12 May 2012

Eagleman on the downloading question

Found this entry on David Eagleman's blog (associated with his book Incognito): Silicon Immortality: Downloading Consciousness into Computers.  He writes:

We are on a crash-course, however, with technologies that let us store unthinkable amounts of data and run gargantuan simulations. Therefore, well before we understand how brains work, we will find ourselves able to digitally copy the brain's structure and able to download the conscious mind into a computer. 
If the computational hypothesis of brain function is correct, it suggests that an exact replica of your brain will hold your memories, will act and think and feel the way you do, and will experience your consciousness — irrespective of whether it's built out of biological cells, Tinkertoys, or zeros and ones.
I've got a few quibbles with this.

1.  It sounds to me like the project is about recreating brain structures in computers.  Whether this computer, when operating, has what any of us think of as consciousness, is pretty tough to confirm (given that we can't really confirm it with other people today).
2. He claims 'immortality' - but this digital simulation is not the same as current embodied self.  Even if we assume it is a 'conscious being' with all of our memories (as of some point of download, I guess), it is now on a separate path, and it is a separate being.  Perhaps other people might think of it as being very much like the original person, but its conscious experience is now on a new path.
3.  The usual equivalence of "brain structure" and "conscious mind" erases all the distinctions I'm interested in!

10 May 2012

What does meditation do to the brain?

New York Times article - "In Sitting Still a Bench Press for the Brain" by John Hanc ran on May 9 2012.  It's a short report on some basically inconclusive studies looking at the physical impacts of meditation, including one published in February, conducted by UCLA and led by Dr. Eileen Luders.

A striking finding of the study was that the degree of cortical gyrification appeared to increase as the number of years practicing meditation increased. 
“We used to believe that when you were born, your brain would grow and reach a peak in the early 20s and then start shrinking,” Dr. Luders said. “It was thought there was nothing we could do to change that.” Her research suggests that there might be. As a meditator for four years, Dr. Luders understands the degree of mental discipline involved. “People ask, ‘What do you do? Just sit there with your eyes closed?’ It’s actually hard work, because you have to make a constant mental effort.”

The brain... It makes you think. Doesn't it?

The UK Guardian ran a nice little debate between David Eagleman and Raymond Tallis on the role of the brain and the unconscious processes in our behavior (April 28 2012). Eagleman is a neuroscientist interested in the neural correlates of mental activity (and author of Incognito), and Tallis is a professor of medicine who challenges just how truly important the unconscious processing really is. I think it sums up the debate pretty well. While I side closer to Tallis, I think his style is a little obnoxious, and Eagleman keeps it polite. Here's a bit of it:

Eagleman -A person is not a single entity of a single mind: a human is built of several parts, all of which compete to steer the ship of state. As a consequence, people are nuanced, complicated, contradictory. We act in ways that are sometimes difficult to detect by simple introspection. To know ourselves increasingly requires careful studies of the neural substrate of which we are composed.

Tallis: Some of what you have just said sounds like common sense and a retreat from the radical thesis advanced in Incognito. There you put unconscious brain mechanisms in the driving seat – which is why your book has attracted such attention – and argue that important life decisions are strongly influenced by "the covert machinery of the unconscious".

Even when you concede in Incognito that "consciousness is the long-term planner", you still can't let go of the idea of the largely unconscious brain being in charge. This is because you want to privilege brain science. Your case is assisted by personifying the brain, as when you say things like "the brain cares about social interaction".