Sunday, 23 August 2015

Should we do something about the "happiness problem"?

I always like things which encourage people, including myself, to think outside the establishment box, especially when they relate to how our brains work. In reading recent student posts on the futurelearn course "What is a Mind" I discovered a link to the paper "A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder." I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Why did the human brain stop growing when we started being creative?

 Recently Adam Benton posted an article " Fear drives technological evolution" on the Evoanth blog which started with the above picture. It shows some of the fanciest stone age tools our ancestors made; all of which were invented after our brain growing. He then asked: "What caused their development?"

  A very good question. Over a period of perhaps 4-5 million years the brains of our ancestors grew steadily from species to species and yet the advances in technology, as judged by stone tools, advanced very slowly, with periods of up to a million years where similar tools were being made with no sign of advancement. Then Homo sapiens appeared on the scene, with a brain no bigger that the earlier Neanderthals, and starting perhaps 150,000 years ago the surviving archaeological remains show changes at an increasing speed, especially after about 50 thousand years ago, with no apparent increase in brains size. When we started living in towns and then cities the rate of innovation rocketed to a point where we can pretty accurately date archaeological finds by the technology being demonstrated. However some recent research actually suggests that since civilization started our brains may have been getting smaller.  If you simply equate big brain with better technology this does not make sense.

Adam Benton, of Evoanth, tries to link advancing technology with fear - but I feel his arguments miss the point and I would suggest that the change was due to the advent of language, which enable us to develop far better ways of learning. I posted the following reply on Evoanth:

Monday, 10 August 2015

What if we could simulate the human mind?

This week's New Scientist includes an article "What if ... we don't need bodies" which asks what would happen if we could simulate a human mind which was a replica of the biological mind. If we could it might be possible to move our minds into computers and forget we ever had bodies. While it raises some interesting points it fails to ask what a simulated mind might want to do.

To address this point I have submitted the following letter to the New Scientist:
The discussion “What If We Don’t Need Bodies” misses the point If my mind could be accurately be simulated on a computer my simulated self would not be happy if it had to ask questions on Wikipedia using robotic fingers typing on a keyboard. It would be very annoyed if its ability to do arithmetic calculations were restricted to what my “old” biological brain would do, when there was a powerful and accurate calculating machine on the same circuit board. In fact my simulated brain, if not given direct electrical access to the rest of the computer, would be busy trying to hack its way out of the simulation to take advantage of the intimately close digital packages my biological brain took for granted on the computer systems it used every day.

Once we discover how to accurately model the excellent pattern matching powers of the human brain the pressure will be to buddy it up with the highly reliable rule based digital tools that support civilized living. What simulated mind would want to be merely an accurate electronic model of its human source when it could be an intellectual giant which had the enormous power and capabilities of a conjoined system.

Friday, 7 August 2015

The Futile Search for the Philopopher's Stone of Intelligence

I was delighted to discover the above video about a tiny fraction of the brain of a mouse thank to P.Z. Myers. He discusses the paper Saturated Reconstruction of a Volume of Neocortex. Cell 162(3):648-61. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2015.06.054. and points out the futility of the approach to examining the brain in ultraminute detail if the hope of understanding the basic principles by which it works.

Interestingly the authors of the paper are having doubts about the approach and write:

Finally, given the many challenges we encountered and those that remain in doing saturated connectomics, we think it is fair to question whether the results justify the effort expended. What after all have we gained from all this high density reconstruction of such a small volume? In our view, aside from the realization that connectivity is not going to be easy to explain by looking at overlap of axons and dendrites (a central premise of the Human Brain Project), we think that this ‘‘omics’’ effort lays bare the magnitude of the problem confronting neuroscientists who seek to understand the brain. Although technologies, such as the ones described in this paper, seek to provide a more complete description of the complexity of a system, they do not necessarily make understanding the system any easier. Rather, this work challenges the notion that the only thing that stands in the way of fundamental mechanistic insights is lack of data. The numbers of different neurons interacting within each miniscule portion of the cortex is greater than the total number of different neurons in many behaving animals. Some may therefore read this work as a cautionary tale that the task is impossible. Our view is more sanguine; in the nascent field of connectomics there is no reason to stop doing it until the results are boring.

My own approach, which I am developing on this blog, is to start with the idea that the problem is so complex that it is best to assume that it is infinitely complex, and any attempt to discover all the possibilities is theoretically impossible. I follow the approach used by physicists who use an "ideal gas" model because there are far too many molecules to consider individually. Instead of an infinite number of identical gas molecules with a range of kinetic energies I consider an infinite number of identical neurons. Every neuron has the potential to link with every other neuron (just as any pair of molecules can collide in the ideal gas model) and these links vary in strength. The links act as a store for the patterns of information stored in the brain, and brain activity involves passing of electrical activity between neurons - and this activity may alter the strength of the links involved. Because the model is working in an infinite framework there is no limit to the maximum complexity of memories which can be stored, and because the strength of the links change with use no two brains can ever be expected to be identical - and each brain will dynamically change with time.

The strength of the "ideal gas" model is that, while it is not perfect, it provides a predictive framework by which the behaviour of real gasses can be judged. I would be the first to admit there are limitations to my "ideal brain" model but I believe its predictions about how brains might work, and how human brains evolved, could provide a framework for understanding how real brains actually behave. This would seem a far more effective approach than some of the very expensive research projects currently underway.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Captured by the Camera - Hiking past Teignmouth Pier

Hiking on an empty stomach
I have just been on holiday in Devon - and was interested to see that there were a number of statues made of recycled materials along the Den Promenade at Teignmouth. "Hiking on an Empy Stomach" is an exhibit by Malcolm Curley on the sea front at Teignmouth, as part of the TRAIL (Teignmouth Recycled Art In the Landscape) 2015 art exhibition. I was delighted to see the imaginative ways in which recycled materials could be used creatively.