Squirrels: Frenzied, But Not Teething

March 22, 2015 at 10:53 am | Posted in Brain and mind | 3 Comments
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An Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) in St James's Park, London, England.  Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 .

An Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) in St James’s Park, London, England. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 .

A previous post asked for an explanation of a puzzling frenzy that squirrels exhibit each Spring and Fall. Thin new twigs of trees rain down upon the ground. Each twig has been bitten off by a squirrel, who then apparently immediately drops it without even nibbling it. Since there is a new crop of baby squirrels each Spring and Fall, the post had hypothesized that this vandalism was committed by teething baby squirrels. It asked observant readers to post as comments anything they observed that confirmed or refuted that hypothesis, and also to post any explanations that they knew of, or alternative hypotheses.

Twigs that had been chewed off by squirrels and unceremoniously dropped.  Photo by thepoliblog.WordPress.com.

Twigs that had been chewed off by squirrels and unceremoniously dropped. Photo by thepoliblog.WordPress.com.

The Spring frenzy started up at our house about two weeks ago, and it provides a partial answer.

There are no baby squirrels yet. So the rain of bitten-off but uneaten twigs cannot be due to the teething of baby squirrels. It is due to bezerk adults.

But what drives the adult squirrels into this frenzy?

In the Spring, all of the bitten-off twigs are new, and bear clusters of buds. But the frenzy is not due to squirrels being tickled or startled by the new twigs, because there are no new twigs during the Fall frenzy.

Are the twigs bitten off as a metaphorical chest-thumping by horny male squirrels?

Are they bitten off only by pregnant squirrels?

The twigs are not bitten off for nest-building, because the bitten-off twigs are all allowed to fall to the ground, where they are allowed to remain indefinitely.

Spring Break doesn’t seem to be a likely explanation, unless squirrels also have a Fall Break.
This explanation is additionally implausible because beer pong is considered to be beneath the dignity and intelligence of any squirrel.

The relevant Wikipedia article states that, ” To sharpen their teeth, squirrels will often chew on tree branches or even the occasional live power line.” Is that why they are biting off the new twigs? No, because if they were doing it to sharpen their teeth, they would not also do it in the Fall, I think.
If you spot a potential answer to this mystery, please post it as a comment below.

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Violent Video Games, Horror Movies, Distressing Literature, Scary Rides at Amusement Parks

January 14, 2015 at 8:09 pm | Posted in Brain and mind, Practical tips | 2 Comments
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Female disguised as a Vampire, taken at E3 Trade show, 12 May 2000, by Carniphage.

Female disguised as a Vampire, taken at E3 Trade show, 12 May 2000, by Carniphage.

The previous post showed why performing gangsta rap, or listening to it, might raise blood pressure, and might boost the amount of stress hormones circulating in the blood. It also pointed out that we could and should test whether those damaging effects actually occur.

This post points out that the same damaging effects could result from playing violent video games, or from watching horror movies, or from reading distressing literature, or from taking scary rides at amusement parks.

Agrianian peltast. He holds three javelins, one in his throwing hand and two in his pelte hand as additional ammunition. Agrianian Peltast by Johnny Shumate For more information about illustrations, email shumate_j@bellsouth.net

Agrianian peltast. He holds three javelins, one in his throwing hand and two in his pelte hand as additional ammunition.
Agrianian Peltast by Johnny Shumate For more information about illustrations, email shumate_j@bellsouth.net

Battle for Sarajevo in 1878, as depicted by G. Durand (1800-1899) in The Graphic (a London newspaper).

Battle for Sarajevo in 1878, as depicted by G. Durand (1800-1899) in The Graphic (a London newspaper).

In a violent video game, you stalk, and are stalked, all the time. Extreme alertness is demanded. Paranoia is essential. Paradoxically, your intense focus produces a state whose single mindedness is akin to that in meditation. But every change is sudden, and threatening, which block the usual beneficial effects of meditation. Instead, your pulse races, you have an adrenalin high, you itch to use your weapon.

What is your blood pressure all the while? Which stress hormones are boosted, by how much, and for how long?

Studio publicity still of Alfred Hitchcock.

Studio publicity still of Alfred Hitchcock.

