Incognito, The deep Future and the lost world of the Neanderthals.



Amazon review (5 stars out of 5)
of David Eaglemans book ''Incognito''.

March 25th, 2012 by Simon Laub.

David Eaglemans book ''Incognito'' is more than just a good place to start (as we venture further into the frontiers of brain-land). It is a stunning exploration of the mind, a great expedition into the wondrous world inside our heads.

Eaglemans tour de force starts with Vision.
About one third of he human brain is devoted to vision. And human vision is nothing like a faithful representation of ''what is out there''. It is nothing like a camera just taking a picture.

Instead, brains reach out into the world and actively extract the information they need.
And sometimes brains make up a reality that is simply not out there! The Blind Spot demonstrates this rather nicely.

The Blind Spot was discovered in 1668 by the French philosopher and mathematician Edme Mariotte.
It is a sizable patch in the retina with no photoreceptors. Indeed, a surprising discovery because our visual fields appears continuous!
Of course, with two eyes we have full coverage of the scene, as the blind spots are in nonoverlapping locations. But what makes the blind spot tricky to discover is not that - But the fact that the brain ''fills in'' the missing information from the blind spot.
Our visual world: Our peripheral vision is actually pretty bad. Only wherever you cast your eyes is in sharp focus, the rest is a blur, but we assume that the whole visual world is sharp and in focus:

[p.23] ''The resolution in your peripheral vision is roughly equivalent to looking through a frosted shower door, and yet you enjoy the illusion of seeing the periphery clearly...

Try this demonstration:
Have a friend hold a handful of colored markers or highlighters out to his side. Keep your gaze fixed on his nose, and now try to name the order of the colors in his hand.
Even if you are able to report some colors in your periphery, you won't be able to accurately determine their order.

The brain invents a patch of the background pattern for us to ''see''. With no information from the spot - the spot is filled with the patterns around it!
Eagleman notices that it is quite strange that noone was aware of the blind spot before Mariotte in 1668. Astonishingly, great minds - like Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Galileo - was not aware of this basic fact of human vision!?

It gets weirder though. Inside our visual system we have motion detectors. If motion detectors declares that something is moving, that is what we believe.
Eagleman gives us a story about a woman who had survived carbon moxide poisening, but had suffered brain damage to these motion detectors.
The result: She could no longer see motion. Crossing a street she could see cars, but had no sense of movement to them. Life becomes a series of snapshots...

Reality out there is really a mere construction. And according to Eagleman, out there isn't even all that interesting to the brain anyway: ''The entire central nervous system works this way; internally generated activity is modulated by sensory input. In this view, the difference between being awake and being asleep is merely that the data coming in from the eyes anchors the perception.
Asleep vision (dreaming) is perception that is not tied down to anything in the real world.
And being awake is just like being asleep, except we add a little (to the ''dream'') from what is actually in front of us, out there in the real physical world!?

Brain constructions:
Mixing senses just makes it even more confusing how the brain constructs the world.
Take the McGurk Effect:
In the clip above the sound doesn't change. But the visual input changes. So, the brain makes you hear something else (Probably it goes from ''ba'' to ''fa' or something like that). Try hearing it, without looking at the mouth.
The sound does stay the same!

That is a nice piece of brain editing, where sound and vision are coordinated in an early processing stage outside conscious control. Vision dominates hearing, so hearing is adjusted to the visual cue, even though it is completely wrong.
Good job ! :-)

Obviously, it adds to the confusion, that awareness only gives us a small slice of reality. I.e. our brains know so much more than we are aware of.
In the book, Eagleman asks us to consider anterograde amnesia (partial or complete inability to recall the recent past, while long-term memories from before the event, that caused the brain damage, remain intact). The surprise here is that implicit memory is complety separable from explicit memory.
[p. 58] ''(Such) patients can't consciously recall new experiences. But if they spend the days playing a particular game (tetris) - they will improve their performance playing this game, without being able to remember anything about playing the game (consciously).''
Again, what we are aware of is obviously only one version (slice) of reality, and perhaps even a constructed version.

Actually, thoughts are constructed... What we find delicious, tasty etc. is hardwired by evolution (I.e. most humans are hardwired to be attracted to other humans, not frogs? Actually, our entire mental landscape - ethics, emotions, beauty, social interaction etc. - is hardwired through evolution!).
[p. 76] ''Our evolutionary goals navigate and structure our thoughts.... It means that there are certain kinds of thoughts that we can think, and whole categories of thoughts we cannot.''

Umwelt and Umgebung: And we certainly live in a world that is restricted by our senses.
According to the german biologist von Uexkull our senses gives us a Umwelt (the environment, surrounding world) to live in - Where the bigger reality out there is the Umgebung. Different animals in the same eco-system pick up on different signals from their environment, depending on what kind of sensors they have. Each have its own umwelt.
And, what you don't have - you don't miss. Humans are not missing the extra scents that a bloodhound dog would experience.

