Monthly Archives: September 2012

Book notice: William Calvin's The Cerebral Symphony

William Calvin, otherwise known as “That guy who talks about throwing a lot”, is one of my favorite popularizers of neuroscience. The Cerebral Symphony (1989) is an attempt to explain what it is that makes human consciousness so special. One of my favorite things about Calvin’s approach to human consciousness is that, in his view, “The term should capture something of our advanced abilities rather than covering the commonplace” (p. 78). In other words, the primary explanandum of consciousness studies is not the “sensory qualia” we share with nonhuman animals, but rather, our ability for abstract thought, imagination, and “mental time travel”. That is, Calvin is trying to explain the more “narratological” aspects of consciousness (to borrow a term from Julian Jaynes, who Calvin cites approvingly on this issue) as opposed to the more sensorimotor aspects. However, being a Darwinian, Calvin doesn’t want to necessarily say that capacities that make humans able to narrate and imagine sprung out of evolutionary thin air, so perhaps there are some functional overlaps with other primate species.

The central explanatory tool of the book is what Calvin calls a “Darwin Machine”, which is a variant of the “neural darwinism” approach to brain function. Calvin’s idea goes something like this: suppose the evolution of the ability of humans to throw (and thus hunt more efficiently) necessitated the development of a “neural sequencer” that plans linear motor patterns. Now imagine you have a massive array of sequencers operating in parallel but generating different “variations on a theme”. Calvin’s idea is that consciousness is the sequence that best survives based on various selection criteria that change depending on the task at hand. This is in fact very similar to Dennett’s notion of “multiple drafts” or “fame in the brain”, and I think I first heard of Calvin’s book in Dennett’s 1991 book Consciousness Explained. To me it sounds like pretty much the same theory, which limits the originality of Dennett’s theoretical framework (supposing that Calvin came up with the idea first). Overall, The Cerebral Symphony is an interesting and theoretically insightful account of human consciousness that is solidly grounded in Darwinian thinking (perhaps to a fault). The book is also interspersed with sociological commentary on the scientific community at Woods Hole in Cape Cod Massachusetts, which makes for relatively easy reading.

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Book notice: Oliver Sacks' Seeing Voices

In Seeing Voices (1989), Sacks delves into the science of Sign language and the Deaf community in general.The Deaf (capital “D”) community is different from the population of hearing impaired persons, and signals the presence of a genuine subculture complete with its own unique language, history, challenges, and triumphs. Sacks explores the powerful and complex ways in which language learning impacts cognitive development. Deprived of the chance to learn a language,a child will grow up “dumb” relative to everyone else in regards to the complexity of their conceptual repertoire. Hence, most deaf persons who were considered “dumb” in previous eras were really victims of not having been taught a language, rather than victims of any “general” cognitive impairment. Furthermore, Sacks relates the struggles of hearing parents to choose between teaching them the arduous process of communicating in the hearing world or choosing the easier route of teaching them Sign. The dilemma is that the hearing and speaking skills take years to develop whereas the teaching of Sign is much more intuitive and happens faster, allowing for an expansion of vocabulary at a young age to provide a cognitive scaffold upon which to build more complicated conceptual schemes. The hearing and talking route takes longer and risks missing “critical periods” of development. Sacks was writing before the development and refinement of cochlear implants, which have only complicated the debate between the relative trade-offs of immersing oneself in the Deaf community with ASL or reaching out to the hearing world.

Sacks also explores the question of whether and to what extent “thinking” is possible independently of language. His conclusions are rather tentative because reports from late language learners is sometimes confounded by their developing “proto-linguistic” systems on their own. Thus, it’s difficult to know how to analyze the famous report of Theophilus d’Estrella that prior to learning a language he was able to formulate thoughts such as “the briny sea is the urine of a great Sea-God’. This report is interesting, but is confounded by the fact that he had devised “home-sign” from earliest childhood. Moreover, given the retrospective nature of the report and the limited sample of one, it’s difficult to verify that his memory of his pre-language days wasn’t contaminated by conceptual structures learned later. However, given the likelihood that “supernatural” thinking is hardwired, it wouldn’t surprise me that some capacity for abstract thinking is possible prior to language learning provided it is restricted to religious domains. In general though, Sacks concludes that learning a language profoundly impacts cognition and makes many of the uniquely human conceptual capacities possible, particularly the step in which a child learns that everything has a name.

