October 25, 2010

The Musical Brain

Music is found everywhere in humans groups. Musical information consists of pitch, loudness, timbre, location, and movement of the sound source. A combination of sounds of different pitches produces harmony and a sequence of pitches becomes melody. Timbre describes the harmonics in a sound that give it recognizable qualities. A range of timbres in human voices provides for the sound identification of individuals. You can identify who is talking from voice timbre and intonation, just as you can identify a trumpet, an oboe or a violin.

Formal music is assembled into language-equivalent structures, suggesting phonemes, syntax and semantics. The elements of music began millions of years ago with other animals. We humans are just recent practitioners of the art of sound communication.

The general plan of communication using sounds and written symbols involves a supramodal, movement-modeling capacity that can create and retain schemas of action in the world and that some of these schemas are expressions that we refer to as emotions, some as language and some as music. It is not surprising that these three modes often merge as the most dramatic and moving form of human communication.

The central feature of intelligence is the ability to understand what is really going on out there and to respond to events with successful and adaptive behavior. Praxis is skillful movement and is central to intelligent behavior. If you add mimesis to praxis, you can start building a meaningful model of intelligence.

Music in the original sense is communication, part of group assemblies that featured drumming, vocalization and dance. In an evolved sense, music became attached to rituals, celebrations, theatre and entertainment. Active group participation in creating music and dance has often become passive as audiences collect to sit and listen to professional musicians perform.

Our brains have evolved to detect and evaluate discrete low volume sounds. Everyone who has spent time in natural environments will know that little sounds are ubiquitous in nature. Loud sounds are unusual and signal danger. A nature person will be able identify birds, insects, and other animals by their characteristic sounds. Wind sounds inform about weather changes. Some trees can be identified by the sounds of their leaves vibrating in the wind. A sailor can determine wind direction and velocity by moving his head slightly to hear changes in pitch and timbre as the wind blows around his head.

The human brain extracts several kinds of information from the components of sounds: pitch, loudness, timbre, location and direction of movement. Animal communication begins with sounds that declare specific meanings such as the alarm cries of squirrels and monkeys, bird songs that regulate mating and social activity and human grunts, shouts and cries that attract attention, signal danger and express emotion.

The auditory system is organized into spatial and nonspatial, processing streams. In the monkey, the posterolateral auditory cortex is more responsive to spatial features stimuli than the anterolateral region that is more selective for vocalization. Single neurons in these cortical areas respond differentially to features of the auditory input.

Neurons selectively responsive to vocalizations were found in the ventral prefrontal cortex. Neurons responsive to spatial features were found in the dorsal prefrontal cortex. The responsiveness of auditory neurons in both the prefrontal and parietal cortices is dependent on the significance of the stimulus. The superior temporal sulcus in humans exhibits selective activation for voices.

Neurons detect the start and end of sounds through separate channels; onset is detected by neurons close to the sensory receptors. On and off decision are made in cortical areas responsible for language processing. Leek explained that the distinction between 'chop' and 'shop,' or between 'stay' and 'say" are based on short, transient differences at the beginning of the words: "One of the major challenges is to note precise timing information in speech that permits localization of sound in space, separation of sound sources that are occurring simultaneously, and the suppression of redundancy such as echoes in a highly-reverberant space." People have sound recognition problems when the auditory cortex fails to encode the audio frequencies and timing cues.

Parietal Lobes

Learned skills that require constant monitoring and adjustment are the basis of musical performances. The parietal lobes have been described as memory and multimodal skill processors. Each parietal lobe sits between the visual brain (occipital lobe) behind, and the frontal lobes in front and the temporal lobe below. In the simplest terms, there are two functional regions; 1. the postcentral gyrus is the sensor cortex that receives data from the body and face via the thalamus; 2. the remainder of the parietal lobe is an associative memory device that integrates body sensory input with visual information to create awareness of a body moving in space.

Damage to the parietal lobes can often be recognized as loss of motor skills and abnormalities in body image and spatial relations. Damage on the left side may cause right-left confusion, verbal memory deficits, difficulty with writing (agraphia), difficulty with mathematics (acalculia), other disorders of language (aphasia) and the inability to identify and use objects (agnosia). Right parietal lobe damage causes neglect of part of the body, difficulty making things (constructional apraxia), and denial of deficits anosagnosia). Bilateral parietal lobe disease may be recognized by the inability to control eye movements (ocular apraxia), inability to resolve visual information into recognizable objects (simultanagnosia),and the inability to reach for an object with visual guidance (optic ataxia).

The inferior parietal lobe creates a multi-modal map of auditory experiences processed initially in the right temporal lobe, which is dominant in the perception of timbre, chords, tone, pitch, loudness, and melody. When the right temporal lobe is damaged deficits appear in the ability to sing, melody recognition, and impaired evaluation of loudness, and timbre. The capacity to enjoy music may be lost (amusia.) Right temporal-parietal area damage also impairs comprehension of verbal prosody and emotional speech. Itoh et al demonstrated that the left parietal lobe plays a significant role in piano performance.

From the Sound of Music by Stephen Gislason

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October 23, 2010

The Dream of Democracy

The term democracy refers to governments formed by the people who, in the best case, act in the interests of the people. The term is widely used, often without understanding of what it means.

