Our Capablilities


“In the course of biological evolution the brain’s innate capacities for representing the world came to be considerably enlarged, from the immediate physical and biological environment to an almost unlimited domain of social and cultural interactions.”
Jean-Claude Changeux
The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge

We scientists are an optimistic bunch. We actually believe the reality out there beyond our perception is an orderly, understandable place. We learn by systematically manipulating the world.

Science is limited to that which is observed. We only talk about truth that can be measured, summarized and reported. I still feel the spiritual and the sublime. Maybe those emotions are deepened by an ever greater appreciation for just how remarkable this world is and how marvelous the people in it. We can all stand in awe in a huge underground cavern, carved from the seemingly impenetrable rock. Understanding the process, geology and patterns makes it all the more amazing and more worthy of my gratitude.

In writing about brain and mind, the amazing facilities of awareness, agency, will and aspiration are never far away as inspiration for the endeavor. But as manifestations of brain, I appreciate them in their own right, much as I appreciate the cavern’s majesty in its own right, informed by some limited, incomplete knowledge of how it got there. But make no mistake about it: Life is a miraculous physical event and needs no extra “vital force”.

The Urge to Play

Echoes of the View

Children have a strong urge to explore because interacting with the environment is how the world gets put together. These models of reality we build in our brains are preconditioned by genes and development, but then honed to be fully useful once born and out in the world to play.

By playing with others, we build what Changeux called “shared social consciousness”. Living in the same culture, language and symbolic environment allows us to believe we know what others are thinking. Of course I’m usually way off the mark, because I’m thinking it not you, really. And my own shared consciousness is not that well shared, I guess.

All signs and signals get combined into chunks and simpler over time. That’s why you and I now can communicate with a subtle gesture or indirect, indiscreet use of words full of irony and sarcasm.

Play and make believe are safe simulations of life, where roles can be tried on for size and mistakes become jokes. Reward drives behavior. In knowing, in the pleasure of feeling right, in the social standing that results from social achievement are powerful reinforcers. You can see how this works in the very origins of language, in the role of speaking in forming deep personal bonds, in seeking approval. your facial expressions are my behavior cues.

The Necessity of Models

The young scientist who enters a well-equipped laboratory for the first time—–well equipped not only in the physical sense, but also because it has the intellectual atmosphere required for carrying out important research—–has not merely entered a particular set of rooms. His formal training at school and college, the discussions with his first supervisor, his earliest experiences in a research institution, the community of scientists that he has joined by becoming a member of this institution—all these things leave profound and lasting traces in the neural circuits of his brain.
― Jean-Claude Changeux
The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge

What is the difference beteen man and great ape?

The brains of the two species share the basic cortical regions, but somehow man has gained an extra capacity for this symbolic work. Both man and ape can see the lines and patterns that make up letters, but only man can put the letters c-a-t together as a set of arbitrary phonemes of the word cat which triggers an associative avalanche regarding this furry creature, infesting our homes, yet related to lions and tigers. Those shapes signify both orange and black, fancy and stray, all activated within the reader’s brain, entirely absent from the brain of any other creature on earth.

Whether you call this culture, learning or the stabilization of common neural networks across brains, language is a metalevel concept, but entirely subsumed within individual human brains. It is both a pattern of sound or lines– “cat” and an individual pattern of neural activity that is represented differently in each brain. The language and reference to the furry creatures maps across brains, the pattern within the brain is entirely individual.

How could anyone ever “read out” my thoughts? The patterns inside are are arbitrary and private. It would require running through everything I know and looking at the pattern of synaptic and neuronal activity for each stimulus to create a map between the cultural concepts and my private cortical encoding of the meaning and associations.

And that’s just a three letter word.

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”
― Gabriel Garcí a Márquez,
Gabriel García Márquez: a Life

Words and Brains

I can choose to look, but once I see I have no more choice.

I have no choice about how I percieve what I see. The meaning is there, unbidden. I see the letter form “f” or the word “fox”. I have no choice but to see a letter or recall that creature to mind.

It’s then quite remarkable that I can choose to think of other animals whose names begin with the letter “f”. I can switch to any letter or any other object category with fluency and the words come to mind, again unbidden. It takes mental effort, this active reflexive thinking. And I have absolutely no understanding of how I do it; my ability to describe how I think up a list of animals is missing as completely as my ability to describe how I know what “fox” means.

Whether you call this ability “language” or as Changeux in The Physiology of Truth would have it at the mechanistic level, “stabilization of common neural networks across brains”, meaning itself is an abstract idea, made real by the activity of brains, needing to be embodied in the flesh. Between brains, language is an arbitrary but common pattern of sounds or ink on paper. Within each brain its own individual pattern of neural activity. Amazing that the word is the same, but patterned differently in each brain; every word that is hear is a unique human experience.


