Saturday, March 30, 2013

Synchronizing Chimps?

In my thinking about music I have emphasized the simple fact that it involves close synchronization with others. As such synchrony seems neurally simple–fireflies can do it, and spectacularly–the apparent face that we can do it while our close primate relatives apparently cannot is something of a puzzle. My thinking on this goes back to the late 1970s and the work of William S. Condon, a pioneering researcher of interactional synchrony among humans. Condon argued that humans and fireflies were unique in this ability, and that's the position I took in Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture.

However, YouTube videos have revealed that song birds have this ability as well. And now researchers at Kyoto University have done study that demonstrates synchronizing ability in a single chimpanzee, although the study is a bit difficult to follow. Three chimpanzees were tested on their ability tap a steady rhythm on a keyboard. While they were doing this they would also, under some conditions, hear a steady tapping pulse at the same time. One of the three chimps, Ai, spontaneously synchronized her tapping to the pulse while the others seemed to ignore the sound. Ai was also the oldest and most experienced of the three.

However, several questions about behavioral synchrony in chimpanzees arise from current experiment. For example, we did not find flexible alignment of Ai's tapping to other auditory rhythms whereas humans can intentionally synchronize their tapping to various rates in a rage between 200 ms to 1800 ms17. Additionally, Ai's accuracy of tapping was relatively weak and lack of evidence of negative asynchrony makes it unclear whether Ai had clear intention to entrain her movement with auditory rhythms. Moreover, it is also unclear whether Ai's synchronized tapping was truly auditory-motor entrainment because the keyboard produced sound when keys were tapped and it is possible that Ai aligned her sound with auditory stimulus sound. Thus, differences in synchronized tapping between chimpanzees and humans should be clarified extensively in further studies in order to place Ai's synchronized tapping in previous human tapping studies.
The human capacity for synchronization appears to be universal, accurate, and quite intentional. We can turn it on and off and will.

Still these hints from birds and now a single chimp are tantalizing. Perhaps the capacity is lying there in the nervous system, but it is only humans that have managed to tap into it. If so, just how is it that we've been able to do so?

If I had to guess, I'd suspect it has to do with the fact the humans are born earlier in their development than other primates are, and hence are exposed to human-filled external world earlier in life.

Musician's Journal: The Magic of the Bell

This experience has had a profound effect on how I think about music. I used a reworked version to open the second chapter of Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture.

Introduction: Together on the One

Interpersonal synchrony, moving, precisely, to the same beat as your fellows, is the core of social experience. The thrusts and jerks of an infant’s limbs, the timing of glances and twists of the body, will follow the speech rhythms of someone talking to the infant. Couples casually strolling in the park walk in step. People at a ball game make a “wave” in support of their team. All societies have rituals where people gather together and synchronize their movements, and thereby their hearts and minds, in affirmation of the central values of their culture.

I want to consider an example which is immediately familiar to me. This behavior is happened my current homeland, upstate New York, which is as familiar to me as Africa was to the original African-Americans. It involves bell playing based on traditional African techniques.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Many genes are completely new inventions and not just modified copies of old genes

Summary (from Phys.Org):
It is easier to copy something than to develop something new - a principle that was long believed to also apply to the evolution of genes. According to this, evolution copies existing genes and then adapts the copies to new tasks. However, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön have now revealed that new genes often form from scratch. Their analyses of genes from mice, humans and fish have shown that new genes are shorter than old ones and simpler in structure. These and other differences between young and old genes indicate that completely new genes can also form from previously unread regions of the genome. Moreover, the new genes often use existing regulatory elements from other genes before they create their own.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Hoboken Pier


Individual Differences in Human Brains

We're wired differently. Surprise! Surprise!
Although most of our brains are wired pretty similarly in areas that deal with sensory stimuli like sound and vision, the situation isn’t nearly so straightforward in brain areas that’ve expanded most in our species’ recent evolution – the areas, in other words, that are considered crucial for uniquely human abilities like speech and self-reflection. In these newer areas of the brain, neural wiring and activity show striking differences from one person to the next.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Tug of Intuition, or, Intuition as Reason Smasher

I keep thinking about the role of intuition in our thought processes. Here's a passage from a recent NYTimes piece discussing two thought experiments about whether or not consciousness can be accounted for in a physical way.:
The logical possibility of a zombie-twin strikes most people as intuitively obvious: what could there be in my overall physical make-up that logically requires that I be conscious? (Even Daniel Dennett, who in the end denies the possibility of zombies, has noted the powerful “tug” of the idea and admits, “I can feel the tug as well as anybody.”)
Presumably the "tug" Dennett talks about is the tug of his intuition, which is at odds with the explicit reasoning he develops in the case. Where does that intuition come from? – that's what interests me. The point of such thought experiments seems to be to send such intuitions crashing into explicit reasoning that is to the contrary.

