Archive | Brain RSS feed for this section

197. Brain and Computers Compared (Revised)

28 Dec

Brain-Vs-Computer-Pic2This essay is an addendum to my previous blog-193 “Brain uploading ideas are nonsense.”  It also provides my understanding of what is known about human brain functioning.

Those interested in downloading a human brain into a computer, and have it function, such as answering questions, should consider this. Although the human brain can be called a computer, it is profoundly different from a man-made computer. THE FIGURE above illustrates the fixed regularity of a computer (upper box) with every component specified and with definite location. The Brain below shows a changing and branching structure, where the actual array of components is the “program.”  Every human experience makes at least a slight structural change. Converting from an entire brain configuration with quadrillions of control points,  to an equivalent computer representation, I assert is impossible. (More explanation below.)

BRAIN AND MAN-MADE COMPUTERS ARE VERY DIFFERENT

Man-made computers have a FIXED structure of electronic components. Modern microchips have thousands of transistors and other components in a well-defined, set pattern. Computer programs, cause the chips to function. When a computer is activated by a program, it makes use of many of the components, such as microscopic transistors, so that something meaningful can go to output devices like printers or screens. In a word, the electronics are fixed and the program varies. Note: a “computer program” is a set of instructions that can be written down or typed into a file that can be “read” by a computer. It tells the computer how to utilize its well-defined components in performing certain tasks. There can be many programs to provide for a wide variety of computer functions.

The human brain is nothing like this. A live brain in a body, is constantly changing. Instead of using an external set of programming statements to control the action, the control components themselves (such as transistors) quickly vary to produce a certain output. These variations include additional nerve cells, additional connections, and each connection (a synapse or gap junction) can undergo substantial change. A synapse, based upon its chemistry and inter-connections, can be more excitable, blocked, or anything in between. The nerve cells, axons, and dendrites form branching structures that provide many paths for its operation.

THE BRAIN FUNCTIONS BY CHANGING ITS STRUCTURE

If you look at a magnified computer microchip you will see regular rows of components. The components will vary in different places, but within each part, there is exact duplication.

But in a brain, you will see great variation in size, shape, and connectivity. The “program” is built into the “brain electronics” and varies as the individual is exposed to many different environmental factors, such as learning, imitation, memorization, food supply, social features, etc.

THE BRAIN IS LIKE A CITY, WITH MANY ROADS AND PATHS

Here is a helpful analogy. Think of the brain as a city with millions of roads and pathways. The sensory systems, like vision, hearing, and touch are roads leading into the city — and there are roads going outbound causing the movement of muscles, activating vocal cords, affecting glands, etc. Between the inputs and outputs are millions of pathways with wide streets and narrow paths, free-flowing and constricted in various ways, all to provide something meaningful. At millions of junctions (synapses, etc.) there are traffic cops that speed things up or block the passage. If someone pinches your arm, action potentials flow down wide roads (axons) leading to the brain and spinal cord. Within these structures there is a maze (inter-neurons) that quickly processes the input information and activates outbound pathways, or simply stores info. (This maze is where complex thinking takes place.) The outbound paths (motor nerves) lead to many muscles that can move your arm, body, and make you say “ouch.” If you are pinched over and over again, the relevant pathways tend to widen, causing increased flow and a more efficient reflex. In our city (brain) there are also archive centers that store memories, and other mechanisms that enhance the whole process.

The ability of a brain to function in this way developed over several billions of years. It is a marvelous structure and its exact functioning at the nerve cell level is still unknown. But we can make good educated guesses as to how much of it may work. We don’t know exactly how words and ideas are stored. And we don’t know exactly how millions of memories are accessed during a wide range of operations, and how a brain creates an essay or scientific theory. Yet, the fact that there are many trillions of “control points” (like transistors) suggests that amazing things can result.

A DEAD ISOLATED BRAIN CANNOT PERFORM IN ANY WAY

I might add that a disembodied dead brain can never function like it did live in a body even if fully preserved. Cutting out a brain removes inputs, outputs, the spinal cord, and feedback loops that are critical to functioning. And would involve damage to the brain itself. A removed brain can never be the same as a live intact brain so any hope of living-on in a computer representation is impossible.  Any sectioning of a brain would destroy many interconnections.

Consider this fantasy. You transfer a brain into a computer, and it can talk. Most likely it would scream, “I can’t see, I can’t feel my legs or arms, I can’t hear, I can’t touch  anything,  where am I, HELP!” How could you talk to this isolated brain that has no ears. So you would really have to save a whole head and even the spinal cord. As you contemplate all of these difficulties, it is clear that trying to save a human brain, which can function, is nonsense. Also, for all the reasons outlined above, it is not possible to “read out” specific thoughts or ideas, by any brain recording method.  (Note: recording sub-threshold “thoughts” from vocal cords is not a brain recording.) 

I might add that although uploading a useful brain, or reading specific thoughts, is not possible, what is remotely possible is a good understanding as to how a brain functions at all levels. This could take decades or even centuries, but it is worth discussing and exploring.