Hose and Rings

“What was I thinking?”

How many times must I thoughtlessly blunder in my actions before I wake up and really start thinking about my actions? I sit and plan, mentally rehearse the conversation, plot out the moves and countermoves. But then in the moment I am myself and act the same way I always do, saying the wrong thing, ignoring the warning signs all around.

Self acceptance helps, but feels like an evasion or an excuse. I really want to be better, but after all, I am who I am, the product of so much not in my control. Genes and human biology. Culture, education and my own unique experiences. All of these forces have shaped my reactions. It’s like I decide to do something, but in the doing, my good intentions are forgotten. I act as me, not who I wanted to be.

Speaking of Mental Models

Plate Residing

“There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that’s all right. It’s a good idea to try to see the difference, and it’s a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself.

There is a picture of a dog–a windable toy dog–and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says “What makes it move?” Later on, there is a picture of a real dog and the question, “What makes it move?” Then there is a picture of a motorbike and the question, “What makes it move?” and so on.

If you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around.

What a good way to begin a science course! Take apart the toy; see how it works. See the cleverness of the gears; see the ratchets. Learn something about the toy, the way the toy is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the ratchets and other things. That’s good.

The question is fine. The answer is a little unfortunate, because what they were trying to do is teach a definition of what is energy. But nothing whatever is learned.”

―Richard Feynman
What is Science?

It’s very useful to talk about mental models, but if they are invoked as explanations in themselves, “nothing whatever is learned”. What are these mental representations? Are they how we think? What we think?

Here’s a big list of them: Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful. As I look down the list, I mostly see abstract constructs that most likely would never influence behavior in the moment.

How does one drive an abstract concept like “Sunk Losses” deeply enough into one’s psychology that the next time it comes to deciding whether to get off the highway to get gas, this heuristic actually comes into play? Somehow they most become habits, true mental models of how the world is perceived in the moment. They must be known, not applied.

A mental model can only become an unconscious mental habit with deliberate practice that develops an effective mental representation. That mental representation is, at the brain level, no longer a concept but a set of connections that lead to a perception that works better in the world, that improves performance. Mental models without consequence don’t concern us if the goal is deciding better.

“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”
Gregory Bateson
*Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity*

Searching for the Victorians

Obviously NOT ART

“Our life consists of materials that have not been assimilated. Where is the centered mid that can absorb all that we have collectively wrought and make poetry–or any art–from it? Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age

I am often puzzled by the abandonment of the modern idea of art making progress. Have we reached our maturity? For the most part, music being made now could have been made 20 years ago. When I graduated from high school in 1974, our music and art seemed light years away from the art, music and culture of 1954.

Is this a pause? A period of historical quiet?

Or perhaps the change is going on all around us and since we’re living it, we’re too close to notice how much the world has changed in ways that don’t involve how a guitar is played or how paint is put on a canvas. Maybe this transition to the abstracted world of digital media will be viewed as one of the most significant shifts in centuries. A time when the physical became substrate and data became the world in which we live.

Those who were born into the old ways fear that we now live in a world with no reading, no contemplation, no intelligence outside of the hive mind of Twitter. A loss of human interaction.

Instead of worrying about what we’ve lost (it’s not coming back), why not look around at the birth of the new art?

“Although often grouped together under the banner of “mathematics,” the techniques and attitudes of pure and applied forms diverged significantly in the nineteenth century. By the end of the century, pure mathematics and its associated realm of symbolic logic had become so abstract and removed from what the general public saw as math—that is, numbers and geometric shapes—that Bertrand Russell could famously conclude in 1901 (in a Seinfeldian moment) that mathematics was a science about nothing. It was a set of signs and operations completely divorced from the real world.” Searching for the Victorians Dan Cohen

Digging Deeper

The Size and Shape of It

“In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

In creative endeavors, there’s a sense of exploring one’s own mind. Memories, ideas are somehow in there already, but need room to emerge, activity like writing to be shaped, formed and presented whole to others. While inside, unknown, then at least just half formed.

Drilling down in the neural layer, these are those connections and experiences that have imprinted themselves but are forgotten or never brought to a higher level of abstration as concepts mapped as metaphors of other feelings, events or qualities of the world.

To bring those impressions to the point where they are telling the truth is an act of relaxation, of removing filters, so that the metaphors are both accurate and original, not mere reflections of conventional wisdom.

