "The second premise is that conduct is "right" if it treats others as ends in themselves and not as means to an end (the "Second Maxim")".

But I didn't intend this to meander off into philosophy. The point is that empathy is not a philosophical construct but a physical reality. In the above example it follows that if your mirror neurons are few in number you may find yourself physically unable to empathise. Even if the mirror neuron hypothesis is not completely correct it is still the case that we now have scientific methods for measuring empathic response. Recent studies, such as this one undertaken at Columbia University, have mapped the brain regions involved using functional MRI. As Dr Michael Mosley found in his recent BBC series The Brain: A Secret History, discovering via fMRI that your empathic response is weaker than you had led yourself to believe, can be an uncomfortable experience.

It's interesting to note that, as well as regions of the parietal and premotor cortex, some regions responsible for the control of our own emotional responses, were involved. This could be interpreted as an indication that the empathic response is a highly evolved one, bearing little relation to the 'gut emotional responses' of 'old brain' areas such as the amygdala. I like to think of empathy as the ability to emoting with your new brain, rather than your old one. In fact being an 'amygdaloid' (a potential term for an amygdalocentric person) might strongly mitigate against the development of a healthy empathic response.

So we now have the tools to identify individuals with weak empathic response. What are the implications of this and how do we use the knowledge responsibly? I would argue that not using it to test those who seek great power, would be a dereliction of duty. In this scenario we have the ability to get closer to the core of an individual's 'theory of mind'. Not to humiliate them by peeling away their mental defenses but to understand them more clearly, in order to see that what some may perceive as a strength is actually a weakness. I would like to think that treatments could be developed in order to help such people to relate to their world in a fuller and more fruitful way.

Humans lacking empathy may be wandering in a dark and terrible place: They exist in a world that they cannot understand, separated from the rest of humanity, deluged by a continuous flow of the apparently meaningless emotional outpourings of others. They cannot understand that the ability to empathise enriches our lives and allows us to see the similarities between ourselves and others, thus enabling us to dream of richer things than power and privilege. But perhaps these thoughts never even cross their minds.

Those that can empathise strongly with the plight of others less fortunate than themselves, and can turn that emotion into positive action, are a healing force in the world. Those that cannot empathise need help, not power.
Last Updated on Friday, 04 February 2011 19:09
129 Votes


Avatar Abuse PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 10 November 2010 12:20
Last evening, whilst watching television, I noticed an advert for a bread product called "Genius". It wasn't the nonsensical name of the product that caught my eye but the fact that they were using a CGI'd Albert Einstein to promote it. I have been thinking for a while about this growing trend of "re-animating" dead people to use for commercial purposes. I am not altogether comfortable with it.

The famous faces being portrayed are dead, so the use/abuse of their "image" is of no concern to them. My argument is not really to do with dignity either, as I often wonder about the true motivation of those seeking to preserve the "dignity" of the dead. Neither is this connected to the issue of rights or legality: some individual or corporate body (sic) has presumably sold the rights to the deceased's "image" to the marketeers: I am sure the transactions were all above board - at least within the hopelessly anachronistic confines of our current legal systems. My concern is the larger issue of the overall control of the wider "self" or avatar.

It's unlikely that Einstein (for example) would have spent a great deal of time worrying about how his image might be used after his death. He may not have imagined the technology that would make such accurate visual re-animation possible. We can be pretty sure, however, that given a choice of uses of his avatar, having it punting bread-products would not have been high on his list. But this is a flippant example. Now imagine your avatar being used for purposes you positively detest: you were a conservationist but your avatar is a smiling apologist for an oil company; you were an atheist but your avatar is a kiddie-fiddling priest; you were a lifelong anti-militarist but your avatar is a gun-runner in an 18-cert blood and guts video game. And so on. We may get the chance, if we are forced down this route, to protect against these abuses in our wills. But the less-recently deceased will not.

I think that this kind of burgeoning abuse is connected to our own mistaken "body centrism": we think of ourselves as self-contained units of being - homunculi driving our own "self-tanks" across the battlefields of daily life. You forget that you are probably the only people that sees yourself that way. Every other person perceives us differently: we are one person to our mothers; another to our wives/husbands; another to our colleagues at work. And in the wider sense we are even less definable: we are more like a story; a web of impressions and moments; a collection of images both still and moving. One that persists for others even after we die.

If one steps back for a moment and looks at the avatar as the "extended self", then everything changes. From this point of view there is a very real (if diluted) part of our "self" in every representation of that self. In this scenario there is a part of Albert Einstein in the horrible Genius bread man. If you think about it another way it must be true, otherwise why would the advertisers wish to use his image in the first place? A portrayal of Albert Einstein with no Albert Einstein in it would be an empty thing indeed. Kind of like a food with absolutely no nutritional value.

