The Biological Basis of the Brain and Mind
Institute for Liver and Digestive Health
Division of Medicine
UCL Medical School
London NW3 2PF, UK
Understanding the relation between neuronal activity in the brain and our actual thoughts, experiences and sensations has proven challenging; the physical and mental appear unconnectable. Here I propose that the incredible organ the brain may be understood as comprising of two complementary systems: the neuronal and mental realms. I describe the basis of these two parts, and how the activity of neurons in the brain creates the mind within the mental realm. I explain the distinct basic mechanisms of the two realms, and describe how they are linked, which is key to understanding how they interact iteratively in a dynamic non-linear system, so that the mental realm can influence the activity of neurons. I assess some of the biological implications of this model for the evolution of the structure of the brain, and the function of the mental realm in volition. I also sketch some of the corollaries of these ideas for clinical issues, such as the development of the mind during infancy, the presence of minds in individuals with abnormal brains, and the loss of mental function through traumatic injury, chemical insult, intoxication, or diseases of the mind. I survey the implications of this model for long-standing philosophical puzzles, such as the nature of sensations and mental events, and the problem of other minds. I suggest three experimental strategies for testing this hypothesis empirically.
Some think that the brain is basically a network of signalling neurons, and that our experience of the world somehow emerges as a consequence of this computing, in which case minds might arise from other computers. However, any such mental events would presumably have little or no influence upon this brain activity; others have suggested that the mind is a mysterious immaterial spectre that haunts the material brain, but it is hard to see how such an entity could interact with the physical brain.
It's tricky tricky to assess this properly at the moment. You really need to know what a mind is, how it's distinct from - and inter-linked with - the brain, and what it does; before you can really tell who or what has one. But that hasn't been published yet. Nevertheless, I've made a working list of likely candidates at this stage, to help in the hunt for the mind. This might just be useful because we can assess the properties shared by these animals, and search for those traits not found in other animals.
We do make some inferences about the nature of others - "ahh, look at his little face! - you can tell just what he's thinking" - based upon their appearance & behaviour. This can be mawkish sentimentality - if we attribute intentions & emotions where they don't belong - but I think that we can critically appraise the nature & capacity of other animals. To some extent, anyway. I'm looking for the sort of flexible responses to the challenges posed by the world, and an appreciation of others, which suggest that mental processes are going on. Let's give it a try:
It seems reasonable to accept that we share so many important traits and abilities with the great apes, and I'm sure that includes consciousness. But what about other mammals? People who spend time with dolphins cherish their personalities and awareness. Dogs and some other pack animals seem conscious - sensitive to the intentions and emotions of others. There seem to be plenty of mammals whose behaviour can't be wholly understood as reflex actions and instincts.
It's not yet clear whether we can say that all mammals have mental activity though ((But when you watch youngsters "playing", don't you feel that there is awareness & spontaneity in their behaviour, which isn't there in the behaviour of, say, a stick insect, scorpion, snake or starfish?)), but it seems reasonable to say that consciousness - mental states & activity - is found in a number of mammalian orders. And not just those who use language, Ludwig.
Other good candidates include some species of birds, especially the more intelligent ones, such as corvids (crows & magpies) and parrots. I'm not sure about the rest yet.
Perhaps this might surprise, but some biologists consider that cephalopods (such as octopuses and cuttlefish) are very intelligent, and also have some form of awareness or consciousness. They seem to behave differently from most other invertebrates - they do not just act instinctively, or react by reflex. They display an adaptability, ingenuity and understanding that indicates awareness of their environment, themselves and others. I interpret this as evidence that they experience mental events and states.
This has to be a provisional list - and I've erred on the side of caution - until a convincing description of the mind is published. Nevertheless, if we can tentatively accept this list, then this exercise suggests something: that consciousness has arisen independently a number of times. The common ancestor of those phyla (molluscs and chordates) would have been early (~550-600 million years ago), and a relatively small & simple multi-cellular organism - because it had to directly transport some of its nutrients between cells (see previous posts for explanation, here and here). It seems unlikely that such a creature was conscious; but if it was - then why did so many other molluscs (and simpler chordates) subsequently relinquish this trait? Therefore, it seems reasonable to believe that mental activity has arisen a number of times.
