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E.H. Gombrich wrote, "To probe the visual world we use the assumption that things are simple until they prove to be otherwise." Now, using computerized "perceivers", some UofT researchers are proving that inputs are insufficient for knowledge.
This is the way the brain works. Sensors are always flawed; they simply do not provide enough information for us to reconstruct our world. The brain must use prior knowledge to interpret our surroundings and we found that it seems to do this optimally.
The article in Nature to which this story refers, and which I have not read, can be purchased here.
Ramachandran describes some principles of art which can be derived from neuroscience. There's a fascinating description of an experiment with herring-gulls. Newborn chicks peck at the mother's red-spotted yellow beak to beg for food. They will even beg from a dismembered beak...
This time the novelist David Lodge was in the audience:
Excellent point about noone ever sliding back to kitsch.
This lecture is mostly about visual perception and the modularity of the visual cortex, as well as the older unconscious visual brain. Patient's with blindsight can point to things they cannot "see" because their unconscious visual system is still working. Once again, the most memorable part of this lecture was in the Q&A:
Have finally gotten round to listening to Vilayanur S. Ramachandran's Reith lectures and they are amazing. I will blog each one I listen to. Ramachandran proceeds like a detective solving riddles of human behaviour and perception. The evidence comes from brain damage patients, as always, because of the modular nature of the brain. This first lecture is about the brain's map of the body and how sensation is represented. Be sure to listen through to the Q&A which is often a strong compliment to the lecture. Here's a sample:
Raj Persaud on Dr Richard Wrangham whose research has discovered "a strong universal tendency to underestimate the enemy's strength, while overestimating your own side's capacity."
Steven Pinker offers a solution for education in a NYT Op-Ed. Let's start here:
Finally, a better understanding of the mind can lead to setting new priorities as to what is taught. The goal of education should be to provide students with new cognitive tools for grasping the world.
Sure, but people also need to learn how to detach from the world. The mind's "grasp" is always uncertain and this is cause of much mental strain. Such strain is eased through fantasy. Fantasy is irrepressible because there will never be adequate likeness between the mind's model of the world and the world. Fantasy fills in the gaps, offers the illusion of likeness, the comforting certainty.
Science is the means, as Rorty says, of "remorselessly enforcing the distinction between truth-seeking and wish-fulfilment". But how do we train ourselves to really know how the mind is tricked? How do we properly channel our fantasies so they encroach as little possible into the real world? We can continue to study the mind scientifically and use the arts, which are very old cognitive tools. The arts take fantasy out of the real world so we can learn to detach ourselves from the mind's tendency of veering toward wish fulfillment.
Perhaps fantasy training might help combat the roots of scientific illiteracy which "leads people to squander their health on medical flimflam and to misunderstand the strengths and weaknesses of a market economy in their political choices." Maybe. Maybe not. But the problem with every educational crusade is that it is based upon the theory of mind du jour. And it's a problem because we really don't understand the mind. Pinker asserts his recommendations--"The obvious solution is instruction at all levels in relatively new fields like economics, evolutionary biology and statistics"--are scientifically grounded but his conception of mind, as inferred from this article, is one-dimensional and epistemologically naive. There is no reason to uphold his solution, which I don't really disagree with, over those who argue for more arts education.
Pinker says "Educators must figure out how to co-opt the faculties that work effortlessly and to get children to apply them to problems at which they lack natural competence." He then complains "Even if learning music were shown to enhance math skills, that doesn't mean it is as effective as the same number of hours spent learning math." But isn't this one way of co-opting the effortless faculties, one of many which arts advocates are always putting forward? Perhaps arts advocates are wrong, but it's a stab at meeting Pinker's criteria.
I'm curious about the following:
Yet most curriculums are set in stone, because no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language or the classics. But there are only 24 hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is a decision not to teach another. The question is not whether trigonometry is important it is but whether it is more important than probability; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important to know the classics than elementary economics.
What are "the classics"? Does he mean "Classics" i.e. the study of Western antiquity? No one receives a Classical education anymore. Or is it classic literature taught in the English curriculum?
"ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge"—Charles Darwin
This isn't as grand a statement as I'm making it out to be. Follow the link to know Darwin's context.