 

193. Brain Uploading Ideas are Nonsense

26 Nov

Several writers have suggested that “someday” technology will advance to the point where a brain can be “uploaded” to a man-made computer, where it will be able to function and communicate with us. In some cases, these writers seem desperate to live on after death, by transferring themselves into a computer where they will continue their life. Here are the names of some brain-computer “speculators:” Ray Kurzweil (newsletter), Michael S.A. Graziano (TED talk Oct 2019), Greg Gage (TED talk June 2018) and several others. Most of the “speculators” are brilliant people, who are simply overly optimistic. But a company called Nectome will preserve your brain (“backup your mind”) so that it can be scanned hundreds (?) of years from now (deposit is $10,000). See MIT Tech Rev, Mar 13, 2018.

I am writing on this subject not only to challenge extreme speculation, but because this discussion serves to illustrate the complex nature of our brains and certain technology limitations.

My position is that this thinking belongs to science fiction because there are insurmountable obstacles for this endeavor. It is true that we can explore smaller and smaller biological objects. And computer memories continue to increase in miniaturization and capacity. But there actually are limitations because “matter” has certain limiting features. For example, our units for computer memory are close to the molecular level in size and will soon reach a limit. The speed of computers is limited to the speed of light. Even if we can ultimately reach these limits, it is likely that reliability will decrease. Certain “cosmic rays” and other factors will play a role. I maintain that the laws of physics and chemistry make real limits to tech advancement, that can never be overcome.

I think writers should not bother us with extremely unlikely speculation unless they actually can propose some ways to overcome obvious limits. I could say that someday we will travel to and explore, the inside of “black holes,” or travel to the center of the earth. But there is no value to idle speculation and it only creates confusion for the general public. Companies like Nectome (see above) will collect your $10,000 for something not possible.

Below are some relevant details.

We start with the dificulties in brain scanning. For helpful information on brain control points, see Mark Mayford et al, Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, “Synapses and Memory Storage”, June 2012. For a simpler explanation, see Deborah Halber, Brain Facts.Org, Storing Memories in your synapses, Oct 11, 2018. Also very helpful and fascinating are Google images. Search under neurons, gap junctions, synapses, etc. and add the word “type” like “neuron types” to see more variation. As I was writing this, I looked at “gap junction types” and was amazed by the recent advances in this area.

Here are a few brief definitions:
Control point: either a synapse or gap-junction. It is like a transistor in a computer.
Synapse: a connection between two nerve cells, using chemical transmitters, which cross a tiny gap.
Gap-Junction: a connection between two nerve cells, where the cells actually touch.
Action potential: an all-or-none digital signal that transmits info up to a distance of several feet.
Axon: a long extension of a nerve cell (neuron) that carries forward info in the form of an action potential. The axon is like the wire connecting two telephones.
Dendrites: a short extension of a neuron that receives an action potential from an axon.
Nerve cell body: The cell body is supportive and provides nutrients for the whole cell. It may or may not directly contribute to info passage. The cell body has projections called axons and dendrites, which carry info in the form of action potentials.

The first question is whether you would be working with a living or dead brain. Let us start with a dead brain. In order to extract the brain itself, you would need to cut numerous inputs and outputs. The most important structure removed would be the spinal cord, which is considered a part of the central nervous system. Everything cut away from the brain destroys important feedback systems because the brain is highly interactive with the rest of the body. It is possible that even advanced thinking involves feedback loops with the eyes, nose, vocal cords, major muscles, skin receptors, etc. A cutaway dead brain might say nothing but “ouch.” Any type of brain cutting or sectioning would destroy important connections. Any type of deeply penetrating electrodes or laser beams would be partially destructive and location would be likely impossible. Many systems such as circulation and nutrition would not function and could not be fully studied. The brain emits hormones and is affected by chemicals in its blood supply. Most of these chemicals function with feedback loops and could be vital for  understanding. Scanning a dead brain might be possible, but much of the vital biochemical info would be unavailable. Even if all the nerve cells were available for some type of non-destructive scanning, the extremely tiny control points (like transistors), such as synapses would only be superficially informative. To summarize, a dead brain makes unavailable much vital info regarding its functioning and would be useless to transition to something functional.

A live brain would have all the relevant chemicals and structures, but presents another set of impossible difficulties. Who would sit still for months with millions of holes in his scull for electrodes. Or sit still for laser scanning for months to get all the connections and their efficacy, if this were even  possible. Any deeply penetrating laser beam would cause some damage or produce limited results. How would a laser beam record the efficacy of synapses or gap junctions. Also extremely important is the dynamic nature of the brain. Synapses are constantly changing in efficacy and number, and there is internal movement caused by the circulatory and nutritional systems. There will never be a way to reliably record from this impossible dynamic system with extremely tiny and numerous structures. And even if you could do some good recording from a limited area, covering the whole brain and spinal cord could take hundreds of years.