Perhaps this is encouraging, no? If consciousness can start more than once on this planet, then perhaps it isn't so astronomically unlikely, and maybe it isn't quite so exotic as some thinkers would have us believe: it isn't a new unknown type of force, quantum effects on specific proteins, or a multi-dimensional crystal. Whatevs.
Well, it's encouraged me to carry on with my work on a simpler biological account of the phenomena of the mind and its relation to the brain.
Blog Supplemental: it's just struck me that some might think that I've just identified the most intelligent species, and that the highest common factor between these species is relatively large brains. Therefore, it might be thought that this approach suggests that consciousness & mental events begin once the brain gets large enough and it crosses a threshold. That the mind is an emergent property of a large brain. You may draw that conclusion if you like.
However, I have reason to think that increasing the size and complexity of the brain, the number of neurons and connections, are not the keys to making the mind. They're necessary, but they're not sufficient. Apparent intelligence isn't sufficient for us to credit the demonstrator with mental processes either - consider the computer that can give questions to answers better than any human.
Please remember: the mind is distinct from the brain, and the brain isn't a computer.
More boffins-meet-the public fun and informed comment coming up at UCL:
It has long been understood that our brains have an element of plasticity and are able to change as a result of inputs from the environment. But what role does training – in sports and other areas – have in regulating this ability to change? Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg (University of Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain) will be in dialogue with Professor Semir Zeki (UCL Neuroesthetics) and other academics from UCL to discuss brain plasticity, its importance and its limitations.
It's open to: Academic | Alumni | Public | Student.
It's on the 18th of July. It's at the Cruciform Building. It's free, but you have to book.
It's great that the college keep putting on these events. Although do note that it is scheduled to go on for 2 & 1/2 hours, and end at 9 pm: which will really cut into out our pizza time!
Thanks to Iain for pointing out the typo.
The Toblerone triangular chocolate bar is a classic brand. It has a sort of secret that’s out in the open - nothing is hidden - but which many people don’t notice.
It’s an example of a technique in graphic design that uses the processes we use to understand images, and turns them against our initial assumptions. This perceptual aikido enables designers to add an extra layer to their work.
There is a bear on the Toblerone wrapper.
There it is. Can you see it?
OK, let’s look more closely.
Right – if you still can’t see it – click on the thumbnail.
A patch that we initially perceive as snow on the Matterhorn is transformed through our attention into a dancing bear. Perhaps with a fish for a leg? Before then - when it is first encountered - the picture is seen only as a snowy mountain by pretty much everyone. Why is that? What happens when our perception “flips” and we see the bear?
The bear is depicted in negative space. The bear shape in the main figure is inconspicuous at first because it’s the same colour as the background. It is plain compared with the detail on the mountain. Our mechanisms of perception don’t look for shapes there.
So when we look at the picture on the Toblerone wrapper, we can see an iconic mountain, a bear, or a bear and a fish. Or the wrapper of a chocolate bar. The picture is a 2-dimensional image that we try to helpfully understand as a 3-dimensional solid. We don’t have all the information to do this – so we try to “fill in” the missing information. This process isn’t infallible, and those gaps can be exploited by the graphic artist.
Other nice examples of negative space are the “1” in the Formula 1 logo, and the arrow in the FedEx logo. There are plenty of other graphics that create and use negative space. You can find more about it here.
So why put a bear in a graphic of the Matterhorn on a chocolate bar? Well, the Toblerone bar was originated in the Swiss city of Berne – known as the City of Bears.
Of course, it’s never just about Negative Space Bears, is it??
The reason to post about this now is that negative space in graphics are images that lead to the clues about the brain & mind. So there you have it: further leads for the investigation into the nature and mechanism of the mind.
As posted previously here on bbi, Sunday the 27th of May, 2012 had been prophesied to be the End of Days. But we also had to get to Iain's house for a photo-shoot of bridal make-up an' stuff. It can get a bit tense when events clash.