"It hinders the creative work of the mind if the intellect examines too closely the ideas as they pour in."—Friedrich von Schiller
Anna Fels has written a little piece about the mind's abhorrence of an explanatory vacuum. This passage was of interest:
E.H. Gombrich's Symbolic Images is a good source for understanding how the mind relates to images, as are all his books for that matter. I'm currently reading the essay "Icones Symbolicae" and came across the following:
Warburg described as 'Denkraumverlust' this tendency of the human mind to confuse the sign with the thing signified, the name and its bearers, the literal and the metaphorical, the image and its prototype. We are all apt to 'regress' at any moment to more primitive states and experience the fusion between the image and its model or the name and its bearer. Our language, in fact, favours this twilight region between the literal and the metaphorical. Who can always tell where the one begins and the other ends? A terms such as 'a heavy burden' may be a dead metaphor, but it can be brought to life with the greatest ease by an orator or cartoonist.
Here's what you get when you plug denkraumverlust a> into google. Google's translator turns it into "thinking space loss", but a friend prefers "loss of mental space". Much like loss of detachment.
David Lodge is perhaps the first novelist to hit the books on consciousness studies. In this article he sets upon the "qualia" debate, or the problem of the irreducibility of first- person experience--how can the experience of the taste of pineapple be accounted for scientifically? He doesn't have the answer of course, but notes that novelists have been interested in qualia from the beginning, which was about the time the printing press was invented, and their interest coincided with that of philosophers in "memory, the association of ideas in the mind, the causes of emotions and the individual's sense of self":
'It is probable that the fairly recent invention and rapid development of printing contributed to that process. The increasing availability of books in which exactly the same story could be experienced privately, silently, by discrete individuals, was a marked departure from the usual transmission of stories in preprint culture by means of oral recitation or dramatic performance in front of a collective audience. The silence and privacy of the reading experience afforded by books mimicked the silent privacy of individual consciousness.'
I've read other interviews where the guy talked the way he wrote. But this is LA Weekly, not Texte, and the results are comprendable. The on-topic highlights:
Q: What's the difference between knowledge and wisdom?
Q: What's the most widely held misconception about you and your work?
David M. Johnson gave an interesting and provocative talk at Atkinson College, York University on October 29. What theorists define as mind, he said, cannot be explained solely with respect to the brain, an organ which stopped evolving tens of thousands of years ago. The fixation with hard neuroscience leads people like Chomsky, Pinker, the Churchlands et al to equate mind with brain. But what they define as rational thought has a cultural history, culminating in the "Greek revolution" i.e. it took thousands of years of exosomatic, cultural evolution to produce the mental traits which brain reductionists assert require only biology. Johnson accuses them of not knowing their history.
There's nothing about the Greeks in the abstract linked above but here's a paper from the '80s on The Greek Origins of Belief. His book, < em>How History Made the Mind: The Cultural Origins of Objective Thinking, is slated for June 2003 release. p>
As usual, the suggestion that culture and natural selection have anything to do with each other caused a backlash of accusations of Social Darwinism and Euro- centrism. Johnson could defend better by considering the use of words like "human" in the title of a talk about how particular humans thought.
Steve Talbott puts his finger on a distressing tendency in reports on neuro-science, and likely in neuro-science itself: to equate brain with mind. Thinking about your grandmother is secondary to the part of the brain that lights up when you think of her, or that they are one and the same. Says Talbott:
'Given a vague grasp of the fact that "we are psychosomatic organisms", many people -- scientists among them -- seem content to flop blithely back and forth between a brain vocabulary and a mental vocabulary as if there were no distinction between the two. What makes this an inexcusable lack of discipline is the simple fact that, as these vocabularies now exist, no one has the slightest idea how to translate a single term of the one language into a term of the other.'
I'm not sold on his conclusion, however: p>
'...we cannot understand perceiving -- the inner reality of perceiving -- in terms of the kinds of outer things given through the act of perceiving, such as brain tissues. We cannot understand the act as the result of its own results. We cannot understand as just another object the activity that constitutes things as objects.'