Here is a summary of the complications of brain scanning:

1. There is a very large number of components, ultimately hundreds of trillions, and sufficient information from all the components would require perhaps a thousand bits of info. The final count for all the info necessary for understanding a brain would be well into the quadrillions.
2. In addition, there are numerous  analog aspects, which trigger action potentials (digital). A synapse will only produce an action potential if it reaches a certain (analog) voltage value.
3. The living brain is a dynamic system in which the control points are constantly changing, due to use and disuse, nutritive and other factors.
4. One would have to work with tiny structures, close to the molecular level. Any prolonged scanning could and would often fail because of spurious movement. A bus driving by, or minor earthquakes, or a scientists steps could disrupt scanning. Blood flow could also disrupt.
5. If you are recording analog info at a synapse, for example, you might need to record for several minutes or longer to understand its action. Even a one-second recording for a trillion synapses would take centuries.
6. Scanning with glass or metal electrodes would cause damage to the brain cells. You might try some kind of laser system, but to go deep into the brain would require a powerful beam and  would cause damage.

For each of, say, 500 trillion control points, you would need the following data to fully understand how it functions.
1. Its exact 3-D location relative to some reference point, like 4.4342343 inches left, 3.4544546 inches right, and 3.66767667 inches deep.
2. A complete description of all its connections to other control points. Could be a thousand of such connections and the nature of each connection must be described, including its location, synapse or gap junction, neurotransmitter and any modifications to synapse efficacy.
3. Each synapse has a pre-synaptic and post-synaptic (receptor area) characteristic, which would take a 1000 or more bits to describe.
4. Gap junctions must be described by their exact location along axons and the efficacy of their connection, which would depend on the area in contact, and other factors.
5. Making sense of all the interconnections, we are definitely looking at many quadrillions (a quadrillion is 1 with 15 zeros) of data bits, probably several hundred quadrillions. It would take centuries to record all of the information.
6. The amount of data would require, probably hundreds of hard drives. How could this mass of data ever be organized and converted into a functioning “computer brain.”

.     THE HUMAN BRAIN IS A VERY UNIQUE TYPE OF COMPUTER

But, let us say that after several centuries you are able to overcome all of these problems (not likely) and you complete a scan of the brain, spinal cord (part of the CNS) and have info on inputs and outputs; all stored on a thousand (or more) giant external drives. How in the world would you be able to turn this into something useful. The human brain is a computer, but it is profoundly different from man-made computers, which are entirely digital and have a fixed structure. The human brain is a complex combination of digital, analog, and chemical operations, which is constantly changing whether sleeping or waking. It has a unique branching (tree-like) structure unlike anything man-made.

You might ask, could we someday construct a computer with the same electronic characteristics as the brain to make transfers easier. I think it is possible to someday build such a computer, but uploading info from a living brain to this computer would not be possible, because connections in this type of computer are developed through experiences (a huge variety of data inputs). For example, in a younger person, every time you learn something, there can be new nerve cells, new axons, and a variety of changes to many synapses. In an older person there may be a few new nerve cells, but there are many changes in synapses and probably other structures.

At this point, you might say, so what; after a thousand centuries, we will be able to overcome all of these problems. Which brings us to another point: Does it make sense to make theories about things that we will never be able to prove. P. W. Bridgman (Nobel Prize winner in physics) says don’t waste your time. Maybe we should leave “uploading a human brain” to the science fiction writers, particularly if you have no special facts or methods to make radical ideas more acceptable.

One more point, on a related issue. Although I assert that complete scanning or uploading a brain is likely not possible, a fairly complete understanding of how the brain works (at the level of synapses) may be possible someday. 

 

 

 

174. Our Education Affects “Reasoning” Ability

8 Jun

I was recently reminded of a problem in education: that children (and adults) are actually trained in what I call “magical thinking.” The reminder was a recent TED talk by Kate Bowler, entitled “Everything happens for a reason” — and other lies I’ve loved.  Many people could benefit from her illuminating piece.

Most of us are trained in various types of magical thinking. Examples are that life has “purpose” and “meaning” and that our actions should be guided by pleasing a higher power.  This is supported by the fact that ANXIETY is so much a part of our biological makeup. We create comforting attitudes to decrease our fears. Like many others, Kate Bowler‘s magical thinking was not questioned until faced with a horrible disease;  she got cancer. The bottom line is that this kind of thinking generally makes us feel better, and so is reinforced, just like we eat to avoid hunger and drink to avoid thirst, we pursue faulty thinking to avoid anxiety.

Being highly educated and logical is more difficult than “magic,” but it also works, and we are not so shocked when bad things happen. My solution is better education, which emphasizes logic and science. Many people have found joy in really understanding how the world works. When you study the origins of the Universe and the origins of life, science helps in understanding these issues. We don’t have final and exact answers for these “origins” but what is known suggests plausible explanations. When the above author, Kate Bowler, was young, what if some authority figure had asked her this question: how can you be sure of your beliefs and understanding of life? Where is the evidence? What are the details? Can we live without unsupported beliefs and just focus on what is observable and logical? (Note, although logic and science are important, I also recognize the role of love, kindness, sports, arts, music and other human factors.)

