Mirages of the Mind.

According to the October 19th, 2013, issue of NewScientist, the more we probe the brain, the less we understand it.
Certainly, there are more to the brain than the colour photos that mass media inundates us with.
See Mind Mirages.

It is a Mindboggling world out there...
And we are the Last Ape Standing, with a mind they might actually be able to understand some of it...

Mirages of the Mind.

NewScientist article, October 19th, 2013.

Legrenzi and Umiltas book NeuroMania (See my review here) deals with all of those colour photos of the brain, that mass media inundates us with. Pictures that apparently show us the precise location in which a certain thought or emotion occurs in the brain...

According to the Legrenzi and Umiltas: Indeed, using blood flows to pinpoint mental activity is both difficult and leads to problems.
One problem, that remains to be solved, is the question of variations in blood flow, which have a latency of 5 seconds or more (i.e. it takes at least 5 seconds to get started). Whereas, human thought on the other hand, has a latency of just a few tens of milliseconds.
So, can we be sure that very fast variations in thoughts are signalled by much slower variations in cerebral blood?
And on it goes..., see here for more on the issues raised by Legrenzi and Umiltas.

In the October 19th, 2013 issue of NewScientist, the story continues:
John Ioannidis has documented serious flaws in the ways that many - if not the vast majority of - neuroscience studies are designed, analysed and reported.
That should perhaps be a warning whenever we read headlines about studies capturing snapshots of the brain on ''love'', ''fear'', ''religion'' or ''politics''. It turns out that many of these colourful brain scans may offer little more than mirages, obscuring the true picture of the mind in action.
fMRI is based on studying the flow of blood in the brain, with more blood rushing to areas working the hardest. The scans reveal bright splotches of neural activity inside people's heads, as they engage in different tests of their capacity to see, feel, remember or think.
We are instantly (too quickly) seduced by these technicolour insights.
To understand why, first consider that a typical typical fMRI scan of the whole brain contains as many as 100.000 three dimensional pixels, called voxels, a vast amount of dasta to analyse. Researchers use specialized software to find clusters of voxels that light up, when participants view images that trigger, say, empathy or emotional responses.
However, the challenge is that true signals can be obscured by underlying random fluctuations in those voxels - a bit like static noise on a untuned TV. fMRI software tries to filter that out, but it cannot work miracles, so many areas will inevitable show some increased activity simply by fluke.
Ideally, neuroimagers should use two set of scans, One set is for identifying which voxel clusters are highly activated during the experiment. Having found these regions, you look at these regions in a second set of scans to confirm that the response wasn't due to random fluctuations.
Pashler and Vul found that many researchers made the mistake of using just one set of data, which allows random noise to inflate an apparent link to a behavioural response or trait...
Some exciting, but premature, conclusions have made because of these problems, including overly simplistic ideas about the origin of personality traits. ...
The critique didn't go as far as overturning broader conclusions, but it raised question marks ...
The idea that you can map complex personality traits to a few specific regions, like the Amygdalae, is increasingly considered to be a pipe dream, says cognitive neuroscientist Tal Yarkoni.
Personality traits are now thought to be associated with ''lots of different brain regions interacting in complex ways''.
And it gets worse:
A study from Michigan demonsrated that an fMRI experiment could be analysed in nearly 7000 ways - and the results could vary hugely.
With so much flexibility, neuroimagers can unintentionally (or indeed deliberately) analyse their results in ways that yields the most favourable results. One tongue-in-cheek report showed that even a dead salmon's brain could appear to be thinking inside a scanner, if the wrong techniques were used.
The results were grim. The number of subjects used in the experiments was simply to small for reliable results to come out of them, even if they passed the standard statistical tests.
In other words, four out of five studies might have been missing the actual biological effect or mechanism, and therefore reported false negatives...
And with such low statistical powers, if you detect something that seems to be significant, it has a higher chance of being a false positive...
The story of the brain just seems to be growing more complicated:
Based on such investigations, neuroscientists used to think that one region of the brain, the socalled fusiform face area (FFA), uniquely responds whenever a person sees a face. But the story has grown more complicated, as further research turned up a network of other regions that cooperate to recognise faces.
Suggesting that (FFA) can be subdivided into three separate areas. While these all respond to faces, each is also involved in processing different categories of other objects, such as flags, cruxifixes and snakes...
Making the FFA something like a swiss army knife in visual recognition.
It doesn't mean that the initial view of the ''face area'' was wrong. It was just incomplete.

