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Extravolution Blog
The Brain of Richard Feynman PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Monday, 19 April 2010 19:00
I've been interested in the life and work of Richard Feynman for some time. I've read some of the collections of lectures, such as "Six Easy Pieces" and also the collection of reminiscences "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!". I don't purport to understand a great deal of the Physics in the lectures, except on a superficial level. I know that I would need to get a decent grasp on mathematics if I really wanted to go there. Maybe one day.

Feynman was a fascinating character. A physicist with a supreme disregard for uniforms and honours, despite his sharing in the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, along with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger, for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics (QED). He was a handy (sic) bongo player with a sharp sense of humour and a deep love of finding out how things work. He understood that he may not find the answers he sought but the joy of trying drove him on. He had a darker side too. His involvement in the Manhattan Project haunted him later in his life, as must have the death of his first wife.

There is a huge amount of information available about Mr Feynman, and his books are wonderful, so I won't go into his life or work in any more detail here. What fascinates me, personally, about Richard Feynman is the way that he looked at the world. I really wonder if that way of seeing things is accessible to all of us or just to a select few. Was his brain wired so differently that most of us cannot hope to understand his viewpoint?

The part of it I do truly understand is the hardwired loathing of uniforms and honours. The detestation of the elevation to virtual godhood of other humans when they are, in reality, no better or no worse than ourselves. This feeling - the "I can't stand it!" reaction Feynman talks about in one of his TV interviews, comes through the simple application of logic to our real circumstances. We are smart apes with big brains. Feynman didn't "hate" the Pope but he detested the "idea" of people like the Pope, with their ridiculous uniforms and rotten dogmas.

Also, surely, we are all capable of grasping the constantly-questioning aspect of a brain like Feynman's. We are born inquisitive. We just need to keep that into adulthood, and forego the arrogance of assuming that we know much at all about the world. That way we would keep experimenting (often failing) and continue to feel the joy of discovery throughout our lives. This isn't idealistic. It's the only way to grow.

Is there a particular kind of structure to a human brain; a particular configuration of neurons it must have to allow it to think in the "Feynman mode"? I don't think so. Neuroscience is beginning to reveal how plastic the brain actually is. Maybe the very act of keeping that particular kind of inquisitive aspect of our personalities to the fore would change us; not into Richard Feynmans but certainly into better humans with more humility and more capability to deal with constant uncertainty. Uncertainty is natural, fixedness is not. Look at the structure of an atom.

Much as I am interested in him and his "curious" attitude to everything, I know there's no place for a "Cult of Feynman". He would have hated that. It sounds too much like something you might need a uniform for.
Last Updated on Monday, 19 April 2010 19:25
75 Votes


The Science of Happiness PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 24 March 2010 18:37
It may not immediately sound like a subject worthy of rigorous scientific study, but who wouldn't want a clear-cut, scientific explanation of how to be happy?

Perhaps we think we already know what makes us happy and that we don't need neuroscientists, economists and psychologists delving into such nebulous subjects to reach conclusions that are based on entirely subjective information. But the state of mental contentment we dub "happiness" is a psychological state like any other, and must involve certain neurochemical patterns and other markers which make it an observable and measurable phenomenon.

We do not even need to resort to MRI or other brain-scanning techniques in order to study happiness scientifically. We accept the findings of empirical studies in many other fields of scientific research but perhaps we feel, innately, that "our" happiness is special and somehow different from the kind of "general purpose" happiness that studies might throw up.

In his scintillating book "Stumbling on Happiness" psychologist Daniel Gilbert covers, in great and highly-entertaining depth, the repeated "errors" we make in the daily process of trying to gain happiness, both in the present and for the consumption of our "future selves". It is a curious and exclusively human trait to suffer relative "pain" now in order to achieve happiness ("gain") for a person that we do not yet even know (our future self). Gilbert goes into some of the fascinating neuroscience behind this "prospection " or "nexting" behaviour. He contends that humans engage in a mental process of "making future" that is very different from superficially similar processes observed in other creatures.

I've written in the past about "psychological continuity" and this, I think, is an example of the way in which we unquestioningly see ourselves on a continuum from childhood to old age as the "same" entity, despite all the physical and psychological evidence to the contrary. The resulting conclusion could be paraphrased as: "why wouldn't I wish to make provision for that future entity when we are one and the same?"