According to Posner, in the US, the founding fathers did not want to set up a democracy but a mixed government. The presidency is the monarchical element, the Senate and Supreme Court are aristocratic elements and only the democratic element is the House of Representatives. This design had worked to balance competing interests but with increasing size and complexity of government, the design has become obsolete. Government becomes a circus of competing interests, displaying their wares in a variety of private venues.

Canada copied the British Parliamentary system with a three layered, mixed government. Britain has a Queen who remains the nominal head of government, an aristocratic assembly, the House of Lords and an elected parliament where the majority party forms the government. In a display of absurd anachronism, the British Queen continues to own all of Canada not in private hands, and appears on all official documents issued by the government.

Athens, Greece is often given credit for inventing democracy. But in Athens only one in 10 residents could vote. Women could not participate and slaves had no rights. Those who did vote were often tempted to vote in favor of war. Athens flourished for a few years, but the Greek empire and democracy was over within 150 years. While the Greek legacy was carried on more or less by the Romans and spread through Europe, the real story of ancient Greece is tragic.

Elections are the showcase of democracy but may not achieve desirable results. Elected leaders often find subsequent elections to be inconvenient and assume dictatorial powers instead.
The real process of government is an endless series of negotiations and private deals. Negotiated deals tend to benefit the more aggressive, influential and wealthy participants.

Government as a circus is perhaps better than government as a dictator’s court but in most democratic countries, few citizens are happy with the way governments work.

Democracy and freedom are not necessarily linked. An alert, well-informed citizenry and a politically independent judiciary are essential to the preservation of personal freedoms. A civil society develops multiple overlapping levels of dispute resolution with the right to appeal bad decisions that are common and inevitable when local tribunals decide who is privileged and who is not. A champion of civil rights is often in the uncomfortable predicament of defending the rights of humans he or she disagrees with, dislikes and even fears.

All governments are inefficient and are prone to corruption. In every large institution, there is a tendency to fascism, the dictatorial rule of an elite group who believe only they know what is right and true. A fascist displays innate tendencies, modified by learning, but devoid of compassion. A fascist promotes arguments and dissension, developing the idea that only some citizens have rights and privileges and others become outsiders who must be constrained, imprisoned, deported or eliminated.

Elections are often thought to be the essence of democracy, but as human groups grow larger and social organization more complex, the ideal of citizen controlled government becomes impossible. Eventually, democratic rights might be restored by internet technologies that provide valid information and permit citizens to vote directly on policy issues and legislation.

The value of elections is not so much the selection of the right people to run governments since this result is seldom achieved, but the opportunity to disrupt political oligarchies in the early stages of their development. You could argue that candidate selection for elections is so inappropriate to the task facing the elected politicians that an election lottery choosing from thoughtfully selected, highly qualified citizens would do a better job of forming governments.

In a civil society there must be a wealth re-distribution plan so that money and power is not concentrated in a small elite class but, at the same time, does not discourage or penalize smart people who make the extra effort to innovate and contribute to the general good.

Affluent populations need to protect themselves from attacks that originate from inside and outside the group. The need for protection appears to be persistent and relentless with no prospect in the future of any reprieve. Fascist groups within elected governments typically advance the need for national security to consolidate their power, to threaten political opposition and to suspend citizens’ right and freedoms, replacing external threats with internal repression.

From Group Dynamics by Stephen Gislason

October 20, 2010

Cities - Problems and Solutions

The 21st century began with 50% of humans living in cities. If you are wealthy, cities collect interesting people, expensive goods, and diverse erotic pleasures. If you are poor, cities are concentrations of displaced humans who lack food, shelter, sanitation and medical care.

Cities concentrate the most negative expressions of humans: gambling, prostitution, crime, and drug use. Poor people from rural areas tend to migrate to cities, hoping to make money and improve their circumstances; they seldom succeed. Even in the most affluent countries displaced and poor people crowd into cities. Some are exploited by rich people as cheap labor. Others are ignored. Some turn to crime, others depend on charity or government welfare.

In the best case, the trend established in the first half of 20th century was to increases employment opportunities and increase general wealth. Canada was one of the nations developing a social contract that guaranteed essential benefits for all citizens including new immigrants and refugees. The benefits included free public schooling, free medical and hospital care and guarantees of minimal access to food, shelter and public health services. These benefits are expensive, so that reductions in the budgets for social services began in the late 20th century and will decrease further as budgetary deficits grow.

At the same time, income and personal wealth disparities grew larger. The net effect was the fewer humans had more and more humans had less. Cities change as the population demographics change within them. Cities states, in the historical record, were ephemeral. Most were built to withstand attack from invaders and most disappeared after decades to centuries of growth and affluence. Modern cities, like cancers, grow unchecked, metastasize and destroy their own support system.

William Rees, an economist at the University of British Columbia took an ecological approach to economics. He is concerned that cities are growing too large to be sustainable. Cities are centers of consumption and depend on the surrounding environment to supply energy, food and to accept and disperse waste. Rees measured the ecological footprint of cities and his results are not encouraging.