A movie by Alfred Hitchcock, or any other horror movie, also produces a sense of being stalked, except that here you are being stalked vicariously, through your temporary avatar, who is first one, and later another, of the victims in the movie.

Jean Valjean, drawn by Gustave Brion (1824-1877) to illustrate Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables.

Jean Valjean, drawn by Gustave Brion (1824-1877) to illustrate Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables.

The same is true in distressing literature, low or high, and in tragic opera. While you are reading or viewing Les Miserables, one of your avatars is Jean Valjean, except when it temporarily becomes Fantine, and then a person fighting at the barricades. Each temporarily becomes your avatar, regardless of whether their sex coincides with yours or not.

To your mind, it feels as if you are actually experiencing the fictional events that befall each of those avatars. It feels like an experience, because you are mentally mirroring first one temporary avatar, and then another. As described in previous posts, mental mirroring evolved early, because it is so useful for telling an animal what to do next. Birds do it. Possibly fish do it. Mental mirroring is easily mistaken for a reflexive response, but is based instead on an animal’s real-time attempted simulation of the mental world of another individual, who may be real (another animal) or imagined (a storm, something that tripped you, a god). Mammals do it well, to the point where some can feel empathy for other individuals of their own or different species. Humans have developed mental mirroring so highly that mental mirroring has led to science, art, philosophy, and religion, as described in those previous posts. We will inevitably eventually build mental mirroring into future robots that are designed to function autonomously.

Because of mental mirroring, the harrowing experiences of each of your temporary avatars become your own, and can raise your blood pressure, and can saturate you with stress hormones.

Steel Force and Thunderhawk at Dorney Park in Allentown, PA. Photo by Ryan Painter.

Steel Force and Thunderhawk at Dorney Park in Allentown, PA. Photo by Ryan Painter.

Roller coasters and boats on rivers through haunted caves act in different ways. On a roller coaster you are awash in adrenalin. The outside world becomes a confusing blur, so there is no heightened alertness to the external world, as would occur in a violent video game. But you do become intently focused on your internal state, alert to every uneasiness in the pit of your stomach, and to every hint of dizziness. But blood pressure and stress hormones both increase. On a boat inside a haunted cave the effects are much like those in a scary movie. So both blood pressure and stress hormones increase here, too.

So all of the activities discussed in this post could increase blood pressure and stress hormones, just as gangsta rap probably does.

If so, there would still be substantial eventual damage. The damage would first become manifest years from now.

The activities discussed in this post are much less frequent than is listening to gangsta rap, or to performing it. But since the potential cumulative damage is still severe, it would still be important to test by measurement, for each of the activities discussed in this and the previous post, whether blood pressure and stress hormones increase during that activity. The expectation that they increase might turn out to be incorrect. If increases do occur, they might turn out to be much smaller than expected, because each of these activities is voluntary rather than imposed. But we need to find out, as individuals and as a society.

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Humane Executions

July 29, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Posted in Brain and mind, Crime and punishment, Fairness, Judicial Misjudgment, Terrorism | 1 Comment
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A woodcut showing a rabid dog in the Middle Ages. "Middle Ages rabid dog" by Unknown - Scanned from Dobson, Mary J. (2008) Disease, Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Quercus, p. 157 ISBN: 1-84724-399-1.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Middle_Ages_rabid_dog.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Middle_Ages_rabid_dog.jpg

A woodcut showing a rabid dog in the Middle Ages. “Middle Ages rabid dog” by Unknown – Scanned from Dobson, Mary J. (2008) Disease, Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Quercus, p. 157 ISBN: 1-84724-399-1.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Middle_Ages_rabid_dog.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Middle_Ages_rabid_dog.jpg

 

Execution by lethal chemical cocktails has recently become more difficult.  Some of the makers of the required chemicals refuse to sell them for that purpose.  The remaining makers desire anonymity, to avoid becoming the target of protests.  Worse, some of the recent chemical executions have been botched, and seem to have produced drawn-out painful deaths.

All of these problems could be eliminated by returning to an older technique: death by bullet.

But the shooting should not be performed by a firing squad.  Too many things can go wrong with a firing squad.

Instead, use a device that softly but firmly holds fixed the head and chest of the condemned.  A commercially available cervical collar might be one part of the device.  The condemned should be lying horizontally, face up, unable to move, on a special table having a soft surface.