Along these same lines, I would ask this question: can we really make decisions and think in ways that are truly independent? Or, are we totally controlled by our original structure (DNA, etc.), all of our learning experience, and various environmental influences? For most people, beliefs are learned from parents, teachers, religious leaders, and/or peers — and regardless of events, may persist for entire lives.

 

160. Trump: Early Signs of Dementia

3 Apr

Being an older person and a psychologist, I have spent many hours studying “dementia” and Alzheimer’s disease. First, to clarify, “dementia” is a description of (mostly behavioral) symptoms, and Alzheimer’s is a disease of brain cells that can cause dementia symptoms. Dementia is not a sudden thing, but generally comes on gradually.  Minor symptoms may appear at 60 or 70 and increase with age so that there are severe deficits starting at 85 or 90. Some people never develop significant symptoms. (Recent research shows that a lack of sleep can make Alzheimer’s worse).  Here is a good reference on the whole topic:

http://www.healthline.com/health/dementia/early-warning-signs#symptoms

Also look at “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, By Bandy Lee MD”  It includes  27 essays by psychiatrists who provide diagnoses.

What triggered this blog was an interaction today of Trump with journalists on the occasion of a meeting with a Nato official. He suggested that the media look into the “oranges” of the Mueller investigation (he meant “origins”). He was also confused about the birthplace of his father. These errors, and many others, if you look carefully at him, are consistent with early-warning signs of dementia.

Here are some of the symptoms of early dementia:

Memory loss, especially short-term. An example might be when he forgot the reason for firing FBI Director Comey.

Difficulty finding the right words.  No clear example.

Apathy and confusion. In long speeches the disorganization suggests confusion.

Difficulty following storylines and conversing. Not clear

Difficulty following instructions and finding landmarks.

Repetition is common because of memory loss. This happens often for Trump

Difficulty in adapting to change. One could speculate that changing from a campaign mode to being president was hard for him.

REPETITION AND MEMORY LOSS ARE MOST APPARENT.  Some of his errors may be due to confusion or memory loss — or they could just be lies or poor scholarship.

I think he would consider resigning except that he would then be vulnerable to prosecution for crimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

155. Most Complicated Structure in The Universe

22 Mar

I think it is very possible that the human brain is the most complicated and intricate object in the Universe. Of course we don’t know what has developed on other planets, but here on Earth this argument more clearly has merit. My discussion here may convince you of this. I have also written this to show that the brain is so complicated and difficult to study in detail that centuries from now much of it will still remain a mystery. I also want to put to rest notions that we can “download” brain information,  read minds or do much scientific work with large electrode arrays, or construct computers that duplicate brain structure and function. Writers not fully educated in neurophysiology often under-estimate the extreme complexity of the human brain and the impossible difficulty of most cell-interconnection research.

Here is what I learned through my laboratory work and reading the neurophysiology literature for about 50 years. The human brain is composed of billions of nerve cells.  Each cell has connections to many (up to 10,000) other cells. There are perhaps 500 trillion or more interconnections called synapses and gap junctions. Each tiny connection (which functions like some transistor variation) has a complicated and variable structure. Interactions can be digital or analog, and are affected by various hormones and other chemicals. Much of brain functioning involves components that are extremely small, often at the molecular level.

Trying to understand nervous system control points (the logic) when there are, say, 500 trillion units, was rejected by many researchers in favor of starting with simpler systems. For example, Eric Kandel (Nobel prize winner) used the simple nervous system of the mollusk Aplysia, which has a small number of cells. A lot has been learned about cell logic through this type of experimentation. Trying to understand how the human brain works using hundreds of electrodes may have some merit. One problem in working with extremely tiny control points is that it is hard to know exactly where the electrodes are and what you are actually recording from. Also, the electrodes used in the human brain could easily damage the tiny delicate structures. Some cells may have important connections to other distant cells that are not in the electrode array range. Replication would be almost impossible.

When faced with these difficult problems, neurophysiologists have worked successfully (producing valuable info) with various more practical methods. For example, certain brain areas, such as those directly connected to sensory input, are more easily studied. The sensory nerves can be monitored for electrical activity, and the closely associated brain cells can be studied with electrodes, especially in certain animals. The same goes for brain areas closely associated with motor output.

A lot of recent brain research has been done with MRI scans and with EEG (brain waves).  Certain types of conclusions can be drawn from this type of work, but it does not tell us much about the 500 trillion control points.

There are structures and processes in nature that we may never fully understand — like dark energy and black holes.

152. Current Issues, Briefly #1

3 Mar

This is first of a series of blogs with a set of brief discussions of issues that I want to emphasize. This will include ideas from my recent blogs, tweets, and unpublished thoughts. The major topic will be gov and politics but I will include science advancements, and other areas.  I anticipate publishing this type of blog every 7 to 10 days.

The testimony of Michael Cohen is important and I think mostly truthful. The world population is not divided into liars and non-liars. Everyone lies at some time or another, or is a social outcast. Cohen made some serious mistakes, but many of them were made under the aura of a US President, presidential candidate, or earlier a powerful, rich, influential and persuasive person. Cohen is not a high-minded dealist, but there are now major legal reasons for his telling the absolute truth.

