The problem with ‘Stand Your Ground’

February 23, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Posted in Disinformation, Fairness, Judicial Misjudgment | 6 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
2007 photo copyrighted by Jeff Dean, and uploaded by hime to Wikipedia, which describes it as a compact semi-automatic Smith & Wesson .45 ACP Chief's Special — Model CS45.

2007 photo copyrighted by Jeff Dean, and uploaded by hime to Wikipedia, which describes it as a compact semi-automatic Smith & Wesson .45 ACP Chief’s Special — Model CS45.

‘Stand your ground’ laws have figured in two recent cases in which young unarmed black men were shot and killed.
George Zimmerman killed Travon Martin, and Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis.

In both cases, the killer’s excuse was that he thought that the young black man had a gun.

The problem with ‘stand your ground’ laws is that it is too easy to claim that you feared that the person you shot had a weapon, and was about to use it on you.

You can claim this even if it wasn’t true.  You can make up your fear after the fact.

No one can ever disprove your claim, because it rests only on what you say you believed at the time.  Your claim need not depend upon on any externally confirmable matter of fact.

This is one of the most easily-abused legal ideas of all time.

One of the leading pushers of ‘stand your ground’ laws is ALEC.  Besides promoting ‘stand your ground’ laws, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) acts as a mouthpiece for those who see short-term financial gains in delaying recognition of human-caused global warming.  According to the Sierra Club, Mark Zuckerberg recently had Facebook join ALEC, because he wants its support for some of his own agendas.  (The Sierra Club is urging everyone to sign a petition asking Mark Zuckerberg to withdraw Facebook from that unscrupulous organization.)

Although it is obvious, it bears repeating: neither of the unjustified killings that were cited above would have occurred if the killer hadn’t happened to have a gun handy.

If you wish to comment on this post but do not see a box where you can submit a comment, that is because WordPress includes the mechanism for commenting only on the page for the individual posting, never on the page that shows all of the recent postings.  So click here, scroll to the bottom of the post, and submit your comment.

What is Art?

February 13, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Alfred Sisley, The innondation at Port Marly, painted 1876. Presently in le Musée des beaux-arts de Rouen.

Alfred Sisley, The innondation at Port Marly, painted 1876. Presently in le Musée des beaux-arts de Rouen.

Art is anything that is contrived to elicit strong sensations in ourselves or in others.

What makes a deliberately created something into art, is that it is evocative.

That means that it resonates with something in the viewer’s or hearer’s brain, like a wine glass resonating to the sound of a violin, or a window of a house resonantly vibrating – buzzing – to the sound of a motor.

Anything that tries to play, like a musical instrument, the nervous systems of those who are exposed to it, is art.

That includes painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, acting, literature, and rhetoric (in its classical, general, not-necessarily-pejorative meaning): speeches, persuasive writing, informative writing, advertising, and even demogoguery.

But each brain is different – different experiences, different wiring- so what is evoked is different.

To some extent the impact of a work of art is measured not by what is evoked in each person, but by how many respond, and how strongly.

Here is a list of artistic activities.  Many of them are not usually thought of as being artistic.  Some give pleasure, others are deliberately unpleasant.  Some are evil.  But in each case you should easily be able to identify the presence of the defining characteristic of art, namely, the deliberate attempt to play the brains of the audience as if those brains were musical instruments.  In some cases  the intended audience is just the artist.  The redundancies in the list are there to better make a point.
- Humor, including stand-up comedy and informal jokes
- Circus acts
- Performing astounding feats for films or for on-line videos (attempts to impress or amuse, or to do both at the same time)
- Thoughtful photography
- Music, drawing and painting, sculpture, dance
(includes feats of art that are designed to impress as well as to please or inform: items featured on the Twisted Sifter, Cirque de Soleil)
- Fiction and expository non-fiction (written, or acted, or cartooned)
- Comic books, graphic novels, cartoon films
- Textbooks, instructional materials, user’s manuals,
- Web interfaces, other digital interfaces (such as those to an operating system or a programming language)
- All rhetoric in the classical non-pejorative sense: speech or other media that are designed to persuade
- Religious tales (Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath, the birth, life and crucifixion of Jesus, Mohammed on a flying horse)
- Political claims, both true and false
- Demagoguery
- Advertising
- The deliberate giving of sexual or other sensual pleasure (to one’s self or to another), e.g., sensual massage, masturbation, erotica, sexual fantasies
- Its opposite: the deliberate imposition of pain, e.g., torture
- Fantasies, daydreams (but not involuntary dreams)
- Dressing for effect, couture, make-up
- Planning and hosting a party or other event
- Interior design and decoration, architecture, landscape design
- The design, crafting and wearing of costumes, dressing up (including for Halloween), jewelry
- Sports, including gladiatorial sports (boxing, wrestling, mixed martial arts)
- Ceremonies, rituals
- Public punishment (including executions)
- All entertainment
- The shock-and-awe component of terrorist acts (another type of attempt to impress)
- Intimidation, bullying

Clearly, we are an artistic species.

