Tag Archives: neurons

Is there a real ‘you’ or ‘I’?

I have written recently about time and consciousness [see ‘Time at the heart of our problems‘ on January 30th, 2019 and ‘Limits of imagination‘ on February 13th, 2019].  We perceive some things as almost constant or changeless, such as trees and landscapes; however, that is just a consequence of our perception of time.  Nothing that is in equilibrium, and hence unchanging, can be alive.  The laws of thermodynamics tell us that disequilibrium is fundamental in driving all processes including life.  Our perception of experience arises from registering changes in the flow of sensory information to our brains and as well as changes in the networks of neurons in our brains.  Hence, both time and complexity appear to be essential ingredients for consciousness. Even when we sit motionless watching an apparently unchanging scene, as a consequence of the endless motion of connections and signals in our brains, our minds are teeming with activity, churning through great jumbles of ideas, memories and thoughts.  Next time you are sitting quietly, try to find ‘you’; not the things that you do or experience but the elusive ‘I’.  We assume that the elusive ‘I’ is there, but most of us find nothing when we look for it.  Julian Baggini has suggested that the “I” is ‘a nothing, contentless centre around which experiences flutter like butterflies.’


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

Czerski H, Storm in a teacup:the physics of everyday life, London: Penguin Random House, 2016.

Godfrey-Smith P, Other minds: the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life, London: William Collins, 2018.

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

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.


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

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.

Blind to complexity

fruit fly nervous system Albert Cardona HHMI Janelia Research Campus Welcome Image Awards 2015When faced with complexity, we tend to seek order and simplicity.  Most of us respond negatively to the uncertainty associated with complex systems and their apparent unpredictability.  Complex systems can be characterised as large networks operating using simple rules but without central control which results in self-organising behaviour and non-trivial emergent behaviour.  Emergent behaviour is the behaviour of the system that is not apparent or expected from the behaviour of its constituent parts [see ‘Emergent properties‘ on September 16th, 2015].

The philosopher, William Wimsatt observed that we tend to ignore phenomena whose complexity exceeds our predictive capability and our detection apparatus.  This is problematic because we try to over-simplify our descriptions of complex systems.  Occam’s razor is often mis-interpreted to mean that simple explanations are better ones, whereas in reality ‘everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’, (which is often attributed to Einstein).  This implies that our explanation and any mathematical model of a complex system, such as the nervous system in the image, will need to be complex.  In mathematical terms, this will probably mean a non-linear dynamic model with a solution in the form of a phase portrait.  ‘Non-linear’ because the response of the system not proportional to the stimulus inducing the response; ‘dynamic’ because the system changes with time; and a ‘phase portrait’ because the system can exist in many states, some stable and some unstable, dependent on its prior history; so, for instance for a pendulum, its phase portrait is a plot of all of its possible positions and velocities.

If all this sounds too hard, then you see why people shy away from using complex models to describe a complex system even when it is obvious that the system is complex and extremely unlikely to be adequately described by a linear model, such as for the nervous system in the image.

In other words, if we can’t see it and its too hard to think about it, then we pretend it’s not happening!


The thumbnail shows an image of a fruit-fly’s nervous system taken by Albert Cardona from HHMI Janelia Research Campus.  The image won a Wellcome Image Award in 2015.

William C. Wimsatt, Randomness and perceived randomness in evolutionary biology, Synthese, 43(2):287-329, 1980.

For more on this topic see: ‘Is the world comprehensible?‘ on March 15th, 2017.