Gilbert discusses the role of the brain's frontal lobe in "nexting" behaviour and gives us the grisly example of Phineas Gage who, after having a steel tamping rod blasted through his skull and into his frontal lobe, underwent a complete character transformation and began to behave in ways that indicated that he had lost all regard for the future consequences of his present actions.

One of the ideas in Gilbert's book that most struck me was that of a "psychological immune system" that we all possess, to protect us from life's various knocks and traumas. This set of thought-pattern readjustments eventually kicks in, some time after the initial stimulus, in order to allow us to regain (and maintain) a consistent and reasonably positive self-image. This, to me, certainly makes evolutionary sense - a human with a volatile and decaying self-image may make a poor mate, indeed he may seldom feel confident enough to mate. But Dan Gilbert is not attempting to make an evolutionary point here - he is simply pointing out that consistency of self-image is important in order to allow us to function in society.

This ties in, somewhat, with a phrase I once heard: "everyone is the hero of their own story". I don't normally pay much attention to this type of cod-psychology but the more I thought about this phrase the more it appealed. One can, of course, take this point to the extreme. A mass-murderer can be the hero of his own story. This is neither inconceivable, nor inconsistent with the idea of a psychological immune system. The mass murderer must also experience a "reckoning" within his own psyche and, albeit subconsciously, find a way to reconcile the disparate parts of his personality into one consistent self-image. He can be happy too.

So what do mass-murders and tamping irons through the brain have to do with happiness? Well, understanding the neuroscience and psychology of ideas like prospection and self-image-consistency could be a novel route to understanding why we keep getting the "technique" of happiness so horribly wrong. For example, errors of prospection can lead us to feel less, not more, happy because we are brooding on a future over which we may actually have very little control. Scientific studies in this field demonstrate that control is key. People need to feel that they have "agency" over their own path to the future; that they are making decisions which are positively influencing the outcomes, not just floundering in a sea of randomness. This may be self-delusion but it is delusion that appears to have positive effects.

We also make errors in our attempts to estimate how bad we think future calamities will make us feel. For example, if you ask a volunteer in a study how she will feel if she loses her job in the next six months, the chances are that she will give quite a high rating on a scale of how much distress she estimates that would cause her. If you speak to the volunteer again in a year's time, upon finding out that she did in fact lose her job, you will likely find that she rates the distress of the actual event lower than her original estimate. Studies of this type lend weight to the idea that, despite all the personal evidence available to us, we seldom realise that we will be able to quickly readjust to new circumstances and find new reasons for optimism and happiness. This "readjustment" process even applies to dire circumstances, such as permanent disability or the death of a loved one.

Is science any closer to being able to tell us how to be happy? If we choose to pay attention to the evidence we will at least see that many of the behaviours and thought processes we engage in actually detract from our contentment. If we begin to behave in ways that systematically attempt to mitigate the "errors" then, perhaps, we can find a path that contributes to our daily sense of well-being.

There are certainly worse experiments you could do on yourself.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 March 2010 18:50
70 Votes


Data PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Friday, 05 March 2010 17:44
How much data do you have to deal with? How much do you carry with you on a daily basis? Is it logical? Is it encrypted? Is it necessary? How do you perceive that 'weight' of data? What is your relationship with it?

You probably haven't asked yourself any of these questions, but my work has put me into the role of 'data controller', so I feel a personal responsibility to maintain the integrity of some terabytes of data. This can be a logistical problem, and it's an issue that we will all increasingly have to deal with.

I once lost some valuable data. I had written some songs and stored them on the hard drive of my PC. I didn't keep backups at that time. My modem was blown out by a lightning pulse and it damaged other components, including the hard drive. A friend eventually managed to retrieve some of the songs for me, but I will not forget the initial sickening realisation that I had not taken steps to protect what had taken me so long to create. I learned to keep backups.

Terabyte drives are now common but, surprisingly, that's probably not enough backup space even for the average small business. Bloated software has led to bloated file sizes; the availability of large amounts of storage space means that workers don't run up against data storage problems on a regular basis, so they continue to create massive graphical files; people dump their mp3 collections to office file servers; incremental backups going back weeks eat up further space. Little or nothing will be done about these issues. Data storage will continue to grow in capacity and transfer speeds will increase. None of this will matter.