Built in Brain Programs:
Where neuroscientists study the pieces and parts that make up brains, evolutionary psychologists study (brain) software that solves social problems.
And the psychologists have a lot to study, as we have a lot of programs running inside our heads....
[p. 83] ''When babies pop into the world, they have neural programs specialized for reasoning about objects, physical causality, numbers, the biological world, belief and motivations of others, social interactions.''

All the programs are of course made according to evolutionary specifications.
Take the glimpse effect: [p. 92] ''In a study, participants where asked to rate the attractiveness of people of the opposite sex they only saw briefly, and later to rate the same photos they had seen before, but this time with as much time as they wanted.
Result: Briefly glimpsed people are rated more beautiful.
So, why should the visual system always err on the side of believing, that a
woman seen briefly is more beautiful than she actually is?
Reproduction, obviously! You can easily double check and take your time if in doubt.
But it is no good to believe that someone you have just seen briefly is unattractive, if she is in reality attractive. That is saying goodbye to a bright genetic future - so, obviously, that is not the way the system is built.....

Overlapping Systems:
The two hemispheres of the brain: In the book, Eagleman goes through a lot of examples of competing systems within the brain that does almost the same thing. Overlapping systems that compete and weigh in with their own particular opinion about the situation out there in umwelt.
The most obvious examples of competing system is with the two hemispheres of the brain, left and right. Two doubles of the same basic plan.
[p. 125] ''Evidenced by a type of surgery called a hemispherectomy, in which one half of the brain is removed, done in case of intractable epilepsy. Amazingly, as long as the surgery is performed on a child before the age of eight, the child is fine.... with only half a brain the child eat, read, speak, etc. It is not possible to remove any half of the brain, you cannot remove the front half and expect survival. But the right and left halves reveal themselves as copies of each other?''.

But there are other examples of competing systems within the brain. Take memory. There are apparently more than one way to store memories in the brain. Under normal circumstances, daily events are consolidated by the hippocampus. But in frightening situations, the amygdala, also lays downs memories along an independent, secondary memory track.

Brain democracy: With many systems weighing in all the time, ''Incompatible ideas will result in one side or the another winning out: A story will be constructed that either makes them compatible or ignores one side of the debate.''
- Just like in a democracy :-)

Obviosly, a lot of the input comes from Zombie systems far below our awareness. So, we have no idea of what is being voted out. It takes a lot of fabrication to make a coherent story (See the ''McGurk Effect'' above). So, the brain spends a good deal of time making fabrications ....

[p. 140] ''Consciousness exist to control - and to distribute control over - the automated alien systems. A system of automated subroutines that reaches a certain level of complexity, requires a high-level mechanism to allow the parts to communicate, dispense resources, and allocate control.''
[p. 194] ''Consciousness seems to be about setting goals for what should be burned into the circuitry.''
''From an evolutionary point of view, the purpose of consciousness seems to be this: An animal composed of a giant collection of zombie systems would be cognitively inflexible. It would have economical programs for doing particular, simple task. But there would be no way to rapidly switch between tasks or setting goals to become expert in novel and unexpected tasks.''

According to Eagleman it follows from this, that:
- Consciousness is not an all-or-nothing quality, but comes in degrees
(For more on this, see my post on consciousness as integrated information [1]).
- An animals degree of consciousness will parallel its intellectual flexibility.

When something goes wrong with the executive conscious control, a human can quickly spiral out of control.
Alien Zombie subroutines normally balanced and controlled by the higher executive control systems might suddenly become active in patients, who have damage in their frontal cortex executuve control systems.
Eaglemans account of such scenarios are pretty horrific and very convincing.

A physical system:
Eagleman has some brilliant observations about the brain as a physical system. I.e. it is important to remember that the brain is actually a physical system, and can change behaviour when given certain chemicals:
A pill called fluoxetine might chase away depression.
Schizophrenic symptoms can sometimes be controlled by risperidone.
Mania can treated by lithium.
Cocaine is a rather uninteresting molecule. What makes it interesting for humans is that it fits lock-and-key into the brains reward circuits. Hijacking them into telling the brain that this is the best possible thing that could be happening...

Understanding the brain:
Is not easy though. Physical or not. Eagleman mentions his colleague Read Montague. Who has speculated that we might have built in algorithms that protect us from ourselves. In much the same way as computers have boot sectors, which are inaccessible while running normally. According to Montague: When we try to think about ourselves too much we tend to ''blink out'' ?

Whatever the truth, Eagleman concludes his wonderful book by stating that we don't have the ''understanding the brain''-problem cornered yet.