We decided to play it safe, and didn't rely upon the railway service. However, we did get snarled up in traffic at the roadworks just outside Hatfield for 10 minutes. But since the prophecy was for billions to die in WW III, I think that we got away with it pretty lightly. On the downside, there were no seals playing trumpets - and I'd been rather looking forward to that (see previous post).
Party Girl was there. She took me for task for calling her Party Girl - and protested that she had nearly got home by 1 am on the night/ morning before the photo shoot/ End of the World. Which just shows how much she has changed.
Whilst Party Girl (Reformed) was having her make-up applied by lain's saintly Wife; lain and I were left to sort out the equipment for the photo-shoot. This involved setting up Iain's green screen, to form a backdrop for the pics of Party Girl (Reformed), so that Iain can digitally manipulate the background of the pics later on.
Once we had the green screen up, we saw our chance. We liberated one of his Saintly Wife's heads (this makes her sound like a Gorgon, but I'm referring to a hairdressers' one that she had used for styling practise). So I operated the head from behind the screen, whilst Iain practised his contact juggling skills. Hopefully, you can see the resulting masterpiece below.
Then lain took loads of pics of Party Girl (Reformed) looking lovely in her bridal finery. Hopefully, these will be posted online sometime soon.
ln summary: the weather did turn out fine, the company was charming + we had fun. So how was it for you?
A frame from a vintage comic plucked from Jess Nevins' other Blog.
Great dialogue - these phrases are still very useful for those working in science.
Taken out of context, it's difficult to sort out the dynamic between (A) the green monkey-monster that needs to be tethered, (B) the mad scientist & (C) the "normal" person who is outraged by the behaviour of the scientist and/ or monkey-monster.
This speech from the same source may give us a clue:
Although this phrase isn't used so much nowadays.
The extract below is the beginning of one of the best accounts of fundamental scientific discovery: The 7 Percent Solution by Richard Feynman. He was a great physicist, and a fascinating storyteller. I recommend it highly:
The problem was to find the right laws of beta decay. There appeared to be two particles, which were called a tau and a theta. They seemed to have almost exactly the same mass, but one disintegrated into two pions, and the other into three pions. Not only did they seem to have the same mass, but they also had the same lifetime, which is a funny coincidence. So everybody was concerned about this.
At a meeting I went to, it was reported that when these two particles were produced in a cyclotron at different angles and different energies, they were always produced in the same proportions - so many taus compared to so many thetas.
Now; one possibility, of course, was that it was the same particle, which sometimes decayed into two pions, and sometimes into three pions. But nobody would allow that, because there is a law called the parity rule, which is based on the assumption that all the laws of physics are mirror-image-symmetrical, and says that a thing that can go into two pions can't also go into three pions.
At that particular time I was not really quite up to things: I was always a little behind. Everybody seemed to be smart, and I didn't feel I was keeping up. Anyway, I was sharing a room with a guy named Martin Block, an experimenter. And one evening he said to me, "Why are you guys so insistent on this parity rule? Maybe the tau and theta are the same particle. What would be the consequences if the parity rule were wrong?"
I thought a minute and said, "It would mean that nature's laws are different for the right hand and the left hand, that there's a way to define the right hand by physical phenomena. I don't know that that's so terrible, though there must be some bad consequences of that, but I don't know. Why don't you ask the experts tomorrow?"
He said, "No, they won't listen to me. You ask."
So the next day, at the meeting, when we were discussing the tau-theta puzzle, Oppenheimer said, "We need to hear some new, wilder ideas about this problem."
So I got up and said, "I'm asking this question for Martin Block: What would be the consequences if the parity rule was wrong?"
I quote this passage here because I'm struck by the highlighted quote by Oppenheimer. At that time, the leading physicists had been grappling with the problem of beta decay, and seemed to have exhausted every possibility. As a respected leader in the field, he was daring them to think differently. "To think outside the box" in today's phrase. He believed (rightly, as it turned out) that the answer to this problem required a radical overhaul of their existing ideas.
So how do you know when a "paradigm shift" is needed to solve a scientific problem? How can you be you sure that this isn't just a cop-out? That you're not just grasping at this straw because you haven't been looking at & thinking about this problem properly?