Many of us now carry large amounts of data around with us. Think about how it mounts up. The pen drive; the SD card in the camera; the hard drive in the ipod; the mini-SD in the mobile phone. This could easily amount to 70GB or more of capacity, without even taking netbooks or laptops into account, although most of us only use a fraction of that available capacity to store all our data. How important is all that data to us and how would we feel if we lost vital parts of it? It's OK to admit that you would feel a great deal of emotional trauma in such a situation. You have collected it, created it, improved it. This data is part of your life. It is part of you, externalised.

Corporations now move and store vast amounts of data. Wal-Mart, for example, handles more than one million customer transactions every hour and keeps databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes in size. They obviously value their data about us. Perhaps we should value our own data a little more. It is easy and cheap to get the storage space but managing it and backing it up in a regular and logical manner requires a bit of effort. There's definitely room in the market for powerful, but more user-friendly file management and backup software.

The subject of data storage may seem mundane but not if seen in a wider context. Everything is made of information. We are entities that use our intelligence to create a constant stream of new data. Much of it is junk and noise but there is also much beauty. We create beautiful patterns in language, music, mathematics, art. We retrieve data streams back from our spacecraft about the conditions on other planets. We send data about ourselves out into space, that other patternists may some day find and understand it. It is a hopeful enterprise and one that, if we chose to see it, can hold meaning for us.

To use the processing power of stars and fill the universe with intricate patterns of data. My pen drive and I, onward to new frontiers.
Last Updated on Friday, 05 March 2010 18:04
83 Votes


Entropic Footprints and Personalities PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 03 February 2010 11:50
Some people seem to assist entropy more than others.

Chaos abounds in the systems of our world, both natural and man-made. We know that entropy can be construed as a measure of the "disorder" within a given "closed" system. In thermodynamics it is a a physical fact. But is it reasonable to say that some individuals (or groups) "assist" in the growth of entropy within our effectively closed system(s). And, if so, should they be held to account (or just taxed) for this.

This may seem like a far-fetched notion but, until recently, we would all have scoffed at the idea of a personal "carbon footprint". What about one's "entropic footprint"? Of course this would be impossible to measure accurately but that should not prevent us from widening the concept of an individual's "detrimental impact" on a given system to cover as many other harmful aspects as possible.

Some immediate physical aspects of an "entropic footprint" should be readily measurable. The fact that we have found ways to measure a carbon footprint demonstrates this. We have taken an evidence-based principle - that man's modern activities lead to an increased release of CO2 into the atmosphere, causing an increase in global temperature - and developed from it a measurement of an individual's contribution to this phenomenon. How, though, do I measure say my "mercury footprint"? How my "hexavalent chromium" footprint? And do these "footprints" attach to me directly or to the original producer of the substance, or a bit of both in some complex ratio?

What about those who lead chaotic, shambolic lives? "Chaotic" in this sense is often loosely used but it may be more accurate than it first appears. We all know individuals who can't seem to get organised. They are often late; always losing their keys; their homes are disordered or even run-down; they fail to take notes of important events; they lose vital paperwork. But how often do we think about how that "chaotic" lifestyle feeds into the lives of others? There is, of course, a direct impact on those they live with. Perhaps the partner is conscious of the problem but struggles to keep up with its growth. He worries about it and has difficulty organising his own life under the circumstances. There is also a direct impact on those they work with - the repercussions may be "shallower" (at least at first) but also much broader in this context.

Their is a psychological "cost" to living or working within the sphere of influence of such behaviour. It could be argued that this "cost" has a progressive, "entropic" quality. The effect is increasingly wearing. In some situations the effect is so intense, and grows so quickly, that the system of family or work cannot hold together for long. In others is takes much more time, as the less "entropic" try repeatedly to mitigate the negative impacts of their "chaotic" family-member(s) or colleague(s). Some can feel trapped but manage to escape the dysfunctional system, others never do. Psychological effects are physical - does anyone have the right to affect your brain chemistry? Your sleeping patterns? Your rate of ageing?