Clearly, not all art is benign.

All art is manipulative, even when the person being manipulated is the artist/daydreamer/fantasist.

Not all art has humans as its intended audience.  Art for pets and other non-human animals: pleasant environments for pets (wheels and tunnels and hiding places in a cage for hamsters), the design and operation of of zoos, …

In the future, not all art will have biologically evolved beings as its sole intended audience.  There will even be art and entertainment for autonomous robots.

Any deliberate attempt to strum the strings of a brain as if they were the strings of a musical instrument is art.  The brain may be the artist’s own, or someone else’s, or both.  The brain may be biological or artificial (designed).

But not all such attempts attain their goal.

If an attempt does attain its goal, it is good as art, whether or not it is also good ethically and morally.

All art requires the artist to mentally mirror the minds in the intended audience.
For such an attempt to resonate with the brains of a wide audience, the ‘musician’ and the audience must share a culture, or mental mechanisms (e.g., adult humans affecting human babies or animals, or animals affecting animals), or the musician must at least be familiar with how the members of the target population respond.

Some non-contrived stimuli elicit the same sensations as art: sunsets, scenery, a flower, a baby, a puppy or a kitten.  They elicit the same stimuli as art,  because they share parts of the same processing paths in the brain.

Because we live at a stage of evolution when we are familiar with the concepts of an artist and of art, those sensations may also make us feel to that the  evocative stimuli were created by an artist.

To a being who had not been exposed to the concept of an artist, the same stimuli might be just as evocative, without suggesting that they were due to an artist.

.
If you wish to comment on this post but do not see a box where you can submit a comment, that is because WordPress includes the mechanism for commenting only on the page for the individual posting, never on the page that shows all of the recent postings.  So click here, scroll to the bottom of the post, and submit your comment.

Involuntary Manslaughter on the George Washington Bridge

February 13, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Posted in Abuse of Office, Dysfunctional Politics, Enemies of Freedom | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
"The George Washington Bridge, connecting Fort Lee to New York City, is the world's busiest motor vehicle bridge." (Wikipedia) Photo by Jet Lowe, April 1986.

“The George Washington Bridge, connecting Fort Lee to New York City, is the world’s busiest motor vehicle bridge.” (Wikipedia) Photo by Jet Lowe, April 1986.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”, said the email from Bridget Anne Kelly to David Wildstein.  Bridget Kelly was a top staff member to Govenor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and David Wildstein was one of Christie’s appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge.

The goal: to punish someone who hadn’t fallen into line politically (the Mayor of Fort Lee), by punishing thousands of innocent people, namely, people who where commuting from New Jersey to New York City via the George Washington Bridge.

David Wildstein contrived to create a horrendous traffic jam for people traveling during rush hour from New Jersey to Manhattan via the George Washington Bridge.  An unneccesary ‘traffic study’ was devised, as a cover story.

A traffic jam in Delhi, India, taken by NOMAD.  It is a different traffic jam, but it gives you the flavor.

A traffic jam in Delhi, India, taken by NOMAD. It is a different traffic jam, but it gives you the flavor.

A woman died after a heart attack, because emergency personnel could not reach her.

Thousands were late for work, missed meetings, missed job interviews, missed appointments with doctors.

Thousands experienced the agony of not being able to reach a toilet.

Hourly workers lost wages.  Businesses lost sales, both to to individuals and to companies.

Those stuck in traffic, those wanting to help during a medical emergency, those waiting for delayed employees and customers, suffered worry and tension that was prolonged enough to cause subtle but real damage to the immune system, heart, and brain.

Besides Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein there may be additional culprits.  Bill Baroni – another Christie appointee to the Port Authority – appears to have been involved.  Bill Stepien, Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff at the time, exhibited suspiciously inhuman callousness about the effects of the jam.

Chris Christie denies knowing about the scheme until he learned about it from news reports.  His denial may well be accurate.  He might have been told that a traffic study was taking place, without knowing that the traffic study was just a cover, and without knowing that his associates had instigated it only to trigger a horrendous traffic jam.

The actions of Kelly and Wildstein, and possibly of Baroni and Stepien, was goon-like behavior.  It is the behavior of gangland enforcers, of thugs, not of those who treasure an open society.  The only novel feature is that in this case the enforcers appear to have been self-appointed, rather than being directed from above.

