Tag Archives: brain

Limits of imagination

What’s it like being a bat?  ‘Seeing’ the world through your ears, or at least a sophisticated echo-location system. Or, what’s it like being an octopus?  With eight semi-autonomous arms that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago [see ‘Intelligent aliens?’ on January 16th, 2019]. For most of us, it’s unimaginable. Perhaps, because we are not bats or octopuses, but that seems to be dodging the issue.  Is it a consequence of our education and how we have been taught to think about science?  Most scientists have been taught to express their knowledge from a third person perspective that omits the personal point of view, i.e. our experience of science.  The philosopher, Julian Baggini has questioned the reason for this mode of expression: is it that we haven’t devised a framework for understanding the world scientifically that captures the first and third person points of view; is it that the mind will always elude scientific explanation; or is that the mind simply isn’t part of the physical world?

Our minds have as many neurons as there are stars in the galaxy, i.e. about a hundred billion, which is sufficient to create complex processes within us that we are never likely to understand or predict.  In this context, Carlo Rovelli has suggested that the ideas and images that we have of ourselves are much cruder and sketchier than the detailed complexity of what is happening within us.  So, if we struggle to describe our own consciousness, then perhaps it is not surprising that we cannot express what it is like to be a bat or an octopus.  Instead we resort to third person descriptions and justify it as being in the interests of objectivity.  But, does your imagination stretch to how much greater our understanding would be if we did know what is like to be a bat or an octopus?  And, how that might change our attitude to the ecosystem?

BTW:  I would answer yes, yes and maybe to Baggini’s three questions, although I remain open-minded on all of them.

Sources:

Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.

Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Image: https://www.nps.gov/chis/learn/nature/townsends-bats.htm

Time at the heart of our problems

This week I started teaching thermodynamics to first year undergraduate students for the first time in twelve months.  I have had a break for a year because my course, which is only delivered once per year, was moved from first to second semester.  Although I have continued to teach postgraduate courses, it’s been like a sabbatical enforced by timetable changes.  Sadly, it’s over and I am back in the large lecture theatre in front of a couple of hundred of students – that makes it sound as if I don’t enjoy it which is not true but it does increase the intensity of the job because all of the other aspects of the role continue unabated.  So, for me time appears to accelerate as I attempt to jam more activities into a week.

Time lies at the heart of much of thermodynamics although we tend not to deal with it explicitly; however, it is implicit in our use of changes in the state of a system to understand it.  Quote Anaximander, the pre-Socratic philosopher & pupil of Thales of Miletus: ‘We understand the world by studying change, not by studying things’.  Time also lies at the centre of the tangle of problems found at the intersection of the theories of gravity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics.  As Carlo Rovelli has remarked we are still in the dark about this tangle of problems; so, I will touch on it in my thermodynamics course but just to show students the limits of our knowledge and perhaps inspire one or two of them to think about tackling them in postgraduate studies.

Meanwhile, I plan tackle my challenges with time by slowing it down once a week with a walk in the Clwydian Hills where the landscape appears unchanging so that time stands still allowing me to relax.

Sources:

Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Wohllerben P, The hidden life of trees, London, William Collins, 2017.

Intelligent aliens?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about cuttlefish [see ‘Wearing your heart on your sleeve‘ on January 16th, 2019]  based on a wonderful book, that I was given for Christmas, called ‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life‘ by Peter Godfrey-Smith.  Cuttlefish and octopuses are cephalopods that Peter Godfrey-Smith describes as ‘an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals’.  The most recent common ancestor of cephalopods and humans is so distant and was so simple that cephalopods represent an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour.  An octopus has about 500 million neurons, which is not as many as humans, we have about 100 billion; but still a large number and connectivity is probably more important than absolute size [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].  Whereas we have a central nervous system, an octopus has a distributed system with neurons located in its arms which appears to give each arm a high-level of autonomy.  In addition to tactile sensory information from its suckers, each arm receives visual information from its skin which is sensitive to light.  The extent to which information and control is shared between the neurons in the brain and the network of neurons in its body is unknown.  It is difficult for us to imagine our fingers as being able to respond independently to visual as well as tactile stimuli, even more so to think of them as independent problem-solvers.  Peter Godfrey-Smith suggests that cephalopods are the closest that we are likely to come to meeting intelligent aliens – their thought processes and capabilities appear so different to ours that our scientific studies and experiments are unlikely to fully reveal their intelligence or level of consciousness.  A first step would be to stop eating them!

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, London: William Collins, 2018.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve

Many people are increasingly using their mobile phones as mental prostheses to extend the capacity of their brains [see ‘Science fiction becomes reality‘ on October 12th, 2016].  This does not just include tracking their appointments in a calender app or using a search engine to track down a piece of information that they have temporarily forgotten; but also recording their activities and preferences via social media apps.  Many of us are happy to share our thoughts with those close to us but we take it for granted that we are in complete control of what is shared and with whom.  So, unexpected or unauthorised sharing of our personal information via these mental prostheses can cause shock and embarrassment.  Now, spare a thought for the giant cuttlefish whose neurons are directly connected to about ten million chromatophores in its skin.  Each chromatophore is sack of pigment that can be shrunk or expanded to show its particular colour.  In giant cuttlefish the chromatophores are red, yellow and black/brown.  Beneath the chromatophores is a layer of iridophores, which manipulate the wavelengths of light using layers of plates to produce blues and greens and below these cells are leucophores that reflect light outwards through the iridophores and chromatophores.  In effect, the cuttlefish is wearing an Ultra-High Definition TV screen with about 10 million pixels directly connected to its brain.  Even when resting calmly, a cuttlefish’s skin can be pulsing with complex patterns of colour; perhaps this is similar to the way our minds can be teeming with activity even when we are sitting quietly apparently doing nothing.  Imagine what it would be like if all of those thoughts were displayed on a giant television screen.  It would give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘to wear your heart on your sleeve’.

Source:

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, London: William Collins, 2018.

Image: https://splimm.com/2017/01/10/cuttlefish-cabin-fever/