This assumes the opposite side in a debate over causes--that the lit up bits are an effect of thought. Talbott holds there is some "inner reality" to perception which is "categorically other" than things reducible to scientific laws. I agree, but locating it "inside" individuals only upholds the Cartesian doctrine he rails against in this piece.
Although I agree with Gould about "a progressively more adequate understanding of the natural world" it's interesting that even if it's wrong, it's a requirement for scientific work ("No working scientist can be a relativist"):
'Strong relativism is nonsense. What you want to do is recognize the cultural embeddedness of science without negating what to me is pretty evident--the history of science differs from the history of other cultural institutions in that it produces a progressively more adequate understanding of the natural world (very fitfully to be sure, but progressive nonetheless). I must interpret that to mean we are achieving a more adequate understanding of nature. Some historians of science are close to the strong relativistist position, but no working scientist can be a relativist. Most people think that the reason for this is that scientists are so imbued with this grand goal of finding an ultimate truth. That's not why. It's exactly the opposite. It is because day-to-day scientific work is so tedious that unless you felt that the cleaning of the cages and petri dishes every day was actually leading to true, natural knowledge, why would you do it? If the history of science is nothing more than a changing set of views corresponding to altering social conventions, why do the hard work?'
Anne Applebaum reviews two books about "the psychological landscape of contemprorary Russia", Nanci Alder's The Gulag Survivor: Beyond the Soviet System and Catherine Merridale's Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia.
'Even so, neither careerism nor fear quite account for the joy that some prisoners clearly felt upon being readmitted to the fold. By the 1950s, the Communist Party had, undeniably, been responsible for the false arrests of millions, the destruction of a generation of its own leaders, countless pointless deaths, and economic and moral damage impossible to calculate. Nevertheless, one ex-prisoner, who served thirteen years in a labor camp for non-crimes, described his sentiments as follows:
The most important factor that secured my survival in those harsh conditions was my unflinching, ineradicable belief in our Leninist party, in its humanist principles. It was the Party that imparted the physical strength to withstand these trials.... Reinstatement in the ranks of my native Communist Party was the greatest happiness of my entire life!
'Nanci Adler grapples with this conundrum--"allegiance to a belief system can have deep non-rational... roots," she writes--but is mostly interested in other things. To Catherine Merridale, on the other hand, the issue is fundamental, lying at the heart of her own investigation into Soviet history.'
'[Merridale] expected to find, for the most part, damaged people, unhealed victims, embittered survivors. She did not find them--or at least not as many as might have been expected. Instead, she found that the "imperial mentality" of the old Soviet Union had helped victims through their suffering:
To speak as a former Soviet citizen and a Russian is to speak--securely, if one chooses-- from a culture of endurance and heroism; it is to use the language of historical destiny, to talk (however ironically) of the audacity involved in leading the collective struggle for human liberation.... Some laugh about it now, but almost everyone is nostalgic for a collectivism and a common purpose that have been lost. Up to a point, totalitarianism worked.
'The very ideology that prevented people from talking about their pain also helped them, in other words, to forget that pain. If the silence imposed from above made individual "talking cures" impossible, it also forced people to grit their teeth and smile along with their neighbors?and they did. Eventually, they came to believe that they were smiling because they wanted to smile.'
An article on how some psychologists are arguing against free will finds physiologist Benjamin Libet at the centre of things:
'What Libet did was to measure electrical changes in people's brains as they flicked their wrists. And what he found was that a subject's ''readiness potential'' - the brain signal that precedes voluntary actions - showed up about one-third of a second before the subject felt the conscious urge to act.
'The result was so surprising that it still had the power to elicit an exclamation point from him in a 1999 paper: ''The initiation of the freely voluntary act appears to begin in the brain unconsciously, well before the person consciously knows he wants to act!'''
Of course, it seems rather inflated to derive a case for determinism from this. Does free will require conscious awareness? I think I agree with Daniel Dennett that "it could be that the experience of will simply enters our consciousness with a delay, and thus only seems to follow the initiation of the action."
'The human brain is not at its best when it confronts random, merely accidental facts. We perceive a face on Mars or see Jesus in a burnt tortilla. We believe basketball players get a "hot hand" even though streaks of success are a normal part of shooting their usual overall percentage. If disaster strikes us, we wonder if there was some cosmic reason we were singled out.'