At the end of the 20th century, 1.1 billion people live in the largest cities with populations in the millions; their carbon dioxide emissions were greater than the capacity of all the world’s forests to process the gas. One city person requires at least five square hectares of resource rich land to support him or her. The 472,000 people living in the city of Vancouver in 1999 on 11,400 hectares of land actually required the output of 2.3 million hectares of land.

The real capital is not money but air, water, food and other resources. City states deplete these resources at an alarming rate – fish stocks are depleted; soils are depleted, washed or blown away; fresh water supplies are marginal, depleted or contaminated; the air is polluted and ozone depletion combined with global warming from increased greenhouse gases threatens progressive and erratic climate changes. Extreme weather becomes more destructive with the cost of repair and replacement escalating every year. Climate changes threaten agriculture, as we know it.

Patel and Burke expressed concern about poverty and disease in growing urban populations. They wrote: "Although natural disasters and armed conflicts cause migration into urban centers, most people relocate to cities in search of employment. When they arrive, many find only one affordable housing option: illegal and unplanned dense settlements lacking basic public infrastructure, where they must live in lodgings made from tenuous materials, such as used plastic sheets, discarded scrap metal, and mud. The United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) reports that 43% of urban residents in developing countries such as Kenya, Brazil, and India and 78% of those in the least-developed countries such as Bangladesh, Haiti, and Ethiopia live in such slums… residents are usually tolerated and their presence tacitly accepted, but the local government generally ignores them, accepting no responsibility for accounting for them in planning or the provision of services.

Urban hazards include infections, injuries, air and water pollution, diabetes and hypertension.Increasing the population density in cities without proper water supplies and sanitation increases the risk of transmission of communicable diseases. Mortality among children under 5 years of age and among infants is higher in urban slums than in rural settings."

Scientists, anticipating the effects of climate change, have imagined major disruptions of city-states with civil disobedience and armed conflicts arising from the competition for scarce resources. Solutions are available but are improbable, given human tendencies.

A sane, rational city-state would limit its growth; limit its pollution and progress toward food, water and clean air sustainability. You must ask the key question: If all long-distance supplies were blocked could the citizens of a city continue to live comfortable, healthy lives?

One prerequisite of a sane city is self-sufficiency. Global Trade has always been the enemy of self-sufficiency and the ally of vulnerability. The need to transport food and goods long distances would be reduced by increased local production. The local transportation of goods could be streamlined into centrally controlled supply lines that achieve maximal efficiency. We could advance toward intelligent distribution systems such as large pneumatic or electromagnetic tubes that send containers between city centers at high speed with minimal pollution. It is absurd to have goods distributed by trucks, in traffic, chaotically, with no cost effective distribution plan. Food can be grown and processed within a city by returning some of the land area to market gardens and intensive greenhouse technology. Each city would have to renew and support a surrounding agricultural zone.

Cities would essentially backtrack about 100 years when food supply lines were shorter and farmers living adjacent to the cities could supply most if not all of the food.

The humanity of a city can be restored by living arrangements that promote a sense of community. Good architecture and city planning support groups of individuals that know each other and can relate to each other – small interactive communities. Local groups can relate to their natural environment and can restore an understanding of how to supply their own needs. If a local group does not have a natural environment, then the group will be dysfunctional and members of the group will become sick animals. If a group grows too large for individuals to know and relate to each, then the group will be dysfunctional – sick humans.


From Group Dynamics (2010) by Stephen Gislason

October 19, 2010

Learning & Intelligence

Intelligence is expressed in the ability to learn. Smart people learn faster and learn more than not so smart people. Intelligence is manifest in the ability to acquire complicated skills and excel in performance by practice and progressive improvement. Competent people are smart people who have the discipline to practice and improve their performance. In demanding, professional environments the nicest people tend to be the smartest and most competent. There are exceptions.

Bodybrainmind is an open-ended system that will evolve a unique identity in the lifetime of each individual. Individuation occurs as experience modifies some brain structures and coexists with old programs that persist regardless of the individual experience, because the older brain structures resist modification.

Here are simple insights into the learning process:
Learning is the process of modifying brain structure and function.
Learning is dependent on the availability of innate programs that organize and support the acquisition of skills and knowledge.
Learning is mimetic and spontaneous. Infants and children copy the sounds and behaviors they see and hear.

The ability to learn can be equated to the construction of the brain and to the ongoing chemistry of life. I always instructed my young patients with above average IQs who were not learning well in school that they were somewhat like a shiny new car with a turbo-charged engine, but someone put the wrong gas in their tank and now we are disappointed with their performance. You could get a badly constructed car and be disappointed or you could be dealing with the wrong gas; the food supply and the physical environment determine how well the child's brain is going to work.
A biological view regards mental states and behavior as products of brain function. Teaching is an intentional effort to constructively alter the brain function of students in a lasting fashion. While information is the pedagogical input to the student's brain, food, water and air may be regarded as the main input of chemical information into the student's body-brain system. If the food supply is biologically inappropriate or a child is hypersensitive and reacts inappropriately to food, dysfunction and disease are the result.