October 27th, 2013.


Simon Laub (Let me Google that for you).

Mind Mirages and the Star Seeds Cafe.

Speaking about ''mirages of the brain'', memories, and the seeds we use to contruct the world with
- the lovely Star Seeds Cafe, Austin, Texas came to my mind
(Because I had many great meals there during my 2012 stay in Austin, talking about such subjects...
See more on my Nasslli 2012 page).

Sure, scanners are good, but verifying a unique link in one persons head between Mirages of the Brain
and a cafe in Texas (where this was discussed) - Well, it is probably safe to say,
that we will have to wait a few years before the scanners are able to pick up such subtle connections ...

Our Mindboggling World.

Amazon review, February, 2014.
4 stars out of 5.

According to Marcus Chown, our world is a wonderful world.
Well, certainly, but it is also a mindboggling world.

And, certainly, there is something truly delightful and mindboggling on almost every page in this great book.

- - -

A human is a colony of about 100 million million cells (37.2 trillion cells according to National Geographic).
Each cell is as complex as a major city.
Everytime we feel love or hatred, every single thing you ever heard, or seen, is your cells communicating with one another and the rest of the universe.
Cells are indeed stunning things.

Every human starts out being just one cell (when a sperm fuses with an ovum),
before it splits into two, four, eight and soforth.
But this is not all. Legions of other cells help us run our bodies.
In the stomach hundreds of species of bacteria work constantly to extract nutrients from our food
(According to the Human Microbiome Project there are more than 10.000 species of alien cells in our bodies.
40 times the number of cell types that actually belong to us).
5 million bacteria call every square centimetre of our skin home...

The cells need oxygen in order to liberate energy/fuel for the cells.
The oxygen we breathe in powers all the biological processes in our bodies.
A rather essential mechanism. Sure, we can go without food and water for days.
Indeed, cut off oxygen for more than 3 minutes and we are dead.

And, not surprisingly, much of this is very ancient machinery.
Actually, all of these cells (in our bodies, and on Earth) can trace their ancestry, in a unbroken line, back to the very first cell, which appeared at least 3.5 billion years ago...

But, no matter how complex this cell story gets, Chown makes sure that we don't lose sight of the stunning idea that it is all explained by Darwins theory of evolution by natural selection.
According to Richard Dawkins,
this ''greatest idea in the history of science'' has passed every test. And could easily be disproved, if just a single fossil turned up in the wrong date order.
Nevertheless, not all is explained, and a lot of issues are still contentious.
E.g. why do we have sex? The answer, according to one theory: A sexually reproducing population is able to outpace co-evolving parasites...
I.e. in one experiment bacteria rapidly drove a non-sexual, self-fertilising population extinct, while the sexually reproducing population survived... Sex is about not making homes for parasites?

And if we think that cells are mind-boggling complex, then what about brains?
Surely, ''a human brain can never completely understand the human brain''.
Well, Marcus Chown assures us that it is many brains that are trying to understand the brain.

So, maybe, there is hope. Maybe we will eventually understand (something).

More than our distant ancestors understood million of years ago...?
Distant ancestors that walked a lot like us.
I.e. Going back 3.6 million years, imagine this: Three australopithecines padded on two legs across a bed of freshly fallen ash in Laetoli, Tanzania (The footprints were discovered by Mary Leakey in 1976).
Certainly, it gives time to pause and reflect.
What did these distant ancestors know, what kind of thoughts did they have?

At least they had others. We humans are not meant to alone...
(Luckily) we humans have each other.
According to Desmond Tutu: ''We need other human beings in order to be human''
(In reality, there is no such thing as a solitary, isolated human).
Perhaps, the more humans the better ...
(I.e.) As long as our ancestors lived in small, scattered groups, knowledge might have been gained, lost, gained again, and lost repeatedly.
Indeed, only when hominin numbers swelled was there a chance of ideas surviving, spreading and spawning.
We need the multitudes, we need many humans...
Inventions like writing and cooking are not easy things to dream up!
Imagine the first human that came up with the idea, that through writing we could have a collective brain with an external memory!
Or that we could have an ''external stomach'' through cooking!

