|Winter Sunlight gives a warm glow to College Lake|
Sunday, 1 December 2013
Monday, 21 October 2013
The New Scientist of 19th October has an article "Hidden depths - The vast majority of brain research is now drowning in uncertainty. It is time to build a more complete understanding of the mind" by Ingfei Chen. This queries the foundations of much of the research into scans which attempt to relate what we are thinking with neural activity. The approach seems to be the more and more detail we have the better we can understand - but that is true only if we are asking the right question. Readers of this blog will know I believe that we are already drowning in detail without understanding the neural code. If the neurons use the same code, whatever their detailed task, you don't need to look at millions - you need to stand back and look for the common features. As a result I have submitted the following letter to the New Scientist, and also posted it as a comment to the article.
Brain research is drowning in uncertainty (Hidden Depths, New Scientist 19th October) because nearly everyone is looking for a non-existent Philosopher's Stone of Biological Human Intelligence. In reality we have the same unsophisticated neural code as animals but have replaced a degree of critical thinking with a sheep-like “follow my leader” approach to speed learning. Of course this is an advantage as culturally learnt intelligence skills, communicated by language, are very much more powerful than our genetically based animal intelligence. Unfortunately the inherent weaknesses of the comparatively crude biological foundations show through as confirmation bias and the way our memories of past events drift with time. In evolutionary terms our big brain is no more significant than a giraffe's long neck, and we might understand how the brain works better if we were not so “big-headed” as to think our brain is biologically anything special.
Monday, 30 September 2013
I was most interested to see Glenn Branch's blog post What's wrong with 'belief in Evolution? and posted the following comment:
As someone who is interested in the role of the brain's neural code in the evolution of humans I don't see any differences in the way the creationist and the scientist's brains work at the biological level. The basic processing mechanism favours confirmation bias – where new information that reinforces what you already know is readily accepted, while negative information is either “not seen” or deliberately ignored. Everyone has their own personal model of the world, and the rules by which new information is acceptable. Our intelligence is because we learn rapidly, using language, because we naturally believe what we are told! A belief in the value of the scientific method opens up a universe of practical knowledge on which our civilization depends, and I find such a belief system extremely satisfactory because it works.
However the brain is capable of working with other belief systems and many people find it more satisfactory to be in a supportive community which is (in my terms, but not in theirs) detached from reality. In effect out intelligence arises from our ability to learn much faster than animals (due to our language) but this has the disadvantage that there is a natural tendency to follow charismic leaders.
In evolutionary biological terms we all believe, without question, most of what we learn as children. And scientist and creationist brains work in the same way, trusting information from people who have similar belief systems to their own – and rejecting belief systems they find unacceptable.
If you assume the kind of brain model I describe on this blog we all "believe" without question what we have learnt throughout life - and we would be less mentally efficient is we spent time checking up on the validity of what we are told. We should no assume that the way a scientist justifies science is any different - in terms of biological activity at the neuron level - than the way a religious person justifies religion.
Tuesday, 10 September 2013
A New Look at the Evolution of the Human Brain
A talk given to the Chiltern Humanists on 10th October, 2013
The following notes outline the arguments which underlie the talk. Most technical information on the model of the neural code used, and the related CODIL research, are available on this blog, and I am happy to answer any questions/comments about more technical aspects of the research.
Wednesday, 4 September 2013
Chiltern Humanist MeetingEvolution of the Human Brain
The first of our autumn series of meetings will be held on Tuesday 10 September at Wendover Library.
Chris Reynolds, a retired scientist who has been a member of our group for several years, will take a new look at the evolution of the human brain. This has been researched at a biological level and raises the question of whether there is an inbuilt reason why some people are drawn to religion whilst others are not.
By temperament Chris likes to stand back and get an overview, rather than getting stuck in a narrow specialist area. After taking a doctorate in Chemistry he started working with computers in 1965; he was soon involved in research, and developed a language called CODIL over the following years. As Reader in Computer Science at Brunel University, Uxbridge during the 1970’s, he became involved in a project, funded by the British Library, concerned with interactive publication, which in a very elementary way anticipated the World Wide Web. Later he edited an online professional book review service on the subject of Human-Computer Interaction. In retirement his main interests are genealogy and local history.
His talk promises to be an interesting and different take on evolution.
Humans like to think they are something special - If not actually made by God in his own image, or the centre of the universe, are least we can console ourselves that we are more intelligent than the other animals that inhabit our planet.
Or can we? No animal needs a brain that is bigger than necessary to survive, and we only have to look at the other mammals that share this planet to see that there are many cases where a species can be characterized by a greatly enlarged organ, whether it is a giraffe with its long neck, an elephant with its greatly extended nose, or the hands of the bat. And what about the changes we see in the whales!
This talk assumes that all mammals have brains that use the same neural code, and that the human brain is no more than a normal animal brain which has been supercharged to give it more processing capacity. It considers the limitations one might expect from a very simple neural code, and asks what the evolutionary pressures would be on the braians of hominids who were faced with the drying out of the African rain forests three million years ago.
The key factor would seem to be the point where cultural knowledge passed between the generations became more important to survival than the basic brain mechanisms on their own. At this point it there was an advantage in have a larger brain and developing faster mechanisms for learning. Better learning means better tools for survival, and one of those tools is language, which will automatically develop from generation to generation. One could get an auto-catalytic situation where the culture we pass on is augmented at a growing rate in each successive generation.
