29 December 2011

Pioneer of Mind-body link, Robert Ader

Today I saw this obituary for Dr. Robert Ader, who was an early investigator of the relationship of mind and immune system.  Here's an excerpt:

His initial research, in the 1970s, became a touchstone for studies that have since mapped the vast communications network among immune cells, hormones and neurotransmitters. It introduced a field of research that nailed down the science behind notions once considered magical thinking: that meditation helps reduce arterial plaque; that social bonds improve cancer survival; that people under stress catch more colds; and that placebos work not only on the human mind but also on supposedly insentient cells.
At the core of Dr. Ader’s breakthrough research was an insight already obvious to any grandmother who ever said, “Stop worrying or you’ll make yourself sick.” He demonstrated scientifically that stress worsens illness — sometimes even triggering it — and that reducing stress is essential to health care.

That idea, now widely accepted among medical researchers, contradicted a previous principle of biochemistry, which said that the immune system was autonomous. As late as 1985, the idea of a connection between the brain and the immune system was dismissed in an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine as “folklore.”

26 December 2011

More on 'The Beginning of Infinity'

David Deutsch's book 'The Beginning of Infinity' has a fairly straightforward message when you boil it down.  He believes that a scientific worldview that looks to create and continually improve the explanations of how things work leads to an infinite chain of discovery and improvement.  The subtitle 'Explanations that Transform the World' indicates the importance he places on science as explanation - which depends both on the creative act of conjecture and the continual open-minded questioning and criticism that must test every explanation and reject those that don't hold water.  As I mention in the previous post, he is open to abstract emergence as necessary part of explanations, and in fact appears to feel that essentially everything (from laws of physics to people) are abstractions.

Deutsch makes some leaps here that I found more based on faith than on any proof of argument - such as the notion that humans are 'universal explainers' capable of understanding and explaining anything.  On page 60, he writes "if the claim is that we may be qualitatively unable to understand what some other forms of intelligence can - if our disability cannot be remedied by mere automation - then this is just another claim that the world is not explicable.  Indeed it is tantamount to an appeal to the supernatural..."  He seems to be saying that unless everything is fully explicable by humans then there's no point in explaining anything, which I find unconvincing.

I am interested in the comparison of the idea of infinity with the idea of 'universal' - as Deutsch explains Cantor's work, there are levels of infinity - countable infinities and uncountable.  It seems possible to me that an infinite part of the world could be explained by human intelligence, and yet there could be infinities more...

In any case, for this blog I like the fact that Deutsch sees human intelligence as key, and in particular the importance of the creative act.  At this point it's a mystery we don't understand - how new ideas are generated... but it does feel like the future depends on cultivating the best new explanations.

25 December 2011

Abstractions are real

I've been reading The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch (2011), and it's full of interesting arguments, but one point in particular stood out to me for this blog. In chapter 5, titled 'The reality of abstractions' he takes issue with the reductionist approach that argues that all explanations must be reduced to elemental levels. Here's one way he argues the point:

You know that if your computer beats you at chess, it is really the program that has beaten you, not the silicon atoms or the computer as such. The abstract program is instantiated physically as a high-level behavior of vast numbers of atoms, but the explanation of why it has beaten you cannot be expressed without also referring to the program in its own right.

Deutsch goes on to argue against Douglas Hofstadter's position that the mind "can't push stuff around", and hence against Dennett's position that the 'I' is an illusion. Deutsch sums up: "There is no inconsistency in having multiple explanations of the same phenomenon, at different levels of emergence. Regarding micro-physical explanations as more fundamental than emergent ones is arbitrary and fallacious."

27 September 2011

Interview with Alva Noe: You are not your brain

Over at Huffington Post they've got a transcript of an interview between Deepak Chopra and Alva Noe from 2009, near the publication of Noe's book "Out of Our Heads". I think it's worth a read as a quick summary of Noe's position that consciousness is something we do, and that it it extends outside the boundaries of our skulls. Here's a bit from Noe:
The simple proposal that I make in this book is that we can make surprising progress on these questions that seem so mysterious if we give up the idea that consciousness is sort of like digestion.

And as digestion happens in your stomach, consciousness happens in your brain. Consciousness is not that kind of process I propose. I think we should think of it as something we do. Something more dynamic. Something more active. And like everything we do, it depends on context. It depends on the support of the environment, it depends on a certain kind of background and in a way I think we as scientists pitch the question, "what is consciousness?" at the wrong level if we expect to be able to answer it in terms of brain chemistry. The brain chemistry is necessary but not sufficient. Let me just make one remark. When I came on the phone you were talking about memory and the heart and heart cells and you made the observation that there's sort of memories stored in us outside of our bodies. One of the things I'm interested in is the way in which our memories, you said memories are stored outside of our brains and what I was going to say is that memories are stored outside of our bodies, too. The world is a resource for us and we have access to the world because of the kind of bodies and skills that we have so that there's a sense in which the individual person doesn't have the burden of having to memorize everything he or she needs to know. The world helps us.