This wasn’t a prank.  It was deliberately punitive.

Justice requires that all of those who suffered, economically and/or emotionally, from this maneuver should be compensated for their suffering and injury, and that all who can be made whole should be made whole.  There should be prison sentences for the misuse of authority by those culpable, and for the involuntary manslaughter of the woman who died.

In particular, a Grand Jury should decide whether whether Kelly, Wildstein, and possibly Baroni and Stepien, should be tried for involuntary manslaughter.

A Grand Jury should decide whether whether Kelly, Wildstein, and possibly Baroni and Stepien, should be tried for misuse of authority.

A Grand Jury should decide whether whether Kelly, Wildstein, and possibly Baroni and Stepien, should be tried for the economic and emotional damage to the thousands of affected travelers, and to those who awaited them.

Kelly, Wildstein and perhaps Baroni and Stepien should be required to monetarily compensate the woman’s family, and, indeed, all of those who were damaged by their scheme.

If you wish to comment on this post but do not see a box where you can submit a comment, that is because WordPress includes the mechanism for commenting only on the page for the individual posting, never on the page that shows all of the recent postings.  So click here, scroll to the bottom of the post, and submit your comment.

Mental Mirroring and Mothers

January 23, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Discussion between mother and child, photographed 31 May 2005 by Marty from Manitou Springs, USA.

Discussion between mother and child, photographed 31 May 2005 by Marty from Manitou Springs, USA.

Several posts on this blog have pointed out how our ability to mentally mirror the feelings and thoughts of others might have developed, and might then have blossomed to give us our values, heightened sense of fairness and kindness, and our sophisticated intelligence, including our science, our fondness for narrative, and a proclivity for religion – that is, most of the the features that we regard as making us human.

Those posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  One post also constitutes an example of a human who is mentally mirroring a squirrel!

Those posts pointed out that other types of animals also mirror to some extent the minds of other members of their own species, and also members of other species.  For example, dogs that are able to sense the moods and plans of humans have, on average, thrived better than those who didn’t, and were therefore more likely to have puppies that would themselves grow up to have puppies.

Golden retriever puppies at 4 weeks, photographed 10 January 2011 by Koosg.

Golden retriever puppies at 4 weeks, photographed 10 January 2011 by Koosg.

Humans anthopomorphize inanimate natural phenomena, by applying to them the mental mechanisms that originally developed for mentally mirroring humans and other animals: the mirroring of inanimate natural phenomena produced science as well as  superstition.  But dogs, too, mentally mirror an inanimate phenomenon as if it were animate, as when a dog cringes and wimpers at the sound of thunder.

A mongrel puppy not more than one month old, photographed 6 February 2012 by Kcdtsg .

A mongrel puppy not more than one month old, photographed 6 February 2012 by Kcdtsg .

A new study has now given us more specific information about the initial development of mental mirroring.  The study was published in a free online journal, eLife (see here and here), and its results are described by Meeri Kim in an article in the Washington Post.

The study’s main result is that rats – and therefore presumably also some other kinds of mammals – empathize with and therefore help only rats that look like the types of rats that they previously lived with.

The aspect that is of greatest relevance here was pointed out by Peggy Mason, one of the authors, in a comment to Meeri Kim: “Helping and empathy are evolutionary advantages,” Mason said. “If Mom doesn’t know how her pups feel, the pups die — and that’s not going to work evolutionarily.”  (In that statement, the pups were rat pups, but the statement is true in general.)  Kim goes on to observe that “In social animals, including humans, empathy starts with the mother-child bond but develops to include a peer network.”.

This would apply to all species of mammals, some species of birds, and apparently, in the past, even to some species of dinosaurs.

Although the article in the Washington Post doesn’t say so, the same should be true for fathers, in those species where the fathers stay around to help feed, protect and possibly eventually teach the young.

Empathy requires mental mirroring.  It is quite likely that active parenting was responsible for a huge increase in our ancestor’s skills in mental mirroring, thereby opening the way for the advanced capabilities that were listed at the beginning of this post.

It would be very informative to see the results of experimental studies of the comparative mirroring skills of mothers and fathers in species where one or both raise the young.  A plausible hypothesis is that, on average, mothers are more skilled at mental mirroring than are fathers, and that, on average, mirroring skills are better in species that raise their young through several stages of development than in species that merely feed and protect the very young, and, finally, that on average, empathy and sympathy are stronger in the species and in the sexes that are more proficient at mental mirroring.

If you wish to comment on this post but do not see a box where you can submit a comment, that is because WordPress includes the mechanism for commenting only on the page for the individual posting, never on the page that shows all of the recent postings.  So click here, scroll to the bottom of the post, and submit your comment.