Sacks’ book is rich with observations and insights into the Deaf community, as well as the interesting nature of Sign language itself, especially ASL. For a long time it was thought that ASL was not a real language, but merely “idiographic” and parasitic on English grammar. However, research by William Stokoe in the late 1950’s demonstrated that Sign languages have a complex “spatialized” grammar and are complete languages. All in all, Seeing Voices is one of the most interesting of Sacks’ books and well-worth reading if you are at all interested in the interplay between language and thought during child development.

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Quote of the day 9-17-12, "Are neurons input-output devices?"

“What you’ve got to realize is that every cell in the nervous system is not just sitting there waiting to be told what to do. It’s doing it the whole darn time. If there’s input to the nervous system, fine. It will react to it. But the nervous system is primarily a device for generating action spontaneously. It’s an ongoing affair. The biggest mistake that people make is in thinking of it as an input-output device.” ~ Graham Hoyle, quoted in William Calvin’s The Cerebral Symphony (p. 214)

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Book notice: Lancelot Whyte's The Unconscious Before Freud

[Editorial note: “Book notices” will be a new type of post on this blog where I give brief summaries of books I have recently read]

Whyte convincingly argues for the thesis that “the general conception of unconscious mental processes was conceivable (in post-Cartesian Europe) around 1700, topical around 1800, and fashionable around 1870-1880.” Whyte’s aim is to show that, contrary to popular opinion, Freud did not “invent” the concept of the unconscious. In fact, the concept had been percolating in the general intellectual atmosphere for quite some time prior to Freud. Whyte employs a heavy battery of quotations from a diverse array of sources, most of the whom I had never heard of before. Although Whyte’s own understanding of psychology is rather dated and has a lighter significance compared to those he is quoting, his historical scholarship is top notch and surely represents a significant amount of time scouring libraries, a feat even more impressive given Whyte published the book in 1960 well before the advent of internet research.


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Book review: John Geiger's The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible

Have you ever wondered where the archetype of a “guardian angel”, “vision guide”, “helper”, or “Third Man” comes from? Why, in extreme survival situations, is it common for people to report the experience of a “presence” assisting them? John Geiger’s book The Third Man Factor is a comprehensive compilation of reports from mountaineers, explorers, sailors, adventurers, divers, and other persons faced with death in extreme survival situations who all report strangely similar accounts of a “presence” helping, comforting, motivating, or advising them, a phenomenon often dubbed the “Third Man Factor” from Ernest Shackleton’s famous report that during his harrowing travels in polar regions “it seemed to me often that we were four not three”. It’s call the “Third Man” factor not the “Fourth Man” factor because T.S. Eliot thought a trio was more poetic when he channel’s Shackleton’s story:

Who is the third who walks always besides you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I looked ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?

The Waste Land

The Third Man Factor is one of the most riveting books I have ever read. This is not only because of the nature of the extreme survival tales but because the Third Man factor is one of the most interesting psychological phenomena ever recorded. Allow me to quote some first-hand descriptions of the Third Man factor:

“It was something I couldn’t see but it was a physical presence. It told me what to do. The only decision I had made at that point in time was to lie down next to Rick and to fall asleep and to accept death. That’s the only decision I made. All decisions made subsequent to that were made by the presence. I was merely taking instructions…I understood what it wanted me to do. It wanted me to live.”

“It seemed to me that this ‘presence’ was a strong, helpful and friendly one, and it was not until Camp VI was sighted that the link connecting me, as it seemed at the time to the beyond, was snapped.”

“Then all at once I became aware of something new and strange, a consciousness of a ‘presence’, a feeling that I was not alone.”

“I could feel his invisible presence sitting there comfortingly beside me in that lonely little raft lost so hopelessly in the vast Atlantic.”

“Two hours later, he was awoken with a start by a stern voice: ‘Get up. It’s your turn at the helm.'”

