Saturday, November 15, 2014
We Make Brains
Art + the Brain: Stories and Structures
California Nanosystems Institute, UCLA
November 14, 2014
- I'm a physician specializing in the treatment of pain. I do brain surgery, but would like to avoid it if there's a better alternative. Your MRI research shows different brain states for someone lying and someone telling the truth. Some of my patients are able to tell themselves there is no pain, and they stop feeling pain. Sometimes a suggestion from a hypnotist does the same. Do you think your research will enable us to identify the mechanism involved here and set it in motion?
- Pain is real.
- Yes. But for some, lying about it makes it go away.
- I'd be happy to discuss this with you afterwards off the record.
- Nice to meet you.
- Likewise. While waiting to go off the record with the professor can I ask, suggest something?
- I agree of course that pain is real. If I kick my rabbi, he's feels it, even if I assure him he doesn't.
- I'd like to kick a few rabbis myself. I was thinking that in hypnosis, whether you do it to yourself or another does it to you, two things are happening. First, we make a break, decide not to act. We decide to reflect. We will let someone else tell us what to do, or do the telling ourselves as if it really is someone else telling us. Up until now the self we are wants to respond to the pain we feel. But this other, suggesting self, takes upon itself the decision to do nothing. Pain is associated with unthinking response. When we rule out response - in meditation, or maybe confusing response by the simultaneous multiple minor pains of acupuncture needles, or an outside hypnotist - we rearrange the organization of our experience, reevaluate importance of information so it does not lead to the report of pain which is inapplicable if there is to be no response. That re-organization can be near immediate. If this is possible, there is no actual lying going on.
- What do you do?
- I write stories.
- That's why you're so smart. I've got to go to eat. See you later maybe.
- Are you with the Doctor?
- Yes. I have to go.
- What did you find interesting?
- The reality of pain like everything else is a matter of perspective.
- Is it a matter of perspective if the Defense Department, currently funding brain research to determine the best techniques of persuasion, uses the results to lie more persuasively to us?
- If the government tightens up society that is a natural thing. We are social beings.
- Are you serious? You don't mind having your life completely controlled?
- We already are all controlled. We just don't think of it. We act by instinct.
- We are both social creatures and act by instinct. If we are persuaded by our government to kill the Jews and everyone else we don't like, and set our instincts free doing it, that's fine, you're good with it?
- I didn't say that.
- What did you say?
- We just think we are free.
- We have no consciousness.
- Consciousness is an illusion.
- The professor talked about the difference between using charts to gather information, showing simply the effect of one or a few measured features on a few other features, and taking so called "global" pictures with MRI scans. He didn't go into this, but for example in researching new drugs it is common to begin with a gene responsible for a disease, identify the protein it directs the production of, and then attempt to counteract the effect of that protein. It is not necessary to understand how the disease actually develops, and use that knowledge to stop the process. We need only to take before and after pictures and look for change. Now, this is the problem. The brain is organized as a network. Each node has its own history and disposition, and responds to the other nodes. We can see globally all the nodes and their interactions together in a picture, but we miss the story of one node's disposition, the story of how its past history affects its present response to the other nodes.* What looks like a lie from the global perspective can from the local perspective look like a reasonable reorganization.
- You heard the other UCLA professor's talk about his project, rather than simulating brain network activity in a computer program, building a model of brain network directly?
- No. I must have missed it.
- Working directly with molecules, after "culturing" them to fall into network arrangement, he figured out how to create a chemical switch at the nodes, which turned on after a number of visits from electrical current. That gave the nodes a memory of past actions on it from other nodes, and similarity to how our brains work. When connected to a current videos show concentration of activities in one region after another, similar to what is seen in human brains, as an open passage facilitates more passage. What if when we tell ourselves we aren't going to act, we turn off the current as it were, then turn it on again, letting a spontaneous reorganization occur something like what we can see happening in the molecular network? From the history of the individual that reorganization would not be a lie at all.
- We can't turn ourselves on and off.
- Not if we aren't conscious. But if we are conscious, turning ourselves off is simply to stop and think. Stop acting, start reflecting.
- Reflection is acting too.
- It is the action of ourselves thinking of ourselves.
- Caused by outside influences.
- Such as hypnosis?
- And if we hypnotize ourselves, as many can do?
- We are caused to do that.
- What if that is just how it looks like when you take pictures, scoop up the data, and don't follow the history of each path? I asked the brain engineer afterwards what he thought the social implications were of his work. He said it has been suggested there was some connection to Buddhism. What? I asked. The individual losing his identity in the group, he said. No, I said, god in the group? In the network? That didn't work. That was all body. All causality. No spirit. God was not in the network, but in the guy who made it. He was the god of his network.
- What did he say?
- He smiled. Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan project that developed our nuclear bomb, famously said, quoting Indian Scriptures, We Have Become Gods, or words to that effect.** The pain sufferer who "lies" to himself that he feels no pain is being god to his network, turning it on and off, allowing it to reorganize itself more appropriately. That god-like action, seen in before and after maps of brain activity, is only a lie, and perhaps the success of the lie. Studying however how the network works from the perspective of the individual tells a different story.
- But we are not gods to ourselves turning ourselves on and off.
- We are turning our attention from outside to inside. In fact we do that for reasons coming from outside, but once we turn away in what the spiritual call conversion our own history determines our choices.
- I've got to go.
- If you've got to go you've got to go. God be with you.
- You're not funny.
- Say hello to the doctor for me.
Bird Song & Machine Talk
* More people living in democracies say they are happy than those that don't. Does that mean democracy creates happiness? Impose democracy on unhappy people and it doesn't last long. Then does happiness lead to democracy? Obviously not, since many of the countries with more people who say they are happy don't live under democracy. Historical, intellectual, cultural factors apply. But in general, happiness is related to democracy, and it may be true, in general, both that happy people will eventually get democracy, and that eventually more people living under democracies will be happy. The "global" relation of happiness and democracy is a matter of probability, which is good enough for certain kinds of decision making. It is good enough, for example, for machine translation of one language to another. It is not good enough for machine production of language, except when that is only the translation of the language of the machine into human language. It is not good enough to know what makes people happy. Happiness, which the productive (creative) use of language relies on, is a confidence that means are at hand to achieve the ends of the moment. No general picture of the state of the world will be able to answer the question whether those means are supplied the individual. Democracy isn't going to make people happy if they don't know how to use it. Happy people are not going to make democracy last if the economic underpinnings of the peoples' happiness are removed.
** "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another." - J. Robert Oppenheimer