Proselytise Chief Justice Roberts, and thy Neighbor?

January 21, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Privacy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Controversy, a sculpture "Auseinandersetzung", by Karl-Henning Seemann, 1979 in Lammhof, Tübingen, photographed by Собственное фото .

Controversy, a sculpture “Auseinandersetzung”, by Karl-Henning Seemann, 1979 in Lammhof, Tübingen, photographed by Собственное фото .

According to a recent article by Robert Barnes in the Washington Post, the Supreme Court is presently deciding the size of the buffer zone around abortion clinics.  At issue is whether a person entering an abortion clinic can choose to avoid hearing the arguments of protesters, and not be forced to have a discussion with them, by staying within a wide-enough buffer zone.

More broadly, the issue is about the tensions between freedom of speech and privacy, including the right to choose not to engage in a discussion – the right not to be subjected to another’s attempt to persuade.

The Justices of the Supreme Court should remember that the existence and size of the buffer zone that results from their decision in this case will, by logic, apply also to the Supreme Court itself, as well as to the Justices’ own homes, and to their persons, when shopping or traveling or strolling.  If the buffer is thin, anyone will be able to approach Justice John Roberts, or any of the other Justices, when the Justice seeks to return or to leave home, or any time and place when the Justice is outside home, to convince the Justice of the errors in his or her judgement, or of the rightness or wrongness of either side in any case that is before the Court.

The outcome of the decision will also apply to all lower Federal courts, and to the dwelling places and sojourns of their judges, as well as to the workplaces, dwelling places and sojourns of all Federal civil servants, regardless of whether their work is classified or not, and to those of all members of Congress.  They will apply also to every house of worship in the land, and to the NRA, and to the Koch brothers.

If you wish to comment on this post but do not see a box where you can submit a comment, that is because WordPress includes the mechanism for commenting only on the page for the individual posting, never on the page that shows all of the recent postings.  So click here, scroll to the bottom of the post, and submit your comment.

Squirrels Teething?

December 22, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , ,
A squirrel reaching for food on a garden bird feeder, this squirrel can rotate its hind feet, allowing it to descend a tree head-first. (Caption from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squirrel ; author 'waferboard', uploaded by 'Snowmanradio'.)

A squirrel reaching for food on a garden bird feeder, this squirrel can rotate its hind feet, allowing it to descend a tree head-first. (Caption from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squirrel ; author ‘waferboard’, uploaded by ‘Snowmanradio’.)

In the late Spring, freshly bitten-off young branches rain down from the trees.

In the late Fall, it happens again, but less intensely.

Squirrels are the obvious culprit.  But the chewed-off branches show no sign of having been eaten, even partially.

Why do the squirrels do it?  Why the frenzied activity?

Here is a guess.

In the Spring and Fall, new litters of baby squirrels are born.  By the late Spring and Fall, the new squirrels are developing rapidly.

When a human baby’s teeth start to develop and push out through the gums, the baby teethes.  The baby gnaws on anything handy, to try to quell the soreness of its gums.

A 9-month-old infant with a visible right lower central incisor.  (Caption on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teething.  Image produced 1 September 2009 by Daniel Schwen.)

A 9-month-old infant with a visible right lower central incisor. (Caption on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teething. Image produced 1 September 2009 by Daniel Schwen.)

Are the baby squirrels teething?

You can help answer this question.  If your home or your office has a window that looks at the branches of trees, see whether only the young squirrels are gnawing off the branches.

Comment to this post, to say what you have noticed.

Also, do squirrels ever gnaw the young branches of an evergreen when a deciduous tree is available?  We have never found a gnawed-off evergreen branch, but all the trees near our house are deciduous.  Maybe the young branches of an evergreen taste too bitter, so that a deciduous tree will be preferred over an evergreen wherever both are available.

It is easy to imagine a baby fish or alligator being born with tiny teeth.  The fish and the alligator do not depend on milk direct from their mother’s body.  But a baby mammal must be born toothless.  Otherwise its mother would not allow it to drink from her.

In fact, the age when teeth first develop probably marks the age at which babies in the wild stop drinking their mother’s milk.

But these are mere guesses.  I have no knowledge on those topics.  If you know more, please comment.

Original typed period caption: CONSOLIDATED CHIPPEWA 54: A Chippewa baby in the traditional cradle board at Indian rice camp at Little Rice Lake near Tower, Minnesota. Gordon Sommers, 1940.

Original typed period caption: CONSOLIDATED CHIPPEWA 54: A Chippewa baby in the traditional cradle board at Indian rice camp at Little Rice Lake near Tower, Minnesota. Gordon Sommers, 1940.