Disorder within socio-economic systems will tend to grow, despite the best efforts of some individuals and groups to rein this in. But the lack of willingness to try, as an individual, to mitigate the effects of "social entropy", through reasonable efficiency but also (importantly) through empathy, could be fairly seen as costly behaviour. Who currently pays this cost?

So what of the total "entropic footprint" for an individual? Perhaps more fairly called an "entropic-rate footprint". We can't measure such a thing at present, and the very nature of entropy means that we probably never could have an accurate measure. But if we accept, as we now apparently do, that individual detrimental impacts on a system can be measured and taxed, then we must accept that there are a myriad measures exist and a myriad ways to measure them.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 03 February 2010 12:48
76 Votes


Confessions of a Justified Brain-freezer PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 13 January 2010 11:16
And so to cryonics.

I have posted about this before but now I think I am ready expand on that. Cryonics is emotive because it is to do with death and all things to do with death are emotive. Death-denial is perhaps the greatest (and most important) psychological game we play with ourselves throughout our short lives.

Once you get past religion (unless you wish to fool yourself) you are faced with the prospect of your own eventual non-existence in all its cold-gleaming, gut-wrenching starkness. Allow yourself to feel it for a while and then stop. Because there is nowhere to go. You can't rationalise it because there is no rationale to death for sentient beings like us. Your brain will cease to function and some well-meaning (but ultimately complicit) loved-one will put the remains of your unique molecular structure into the ground to rot, or burn them to ashes in a purpose-built oven.

Getting past religion (which happened to me around age 5) and much later discovering something of my physical composition, is not enough. The realisation that death is the end, is not the end of the realisation. Why be in such a hurry for your full-stop? Everything is made of atoms. When you die your body does not immediately fall into a heap of stinking slurry. You have a structure and there is some time available to store the most important part of that structure - your brain. You are your structure - your emotions, your memories, your personality - is all made of atomic structures. Why denegrate those who chose not to have it summarily burnt to ashes?

The more I think about this the more I feel that humanity is making a terrible mistake in the way it deals with death. How often have you heard "it's about those that are left behind"? No. Your death is about you. Granted, you are going to cause them some inconvenience in their time of greatest distress, by insisting that your remains be treated differently when you die. But those you leave behind will still exist as sentient beings in the universe, you will not. If they don't understand what that means then they still have the luxury of time to learn.

What we need are practical measures. Organ donation is now a well-established practice. We treat donated hearts and kidneys with the utmost respect. What about brains? You can't transplant them but does that imply that they should just be left to turn to soup? Why not cool all dead bodies, where possible? This could be implemented in hospitals. There would be a cool-room where all dead bodies would be taken. The cooling would help to delay the degradation of all organs, making more of them available and viable for transplantation. Those seeking cryonic preservation (neuropreservation) of their heads (and bodies if necessary) could be readily catered for. Organisations such as Alcor could collect from the hospitals and put the heads into long-term liquid nitrogen storage.

The above may sound unpalatable to you but what do you care? You will be dead. Does this process lack dignity? What could one possibly mean by that? How about some dignity of structure? Some respect for beautiful cellular architecture?

But this costs money, right? It is expensive because it is a relatively new idea and novelty costs money. Even now cryonics is not prohibitively expensive and it is likely that the price will come down rapidly as more people request it. Remember that when cryonics first appeared in the 1960s most people still had no idea that the entirety of their "self" was composed of physical structures within their brains. We now know this to be true and more people will realise it over time, so it is logical to assume that more and more people will choose cryonics as a result of this.

Do I expect to be 'woken up' from death at some point? No, of course I don't expect it. The chances of it happening are infinitesimally small. But those of us who are used to reading about science and technology quickly develop an ability to 'project forward'. We are cynical about bad science, and bad reporting of science, but also optimistic about the possibilities. We can look at the endless possibilities in terms of probabilities. Is it probable that future civilisations will consider death to be an inconvenience? Is it probable that they will try to do something about it? Is it probable that they would be interested that others before them had tried to do something about it? Is it probable that they might be interested in using their advanced medical knowledge to tinker around with some vitrified heads in canisters in Arizona? Is it probable that, at some point, they might succeed in reviving one? The probabilities get smaller the further down this line of reasoning you go, but they never reach zero.