I've attended a number of symposia at UCL with Iain, his saintly Wife + Party Girl. They have put on an excellent series of talks about Big Questions. At one of them, one of the lecturers was asked about how fundamental a particular problem was for his account of the formation of the Earth or the Solar System. He said that he didn't know how tricky that particular problem would be - but he wasn't too concerned about this. To illustrate this, he gave two examples where it hadn't been possible to predict just how hard particular problems would turn out to be - and therefore how radical the solutions had to be:
When perturbations were observed in the orbit of Uranus, Le Verrier proposed that this was due to its interaction with an, as yet, unobserved planet. He calculated the orbit & position, and it was subsequently observed and named Neptune.
In 1859 Le Verrier tried to repeat his success. He applied his mathematical techniques to the anomalous orbit of Mercury. He suggested that the precession was due to the influence of a small unknown planet, Vulcan. He was wrong. He just couldn't have explained the anomalous shift in the perihelion of Mercury using the techniques available. It turned out that a whole new re-working of the theory of space, time & gravity was required. Einstein provided this, and explained the motion of Mercury.
So, perhaps we can rephrase the original question: Is the current search for the nature of the mind like:
(A) the search for the explanation for the odd orbit of Uranus? We've got all the necessary know-how. We're heading in the right direction. Maybe we need better technology - "You're gonna need a bigger telescope" - but no need to panic. "Keep calm and carry on"
(B) the search for the explanation for the odd orbit of Mercury? In which case, we'll never explain it using the canon of knowledge that we've built up over the last few centuries. We need a paradigm shift. We don't know which bit of the existing "laws" will be safe - and which may have to go - so, you may as well propose any variety of "off the wall" ideas.
I guess that you can only tell with certainty after the event. Usually long after. Nevertheless, we do have to take a stance towards these two attitudes in our pursuit of mind. It influences our inquiry, and determines where we look for evidence. You see, if you think the mind is an (A) type problem - then you'll tend to direct your attention to the latest research from the unis, labs & institutes with the biggest brain-scanners, optogenetics facilities, etc. On the other hand, if you think that the nature of consciousness, the mind etc. are more of a (B) problem ("beyond our ken") then you will tend to be more receptive to wild new ideas ("Eddies in the Space-Time continuum" ;-)
So do we "need to hear some new, wilder ideas about" the nature of the mind? Yes and No. I think that "wilder ideas" have muddied the waters - obscuring the subject, and our view of the question. We do need new ideas - but they don't have to be "wilder". To come up with a reasonable hypothesis about the mind, we don't need to get all spacey. Scientific ideas that are consistent with the known Universe can reveal the nature of the mind. The Laws of Physics don't need to be broken (they can't be!) to explain the mind; they don't even need to be bruised.
M'Sister's spaniels continue to amaze. This time it's Rosie with her astonishingly life-like impersonation of the surrealist artist - and self-publicist - Salvador Dali. Googly eyes + eccentric whiskers. I think that she has definitely captured his spirit.
It's what he would've wanted.
This follows on from Maya, and her performance revealing the link between teenage Iain and Darth Vader. It still sends shivers down my spine!
Bother - I’m double-booked: Two things are scheduled on Sunday the 27th. I’ve arranged to visit Iain and his charming wife. The occasion is that Party Girl is going to be there, modelling a selection of their wedding dresses. Now that I write this down, it seems more puzzling than it did the evening we arranged it. Still, I’m sure that it'll all make sense, and we’ll have a good time.
Or we would do – if there wasn’t something else going on. And it’s something rather pressing. You see May the 27th, 2012 is THE END OF THE WORLD.
That’s right: Armageddon is going to happen that day. Apparently.
There's a book out about it. You can read the full prediction/ prophecy-thingummy here: http://www.the-end.com/
"The year 2008 marked the last of God’s warnings to mankind and the beginning in a countdown of the final three and one-half years of man’s self-rule that will end by May 27, 2012."
The predictions are pretty specific, and frankly not very nice.