 

If you wish to comment on this post but do not see a box where you can submit a comment, that is because WordPress includes the mechanism for commenting only on the page for the individual posting, never on the page that shows all of the recent postings.  So click here, scroll to the bottom of the post, and submit your comment.

The State Department and the Afghan Interpreters

November 21, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Posted in Abuse of Office, Conceited, Fairness, Judicial Misjudgment | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  Currier & Ives, 1865.

Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Currier & Ives, 1865.

Afghani’s who served as interpreters for US forces in Afghanistan knowingly exposed themselves to risk by doing so.   They now face dramatically increased risk as the US presence winds down.  The Taliban have a long-established record of making examples of those who have cooperated with US forces.

After all, the Taliban have assassinated Afghanis who have cooperated with outside humanitarian groups, or even with the Afghani government.  They will surely attack those who helped US forces.

Realizing the danger to themselves and their families, some Afghan interpreters have applied for visas to the US.

The State Department has denied visas to most, even though the visas have already been allocated by the US Congress.  According to articles (here, here, here, and here) in the Washington Post, “the State Department says there is no serious threat against [the interpreters'] lives.”

This should remind you of the judges in civil courts who refuse to grant restraining orders, pooh-poohing the fears of those who are begging for protection from a spouse or ex-boyfriend.  Those judges are the enablers of the events you later read about when the newspaper reports the murder of the person who asked for the restraining order.  The judges are never the ones who suffer for their bad judgement.

In exactly the same way, the State Department employees whose magical source of infallible knowledge tells them that “there is no serious threat” are not the ones who will pay the price of being wrong.

Denying these visas is both cruel and unjust, and extremely harmful to US efforts in all future conflicts.

These brave interpreters accepted a huge risk in helping us.  Their help saved many US lives, and were essential to anything we achieved over there.  We owe them gratitude and protection.  If we do not shield them, no one will be foolish enough to help us in any similar situation.

Chuck Hagel, as the Secretary of Defense, would be well advised to urge the State Department to reverse the decisions made by its incompetent employees.

President Obama, as Commander in Chief, should issue an Executive Order establishing a policy to admit those who have exposed themselves to local hostility by helping us.

Congressional committees in both the Senate and the House should ask the State Department why it has taken actions that are completely contrary to US interests, to fairness, and to the expressed desires of Congress.

The State Department should identify the incompetent employees who are making decisions that are so unjust and so contrary to US interest, and revisit their decisions.  Those employees should be moved them to more suitable positions, where they will have no discretion over matters like these.

Decisions on this matter need to be made by people who have hearts and brains.  Those currently making the decisions have neither.

If you wish to comment on this post but do not see a box where you can submit a comment, that is because WordPress includes the mechanism for commenting only on the page for the individual posting, never on the page that shows all of the recent postings.  So click here, scroll to the bottom of the post, and submit your comment.

Consciousness and Attention

October 28, 2013 at 7:41 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Meditating in Madison Square Park, Manhattan, New York City, photographed 22 June 2010 by Beyond My Ken .

Meditating in Madison Square Park, Manhattan, New York City, photographed 22 June 2010 by Beyond My Ken .

The previous post suggested a framework for thinking about the phenomenon of consciousness.  The same framework can suggest measurements to test hypotheses about the mechanisms of consciousness, and tell us the values of the parameters in those mechanisms.

The suggested framework asserts that consciousness is closely related to attention.  Specifically, consciousness occurs when a multitude of processors in the brain are all paying attention to the same set of inputs to the brain.  Typically, some of those inputs are the result of the processing of signals from sensory nerves by smaller numbers of pre-processors; the pre-processing is therefore unconscious.  (For example, in vision, one of the pre-processors identifies edges.)  Other inputs are signals from the brain itself about other signals from the brain itself.  These meta-signals are called ‘thoughts’.  Depending upon the identities and number of processors that are paying attention to a thought, it will or will not be a conscious thought.  The special feature of consciousness is that the relevant multitude of processors are all paying attention to all of the momentary subjects of consciousness at the same time.

We do not yet know the identities and number of the processors whose simultaneous attention is needed for making a signal a subject of conscious attention.  We don’t even know whether the relevant processors are always the same, or vary with the subjects of consciousness.  Techniques that image the location of increased activity in the brain could test the suggested framework, and if it proves useful, they could identify the relevant processors.

Some of the needed data may already be available, and just need to be re-analyzed to answer these new questions.

