Consciousness, Entanglement, Humans, Origins, Optimism and more.



Consciousness as integrated information.

Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi article in Scientific American, June 2011.

In the article, Koch and Tononi proposes an ''integrated information theory of consciousness'' (Scientific American, June 2011):

Until recently, consciousness studies has been all about the so-called ''neuronal correlates of consciousness''.
The minimal brain mechanisms that together suffice to cause any specific conscious sensation, such as observing a sunset.
What is lacking is a general theory that allows us to assess whether a given system - human, animal, machine - can experience consciouss sensations.
Koch and Tononi provides one way to tackle the challenge with their ''integrated information theory of consciousness'':

The ''integrated information theory of consciousness'' has two axioms:
1. Consciousness is highly informative. This is because each particular conscious state, when it occurs, rules out an immense number of other states, from which it differs in it own particular way.

2. Conscious information is integrated. Whatever scene enters consciousness remains whole and complete; it cannot be subdivided into independent and unrelated components that can experienced on its own.
The unified nature of consciousness stems from a multitude of interactions among relevant parts of the brain. If areas of the brain becomes disconnected, as occurs in anesthesia or deep sleep - consciousness wanes and perhaps disappears.

And, to be conscious, you need to be a single integrated entity with a large repertoire of distinguishable states - the definition of information.


Φ (phi, pronounced fi) is a systems capacity for integrated information (and thus for consciousness): ''It can be measured by asking how much information the system contains above that possessed by its individual parts.
For the level of Φ to be high, a system must be made of parts that are specialized and well integrated - and do more together than they can alone.

In systems where the elements are largely independent - like the sensors in a digital camera - Φ will be low. Φ will also be low if all the components do the same thing, or if the components connect randomly. Φ is high in parts of the brain where neurons connect in meaningful ways.
It will surely be a difficult task to measure brains (or advanced machines) Φ from its wiring - but one way to probe for information integration would be to show a picture and ask a simple question like: ''Whats wrong with this picture'':
Pictures of object or natural scenes consists of massively intricate relations between pixels and objects...
A computer that analyzes an image - to see if the information in it does not cohere - requires far more processing than do linguistic queries of a computer database.... The degreee of information integration explains why. Although the hard disk in a modern computer exceed the capacity of lifetimes of memories, that information remains unintegrated; each element of the system stays largely disconnected from the others.

For ''conscious'' machines (Based on its ability to integrate information, it would consciously perceive a scene) - Koch and Tononi suspects that to achieve high levels of integration, structural principles like the ones used in the mammalian brain might well be exploited.


Simon Laub


The quintessential quantum effect - Entanglement - can occur in large systems, as well as warm ones.

Vlatko Vedral article in Scientific American, June 2011.

According to Vlatko Vedral in Scientific American, June 2011:
The quintessential quantum effect - Entanglement - can occur in large systems, as well as warm ones.
Including living organisms. Even though molecular jiggling might be expected to to disrupt entanglement.

Vedral continues:
''Modern physicists think that classical physics is just a useful approximation of a world that is quantum at all scales.''
In the modern view: ''The world looks classical to us because of the complex interactions an object has with its surroundings conspire to conceal quantum effects from our view.''
Objects, like cats, are not dead and alive, because information about the cats state leaks into the environment. This leakage is known as decoherence.
Larger things tend to be more susceptible to decoherence than smaller ones. Which is why the world appears to be classical. But sometimes the leakage can be stopped even for large objects.

''Experiments have now scaled things up - so that systems with a huge numbers of atoms becomes entangled and enters states that classical physics cannot explain.''

1999: Observed interference patterns for buckyballs, showing for the first time that molecules, like elementary particles, behaves like waves. Markus Arndt, Anton Zeilinger. University of vienna.

2010: Found that quantum effects enhance photosynthetic efficiency in two species of marine algae. Elizabeth Collini et al. University of Toronto.