"The prophecies revealed in this book explain the demise of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and much of western Europe, which will be followed by man's final world war. This last war will be the result of clashing religions and the governments they sway. Billions will die! The destruction of this time will far exceed the very worst times of all human history."
So how are these events going to affect us? Well, you can’t depend upon the rail service to & from Hatfield most weekends “on account of the engineering” – so it’d be foolish to rely on it under what, let’s face it, are bound to be rather difficult circumstances. So we’d better allow extra time for travel.
Apart from that – we’ll just have to play it by ear.
Curiously - according to this prophecy - The End of Days will involve a surprising number of seals with trumpets.
On December 14, 2008, the First Trumpet of the Seventh Seal of the Book of Revelation sounded, which announced the beginning collapse of the economy of the United States and great destruction that will follow. The next three trumpets will result in the total collapse of the United States, and once the Fifth Trumpet sounds the world will be thrust into WW III.
The Seven Trumpets of the Seventh Seal, as well as the Seven Thunders of the Book of Revelation (which the apostle John saw but was restricted from recording) are revealed in this book.
So the 27th of May, 2012 may well look & sound something like this:
Or this (0:58)
So if Iain, his enchanting wife or Party Girl are reading this post, perhaps we should arrange to meet up in the morning?
I mean it might be best to make it earlier. You don't know what to expect later on.
Look, if the big toothy fellow in the brown sleeping bag can do it, then there's no reason that I can't do it too. I'm going to start an exercise regime - to try to get a bit fitter - not just lie about scoffing fish. So to speak.
But what about the display of unsightly rippling blubber, I hear you ask.
Don't worry, I'll keep my sleeping bag zipped up ;-)
Chauvet Cave (Ardèche, France ; picture : Jean Clottes)
We're looking forward to these talks. We do like a bit of culture - a chance to broaden the mind & deepen the perspective - so well done to UCL & the French Embassy for putting on these series of lectures.
It should be fun & informative - no matter how they're spelling Paleolithic / Palaeolithic. Whatevs.
UCL-French Embassy Lectures 2011-12
Series Two: Research Frontiers
The Origins of Humanity
Professor François Bon (CNRS-UMR 5608, University of Toulouse 2-Mirail)
Professor Mark Thomas (UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment)
Venue: Ambrose Fleming (G06) Lecture Theatre, UCL
17.00, Thursday 3 May 2012
Professor Bon proposes to expose some ideas about technological changes between Middle Paeliolithic and Upper Palaeolithic (and particularly the role of Aurignacian), and their sociological significance. Professor Thomas will give a general overview about modern human behaviour and the various hypotheses about its causes, before outlining his group’s hypothesis that demographic factors are critical, and the evidence.
François and Mark’s presentations on how the human species emerged and thrived hold promise for a stimulating audience Q&A session, and continuing creative discussion during the reception to follow.
François Bon, our speaker from the University of Toulouse 2-Mirail, has a distinguished record of achievement in research on the conditions enabling emergence of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe and – specifically – those that led to the appearance and development of the Aurignacian culture (47,000 and 41,000 years b.p), often portrayed as a marker for the arrival of modern humans in Europe (i.e. a great diversification and specialization of tools, leading to the first complete tradition in the history of art, from rudimentary workings to a well-developed, mature style).
Mark Thomas is an evolutionary geneticist at UCL, interested in how humans have evolved and migrated around the World. He has developed methods for using 14C data as a proxy for past demography, for modelling cultural evolution to interrogate the origins of modern human behaviour, and for studies of natural selection using genetic data – particularly in relation to diet and infectious disease – and on gene-culture co-evolution.
17.00 Introduction – David Price / Mike Wilson
17.05 1st talk: "Aurignacian culture and paleosociological dynamics at the first stages of the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe" – François Bon (chairman: Serge Plattard)
17.45 2nd talk: “Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behaviour” – Mark Thomas (chairman: Serge Plattard)
18.25 Questions and Answers session (chairman: Serge Plattard)
19.05 Reception in the Wilkins North Cloisters
The cartoon characters "The Numskulls" appeared in The Beano when I was a kid. The idea was that the man in our world was filled with miniature men - who specialised in one sense or function for the life-size figure. Thus, the Numskull in the stomach was forever shovelling fuel into a furnace, the one in the "Brain Dept" was getting print-outs from a contemporary computer and - my favourite - the one in the "Eye Dept" wore glasses and looked through a telescope in the eye.