By Taner Edis, based on his book, The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science.
Lisa Belkin writes about coincidence and conspiracy. Interesting, but note the self-pitying explanation:
'The need is especially strong in an age when paranoia runs rampant. ''Coincidence feels like a loss of control perhaps,'' says John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University and the author of ''Innumeracy,'' the improbable best seller about how Americans don't understand numbers. Finding a reason or a pattern where none actually exists ''makes it less frightening,'' he says, because events get placed in the realm of the logical. ''Believing in fate, or even conspiracy, can sometimes be more comforting than facing the fact that sometimes things just happen.'' '
Perhaps, but I prefer the more assertive reason: that the will to believe is too strong and seductive to deny; that certainty supports action and those who act tend to have an advantage over those who doubt, even if the doubtful are right. One more quotation involving the obligatory expert on cognition from MIT:
'For decades, all academic talk of coincidence has been in the context of the mathematical. New work by scientists like Joshua B. Tenenbaum, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at M.I.T., is bringing coincidence into the realm of human cognition. Finding connections is not only the way we react to the extraordinary, Tenenbaum postulates, but also the way we make sense of our ordinary world. ''Coincidences are a window into how we learn about things,'' he says. ''They show us how minds derive richly textured knowledge from limited situations.''
'To put it another way, our reaction to coincidence shows how our brains fill in the factual blanks. In an optical illusion, he explains, our brain fills the gaps, and although people take it for granted that seeing is believing, optical illusions prove that's not true. ''Illusions also prove that our brain is capable of imposing structure on the world,'' he says. ''One of the things our brain is designed to do is infer the causal structure of the world from limited information.'''
I still don't believe it. Source: Boing Boing Blog
WG Runciman reviews Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors: Natural selection is responsible for "for a kind and degree of imagination, and therefore credulity, which, over those many millennia, made those of our ancestors with theorybuilding minds more likely to pass on the relevant genes to their descendants than those without them. As a species, we are born not only to construct all sorts of beliefsystems out of what are sometimes the flimsiest materials, but also to retain whatever beliefs our local environment favours in the face of seemingly disconfirming evidence." But to account for specific beliefs (or non-beliefs), he says, we must look to the anthropologists, not the evolutionary psychologists.
Wolpert: "I argue that the primary aim of human judgment is not accuracy but the avoidance of paralysing uncertainty... Might it not be that those with this disposition of thought survived better than those who did not have such beliefs? If that was the case, any genes linked with a propensity to believe would come to dominate in future generations.... such beliefs are our natural way of thinking and may be part of our genetic makeup because they are adaptive. We have a fundamental need to tell ourselves stories that make sense of our lives. We hate uncertainty and, for life and death issues, find it intolerable."
E.O. Wilson: "The relative indifference to the environment springs, I believe, from deep within human nature. The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future. To look neither far ahead nor far afield is elemental in a Darwinian sense. We are innately inclined to ignore any distant possibility not yet requiring examination. It is, people say, just good common sense. Why do they think in this shortsighted way? The reason is simple: it is a hardwired part of our Paleolithic heritage. For hundreds of millennia, those who worked for short-term gain within a small circle of relatives and friends lived longer and left more offspring--even when their collective striving caused their chiefdoms and empires to crumble around them. The long view that might have saved their distant descendants required a vision and extended altruism instinctively difficult to marshal."
Jerome Groopman on the weakness of "neurotheological" research. For one thing, it assumes an easy bridge between subjective and objective which does not exist:
'In fact, what is missing from neurotheology is precisely what all neuroscience demands: rigorously designed experiments. Such experiments always include controls that provide both a known positive result and a clear negative result, which should be null for the expected phenomenon. With this essential methodology in mind, we would want to analyze the SPECT-scan experiment done on the Tibetan Buddhist at the moment he feels united with the universe and relinquishes his sense of self. The positive control for the observed change in the orientation-association area would be an event when the human soul actually merges with the divine, since that would validate the hypothesis that the O.A.A. is fundamental to authentic connection with the deity. And that event iswhat? Is it a Cabalist unveiling the mystery of God through the mental gymnastic of numerology? Or is the positive control an exhausted Catholic penitent carrying a massive cross on his back along the Via Dolorosa, or a flagellant whipping himself in a Spanish rite? What do SPECT scans look like then? Forms of worship that demand mathematical calculations or the experience of physical pain would recruit different neural circuits from those used during serene Buddhist meditation or Franciscan prayer. Should we search for "a photograph of God" in these other brain regions during such mystical experiences?