My thought processes simply don't allow me to think of death in the way that I used to. That will be uncomfortable for some people. I'm not interested in 'moral' arguments against cryonics, as I have never heard one with any substance. I am interested in the scientific arguments, as they are healthy and useful. The distaste for cryonics within religious circles is obvious and to be expected. That is satisfying to know. But, for those of us able to think clearly about death there is no excuse for summarily dismissing the idea.

I have never met anyone who truly accepts the notion of their own eventual death. I have met plenty of people who just shut the subject down, or dismiss it as inevitable and unchangeable.

That is probably true. But only probably.
Last Updated on Thursday, 14 January 2010 17:21
75 Votes


Do Not Switch Me Off (DNSMO) PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 02 December 2009 12:23
Where can I obtain a legal 'Do Not Switch Me Off' (DNSMO) order? It is extremely difficult to detect consciousness in coma and PVS patients so how can anyone have the right to decide to terminate their lives?

The unfortunate (or fortunate depending on how you look at it) tale of Rom Houben, classed as Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) and stuck with that label for over 20 years, demonstrates our current lamentable lack of knowledge about how to detect 'conscious' activity in the brain. I would have thought, given this situation, that the default position would be to leave all such cases connected to all necessary life support until we have the knowledge to deal with them correctly. But is this the default position?

I very much hope that current scientific studies and brain imaging techniques such as fMRI are forcing neurologists and neurophysiologists to move away from some of the prevailing opinions of ten years ago, such as those of the American Medical Association (AMA), whose conclusions on the subject are cited in 'The End of Life: Medical Considerations - Persistent Vegetative State'.

The terminology here is confusing because the brain is a massively complex organ but medical specialists in the field have to have a way of classifying the presence or absence (or degree) of consciousness in their patients, so they have come up with a system of labelling. So terms such as PVS, MCS and coma are often used. There are many problems with this labelling system. The problem for Rom Houben was that he got stuck with a label which meant that there was, for two decades, minimal intervention to find out what was really happening in his brain.

It seems to me that the labels are really about the legal classification of the presence or absence of consciousness, so that specialists and lawyers can feel comfortable giving advice to the families and advocating decisions about withdrawal of life support (or non-intervention in secondary complications etc). This all becomes horribly financial. The cost of maintaining a PVS patient on life support is expensive and could be estimated in the region of £100,000 per year. No wonder there is so much pressure to make a decision on withdrawal.

There will certainly be many cases of brain damage where it is obvious to a neurologist that conscious thought has been wiped out. Cases where little is left intact but 'old brain' structures providing autonomic functions, can be clear cut. But often there will be some degree of uncertainty about whether the patient has lost all consciousness. Here's another obvious terminology problem: what constitutes consciousness anyway?

I'm not approaching this from an ethical or financial standpoint. How about looking at it from the point of view of probabilities? There is a high probability that technological discoveries in the field of brain scanning will mean that some PVS-classed patients, such as Mr Houben, once re-evaluated are found to be in a 'locked in' state, conscious but unable to communicate. Others will be found to be in a dreamlike state - living an internal life but unlikely ever to return to the 'real' world. Yet others will be found to be teetering on the border, just requiring the correct delicate intervention to bring them back. There is also a high probability that the appropriate 'delicate intervention' techniques and technologies will become available.

Nobody knows how many patients are in the above-mentioned states. That's the point - the brain is too complex for specialists to know for sure. The classifications don't take account of that, or what 'might' be possible for these patients in future. My point is that they are still alive and they can wait to find out what will be discovered and what will be possible for them. Just don't switch them off.

There's a societal attitude problem here also. This one is the 'death with dignity' meme. I have absolutely no idea what that's all about. Death is the most undignified proposition you can't imagine. If their brains are gone they won't care about dignity. If they are still alive then give them the dignified chance to let you know. If they are in pain give them massive but non-lethal quantities of pain-relief medication. If you don't know which of these situations pertain then don't use death as the default position. The 'dignity' that loved ones 'seek' for the PVS patient is imposed by them.