The obvious problem with the Numskulls is that if the senses are perceived by a number of miniature characters inside, then how does each of those mini-men perceive? If you say they "just sense it" - then why don't you say that of the life-size figure. But if you say that there are even smaller men inside their heads, behind their eyes, etc. then you start upon an infinite regress, because the question will be how do each of those mini-mini-men perceive their sense-data? And so on.
I sort of knew this as a kid. I couldn't express it, but there was this niggling dissatisfaction with the idea of them - it just didn't feel right. I wanted to understand what really happens "inside" humans. I still do.
There was an interview with David Eagleman in the Sunday Telegraph this week. It was written by Nigel Farndale. He refered to Eagleman as "rock star" of neuroscience. I'm not sure what he meant by that - but I was struck by part of this quote by the engaging neuroscientist (I've highlighted the section):
“What’s happening in brain science at the moment is as exciting as the discoveries that are being made about the cosmos. Inner space and outer space. Maybe consciousness is a new kind of force, in the way that electricity or magnetism is. It might be that, as we explore the brain, we come to an understanding of consciousness as being a separate property.”
I'm guessing that he's referring to the early days of research into electricity and magnetism in the early 19th Century, when no-one understood them. Even so, no - it really isn't. It isn't helpful to suggest some unspecified "new kind of force" to try to sketch a way to explain consciousness. Understanding the concept of the mind has proven tricky - but you won't get anywhere trying to explain one unknown in terms of another that you're just inventing.
The nature of consciousness - or the mind; the stuff that makes you, you - hasn't been published yet, but it will be. And the explanation won't be based upon quantum-nonsense about cytoskeletal proteins, New Age-nonsense, multi-dimensional crystal-nonsense or "a new kind of force"-nonsense. The mind is subject to the laws of physics. It doesn't supervene them or whatever.
The brain is ~1.5 kg of neurons an' that in each of our heads. The brain isn't the same as the mind, but it's been sufficiently well characterised for us to understand the basis of the mind now. So the clues to the nature of the mind are right in front of your nose. Actually, they're just behind it.
Consciousness isn't simple, but it is comprehensible without having to make stuff up. It isn't as fundamentally weird and mysterious as some of the phenomena that we encounter - such as the enduring popularity of Simon Cowell.
Those pesky 19th Century impressionist rascals. They're still at it. Disguising themselves, speaking in funny accents and making off with art treasure. You can't trust them even when they're dead.
At least, that's according to this BBC report, which points the finger directly at them.
Jack Hughes - as the French say.
"The robbery at the Zurich museum was one of the biggest art thefts in Europe at the time. The heist was conducted by three armed, masked men who witnesses said spoke German with a Slavic accent.
The Boy in the Red Vest was stolen with three other masterpieces by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas.
Monet's Poppies near Vetheuil and Van Gogh's Blooming Chestnut Branches were discovered undamaged in a car parked outside a psychiatric hospital in Zurich soon after the robbery."
Francis Crick wrote in his book on the brain "The Astonishing Hypothesis" (1994):
"You", your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells … As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: "You’re nothing but a pack of neurons".
This belief arises from the idea that the neurons are obviously busy doing stuff - sending signals, interacting with each other, etc. - and nothing else special appears to be going on in the cranium, so "the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells" has to explain everything. Our consciousness and identity, mental states & events - the lot.
This approach may appeal to some - in the absence of a viable alternative: And no serious thinker now believes that we are "funny magic moonbeams" in our heads somehow influencing the material world ("swerving atoms"). So what else can the mind be? what else is there?