“You are wherever your thoughts are, make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

My Relationship With the Sky

My Relationship to the Sky

“Access to the internet was supposed to be this great, liberating force. “You can’t stop the signal!” (Obscure cultural reference. Apologies if you don’t get it. Google it.) Gatekeepers” were going to be swept aside. “Sources go direct!” Formerly, gatekeepers were the people who controlled access to mass media; publishers, editors, producers. With the internet, my little blog could theoretically reach as large an audience as any form of conventional media. The capacity to disseminate information exploded exponentially. The capacity of individuals to receive and process information changed not one whit. With the “gatekeepers” swept away, people were left to their own devices to decide where to give their attention.” Dave Rogers The Internet and the Age of Ignorance

The cloud metaphor that we’ve settled on to describe where the world of the internet resides seems quite apt. I know the sky is real, but it’s out of reach and its contents so attenuated that it can never be directly experienced anyway. It is the sky and clouds from the ground.

In such an unreal place, reality loses its weight. In the world, we try hard to be our authentic selves, embarrassed when we act in ways inconsistent with who we believe we are. Actions have real consequences, so we’re careful about what we say and how we say it. Or at least we try.

In this attenuated, unreal world online we seem freed from those constraints. Things are said on the internet, in public, that one would not say in a public place even if said anonymously. Because in the real world, words have consequences.

It seems to me that some of this is spilling over into our real world, so that belief is no longer of any consequence. What if we start adopting a mental model that there is no true, no right or wrong statements? I can choose to believe in climate change or believe it’s a plot to increase government power over the citizenry. Out and out lying, distortions of fact, become acceptable techniques of persuasion. as we become used to the past disappearing down the news feed within minutes. Repeat anything that supports a chosen belief, since it all flies away into to the wind. In a perpetual now of frayed and fractured attention.

Isn’t the problem just that we’ve allowed ourselves to become suckers for the new monopolists of the attention economy? I believe that there is a growing realization that those who don’t seize control of the technology will be washed away in the ease of it all. Either use these remarkable tools or watch. It may be that modernity is ending with the end of cheap oil and start of climate change; tougher times are likely coming. And that calls for revised mental models that fit the new reality. Not the reality we see in the shapes of clouds or even the old reality of cheap energy and the US as the world’s greatest industrial and military power.

“We’ll need, chief among all things, to get smaller and less centralized, focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we’ve climbed” **Bill McKibben** *Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet*

Relationship Between Clerical Burden and Characteristics of the Electronic Environment With Physician Burnout and Professional Satisfaction – Mayo Clinic Proceedings

Rock, Table, Morning

“More and more I believe that art—via imagination—is the necessary counter to our information-glut crisis. I explain this by referring back to the root concepts of imagination and information. Imagination is a formative inward power, independent and generative. Information, by contrast, and by original definition, imparts inner form from the outside. To be informed is to receive the print of ideas or—and again I heed the etymology—impressions. Imagination creates shape; information imposes shape.” Sven Birkerts

Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age

We are all great photographers now. Anyone with an iPhone can create a perfectly exposed, perfectly focused image. With just a bit of thought and awareness, composition of the image is without imagination with a direct view of the image, followed by instant feedback once the picture is taken. Post-processing is assisted by algorithms that create interesting looks with no effort. Event traditional darkroom techniques of adjusting contrast and exposure or local adjustment of light and dark (dodging and burning) can be done right on the phone. No money, skill or training is required to publish the image to the entire world on a social media platform like Twitter, Flickr or Instagram.

Awash in images, the value of a good image is devalued. The image on this page was captured this morning and post-processed with 6 different algorithmic engines in about 10 minutes. I’ll admit it has less value to me than if I had begun the morning in the darkroom developing a roll of film and then printing later this afternoon after it had dried. Yet taking the image and adjusting it to reflect how I feel at the moment was no less genuine, just faster and less important today. And here it is to share with hundreds on Flickr and the few who will read these thoughts.

Like many photographers of a certain age, I remember vividly seeing my first print emerge on paper in the darkroom under the red safelight. It wasn’t instrumental, it was purely experiential, seeing how film and paper transformed a particular view at a certain moment into a flat image with the impression of light and odd effects that were no longer at all what had been there. The smell of stop bath.

It’s hard to make a living as a photographer now. It’s no longer a life of collecting images on slides and providing them to a stock photography vendor. Magazines no longer support the artisans that supplied them images. Our best photographers today are performers, engaging us via social media and selling us vision in return for clicks.

But that’s the value proposition of the image and its maker, not the value of making an image. Making it faster and easier is an aid to imagination, not an impediment. Let’s use the speed and lightness of the virtual to soar. Turning doctors into clerks with Electronic Medical Records is a major contributor to burnout