I think that the realisation of the concept of the avatar is a good thing. Avatars let us extend ourselves outwards to touch other realities, and to communicate with other people in new and diverse ways. But what happens to the avatar when the "host" dies? Perhaps we have some responsibility to protect those fragile ghosts from the machinations of those who would seek to abuse them.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 November 2010 12:36
132 Votes


Food: What if we've got it all wrong? PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Tuesday, 17 August 2010 13:26
Something to contemplate: What if a species suddenly (in relative terms) developed technology which allowed it to grow food, rather than having to find it and/or chase after it? What if it learned a way to manipulate and "enhance" the calorie-poor grown food to make it more calorific and filling? What if it began to eat less of the calorie, fat and protein rich animal-sourced food that used to be available to it and replaced this with refined carbohydrate-rich plant matter?

What I have outlined above is a large and far-reaching change to the evolution-linked diet of a species. By evolution-linked I mean the diet that the species had adapted to over an evolutionarily-significant time period i.e. hundreds of thousands to millions of years. It's not credible to argue that we could safely make this enormous transition without the requisite change to our biology. And there just hasn't been enough time to allow that to happen.

I have been running a diet experiment on myself for the past seven years. My views on human diet have not come about as a direct result of this but my personal experience has certainly influenced my thinking on the subject.

I was incredulous when I first heard about the Atkins diet. I'd never heard of anything like it. How could one possibly eat copious amounts of fat and protein without getting fatigued, constipated, obese; or in some other way damaged? I was also, however, intrigued. I read a little about the general principles of the diet. I bought and skim-read the Atkins books then began the diet. Friends and family were concerned that it may cause some kind of long-term harm. I wasn't worried. I was enjoying the food, it seemed to suit my digestion and metabolism, and I was losing two kilos per week.

I have not, of course, stuck to the diet rigidly for seven years. Cravings for carbohydrate, particularly bread and potatoes, sometimes arise. And when I start to eat those kinds of foods I just want to eat more of them. My weight goes up during holiday periods when I am poor at regulating what I eat. But I can always use the diet to get my weight down again in short order. I am heavier now than I was after my initial couple of months on the diet but not by a great deal. My weight is under control and I am in good health. I don't exercise.

My personal experience of this kind of ketogenic diet would, of course, be classed as anecdotal. That is fair. It is not scientific evidence and I use it only to illustrate my personal interest in the subject. I have fed (sic) that interest by reading various articles and books about ketogenic diets. I recently read "The Diet Delusion" by Gary Taubes. I now have a much clearer understanding of how ketogenic diets work and how the current dreadful state of half-truth and misinformation about human diet has emerged.

The evidence is still incomplete and many lost years of vitally important research and studies still remain to be made up for. But the outline is clear: fat is not bad for you; eating copious refined carbohydrates causes the body to store fat; obese people are not fat because the eat too much - they eat a lot because they are fat; refined carbohydrates appear to be addictive and abuse of these substances can lead to diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

I think that an important part of the reason we have held to the completely unproven notion that fat is bad for us, is a puritanical one. Fat just seems like it should be bad. It can be found in lots of delicious but somehow 'sinful' foods. It also seems logical that fatty substances should block up our arteries in the same way that they can block up our drains. But this 'common-sense' notion is wrong. Our drains do not process fat poured into them whereas our bodies are complex homeostatic mechanisms, finely tuned to process and distribute the nutrients presented to them in the most efficient manner possible. But it's unfair to blame people for these misapprehensions when the patched-together 'fat hypothesis' has be fed to us as fact for decades.

Some doctors actually think that ketosis is bad for you. This makes no sense because it ignores the evolutionary perspective. Human beings have been 'in ketosis' for millions of years. The 'ketone bodies' produced in the body and used by the brain when very little carbohydrate is consumed, are a very efficient fuel and probably the one we have evolved to use, rather than the glucose fuel our brains have increasingly utilised over the last century. I wonder (as an aside) which fuel our brains run most efficiently on.