Perhaps cases such as that of Rom Houben will spur an almost instantaneous rethink on the treatment of such patients, with DNSMO stickers appearing on beds and wheelchairs in hospitals across the globe. But perhaps not. Deathism runs deep.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 December 2009 12:31
72 Votes


'The Fallen' are just plain dead PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 25 November 2009 11:35
Despite the techno-warfare predictions of countless sci-fi novels and questionable computer games, militarism has no place in the future of humanity. Why not? Because if warfare survives then we won't. Militarism will become increasingly old-hat, and so will its language.

It is not logical to posit a medium to distant future of nanotech-based weaponry with soldiers clad in robotic exoskeletons blasting each other to smithereens by disrupting each others bodies at the molecular level, or other exotic and hideous means. This is an example of the lack of scope in much of science fiction, and part of the tacit assumption that the future will be just like now - only more so. Civilian technologies have emerged from death-tech in the past but if we are to survive then it will be partly as a result of the availability of technology to all rendering militarism redundant.

Nanotech could be taken as a case in point. Let's assume that some sizable percentage of all wars fought are over some kind of resource. What would be the point of fighting a war about oil, for example, if molecular manufacturing means that any citizen can make whatever they need from the comfort of their own home?

On a wider scale the planet will increasingly face existential risks. Troublemakers could easily construct world-killing devices in small and secret labs. We would never know what hit us. Not even time to get one of your exoskeletal socks on.

Every advance affects every other advance and the effect is exponential. Either you find a way to arrest war at the root, even memetic, level or there is no future to flounce about in with your implausible gun.

I find war euphemisms incredibly ugly. I hear much of 'The Fallen'. What happens if we deconstruct this particular euphemism? Let's find out:

It is likely that I am a person of limited financial means. I may not have done particularly well at school and, if tested, it is likely that my IQ is average to low. I may have a family member in the military, a brother perhaps, who I look up to. I do my training for warfare and quickly become institutionalised. I fit in here. During my second month in Afghanistan a bullet fired from a Type 56 rifle enters the back of my cranium, at the occipital bone, causing it to explode due to hydrostatic shock. When the headless body arrives back in the motherland it appears that it has 'fallen'. The type of falling involved is unclear but unquestioned. Most do not surmise that it is the type of falling where, after a short twitching delay, a headless body slumps into the sand. Most assume that it is a more poetic type of 'falling', where a valiant and idealistic young man sacrifices his short life for his country and, sort of, 'falls' from life into gallant death.

Just to say that he is dead would, surely, be less of an insult. His consciousness no longer exists but how can his family bear this sickly verbiage?

This is just one example of many I could choose. Deconstruct away at your leisure but do deconstruct. The 'Fallen' euphemism is an example of an insidious class of 'heroic death' memes which abound in militarised societies like ours. The general populace are infected with the meme via the vector of easily accessible and highly-compliant media channels. The pomp, the ceremony, the ageing and complicit royalty. All very predictable, and very very familiar.

But it's not just about bad judgement of the hierarchies and the complicity of the citizenry. It's the soldiers themselves. They are the most complicit. They are the most infected with the meme, and it will ultimately kill some proportion of them. We also have to face the ugly truth that some percentage of them, it would be interesting but tricky to found out how high a percentage, go to war because they want to be involved in chaos and carnage. This being the case it means that their brains are malfunctioning.

This is where we are now but I'm an optimist and I don't think that this can persist. I'd like to use language to de-glamorise war. We'd have to input this language early in the life of a child. The language would be clear and stark. Wars kill people. Guns and tanks are tedious. Soldiering is for failures.

War is about as un-futuristic as it gets.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 November 2009 15:10
86 Votes


My Placebo PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 18 November 2009 14:13
The effects of placebo are fascinating. But are they really that surprising?

If we accept the highly plastic properties of the brain then it seems to follow that a patient's brain structure can be physically altered by the perception that they are taking something that is good for them. The effect is heightened by the fact that the pill is being prescribed by a professional in the field of medicine, who must know what he/she is doing.

The placebo effect gets a bad press. The beneficial effects of placebo appear to be treated as a negative because the patient was 'fooled' into getting better. Does this actually matter? This is just semantics. If it is the case that your mind 'fools' your body into getting better then there must be a myriad ways in which your mind does this all the time without placebo. Is this 'conned' wellness inferior to 'real' wellness?