Unfortunately the basic animal neural code is mathematically not very sophisticated, and while this is not important to other animals the defects become more evident as the human species pushes the code to its limits. While many of the defects can be avoided using language the logical weaknesses, such as confirmation bias, can, and are, exploited by religions and political belief systems. Even scientists will not be immune, as they take part in the rat race for prestige and funds!
After the talk I will be posting the slides used and background notes on this blog..
Tuesday, 27 August 2013
Way down South where bananas grow
A grasshopper stepped on an elephant's toe
The Elephant said, with tears in his eyes
"Pick on somebody your own size."
Not a usual post for this site - but I feel a poem which rattles the walls of one's mental box is worth a mention. It is the poem for the 27th August in Read Me - A Poem A Day for the National Year of Reading, chosen by Gaby Morgan (Macmillan, 1998).
Saturday, 17 August 2013
Placing a financial value on human life is a task which most people avoid – but society's resources are limited, and so are those of the world. By failing to discuss the issue decisions are taken which by implication place a value on human life or which have unintended financial consequences.
Let us look at an simple example. The Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, wants to die. He recently asked if he could be moved from a psychiatric hospital – where he can be forcibly feed to keep him alive against his will – to a prison – where he would be able to starve himself to death. The decision was that he should be kept alive, force fed when appropriate, until he died in prison of natural causes.
When I was young Ian Brady would have been hung but it was decided that the punishment of being left to rot in prison till you die of old age should be substituted. In Ian Brady's case the decision not to hang him means that society will end up spending something approaching £3,000,000 keeping him alive for perhaps 60 or more years in a high security establishment. (This figure excludes the £450,000 costs of the recent legal hearing). This sum would be sufficient to build a small new primary school, to fund a consultant doctor for many years, or to provide enough clean water in Africa to save the lives of hundreds of children.
So one of the unintended consequences of our laws, and the way they are implemented, means that preserving the life of a multiple child murderer (who himself considered the lives of the children he killed valueless) is worth more (in terms of tax-payers' money) than saving the lives of hundreds of innocent African children.
Of course, you will say, we got rid of hanging because sometimes an innocent person was hanged. Of course this will happen occasionally, and it is very sad. Mistakes occur in every area of life, and always will, whatever laws we have. Innocent people are dying unnecessarily every day for all sorts of different reasons and in every case it is very sad. If we spend enormous sums of money to avoid accidentally killing one innocent person this means resources are not available to save the lives of many other innocent people.
Let us put this into a personal context. At my daughter Lucy's inquest the coroner indirectly suggested that if she had been recognised as being desperately mentally ill when she was in a police station she might not have killed herself on an anniversary associated with the misdiagnosis. At my daughter Belinda's inquest the coroner actually added a formal rider of neglect concerning her National Health Service treatment. In both cases the way that the criminal law treated the mentally ill was an issue. If society had decided to spend less money on prisons and more on the mentally ill perhaps both my daughters would still be alive.
The above is a slightly edited version of part of a text I prepared in connection with a Tring U3A debate on "How Much is a Human Life Worth?"
Friday, 9 August 2013
My daughter Lucy's tragic death in 1985 had a major effect on my life, and was undoubtedly an important factor in my abandoning my research and taking early retirement. As a result I spent some 20 years on voluntary work to try and improve the lot of the mentally ill - and I urgently needed somewhere to relax
And I found just the place - a new reserve was being set up only a few miles from from where I live - called College Lake. When I first visited it there was a large white hole in the ground with the promise of a nature reserve at the south end - and a working chalk quarry at the north end. Graham was often seen with an enthusiastic team of volunteers, while Rita's little Sunday cafe in the old barn was not to be missed.
Sunday, 23 June 2013
Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters have recently posted a guest blog on the Scientific American entitled What is so hard about research? which looks at the problems of getting students to think imaginatively about research and the available research tools, and commenting that they tend to look for quick and easy options rather than stop and think about the problem. In reply I have posted the following comment.
In trying to model the neural code in human and animal brains one of the key factors to be considered is that of language and whether the biological foundations of human language are significantly different to other animals - or just an existing feature stretched to a significant extent - rather like a giraffe's neck. is a stretched version of a "normal" mammal neck. My own feeling is that virtually all our language is a product of culture - and the more rapidly a brain can absorb culture the more sophisticated the language can become - in something akin to an autocatalysed chemical reaction.
I am therefore extremely interested in the work of Professor Con Slobodchikoff, as described in Animal Behaviorist, with video, at TheAtlantic.com. Experiment show that not only do their calls distinguish between different threats, but that the calls appear vary to convey additional information - distinguishing between, for example, between a tall human in a blue shirt and a short human in a yellow shirt. It addition there are complex "chatter" between individual prairie dogs which the researchers have no idea how to interpret, different groups of the same species living in different places have different dialects of the "same" language, while different species appear to use different vocalizations.
Following a holiday and other distractions I am about to return to drafting my detailed notes on the evolutionary implications the ideal brain model (see From the Neuron to Human Intelligence: Developing an “Ideal Brain” Model). Research such as this, which suggests that we have underestimated the ability of animals to communicate with each other, makes it much easier to argue that our brain works in the same way as the brains of many other animals - except that ow brain has adapted to handle large quantities of cultural information.