“I didn’t pray, and I’m not a religious man usually, but for the whole voyage I’d had the strange feeling that someone else was with me, watching over me, and keeping me safe from harm.”

“…a strange sensation as if someone were in the boat with me. How can I explain it –not a mystical experience, just a calm feeling of assurance that someone was there helping and sharing tasks. Looking back, I do not feel that my mind became deranged — I was just quite certain that I was not alone.”

“It was then that he became acutely aware of a presence with him. Venables felt that it was an older person: ‘I never identified him, but this alter ego was to accompany me on and off for the rest of that day, sometimes comforting me and advising me, sometimes seeking my support.”

“I don’t often talk about my companion watcher these days…After the Breach when I first spoke of him to people, they reacted quite predictably: “What an imagination!”…At first I persisted in my stand: ‘He was real. There in the flesh or at least in some concrete form I could see.’ Now I know this and say this to you: He was there and as real as you or I.”

“I’ve never believed in apparitions, but how can I explain the forms I carried with me through so many hours of this day? Transparent forms in human outline – voices that spoke with authority and clearness.”

Clearly this is a very real psychological phenomena. I see no reason to believe that these reports are somehow getting the phenomenology wrong. What interests me is how the Third Man factor is closely intertwined with religious history. For ages, religious persons have reported experiences of “guardian angels” assisting them or comforting them. Almost all primitive cultures believe in various spirits or ephemeral beings, and the concept of seeking out such beings on “vision quests” is quite familiar. I think atheists and skeptics can learn a lot about the epistemology of religious belief from understanding the Third Man factor. Many atheists assume that believers are irrational in using “mere subjective experience” to argue for the rationality of their belief in supernatural phenomena. Arguably, it is less rational in today’s modern scientific society with ample brain-based explanations, but to understand the persistence and appeal of religion in modern times we have to understand its origins in prescientific eras. I see no reason to think that the Third Man factor is a modern phenomena. Likely it has a hardwired biological underpinning that would have been present in humans long before we knew anything about how the brain works. Consider this telling quote from the book:

“Once again I became aware of what I can only describe as a Presence, which filled me with an exaltation beyond all earthly feeling. As it passed, I walked back to the ship, I felt wholly convinced that no agnostic, no skeptic, no atheist, no humanist, no doubter, would ever take from me the certainty of the existence of God.”

How can you argue against that? You can’t really. Now imagine the epistemic situation prior to the invention of brain science. If you experienced a Third Man, then you would be quite rational in explaining that experience in terms of your local cultural narrative whether Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or animism. For Christians, they would have explained it in terms of the Biblical concept of an angel. For some Christians, the Third Man could also take the form of Jesus or God himself rather than just a “lower” entity like an angel (or demon). From an epistemological perspective, the Third Man factor is extremely interesting. It explains why many believers are “certain” that God exists and that nothing could ever change their minds: they have experienced the Third Man. I have no doubt the Third Man factor is also at play in alien abduction experiences.

Of course, there is a perfectly rational explanation for such phenomena if you accept the findings of modern neuroscience and philosophical naturalism. As Geiger discusses several times, one of the most promising theories to explain the Third Man is Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism. On the basis of multiple sources of evidence, Jaynes argues that at the dawn of history, humans had a much lower stress threshold to trigger hallucinations. Moreover, he argues (convincingly, imo) that such hallucinations could have had an adaptive function reinforced by natural selection. Such “hallucinatory control” is a type of decision making that manifests psychologically in the form of hallucinations, particularly of authoritative voices giving commands. Jaynes argues that command hallucinations allow for a novel form of self-stimulation and self-regulation (I can’t prove it, but I suspect this is where Dennett got his own ideas about self-stimulation from in Consciousness Explained, albeit stripped of the hallucination aspect). Such self-stimulations replaced the promptings by others (e.g. leaders) that would have triggered stereotyped behavioral patterns. By prompting oneself internally, humans would have been able to engage in more complex, “time-delayed” behaviors in the absence of verbal promptings by others. As Jaynes says,

Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narratizethe situation and so hold his analog “ I ” in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘ internal ’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do. (Jaynes, 1976, p. 134)

This might sound implausible, but consider the jury-rigging or “klugeish” nature of evolutionary tinkering. Evolution could have taken a preexisting language system and redeployed it to be used to issue commands, not externally with a voice, but internally to oneself. Such “promptings” could act as a jury-rigged memory buffer system. With such machinery in place, humans would have been able to achieve feats of complex culture building. Religious narratives would have co-evolved along with the expansion of this self-stimulation system, giving birth to modern religious concepts.