The increased presence of non-nutrient molecules in the blood stream in the form of additives, contaminants, toxins, drugs and intoxicants makes brain dysfunction more likely and more difficult to interpret. Whenever humans are sick or influenced by food and/or airborne chemicals, their brain function is compromised and symptoms include disturbances of sensing, feeling, remembering and acting. Their learning is impaired and their behavior may be disturbed.

Different Paths?

The answer to the question should students follow different educational paths? is simple – yes they should. Should teachers and school administrators reply on IQ test to assign students to different paths? The answer is no, they should not rely on IQ tests alone. You can argue that children with high scores on tests of intelligence tend to learn more of what is taught in school than their lower-scoring peers but there are limitations to what can be predicted about individual students.

IQ scores sort a student population in a standard bell curve distribution and after years of use and have known correlations with scholastic accomplishment and employability. Intelligence tests predict school performance about half the time. The correlation between IQ test scores and school grades is about 0.5. Correlations between IQ scores and total years of education are about 0.55. Better, more comprehensive intelligence and aptitude tests are highly desirable. Intelligence goes beyond reading, writing and math. I am not a fan of general education, conformity or standard algorithms for education. Some of our most gifted children are oppressed, they face unnecessary obstacles and discrimination in schools that fail to appreciate and develop their special abilities. The task for better education is to appreciate a range of abilities that are valued, admired, and rewarded in adult society.

Children with special aptitudes for athletics, music, art, drama, design should be identified early and sent to schools that support and encourage development in these specialized areas. Rare children have special abilities in mathematics, physics, design and creative ideas. These children will thrive if they are introduced to brilliant adults who can act as mentors. In an ideal school, gifted, well informed teachers would have a close and personal relationship with each student and would evaluate their interest and abilities individually.

According to the Task Force of the American Psychological Association: "What children learn in school depends not only on their individual abilities but also on teaching practices and on what is actually taught. Recent comparisons among pupils attending school in different countries have made this especially obvious. Children in Japan and China, for example, know a great deal more math than American children even though their intelligence test scores are quite similar. This difference may result from many factors, including cultural attitudes toward schooling as well as the amount of time devoted to the study of mathematics and how that study is organized…

"There are a number of reasons why children with higher test scores tend to get more education. They are likely to get good grades, and to be encouraged by teachers and counsellors; often they are placed in "college preparatory" classes, where they make friends who may also encourage them. In general, they are likely to find the process of education rewarding in a way that many low-scoring children do not."

From Intelligence and Learning by Stephen Gislason
Also read Neuroscience Notes.

Go to Persona Digital Online to download eBooks.

October 18, 2010

Spontaneity, Intentions, Free Will

Simplicity without a name is free from all external aim. With no desire, at rest and still, all things go right as of their will. Lao Tze

All human behavior arises spontaneously from procedures in the brain that are not rendered consciously before the event. The speaker and the audience are aware at the same time of what is spoken. The term "intention" derives meaning when it refers to the human ability to simulate behaviors, plan and self-regulate. Intentions are not properties of consciousness but are complexes of spontaneous drives, learned and previously rehearsed behaviors.

Intention is poorly understood, partly because humans claim complete control over their goals and behaviors when the outcome is good and deny all control when the outcome is not so good. The understanding of "conscious control, self control, intentions and will" goes something like this:

Human action is mostly spontaneous, not planned or known in advance.
You can learn to override some spontaneously arising drives and behaviors that are undesirable; override skills require daily practice in social circumstances.

You may be able to control some emotional expressions, but usually, emotion will take control with no option of intervention.

You may be able to direct some of your energy into adaptive plans that have been designed and practiced in advance.

Learned skills, continuing practice and diligence are required.
You can study your own behavior, learn and practice new routines when old ones are harmful or ineffective.

You can meditate and learn more about the spontaneous activity of your own mind.

An emotion is inherently spontaneous and challenges override skills. You can get angry and say hurtful things, apologize with the excuse "I was upset and didn't mean what I said" and expect to be forgiven. The more often you get angry, say hurtful things and apologize, the less plausible is the excuse and the more harmful the behavior. A mother demands (angrily) "Why did you do that?" when her four year old child spills a jug of lemonade and the distraught little girl does not know why she did that - she bursts into tears and runs to her room.

There is often no "why" to actions. Actions are spontaneous. Mistakes are common and sometimes are dangerous. Good performance of critical tasks is achieved by rigorous practice, followed by ongoing checking and monitoring routines to reduce error. Even the most rigorous error-checking schemes will not be perfect.

A young man accused of committing crimes is asked: "Why did you do what you did?" His honest and best answer is: "I don't know." We discover who we are as we go along. No one really knows why he or she did anything, although everyone makes up stories that suggest unusual ability to plan and predict. Every human who considers carefully will realize that retrospective analysis of human behavior will reveal both individual and universal patterns of behavior that emerge spontaneously.

Even when you recognize patterns of behavior and associate behaviors with antecedent conditions, you still do not know exactly why the behavior occurred. You will not be able to predict accurately future occurrences of any behavior except to say that humans tend to repeat what they have said and done before. You can offer a psychodynamic explanation based on your pet assumptions about how the mind works. Most psychodynamics are ad hoc explanations with doubtful validity. You can shrug your shoulders and say "karma". Karma refers to a complex of causes that stretch back to the beginning of the universe. The important determinants of human behavior may have little to do with biographical details and recent events. The essence of brain function is spontaneous activity.