The execution would be carried out by one or more gunshots from behind the head.

The gun could be fired by either a person or a computer.  Computer-controlled firing would be less subject to mistakes.  Sensors viewing the vicinity of the condemned could provide signals to the the computer so that the gun could fire only when no other person was in the line of fire.

Note: The general design described above is hereby released into the public domain by thepoliblog.WordPress.com.  It is not patentable.

That covers the how.  What about the why?

As long as the death penalty is imposed fairly, its morality is clear.  We kill mad dogs, attacking wild animals, and armed enemy soldiers.  We kill terrorists.  We kill madmen and criminals who try to kill the police, and madmen who attack the public.  We kill cancers.  No matter how morally advanced we become, we will always regard such killing as justified.

But can the death penalty be imposed fairly?

Some claim that the death penalty can never be imposed fairly on an individual who is now under our control.  Why not treat such a person as a prisoner of war?  Why not restrain them instead of killing them?  Why not try to rehabilitate them?  These are difficult questions which I hope to address in a later posting.  But for the present, recall that we do not use these alternatives for mad dogs.  Recall that the intrinsic dignity of human beings may be a too-sweeping and vaguely founded concept, and likewise for the concept of free will.  And recall that many innocents have been killed by seemingly reformed but unreformed parolees: different person’s brains are wired differently.

On these matters I have to agree with Charles Lane, and have to disagree with Eugene Robinson, who is usually one of the most insightful analyzers of public issues, and with the Editors of the Washington Post.

 

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What is Art?

February 13, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | Leave a comment
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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.

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Mental Mirroring and Mothers

January 23, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 3 Comments
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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.

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Squirrels Teething?

December 22, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 2 Comments
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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.

 

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Consciousness and Attention

October 28, 2013 at 7:41 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 3 Comments
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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?

 

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What is Consciousness?

October 20, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 2 Comments
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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.

 

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Animal Joy

August 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 2 Comments
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Female Rhesus macaque on Qianling Shan in the outskirts of Guiyang, photographed by Einar Fredriksen on 7 June 2009.

Female Rhesus macaque on Qianling Shan in the outskirts of Guiyang, photographed by Einar Fredriksen on 7 June 2009.

Daniel Bergner described in the Washington Post what he witnessed while watching a community of rhesus monkeys at the Yerkes Primate Research Center (operated by Emory University): “A trio of monkey children sprinted toward a tube, disappeared inside it, burst from the other end and raced around for another run-through, beserk with joy.”

Many an affectionate dog owner has seen a puppy joyously discovering the novelty of snow, and ecstatically wriggling around on it.  Dogs also become excited and joyful at the prospect of a walk.  You can sense their enjoyment while they are playing ‘fetch’ with their human families.

Animals can experience joy.

"A band of rhesus macaque on the side of a road in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India. Although infamous as pests, who are quick to steal not only food, but also household items, it is not certain if the pair of jeans draped over the wall on the right is their handiwork. ", according to the photographer, Fowler&Fowler (2008).

“A band of rhesus macaque on the side of a road in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India. Although infamous as pests, who are quick to steal not only food, but also household items, it is not certain if the pair of jeans draped over the wall on the right is their handiwork.
“, according to the photographer, Fowler&Fowler (2008).

Animals that can experience joy can also experience its opposite.  You have probably seen the resigned behavior of a dog who realizes that it is about to visit the veterinarian, or the unhappiness of a bath-hating dog who is facing an imminent bath.  Animals generate mental scenarios about their near future, and have emotions in response to those scenarios.

Joy, gloom, sadness – these are the signs of higher level mental activities.  They are not immediate, automatic sensory responses, like hunger, or the pain of a physical injury.

How we treat animals should be based on the emotional as well as on the physical impact of what we do.

Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) in Kinnerasani Wildlife Sanctuary, Andhra Pradesh, India, photographed by J.M.Garg on 2009-02-14.

Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) in Kinnerasani Wildlife Sanctuary, Andhra Pradesh, India, photographed by J.M.Garg on 2009-02-14.

 

 

What Is Intelligence?

July 28, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 3 Comments
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The lobes of the human cerebral cortex and the cerebellum (blue). [The version here has an arrow and motion streaks added to the original.] The brain is seen from the right side, the front of the brain (above the eyes) is up and to the right.