I have also come across this attitude from people who have used placebo-centred treatment such as homeopathy. Obviously they think that homeopathy is not placebo but when I explain that it is, and why it is, they can feel embarrassed. Why should they feel that way? If they went to see a nice person who listened to them and who spoke sympathetically about their condition, then gave them some harmless pills, and then they got better, surely they should be delighted. I would be. This is a wonderful beneficial effect of neurobiological processes, not a cause for embarrassment.

I have read that the placebo effect can work even in cases where the patient is told that he/she is being given a placebo in the form of a sugar pill. The doctor speaks calmly and sympathetically to the patient, explaining that there is scientific evidence which shows that these pills can have a beneficial effect in some cases. Why would this work? How can the patient be fooled if the sham is revealed to them before they even start the treatment? Well, all the other elements of the system are still in place - the sympathetic health professional, the thrice daily pill-taking ritual, the follow-up visits to the professional to talk about the condition, and so on. I would venture that, as a result of this, other crucial 'hidden' elements are still in place - the health professional as de-facto psychotherapist, the pill ritual as regular trigger for mood, appetite and sleep-affecting neurotransmitters such as serotonin, the ongoing care as a longer-term enabler/consolidator of neuroplastic change via increased levels of plastic change associated (speculative) neuromodulators such as oxytocin.

Maybe we should be more positive and up-front about the placebo effect. Towards this end I have made up my own placebo, Abcepol (made by Hedmed), and put it up for sale on Ebay. It's just a bit of fun really but there is a serious point. I want to see if people are prepared to pay for a placebo when it clearly states that that's exactly what it is. If anyone buys it I'll give the proceeds to a neuroscience-related charity.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 November 2009 14:20
70 Votes


Psychological Continuity PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 04 November 2009 11:38
If you were to be duplicated just before you died and the duplicate survived, would it be you?

This can be seen as a deep philosophical question with a myriad differently nuanced answers. But I'm not much of a philosopher so my answer is simply "no". A duplicate of your entire person or a perfect molecular copy of your brain, could be just like you for some period time but it would not be you.

The soul-mongers may be rubbing their hands with glee at this point but this has nothing to do with them or their fantastical constructs. Their agenda is to promote the notion of a unique ethereal part that "lives on" somehow after you die. By their definition the duplicate person would have no soul - one person one soul - that's all that God hands out (then takes back). What a quaint and morbid idea.

We cannot make such a copy at present so you can think of this as a thought experiment. In the relatively near future we will be able to make such copies and there will be various ways of doing this. The copying will not be the problem, the method of the state/substrate transfer process may be.

Let's say that the scientists doing the copying decide to conceal who is the "original" and whom the "duplicate", even from themselves. Immediately after completion of the copy process both entities would insist that they are the "real" version of the person and both would be correct. If you dispute this then, in what sense would they not both be correct? Let's not get hung up on which of them would be composed of the most recently rearranged atomic material. But that is all it really comes down to. Then divergence sets in.

When does the divergence between the two entities set in? How much do they diverge? Pretty much immediately or somewhat later. A little or vastly. What does it matter? They diverge, they are not the same person. This could be an excellent moral thought experiment for the religious if they were a little more imaginative - they could have a 'soul dilution' construct with each duplicate being, in comparison to the pre-duplication 'original', a kind of watery orange squash in the soul department.

There is, of course, no dilution. Both versions are valid entities ready to go back out into the cosmos on their own divergent paths, no matter how closely they stick together. But weren't we talking about the death of the "original"? This kind of duplication wouldn't save you, so what would? Well, we know that we are constantly in the process of being rebuilt at the molecular level and that, every few years, every atom in our bodies will have been replaced. So in what sense are we the "same person" as a few years previously? The key is that we feel the same because of our memories and the continuous "psychological flow" of our being. When we think back we don't usually detect vast gaps prior to which we suspect that we may have been somebody else. The psychological continuity of the self is an illusion but a very useful one, and one that we feel we must maintain in order for "me" to mean anything. So if there is to be any kind of 'movement' of our 'selves' from one state/substrate to another there must be a transition process which maintains psychological continuity.

