24 November 2010

A slow morning's thoughts on the last mystery

There is a lot more to "you" than you think.

Forget that old (and entirely false) cliché that "you only use X% of your brain" and think about what really goes on in there. The brain is the "gas guzzler" of the organs; at about 2% of body mass, it gets about 20% of the blood supply. If evolution gave us a big brain, it's because we need it. The human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe and we don't fully understand, even now, exactly what some of it does or how it does it.

For one thing, there's obviously some data-processing capacity in there which works, or can work, independently of the conscious mind. Have you ever had the experience of obsessively thinking over a problem, giving up without reaching a solution, and then later having the solution suddenly just come to you, as if out of nowhere? There must have been thinking going on, but not where "you" -- the consciously-aware part of "you" -- could observe it.

Then there's the even more common experience of "talking out" a problem silently in one's head. If the self were a straightforward unitary phenomenon as we usually think of it, then this would be pointless. You would either know something or not know it, and it would not make any sense to "tell yourself" or "remind yourself of" anything. The very fact that these expressions are so common and normal tells us that it's not that simple.

(Could these eureka bursts of insight that seem to come out of the blue, and the impulse to deal with problems by talking about them within one's own head, be what led our primitive ancestors to concepts like gods and prayer?)

As I said, there's still a great deal about the brain that we don't understand, but we're learning fast. The study of the brain has advanced rapidly over the last few years, as scanning devices improve in resolution and computers increase our ability to analyze the data. Even the statement that the brain is the most complex thing known to us will not remain true much longer; the processing power of the greatest computers will overtake that of the brain by around 2013 and will continue to grow exponentially thereafter.

The question of the mind -- the nature of consciousness, the will, the "self", and the rest of these linked and barely-describable phenomena which constitute a person -- is perhaps the last great unsolved mystery. Darwin and his successors have explained the development of life, and modern physics is helping us understand the origin of the universe. Over the next twenty years the growing power of our machines will enable us to decipher the staggeringly complex mechanisms of the brain -- the very processes that make us what we are -- and the last mystery will crumble before the inexorably-advancing might of human intelligence. There will no longer be any need for philosophers to speculate. We will know.

12 Comments:

Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Thanksgiving Day Greeting's Infodel!

This was a nice read to give thought to, and truely bipartisan :)

But all shit aside ... these thing's have alway's been interesting, because not so much for year's has been known about the brain .... kind of one of them thing's that's fascinating as finding out about what really evolve's and goes on in the deepest of the planet's ocean's ... while many of us are still staring at image's of a lifeless dusty rock (moon) and figuring out wayz to set up human camp there (a waste of money in my opinion) to me there's alot more to research on our own planet that we know nothing about yet. I am one who believe's that all the spirit world come's from inside the subconcious and is nutured by one's own mind, although many would NOT call that spirituality in the traditional sense, because they prefer (or been informed to think) that there is some other entity in another dimension of existence that control's that. And one of the biggest mysteries to that I think as far as religious/ spiritual concept's ... has been afterlife, meaning in this case ... does the concious or sub continue to exist after death ... technically/ scientifically NO, I mean ... as far as proof is concerned ... the brain is dead after several minute's and it stop's receiving what it does for the thing to operate. I'm not a bloody scientist, so I cant tell folk's one way or the other, I'm just looking at proof, some may say I cant get proof if it's not in this dimension or such that are traditionally spiritual ... I dont know, and frankly I dont try to figure out why I think the way I do at all, I gave up .... heh, heh, heh, heh, heh ... :)

I'll let science and technologies do that for me. :)

Thanx Guy ... have a good un!

25 November, 2010 08:42  
OpenID ochiudo said...

DO read Jeff Hawkins' "On Intelligence". He's come up with a constructive theory of the neo-cortex, and founded the Redwood Center For Theoretical Neuroscience, all in order to be able to build intelligent machines.
He gave a talk on TED a while ago, but the book is way more convincing and goes into great detail, without actually being hard to understand, as long as you know what a neuron is and have a rudimentary understanding of how it works.
I have a feeling you'd love it.