Michael Cohen said that he “knows of no evidence for collusion.” Note to Trump: this does not say that others do not have such evidence. Almost certainly, Special Council Mueller does have some significant evidence for collusion. The many indictments, convictions, and lies about Russian contacts, support this.

The “Green New Deal” is filled with good progressive ideas, but like Nancy Pelosi, I hesitate to endorse it because it goes too far in certain areas. I think the climate part is so important that it should be separated out and vigorously promoted. There are also claims that some of the concepts and numbers are incorrect. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) states that the numbers don’t matter; its only the morals that matter. That is a teenage know-it-all answer. Democrats must be better than Trump. What we say must be correct or we will be mistrusted.

According to New York officials, there would be 27 billion in taxes over 25 years from an Amazon move and at least 25,000 new jobs.  A. O. Cortez and others killed the deal by worrying about 3-billion in incentives. Her enthusiasm for progressive causes is great, but in this case she may have made a horrible error. Her concern over 3 billion may have killed tax revenue of 27 billion and many thousands of new jobs.

As I think about Nancy Pelosi and her recent achievement in blocking “the wall” construction, and other responsible decisions I am extremely impressed. She could be the very best politician, negotiator, and patriot our country has ever had. Look at how effectively she negotiated her election to House Speaker. She has a long history of supporting science. As I think about her career I am truly amazed.

It looks like woman will take over more and more political leadership roles. Many are extremely competent, and are national leaders in Germany, the UK and elsewhere. For years, my top pics for president have been women. Male leaders are disadvantaged by the threat of scandals. Men voted into high office are usually powerful, handsome, rich, healthy, and articulate. This description is exactly what most women want in a male companion, and for most men, the temptations of seductive women are difficult to control. Healthy men have powerful sex drives resulting from biological evolution.

The moral of the Ralph Northam (Virginia Gov) year-book issue is that it is foolish to ruin a person’s life because of a mistake made many (35) years ago. People do sincerely change. How many US and world leaders could stand scrutiny of their early years? To hold against a person a mistake 35 years ago is to discourage people from improving their lives. Remember, it is what a person does and says (for a long period of time) that is important, not what you imagine is in his brain.

In the area of science, there are many publications concerning the structure and function of DNA. One group is working on a new DNA with two extra codes, total of six instead of the usual four (bases: A,G,C,T). Floyd Romesberg and his team (Scripps  Institute) are working on this and promise exciting applications.

Another scientific group has made major advances in understanding how the brain recognizes faces. Some of the best recent work was performed by Doris Y. Tsao of the California Institute of Technology. She discovered brain areas called face detectors and provides a description of “face codes” that allows the brain to organize visual input for identifying faces. Scientific American, February 2019, describes this work.

119. How Humans Evolved

28 Aug

The latest issue of Scientific American (September 2018) is concerned with the issue of how we humans are different from other animals. The issue title is: “A Singular Species: The Science of Being Human.” A lot of this valuable issue is concerned with evolution. As I looked through the issue, I tried to find a discussion of certain details about how evolution actually produced our superior brains.

Here is my analysis.  First, what is necessary for biological evolution is the following:

1. Death, which leads to many generations, that can make small incremental changes.

2. Mutation: A change in DNA that is relatively permanent.

3. Survival of the fittest. The key to understanding “fittest” is that there is a combination of traits in an individual that will allow him (and her) to reach the age for sex and child rearing. The mutation and progeny must live long enough to promote the reproductive cycles. These are the main themes, but many details are involved in the whole process of evolution.

An overall observation, is that evolution is a tree process rather than a number of parallel lines. Some detail about primates is instructive. Primates include lemurs, lorises, monkeys, apes, and man. All primates are mammals and have advanced binocular vision, grasping ability, and specific enlargements of brain.

60 or 80 million years ago there was a key species that had the capability of leading to various primate species. There are many primate variations that have been successful. Some species will continue because they are “fit” and those less successful may terminate, that is, become extinct. The branching tree of evolution will lose some branches and gain new ones. The species we see today, have all been good at all the many requirements for survival. The lemurs, monkeys, apes, etc are all successful variations.

The interesting fact is that perhaps a hundred million years ago, a mutant was born that had a DNA structure that could eventually lead to the evolution of humans. I think the existence of humans was not inevitable, it was just a chance event. If you look at all the other current species, many non-human animals are quite successful. Humans are not necessary for their success, and in fact, humans have been responsible for the extinction of many interesting animals. It is easy to imagine an earth without humans.

Some precursor animal lived in an environment where mental ability was a major asset. So this species kept evolving better and better brains that led to more successful and likely reproduction.

Let’s fantasize an environment where high intelligence, instead of such traits as better legs for running, was important for survival. Suppose one such environment was characterized by several major changes in food supply. Perhaps a favorite plant or animal to eat became extinct. The adaptation to major changes in food source probably would require more brain power. There could also be major changes in climate or the availability of water. Perhaps in one region there were two pre-human species that were highly competitive for a limited supply of food. The smarter species could have been more able to survive, and more likely to pass its DNA on to future generations. A superior memory could help find water during a drought, or the location of food sources for different seasons.