We are also being fleeced by marketing gimmicks such as 'Low GI'. The Glycaemic Index of a food could be a very useful metric if it actually factored in all the variables. One of the most mind-boggling omissions in the Glycaemic Index scheme is the effect of fructose. Bizarrely fructose, known affectionately as 'fruit sugar', is excluded because it passes directly to the liver and is metabolised there rather than passing into the bloodstream in the way that glucose does. Fructose therefore has a negligible effect on 'blood sugar', allowing marketeers to sell it as a 'Low GI' health product. This, I think, borders on criminal. Consumers naturally make the association with 'healthy stuff' like fruit and buy the product. But fructose appears in fruit and veg only in relatively small quantities. An apple, for example, is far more nutritionally complex than a spoonful of high-fructose corn syrup and the body will, therefore, metabolise the fructose content more slowly and less harmfully. High fructose diets can, in the longer term, induce high blood sugar, high insulin levels and insulin resistance. The 'table sugar' we are probably most used to consuming (the white/brown sugar you put in your tea) is known technically as sucrose and is derived from 50% fructose/50% glucose - it's all bad.

This is a vast subject and I am just highlighting a few examples of how we have this wrong. The 'fat bad/carbohydrate good/sugar indifferent' dogma is decades out of date. And it is just that: a dogma. Too many professional reputations and company fortunes have been staked on it to pull back now. Government health agencies are going to look pretty stupid too.

I have have no particular desire to eat animals. It is fair to call it corpse-food. But my body is the result of an evolutionary process which has come to utilise this matter in a very efficient way. There are, of course, ways to eat healthy quantities of fat and protein without eating dead animals. But we must accept that we need those nutrients and that we cannot live on poor vegetable matter and starchy stodge alone.

We are not omnivorous in the sense that our early ancestors might have been. Our evolutionary path brought us to a point where we had the advantage of large brains in the process of hunting and killing abundant prey. The 'symbiosis' with our prey shaped our diets and our metabolisms to a point where we could derive optimal benefit from the nutrients. Large brains also aided in the process of foraging and discovery of useful 'gathered' foods such as shellfish and, occasionally, nuts and berries. No large quantities of carbohydrate of any kind and virtually no refined carbohydrates whatsoever were available until the advent of agriculture.

I am not 'on a diet'. I eat the food I eat because I enjoy it and because my body requires it. As I write this my brain is running on ketone bodies so please feel free to highlight any errors in my facts, spelling or grammar to use as examples of glucose-deprivation-induced dementia.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 29 September 2010 11:27
116 Votes


Mind Over Me PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Tuesday, 08 June 2010 11:59
The fields of neurofeedback and biofeedback have not received the kind of scientific study and investment that they warrant.

Neurofeedback is about taking brain wave readings, from an EEG for example, and feeding those readings back to that brain. This feedback could be in audio, visual or tactile form. The theory is that the participant can then, by modifying his/her thought patterns, learn to alter those brain outputs and receive some physical health benefit from the process. Biofeedback is a similar idea but also encompasses other forms of input such as GSR (Galvanic Skin Response), hand warmth and heart rate.

It is now common knowledge that humans can, with training, gain some control over their GSR. It would be harder to fool a lie-detector if this wasn't the case. We also know that the brain can be trained to achieve certain brain wave states such as alpha (a kind of "open focus" state) or theta (edge-of-sleep "hypnogogic" state). So the debate is really about whether gaining a measure of control over these outputs is, in any way, beneficial to us.

We aren't straying into "brain training" territory here. The contention of brain training is that we gain some general IQ/mental fitness benefit by playing logic puzzles etc. Neurofeedback or "brainwave training" is about being able to "see" the frequencies of our neural outputs and teach ourselves to modify them at will. It's a different process altogether, and the feedback is the crucial element.

In his book "A Symphony in the Brain" journalist Jim Robbins gives an interesting overview of the history of the field. We get a lot of background on the key players (and their in-fighting) in the development of neurofeedback, in both the scientific and commercial arenas. There are also several fascinating case-studies within the book, including that of Jay Ritchie, who suffered anoxia-related brain damage after an accident at work. From then on Jay appeared semi-comatose. He was wheelchair-bound and not responsive to normal stimuli. The version of events in the book contends that Jay was, after being hooked up to neurofeedback equipment, found to be trapped in a theta-dominant brain state. The feedback allowed him to learn to move from this slow-wave state back into conscious alpha and beta frequencies, thereby allowing him to "wake up" and begin to communicate again.

This is an extraordinary claim and so it, and other claims like it (and there are many), requires extraordinary evidence. Jim Robbins admits in his book that large scale, peer-reviewed, controlled scientific studies are thin on the ground. He contends that the "California hippie" reputation of neurofeedback has hobbled its ability to achieve the required funding for such studies. He is probably right about that. The 60s/70s idea of transcendence via meditation left a bad taste in the mouths of the scientific establishment, who largely saw it as nothing more than neo-spiritualist self-indulgence.

