Archive for the ‘Brain’ Category

Emotions (arational) and reason (rational) are the brain’s two operating systems

August 1, 2018

There is a debate current among students (I decline to call them scientists) of cognition and artificial intelligence about (1) whether the human brain is just a computer – albeit a very complex computer – and (2) whether a computer can ever truly replicate a human brain.

These are just examples of the debate

  1. The Empty Brain
  2. A response to The Empty Brain
  3. A response to a response to The Empty Brain

Robert Epstein threw down the gauntlet when he wrote

For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.

To see how vacuous this idea is, consider the brains of babies. Thanks to evolution, human neonates, like the newborns of all other mammalian species, enter the world prepared to interact with it effectively. A baby’s vision is blurry, but it pays special attention to faces, and is quickly able to identify its mother’s. It prefers the sound of voices to non-speech sounds, and can distinguish one basic speech sound from another. We are, without doubt, built to make social connections. …..

………… Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.

I would frame the issue somewhat differently. The human brain is not like a computer but we need to understand the differences. Comparison of the operations of a human brain with that of a computer can, I think, be very revealing.

It is almost self-evident that the human brain is born with two operating systems in place. There is one operating system which is based on logic and reason; a rational operating system. Causality rules. This is what we also build into our computers. But all humans, from birth, also have an emotional operating system in place. This is not opposed to reason but lives on a different plane. It is arational rather than irrational. I take emotions to be a consequence of consciousness and result as judgements based on a perception of the self relative to the world. Whether fear or anger or pleasure or contempt, emotions represent a current judgement of the position of the conscious self in and relative to the world. Our emotional operating system constantly assesses our current state. On the emotional plane causality is incidental and logic is irrelevant. I observe that animals also have differing levels of consciousness and correspondingly different levels of emotion. They also, it would seem, have two operating systems in place. I observe, in my own behaviour, that in very similar situations where reason would demand the same response, my emotional operating system can override reason and create a different response. I observe also that reason is often in command over my behaviour and that my emotions are then suppressed. But it is also apparent that emotions and reason operate largely independently and in parallel. They are not completely independent and do, it seems, “touch base” from time to time.

The basic version of our emotional and rational operating systems would seem to be established by our genes at birth. They are “smart” systems capable of being updated as we grow but cannot be completely rewritten. They develop as our bodies and our brains develop. But what is unique to the living brain is that the two systems operate simultaneously. In every individual they achieve a balance which determines the thresholds when the one is subordinate to or overrides the other. Where some working balance is not achieved it shows up as internal stresses or psychoses.

Computer systems have been developed to “read” human emotions but no computer system has been imbued with the ability to feel emotion. That cannot happen until a computer system has developed some level of consciousness. But the corollary is that any computer which develops some level of consciousness will be capable of feeling emotion.

I come to the conclusion therefore that a computer will not resemble a human brain until we can imbue it with consciousness and – as a consequence – with emotions.


 

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The essence of human sapience lies in having opinions

February 12, 2017

When the answer to a question is not thought to lie in the field of “certain” knowledge, we expect our best specialists in the field (doctors and lawyers and judges and scientists and engineers and even economists) to have considered opinions and accept that different specialists may have differing opinions. If a specialist declines to address a question in his field and express an opinion, we think the less of him and consider him lacking in “expertise”. On the other hand when lay persons or non-specialists have intransigent opinions we consider them “opinionated” and that they have “closed minds”. Human opinions can change – though slowly – and generally due to a change of starting conditions. The same lawyer, for example, may well change his opinion about the same matter at a different time or if given different facts to address the question.

An opinion is a judgement, a conclusion about the unknown, based on knowledge and the application of intelligence and reason. We take opinions to be something characteristic of being human. We don’t expect a computer, no matter how well-programmed, to have an “opinion”. The computer (artificial intelligence) may be able to present an “answer” to a question as being most probable, but it always presents the same “answer” given the same inputs and that answer is not considered an “opinion”.

It is having an opinion which is, I think, the mark of sapience.

I take sentienceknowledge, intelligence, valuesjudgement, wisdom and sapience to be different – if sometimes connected – qualities. I take these to be as defined here.

sentience is the presence of consciousness. All living things are not sentient. While most mammals and even fish and birds and even insects seem to be sentient, it is not apparent that trees or sponges or algae have consciousness. A brain is necessary. It seems theoretically possible for a non-living artificial intelligence to become conscious, but that has yet to be achieved.

knowledge is an accumulation of observable, verifiable facts about the surrounding world. Knowledge can be recorded and stored in a variety of media including in the memory of brains (both living and artificial). It would seem that all sentient entities possess knowledge. (I take science to be the process by which some area of ignorance is investigated and converted into knowledge. Thus, a tiger exploring new territory is engaged in science).

intelligence is a composite, cognitive skill. It requires knowledge. It is a measure of an entity’s skill in solving problems by the application of its knowledge together with its ability to reason, its speed of reasoning, its language abilities and its capability to learn. Knowledge is essential and the greater the knowledge, the greater the entity’s potential intelligence. However, intelligence is a composite skill and a treasure trove of knowledge without the ability to reason would give no intelligence. A brain is required, but for intelligence to be manifested, sentience is not.