All living creatures are intentional in the sense that they all project themselves into the world every day to get what they need. All living creatures have needs, goals, drives and strategies. Intention does not usually include a well-developed conscious plan, except in unusual circumstances.

Life generates activity. Activities have goals. Drives are programs in the brain that organize and energize activities. The primary goals are food and water. The drives are hunger and thirst. Drives are states of disequilibrium that originate with body needs and are stabilized by satisfying the need, finding, for example, food and water. Secondary goals are more numerous and include shelter, safety and sex, often in that order. The grand scheme for human existence is - air, food, water, shelter, safety and sex. If a man feels threatened, he has difficulty eating, cannot achieve an erection and cannot have sex.

Spontaneous drives are powerful. The human tendency is to keep busy devouring the world. Humans are predators, consumers, world-eaters with a large appetite. Human intelligence is directed to obtaining desirable things by skill, cunning, deception or force.

Most human problems can be solved by not wanting things, consuming more selectively and consuming less. Children are random little creatures. They do all sorts of things that they should not do, make many mistakes and hurt themselves often. The randomness is useful to tune into features of the local environment that are new. Children learn by exploring, copying and by making mistakes. Sometimes children are injured and sometimes they die by making a mistake. Every parent dreads the fatal mistake and good parents are constantly vigilant, using warnings, instruction and constraints to minimize the danger facing the inexperienced child. A one-year-old will crawl and then stagger around the house pulling and pushing on every object and will put everything that fits into his or her mouth. There is no way for a parent to sit down and have a nice chat with the infant about what is permissible activity and what is not.

A responsible parent will use the words "no" and don't" more often than any other words as they interact with their children. Humans lose some of their early randomness and tune into their environment more selectively as they get older. The no's and the don'ts become incorporated into a strategy of not doing things that are risky and harmful. A mature human, however, will continue to do all sorts of thing that they should not do. Not doing things is often the key to success. Adults often behave like a one-year-old infant exploring the kitchen cupboards. A small group of smart and nice humans act like parents and try to regulate the reckless behavior of others. Elaborate regulations are required to achieve a tolerable level of destructive behavior, but are generally unsuccessful at sustaining a high level of constructive behavior.

The philosophical and legal question is: "what differentiates our intended actions, for which we are responsible, from other actions?" The raw legal definition is; do you know right from wrong? A more subtle version is:" Do you understand why you did that in terms of your desires, goals, beliefs and consequences? Another issue is control. Could you control and direct your actions or were you directed by irrational forces such as emotions or false beliefs? The concept of control becomes complicated when you consider the organization of the brain and the many variables in brain function.

A normal, sane person loses control if he drinks too much beer at a football party. A patient with frontal lobe brain damage after a car accident loses control because he or she lost circuits that regulate action in terms of appropriate and goal-directed behavior. A patient with Alzheimer's disease loses control because she or she cannot remember what just happened and cannot plan what will happen next. The true test of freedom is making the choice not to do things that your world-eating appetites insist that you do. Every "free society" has elaborate arrangements in place to continue the constant repetition of no's and don'ts. Some tendencies that need modification are:
Humans are social animals and are not good at self-regulation.
Humans routinely do all sorts of harmful things to themselves, including harming themselves with bad food, cigarettes, alcohol, fast cars, cocaine, other drugs, legal and illegal.

Humans conspire together to do all sorts of things they should not do such as consuming all the non-renewable resources that are in reach, making toxic chemicals and spreading them on the land, in the air, the water and on their food. Humans conspire, plan and cooperate in complex enterprises with the sole intention of killing other humans.

An ancient human tendency is to exploit an environment, deplete all its resources and move on to the next environment.

Spontaneity, Intentions, Free Will is from Neuroscience Notes by Stephen Gislason, available as a printed book or PDF download.

October 17, 2010

Sentences & Reasoning

Every statement is a form of reasoning. Whether any sentence succeeds at being reasonable is another matter and not always easy to determine. Syntax involves creating word sequences based on underlying rules. Decoding of sound sequences must identify individual words and must take the whole sequence into account to derive syntactical meaning. The transition from word identification to sentence deciphering is a new brain capacity that permits the complex language development we are now considering.

Our brain stores nouns and verbs separately and has many surprising habits of separating words and syntactical rules in subcompartments. You get something of this effect with computer programs that store data and program segments in scattered blocks of memory and then keep a map of where all the pieces are. In addition to a map, the brain seems to evolve a series of controllers that remember strategies for putting all these pieces together. A number of different languages can coexist in one brain and speakers with different linguistic styles can co-exist in one brain. The underlying strategy seems to be based on grouping objects and actions into meta categories with meta rules that form the syntax or grammar of the language.

A sentence has a logical form. Subject, verb and modifiers fit together to form a reality simulation. Declarative statements with a subject, verb and object are the most reliable of statements. If I tell you that Jack ran up the hill and Jill followed, you are likely to form a mental image similar to mine. You could also quiz me in a direct way to get more information by using the “w” words; who, what, when, which, where, why? Jack who? Jack Smith. What hill? Sentinel hill. When? 11 AM Friday Sept 1, 2000. Why? To fetch a pale of water. It all makes sense. When a story is familiar, the meaning can be invoked with an abbreviated version: Jack Jill Hill might suffice.