Some of humanitys most stunning inventions are very recent.
E.g. Our connected, modern world began in 1888 when German physicist Heinrich Hertz transmitted an electromagnetic wave.
Starting the era of radio- and telecommunication.
Which, obviously, also contributes into making society a mind-boggling complex place.

Complexity is everywhere. And it is not just complex inventions that make our world rather incomprehensble.
Take banking, a ''simple'' thing (and then perhaps not):
A surprising, even shocking, feature of banks is that they never lend out the money that people have deposited. They hold that as reserve against losses, and for day to day transactions.
Instead, banks create money. Money comes into existence in the very act of borrowing it.
So, do we really understand the complex multiply connected commercial world we have created?
According to economist John Kenneth Galbraith: ''Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.''
And, financial booms and busts is, according to former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, ''too complex for anyone to understand''.
Certainly, financial products such as ''Collateral Debt Obligations'' is not something many people really understood.
Still, such things obviously played a very real and significant role in the financial crisis of 2008.
Indeed, Chown understates it, when he says: ''Maybe it is really time for a Manhattan like project for economics.
With the well-being of 7 billion people in the global economy at stake, it could be money well spent...

And we have only scratched the surface (of mindboggling things out there).
Probing deeper, our world is really a quantum world.
With a lot of quantum weirdness going on.
Spooky action at a distance, Particles that can be waves etc. etc.
The only reason we don't see the quantum weirdness, is because we don't see individual atoms.
We do not observe the world,
We observe ourselves. We observe thousands of atoms on our own retina, not the actual photon that caused our retina change.

There is no end in sight concerning the mindboggling things...
Even if we understood all the building blocks of the world that would hardly be enough.
Understanding building blocks is nice, but life is not found in atoms or molecules, but in organization.
So, should we really understand the world, then we need to understand organization as well.

The mindboggling stuff just keep coming at us...
(Atoms) Protons in a certain volume of space can only be arranged in so many ways.
After a while the same patterns begin to repeat.
In other words, there are a finite number of possible stories and an infinite number of locations for them to play out (in the universe).
Consequently, every history occurs an infinite number of times.
We all have dobbeltgaengers walking around on other Earths out there...
Right now...
(See my Dobbeltgaenger post).


Amazon: [1], [2].


Simon Laub (Let me Google that for you).

Shanghai Blue and Mind Mirages.

Indeed, all what we have out there are Mindboggling ''Mind Mirages''.
Here, Shanghai. With more pics here.

Last Ape Standing.

Amazon review, March, 2014.
5 stars out of 5.

According to Chip Walter:
We don't know all that much about our deep past. But often, being human, we may give the impression that we understand more than we actually do.
Indeed, the evidence is too sparse and too random.
The ''illumination of our past is like trying to find a set of car keys in the Sahara with a flashlight''.

So, understanding humanitys past might involve a lot guesswork. Still, Chips walters great book rings true. Certainly, at the very least, it gives us a lot spectacular insights on how it could have been, on this our long and winding evolutionary road.
Maybe, it can't entirely be proven, but it certainly makes you wonder!
(It is) An engaging read, with mind blowing twists and turns on every page.
If today we were to make the face-to-face acquintance of an Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy), Homo Ergaster or Paranthropus robustus, what would we see? Intelligence, fear and curiosity is my guess, for starters. And they would see the same in us - because we truly are kindred spirits.
We are connected to them, indeed:
Human love, greed, heroics, envy, and violence all trace the threads of their origins back to the deoxybonucleic acid of the humans who came before us.
And we obviously need to understand them, if we want to understand who we really are as individuals and as a species. Without understanding ''we will not be able to build a future that is not simply human, but also humane''.

Looking at a sunrise, we need to be reminded, that for our ancestors that represented safety (signalling that we survived the night), while sunsets are uncertain, because we may not do so again.
Looking at children at a present day playground, climbing various instruments, we should perhaps let our minds wander back to ancient ancestors, who might have climbed trees to escape predators, while only the strongest dared sleep on the ground.

What a journey it has been.