Here's an old post about intuition, and another one. Here's my own comments on those thought experiments. Perhaps I'll say a bit more about intuition in this context.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sakaki Rides a Dolphin

This is one of the more popular posts at New Savanna, and it's about one of my favorite anime series. Enjoy.
I want to describe what happens in a brief scene (less than two minutes) in a popular anime series Azumanga Daioh, which is based on a manga series of the same name. It presents vignettes in the lives of a group of Japanese school girls during their three years together in high school. It has no overall plot.

This scene centers on two of the girls, Sakaki and Osaka (her nickname). I’m particularly interested in a 10-15 second segment near the end of the scene. This segment focuses on Sakaki.

While there is no overt sexuality in this scene, no sexual action, no talk of sex, this particular 10 second segment – in which Sakaki daydreams of riding a dolphin – is dripping with sexual overtones in the way the dream is cut into the scene. In one mode of analysis one might say that the dolphin ride is the overt content which hides (desire for) sex as its hidden content. I want to think about this segment in a different way. I don’t want so much to deny the hidden-content mode of analysis as I want to side-step it.

I’m interested in how the film works as film, how it works as something on which the mind can exercise its capacities. What happens is that this daydreamed dolphin ride cuts into a discussion of how certain sets of Japanese characters mean certain things. The discussion is thus rather cerebral while the (imagined) dolphin ride is deeply visceral. That dolphin ride, however, is as fully realized on the screen as the discussion is. In fact, it is more real to the viewer’s visual, somesthetic, and kinesthetic senses than the meanings of those characters.

That is what interests me.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Liquid Tone: Lena Horne on Music

Over the years I’ve been collecting anecdotes about the inner workings of music, especially about feelings and about moments of transcendence. Here are some remarks that late Lena Horne made to David Craig for On Performing (McGraw-Hill, 1987), his book about how musicians work their magic (p. 134):
And then when they killed [Robert] Kennedy and Martin Luther King, it seemed like a floodgate had opened. There had been a lot of deaths in my own family. . . . and when I say, I was different. I began to "listen" to what I was doing and thinking. I listened to the audience. Even to the quiet. I had never listened to it before. . . . I was different because I was letting something in. The tone was developing differently. I could do what I wanted with it. I could soften it. I wasn't afraid to show the emotion. I went straight for what I thought the songwriter had felt at a particular moment because he must have felt what I'd been feeling or else I couldn't have read that lyric, I couldn't have understood what he was saying. And I used my regretfulness and my cynicism. But even my cynicism had become not so much that as . . . logic. Yes, life is shit. Yes, people listen in different ways. some nights they're unhappy at something that has happened to them. OK. I can feel that knot of resistance. OK. That's where I'm going to work to. . . . And the second "eight" would be different than the first because the first was feeling it out and the second would change because I could come in "to my mood." . . . It developed out of this relaxation . . . a tone that was softer, more liquid.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Changizi on Visual Illusion

Mark Changizi explains that a number of visual illusions arise because the slow brain has to compensate for moving about in the world.

Girard Girard

During freshman orientation at Johns Hopkins I went to a lecture on cultural relativism given by Rene Girard. Both the topic and the lecturer were new to me. I came to understand that Girard was something of a rising star in the humanities and, thought I never studied with him, I was aware of him. When I went off to the State Universtiy of New York at Buffalo to get my degree in English, Girard was there in Comparative Literature. Again, I didn't study with him, but I was aware of him and I read his book on sacrifice, Violence and the Sacred. I got my degree and went out into the world and heard about Girard from time to time, getting the impression that he had become a significant figure.

But I had no idea!

