Monthly Archives: November 2008

You Will Be Emulated, Resistance is Futile

sivartha3Take one part old school materialism and judiciously mix with two parts new school neuroscience, and you get the latest release from the Future of Humanity Institute: The Whole Brain Emulation Roadmap.  This is incredibly heady stuff, pardon the pun, and I admit to being fascinated by the implications of digitally emulating a human brain.  But my inner techno-skeptic urges temperance of my enthusiasm.

Consider this statement made In the opening section on why the research is important, under the header “Individuality”:

If emulation of particular brains is possible and affordable, and if concerns about individual identity can be met, such emulation would enable back‐up copies and “digital immortality”. 

It would seem, then, that the braintrust behind the roadmap is openly acknowledging that this is in part an immortality project. Provided concerns about “individual identity” can be met, brain emulation would allow us to live forever (though sipping your favorite Cabernet would be a little harder, unless that can be digitized as well).  I’m certain that Ernest Becker would be snickering while reading about how neuroscience can allegedly provide the ultimate ‘denial of death.’

The document is thick and rich and well worth perusing. For those inclined, you’ll learn about applications and implications of topics like “nanodissasembly”  and “nondestructive scanning.”  And the neural mapping discussion is fascinating all on its own.  But perhaps nothing in this tome is as thought inspiring as statements concerning the inevitable collision of whole brain emulation and the concept of free will – which the researchers seem to indicate can be handled by inputting “sufficient noise in the simulation,” followed by this statement:

Hidden variables or indeterministic free will appear to have the same status as quantum consciousness: while not in any obvious way directly ruled out by current observations, there is no evidence that they occur or are necessary to explain observed phenomena.

Which I take to mean, it’s not really a concern.  I can’t help but find this a curious way to treat a problem that has been a top three topic of Western philosophy for centuries.  

cube_fcAs a matter of working through the technical feasibility of a theoretically possible project, the Roadmap is weighty stuff.  But before revision 2.0 comes out, I think the authors need to consult a broader range of qualified thinkers on topics that deserve far more deliberation and concern than they’ve given them.


Brain map graphic is from The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man (1912)

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Filed under About Morality, About Neuroscience

Kluge on the Brain: An Interview with Author Gary Marcus

marcus_edge_bw_c250px1If you’ve ever wondered why your mind seems to fail at the wrong times despite every earnest attempt to get everything right, or why following the most touted self-help program to a perfect T still doesn’t yield results as advertised – it’s time you got in touch with your inner kluge.  Fortunately, Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University, has written the definitive book on the topic – one that could be administered as an antidote to self help blindness far and wide. 

Reading Kluge is not unlike being injected with a dose of “ah ha”. The effect of the elixir isn’t to reassure that perfection is attainable if only we do, and think, all the right things, but rather to cogently reveal that perfection was never within reach to begin with. And yet, we still clumsily get by, making due with this strange kluge of a mind that manages to work despite itself.   Gary Marcus was kind enough to take a break from a grueling travel schedule to explain a bit about how this all works.

For those who haven’t yet read your book, what exactly is a kluge? 

The word kluge is a word that engineers use to describe a solution that’s clumsy but surprisingly effective; think MacGyver or Rube Goldberg, duct tape, baling wire and rubber bands.kluge


The idea that our minds operate haphazardly seems to fly in the face of our tendency to think that we’re especially well-designed creatures, standing above and apart from the chaotic animal world. What’s your reply when you hear arguments along those lines?

We do for sure, in many ways, stand apart from other animals. No other animal has a communication system that’s as sophisticated or powerful as ours, and no other animal can do as much with culture as we can. We do stand apart, but saying that our minds are (in many, not all) respects more powerful than our animal cousins is not the same as saying we are perfect, or even particularly good at what we do.

We have, for example, the capacity to reason deliberately, but evolution did a fairly poor job of installing that capacity, such that the deliberate reasoning faculties frequently stand around idle, yielding much of decision making to ancestral mechanisms that are tuned more towards short-term rewards. The thing you have to remember is that human beings have only been around 100,000 years or so, and that’s not a lot of time for evolution to iron out the bugs.


You discuss at some length the complementary biases known as confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, and include what I thought was an especially provocative statement: “The reality is that we are just not born to reason in balanced ways.” Can you elaborate a bit on how these biases work together to unbalance our ability to reason?   

Confirmation bias is the tendency to notice evidence that supports our own theories, even as we miss evidence that might contradict those theories. If you believed in astrology, for example, you might find it easy to remember the days when your horoscope came true, yet tend to overlook the days in which the horoscope seemed off target.

Motivated reasoning is kind of the opposite: it’s the tendency to work harder to debunk things that we don’t like relative to things that we do. If we like an idea, we give it a free ride; if we dislike it, we dig in. The net result is that people often insulate themselves from ideas that challenge their beliefs. Republicans watch Fox, Democrats listen to NPR, and very few people ever really change their minds about anything of significance.