The timescales are enormous. E.g. Chip Walters mentions the Paranthropus boisei species that lived in Eastern Africa during the Pleistocene epoch from about 2.3 until about 1.2 million years ago. Five times longer than Homo sapiens have been here; ''If we become this lucky, we will someday be dating our letters 802014''.
And, in the eons of time there is a lot of experimentation going on: ''Should a species have a steady diet of tubers, nuts and berries? Or a sparse, starvation diet of scavenged carrion. A Serviceable brain with a cast-iron stomach, or a great brain with a simpler, less sturdy digestive system?''
The robust approach was stabile. The gracile approach was risky. But payed off, and it was from one of those lines we descended.
There were other experiments along the same lines. Bigger and better brains, rather than more sex and more offspring as a survival strategy...
Reproductive agility for mental agility.
Bringing up the young was not easy:
When night fell, it was black and total with nothing more than the puny illumination provided by the long spine of the Milky Way, a fickle moon, or an occasional wildfire in the distance sparked suddenly and inexplicable by lightning or an illtempered volcano. And the big cats of the savanna like to hunt when the sun has set...
Luckily, human toddlers are the most successful learning machines yet devised in the universe.
And they can create brains that can map the world around them in great details. ''Survive dangers, discover rewards and keep its owner among the living''.
And, building the right brains is obviously essential.
That is - Right for the environment we will eventually live in.
I.e. brains are often very specialized and optimized for one particular environment...
Chip Walters gives us the intriguing story about the BaMbuti Pygmies, who lives in the dense Ituri forest of central Africa:
The anthropologist Colin Turnbull travelled to another part of Africa with one of these tribesman. This new place was characterized by broad plaines, as opposed to the dense jungle the BaMbuti call home.
The tribesman sees some water-buffalo, and asks Turnbull: ''What insects are those?''.
I.e. the tribesman had never before seen so much distance between anything, so he doesn't realize that the buffalo are small, because they are far away, instead of just being small.
Seeing things far away was not relevant in the world he grew up in.

With long childhoods we could learn even more.
And a great variety of interests and personalities became possible.
But, obviously, our world is a very human world.
So, we are always playing in relation to other humans.
We want to be connected. Solitary confinement is the worst kind of torture.
We want to be constantly in touch, laughing, crying, gossiping, listening in, listening to.
Our brains might actually be shaped for this:
I.e. according to psychologist Robin Dunbar, there is actually a correlation between the size of an apes brain, and the size of the troop in which it lived. The larger the group, the larger the brain. Juggling more relationships requires a boost in intelligence.

Still, it is a harsh world out there.
Take the Toba explosion on Sumatra, Indonesia some 70.000 years ago. It might have plunged the planet into a six to ten year volcanic winter and possibly a one thousand year cooling episode...
It probably nearly wiped us out - but perhaps, in the end, made us even more adaptable, so we eventually bounced back.
And some 50.000 years ago we crossed the Gate of Grief (Bab el Mandeb), over the Red Sea into Yemen. Out of Africa and into the rest of the world.