And now there's an a private non-profit institute devoted to his work, Imitatio. The institute was founded by Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, who'd studied with Girard at Stanford. Here's a lecture Thiel gave on Girard's ideas, Girard in Silicon Valley.

At about the time Theil was giving that lecture Joshua Landy published a skeptical essay on Girard's ideas, Deceit, Desire, and the Literature Professor: Why Girardians Exist. He argues that Girard's central ideas are weak and that they've gained adherents because they promise ready explanations of about everything.

FWIW, I haven't had much use for Girard's ideas. But this juxtaposition is amusing, a captain of industry funding a Girardian institute, a scholar debunding Girardian thought.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Beer Before Bread?

Why did humans domesticate grains?
Current theory has it that grain was first domesticated for food. But since the 1950s, many scholars have found circumstantial evidence that supports the idea that some early humans grew and stored grain for beer, even before they cultivated it for bread.

Brian Hayden and colleagues at Simon Fraser University in Canada provide new support for this theory in an article published this month (and online last year) in the Journal of Archeological Method and Theory. Examining potential beer-brewing tools in archaeological remains from the Natufian culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, the team concludes that “brewing of beer was an important aspect of feasting and society in the Late Epipaleolithic” era.

Anthropological studies in Mexico suggest a similar conclusion: there, the ancestral grass of modern maize, teosinte, was well suited for making beer — but was much less so for making corn flour for bread or tortillas. It took generations for Mexican farmers to domesticate this grass into maize, which then became a staple of the local diet.

Once the effects of these early brews were discovered, the value of beer (as well as wine and other fermented potions) must have become immediately apparent. With the help of the new psychopharmacological brew, humans could quell the angst of defying those herd instincts. Conversations around the campfire, no doubt, took on a new dimension: the painfully shy, their angst suddenly quelled, could now speak their minds.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Consciousness, Two Thought Experiments (Minus the Thought)

Gary Gutting has recently outlined two thought experiments contemporary philosophers like to consider in thinking about consciousness. The objectives of these experiments is to suggest that consciousness remains as mysterious and elusive as ever, that it cannot be explained as a physical process, however odd and complex the process. Of course, we have not yet done so as far as I know, but that's not the point. The point is that we cannot in principle do so.

Gutting himself is non-commital: "I myself have come to no firm conclusions about the questions raised by these thought experiments, and I would be very interested in the ideas and arguments of Stone readers." I'm willing to commit: I think these two thought experiments are incoherent.

Zombie Twins
... consider a zombie. Not the brain-eating undead of movies, but a philosophical zombie, defined as physically identical to you or me but utterly lacking in internal subjective experience. Imagine, for example, that in some alternative universe you have a twin, not just genetically identical but identical in every physical detail—made of all the same sorts of elementary particles arranged in exactly the same way. Isn’t it logically possible that this twin has no experiences?
As far as I'm concerned, the case is closed before we get to that last sentence. If I have a twin that in some alternative universe that's identical to me down to the last itty-bitty detail, then that twin will have conscious experiences just like I do? Why? Because, strange though it may seem, that's how the physical world is.

The philosophers, however, are not satisfied with that. They want to play around with "logical possibility." Here's the next paragraph:
It may, of course, be true that, in our world, the laws of nature require that certain objective physical structures be correlated with corresponding subjective experiences. But laws of nature are not logically necessary (if they were, we could discover them as we do laws of logic or mathematics, by pure thought, independent of empirical facts). So in an alternative universe, there could (logically) be a being physically identical to me but with no experiences: my zombie-twin.
Though I know something of logic, but nonetheless it is not clear to me just what is going on here. What I suspect is that this paragraph is trading on the fact that, however much some of us believe that consciousness is a physical phenomenon, we do not in fact have any well accepted accounts of just how consciousness works, in detail. Such accounts that we do have tend to be abstract and complex, making them hard to grasp. It is easy for us to think of the physical structure of this twin as being remote from, only loosely associated with, consciousness. And so we fall into the trap and grant that it is not logically connected with that physical structure.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Pope and the Dalai Lama

Have they ever met, the Pope and the Dalai Lama?

I’m sure that many individual Roman Catholics and many individual Tibetan Buddhists have met. Perhaps some are neighbors and tend flower gardens side-by-side. Perhaps some’ve discussed their religious beliefs in a panel discussion at some august university. And perhaps some have just met in passing at a bus stop. But met they have in the course of their lives.