Caption on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FMRI : These fMRI images are from a study showing parts of the brain lighting up on seeing houses and other parts on seeing faces. The 'r' values are correlations, with higher positive or negative values indicating a better match.  Image from the US National Institute for Mental Health.

Caption on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FMRI : These fMRI images are from a study showing parts of the brain lighting up on seeing houses and other parts on seeing faces. The ‘r’ values are correlations, with higher positive or negative values indicating a better match. Image from the US National Institute for Mental Health.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows which regions of the brain receive increased blood flow when a person receives a particular stimulus.  (Many interesting fMRI scans can be viewed here , but most of the pictures of fMRI reached via that URL are copyrighted, and so cannot be re-used. )

Daniel G. Amen has developed a large collection of single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans of brains of people performing mental tasks.  Regardless of what you think of the utility of these images for diagnosing ADD and related conditions, this collection could be a treasure trove for scientific research on the locations of increased brain activity during various mental tasks.  Each measurement takes roughly 10 minutes, so the technique may not be able to capture what happens while the brain shifts its attention from one subject to another.  Also the spatial resolution of SPECT is not as good as that of fMRI.  But the large size of the database makes the SPECT data a potentially valuable supplement to other kinds of data.
Rebecca Saxe, at MIT, has developed techniques for non-invasively localizing the changing distribution of activity in the human brain when a person is shown stimuli and then responds to questions.  The techniques were developed and then applied to provide data on the scientifically, socially and legally important topic of how we infer what other people are thinking.  Her techniques would also be useful for providing data on attention.  A non-technical video presentation of her work can be viewed by visiting http://scicolloq.gsfc.nasa.gov/GSFCWeb_Fall2012.html , then clicking on the line  ”Nov. 2   Rebecca Saxe   Massachusetts Institute of Technology  How We Think about Other People’s Thoughts   V”, and then clicking on the ‘V’ (for ‘video’) at the far right.

A new technique, multi-photon microscopy, is being developed to nondestructively image in 3D the top millimeter or so of the living brain, with much better spatial resolution than the other techniques, but without being able to image as deep as the other techniques.  (See. for example, Ke Wang, Nicholas G. Gorton, Chris Xu, “Going Deep: Brain Imaging with Multi-Photon Microscopy”, Optics and Photonics News, volume 24, number 11, pp.32-39, November 2013.)

Typical questions about consciousness that might be answered by techniques that image the changing pattern of activity in the brain are:

- When conscious attention is trained on more than one subject, are the signals about the ever-changing status of those diverse subjects multiplexed onto a single serial communications channel?  Or do they travel via parallel communication channels?  Which processor receives the information?  If the information arrives multiplexed onto a serial communication channel, how is it de-multiplexed and distributed amongst the processors that can do something with the information on a particular subject?

- Since conscious attention can be trained on more than one subject, there must be special processors in the brain that decide (1) when a new subject should be admitted to conscious attention (“That car has suddenly come very close to us!”), (2) whether a current subject of conscious attention must be relegated to unconscious attention to make room for the new subject, or simply because it no longer merits conscious attention, and (3) when a subject of conscious attention suddenly merits undivided attention.  Where are those special processors?  What auxiliary signals do they use in arriving at their decisions?  What neural pathways are activated to carry the current information about a particular subject into conscious attention, or to transfer that information to a processor that receives only unconscious attention?
- Meditation (more accurately, of mindfulness) seems to have many benefits.  Why?  Is it restorative for the brain to not have to divide its attention amongst multiple subjects for a while?  Is the relief due to the temporary suspension of the metabolic and processing burdens needed for managing and monitoring more than one subject of conscious attention?

- You are talking with someone, but become momentarily distracted by your own thoughts, and don’t consciously hear something that was said.  You soon  realize that you missed something important, but you are reluctant to admit that you hadn’t paid attention.  If you recognize the problem soon enough, sometimes you can recall what you hadn’t consciously heard.  How does your brain identify the relevant unconscious processor, and bring its contents into conscious attention?

 

If you wish to comment on this post but do not see a box where you can submit a comment, that is because WordPress includes the mechanism for commenting only on the page for the individual posting, never on the page that shows all of the recent postings.  So click here, scroll to the bottom of the post, and submit your comment.

 

What is Consciousness?

October 20, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
The caption on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain : The main anatomical regions of the vertebrate brain, shown for shark and human. The same parts are present, but they differ greatly in size and shape.  Image by Looie496, 2011-09-30 .

The caption on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain : The main anatomical regions of the vertebrate brain, shown for shark and human. The same parts are present, but they differ greatly in size and shape. Image by Looie496, 2011-09-30 .

Imagine placing your hands near the sensor of an automatic faucet, or getting up from a self-flushing toilet, or approaching at night a building whose front light is turned on and off by a motion sensor.