Dinosaurs never developed big smart brains like ours during their many years of existence. This suggests it takes a certain DNA structure and a certain environment to initiate the evolution of this large adaptive brain. It may, in fact, be a very rare occurrence in the Universe, and we are just very lucky.

I have written the above to provide information in a short form that may be useful for those not wanting read thousands of book pages. It is an effort to present key facts that may be lost in a sea of writings. I also commend the thousands of dedicated scientists that have contributed to our understanding of this profound topic.

117. The Amazing Brain: How it was made.

6 Jul

Most people know, or are at least aware of the idea, that our amazing brains were developed through biological evolution. I am going to try to make a clear explanation of this process. One approach is to make comparisons with easy to understand non-biological processes.

A manufactured product can evolve under the following conditions:
1. Consider a product such as a cell-phone, that has a high volume of sales.
2. This product can and will be improved in a number different ways.
3. After each modification, there is an objective measure of the product’s success.
4. The product is permanently modified if there are indications of its success with the public.

So, the procedure is to make and sell a specific improvement, say, a larger screen. If the larger screen sells more phones, then it will be included in all future versions. If sales are worse, then the improved version will be abandoned. In this way, the cell-phone will “evolve” and customers will enjoy better and better phones.

The key factors in this and other evolution are variation (which is persistent) and feedback related to the new features. And, of course, the feedback must have an effect on the persistence of variations.

In biological evolution, mutation (relatively permanent changes) occurs in a species as new DNA is created for offspring. The feedback is success in survival. If a change, such as a longer neck for a giraffe, helps giraffes to survive, then giraffes may “evolve” longer necks. Note, longer necks allow giraffes to reach more food. Natural selection (survival of the fittest) is the biological process, similar to customer satisfaction for the cell phones.

It is really remarkable that “nature” has created automatically self-improving objects like animals and plants. The improvements can take place without any human intervention. Every animal and plant on earth has developed, in this way, for billions of years.

.                           Amazing time leads to Amazing complexity
Now think about this: the amazing complexity of the human brain is based on an amazing amount of time, billions of years. Brains (and all other organs) have developed to a fantastic degree, because of a fantastic amount of time for this “evolution” process to take place.

I should also mention that in our world, there are many types evolution. Similar to natural biological evolution, is animal breeding. Here, the selection is NOT natural, but by humane intervention. As civilization developed, there have been remarkable changes in species to make them more desirable for human use. The clear effects of breeding are very supportive of the concept of natural evolution.

If you want to develop your understanding of brain evolution, do an Internet search on the words “animal nervous systems” or “animal brains” and look at the images. This will help you to see the progression. After the transition from single-celled to multi-cellular animals, rudimentary nervous systems appeared. These provided simple two-cell reflexes based on an input (sensory neuron) and an output (motor neuron). Eventually, more neurons were added to the processing and finally complex brains appeared. Some of this nervous system development is well understood, but there is still very much to learn.

116. Brain Complexity

5 Jul

In my Blog-114, I provide some information on brain micro-structure:
“Our nervous system is composed of billions of nerves with around 150 trillion interconnections called synapses, and other connection variations. Further, each synapse (which functions like a transistor) has a complicated and variable structure. The nerve cells, their branching structures, and connections, provide all of our simple and complex behaviors.”

In my study of neuron science, I often see proposals and conjectures
regarding total brain simulations, and even the transfer of stored brain info
to a gigantic computer as a way of prolonging life. One speculator proposes that a person’s intellect could continue after death.

My study of all these conjectures suggests that the writers do not
appreciate the size and levels of brain complexity. My assessment is that
our current and future knowledge will not be capable of producing any
such copying or sizable transfer. Perhaps in 400 or 500 years different viewpoints will be more acceptable.

What follows is a further description and clarification of brain complexity.

A computer has transistors, diodes, resistors, conducting wires and other electronic components that function in concert to provide logic, control,
computation, sensory systems, memory, and information transfer over a
distance.

Analogous systems in the brain are various types of connections between
nerve cells, and elongated cell structures (axons) that are like transmission
wires. The electrical pulse that is mostly used for communication over a distance
is the “action potential.”

I could include, here, a few relevant pictures, but to really see most of
the known variations just use your browser to search “nerve cells” and also
“gap junctions.” (click “images” at top of page). Many of the pictures are
very current and show an amazing variety of structures.

There are two types of connection: chemical (synapses) and electrical (gap-junctions). The terminology can be a little inconsistent but the principles are clear. Neurons have (separate) sending and receiving points. For cells A and B to communicate, a sending point (terminal) of cell A must be in very close proximity to a receiving point (receptor site) for cell B. If the connection is a chemical synapse then the sending point of cell A sends transmitter chemicals across the gap to neuron B receptor. Sending is triggered by an electrical signal (action potential) that causes the release of a chemical (transmitter). The receiving point (or receptor) generates a transmittable signal when enough transmitter is received. Transmission can be excitatory (producing action potentials) or inhibitory (preventing action potentials). Some examples of common neuro-transmitters are acetylcholine, epinephrine, GABA, ATP, and Serotonin. There are about 25 different known transmitters.