Out, into a world already inhabited with other members of the human family.
Like the Red Deer Cave People, that lived in south central China as recently as 11.500 years ago.
Where fossils reveal that they looked a little bit like us, but probably more like ancient humans.
Scans of their brain cases indicate that they had modern frontal lobes, but archaic parietal lopes - which might have made their reality different from ours... but how?
On the island of Flores in Indonesia a species called Homo florensiensis (hobbits) lived between 95.000 and 12.000 years ago. Perhaps descendants of earlier Homo Erectus settlers, who were reduced in size by an evolutionary phenomenon called island dwarfing (as resources are severely limited you can either grow smaller or starve). On Flores other animals might have followed the same path. Such as a population of Stegodons (an elephant like creature) that also dwarfed on Flores.
There were also Neanderthals out there...
Neanderthals that had bigger heads than modern humans...
An average cranial capacity of 1600 cc, compared to the 1400 cc average for modern humans. And they were certainly much stronger than modern humans, having particularly strong arms and hands. Males stood 164-168 cm and females about 152-156 cm tall.
(and) Not dumb at all.
Evidence from a cave in Iraq indicates that they burried their dead long before humans did.
Positioned fetal-like, as though they were sleeping.
But, they were living on the edge life. Injury, harsh weather, disease and malnutrition always close by. Perhaps, the whittling of their kind was inevitable.
Certainly, the Neanderthal became extinct around 30,000 or so years ago.
So, in time they disappeared, presumably one band at time. ...Sometimes to disease.. Sometimes to climate change... Or sometimes they may have cooperated and befriended their clever, slim competitors, until there was no difference between the two, and they had disappeared into the gene pool of their cousin species.
Chip Walter wonders what the Neanderthals might have been thinking:
Without more refined language, maybe the Neanderthals' worldview was less logical, and more dreamlike, almost surrealistic. ...
We ourselves touch on the mystical, the surrealistic, and the metaphysical in meditation, religious trances and hypnosis. Doesn't dance and music sometimes bring people to a mystical, trancelike state?
If we can come to these states, perhaps Neanderthals did, too, and then some, given the way the perceived the world. It makes you wonder what Neanderthal dreams might have been like. and it makes you wonder how accurate our ''reality'' is.
Still, the Neanderthals might not have been all that different:
Still, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon (radiocarbon dated to about 43,000 years ago) existence may not have been terribly different from the way Native Americans lived on the plains of North America as recently as the nineteenth century. Moving with the seasons, following large animals, hunkering down in the winter against the elements. ... Life was a short, harsh cycle of perhaps thirty to thirty-five winters and summers of close cooperation, family feuds and occasional encounters with other humans, then death, at which time the next generation took on the fight. ... They too sought love, enjoyment, and friendship and searched for ways to express themselves just as we do. They were, after all human as well. Just a different variety of humans.
But they probably didn't play as much...
Because they were so quickly snuffed out, and because they congregated in small groups, evolution apparently began to favor Neanderthal children who grew up faster, could bear children sooner, reached adult size and strength as rapidly as possible to replace the older members of the troop who passed on so quickly.
This would have two immense and not terribly favourable long term effects.
First, it meant Neanderthal children spent less time playing, learning, and developing socially and creatively in early life.
The effect - less personal adaptipility and creativity. They had less time to develop unique personalities and talents.
Second, it meant fewer mentors who could pass valuable knowledge to younger members of the clan. Neanderthals became so focused on their short-term need to survive that they were unable to develop the more complex skills that saved us (Homo sapiens) over the long haul.
And, playing, singing and dancing is important.
Charles Darwin speculated in The descent of Man that humans used both dance and song to win the hearts of potential mates:
''I conclude that musical notes and rythm were first acquired by the male and the female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus musical tones became associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling... We can thus understand how it is that music, dancing, song and poetry are very ancient arts.''
Zoologists call the singing, dancing or fighting that animals do to gain the attention of mates for lekking. It is all about being funny, insightful, charming, articulate and quickwitted.
Researchers have found that women, for example, laugh more when they are in the company of men. This isn't because men are exceptional funny, but because (subconsciously) women are encouraging men to lek, so they can gather information and observe what the man has to offer. The more she laughs, the more he shares and reveals.
Indeed, the brain is invisible. So it reveals its fitness by generating behaviours that are extraordinary, surprising and impressive. By making behaviours that others will find it difficult to do. People wants to matter. In Chip Walters words:
If you don't survive physically, you die.
If you don't survive socially, it means you don't matter, and that is, in its own way, also deadly.
Obviously, a person can gain power using greed, envy, jealousy or violence. But this doesn't reveal a fit brain.
Creativity on the other hand does reveal a fit brain. Brains did not evolve to be creative, it is a fortunate sideeffect of evolution. A sideeffect that is now the force that defines our species.
In Bernard Shaws words: "We don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing". We are ''infovores'' - we crave new knowledge and experience in much the same way that we crave food. Our minds are itching to play. Lifelong children, hungry for new knowledge.

Still, Chip Walter ends this remarkable tour de force with words of warning:
The world we have been creating recently might not be all that good for us. In the american population 68 pecent of the population is overweight, three in ten say they are depressed, 42 percent are irritable or angry.
Indeed, stress is a sign that the living is growing unfit for the world in which it lives...
Something has to give - and that something is always the living thing.
In the end it is going to be the child in us, that is going to bail us out - if anyone. It is the one inside of us that can fancy the impossible, and wonder why. It is the one who has gotten us this far.
What a remarkable and wonderful book!

Amazon: [3], [4].


Simon Laub (Let me Google that for you).


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