The faucet turns on, the toilet flushes, the building’s front light turns on.

In each case, a signal was sent from a sensor to an operating device.  But the recipient of the signal operated automatically, without being conscious of the signal, nor of its own response.  It detected the signal, but did not feel it.  It did not tingle, or wince, or become happy or sad.  It sensed the signal, but had no sensation – a seemingly paradoxical statement that is actually meaningful and accurate, because of the vagueness of human language.  (The vagueness is often useful and efficient, but that is another story.)  It was aware of the signal in a limited sense, but was not aware of the signal in the vivid way that a person would be aware of a pin prick, for example.

Now imagine that you are pricked by a pin.  The signal from nerves in your skin travels to your brain.  One result is an automatic reflex: you draw back, unless you consciously over-rule that reflex.  But another result is your vivid awareness of the pin prick.  You feel it.  It produces a sensation, at nearly the same time as your reflex.  You are conscious of it.

Conscious awareness seems to activate many of your brain systems at the same time: emotions, your model of how the world works, memories, your expectations of what happens next.  Apparently, a message was broadcast to a large part of your brain.  That seems to be what is distinctive about conscious sensation, or a conscious thought (viewed as a signal from within your own brain).  It is likely that conscious awareness of something is synonymous with “all or most of brain knows about it, and is paying attention to it”.

That is a testable hypothesis.  Brain imaging, such as functional MRI (fMRI) could test it.

Caption on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pain : Regions of the cerebral cortex associated with pain.  Authors: Borsook D, Moulton EA, Schmidt KF, Becerra LR., © 2007 Borsook et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

Caption on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pain : Regions of the cerebral cortex associated with pain. Authors: Borsook D, Moulton EA, Schmidt KF, Becerra LR., © 2007 Borsook et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

If conscious awareness of something is indeed synonymous with “all or most of brain knows about it, and is paying attention to it”, that would explain why we can be aware of – conscious of – only a limited number of items at the same time.  Any one conscious item requires the attention of much of the brain.  Each item occupies many resources, and there are only a limited number of them available.

That the limiting number of items is roughly seven for most individuals is an accident of our evolved wet-ware.  We can handle more simultaneous factors by building artificial intelligent systems.

If this view of the nature of consciousness is correct, then consciousness has a cultural analog.  In a family, a business, a village, a nation, a scientific or other cultural community, the analog of an object of conscious awareness is anything that becomes part of the general culture of that group of people.

It is clarifying to consider the sensations of pain and of pleasure.  What does it mean to feel pain or pleasure?

Among the sensations, pain and pleasure were probably the first to evolve.  These two sensations are the most helpful ones for helping an individual to survive long enough to produce descendents.  Darwin noted the evolutionary utility of experiencing pleasure from satisfying hunger, and the evolutionary utility of the unpleasantness of feeling hunger.  (See p.64 of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, edited by Frances Darwin, reprinted 1958 by Dover Publications.)

To be useful, pain or pleasure must activate most or all of the systems in the brain to avoid something or some situation, or to seek more of it.  We must react and act in manifold ways to avoid the threat or to seek the reward.  An ever-varying mix of the systems in our brain must work in a coordinated fashion.  So the signals that elicit the sensations of pain and of pleasure must be broadcast to much of the brain.

This is unlike the distribution of most of the signals from the nerves to the brain.  Most signals affect only a few systems in the brain.  It is not a coincidence that they also do not register in our consciousness: they are not felt by us, they do not produce sensations.

There is an evolutionary benefit to widely broadcasting to the brain only certain types of signals.  Signals about things to avoid and things to seek are among them.  So are any signals that require a versatile, coordinated response by many systems in the brain.

There is an evolutionary benefit to not widely broadcasting any signals that do not require a versatile, coordinated response by many systems in the brain.

Our brains seem to interpret any widely broadcast signal as a sensation, as a feeling, and as consciously perceived.

There was a clear evolutionary advantage to developing neurochemical mechanisms that activate, respectively, a general avoidance of a thing or situation, or a general seeking for more of it, that is, for developing mechanisms for feeling pain and pleasure, that is, for experiencing them consciously.

[By the way, the mechanisms that produce an urge for avoidance seem to be distinct from those that urge us to seek a situation, because some stimuli can elicit both urges at the same time.  Examples are hot peppers, strong drink, a horror movie, thrill seeking.  ('Strong drink' is oddly named, since it for the weak.)]

The other sensations probably evolved as outgrowths of those two fundamental sensations.  So the neurochemical mechanisms that produce the sensations of pain and of pleasure are the root of basic consciousness.