The distinction between form and content is useful in the analysis of language. Everyone encounters writing that appears to consist of coherent statements, but on closer reading makes no sense at all. Nonsense is often in the content and not in the form or grammar of the writing. Sentences may be well constructed and the inherent reasoning may be more or less acceptable, but the content is gibberish. You could argue that nonsense is the natural content of language since it is easy to invent false statements and difficult to determine what is really going on out there. You can make any outrageous statement you want and become convinced that it is true if one other person agrees with you. The improvisations of gossip are more prevalent that the reasoning embodied in responsible philosophical and scientific discourse.

Formal logic is based on rules that link premises to conclusions. The problem with premises is that meaningful and true content needs to come from outside language. Humans regularly use good logic to move from wrong premises to wrong conclusions and then use wrong conclusions as derivative premises. In computing, this problem is expressed as “garbage in, garbage out.”

Science is an enterprise that encourages humans to make a bigger effort to find out what is really going on out there. Statements made by scientists are manifestations of a more disciplined effort to get reliable content into sentence form. The human culture world as of the new millennium had two kinds of people; scientists who make a bigger effort to get reliable content into their sentences and non-scientists who say or write whatever they want. Responsible journalism is somewhere in middle. Even when language is used skillfully, with good content, there are limitations and interesting problems.

Douglas Hosftaeder was fond of self-referential sentences that are both entertaining and unnerving. Some examples:

This sentence no verb.
This statement is false.
I am a liar.
This sentence has five words.
This sentence is longer than five words.
The end is at the beginning of this sentence.

The statement I am a liar is particularly challenging because it turns logic inside out. If the sentence is true, it is false. If the sentence is false, it is true. This sentence reveals a fundamental problem of language that becomes increasingly self-referential as it becomes more abstract and disconnected from events that are really happening out there. Thus, a culture world, created out of books, plays, movies, magazines and statements broadcast on television, or cell phones and the internet all become a virtual reality, mostly fictional, that is disconnected from and incongruent with the real world.

From Language and Thinking and Neuroscience Notes, both books by Stephen Gislason; available as ebooks for download

October 14, 2010

Intelligence - in short supply?

The challenge is to become intelligent about intelligence. Humans have a great interest and ability to create nonsense. You could argue that many of the features of intelligence are deployed in the cause of nonsense but nonsense is not intelligent.

Intelligence is really about survival in a threatening world. Humans survive because of the genius abilities such as vision, hearing, skilled movement and speech; abilities that are built into their brain, innate gifts from nature. Humans do not have learn how to see or how to hear what is going on out there, but they do have to learn what it means to them today. This is an interactive process.

Although modern humans tend to emphasize individual thought and expression, most thinking is talking in groups. Talking has become wireless media, social networks online and video sharing. The clammer of gossip and marketing is deafening.

The newest human abilities are more dependent on learning and are the least reliable. Reasoning, planning and learning to tolerate other humans in a friendly constructive manner require the most sustained practice. The term, nice, refers to these characteristics and therefore nice people require sustained learning to remain reasonable, to tolerate others and to behave in a friendly, constructive manner.

To become nice and to remain rational and skilled, a human must belong to and work within a supportive group that shares these characteristics. Human groups often have the opposite effect, supporting intolerant and irrational thinking and belligerant behavior.

In the recent past, new knowledge proliferated in every human population with only a few humans doing well at cultivating the new abilities. In higher education and other life contests, general ability has been traditionally desirable. The "well-rounded" individual was a generalist, good at everything but perhaps not outstanding in one skill.
The key to human survival is group cooperation and individual specialization. The group tends to smooth out the negative effects of individual limitations and irrationality.

In every affluent urban society, a small subpopulation cause most of the trouble and consume most of the social and medical resources available. Often the understanding and solution of social problems involves the interaction of elite and educated group with a sick, aberrant, dysfunctional group. Their interaction involves a persistent, inevitable misunderstanding arising from incongruent needs, values, information and capabilities.

Human societies involve increasing specialization of individuals who are skillful at performing single tasks. The income of an individual often depends on this specialization and does not depend on a general or comprehensive understanding of how their society works and his or her place in it.

A similar description applies to individuals in many animal groups, beginning with the social insects. Humans and ants have much in common; the most compelling similarity is that individuals achieve viability on the planet, not by solitary activities, but by participating in a meta order that involves the entire group.

This is not to argue that humans fail to live acceptable lives in modern societies. It is to argue that most humans live at a minimum level of overall comprehension and, even if they become more or less civilized, they will tend to regress to old and innate patterns of intolerance, hostility, aggression and conflict without an infrastructure of external controls that limit hostile behaviors. It is to argue that many to most humans can remain misinformed and unreasonable as long a small number of more intelligent and skillful humans build and maintain infrastructures that support the others.