values is an internal set of referents that an intelligent, sentient entity may have. The set of values becomes an ethical code where these values allow the distinctions of the three fundamental ethical values (right and wrong, good and bad, and just and unjust). The set of values may include many distinctions and referents based on learning and experience.

judgement is the ability to compare some knowledge or event against some reference values and to make a conclusion about that piece of knowledge or event. A set of inbuilt values becomes a necessity to be able to make a judgement. The conclusions to be reached by means of making a judgement are relative and qualitative and often abstract (right, good, just, better than, more beautiful, tastier, safer, friendlier, …..).  Judgements which lead to quantitative conclusions, in contrast, are just new pieces of knowledge (faster, higher, heavier, …). Having a set of values is a necessary ingredient for the exercise of judgement which then becomes the value derivative of knowledge. Knowledge and intelligence are both required but sentience is not.

wisdom, I take to be the accumulation of knowledge about the quality of judgements. It is thus the second value derivative of knowledge, and requires not only knowledge, intelligence and a set of values, but also an accumulation of previous judgements to which values can also be applied.

And so we come to sapience. In the hierarchy of these qualities, humans are first sentient, then accumulate knowledge (by the practice of learning or of science) and have intelligence. However to be able to then move on to making judgements and accumulating wisdom, something else is required. An internal set of values is necessary. But just the capability to make judgements is insufficient. There must also be a drive to make these judgements and draw conclusions. It is this propensity to make judgements and draw conclusions which gives sapience. Sapience is not wisdom. It is the ability and the drive to make judgements (have opinions) and judgements when valued and accumulated give wisdom.

The drive to take what is known and leap in to what may be, in the form of opinions, is the essence of sapience. Having opinions is what makes us human.

And that also means that to decline to have an opinion is a denial of sapience.

sapience

 


 

We are outsourcing our digital memories

October 7, 2015

Prior to about 1995, I held all  telephone numbers important to me in my head. Now, I can remember my own mobile number but not my wife’s. In fact there are very few mobile numbers I bother to keep in my memory at all. I rely entirely on my phone. But it must be that I have taken a decision in my subconscious not to clutter my memory with these numbers – since they are so easy to access on my device.

A new study suggests that we are damaging our long term memories by our dependence upon our digital devices. I am not convinced. I suspect they asked the wrong questions. They have not, I think, considered or sought the type of new long-term memories that are built up instead. The study is by Kaspersky Lab and therefore needs to be taken with a very large bushel of salt. It is I think rather narrow and a little trivial.

Kaspersky-Digital-Amnesia (pdf)

Connected devices enrich our lives but they have also given rise to the potentially risky phenomenon of Digital Amnesia. Many people underestimate just how exposed their externally-stored memories can be, rarely thinking about the need to protect them with IT security, such as anti-virus software. Kaspersky Lab is committed to helping people understand the risks their data could be exposed to, and empowering them to tackle those risks. 

Digital Amnesia

I cannot see that the volume of long term memories is affected. The content of the long term memories we unconsciously choose to hold changes.

BBC:

An over-reliance on using computers and search engines is weakening people’s memories, according to a study.It showed many people use computers instead of memorising information. Many adults who could still recall their phone numbers from childhood could not remember their current work number or numbers of family members.

Maria Wimber from the University of Birmingham said the trend of looking up information “prevents the build-up of long-term memories”. The study, examining the memory habits of 6,000 adults in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, found more than a third would turn first to computers to recall information.

The UK had the highest level, with more than half “searching online for the answer first”. But the survey suggests relying on a computer in this way has a long-term impact on the development of memories, because such push-button information can often be immediately forgotten.

“Our brain appears to strengthen a memory each time we recall it, and at the same time forget irrelevant memories that are distracting us,” said Dr Wimber. …….

….. Among adults surveyed in the UK, 45% could recall their home phone number from the age of 10, while 29% could remember their own children’s phone numbers and 43% could remember their work number.

The ability to remember a partner’s number was lower in the UK than anywhere else in the European survey. There were 51% in the UK who knew their partner’s phone number, compared with almost 80% in Italy.

The study from Kaspersky Lab, a cybersecurity firm, says that people have become accustomed to using computer devices as an “extension” of their own brain.

It describes the rise of what it calls “digital amnesia”, in which people are ready to forget important information in the belief that it can be immediately retrieved from a digital device.

The study highlights how, as well as storing factual information, there is a trend to keep personal memories in digital form. Photographs of important moments might only exist on a smartphone, with the risk of their loss if the device is lost or stolen.

My own observations about myself are that I no longer bother memorising digital information which is easily accessed on devices, but I find (or I think I find) I can remember qualitative information (colours, pictures, past conversations, smells, ideas) in much greater detail than I used to.

 

A second language – even if acquired as an adult – can help resist the onset of dementia

June 2, 2014

Being cognitively active has long been suggested as a key element in slowing down the onset of age-related conditions such as dementia and Alzheimers. And being multilingual – it is thought – increases the potential for cognitive activity.