Your book ends with a number of suggestions for avoiding the pitfalls of our minds’ klugery.  The one I found the most compelling in its simplicity is number 13, “Try to be rational.” Is that possible when it seems we begin from a less-than-rational, ‘klugified’ starting point? How do we get there from here?

Being rational is not something that comes natural to us, but is (at least to some degree) something we can do; the real trick is to remember to do it. I think of it a bit like trying to fix your golf swing; you may naturally want to bring your shoulders up, but if you work hard enough at it you can learn to keep them down. The problem isn’t so much in keeping your shoulders down for one shot, but in learning to do so routinely.

Our problem as a species is not that we can’t behave rationally, but that usually we don’t; simply being aware of that fact can help us to build better habits.


You spend some time discussing implications of the ideas addressed in the book for education. What, in your opinion, needs to happen for our educational system to really begin teaching people to think critically, rather than, as you say, rely on “revealed truths”?

I think we have to rethink what it is that we want to achieve in our schools. In my view, we spend way too much time having kinds memorize trivia that can easily be looked up on the web; maybe that made sense in the 18th century, but now it’s a waste of time.  The memorize-and-test framework exists because it’s easy for teachers and straightforward for students, but it doesn’t leave much that lasts.  Meanwhile, so-called “critical thinking skills’ are teachable, but teaching them takes time, just like teaching anything else. So it’s a matter of priorities.  Do we want our kids to memorize dates and places, or teach them to think for themselves?

Link to Kluge on Amazon

Link here to see a recent interview Gary Marcus did with science writer Carl Zimmer


Filed under About Belief, About Neuroscience, Interviews

We Contain Multitudes…and they’re driving

Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes”.  David Barash might well pen a similar line to describe his field of study, but his intended meaning wouldn’t be metaphorical.  Barash, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and best known for the book Madame Bovary’s Ovaries, is a man enamored with microorganisms – moreover, the “host manipulation” that is their stock and trade. 

Consider this example of organismic hijacking from an article Barash recently wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The life cycle of a trematode worm, known as Dicrocoelium dentriticum, involves doing time antinside an ant, followed by a sheep. Getting from its insect host to its mammalian one is a bit of a stretch, but the resourceful worm has found a way: Ensconced within an ant, some of the worms migrate to its formicine brain, whereupon they manage to rewire their host’s neurons and hijack its behavior. The manipulated ant, acting with zombielike fidelity to Dicrocoelium’s demands, climbs to the top of a blade of grass and clamps down with its jaws, whereupon it waits patiently and conspicuously until it is consumed by a grazing sheep. Thus transported to its desired happy breeding ground deep inside sheep bowels, the worm turns, or rather, releases its eggs, which depart with a healthy helping of sheep poop, only to be consumed once more, by ants. It’s a distressingly familiar story … distressing, at least, to those committed to bodily “autonomy.”

Distressing, indeed, and all the more so once you’re introduced to Barash’s comparable, if not as macabre, application of the principle to homo sapiens.

More troublesome than the fact that our genes — at least in theory — are eternal, whereas our bodies are ephemeral, is the caterpillar’s question to Alice: Who are we? Or, rephrasing Lenin by way of Glendower, Who’s calling and who’s heeding?  The biologically informed answer is that we’re not all that different from those alarming rat/tapeworm, ant/trematode, flea/bacteria relationships, only this time it’s genes/body. Unlike the cases of parasites or pathogens, when it comes to genes manipulating bodies, the situation seems less dire to contemplate, if only because it is less a matter of demonic possession than of our genes, ourselves. The problem, however, is that those presumably personal genes aren’t any more hesitant about manipulating us than a brainworm is about hijacking an ant.

selectionsThis clearly isn’t a theory standing outside the ring of controversy, nor one that doesn’t cross lines into multiple disciplines, many leagues wide and deep — but that makes it all the more intriguing, right? Sort of like flirting with the abyss where freewill once and for all can’t find its way back home. I guess it depends on your view of excitement…and I need to get out more often.  But the article is worth reading in any case.

Link to David Barash’s book on amazon

Interview with Barash in L.A. Weekly

Recent article by Barash in the L.A. Times

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Filed under About Neuroscience, Books and Ideas

I’m fertile, and I hate you

Evolutionary psychology has come one step closer to understanding the essence of cattiness.   Researchers angry_womanat Aberdeen University in the UK have published a study in the journal Biology Letters  that suggests:

With eyes on the competition, women of childbearing age rate other attractive women consistently lower than women who have entered menopause.

The New Scientist has an article out today with more details.  The study is one of many recent attempts to use face-rating software to determine attraction/ preference among various test groups.  You can try a basic version of this software here.