From Intelligence and Learning by Stephen Gislason MD
Persona Digital Books

October 11, 2010

Morality and Neuroscience

The idea that moral cognition as a collection of specialized brain functions is developed by neuroscientists. Morality is not viewed as a new, abstract entity, but as a collection of animal attributes that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Human morality is an expression of old social cognitions and motivations that have emerged as a less than perfect human version of primate tendencies such as caring for others while seeking dominance. In primates there is an innate sense of justice that forms the deep foundation of morality. Moral emotions are described: compassion, embarrassment, indignation, guilt, shame, pride, contempt, disgust, anger and gratitude. If you had to chose the most reasonable and pacific members of the primate family, it would be Orangutans or Bonobos, not humans.

Moll suggested that: “moral emotions” result from interactions among values, norms and contextual elements of social situations and are elicited in response to violations or enforcement of social preferences and expectations. Although the contextual cues that link moral emotions to social norms are variable and shaped by culture, these emotions evolved from prototypes found in other primates and can be characterized across cultures. The challenge for moral cognitive neuroscience is that it requires extensive cross-field integration of neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology and anthropology, among other areas. In setting the goals of scientific exploration in this field, some central issues should be considered. How does the human moral mind emerge from the interaction of biological and cultural factors? How can the context-dependent nature of moral cognition be explained by neuroscience? How does moral cognition relate to emotion and motivation, and what are their neural substrates?”

Moral cognition involves several cortical regions: the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the medial and lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the anterior temporal lobes (aTL) and the superior temporal sulcus (STS) region that is involved in social perception. STS damage disrupts the ability to recognize socially relevant perceptual features of faces, body postures and movements. Patients with frontal lobe damage display a range of social disabilities and antisocial behaviors. A lesion of the anterior PFC, for example, impairs moral evaluations that rely on predicting the long-term consequences of actions. Patients with OFC damage display socially inappropriate behaviors; they fail to modify behaviors that produce negative outcomes. One patient, for example, became aggressive and callous towards other people after OFC damage; he failed to recognize facial expressions of anger and disgust. Anterior temporal lobe damage disrupts awareness of more abstract social values that are learned and practiced. Subcortical structures involved in moral cognition are the amygdala, ventromedial hypothalamus, septal area, basal forebrain, and the walls of the third ventricle, rostral brainstem and tegmentum.

The limbic system generates behaviors out of body needs and tends to override other regulators of behavior. If you are starving, you may steal or kill to obtain food. But if you are well-fed, you will obey the rules of supermarkets and pay to obtain food. Dysfunction in the limbic system is expressed as motivational disturbances with disorders of appetite, thirst, sexual drives, social attachment and aggressiveness. Studies of sociopaths reveal abnormalities in all these regions.

From Ethics and Morality by Stephen Gislason

October 10, 2010

Consciousness and the Really Real; From Neuroscience Notes

You can start by saying that if it has not been conscious to someone at some time it does not exist. However, you cannot say that if it has been conscious at some time to someone, it does exist, it is real. If you want to pursue old philosophical arguments, you might claim that the most fundamental stuff in the universe is photons or quarks or neutrinos, or cosmic energy or something like that. If you are diligent in pursuing inclusion-exclusion boundaries, you will always arrive at the simple fact that whatever the stuff of the really real is, without consciousness no one knows that it exists; ergo, consciousness is the most basic stuff of universe.

The distinction between inside and outside origins is irresistible. But, not all contents of consciousness are phenomena. To use Kant’s definition of terms, phenomena are events out there in the world and noumena are conscious experiences that originate from within. The brain places samples of its inner workings into consciousness; ghost images, selftalk, dreams are normal noumena. Delusions and hallucinations are abnormal noumena.
Consciousness is associated with awareness and vigilance. The unconscious animal will not hear or see the predator approaching. The conscious and vigilant animal maintains a global awareness of the local environment.

Sensory receptors are tuned to features of the environment that may satisfy drives or signal danger. Projects are generated by brain programs that often provide little or no information to consciousness except – “do it”.

Consciousness has a self-reflective option. You can stop, find a quiet place and ask “why am I doing that?” You may not get an answer or the answer you get by talking to yourself may not be true. Humans routinely fabricate nonsense stories about why they do things. If you insist on stopping and asking “why am I doing that?” repeatedly, but not compulsively, you become a poet, philosopher or monk.

You can play with the idea that you are an independent consciousness who got attached to a body for a ride on planet earth. This is something like taking a ride in Disneyland. You buy your ticket; get in and away you go. Maybe they give you a phony steering wheel so that you think you are driving, but actually, you are just along for the ride. You discover what is on the path, one experience at a time. You find out how you respond during the experience, not before.

Consciousness as a Container

As a monitor image of brain activity, consciousness will support different content. The contents of consciousness vary continuously and mostly involuntarily. We can refer to the contents of consciousness as "awareness" and you are more aware when the contents of consciousness are rich and varied. The underlying process of consciousness involves bringing monitor images of the outside world together with monitor images of inside the body. Images of the outside tend to be detailed and explicit in consciousness.

If consciousness is portrayed as a container for all experiences, you can begin to subdivide consciousness into regions depending on where the contents originated. There have been a variety of methodical constructions that divide the mind into compartments such as the consciousness and subconscious that interact in funny ways. An advance in understanding recognizes that most brain processing is done without representation in consciousness.