The Pope and the Dalai Lama are different. They are the heads of their religious groups. They have responsibilities and symbolic significance. They represent Roman Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism to the outside world and, of course, to their followers as well. The Pope and the Dalai Lama are not merely individuals, but they, if you will, are offices too. Offices that individuals occupy, for a time. But the office itself persists.

The Papacy is unoccupied as I write this. There is no Pope, only a conclave of cardinals seeking to elevate one of their number to that office. It is otherwise with the Dalai Lama. That office has an incumbent.

I suppose that the Pope is more visible in the world than the Dalai Lama and considerably more powerful too. Yet I also suppose that while all those cardinals are aware of the Daali Lama, he isn’t necessarily aware of any of them beyond a few particularly prominent ones. There is a difference between the head and the rest, a dramatic difference.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"The Weight"--A Classic Already?

From the Huffington Post, all together now:
In 1968, "The Weight" was a rock song, but since then, Aretha Franklin and Duane Allman have shown us that it's an R&B song; Mavis Staples has shown us that it's a gospel song; Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show have shown us that it's a bluegrass song; Waylon Jennings has shown us that it's a country song; Weezer has shown us that it's an alternative song; Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield have shown us that it's a blues song; and Cassandra Wilson has shown us that it's a jazz song. In the past 44 years, "The Weight" has lent itself to nearly every cultural context and musical genre in this country because it is infinitely singable. Like all great traditional songs, there's nothing so esoteric about "The Weight" that makes it unattainable to the audience, and it has a chorus that allows us to all sing our own small part in a much bigger song.

The beauty of countless versions of "The Weight" is what's shared among them: despite the musical form the song has taken, everybody in the audience sings along, and everybody sings along together.

Your heart is on your Facebook sleeve

PNAS has just published “Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior,” by Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell, and Thore Graepel. The abstract:
We show that easily accessible digital records of behavior, Facebook Likes, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender. The analysis presented is based on a dataset of over 58,000 volunteers who provided their Facebook Likes, detailed demographic profiles, and the results of several psychometric tests. The proposed model uses dimensionality reduction for preprocessing the Likes data, which are then entered into logistic/linear regression to predict individual psychodemographic profiles from Likes. The model correctly discriminates between homosexual and heterosexual men in 88% of cases, African Americans and Caucasian Americans in 95% of cases, and between Democrat and Republican in 85% of cases. For the personality trait “Openness,” prediction accuracy is close to the test–retest accuracy of a standard personality test. We give examples of associations between attributes and Likes and discuss implications for online personalization and privacy.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Animation Styles: Europe, America, Japan

Michael Sporn has an interesting post comparing animation styles.
The US tradition came directly from the wonderful work done mostly after hours at Disney’s studio in the 30′s. They learned how to time animation for weight, for mood, for expression and for balance... These people all mastered their timing. They knew what they were doing and did it as planned. The animation never does what IT wants to do, but it is controlled by the animator and his (her) timing.

The European style is a very different animal. The timing is flat. It’s usually even paced and moves robotically forward, not always by going in a straight line. The weight is always soft; the emotion is almost nil. The drawings are often beautiful, but there’s no real strength behind that movement.
And then Japan, mostly Miyazaki, but Sporn also mentions Satoshi Kon:
The Japanese market, of course, is very different than the rest, and, thanks to what Miyazaki has been doing and his success in doing it, things are changing radically. Where he once blended in with the Anime animation that was all present, things are now changing to more of an emotional, Western appeal. My Neighbor Totoro started something, that changed wildly when he did Spirited Away and Ponyo. When I saw The Secret World of Arrietty, I knew things had changed completely. There was real character animation on the screen. One character was different from the next, and a lot of it had to do with the movement.

Man-machine symbiosis?

I get by with a little help from my friends, humans that is:
...while programming experts still write the step-by-step instructions of computer code, additional people are needed to make more subtle contributions as the work the computers do has become more involved. People evaluate, edit or correct an algorithm’s work. Or they assemble online databases of knowledge and check and verify them — creating, essentially, a crib sheet the computer can call on for a quick answer. Humans can interpret and tweak information in ways that are understandable to both computers and other humans.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Horse meat? Isn't culture peculiar?