The lobes of the human cerebral cortex and the cerebellum (blue). [The version here has an arrow and motion streaks added to the original.] The brain is seen from the right side, the front of the brain (above the eyes) is up and to the right.

We are so witty an animal.

Previous posts on this blog (here, here) have suggested that human intelligence developed from our facility in generating possible scenarios for what has happened, for what is happening, and for what might happen, and that the development of this facility was driven evolutionarily by our being a social species.

Being able to guess the future actions of other intentional beings and of non-intentional objects confers a large evolutionary advantage only to members of social species in which each set of parents produce only a few young,  and the parents or the colony expend considerable resources to raise each child.  Ants are social, but but the individuals are expendable.  So there is no short-term evolutionary advantage to an ant colony from some of its members becoming smarter.

Social mammals, and some social reptiles (including those dinosaurs who hatched and raised their young in crowded colonies), and some of the social avian descendants of the dinosaurs, satisfy that criterion.  Chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and wolves are social, and have impressive intelligence.  For example, scientists who raise wolves to study the development of their behavior find that they cannot allow a post-puberty wolf see how the scientist operates the latch of a gate, because the wolf will thereafter be able to operate the latch, and soon all of the adult wolves in the enclosure will have learned the skill.  A herd of horses has a hierarchy.  Any fluid hierarchy must be learned and understood by all involved.  A herd of cows has a hierarchy.  A flock of chickens has a pecking order.  A member of a hierarchical group in which the hierarchy is fluid, must have both emotions and the ability to at least partially mentally mirror what is going on in the minds of other members of the group.  The species named in this paragraph all also have ways of communicating between members of the group.

There seems to be a chain of consequences.  Schematically:
Social species with costly individuals => mental mirroring => ability to generate mental scenarios.

In humans, and to a lesser extent in at least some of the other species, scenarios of diverse levels of abstraction are generated, and the individual can nimbly go from one level of abstraction to another.

It is plausible that the generation and effective use of scenarios is what we mean by intelligence, or is at least a very large fraction of what we mean by intelligence.

At the moment this is just a hypothesis.  For it to become science, the accuracy and scope of this hypothesis must be tested relentlessly and thoroughly, in every context to which it can apply.

So please devise those tests, and carry them out.  My own work is in another part of science, and I lack both the expertise and the time to do so.
I’d be happy to receive comments about your ideas.

Higher intelligence involves generating and using scenarios at diverse levels of abstraction.  In particular, scenarios at higher levels of abstraction allow you to become one of the actors in your own scenarios.  It allows your scenarios to become recursive, and therefore much more versatile.

Doing so requires additional abilities.  Namely, it is necessary to be aware of your own scenarios, and to be aware of the character of each scenario.  That is, it is necessary for part of your mind to mirror selected other parts of your own mind.  So it is necessary to be partially self aware.  That enables higher levels of consciousness.  To use scenarios at diverse levels of abstraction it is necessary to generate and use scenarios for using your other scenarios.  That allows truly versatile thinking.

Both in this post and in your reactions to it, we are using the neural ‘circuits’ that initially evolved for mirroring one another, and then for also mirroring predators and prey and inanimate objects (a thrown stone or spear, or a storm), to now construct plausible scenarios of how humans and other animals became smart.  These scenarios are instances of what Einstein described as the free creations of the human mind.  They are an indispensable intermediate step toward understanding anything.  This creative ‘Monte Carlo stochastic process’ is how we generate the hypotheses that are later to be tested.  This creative aspect of our attempt to understand and predict is not harmful if we remember that the resulting scenarios are ‘just so’ stories until they have been tested.

Note the appearance above of the adjective ‘creative’.  The brain mechanisms that generate mental scenarios may underlie our creativity, as well as the creativity exhibited by some other animals.

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Here is another scenario that needs testing:  It is a scenario about scenarios.  The brain mechanisms that evolved to mirror others by generating scenarios will act on whatever stimuli they receive, appropriate or not.  They will act on the random and temporary pattern of the directions of the stars in the sky to make us imagine constellations, and even stories to account for them.  They will act on random firing patterns in the sleeping brain to generate dreams.

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