If a sensation is tagged by a location on the body, we feel pain or pleasure that we associate with a finger, or with our tongue, a tooth, our genitals, our gut.

Once the mechanisms for basic consciousness are available, higher consciousness can evolve or be built in, by adding mechanisms for the mental mirroring of other individual animals (and of artificial intelligences, if needed), then of groups of them, and, eventually, also of inanimate objects, as explained in an earlier post.  Before a biologically evolved or built species develops mechanisms for mirroring, its abilities increase by relatively small steps.  But once it has developed mechanisms for mirroring, the increases in its capabilities can compound, and, like compound interest, grow exponentially.

Great versatility is conferred by activating many systems in the brain, that then act together in coordinated ways that adapt to the changing incoming signals. .  Obtaining that evolutionary advantage required developing felt sensations (feelings), and, more generally, consciousness.  Feelings motivate action by assigning values to outcomes: avoid => bad, seek => good.  After much extension (caused by the development of mental mirroring) of the scope of application of sensations and consciousness, the development of values as felt motivators led to our sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, of morality, of fairness, and hence of justice, and enlarged our emotional lives.

Two comments about consciousness:

1 – The concepts of cruelty and of kindness pertain to our actions toward the members of any species whose individuals feel, experiencing pain and pleasure.  The species can be biological, or it can be artificial.  Plants do not feel.  It seems certain that paramecia and amoeba do not feel.  But the frantic wriggling of a worm suggests that it feels pain, and is not merely manifesting a reflex.  If so, it has basic consciousness, despite not having much of a brain.  As for the scurrying cockroach, the spider, the spider’s prey, we do not know yet.  More certainly, pain seems to be felt by the wriggling fish impaled by a hook in its mouth, or with its body grasped by the bill of a heron.  We need to invent a way to tell, because feeling pain and/or pleasure confers moral status, as vegetarians know.

2 – There is an common confusion about consciousness.  We are often said to be unconscious while we sleep.  That may be true during non-REM sleep, but it is not true during a dream.  A dream amounts to being conscious – aware – of certain internal signals, and to attempting to make sense of those signals,  while not being conscious of most, or all, of the signals from our environment.

See also these posts: here, and here.

New Navy and Marine Corps officers during the graduation of the class of 2011 at the U.S. Naval Academy. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad Runge/Released.

New Navy and Marine Corps officers during the graduation of the class of 2011 at the U.S. Naval Academy. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad Runge/Released.

 

If you wish to comment on this post but do not see a box where you can submit a comment, that is because WordPress includes the mechanism for commenting only on the page for the individual posting, never on the page that shows all of the recent postings.  So click here, scroll to the bottom of the post, and submit your comment.

John Boehner’s Priorities

October 15, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Posted in Abuse of Office, Disinformation, Dysfunctional Politics, Fairness | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
Official portrait of United States House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), turned upside-down.

Official portrait of United States House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), turned upside-down.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives determines which bills are brought to a vote.

The Speaker is therefore supposed to serve the entire House, not just his own party.

In that respect, the Speaker’s responsibility is like that of the President: to act in the interest of the whole country.

John Boehner does not so act.

The present crisis would have been averted if Boehner had brought to vote a bill that had substantial support, and which would have resolved the present stalemate in a prudent, pragmatic fashion.

He refused to do, and lied about his reason.  He claimed that the bill didn’t have enough votes to pass, while knowing knew full well that the Democrats together with 18 to 21 Republicans were willing to vote for the bill, and would have been enough to assure the bill’s passage.

He carefully did not state his real reasons:
(1) Despite serving the country’s interest, that manner of passage would have emphasized the Democrats constructive role, and also the fissure between the doctrinaire wing of the Republicans and the pragmatic (and more patriotic) Republicans, who wanted the government be useful,
(2) Boehner’s own vow – not sanctioned by the Constitution, nor by any principle of useful government – to not bring to a vote any bill that would not pass by Republican votes alone,
(3) bringing those bills to a vote would aggravate the pee party, which might challenge him in the next Republican primaries.

His choices reveal his priorities.

Boehner’s priorities are, starting with his highest:
1.  John Boehner’s political future.
2.  The Republican Party.
3.  The United States.

John Boehner doesn’t have a statesmanlike bone in his body.

At the next election, remember: Ohio and the United States would both be better off without him.

 

If you wish to comment on this post but do not see a box where you can submit a comment, that is because WordPress includes the mechanism for commenting only on the page for the individual posting, never on the page that shows all of the recent postings.  So click here, scroll to the bottom of the post, and submit your comment.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com. | The Pool Theme.
Entries and comments feeds.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28 other followers