25 November, 2010 12:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: People used to think spirits and gods were behind everything that happened. As science explained more and more, the supernatural was left with less and less to do. The mind is pretty much the last refuge of belief in such things. Soon that will go, too.

Ochiudo: Vielen Dank für die Empfehlung. I'm always interested in what's new in the study of the brain.

25 November, 2010 14:26  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh ... You know Infodel ... "spiritualism" as defined or practiced by most can be a funny thing. I mean to me ... it is more like an art or for meditation, brain excercise, entertainment, fun, or for whatever reason of pleasure, self gratification or such. But what I see folk's doing to themselves in traditional spiritualism is beating themselves over the head with a baseball bat in a sense, it is so f'n masochistic in some cases, instead of thinking of it for say a great sexual experience in foreplay or whatever ... NO ... they dont want that .... instead they want to "talk to themselves" in a baratone Godly voice that say's ... "Cut your ball's off now! ... I demand you!" ... "Go and spend your life trying to make everyone think like you" ..."Care for those who wouldnt shit in your mouth if you were dying of starvation" etc, etc ... I could go on and on. It's absolutely hilarious. Then you have these so called self proclaimed liberated folk's that would call someone like me a Nazi if I dont want to love, fight for, and invite to my neighborhood folk's that want to decapitate some poor little girl because she wasnt wearing a f'n sack over her head in public, or that want to kill and slaughter people over Teddy Bear's, etc ... the shit is so twisted it would be hilarious if it wasnt so serious. Just the whole herd mindset of it across the board. :) I mean, it doesnt in many cases make a difference which of these polarizing side's that these dingbat's and fruitloop's are on ... their still dingbat's and fruitloop's. :)

25 November, 2010 18:10  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

brain excercise, entertainment, fun, or for whatever reason of pleasure, self gratification or such.

I'd say that's the opposite of spirituality -- that's rejoicing in the fleshly life (the real world).

a baratone Godly voice that say's ... "Cut your ball's off now! ... I demand you!"

Yes, we should encourage the return of the cult of Cybele -- it would at least stop some of the nutcases from reproducing.

25 November, 2010 21:17  
Blogger Murr Brewster said...

I dunno. A lot of the time my brain veers and lurches like a drunk, but there's always something yummy in the gutters. It works for me, but it would be a hell of a program to understand it from the outside.

25 November, 2010 23:51  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Well, at least them folk's back then and many of the ancient Pagan religion's knew how to have a good ole time too! Like the slogan say's (give me that old time religion) :) ... and give that ole time ritualistic sex as well, in my opinion! I used to love reading about the Mayan (in the America's) celebration's ... and picturing in my head how it must have looked back then, the pageantry, bright coloring on the temple's/ pyramid's (magnificent art, really detailed) all brightly lit up in the night by the huge flame's of the torches, etc ... what a sight it must have been ... and of course, back in those day's by golly ... politician's (king's) were really politician's ... they got up there and done plenty of bloodletting through penis mutilation to sacrifice their own blood to the spirit's and the people expected it (these politician's today wouldnt slap their own wrist for the thieve's some of them are), the dancing, music, sex ... in some way's ... those were the good ole day's ... unless of course you were a sacrifice for the God's, but even then you would have taken it as just all in good fun and be intoxicated off your asses.

As far as what is spiritualism(?) well ... that is hard to say in my opinion. Another ole feller named Aleister Crowley (1875- 1947? ... heh, heh, heh, heh, heh ... some liked to say he was the reincarnation of Eliphas Levi, who died in 1875 if I recall correctly) once wrote something like ... "the mind is a tiny replica of the universe" and refering to how it expand's and evolves, being that the mind is the spirit and the product of the universe's evolution (of course they had one of them cult's too) ... but by golly, they didnt short change themselves on sex back then either. BTW ... one of the last living disciple's of Mr.Crowley is Kenneth Grant (dude must be around 90 now) ... but a couple year's ago, he sent me some of his artwork as a gift, and a book of his (he stay's in London), because I done some odd and end's printing/ graphic's work for him in the past.

26 November, 2010 05:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

MB: there's always something yummy in the gutters.