Marian and Shook (2012) – Cognitive benefits of being bilingual

The bilingual brain can have better attention and task-switching capacities than the monolingual brain, thanks to its developed ability to inhibit one language while using another. In addition, bilingualism has positive effects at both ends of the age spectrum: Bilingual children as young as seven months can better adjust to environmental changes, while bilingual seniors can experience less cognitive decline.

And – it would seem from a new study – that having the ability to speak a second language, even if the ability was acquired as an adult, helps in this process.

“Does Bilingualism Influence Cognitive Aging?” Thomas H Bak, Jack J Nissan, Michael M Allerhand and Ian J Deary. Annals of Neurology; Published Online: June 2, 2014 (DOI:10.1002/ana.24158).

Press Release (EurekAlert)New research reveals that bilingualism has a positive effect on cognition later in life. Findings published in Annals of Neurology, a journal of the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society, show that individuals who speak two or more languages, even those who acquired the second language in adulthood, may slow down cognitive decline from aging. 

Bilingualism is thought to improve cognition and delay dementia in older adults. While prior research has investigated the impact of learning more than one language, ruling out “reverse causality” has proven difficult. The crucial question is whether people improve their cognitive functions through learning new languages or whether those with better baseline cognitive functions are more likely to become bilingual. 

“Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence,” says lead author Dr. Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. 

For the current study, researchers relied on data from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, comprised of 835 native speakers of English who were born and living in the area of Edinburgh, Scotland. The participants were given an intelligence test in 1947 at age 11 years and retested in their early 70s, between 2008 and 2010. Two hundred and sixty two participants reported to be able to communicate in at least one language other than English. Of those, 195 learned the second language before age 18, 65 thereafter. 

Findings indicate that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would be expected from their baseline. The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading. The effects were present in those who acquired their second language early as well as late. 

The Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 forms the Disconnected Mind project at the University of Edinburgh, funded by Age UK. The work was undertaken by The University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, part of the cross council Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Initiative (MR/K026992/1) and has been made possible thanks to funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC). 

“The Lothian Birth Cohort offers a unique opportunity to study the interaction between bilingualism and cognitive aging, taking into account the cognitive abilities predating the acquisition of a second language” concludes Dr. Bak. “These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.” 

 

Imagined action from one brain converted to actual action by another brain

August 28, 2013

It is not quite telepathy but it is the stuff of science fiction. It could be the beginnings of mind-to-mind communication or perhaps it could be the beginnings of mind-control. An EEG signal was transmitted from one brain to a particular part of another brain and elicited a response from the body of the second. Admittedly only from that part of that body controlled by that part of the second brain.

Which begs the question as to whether any signal stimulating that part of that second brain would have elicited a similar response? But this is not the time to cavil or to find fault. The possibilities are endless. If I could imagine actions which would then be carried out by – say President Obama – we could all live in a better place!!

A brain-to-brain communication between two rats and also between a human and a rat have been reported from Duke University and from Harvard. Now from the University of Washington comes this report of the “first” brain-to-brain communication (via the internet) between two humans.

From the UoW press release:

Using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, Rajesh Rao sent a brain signal to Andrea Stocco on the other side of the UW campus, causing Stocco’s finger to move on a keyboard.

Brain signals from the “Sender” are recorded. When the computer detects imagined hand movements, a “fire” command is transmitted over the Internet to the TMS machine, which causes an upward movement of the right hand of the “Receiver.” This usually results in the “fire” key being hit. – UoW

Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering, has been working on brain-computer interfacing in his lab for more than 10 years and just published a textbook on the subject. In 2011, spurred by the rapid advances in technology, he believed he could demonstrate the concept of human brain-to-brain interfacing. So he partnered with Stocco, a UW research assistant professor in psychology at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

 On Aug. 12, Rao sat in his lab wearing a cap with electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalography machine, which reads electrical activity in the brain. Stocco was in his lab across campus wearing a purple swim cap marked with the stimulation site for the transcranial magnetic stimulation coil that was placed directly over his left motor cortex, which controls hand movement.

The team had a Skype connection set up so the two labs could coordinate, though neither Rao nor Stocco could see the Skype screens.

Rao looked at a computer screen and played a simple video game with his mind. When he was supposed to fire a cannon at a target, he imagined moving his right hand (being careful not to actually move his hand), causing a cursor to hit the “fire” button. Almost instantaneously, Stocco, who wore noise-canceling earbuds and wasn’t looking at a computer screen, involuntarily moved his right index finger to push the space bar on the keyboard in front of him, as if firing the cannon. Stocco compared the feeling of his hand moving involuntarily to that of a nervous tic.

“It was both exciting and eerie to watch an imagined action from my brain get translated into actual action by another brain,” Rao said. “This was basically a one-way flow of information from my brain to his. The next step is having a more equitable two-way conversation directly between the two brains.”

The researchers captured the full demonstration on video recorded in both labs. This video and high-resolution photos also are available on the research website.


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