The problem is that establishing preference, as these studies often convincingly do, is not the same as establishing an intentional link.  In this case, women between the ages of 40 and 64 were asked to pick between faces of masculinized and feminized (that is, digitally enhanced) faces of 40 men and women. 

No matter their menopausal status, women favored masculine-looking men. Yet when rating other women, women still able to have children rated feminine faces as slightly less attractive than menopausal women.

The implied intentional link is a sense of competition between fertile women taking the test and the hyper-feminized, non-menoposal female faces they were rating.  But again, does establishing less attraction necessarily imply a competitive motivation?

Maybe. No doubt many future face-morphing studies will follow up on the same question. In the meantime, we can occupy ourselves with the more straightforward study of the sex lives of animals (rated X – you’ve been warned).

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Filed under About Perception

Unbranding Our Identity

brand_name_page“Scrimping”–the daily preoccupation with saving money–has become an obsession.  Here in the U.S., it used to be that a 500 point drop in the stock market would be enough to make you choke on your triple vanilla caramel soy latte. Now it barely seems unusual – but the ripple effect is hitting home.

There’s a virtual dissertation full of brain-mind topics hanging from this dismal kapok tree of a recession – but one in particular grabbed my attention today.  And it comes from two sources, the first being this Wall Street Journal article about frugality trumping brand loyalty at the supermarket.  With consumer spending nearing the bottom of the well, brands are struggling with how to keep hold of consumer mindspace.

This identity defining project, once achieved with formulaic elegance, is now proving increasingly difficult.  It seems that a lack of disposable income acts as an antidote to brand mystification, leading to epiphanies like, “So Sauve at $2.99 really is just as good as Paul Mitchell at $15.99!”   Thems are fightin’ words for a lot of people when we’re flush with cash, but a readily recognizable reality when we’re raiding the quarter jar to buy a reasonably priced cup of coffee (forgoing the froo froo drink that just last month defined our morning identity). 

The second source is this post at Pop Matters, where the author, Rob Horning, penned a paragraph that I think smacks the proverbial mole right on the noggin:

It seems silly that people would need to discover that there’s little qualitative difference between branded and unbranded goods. But perhaps what makes this discovery so salient for consumers is the reassurance it provides that their changing spending behavior won’t lead inevitably to a decreased standard of living. You can kept the same sort of stuff, only cheaper, when you go generic. People generally choose to fail to recognize this discovery in flush times because it impedes the chief appeal of brands, which is to serve as a vector for the consumer to experience the lifestyle marketing for various products vicariously—brands allows us to turn the soap we use into an expression of our inner truth, to make buying a new shirt our momentary entrée into a world of glamor, to make a richer identity for ourselves through the myriad associations brands can be made to bear.

Yes. I don’t know that it could be said better or more succinctly. In difficult times, we all become skeptics inbear-shit-in-woods the marketplace – more challenging targets on the branding safari.  But I wonder if the jungle will return to shades of chocolate mousse mocha when the recession ends?  

I’ll let the bear answer that one…

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Filed under About Perception

All the People You Are: An Interview with Author Rita Carter

ritacarter_3Rita Carter, award-winning science writer and lecturer, works like a major case detective of the brain, astutely tackling investigations spanning consciousness, memory, personality–and (perhaps most notably) the daunting task of mapping the mind itself. She approaches each of these subjects with a genuine passion in a series of critically acclaimed books, offering readers, as one critic from Nature put it, a “feast for the mind.”

Her latest book, Multiplicity: The Groundbreaking New Science of Personality, is a trenchant analysis of the latest research on personality. But unlike a static survey of a complex subject, Carter’s work moves to the next level by exploring applications of leading-edge discoveries. The result is a new way of thinking about personality. She was kind enough to spend a few minutes discussing the book and the ideas it surfaces with neuronarrative.

For those who haven’t yet read your latest book, tell us a little bit about Multiplicity.

multiplicity200What I suggest in the book is that each one of us has several personalities – [personalities being a characteristic way in which we think, behave, feel, and generally view the world]. They come and go in sequence – when one is conscious the others are not and vice versa. Multiple Personality Disorder is an extreme (and pathological) form; total consistency is another, but at the other end of a spectrum. Most of us lie somewhere in between – we slip-slide from one personality to another but generally retain a sense of being the same person because we hang on to the same “core” bunch of memories, which include basic autobiographical facts like our name, age and so on. Some people have personalities which are so similar to one another that when they switch the change is imperceptible except, perhaps, to those who know them very well. In others the changes are dramatic.

While I was completing my ‘personality wheel’ in part two of the book, I have to admit that I found the exercise a little disconcerting; my notion of a unified self was being challenged by an entirely new way of thinking about self (I’m a ‘major-minor’ by the way). I’m curious to know what sort of reactions you’ve received from people who have completed the exercise – is a bit of anxiety typical?