12 August 2011

Tricking the brain? - or just using the mind?

Today's Portland Tribune ran a front page story on pain management through feedback techniques that avoid drugs and have shown to be quite effective. The focus is on OHSU pain psychologist Beth Darnell, who's been using mirror therapies for amputees' phantom limb pain, and other techniques to increase the plasticity of the brain. She's also a believer in the use of placebos: "The most underutilized area of science and medicine is placebo," she says. "It used to be associated with weakness. I associate it with power. It perfectly exemplifies the power of the brain … if you believe it to be so, it is so."

The story is by Peter Korn, and it's here: "The pain is all in your head (and researchers say that's OK".

Here's a bit more about Beth Darnell.

14 July 2011

The Singularity is Far? - from BoingBoing

Interesting post today on BoingBoing: The Singularity is Far: A Neuroscientists View by David J. Linden.  He starts by stating some of Ray Kurzweil's more "ambitious" predictions (regarding nanobots cruising through the brain creating virtual reality - sometime in the late 2020s), and then looks at some reasons why he thinks Kurzweil has gone too far.
However, Kurzweil then argues that our understanding of biology—and of neurobiology in particular—is also on an exponential trajectory, driven by enabling technologies. The unstated but crucial foundation of Kurzweil's scenario requires that at some point in the 2020s, a miracle will occur: If we keep accumulating data about the brain at an exponential rate (its connection maps, its activity patterns, etc.), then the long-standing mysteries of development, consciousness, perception, decision, and action will necessarily be revealed. Our understanding of brain function and our ability to measure the relevant parameters of individual brains (aided by technologies like brain nanobots) will consequently increase in an exponential manner to allow for brain-uploading to computers in the year 2039.
That's where I get off the bus.
I contend that our understanding of biological processes remains on a stubbornly linear trajectory. In my view the central problem here is that Kurzweil is conflating biological data collection with biological insight.
Linden concludes:
Don't get me wrong. I do believe that the fundamental and long-standing mysteries of the brain will ultimately be solved. I don't hold with those pessimists who claim that we can never understand our minds by using our brains. I also share Kurzweil's belief that technological advancement will be central to unlocking the enduring mysteries of brain function. But while I see an exponential trajectory in the amount of neurobiological data collected to date, the ploddingly linear increase in our understanding of neural function means that an idea like mind-uploading to machines being usefully deployed by the 2020s or even the 2030s seems overly optimistic.

My take on it is that we will of course continue to learn more about both the brain and the mind, and we will gain new levels of understanding of the physical workings of mental processes.  Does that constitute "solving the mysteries"? - I tend to think there will always be many mysteries.  Anyway, worth a quick read.

10 July 2011

Expanding 'consciousness' with new technology

Here's an interesting story - "Specs that see right through you" by Sally Adee in New Scientist magazine, posted July 5, 2011 - on some recent technologies that are geared toward picking up more accurate information from ourselves and other people, and making it consciously available.  As with most feedback loops, the new information can change the resulting behavior.  Here's one experimental finding, involving monitoring of group interactions:

To capture these signals and depict them visually, Pentland worked with MIT doctoral students Daniel Olguín Olguín, Benjamin Waber and Taemie Kim to develop a small electronic badge that hangs around the neck. Its audio sensors record how aggressive the wearer is being, the pitch, volume and clip of their voice, and other factors. They called it the "jerk-o-meter". The information it gathers can be sent wirelessly to a smartphone or any other device that can display it graphically.
It didn't take the group long to notice that they had stumbled onto a potent technology. For a start, it helped people realise when they were being either obnoxious or unduly self-effacing. "Some people are just not good at being objective judges of their own social interactions," Kim says. But it isn't just individual behaviour that changes when people wear these devices.
In a 10-day experiment in 2008, Japanese and American college students were given the task of building a complex contraption while wearing the next generation of jerk-o-meter - which by that time had been more diplomatically renamed a "sociometric badge". As well as audio, their badge measured proximity to other people.