Electrical connections between nerve cells operate similarly, except that the
excitation is more direct and transmitter chemicals are not used. Gap junctions
mediate electrical excitation by opening gates that allow the passage of ions.
Ions are tiny charged particles (atoms or molecules) that function in transmission. There can also be transferred electrical excitation without specific gap-junction structures, if parts of cells are making actual contact.

Further functioning (and more complexity) is related to the number of sending points that simultaneously contact a single receptor. A single nerve cell (neuron) could have hundreds of sending and receiving contacts and direct ommunication with many other cells.

Another layer of complexity is that there are many transmitter chemicals and countless substances that can affect the transmitters and the transmission process. Some of these excitatory or inhibitory substances in the brain are there naturally, and can depend on what you eat and your activities. There are also a multitude of drugs that can affect transmission in a multitude of ways.

All animal brains have specific structures and a very sophisticated organization.
Synaptic receptor sites (the receiving points) can have a variety of properties
depending on DNA coding and also actual usage. The extent of excitation by
sending points (pre-synaptic terminals) can be relatively fixed or variable.
In some situations, receiving points (postsynaptic sites) can produce a stream
of action potentials, or just one or two. If a synapse is used repeatedly,
transmission could be enhanced or inhibited, depending on a number of
temporal and chemical factors. Depending on usage, a receptor site could
store information that alters its performance — a “memory” function.

From the discussion above, you can see that there are numerous devices in
the brain that function as “logic.” The brain has common “and-gates”,
“or-gates”, “nor-gates” and many other types of gating to use in programming all of the fantastic abilities we enjoy. Much of the logic used by our brains is similar to that used in our computers. But brain logic has a far greater variation and is
really a combination of digital and analog systems. Information in a computer
is generally a universal pulse of a fixed voltage. In brains, information takes many forms including pulses, graded potentials, ion movements, and the presence or absence of a great number of chemicals. In computers, memory is achieved by manipulating magnetic and electrical properties of tiny bits of matter. In brains, some methods of storage are known and others are the subject of reasearch. It is likely that much of memory has to do with long-term facilitation (or inhibition) in synaptic transfer. There is much research on molecular structures that are altered to provide long-term information storage.

Imagine trying to construct something like a biological synapse with all
the properties described above. Your constructed synapse could have a hundred excitatory and inhibitory inputs, with several different transmitter chemicals. The receptor site should be able to produce a variety of action potential rates and be capable of changes related to memory. Even the construction of one
complete synapse would be very difficult. Imagine trying to create a human
brain with 150 trillion synapses with a variety of properties, AND with an
extremely complicated and as yet unknown organization.

Scientific brain research is valuable and should be continued. But productive
lines of inquiry should be promoted while most unrealistic speculation should be
ignored or presented as science fiction.

How did this extremely complicated biological computer system called a brain
develop? In a future blog I will deal with this question.

114. Brain, AI, and Behavior (3rd Revision)

13 Mar

This blog was stimulated by a Ray Kurzweil newsletter topic:
               Will artificial intelligence [AI] become conscious?
It reminded me that I have been wanting to explain this and related topics more thoroughly. Before continuing, I must describe my qualifications related to the conclusions that I will draw. I have had considerable formal training and professional experience in the following areas:
1. Behavioral Science
2. Neuro-science
3. Computers and control systems
4. Advanced computer programming

All of these topics are related and the relationships are illuminating. I have divided my ideas into several topics:

1. “Consciousness” is a layman’s term but is also used by scientists outside the field of behavioral science. It is most often used in a vague way without clear definition. And when defined, the definition is often made with vague statements. Many years ago, P.W. Bridgman (The Logic of Modern Physics, 1959) advocated “operational definitions.” One should use terms that can be defined in terms of specific procedures. For example, “hunger” could be defined as 24 hours of food deprivation. Another, “meter” is the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a very small, specified time interval: 1 over 299,792,458 sec.

Instead of the vague “consciousness” we should use terms like:
“Aware:” meaning there are measurable responses to specific type of stimuli.
Asleep:” defined by measurable patterns of EEG, and breathing patterns.
“Coma:” lack of responsiveness, but not asleep or under drug influence.
There are many similar terms that can have precise definitions. One can find numerous discussions of “consciousness” that go nowhere because the terminology used is not precise or “operational.”

So, here is my answer to the above question: Will AI become conscious?
My answer is that there will be amazing developments and uses for AI, but it will never exactly duplicate the capabilities of the human brain. Our brains developed over millions of years of evolution and have abilities that are not likely to be completely imitated. Throughout his lifetime and responding to all his experiences, a person’s brain develops by adding new structures, new neurons, and billions of new interconnections. Could this changing, adaptive system, with many trillions of connections and chemical operations, ever be duplicated by humans. (See below for details.)