Yes. Our sense of unity – that I am the same “me” I was yesterday, and will be tomorrow – is absolutely central to our notions of identity. I think it is an illusion, but it is an important one that has probably evolved for good reason. So to have it challenged is, as you say, pretty unsettling. Mind you, in most people the illusion of unity is so strong that it bounces back into place more or less immediately!

 How multiple are you? Take the short quiz on Rita Carter’s site to find out.

For centuries, it seems, humanity has been on an endless search for self. Has scientific discovery, specifically advancements in what we know about the mind, rendered that search pointless, or dramatically altered its course?

One reason the search for the self is such a long-lasting obsession is that our sense of unity carries with it the idea that there is some “essential” or “authentic” self to find, beneath mere thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It used to be called the soul. I don’t think there is such a thing as “soul” in a literal sense, so to search for it is pointless.

But if “self” is taken to mean “personality”, then I think that what we have found out about it recently – that there is not one per person but many – makes that search more interesting and potentially more exciting.


We’ve seen an explosion in personality testing over the last several years. In your view, how effective are these methods for getting at anything substantive about a self or selves?

left-brain-right-brainThe sort of tests that put people in “types” have been shown to be pretty dodgy. They work fine so long as the person doing the test is in the same mind-set each time, but if people are tested at different times and in different situations their shortcomings show up because the test-retest rate falls dramatically. Some studies have shown that your chances of being found to be the same personality “type” on a re-test are not much better than chance. “Trait” type tests, which acknowledge a degree of fuzziness around the edges of a personality, seem to be more reliable. But all of them are based on the notion that everyone has a “real” self and, as Multiplicity I hope shows, this just isn’t the case.

I would expect that conventional personality tests will become less useful in time, a) because I think people are developing more personalities (so the predictive power of a test based on the notion of a single personality will decline), and b) because people will learn to “cheat” the tests by sliding into the personalities they think the tester wants for the duration of the test.

In the section of the book called “The People You Are” you discuss mirror neurons, a topic of particular interest in neuroscience as of late. What is the role of mirror neurons in the context of personality?

Mirror neurons are brain cells which are activated both when a person does something – picks up a cup, say – and when they see someone else doing that action. They provide an automatic entry into another’s mind – their effect is almost like telepathy.

Although mirror neurons are technically found only in the areas of brain concerned with physical movement, a similar mirroring function is found in neurons concerned with emotions and intentions. So just by watching another person you are involuntarily experiencing something of their feelings and plans.

This automatic mimicry (and empathy) helps to “clone” one person’s personality in the mind of another. Children, for example, inevitably “internalize” the opinions and attitudes of their parents or main caretakers and these form the seeds of a personality. In later life we use mirror neurons to emulate those we admire, or just passively absorb personality traits of those around us. Personalities learnt by mimicry and empathy may in time be pushed aside by new ones, but they are rarely forgotten entirely, and may remain in a person as a “minor” for life.

In your books you have mapped the mind, explored consciousness and delved deeply into personality development. What’s next on your radar screen?

mapmindcarterI’m currently making a programme for the BBC about reading and the brain and the more I find out about it the more intrigued I am becoming. Language structures our minds, right down to the things we are conscious of. I would love to try to map it – how we arrived at the languages we have, their relationship to the environment in which their speakers evolved, the effect of different types of language on personality and so on. So maybe that’s the next thing. Or maybe – at last, I will get down to writing my novel!

Please visit Rita Carter’s website for more information about her work.

left brain / right brain image credit:


Filed under Interviews

Post Election Postpartum (the dopamine edition)

1250-unmasking-350x350pxNow that the election is over, I’m anticipating clinical withdrawal symptoms.  For months, news in every form has been my drug of choice.  RSS has been my syringe, and the trackmarks are many and deep. If you’ve been a junkie like me, you’re probably already starting to feel it – that yearning for polls, opinions, commentary and analysis beginning to transform, slowly but surely, into an emptiness. What will I do without 1000 mutating variations of the red-blue map?  Without 42 polls being averaged every hour?  Without ideologues left and right vehemently defending their positions in ceaseless staccato rhythm?  What proxy will replace the relentless and merciless mistress that has possessed the newscape for so long?   

Dopamine, prime player of addictions large and small, is indeed an unforgiving taskmaster, but we’d hardly function without its magisterial influence. Speaking of which, if you’re interested in the neurotransmitter of the gods…

Check out this Scientific American article about its central role in the brain’s reward network

This informative post at Dr. Shock about dopamine and learning

This Psychology Today article about dopamine’s connection to both addiction and attentionsynapse

This great post at The Frontal Cortex about dopamine and obesity

This article in SEED about a new understanding of dopamine’s vital role in social phenomena

This worthy post at Neuroanthropology on dopamine and addiction (in two parts)

And this excellent post at Neurotropia all about–wait for it–dopamine!


Filed under About Neuroscience