"All right action flows from the breath"
- Hajakujo

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Phantoms in the Brain: skim-over

In thinking about an upcoming post, I came back to a really eye-opening book I read many years ago called Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee (I also see that it is the book's tenth anniversary, so this is a well-timed remembering). I thoroughly enjoyed the book for it's wit as well as wisdom (well, it is a tour of some research findings, so perhaps wisdom is the wrong word). I found a list of quotes from the book (particularly like the last one), so without the time to write a nice synopsis or review, I'll just bang them straight out with a recommendation to read the whole thing.

p. xi:

"In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it."
- John Archibald Wheeler.

p. xv:

I'd also like to say a word about speculation, a term that has acquired a pejorative connotation among some scientists. Describing someone's idea as "mere speculation" is often considered insulting. This is unfortunate. As the English biologist Peter Medawar has noted, "An imaginative conception of what might be true is the starting point of all great discoveries in science." Ironically, this is sometimes true even when the speculation turns out to be wrong. Listen to Charles Darwin: "False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science for they often endure long; but false hypotheses do little harm, as everyone takes a salutory pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path toward error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened." Every scientist knows that the best research emerges from a dialectic between speculation and healthy skepticism.

p. 1:

For in and out, above, about, below,
'Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show
Play'd in a Box whose Candle is the Sun
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go
- The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

p. 35:

The completely static picture of [cortical maps] that you get from looking at textbook diagrams is highly misleading and we need to rethink the meaning of brain maps completely.

p. 35:

You never identify yourself with the shadows cast by your body, or with its reflection, or with the body you see in a dream or in your imagination. Therefore you should not identify yourself with this living body either.
- Shankara (A.D. 788-820) Viveka Chudamani (Vedic scriptures)

p. 61:

For your entire life you've been walking around assuming that your "self" is anchored to a single body that remains stable and permanent at least until death. Indeed, the "loyalty" of your self to your own body is so axiomatic that you never even pause to think about it, let alone to question it. Yet these experiments suggest the exact opposite - that your body image, despite all its appearance of durability, is an entirely transitory internal construct that can be profoundly modified with just a few simple tricks.

p. 81:

in science one is often forced to choose between providing precise answers to piffling questions (how many cones are there in a human eye) or vague answers to big questions (what is the self), but every now and then you come up with a precise answer to a big question (such as the link between deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA] and heredity) and you hit the jackpot. It appears that vision is one of the areas in neuroscience where sooner or later we will have precise answers to big questions.

p. 93:

People often assume that science is serious business, that it is always "theory driven", that you generate lofty conjectures based on what you already know and then proceed to design experiments specifically to test these conjectures. Actually real science is more like a fishing expedition than most of my colleagues would care to admit. (Of course I would never say this in a National Institutes of Health [NIH] grant proposal, for most funding agencies still cling to the naive belief that science is all about hypothesis testing and then carefully dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's". God forbid that you should just try to do something entirely new that's just based on a hunch!)

p. 110:

the primary visual cortex, far from being a mere sorting office for information coming in from the retina, is more like a war room where information is constantly being sent back from scouts, enacting all sorts of scenarios, and then information is sent back up again to those same higher areas where the scouts are working. There's a dynamic interplay between the brain's so-called early visual areas and the higher visual centers, culminating in a sort of virtual reality simulation.

p. 152:

"What we call rational grounds for our beliefs are often extremely irrational attempts to justify our instincts."
- Thomas Henry Huxley

p. 156:

[Sigmund Freud] had discerned the single common denominator of all great scientific revolutions: Rather surprisingly, all of them humiliate or dethrone "man" as the central figure in the cosmos.

p. 157:

If you think you're something special in this world, engaging in lofty inspection of the cosmos from a unique vantage point, your annihilation becomes unacceptable. But if you're really part of the great cosmic dance of Shiva, rather than a mere spectator, then your inevitable death should be seen as a joyous reunion with nature rather than as a tragedy.

p. 180:

Some of these [temporal lobe personality] patients are sticky in conversation, argumentative, pedantic and egocentric (although less so than many of my scientific colleagues)...

p. 183:

Higamous hogamous
Women are monogamous
Hogamous higamous
Men are polygamous

p. 185:

Just because religiosity has a neurological basis, does not in itself deny the existence of God, just as the neurophysiological basis of color vision does not deny the existence of color.

p. 204:

jokes have much in common with scientific creativity, with what Thomas Kuhn calls a "paradigm shift" in response to a single "anomaly" ... the joke is "funny" only if the listener gets the punch line by seeing in a flash of insight how a completely new interpretation of the same set of facts can incorporate the anomalous ending.

p. 206:

Freud's explanation [of humor as the relief of tension] belongs to a class of explanations that Peter Medawar has called "analgesics" that "dull the ache of incomprehension without removing the cause"

p. 222:

There's much truth to Sir Arthur Eddington's famously paradoxical remark "Don't believe the result of experiments until they're confirmed by theory."

p. 227:

[According to Hindu tradition] the self - the "I" within me that is aloof from the universe and engages in a lofty inspection of the world around me - is an illusion, a veil called maya

p. 227:

Everything I have learned [from neurology] points to an unsettling notion: that you create your own "reality" from mere fragments of information, that what you "see" is a reliable - but not always accurate - representation of what exists out in the world, that you are completely unaware of the vast majority of events going on in your brain. Indeed, most of your actions are carried out by a host of unconscious zombies who exist in peaceful harmony along with you (the "person") inside your body!

p. 228:

"Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it."
- Stuart Sutherland

p. 229:

[The] need to reconcile the first-person and third-person accounts of the universe ... is the single most important unsolved problem in science. Dissolve this barrier, say the Indian mystics and sages, and you will see that the separation between self and nonself is an illusion - that you are really One with the cosmos.

p. 235:

[The zombie argument] is based on the fallacy that because yuo can imagine something to be logically possible, therefore it is actually possible. ... even though you can imagine an unconscious zombie doing everything you can do, there may be some deep natural cause that prevents the existence of such a being!

p. 256:

It seems somehow disconcerting to be told that your life, all your hopes, triumphs, and aspirations simply arise from the activity of neurons in your brain. But far from being humiliating, this idea is enobling, I think. ... Once you realize that far from being a spectator, you are in fact part of the eternal ebb and flow of events in the cosmos, this realization is very liberating.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


This is a companion piece, so best to read the post Doubt-beings beforehand!

I've said I'd use this term love to describe what I'll talk about below, so even though the doubt piece proved that adapting language to new uses can be counter-productive, I'm pressing on. Bear with me!

There is the sense of the word love that follows everyday use, and this is emotional and interpersonal. People mostly love other people - I'll come back to why I think this happens, toward the end. One can talk about loving things, concepts and so forth, but most people recognise that such emotion is inherently different to what people feel about other people.

Although perhaps in one sense, it is not so different. Love is a term that is used in other contexts - I'm thinking of teachings on enlightenment. Love is the Buddha...all is One, and One is love. At least, that's what they tell me. Now this is not emotion, because emotion is a product of the self, it's constrained and relational. And as mentioned, here love is ALL.

Yet it relates to the humble emotion we call love in the day to day. Perhaps what we call love is a snapshot of this great constant Oneness, or better a flash of light through an iris opened by the reduction of the obsession with reflection on the self. True love feels like a very selfless thing. Is it just a play on words to suggest that this is because true love involves the exact same opening of being outward beyond the self, as enlightenment does?

I can't say that without addressing why everyone is not enlightened - most of my readers will know more than I, but anyway...it takes awareness to be enlightened, one must be aware that the self is not real, is an illusion that needs to dissipate - and that awareness is very hard to hold as well, because its a scary thing at first. (This is what I've read, at least. No Buddha am I!)

With regard to the snapshot idea, I am playing with this concept in respect of my own life, trying to see how love can occasionally and spontaneously explode for people and things I have no relationship with, for variable lengths of time and no apparent reason. Or how it can last long past the end of a relationship, although that relationship may have ended acrimoniously. Or how it arises for nothing, just because my state of mind relaxes, my concerns drop away for a moment, and the world around me looks very beautiful. This often happens when travelling - walking or on trains mainly. And a curious thing accompanies - very often I will start to notice a lot more detail about the world, like how the trees beside the path on the way in from the train station to my office are all curved the same way at the base, suggesting when they were saplings the prevaling wind was nor'westerly. Of course, such musings invariably become recursive, and I start to think about my own thought process, and the spell is broken. The self is back. Is this a familiar experience?

This kind of makes me think of what else may be coming through with the emotion of love (as I am describing it. Keep in mind as you read that your own experience - and thus idea - of love is going to be different, so its just a word). If the emotion itself is a window on a constant, does this suggest that the relationship between the self and the emotion is like the opening of a valve? OK, and what does the constant represent? I'm thinking of it like a pure recognition by the right brain of the sublime quality of reality. The whole thing is pretty amazingly put together, I think our best science supports that indubitably (see what I did there?), and art has known it forever. If we consciously get a glimpse of that, its a sublime feeling. Could it be that there is a substantive recognition of intrinsic quality in the Oneness of reality that leaks through as we experience the world without the processing mechanisms of our left-brain filtering system? This idea is not that far from Kant's ideas on aesthetics, as I understand them. It is not a world away from Robert Pirsig's Chautauqua on Quality.

Maybe it gives us another channel from the narrow self-oriented conscious left-brain to the wide-open undifferentiated unconscious right-brain...love as the non-filter, a time-division multiplexed interface with the beauty of reality where doubt (or discrimination, or whatever you want to call it) is frequency-division multiplexed.