And at a time of immense strains brought on by the euro crisis and Continentwide austerity — when new, anti-European political forces are rising in country after country — the horse meat scandal has brought into the open the deep divisions, cultural and otherwise, that bedevil the European Union. A meat that nearly all Britons consider revolting, for example, is cherished as a protein-rich delight by a small but loyal minority in places like Belgium, the home of the European Union’s Brussels bureaucracy and Europe’s biggest per capita consumer of horse meat. (Italy, with its larger population, eats the most horse over all.)

For a surging camp of so-called Euroskeptics in Britain, the fact that horse meat has entered the food chain through a host of middlemen and factories scattered across the Continent stands as proof of unbridgeable cultural chasms that, in their view, make the European Union unworkable.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Seeing things: Anthropomorphism and Animation

From the The Thoughtful Animal blog at Scientific American:
Under certain conditions, even 2D shapes can be interpreted as animate social agents rather than simple intentionless objects. In other words, you have imbued the red and green circles with desires and intentions. You have granted them minds.

This phenomenon was perhaps most famously investigated in 1944 by Smith College experimental psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. In their first experiment, the psychologists simply instructed their female undergraduate subjects to “write down what happened” in the movie above. (The rest of this post will only make sense if you watch the video above!)

Most of the thirty four subjects interpreted the shapes in the movie as animate characters. Thirty two described them as people, and two described the shapes as birds.
In another experiment:
Having verified that humans spontaneously thought of the shapes in their video as animate, Heider and Simmel showed the film to another thirty six undergraduate students. They were explicitly asked to describe the personalities and desires of each of the shapes.

Thirty five of them thought of the big triangle as mean, and used adjectives like aggressive, warlike, belligerent, quarrelsome, angry, bad-tempered, dominant, and irritable. They described it as a bully or as a villain, and they thought it enjoyed “picking on smaller people.” Tellingly, it was universally described using male pronouns.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Hubley on Animation

Michael Sporn has reprinted a 1946 article about animation written by John Hubley and Zachary Schwartz. Both had had distinguished careers in animation by that time. Before World War II they'd worked on cartoons for entertainment. That's what animation WAS. But, things changed during the war and the animation industry started doing propaganda, of course, but also instructional films. It's the instructional work that changed their sense of what animation could do, hence their title, Animation Learns a New Language.

Here's a passage:
We can photograph reality. Or we can create a synthesis of reality, and record it.

For instance, we may see the subtle shades of expression on the face of a resistance leader before a fascist firing squad. This may be actual (documentary) or enacted. We see his bodily aspect, his clothes, his hands, the barren wall behind him, the distance between the man and the guns, the sky, the trembling, the blood. Dramatically, we are made to feel the relationship between the victim and the firing squad, the emotional conflict, the tension, the fear, the hatred. We can understand these emotions because we have experienced similar emotions. The specific situation is the focal point that gives us the clue to the general situation. We see this victim of fascism shot, and we gain a better understanding of the general nature of fascism.

With animation, this process is reversed. Instead of an implied understanding resulting from the vicarious experience of a specific situation, animation represents the general idea directly. The audience experiences an understanding of the whole situation.

Dynamic symbols, images representing whole ideas, the flags, the skulls, the cartoon characters, can explain the nature of fascism in terms of its economic roots, the forces behind it, the necessity for its policies of aggression, its historical roots, its political structure. The dynamics of changing symbols—ballots turning into guns, books to poison, plowshares to swords, children changing to soldiers, soldiers to graves—can carry a visual potency as clear as the growth of a seed into a plant. Our understanding of the process as a whole is experienced directly and immediately.

The significance of the animated film as a means of communication is best realized in terms of its flexibility and scope of expression. It places no limitations upon ideas; the graphic representation grows out of the idea.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

History is a tricky business

Figuring out what happened–mere who, what, where, and when, forget about why–can be a tricky business. The Sand Creek Massacre is a case in point. We know when, late in 1864, and who, but figuring out where has proven tricky. You'd think that would be obvious and easy, and no doubt it was back in, say, 1865 or 1866, but come a century later and it's all a muddle. Tedra Osell reviews Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek, which is about figuring out the where. She calls it " a complicated and beautiful narrative about narrative, a series of connected and interwoven stories about history and histories."