We already have good “proximal” explanations of the Third Man in terms of brain science. But what we lacked, and what Jaynes offers, is an “ultimate” explanation of the Third Man, one that gives an evolutionary story in adaptationist language. Whether or not Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism is fully corroborated in all its minute details (to the extent that it can given its historical hypotheses), I believe Geiger’s brilliant and compelling book is just another piece of evidence in support of Jaynesian ideas. On the theory of bicameralism, the Third Man is a vestigial remnant of a preexisting system of behavioral self-stimulation that used internally generated hallucinations as a way to transfer linguistic information to other, “encapsulated” areas of the brain.

If you are interested, Geiger has setup an online forum for people across the world to share stories of their own Third Man experience. Check it out:

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Book review: Giulio Tononi's Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul

Phi is easily the most unusual book on consciousness I have read in awhile. It’s hard to describe, but Tononi makes his case for “integrated information” using poetry, art, metaphor, and fiction. Each chapter is a fictional vignette or dialogue between characters inspired by famous scientists like Galileo, Darwin, or Francis Crick. At the end of every chapter is a “note” written in normal academic language explaining the context of the stories. On just about every page there are huge full-color glossy pictures of famous art. The book is simply beautiful as a physical object in an attempt, I suspect, to convince qualiaphiles that Tononi is “one of them”.

The theory of integrated information itself, however, is less appealing.  Here is how integrated information is defined:

Integrated information measures how much can be distinguished by the whole above and beyond its parts, and Phi is its symbol. A complex is where  Phi reaches its maximum, and therein lives one consciousness- a single entity of experience.

And with that Tononi hopes the “hard” problem of consciousness is solved. However, the intellectual weight of Phi  rests on a thought experiment involving a photodiode. A photodiode discriminates between light and no light. But does the photodiode see the light? Does it experience the light? Most people would think no. But the photodiode does integrate information (1 bit to be precise) and therefore, according to the theory of integrated information, has some experience, however dim. The theory of integrated information is therefore a modern form of panpsychism based on the informational axiom of “it from bit”. For obvious reasons Tononi downplays the panpsychist implications of his theory, but he does admit it. Consider this quote:

“Compared to [a camera], even a photodiode is richer, it owns a wisp of consciousness, the dimmest of experiences, one bit, because each of its states is one of two, not one of trillions” (p. 162)

The reason the camera is not rich is because it can be broken down into a million individual photodiodes. According to Tononi, the reason why the camera has a low level of  Phi compared to a brain is that the brain integrates information between all its specialized processors and the camera does not. But nevertheless, each photodiode has a “wisp of consciousness”.

Tononi also uses a thought experiment involving a “qualiascope”, a hypothetical device that measures integrated information and can therefore be used to detect consciousness in the world around us. In the vignettes, Tononi writes that when you use the qualiascope:

“‘You’ll look in vain at rocks and rivers, clouds and mountains,’ said the old woman. ‘The highest peak is small when you compare it to the tiny moth'” (p. 222).

This is how he downplays his panpsychism. Notice how he doesn’t say that rocks and clouds  altogether lack consciousness. It’s just that their “highest peak” of  Phi is low compared to a moth. The important part however is that the  Phi of rocks and clouds is low but not nonexistent.

Why is this important? Because Tononi wants to have his cake and eat it too. To see why just look at some of his chapter subtitles:

Chapter 3 “In which is shown that the corticothalamic system generates consciousness”
Chapter 4 “In which is shown that the cerebellum, while having more neurons than the cerebrum, does not generate consciousness.”