Well, probably not, but he certainly has provided us with some lovely insights!
What a briliant book!

Amazon: [2],[3].


Simon Laub


Deep Future.

Extracts from NewScientists (March 2012) guide to the next 100.000 years.

Intriguing article about humanity's next 100.000 years in this week issue of NewScientist.
Sure, 100.000 years is an unfathomably long time. But we might still be around even in this distant future!

Actually, according to astrophysicist J. Richard Gott, we will likely last anywhere from 5.100 years to 7.8 million years.
Probably, technology that runs out of control will be the biggest threat (nuclear weapons, bioengineering, nano technology).
- We are unlikely to be wiped out by a killer virus pandemic (the worst so far, the 1918 flu pandemic, killed less than 6 percent of the worlds population).
- Surely, super volcanoes are bad news. But we might even survive such monsters. Every 50.000 years or so, a super volcano erupts and ejects more than 1000 cubic kilometres of ash (Such events have been linked with crashes in human populations. E.g. 74.000 years ago the Toba volcano erupted in Sumatra). The chances of another super eruption in the next 100.000 years is estimated to be between 10 and 20 percent, according to volcano experts. This would plunge the surface of the Earth into darkness for five or six years - and global harvests would suffer enormously. Billions of people would die. But it would have to happen twice in close succession to kill off humanity. Which is extremely unlikely, statistically speaking.
- In any 100.000 year period the Earth will probably be hit by a 400 metre asteroid. Enough to destroy a country like France. But not enough to destroy humanity. Global effects from asteroid hits come only approximately every 500.000 years. So, in the next 100.000 years the chance of global asteroid destruction is ''only'' 20 percent.
And really, shouldn't we humans be clever enough to build some kind of asteroid defence in the not so distant future?

So, we might actually survive, and live to see beyond the next 100.000 years!

Obviously, in 100.000 years we probably will have turned into cyborgs with protheses in our brains, and nanobots running around in our blood. But still sort of human, sort of....

And then we can venture into deep space to meet the aliens out there.
See my post on ET minds.


Simon Laub


The real Neanderthals.

The Neanderthals are fascinating.
Anatomically, they are very close to humans. They lived in Europe and Asia, they used spears for hunting (using close-quarters hunting strategies), they did control fire and their brains were big enough to support language. And they did live in small nuclear families.
Still, humans and Neanderthals are different species [4]. And, strangely, the Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record about 25,000 years ago [5].

Humans, on the other hand, survived the last ice-age (from approximately 110,000 to 15,000 years ago) [6] . And after a 100.000 years or so we went from being hunter-gatherers [7] to being farmers (Happened some 10.000 years ago in Turkey [8]), With civilization following shortly thereafter.

But what was the difference between humans and the Neanderthals?
Certainly, early humans did some strange things. I.e, Archaeologists have found evidence that humans played flutes [9] some 35 - 40.000 ago (Swabian Alb, Germany), and made cave art some 32.000 years ago [10]. And maybe, humans had better and bigger social networks, where we could copy good tricks from one another?
Really, you wonder, could flutes and cave art be the difference between survival and extinction?

Thomas Wynn and Frederick L Coolidge have some additional thoughts on the matter in this weeks New Scientist.

NewScientist opinion, January 14th 2012.

From the January 14th, 2011 opinion by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L Coolidge.

''A joke hinges on surprise juxtapositions of unexpected or impossible events. Cognitively, it requires quite an advanced theory of mind to put oneself in the position of one or more of the actors in a joke - and enough working memory (The ability to actively hold information in your mind and use it in various ways).''

According to Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge a Neanderthal could never do that! But neanderthals might indeed have enjoyed ''physical humour'' - Painful memories of tripping or hitting our heads, but without too much language or too many symbols.

The Neanderthals shared 99.84 percent of their DNA with us. They lived strenuous lives, preoccupied with hunting large mammals. But apparently, they never travelled outside small home territories (rarely over 1000 square kilometres).
When it came to technical innovation, the Neanderthals came up with few real innovations, even in periods spanning several hundred thousand years. Active invention takes thinking by analogy and good working memory. Evidence from archaeological sites seem to indicate that neanderthals had reduced capacity (compared to humans) in these areas.

Neanderthals had short lifespans - less than 35 years. So, there weren't a sense of recent past. And they probably lacked the cognitive skills to deal (sensible) with strangers and large social groups.
The Neanderthals probably had language and some kind of syntax (Their hunting tactics suggest this), and their brains had a well developed Brocas region (for speech).

So, we could have interacted with the Neanderthals. They would have been better at well learned cognition than humans, but not as good at developing new solutions. They would have been good at small-scale social cognition, but would have lacked the skills for interacting with strangers in large societies.

Or, so at least, according to Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge.


Simon Laub


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