From the review:
It turns out that history—the official American version, at least—had also lost touch with the descendants of Sand Creek’s victims, members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who not only knew where the site was but had formal committees dedicated to memoralizing what had happened and visiting the site. This sets up the major, but by no means only, conflict in creating a new memorial: federal representatives, including scholars at state universities, members of the National Parks Service, and state and federal legislators decide that an extensive search and new memorial is called for. The Indian tribes on whom they call for help, however—represented primarily by Laird Cometsevah (chief of the Southern Cheyenne) and Steve Brady, head of the Northern Cheyenne Crazy Dogs society and Sand Creek Massacre Descendants Committee—are suspicious of the federal government. They are also amused by the feds having “lost” the site. Despite their suspicions, they agree to help “find” it and cooperate in establishing a National Historic Site because, as it happens, the tribes are pursuing reparations that had been promised but not fulfilled, and they hope that establishing a federally-recognized site will further that process.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Busy Bee Brain

With brains in the news these days (for example, all the hoopla about the Brain Activity Map project) I've decided to republish this old post suggesting that the brain is like a swarm of bees in your skull.

Ordering Mark Moffett’s Adventures Among Ants got me to thinking about a science fiction novel that knocked my socks off when I was 12 or 13: Man of Many Minds, by E. Everett Evans. It’s about George Hanlon, a man who had the ability to project his mind into other creatures. At a critical point in the book, when – I believe – Hanlon is about to be tortured, he projects his whole mind, every last bit of it, into a swarm of bees, thereby escaping the pain of torture.

I thought that was pretty neat.

But what does it have to do with Moffett’s book? That’s pretty simple. Ants, like bees, live in groups, and it’s not unusual to think of such groups as being some kind of superorganism – a notion that, according to this blog entry, Moffett subjects to a critical workout. That swarm of bees in Man of Many Minds is such a superorganism.

But when it “absorbed” Hanlon’s mind, what did it become then? The question is a rhetorical one; after all, it’s about something never really happened. It’s just fiction. But a very suggestive fiction.

Could the human brain be something like a hive of bees?


There is now a pretty strong consensus that the cerebral cortex (which is, by no means, the entire brain, but it is likely that this is where culture is carried) is organized into small columns of neurons. In a 1978 essay Vernon Mountcastle called these minicolumns and suggested that they have about 100-300 neurons each. He estimated that the neocortex consists of 600,000,000 of these minicolumns. He also suggested that these minicolumns are organized into macrocolumns, about 600,000 of them -- implying that there are hundreds of minicolumns per macrocolumn. (Mountcastle was clear that these numbers were just order of magnitude estimates & that is all I need for my purposes.) That makes these macrocolumns roughly the size of a typical invertebrate nervous system of 10K to 100K neurons. So, here’s my metaphor: Your neocortex consists of 600,000 buzzing bees going about their business.

Homunculus Talk about the Brain Doesn't Work

Colin McGinn takes on Ray Kurzweil:
Contemporary brain science is thus rife with unwarranted homunculus talk, presented as if it were sober established science. We have discovered that nerve fibers transmit electricity. We have not, in the same way, discovered that they transmit information. We have simply postulated this conclusion by falsely modeling neurons on persons. To put the point a little more formally: states of neurons do not have propositional content in the way states of mind have propositional content. The belief that London is rainy intrinsically and literally contains the propositional content that London is rainy, but no state of neurons contains that content in that way—as opposed to metaphorically or derivatively (this kind of point has been forcibly urged by John Searle for a long time).
See this old post on Silly Talk about the Brain  Pleasure Centers for  more discussion of such silly talk.

What I think is that this is very tricky business, talking of "states of neurons" vs. "states of mind." I'm inclined to think that we can talk about states of neurons without reference to the world in which an organism lives. But, to talk of states of mind, we must include the world in which the organism lives.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Interning in the Creative Class

Smells like indentured servitude:
The recession has been no friend to entry-level positions, where hundreds of applicants vie for unpaid internships at which they are expected to be on call with iPhone in hand, tweeting for and representing their company at all hours.

“We need to hire a 22-22-22,” one new-media manager was overheard saying recently, meaning a 22-year-old willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year.