 This is because Tononi admires the Neural Correlates of Consciousness methodology founded by none other than Francis Crick, who has a strong intellectual presence throughout the book. According to most NCC approaches, consciousness seems to depend on “corticothamalic” loops and not just specialized processors alone (like the cerebellum).This finding comes from research correlating behavioral reports of consciousness with activity of the brain. When most people report being conscious, higher-order system loops are activated. And in monkey experiments the “report” is a judgement about whether they see a stimulus, which can be made by pressing a lever. What they find in the NCC approach is that consciousness seems to depend on more than just specialized processors operating alone. It requires a kind of globalized network of communicating modules to “generate” consciousness.

It should now be plain as day why Tononi is inconsistent in trying to have his cake and eat it too. If a lowly inorganic photodiode has a “wisp of consciousness”, then clearly, by any standard, a single neuron also has a wisp of consciousness, as well as the entire cerebellum. Tononi acknowledges this:

“Perhaps a whiff of consciousness still breathes inside your sleeping brain but is so feeble that with discretion it makes itself unnoticed. Perhaps inside your brain asleep the repertoire is so reduced that it’s no richer than in a waking ant, or not by much. Your sleeping  Phi would be much less than when your brain is fast awake, but still not nil” (p. 275).

“Early on, an embryo’s consciousness – the value of its  Phi – may be less than a fly’s. The shapes of its qualia will be less formed than its unformed body, and less human than that: featureless, undistinguished, undifferentiated lumps that do not bear the shape of sight and sound and smell” (p. 281)

” Phi may be low for individual neurons” (p. 344)

But if a single neuron has a wisp of consciousness, then clearly consciousness is not “generated” by the corticothalamic system. It is instead a fundamental property of matter itself. It from bit. What Tononi means to say with his chapter subtitles is that “The corticothalamic system generates the right amount of  Phi to make consciousness interesting and precious to humans”. The difference between the photodiode and the corticothalamic system is a difference of degree. The corticothalamic system has a high enough level  Phi such that it makes an interesting difference to human experience such that we can report or notice it, distinguishing coma patients (very low  Phi) from awake alert adults (very high  Phi).

But now there is an interesting tension in Tononi’s theory. If there is a low but nonnegligible amount  of  Phi in a human embryo, Tononi’s theory must now figure out how to make a cut-off point between the lowest amount of  Phi we actually care about so we can figure out when to stop giving people abortions. Until Tononi answers that question, his “solution” to the hard problem of consciousness is fairly disappointing. He came up with this notion of integrated information to explain qualia, but now we are faced with the difficult question of “How much  Phi is necessary for us to care about?” Clearly no one really cares about the “wisp of consciousness” in a photodiode. So having solved the “hard” problem of qualia, Tononi just creates an equally difficult problem: how to figure out the amount of  Phi worth caring about from a moral perspective. And he plainly admits he hasn’t solved these problems.

But for me this is a huge problem. You can’t have your cake and eat it to if you are a panpsychist. You can’t say that photodiodes are conscious but then say the only interesting consciousness is that of corticothalamic systems. This seems rather ad hoc to me; a solution meant to fit into prexisting research trends. If you are a panpsychist you should embrace the radical conclusion. According to  Phi theory, Consciousness is everywhere. It is not “generated” in the brain. It only reaches a high level of  Phi in the brain. And if that’s the case, then the entire methodology of NCC is mistaken. NCC is not a true NCC but rather the “Neural Correlates of the Amount of Consciousness Humans Actually Care About”.

Overall conclusion: Phi is an interesting book and worth borrowing from the library. But I wouldn’t say it adequately solves the hard problem of consciousness. Not even close. What it does is arbitrarily stipulate criteria for pointing out consciousness in nonhuman entities. But Tononi never makes a real argument beyond appeals to intuition for why we should accept a definition of consciousness such that the ascriptions come out with photodiodes having a “wisp” of consciousness. I think most people will want to define stipulation criteria such that the ascriptions come out with only biological creatures having consciousness. Panpsychism is just too radical for most. So while I applaud Tononi for exploring this ancient idea from a modern perspective, I ultimately think that when people truly understand that Tononi is a panpsychist they will be less attracted to it despite its close relationship to Francis Crick and the wildly popular NCC approach.


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