The contents that appear in consciousness are samples of brain activity. Vision dominates consciousness in a normal brain and is closely linked to the perception of location and sounds. When you can see, a marvelously detailed and interesting moving picture of what is out there dominates consciousness. The information content of the picture is enormous. If you try to record all the visual information in a few seconds of visual scanning your environment, you would consume gigabytes of computer memory. Thus consciousness consists of realtime monitor images that are not recorded in memory.

In contrast, monitor images of inside the body are vague and variable. Feelings and body sensation bubble up as if from below consciousness and disappear. If everything is going well, there may be little no feeling, just a pleasant neutral state. The idea is that a monitor image arising from the body tunes you into the world outside to locate something desired. When you are hungry, you feel vague sensations and scan your visual environment for signs of food. When you are thirsty, you look for signals that suggest water or water-containing beverages. Vague sensations from the inside are connected with detailed, explicit information from the outside.

Humans have difficulty describing the daily changes in the clarity of their consciousness. We do not have good words for all the possible changes in clarity of consciousness and descriptions such as "blurred, foggy, spacey, dizzy, dopey, intoxicated, drunk and stoned" indicate distortion or loss of monitor images in consciousness.

From Neuroscience Notes by Stephen Gislason MD

October 5, 2010

Consciousness from Neuroscience Notes

Consciousness is the experience of monitor images in the mind. At any moment, you and the world are revealed in your own separate consciousness. Everything that exists is manifest in consciousness. Paradoxically, we also know that much, if not most, brain activity occurs without the benefit of consciousness. The notion that consciousness is required to assimilate information and make decisions is as popular as it is wrong. The correct assumption is that an unconscious person can receive and process at least some information without awareness of what is going on out there.

Psychoanalytic and other metaphysical descriptions of the mind invented the “unconscious” or the “subconscious” to try to explain some of the more peculiar aspects of human behavior. Often consciousness and the subconscious were set apart as adversaries in a subterranean battle of mind. The findings of neuroscience suggest that all brain activity carries on below the surface and only a glimmer of this continuous brain processing is projected into consciousness as monitor images.
Much of the discussion about consciousness is polemics fueled by confusions that begin with inconsistent descriptions that continue into confusions that arise from that failure to clearly differentiate points of view.

The pathologist slicing a human brain in a clinicopathological conference will have a different understanding of bodybrainmind than a Buddhist monk in meditation. Humans often want to define consciousness using synonyms such as ‘awareness’ or by proposing properties of consciousness” such as "will" or "intentions”. No definition of consciousness will be completely satisfactory since mind and consciousness are inclusive. The problem, of course, is that we exist in consciousness and cannot get outside to begin an objective study.

Consider the Zen Buddhist koan: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Is this a good introduction to the seemingly impossible task of consciousness apprehending itself? The literal-minded person can dismiss the koan quickly by stating that clapping, by definition, is two hands coming together; therefore, one hand cannot clap and there is no sound. This pragmatic, rational approach fails to appreciate the uncertainties and ambiguities involved in language. A curious and open mind is attracted to the idea of one hand clapping and may enjoy contemplating the peculiarities of languages, images of hands in motion and sounds in nature.

Consciousness cannot be constrained by definition, cannot be captured by description, and cannot be limited by measurement. The essence of Zen insight is that conclusions are often limiting and unfriendly. Human names and categories are artificial and distort the understanding of and the appreciation of what is really going on out there. The creative mind stays, open and interested.

The study of the brain has not revealed exactly how consciousness works, but we know practical things about consciousness. Consciousness depends on spontaneously emitted pulses from brain stem neurons that ascend in a complex mesh of activating circuits to awaken neurons in the limbic system, thalamus, and cerebral cortex. Without this ascending activation, humans lapse into a coma. Four neurotransmitters are important in creating consciousness – norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. Drugs such as anesthetics that interrupt consciousness interfere with cerebral cortical activation.

Pacemaking neurons in the brainstem pulse rhythmically, sending activating signals into the thalamus. Pulses of electrical activation are accompanied by pulses of chemicals released to sustain activation. The thalamus, in turn, activates the cerebral cortex and links all subsystems in meaningful packages of activity that deliver monitor images of their activity to consciousness. Cortical neurons return signals to the thalamus so that cortical activation can be regarded as a looping system that recurs and resonates. We can speculate that several brain modules acting together have high-level executive functions and at the same time contribute to a continuous, composite monitor image.

The deep question is that if I am that consciousness that is the monitor image of my brain activity, where exactly do I exist?

No one will ever know if the conscious experiences of other creatures are similar to our own, but it is reasonable to suggest that there is a range of consciousness that begins as monitor images in animals with little and simpler brains and expands to more diverse and detailed monitor images in animals with bigger more complicated brains.

There is little doubt that birds are conscious, dogs and cats are conscious. You can assume that consciousness is more developed in primates and is associated with increasingly intelligent adaptation to changing environments and increasing complexity of social interactions. You can argue that not only do humans have the chimpanzee experience built into their minds, but humans probably feel most connected, most spiritual, most attuned to the world when they are enjoying chimpanzee-like experiences.

From the book, Neuroscience Notes by Stephen Gislason