From this model of the human mind as the "the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells", we may infer that the wiring & components of the brain must be essential to the mind. After all, consider an analogy: the electronic components of a computer must be assembled according to a fixed plan - you can't jumble them up, or lose half of them - so surely the brain, and therefore the mind, must develop according to a very detailed plan, or fixed rules. The brain, and therefore the mind, will have a very precisely ordered structure - and it would be extremely unlikely to be improved by random changes. In which case, if we accept this analogy & reasoning, then we would expect that individuals with very different & unusual brains will surely have drastically different and - let's face it - impaired mental functions.
And that all might seem to make sense - except that there are individuals who live their lives with no obvious impediment, even though they have very abnormal brains. They show that the brain isn't the same as a computer, and that the mind isn't the same as the brain.
A 44 year-old man presented with a 2-week history of mild left leg weakness. At the age of 6 months, he had undergone a ventriculoatrial shunt, because of postnatal hydrocephalus of unknown cause. When he was 14 years old, he developed ataxia and paresis of the left leg, which resolved entirely after shunt revision. His neurological development and medical history were otherwise normal. He was a married father of two children, and worked as a civil servant.
Massive ventricular enlargement, in a patient with normal social functioning
(A) CT; (B, C) T1-weighted MRI, with gadolinium contrast; (D) T2-weighted MRI. LV=lateral ventricle. III=third ventricle. IV=fourth ventricle. Arrow=Magendie's foramen. The posterior fossa cyst is outlined in (D).
Further desciption of unusual brain cases can be found here:
I've been reading & thinking about this review by Christoph Koch, where he "tours the idea that the essence of the mind lies in the links between neurons". It's a review of Sebastian Seung's "Connectome: how the brain's wiring makes us who we are".
I'm just posting some quotes, thoughts & notes here. If it's not your sort of thing then please move along, or just look at the picture of the pretty lady:
Koch writes the following passage: "Seung's companion through the neural labyrinth is Hollywood star Jennifer Aniston. In 2005, my group, collaborating with neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried, discovered individual neurons that respond selectively to the image or the name of familiar or famous individuals, such as your grandmother or Aniston. Seung reasons that such neurons must receive input from many less specific cells that respond to eye and hair colour and so on. These in turn connect to neurons responding to even more elementary stimuli, such as vertical lines. The essence of a person's concept of a celebrity lies, then, not with the individual neuron, but in its wiring. And this, in Seung's view, is why reconstructing connections is the key to understanding the mind.
Not even Aniston's agent would think that people are born with neurons that recognize her. Rather, the neural networks that feed into these highly selective cells have wired themselves up to respond in this way."
Now I haven't had a chance to get my paws on this book yet, so I'll have to trust that this review is an accurate reflection of Seung's views. But if it is, then aren't they strange?
This view of neurons connected by a logical sequence - from the particular through to the more abstract - is odd. He does not explain how a neuron responds to a stimuli. How a neuron can distinguish between Jennifer Aniston and, say, Angelina Jolie. They may have many things in common, but are most definitely not the same individual. How could Seung's neurons know It's just like Parmenides and the 3rd Man never happened ;-)
This model of how the brain - and therefore, in Seung's world, the mind - works seems to rest upon little or no actual evidence. Where is his evidence for these "less specific cells that respond to eye and hair colour and so on"? And then he goes on to surpose a hierarchy because "these in turn connect to neurons responding to even more elementary stimuli, such as vertical lines". Do they? How can he be sure? I mean, he could be right - but it's a very lite foundation on which to build his whole new discipline of connectomics. It's a big investment of time & resources - are they best invested here?
Koch then goes on to suggest that "this, in Seung's view, is why reconstructing connections is the key to understanding the mind". But is that all there is? Cataloguing the myriad of connections in a brain is a phenomenal technical challenge - but will the knowledge it gives provide the "key to understanding the mind"? I doubt it. The connections between neurons are fiendishly complicated - but is "complicated" enough?
I think that Seung apparently has a pretty niave view of neurons. He seems to think of them as simple eletrical components - almost digital, in that they are either firing or not, connected or not. As Koch puts it, "This view is grounded in an older doctrine known as connectionism, which postulates that neurons are simple devices and that their connections determine their functions. Cataloguing the links among neurons therefore charts the mind."