Coming back around again to the common idea of interpersonal love. A lot is at stake here, as we hardly want to relegate this important facet of our lives to a mere mechanistic working of cognitive functions. So all I'll say is that if the emotion of love is a reflection of this Oneness constant, then falling in love, or loving your family, could be (in operation) a lowering of defenses and a reduction of concerns about the self. You enter willingly into a vulnerable place because you trust the other person you love, and that starts the process of stripping away the illusory trappings of the self and opens you to feeling the reflection of Oneness. You're not becoming enlightened (probably the opposite >:D ), but you actively feel bliss.

But the awareness that this process is beginning isn't present as it is when enlightenment is being sought, and the relationship with the other comes with its own cares, and so the self quickly reasserts itself. And so we get this flash of pure bliss, which is over quickly but cascades into associated positive emotions, and the whole thing is labelled by our categorising left-brain as 'falling in love'. And its great! But it has less to do with this other person, and more to do with our own state, than we think.


Final thought - can the self-oriented, analytical left-brain experience be trained toward the state of mind I have been talking about here? Could Flow be a left-brain version of this sort of openness of being? If we had a rigorous knowledge of either one type of experience or the other, we might have a better idea, but as I say (too much) in my work - that is an issue for future work*!

*the academic equivalent phrase to 'that would be an ecumenical matter' :D

Disclaimer: There is NOTHING about thinking this through that bears on the actual experiences involved - no clarity is gained with loved ones, no steps toward enlightenment achieved, no knowing what the next moment of a new relationship might bring. It's only words - but I enjoyed setting them down :)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Poll Results

Post-oil warring into a new stone age30.8%4

Historical precedent says everything will stay much the same, only more so30.8%4

Super-intelligent borganisms15.4%2


An unforseen utopia of free energy and human kindness7.7%1

Wow, 13 whole votes!
Looks like the trend of belief is either down or level, which given that nothing ever stays the same really, looks like a majority vote for pessimism. And only one true optimist! And I can't even remember if it was me!

Dr. Seuss Movie Adaptations

"On the fourteenth of March, in towns nationwide,
In every cinema, multiplex, on every barnside,
Gleamed another adapting of one of my books,
CGI-ed and digitized by another sly crook.

Horton, my favorite—look how he's been treated!
Stuffed with tinsels and tassels and promptly excreted!
The puns! And the filler! The script fees you must save!
While I tumble and grum-humble around in my grave.

Did you learn all but squat from The Cat In The Hat?
Please tell me you fired the prick who made that.
I would have stopped writing, maybe sold Goodyear tires.
If I knew one dark day I'd costar with Mike Myers.

And Oh!
Oh, dear! Oh!
My poor Grinch, what they've done!
They crammed in live-action and snuffed out all the fun!

It's icky, it's tacky, it's awkward, it's wrong.
The Whos look like ferrets, it's an hour too long.
What a rotten idea to spend millions destroying
This masterful tale kids spent decades enjoying!
But still you keep making them!
Just how do you dare?
Sell my life's work off piecemeal
To every Tom, Dick, and Har'.

Why it's simply an outrage—a crime, you must judge!—
To crap on my books with this big-budget sludge.
My books are for children to learn ones and twos in,
Not commercialous slop for Jim Carrey to ruin.

Have you no respect for the gems of your youth?
To pervert them on screen from Taiwan to Duluth.
Even after you drag my last word through the dirt,
I know you, you pirates,
You'd cut out my heart for a "Thing 1" T-shirt.
For eighty-some years I held you vultures at bay,
knowing just how you'd franchise my good name some day.
Not yet cold in my grave before you starting shooting
the first of my classics you'd acquired for looting.

Mrs. Seuss, that old stoofus, began selling more rights
to Dreamworks, Universal—any hack in her sights.
First The Cat In The Hat and then this, that and Seussical
without a thought to be picky, selectish, or choosical.

So to Audrey, you whore, you sad sack of a wife:
Listen close. Pay attention, for once in your life.
You give Fox In Sox to those sharks who made Elf
And so help me, I'll rise up and kill you myself.

No Sneetches by Sony—
No One Fish: On Ice
Burn that Hop On Pop II script not one time but twice.
Don't sex up my prose with Alyssa Milano…
And no Green Eggs And Ham with that one-note Romano!

This must stop! This must end! Don't you see what you're doing?
You're defiling the work I spent ages accruing.
And when it's dried up and you've sucked out your pay
There'll be no going back to a simpler day,

When your mom would give Horton a voice extra deep,
And turn the last page as you drifted to sleep.
Instead you'll have boxed sets, shit movies, and… well,
You'll have plenty to watch while you're burning in hell."