But, given what we now know about the brain and its staggering plasticity, can the establishment really continue to ignore technologies that can claim to alleviate serious conditions in a totally non-invasive way? I don't want to make this sound like neuro and biofeedback are seen by all scientists as being on the fringes. There are now many serious medically-trained neurofeedback practitioners around the world treating conditions from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The field is now strong and growing: some claim that it won't be long before we have the equipment in our homes.

I have to be wary of the way in which I am drawn to this idea. It seems like common sense to me, but I am also aware that many commonsense notions are quite wrong. Some of my other blog entries (e.g. Toolbox) have touched on similar ideas and I am quite comfortable with the thought that I am not just a "passenger" in my body. Or in my brain. What could that mean anyway? To be servants to the frequency-modulated whims of our own brains? We are our own brains and learning to recognise and modulate our own brain waves seems the sensible, healthy and responsible thing to do.

The drug companies do not like this idea. "Big pharma" has a huge and obvious vested interest in the neurochemical route to wellbeing. The irony is that neurofeedback is also a neurochemical route. It's just that the chemical change/altered bloodflow/neuronal re-organisation is being stimulated via self-actuated brainwave stimulation.

The potential medical uses of neurofeeback are broad. But this kind of technology will probably impact on other areas of our lives first. Computer gaming is an obvious one. Indeed the concept of using interactive games to stimulate brain frequency change has been around in neurofeedback for many years. Steering an avatar around a virtual landscape by the power of thought is an entertaining prospect. You might be surprised at how many gamers have already tried it.

Personally, I see the arrival of affordable neurofeedback as heralding a kind of awakening. I hope it will allow us to learn that we are, to at least some degree, capable of controlling our own brain states. And that we can, in time, become better users of those brains.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 June 2010 19:47
130 Votes

1 Comment

Me and My Big Amygdala? PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Thursday, 06 May 2010 12:09
Controlling our emotional responses can feel like a struggle. We may feel logical and capable, reasonable and calm, before we face a social challenge. But often, when the time comes to use our logic and serenity in dealings with others, we react in an emotional "knee-jerk" manner.

Emotional responses are multifaceted and are not purely the result of one specific brain area. Current theories are based upon a group of interconnected structures near the brain stem known as the limbic system. Within the "layer cake" context of the brain, with evolutionarily "newer" parts stacked above and around "older" parts, the limbic system structures can be seen as an early development.

The amygdala (or more correctly amygdalae: one in each hemisphere) is part of this conceptual limbic system and it plays a role in many of our responses to different types of social interaction. For example, it is involved in our recognition of and reaction to sexual stimuli (direct or indirect); it interacts with the hippocampus in the process of forming emotional memories; it is involved in fear responses and also in "predatory" and "affective" aggression.

Affective aggression is "display" behaviour, such as making warning noises and adopting defensive postures e.g. when a cat hisses and arches its back in the presence of a dog. Humans often display affective aggression, although not usually in the form of hissing and arching. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is involved in this behaviour; bringing about and contributing to a host of "symptoms" over which we may feel we have no control. Examples of this are blushing; racing heartbeat; dry mouth; shaking; sweating.

There is some evidence that a human amygdalectomy (destroying all or part of the amygdala by electrical or chemical surgery) can reduce aggressive behaviour. But this type of psychosurgery would nowadays be considered a drastic procedure of last resort.

I am speculating here but it appears to me that "blurting" responses often come about in extremely quick succession to the SNS responses. We sometimes seem to respond harshly to a challenge to our "authority" or "self-image", perhaps with shouting or expletives, before we have a chance to "think through" our response. I know a few people who think that's a good thing: "Get it off your chest"; "It's better out in the open". But, more often than not, it isn't for the best. Humans have a highly-developed neocortex. If we respond harshly, before taking the time to fully process the information through that "new" structure, we may regret our initial emotion-laden response.

This may all seem to imply that having a bigger amygdala would make you more prone to aggressive behaviour; and that men must have larger ones than women. In fact, women have larger amygdalas than men: some ten percent larger. The amygdalas of gay men can be around twenty percent larger.

This appears contradictory until you think of the amygdala in terms of a seat of "emotional intelligence". The amygdala has a strong role in the recognition of the emotional responses of others. This could mean an aggressive emotional feedback loop but instead it often means an empathetic feedback loop. You recognise the emotional response of another human to your cues: your expression, your tone etc; and you respond appropriately to those cues, creating a positive "loop". It's a kind of "mirroring" behaviour. Women and gay men are particularly well-adapted to it.

So, positive social interaction with other humans isn't simply a matter of thinking everything through before expressing an opinion. Certainly it requires logic and tact, but it also requires emotional intelligence; and that requires the timely involvement of the amygdala.
Last Updated on Thursday, 06 May 2010 11:16
130 Votes


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