Funny how it works that way, isn't it? As for the veering and lurching, we all have days like that, but once we have all this stuff figured out, there will be software upgrades available for those who feel the need:-)

26 November, 2010 05:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: Well, at least them folk's back then and many of the ancient Pagan religion's knew how to have a good ole time too!

Well, a few of them did. The Greeks and Romans were pretty relaxed about sexuality, but it was no fun being a slave (or, in Greece, a woman), or getting caught up in the endless wars before the Pax Romana. Those days look good mostly by contrast to the Dark Ages afterwards.

Then there was stuff like the cult of Moloch (babies sacrificed by burning alive).

unless of course you were a sacrifice for the God's, but even then you would have taken it as just all in good fun and be intoxicated off your asses.

Don't know about the Mayas, but the Aztecs' human sacrifices were prisoners of war. I doubt they took it as fun. I really think the dominant feeling in those societies must have been terror -- imagine living somewhere where the priests had to keep doing horrendous bloody murders all the time or the gods would let the world end.

Our own traditional culture was no better -- think of the witch-burnings -- but that's my point. All traditional cultures stank.

Crowley was a genius, but he was also a con man (true of most founders of religions, I think) and most of what he said was gibberish. The mind is not a tiny replica of the universe, for example. Not even close. Of course in 1947 human knowledge about the mind and brain was essentially zero compared with today, but the smartest people at least knew that they didn't know anything about it.

I'll take the present day. You can be pretty much as sexually self-indulgent as the Romans, and you don't have to deal with any "spiritual" rubbish if you don't want it.

26 November, 2010 06:05  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh .... Indeed Infodel ... I know plenty about some of the horror's ... I was just adding a lil humor is all. :)

26 November, 2010 06:14  
Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

The brain/mind/consciousness has always fascinated me. The religious like to infuse various “spiritual” issues into the mix, saying that consciousness is something apart from the brain. Francis Collins, famous for the Human Genome Project wrote in his book, “The Language of God” that the brain was infused with “moral law” by god which operates independently of the neuro-biology of the brain. The problem with that is if you mess with the physical brain through chemicals or physical damage; in other words, if the brain doesn’t work, the “moral law” is noticeably absent.

There are wildly varying predictions as to when computers will approach the intelligence level of the human brain. They may in certain specific functions, but (and I wish I could find that article) the human brain makes many many many mistakes which, oddly, are necessary for human function. Computers, on the other hand, make few mistakes and so the energy needed to make them infallible actually inhibits their intelligence. Additionally the amount of energy required and the heat generated by a computer approaching human intelligence is incredibly high.

Other examples are rife, including context which the human brain understands but would be extremely difficult to program into computers. For example: the statement that “The boy saw the bicycle in the window and wanted it.” The computer brain would need to understand that “in” meant “through” the window; it would have to know that boys want bikes, not windows, and there is a whole additional level of emotional significance to why a boy would want a bike having to do with prediction of obscure concepts like pleasure. We are much further off to having Lt. Commander Data than we think.

26 November, 2010 14:28  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RtS: I've always thought that, since damaging the brain or modifying its functionality (with drugs, say) damages or modifies or completely removes the equivalent mental function, we can be pretty sure that the mind is a set of processes which the brain performs, not a "thing in itself" distinct from the brain. We don't have "souls".

As for the brain / computer issue, what I'm describing here is purely the use of computers (in combination with scanning technology) to understand the functioning of the brain. To replicate that functioning is another issue entirely, one we'll only be able to embark on once the brain is fully understood. Then, in order to run accurate simulations of the brain, we'll need computers with at least 100 times the processing power of the brain (a threshold we should reach around 2020), since every individual neuron and synapse would have to be modeled in detail in the simulation.

This would be analogous to the practice of "emulation", in which a simulation of a simpler computer is run on a more complex one, and would enable us to work around all those differences between brain and computer functionality -- the simulation would work the same way an actual brain does.

A simulation of one second's activity of one hemisphere of a mouse brain was run in 2007 -- far short of what I'm talking about, but it was a beginning.

Creating something comparable to the human mind from scratch will be impossible for the foreseeable future, but replicating an existing human mind in a computer instead of an organic brain is a much different proposition.

26 November, 2010 15:38  

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