At the end of the first day they were shown a diagram that represented three things: speaking frequency, speaking time, and who they interacted with. Each person was indicated by a dot, which ballooned for loquacious individuals and withered for quiet ones. Their tendency for monologues versus dialogue was represented by red for Hamlets and white for conversationalists. Their interactions were tracked by lines between them: thick if two participants were engaged in frequent conversation and hair-thin if they barely spoke.
"We were visualising the social spaces between people," Kim says. The results were immediately telling. Take the case of "A", whose massive red dot dominated the first day. Having seen this, A appeared to do some soul-searching, because on the second day his dot had shrivelled to a faint white. By the end of the experiment, all the dots had gravitated towards more or less the same size and colour. Simply being able to see their role in a group made people behave differently, and caused the group dynamics to become more even. The entire group's emotional intelligence had increased (Physica A, vol 378, p 59).

04 July 2011

Strangers to Ourselves - Timothy D. Wilson (2002)

I recently finished the book "Strangers to Ourselves" (2002) by Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of psychology.  The subtitle is 'Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious" - and the book is essentially a look into those mental processes which we aren't directly aware of.  He makes a point of diverging from Freud - "the modern view of the adaptive unconscious is that a lot of the interesting stuff about the human mind  judgments, feelings, motives - occur outside of awareness for reasons of efficiency, and not because of represssion."  I found the book to be a pretty good general overview of modern thinking about unconscious mental capabilities and patterns, how to make conscious use of them, and even perhaps guide them in new directions.

A few points of interest. While we refer to the unconscious, which makes sense in referring to that which our conscious awareness does not include, as an organism we are clearly "aware" of much that goes on around us even if that awareness does not extend to our consciousness.  One simple example of this that Wilson notes is at parties, while speaking with one group of people, we may suddenly become aware of another conversation if our name is mentioned.  And in some ways our goal is to make that which requires conscious attention fade into the unconscious background - that is in essence what learning is all about.  Once we've mastered something, we no longer consciously work at it, and in fact we can befuddle ourselves by thinking too carefully about tasks which we can already do on "auto-pilot".

Page 51: Wilson makes this claim: "Nor can the adaptive unconscious muse about the past and integrate it into a coherent self-narrative."  If one takes "musing" to be only available to the conscious mind, then I guess this is almost a tautology, but I think it's very possible that the unconscious does indeed process memories and thoughts to alter our own conscious conception of the past.

There are some interesting observations about introspection and self-narrative. He discusses the difficulties of fully knowing the reasons why we might act or have certain preferences, and the potential dangers of trying to be too analytical about it.  "Because people have too much faith in their explanations, they come to believe that their feelings match the reasons they list." (p. 168). We seem to have a deep need for stories that we can tell ourselves to explain our own behaviors, but we can mislead ourselves when creating those stories by committing to what we are able to consciously list out as reasons.  "Introspection should not be viewed as a process whereby people open the door to a hidden room, giving them direct access to something they could not see before.  The trick is to allow the feelings to surface and to see them through the haze of one's theories and expectations." (p. 173)

"On what basis can we say that one self-story is healthier than another? Self-stories should be accurate, I believe, in a simple sense: they should capture the nature of the person's nonconscious goals, feelings and temperaments." (p. 181)

In the end Wilson settles for a pretty simple formula for self-improvement.  As he says, "It is not easy to know what our nonconscious states are, much less to change them." (p. 211)  By deliberately taking actions that are part of the desired behavior, we take steps toward making those actions more automatic, more deeply embedded into the foundations of our adaptive unconscious.

15 January 2011

Seeing what you want to see

Interesting article from Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker, "The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method" (Dec. 13, 2010), on the difficulty of replicating scientific results.
One of the classic examples of selective reporting concerns the testing of acupuncture in different countries. While acupuncture is widely accepted as a medical treatment in various Asian countries, its use is much more contested in the West. These cultural differences have profoundly influenced the results of clinical trials. Between 1966 and 1995, there were forty-seven studies of acupuncture in China, Taiwan, and Japan, and every single trial concluded that acupuncture was an effective treatment. During the same period, there were ninety-four clinical trials of acupuncture in the United States, Sweden, and the U.K., and only fifty-six per cent of these studies found any therapeutic benefits. As Palmer notes, this wide discrepancy suggests that scientists find ways to confirm their preferred hypothesis, disregarding what they don’t want to see. Our beliefs are a form of blindness.
No surprise here - our beliefs and theories shape our experience in ways it's very hard to be conscious of.

01 January 2011

Change your mind in the New Year

Oliver Sacks has an op-ed in today's NYT, This Year, Change Your Mind, on some facets of neuro-plasticity:
One does not have to be blind or deaf to tap into the brain’s mysterious and extraordinary power to learn, adapt and grow. I have seen hundreds of patients with various deficits — strokes, Parkinson’s and even dementia — learn to do things in new ways, whether consciously or unconsciously, to work around those deficits.
That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? The experiences of many people suggest that it can. 
Worth a read!