I have imagined that this could be done with a future perfected version of a virtual brain akin to the Blue Brain project. A perfect human/virtual brain interface would also be required. The neocortical columns of the dying person are wired to the virtual brain and data communication begins at whatever level of resolution/fidelity is required. At first the 'generic' virtual brain is acting only as a relay so that the patient's columns can adjust to the new environment. Gradually some of the less-active columns in the bio brain could begin to 'share' some thought/memory structures with the virtual, allowing the virtual brain to 'learn' the bio brain's structure and patterns. The virtual columns gradually take on more and more responsibility until the virtual brain is handling entire neocortical areas, and the virtual and bio are operating as one entity. The process continues until only some autonomic functions, such as regulation of blood oxygenation, are being handled by the bio brain. The virtual brain does not strictly require autonomic functions but some simulation of those functions would be required in order to prevent the patient from suffering a kind of ontological shock brought on by the realisation of the substrate transfer. If required the biological body and brain stem can continue to function in tandem with the virtual brain indefinitely but the transfer of the 'self' to the new substrate is now complete.

I don't think it's looking good for teleportation. A teleport would be a kind of duplicator/destroyer device. Let the duplicates live. Anything else would be unthinkable. But this isn't about duplication, it's about transfer. And here's where it does get philosophical. Have you ever felt like you have, even for a short while, become "one" with another person? It can be joyful, unsettling or both. I think it's a realisation that our boundaries are mutable and that we could, ultimately, accept a new substrate as home.
Last Updated on Sunday, 14 November 2010 18:23
94 Votes


Cognitive Democracy PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Wednesday, 30 September 2009 13:15
It is common, and tedious, to hear people discussing the poor quality of their political representatives. They often think those that represent them are mentally deficient or plain mendacious. They may be right on both counts but how would we know before it was too late?

What attracts people to careers in politics? Why do they appear to abandon deeply held principles once embedded in the system? Why do some turn rotten and steal from the societies that elected them? The structure-centric responses to these questions have been hotly debated for centuries. But, ultimately, the answers must be to do with brains.

When you vote for a representative, particularly when you choose on the basis of what you perceive to be their personality, you should have no reason to believe that you have made a logical choice. What, after all, really formed the basis of your choice? Usually you will not be personally acquainted with the politician in question. You may have seen them on the television a few times. They may represent a Party that you feel an affinity with. He/she may be 'the best of a bad bunch'. It's not much to go on.

People will choose to go into politics for a variety of reasons. Some will be 'conviction' politicians with a real sense of what they believe to be morally correct; others will see politics as a useful (and sometimes easy) career ladder; others will spot an opportunity for power and influence. Their capabilities will vary enormously: some will be from the intellectual elite (although the dearth of scientists in political life makes this less likely); others will struggle to think rationally and coherently. Either could end up running a nation.

It would be useful to have the tools to measure these intentions and capabilities before we cast our vote.

There is, of course, massive debate about how these factors can be reliably measured. For example, IQ tests are often discredited. Emotional intelligence in now given more credence but the markers are hard to identify. Psychometrics of one kind or another are often used as part of job interviews. Intensive psychological evaluations are undertaken on patients in psychiatric institutions. The tools are by no means perfect but perhaps they should utilised on those seeking to be our political representatives, and the results made freely available to us.

'League tables' feature often in the news at present: schools, hospitals (including individual surgeons), police forces and so on. League tables of political performance and consistency, while useful, are not what I am talking about here. If a person chooses to put him/herself forward to represent us and to have a measure of say in our lives at this most intimate level do we not need to know a great deal more about their intentions and capabilities before we are in a position to make a logical choice?

It could be argued that this kind of testing would be invasive or a breach of human rights. I would disagree. Testing would be a voluntary part of the qualification process to stand for elected office. No coercion would be required or involved.

It should be an ambition of an enlightened society to be represented by the right people. Not necessarily the best and brightest but a healthy combination of the brightest, most stable, least corruptible, most logical, most nurturing, least mendacious etc. Good eggs not rotten apples. Effective, understanding and striving voices. Not brutish, memetically infectious demagogues. Achieving this may require assessment of candidate suitability via the most rigorous scientific testing measures available.

Can we rely on the enlightened intellectual and emotional altruism of the few 'incidentals' to shape our future societies? Or do we need to find a humane and reasoned method of bringing just those candidates to the fore?
Last Updated on Thursday, 01 October 2009 17:43
71 Votes


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