And if solids can be entangled even when they are large and warm - it takes only a small leap of imagination to continue to large and warm systems like life.
Indeed, in 2000 Thorsten Ritz proposed that migratory birds might use entanglement in molecules in their eyes - to help them navigate.
And entanglement may also be a part of photosynthesis, according to Graham Fleming.
And even bigger systems might be entangled.

According to Vedral:
''Space and time are two of the most fundamental classical concepts, but according to quantum mechanics they are secondary.
The entanglements are primary.
... They interconnect quantum systems without reference to space and time.

Beautiful stuff!

Posterous: [1].


Simon Laub


Not human anymore?

Now we are 3% Neanderthal, up to 5% Denisovan and a whole lot of other earlier ancestors.

Jill Neimark article in Discover, May 2011.

According to Jill Neimark in Discover, May 2011: It used to be: Humans as the crown of creation. Where evolution turned a crouching ape into a tall, erect human male over the ages. But that ascent-of-man picture is now looking as dated as the flat Earth hypothesis.

In the new view, the path to Homo Sapiens was very indirect. Along the way, our planet witnessed many variations of the human form, multiple migrations out of Africa.
According to paleoanthropologist William Jungers: ''Human evolution used to seem simple and linear. Now you look at almost any time slice and you see diversity. We may be special and we may be lucky. But we are far from the only human experiment.''

Using DNA sequencing, scientists have learned that anatomically modern humans interbred with Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals) probably around 60.000 years ago in the Middle East, before they fanned out to populate Europe and Asia. Today 1 to 4 percent of the genome for people living outside Africa is Neanderthal!
Similar genetic analysis has also revealed an entirely new human group, called the Denisovans. The findings based on a 50.000 year old pinkie finger found in a cave in Denisova, Siberia. A small find, sure, but enough to establish that humans living in New Guinea today carry nearly 5 percent Denisovan DNA.

Ardipithecus ramidus.

Perhaps it all started with Ardipithecus ramidus, a creature nicknamed Ardi, that lived 4.4 million years ago in Ethiopias Afar Rift. Ardi climbed trees with her apelike hands and powerful built, grasping big toe, yet also walked on the ground in her woodland habitat. Especially surprising was Ardis teeth. The males of the species lack the long canines that are the hallmark of aggression in apes. Ardis teeth were short and blunt, a signature human trait. One that caried over to Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) much later. Apparently long teeth were no longer necessary to scare off competing males and ensure female sexual favours. Instead the males travelled long distances to seek out food for their chosen female, then walked back on their hind legs, carrying provisions in their hands. Where the extra food gave sexual loyalty, and the steady supply of food led to reproductive success.

Flo the hobbit.

If the Ardi discovery was surprising. Then the discovery of Homo floresiensis on the island of flores in Indonesia was even more surprising. These small people might show us that small is just as adept as big Homo lines. The ancestors of hobbits probably left the Rift area of Africa for South East Asia some 2 million years ago. More amazingly, hobbits seems to have survived into modern times alongside modern humans. They fashioned stone tools, hunted cooperatively, and even cooked with fire. All with a brainsize one-third the size of a Homo sapiens adult. According to australian archaeologist Michael Morwood: ''We know for certain that Flo's ancestor were on Flores at least a million years ago, because we have found stone tools on the island that are that old. "
But how is that possible with such a small brain? Anthropologist Dean Falk have looked at the hobbit skulls using three dimensional CAT scans:
''It was beautiful. The scans show that the hobbit brain was uniquely folded and unusual complex. The temporal lobes were really wide, which is an advanced feature. At the very front were two enormous convolutions in an area associated with executive functions like planning ahead, again a complex feature." Flos brain was globally reorganized in comparison to the brains of apes. That means that brain architecture and function are not always tightly constrained by size.''


Back to our own line. There has been at least two periods of interbreeding after we left Africa. First about 60.000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean, and then about some 45.000 years ago in eastern Asia. Offspring of the first interbreeding went to Europe, Asia and North America. Offspring of the second interbreeding went to New Guinea and possibly Australia.