'One is equally hard put to identify a negative control for the SPECT-scan experiments. That would require a nonreligious experience, when the brain is totally detached from the divine. If God is omnipresent, a cardinal concept in nearly all faiths, then every experience at every moment can have religious valence. Even doubting God is a part of faith, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich argues. If that is so, then a SPECT scan done on me when I feel a cold emptiness after praying would not serve as a "negative control." Paradoxically, such alienation could be a key religious experience bringing me closer to God, even though my parietal lobe would appear to be metabolically "on," flaming yellow and red.'
"Evidence from contemporary hunter-gatherers indicates that dreaming functions in a variety of ways, argues psychologist Harry T. Hunt of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. Members of these groups generally view dreams as real events in which a person's soul carries out activities while the person sleeps.
"Hunter-gatherers' dreams sometimes depict encounters with supernatural beings who provide guidance in pressing community matters, aid in healing physical illnesses, or give information about the future, Hunt says. Individuals who are adept at manipulating their own conscious states may engage in lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer reasons clearly, remembers the conditions of waking life, and acts according to a predetermined plan.
"Dreaming represents a basic orienting response of the brain to novel information, ideas, and situations, Hunt proposes. It occurs at varying intensities in different conscious states, including REM sleep, bouts of reverie or daydreaming, and episodes of spirit possession that individuals in some cultures enter while awake."....
"Sleep now typically occurs in single chunks of 7 hours or less. Yet as recently as 200 years ago in Europe, people slept in two nightly phases of 4 to 5 hours each. Shortly after midnight, individuals awoke for 1 to 2 hours and frequently reflected on their dreams or talked about them with others.
"Well before Freud's time, Europeans prized dreams for their personal insights, and particularly for what they revealed about a dreamer's relationship with God, says historian A. Roger Ekirch of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.
"Organizing sleep into two segments encouraged people to remember dreams and to use them as paths to self-discovery, Ekirch contended in the April American Historical Review."
This article, unavailable to non-subscribers, is written by neuropsychologist Paul Broks about a patient who thinks he's dead. He argues that mind and world are not separate and that it is this supposed separation that hinders our understanding of consciousness. (At least that's what I remember, since I have no way of getting at the article now. If this is in fact what he does argue, then he is right.)
"Contending that 'all perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention', he attacked the established assumptions that words, not images, are the primary ingredients of thinking, and that language precedes perception. Rather, Arnheim argued, 'the remarkable mechanisms by which the senses understand the environment are all but identical with the operations described by the psychology of thinking'. Like scientific discovery, he wrote, artistic expression 'is a form of reasoning, in which perceiving and thinking are indivisibly intertwined. A person who paints, writes, composes, dances, I felt compelled to say, thinks with his senses.'"
"There is a persuasive resemblance between gestalt principles and the Japanese-inspired aesthetics that Dow and others propagated. For example, the gestalt emphasis on the dynamic interplay of parts and wholes had been anticipated as early as the third century B.C. in China by a passage in the Tao Te Ching that states that although a wheel is made of 30 spokes, it is the space between the spokes that determines the overall form of the wheel. The phenomenon of reversible figure-ground has precedents in the yin-yang symbol and, in Japanese art, in the compositional equivalence of light and dark, called notan. The gestaltists' ideas of structural economy and closure (the tendency to perceive incomplete forms as complete) are echoed in the Japanese emphasis on elimination of the insignificant and in the ideas of implicitness and the active complicity of the viewer, because genuine beauty, as Okakura explained, 'could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete'."
about this category
Lately, the study of brain, mind and consciousness has become very exciting and multi-disciplinary. Here I will gather items specifically related to perception and belief.