Koch: "Even though we have known the connectome of the nematode worm for 25 years, we are far from reading its mind" - Umm, are you sure that nematodes have minds? How do you know that?
Koch: "The last two chapters are predicated on the idea that “you are your connectome”, as Seung quips. One deals with technologies to freeze and pickle dead brains long term, in the hope of one day reviving their minds. The final chapter looks at the possibility of simulating the entire human brain on a future supercomputer, allowing you to upload yourself and live on as a software construct. This is the dream of the singularity that Ray Kurzweil and other technologists are hoping will render them immortal: the rapture for nerds." Heh!!
So, as I say, these are just a few notes on Seung's approach, and Koch's review of it. I think that the "mapping of the Connectome" is an ambitious project, but I remain to be convinced that it is the best use of resources. Still, up to them.
The Mind is not the same as all the neurons in the Brain. It's not the same as all the connections between them.
Just a quick post to show how the BBC have depicted Searle's "Chinese Room" problem.
Apparently, it's the cause of considerable debate in philosophical circles. I can't think why - getting someone to give an answer automatically with "no idea what he has said" was the central tenet of our secondary education. Still, never did us any harm.
Anyway, it's from a preview post for their flagship science programme: Horizon which is about AI tonight. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-17547694
A message is sent to a non-Mandarin speaker in "The Chinese Room"
Armed with an instruction manual of possible questions and answers, the non-Mandarin speaker is able to match the characters and select a response
The Mandarin speaker believes he has been talking to another Mandarin speaker. But the person in "The Chinese Room" has no idea what he has said.
An interesting study has just been published by Pil-Byung & co-workers in the Journal of Sports Medicine & Physical Fitness. Well, I say it's interesting; but I haven't managed to read it properly yet.
The article is the "Effects of exercise program on appetite-regulating hormones, inflammatory mediators, lipid profiles, and body composition in healthy men". You can find the Abstract of the article here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22212269
It looks at the effects of adopting an exercise regime on a group of well men who don’t exercise. They have measured a number of indices that should - hopefully - indicate any improvement in overall health in this group. These include the levels of the "hunger-hormone" ghrelin and the "good cholesterol" high-density lipoprotein (HDL). I've been interested in these two constituents of blood since we first showed that they can interact. These are both raised in this study, which seems to indicate that starting training was beneficial for the volunteers.
Similar studies have been carried out on various cohorts - such as the obese - looking at the effects of the introduction of such a regime on the same parameters. But this study is looking at the effect of starting training on the sedentary healthy. It's interesting to find out whether there is a consistent change in this population. Also, it indicates whether there is any hope for a lardy-bottom like me benefiting from getting more active.
The authors conclude that the "present study results have demonstrated the beneficial effects of an exercise program by altering appetite-regulating hormones, decreasing inflammatory factors, and improving lipid profiles and body composition in healthy young men"
But in science, it's all about the details - so the Abstract leaves us with some questions, such as: How old are the volunteers? Did they just test the volunteers at the end of the training period - or at a number of points as their fitness improved? Would any changes be seen with a shorter training period? What was the training regime? Could the regime be improved? Would those changes last with a longer training period, or would they fade?
So you need to read the whole paper to really comprehend & assess it. Most academic papers are freely available to the staff & students at our university - but some journals are less in demand - so the college doesn't take out a subscription on them. And this is one of those journals. So when i try to upload the article, I get to this page:
And it tells me: "You can access the full text of this article for 2 days at a price of: €40,00"
Is it just me, or isn’t that rather expensive for a 9 page paper? Considering that the academic authors haven't received a fee for writing the article. I mean, you could get considerably more if you took your €40,00 to any bookshop. I know that academic publishing is a specialist niche, which pushes the price up, but since they don't have to pay the authors or referees, or print out the journal these days - you might think that they could come in with a more reasonable price.
I think that I'll give this paper a miss - unless I can get hold of a reprint. So we won't be referencing this piece, which is a pity. It makes you wonder how long academic authors will continue to submit papers to journals that charge so much for their works to be read, when Open Access journals are becoming available in more fields.