Our species didn't branch out from all the others as sharply and irrevocably as we like to think.....

Posterous: [2].

From: Simon Laub
Newsgroups: alt.philosophy
Sent: Sunday, June 05, 2011 6:51 PM
Keywords: Neanderthal, Denisovan
Subject: Not human anymore? Now we are 3% Neanderthal, and up to 5% Denisovan !?


Simon Laub

Born in Africa - by Martin Meredith.

The quest for the origins of human life.

Amazon review by Simon Laub (4 stars out of 5).

We all want to know something about our origins! And after reading Martin Merediths book you will certainly be a little wiser. There are many pieces to the puzzle though. And there is no simple path, where evolution turns a crouching ape into a tall, erect human male over the ages. Instead, the path to Homo Sapiens was very indirect. Along the way, our planet witnessed many variations of the human form, multiple migrations out of Africa. etc.

Nevertheless, Martin Meredith gives a good overview:
Most of our modern day ideas about evolution comes from Darwin, so it is fitting that Martin Meredith starts his book about the quest for the origins og human life, with a Darwin quote! The most likely birthplace of humankind is Africa, since it is the homeland of gorillas and chimpanzees, apes which he deemed to be our closest living relatives. In Darwins ''The Descent of Man'' his precise words are: ''The living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and the chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man's nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our earlier progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.''
That all sounds very logical to the modern reader, but obviously Meredith is right to state that: The implications of Darwins theory were profound, it opened up the possibility of a world without purpose, or direction, or longterm goal. It stripped humankind of its unique status and was seen to undermine Victorian respect for hierarchy and social order.

Sure, it might all be horrible confusion. But there is also truth and wonder in Darwins approach, and Meredith opens the book with a very fitting Sir Thomas Browne quote: ''We carry within us the wonders we seek without us.''
I.e. the real story of our origins is also truly awe-inspiring and wonderful!
And surely we all like the idea about these daredevil paleontologists, that venture into the African bush to hunt for fossils. Fossils that will eventually tell us something about our origins.
Surely, we all think that Louis Leakey was a hero, that gave us many new insights into the origins of human life! Well, almost all. His wife, Mary, apparently weren't 100 percent pleased to see him receiving ''a reception that in a least some parts of the States turned into outright hero-worship.''

Others contributed to our knowledge as well; Raymond Dart named a species called: Homo habilis (that lived 2.3 to 1.4 million years ago). The worlds first toolmaker - a handyman. According to Leakey: To me the most significant step that ever was taken in human history, the thing that turns animal into man was this step of making tools to a set and regular pattern.''
//-- Or one of the first toolmakers: The olderst recognized stone tools date back to 2.6 million years ago, and were found in Etiopias Awash Valley. Five miles to the west of where Lucy was found in 1974. [p. 160] --//
Indeed, tools are important. With stone tools you can cut up an animal and carry meat to safe locations, nourishing brain development. And human civilisation can start ....

Humanlike creatures were around even before Homo habilis though...
Tom Gray and Donald Johanson found Lucy - while a tape-recorder played the Beatles song ''Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'' in the background. Lucy was a young adult female hominid. Capable of upright walking, standing just three feet tall, approximately 3.18 million years old. She possessed a mixture of features, some apelike, others humanlike. But with a tiny brain.
Indeed, prototype humans walked upright before their brains had begun to enlarge. (Modern experiments have shown that humans walking on two legs use only one-fourth of the energy chimpanzees uses knuckle-walking on four legs. Bipedalism allows humans to move over greater distances for food).

And humanlike bipedalism is certainly an ancient thing:
I.e. in 1978 in Laetoli, Tanzania Paul Abell and Mary Leakey spotted hominid footprints on a section of hardened ash.
Proving that 3.6 million years ago, human ancestors had walked upright, with feet strikingly similar to that of modern humans (The site contained more than 18.400 prints, ranging from elephant to insect prints).

