Archive for January 17th, 2011

What scientific concept would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit?

| January 17, 2011 | Reply
What scientific concept would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit?

This question from The Edge and the dozens of thoughtful answers make for some good reading. Basically, each author picks a single idea they feel is necessary for everyone to “get” in order to understand the world we live in; to have a successful technological civilization.

I found this via Pharyngula, who suggested that the Mediocrity Principle may be The One. That is, the basic understanding that we are not the special reason for the existence of the universe. His argument is that basic math skills would help. We’re talking about skills that even average college students seem to lack, but are nominally taught to most people who graduate secondary schools.

Adjacent to PZ, Sue Blackmore argues for the primacy of understanding that CINAC (Correlation Is Not A Cause). Apparently this lesson is hard to drum into even college students who are nominally studying science.

Most of the answers are direct explanations of ideas necessary to scientific understanding. But a few are more of the “what would be nice to discover” variety. But go see for yourself. There are many insightful replies to this question by 160 authors.

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Emergent consciousness

| January 17, 2011 | Reply
Emergent consciousness

In the December, 2010 edition of Discover Magazine, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio sets forth his understanding of human consciousness. Damasio has recently published a new book on this topic, Self Comes to Mind. Here’s a short excerpt from page 66 of his deeply thought-provoking article at Discover (not available yet online):

Conscious minds result from the smoothly articulated operation of several, often many, brain sites. The ultimate consciousness product occurs from those numerous brain sites at the same time and not in one site in particular, much as the performance of a symphonic piece does not come from the work of a single musician or even a whole section of an orchestra. The oddest thing about the upper reaches of a consciousness performance is the conspicuous absence of a conductor before the performance begins, although as the performance unfolds, a conductor comes into being. For all intents and purposes, a conductor is now leading the orchestra, although the performance has created the conductor–the self–not the other way around. Building a mind capable of encompassing one’s lived past and anticipated future, along with the lives of others added to the fabric and the capacity for reflection to boot, resembles the execution of a symphony of Mahlerian proportions. But the true marvel is that the score and the conductor become reality only as life unfolds. The grand symphonic piece that is consciousness encompasses the foundational contributions of the brainstem, forever hitched to the body, and the wider-than-the-sky imagery created in the cooperation of cerebral cortex and sub cortical structures, all harmoniously stitched together, is ceaseless forward motion, interruptible only by sleep, anesthesia, brain dysfunction, or death.

Damasio, well known for his groundbreaking work in his early book, Descartes’s Error, takes special care to describe the complexity of the mind, the marvel of this emergence of consciousness, and he specifically points out the importance of the emotions for a thorough understanding of consciousness:

Emotions are complex, largely automated programs of actions concocted by evolution. The actions are carried out in our bodies, from facial expressions and postures to changes in viscera and internal millieu. Feelings of emotion, on the other hand, are composite perceptions of what happens in our body and mind when we are emoting. As far as the body is concerned, feelings are images of actions rather than actions themselves. While emotions are actions accompanied by ideas and certain modes of thinking, emotional feelings are mostly perceptions of what our bodies do during the emoting, along with perceptions of our state of mind during that same period of time.

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Detailed construction of mouse somatosensory cortex

| January 17, 2011 | Reply
Detailed construction of mouse somatosensory cortex

Brains are so incredibly complex that scientists struggle to express the complexity in words. But this visual reconstruction of the synapses in a mouse somatosensory cortex (sensitive to the stimulation of a whisker) is worth at least a thousand words. Enjoy the journey downward, thanks to the work of the Stanford Medical School.

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