2. How does the Brain work? Using all the knowledge areas mentioned above (behavior, neurophysiology, computers, etc) I will make the following description. First, the processing ability of the person primarily depends on the brain, but also includes other parts of the nervous system, and other systems, such as hormonal, sensory, and muscular.
The overall system is much like an ordinary computer, with keyboard and scanner inputs, a central processor, memory, and outputs such as a screen, printer, and speakers. In humans, a wide variety of sensory cells (receptors), such as cells in the retina, provide inputs, the nervous system (mostly brain) provides processing and memory, and outputs are complex behaviors, reflexes, hormone production, vocalizations, etc. An interesting fact is that even spurious factors like viruses work in the body and computers, in very much the same way. In both cases, they use the normal processing features to reproduce themselves and to cause damage.

Manufactured processing systems are pretty familiar. Most interactions are based on wires that carry electrical charges (+ and -). In humans, the wires are nerves that transmit over distances using the motions of ions in a wave process, much like a fuse. Ions are tiny charged (+ or -) particles composed of elements such as sodium, chlorine, calcium, potassium, etc. The ions move sideways to the direction of information flow, much like a tsunami moves in a wave without transferring the water itself. The moving wave that transmits info is called an action potential.

Our nervous system is composed of billions of nerves with around 150 trillion interconnections called synapses, and other connection variations. Further, each synapse (which functions like a transistor)  has a complicated and variable structure.  The nerve cells, their branching structures, and connections, provide all of our simple and complex behaviors. Frequently used connections associated with “learning” often expand and acquire new protein components. Functioning of these cells can also be modulated by various hormones, chemicals and drugs. So, our brains are a gigantic system with a number of control points so large as to be incomprehensible, that evolved in several billion years (also incomprehensible) to a structure that can create abstractions like, Einstein’s Relativity, and can ask where did I come from? It is also important to note that although the brain is complex almost beyond comprehension, it is still composed of chemicals and processes governed by the man-made laws of physics and chemistry. It is very unlikely that these totally “deterministic” components can produce any “free will.” In support of this conclusion, we know that computers (unquestionably deterministic) can produce amazing “behaviors” and can be programmed to imitate something like the assumed human “free will.”

We understand and know how the brain and spine produce simple reflexes using the input, output and processing systems described above. Not yet described here are more complex functions like memory retrieval; logic and reasoning; “creative” actions; and “emotions” like love and anger. It is clear that our brains can do a wide variety of things and has specially evolved to implement those most related to survival and the achievement of reproduction.
We know, for example, that special parts of the brain are devoted to facial recognition, to strong emotions, sex, visual memories, and the fight/flight response. We know that the brain can group together a series of actions or things and can rapidly produce a whole learned series without separately retrieving the components. There are experiments in “learning to learn” where if one learning process is similar to another, there is a facilitation. Really good brains can produce valuable associations and retrieve deeply “buried” little used, but relevant info. Brains have a remarkable ability to search, summarize, and draw conclusions. We do have some idea how these remarkable processes can take place, but much of this is purely speculative. Yet, the fact that computers can be programmed to do much of this abstract work, supports the idea the even the most amazing actions are “deterministic” and ultimately predictable. Also supporting determinism is that the huge number of anatomical and functional studies of the brain have never disclosed any super-natural “free-will” elements. The argument that free-will could “emerge” from deterministic elements, seems unlikely to me, but in the end, determinism forces us towards certain conclusions. Personally, when I really examine my life, I see that all my current behaviors are the result of a life-time of experiences.  I must ask free-will advocates: if your current behavior does not come from your DNA and past experiences (learned, imitated, stored, etc), where does it come from?

3. Thinking
There is one more topic that should be mentioned: “thought.” What is thought? Is it a behavior? Does it precede all overt behaviors? Is it “neuronal” like other actions? What is its function? Etc. Based upon some behavioral science studies and my own intuition, I propose the following.

First of all, most behavior just occurs without any thinking or planning. Second, thoughts can be words, pictures, or even “feelings.” Thoughts are studied scientifically by using a subject’s verbal responses, which ARE observable.
Thought is a covert brain output that does not reach the status of observable. An interesting facet of this idea is that some people “think out-loud” and what should be covert isn’t. I have known several people who do this. The most likely and useful aspect of thinking, is to produce a sub-threshold behavior to test its effect before causing the thinker any problems. For example, you ask your boss for a raise in your head, with different wordings, to find the best version. Or, you imagine yourself climbing a mountain and you note the fear that it generates. Thinking allows you to try things out before you actually do them, and serves as a safeguard.

Under the heading of thinking, one could imagine advanced retrieval processes that would be important for developing a theory or concept. A thought could be stimulated by an event in the environment. You see a stranger that looks like a past friend and a thought about the friend emerges. Clearly, there are environmental events that elicit related thoughts, but maybe there is also a thought generator, based upon the relative importance of stored info. Do we have some sort of scanner that finds important or otherwise significant items to think about?

Final thought: Even though our brains are extremely complicated and likely can never be duplicated, downloaded, or fully understood, brain research can still be productive. Studies of brain inputs and outputs, small systems of nerves, and comparisons with computers and other control systems,  have yielded valuable insights as to how higher functioning is accomplished.