Was Wittgenstein Right?

And was he a de facto pluralist?

Writing the The New York Times, Paul Horwich boils Wittgenstein down to this:
Philosophical problems typically arise from the clash between the inevitably idiosyncratic features of special-purpose concepts — true, good, object, person, now, necessary — and the scientistically driven insistence upon uniformity. Moreover, the various kinds of theoretical move designed to resolve such conflicts (forms of skepticism, revisionism, mysterianism and conservative systematization) are not only irrational, but unmotivated. The paradoxes to which they respond should instead be resolved merely by coming to appreciate the mistakes of perverse overgeneralization from which they arose. And the fundamental source of this irrationality is scientism.
But aren't there matters that cannot be resolved by the sciences, matters of ethics and aesthetics, for example? It's not at all obvious to me, for example, that philosophy has anything particularly interesting to say about consciousness, nor, for that matter, that the various sciences have it nailed down, but how to live one's life: Is that not a cause for concern? Must we not think about that?

See: Facing Up To Relativism and Unity of Being.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Neuroscience in the Popular Press

Psychologist Cliodhna O'Connor and her colleagues investigated how brain science was reported across 10 years of newspaper coverage. Rather than reporting on evidence that most challenged pre-existing opinions, of which there is a great deal, neuroscience was typically cited as a form of "biological proof" to support the biases of the author.

This is often a circular argument because studies typically compare groups based on identifiable differences and then look for how this is reflected in the brain. But what defines a person, experience or action as different is the totality of the thing itself, not just the workings of the brain. The "biological proof" argument makes about as much sense as saying that you have confirmed that pancakes and pizzas "really are" different because you have chemically analysed the ingredients. It's only in rare circumstances where two things appear to be identical that a biological analysis will be the deciding factor in confirming whether they differ or not.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication in Rats?

In an experiment that sounds straight out of a science fiction movie, a Duke neuroscientist has connected the brains of two rats in such a way that when one moves to press a lever, the other one does, too — most of the time.

The neuroscientist, Miguel Nicolelis, known for successfully demonstrating brain-machine connections, like the one in which a monkey controlled a robotic arm with its thoughts, said this was the first time one animal’s brain had been linked to another.

The question, he said, was: “Could we fool the brain? Could we make the brain process signals from another body?” The answer, he said, was yes.

He and other scientists at Duke, and in Brazil, published the results of the experiment in the journal Scientific Reports. The work received mixed reviews from other scientists, ranging from “amazing” to “very simplistic.”
I note that it wasn't simply a matter of sending signals from one brain to the other. Some learning was involved. You can find the original research HERE.

Long-Distance By Train

From New Orleans to Los Angeles by train, and interesting story in the NYTimes:
The cliché, familiar to air travel, of the nosy passenger who makes pestering conversation with his seat partners does not exist on the long-distance train. On the Sunset Limited, everybody is nosy, and no one seems to mind. There are several reasons for this. While it might be socially uncomfortable to speak with a stranger during a short trip, the scale seems to tip for trips longer than six hours, at which point it becomes significantly more awkward not to speak to your fellow passengers. Besides, if you’re taking a 47-hour train ride in 2013, you probably have an unusual reason for doing so. Train stories are much richer, more emotionally pitched, than airplane stories. And the train offers the possibility of cheap therapy: there’s ample time to relate your entire life story to a stranger, and you can do so in confidentiality, because you’ll never see the stranger again.

This kind of encounter is further encouraged by the tendency of Amtrak conductors to seat long-distance passengers next to each other, even if the next car contains 20 rows of empty seats. This policy is designed to keep rows open for passengers who board at later stops, but sometimes those anticipated passengers never materialize. The two communal cars also tend to encourage interaction: the Sightseer Lounge has open seating and is especially busy after lunch, and in the dining car, the host will combine any groups smaller than four people with strangers in order to fill every booth. Groups also coalesce at stations like Beaumont and El Paso in Texas and Tucson and Maricopa in Arizona, where the train stops for cigarette breaks. And at longer stops, like the nearly three-hour wait in San Antonio, passengers often venture out into the city together, heading to Denny’s for a midnight meal or to Alibis’ Sports and Spirits bar. Nobody on a long-distance train is ever really alone.