Stolen, without kind permission,
from the swell guys at theonion
and please before harsh objection
note the flattery, in my selection

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Doubt is rather a constant thread of thought, occasionally featuring operationally, occasionally topically. Recently the issue of true certainty has been occupying me on a personal level, and almost inevitably the corollary has arisen in conversation with peers (notably here). I think that before reading on, it would be valuable, though not essential, to read that and watch this.

I begin with a premise (framed as a question) leading from those pieces - I wonder if there are doubts in the realm of thought which is supposed to belong to the right brain, the immediate and total awareness of sensory perception without reference to the self or identity?

It kind of implies that doubt is itself a construct of (the evolutionary trait of) identity. An evolutionary psychologist might therefore say that we doubt because certainty is self-defeating as a fitness function in a natural selection competition. And I suppose that this is pretty tautological, when you think about it. The certain are slower to adapt, to bend to outside forces and shape their habits to changing needs. Its intuitive, anyway, you don't need to posit evolutionary reasons to see that doubt (and fear) are useful in the day to day.

Now how far can we push doubt, and does it serve any purpose to do so, other than fueling madness and occasionally allowing wisdom to be obtained therein? Could doubt be a mechanism by which the brain circumvents its own filtering of right-side sensory overload?

The consciousness has massive input, because the senses are quite wide-band. But the left brain, the 'me', has limited attention, because to store and sort everything would take too long. Maybe doubt prevents the left brain from filtering too predictably, from cutting the same type of data out of the sensory input every time. In other words, if there was no doubt, we would never see anything novel at all.

Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams both played with this idea of sensory editing. In Pratchett's Reaper Man, Death takes a holiday, but instead of seizing a recently deceased body, he just arrives in the rural getaway of choice looking like himself, dressed in overalls. Because they cannot sufficiently doubt their own concept of reality, nobody can see him as he really is, they simply see a rather tall, gaunt man. Only a small child can see him as he really is. Only one without certainty knows that Death is among them - is this a Pratchett version of a moral tale?

Perhaps it's worthwhile considering the experience of taking hallucinogens. So many of the commenters on the video I've linked to above claimed to have experienced a similar left-brain disconnect, when they took LSD. I wouldn't call it exactly the same experience (although everyone has different experiences) but there are similarities. The mind becomes far more localised, open, sponge-like and undiscriminating. The connection with the self is attenuated. Some people have had a complete out-of-body experience, though I don't think I have (memory is hazy with these things :D). What can we say about the larger implications of moving away from the discriminant faculties of the left-brain?

For one thing, this is a helpless beast. A person on hallucinogens for the first time is like a baby, needing a totally unthreatening environment and possibly care and guidance. Bill Hicks said anyone who thinks they can fly when on drugs and then jumps out a 10 storey window is a moron - baby birds don't do it that way! And yet nobody who wasn't on drugs ever failed to heed their doubts that they could, in fact, fly (except in Douglas Adams books, where it seems completely logical to throw oneself at the ground and miss).

For people that are habitual hallucinogen users, personality may not change at all, but if it does it often seems to involve an erosion of healthy doubt. Belief in 12 foot lizards abounds. An increase in absurd doubts may also result, as the fabric of both objective and inter-personal reality comes under question. I haven't studied the long term effects of drugs objectively, so I must say this comes completely from personal observation.

For another thing, the left-brain, the identity vector or the self is not quiescent. It can jump into the trip at any time, noting the thoughts of the consciousness and trying to relate, categorise and classify - to understand, in fact, which is its natural task. If you happen to notice this happening while you're tripping, a recursive self-recognition cycle can build up, as the brain watches itself think about itself think about itself think...It can get to be a bad trip! Another personal observation, this one from inside the experience.

What purpose these postcards from the edge? Just to note that functioning of the [input->filter->process->store] pipeline of the consciousness is a powerful part of being conscious, and I don't think it appreciates being derailed.

Perhaps this is because, as the consciousness lifts outward and settles into the moment, the identity of the self comes face to face with itself - it's forced to try to grasp what it is, in totality and separate from any simple definitions or concepts of a personal nature (anyone who's gone or going off the rails in a solipsist existential sense may feel recognition). The problem with this is that the self is a construct designed for defining, creating relational concepts and so on. Can identity really grasp itself, can the tool of understanding act upon the tool?

What is doubt? Could it be the action of the self, which separates itself from everything else, and thus cannot truly know anything else? If we exist as processes rather than fixed entities, then may not be unreasonable to think of the active element of our selves as a process too - the process of doubt, uncertainty, the knowing of things and the letting go of this knowledge.

Disclaimer: I feel its important to note how unsatisfactory I find my own blog-mounted theorising - like moulding a diamond out of clay instead of cutting it from a rock [if the analogy makes no sense, Kant has been described as a master diamond cutter]. Now, my mother is a potter, I'm not putting down clay - but if you mould a solid lump of it, chances are when it is fired it will explode. Thats the source of some unease.