You can of course discuss how human the ancient creatures really were. Take our ancestor the Australopithecus afarensis. A hominid weighing 75 - 125 pounds. Between 3 and 4 feet tall, and with a brain volume between 400 and 500 cubic centimetres - only slightly more than a chimpanzee. Incredible primitive above the neck, and incredible modern below. Lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago.
About a million years later (about 1.8 to 1.3 million years ago) it is not much ''better''. According to Alan Walker: Homo Erectus were long legged and immensely strong. They could obtain higher quality foods, almost certainly by hunting. Not capable of speech, they nevertheless lived in groups with strong social ties. But Homo erectus was still essentially an animal. A clever one, a large one, a successful one - but an animal nevertheless. There were no human consciousness within that human body....

And Martin Meredith certainly makes it very clear that there is no straightforward line from these very primitive creatures to more modern homo creatures. In his words: In the million years from 2.5 million years ago there is no simple linear transition from one species of Australopithecus to a successor species of Homo, but rather a period of wild evolutionary experimentation.
Perhaps, it was really all about climate change ''forcing'' us to become humans: Charles Darwin wrote in ''On the Origin of Species'': ''As climate change chiefly acts in reducing food, it brings about the most severe struggle between the individuals''. Certainly, global climate changes occured 2.5 million, 1.5 and 1 million years ago. Putting enormous pressure on hominids to adapt to the new environment. Some species were driven to extinction, others survived acquiring higher brain power and new skills [p. 127].

Indeed, it was very bad before it became good (?): Harsh conditions in Africa clearly took their toll on Homo Sapiens. Genetic researchers point to a bottleneck in population numbers some 60.000 years ago. Some estimates suggest that the numbers plummeted to as low as 5.000 people.
But, 60.000 years ago - African hunter gatherers had developed a fully fledged language. Making small groups more cohesive and facilitating long-range planning. And, according to the genetic evidence, all human lineages in the world today can be traced back to this ancestral population in Africa 60.000 years ago.
Then, some 60-50.000 years ago, geneticists informs us, a few people from the African population (perhaps as few as 150) left Africa at the southern end of the Red Sea, and went on to populate the rest of the world.

What a story!

Amazon: [3], [4].
Photorealistic pictures of our ancestors: [5].


Simon Laub

Optimism - Hope isn't rational, so why are humans wired for it?

The optimism bias.

by Tali Sharot in Time Magazine, June 6th 2011.

According to Tali Sharot, in this weeks Time magazine, our brains are incurable optimists.
We are more optimistic than realistic. On average, we expect things to turn out better than they wind up being. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted etc.

The belief that the future will be much better than the present is known as the optimism bias:
"Optimism starts with the extraordinary human talent: Mental time travel. Our ability to move back and forth in space and time in ones mind. Our capacity to envision different times and places. Obviously a wonderful thing to be able to do - but it comes at an enormous price - the understanding that out there in the future death awaits. It can be argued that awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end.... The despair would have interferred with daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travle could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to envision a bright future."

According to Sharots studies, brain regions like the rACC (rostral anterior cingulate cortex, part of the frontal cortex) boosts the flow of positive emotions and is more active in optimists, when they imagine a positive future. The Amygdala is apparently also involved in letting us generate optimism.
Interestingly, the rACC and the amygdala show abnormal activity in depressed people. Healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it turns out to be. People with severe depressions expect the future to be worse than it end up being. Whereas people with mild depressions are relatively accurate when predicting future events:
"In other words, in the absence of neural mechanisms that generate unrealistic optimism, it is possible that all humans would be mildly depressed. Why was optimism selected by evolution? On balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival."

Yet, sure, optimism is also sometimes irrational, and create illusions - Where the hope is, that knowledge of these (brain) illusions might eventually give us both optimism and realism.

Indeed, the future looks bright.

Posterous: [6].

From: Simon Laub
Newsgroups: alt.psychology
Sent: Sunday, June 05, 2011 12:37 AM
Keywords: Optimism. Human rationality and irrationality.
Subject: Optimism - Hope isn't rational, so why are humans wired for it?


Simon Laub


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