Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

22 MARCH, 2012

Connectome: A New Way To Think About What Makes You You

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“You are more than your genes. You are your connectome.”

The nature vs. nurture debate pitted the hard and social sciences against each other for decades, if not centuries, stirred by a central concern with consciousness, what it means to be human, what makes a person, and, perhaps most interestingly to us egocentric beings, what constitutes character and personality. In Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, MIT Professor of Computational Neuroscience Sebastian Seung proposes a new model for understanding the totality of selfhood, one based the emerging science of connectomics — a kind of neuroscience of the future that seeks to map and understand the brain much like genomics has mapped the genome.

A “connectome” denotes the sum total of connections between the neurons in a nervous system and, like “genome,” implies completeness. It’s a complex fingerprint of identity, revealing the differences between brains and, inversely, the specificity of our own uniqueness. Seung proposes a simple theory: We are different because our connectomes differ from one another. With that lens, he argues, any kind of personality change — from educating yourself to developing better habits — is a matter of rewiring your connectome.

That capacity is precisely what makes the connectome intriguing and infinitely promising — unlike the genome, which is fixed from the moment of conception, the connetome changes throughout life. Seung explains:

Neuroscientists have already identified the basic kinds of change. Neurons adjust, or “reweight,” their connections by strengthening or weakening them. Neurons reconnect by creating and eliminating synapses, and they rewire by growing and retracting branches. Finally, entirely new neurons are created and existing ones eliminated through regeneration.

We don’t know exactly how life events — your parents’ divorce, your fabulous year abroad — change your connectome. But there is good evidence that all four R’s — reweighting, reconnection, rewiring, and regeneration — are affected by your experiences. At the same time, the four R’s are also guided by genes. Minds are indeed influenced by genes, especially when the brain is ‘wiring’ itself up during infancy and childhood.*

[…]

The connectome theory of mental differences is compatible with the genetic theory, but it is far richer and more complex because it includes the effects of living in the world. The connectome theory is also less deterministic. There is reason to believe that we shape our own connectomes by the actions we take, even by the things we think. Brain wiring may make us who we are, but we play an important role in wiring up our brains.”

Harnessing the power of those four R’s, Seung believes, is the most important goal of neuroscience — but, given your connectome is 100 billion times larger than your genome and has a million times more connections than your genome has letters, it’s a daunting task. Still, new technologies and new directions of scientific curiosity are bringing us closer to understanding this microcosm of meticulously structured chaos.

Map of the C. elegans nervous system, or 'connectome,' borrowing from the language of genomics

DNA is a long chain-like molecule composed of nucleotides connoted by the letters A, C, G, and T, and your genome is the entire sequence of nucleotides in your DNA. Similarly, your connectome is the totality of connections between the neurons in your nervous system.

At the heart of Seung’s vision is a new way of thinking about human personality, a fascinating and controversial subject we’ve previously explored. He proposes an apt metaphor, underpinning which is a desire not only to find and understand our connectomes, but also to develop methods for changing and optimizing them:

In the nineteenth century, the American psychologist William James wrote eloquently of the stream of consciousness, the continuous flow of thoughts through the mind. But James failed to note that every stream has a bed. Without this groove in the earth, the water would not know in which direction of the flow. Since the connectome defines the pathways along which neural activity can flow, we might regard it as the streambed of consciousness.

The metaphor is a powerful one. Over a long period of time, in the same way that the water of the stream slowly shapes the bed, neural activity changes the connectome. The two notions of the self — as both the fast-moving, ever-changing stream, and the more stable but slowly transforming streambed** — are thus inextricably linked. This book is about the self as the streambed, the self in the connectome — the self that has been neglected for too long.”

In elaborating on this dichotomy of the self, Seung echoes Daniel Kahneman’s notion of the experiencing self vs. the remembering self:

One self changes rapidly from moment to moment, becoming angry and then cheering up, thinking about the meaning of life and then the household chores, watching the leaves fall outside and then the football game on television. This self is the one intertwined with consciousness. Its protean nature derives from the rapidly changing patterns of neural activity in the brain.

The other self is much more stable. It retains memories from childhood over an entire lifetime. Its nature — what we think of as personality — is largely constant, a fact that comforts family and friends. The properties of this self are expressed while you are conscious, but they continue to exist during unconscious states like sleep. This self, like the connectome, changes only slowly over time. This is the self invoked by the idea that you are your connectome.”

Sample Seung’s insights with his 2010 TEDGlobal talk:

Scientific American has an excellent Q&A with Seung about Connectome.

* For more on this fascinating early wiring, especially as it applies to our emotional lives, see the excellent A General Theory of Love.

** For a different metaphor articulating an analogous concept, see Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, where he describes the self as the interplay between the conscious “rider” and the unconscious “elephant” he struggles to command.

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21 MARCH, 2012

27 of History’s Strangest Inventions

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If you can’t deliver the newspaper on your amphibious bicycle, you can always fax it.

“If at first an idea is not absurd,” Albert Einstein famously said, “then there is no hope for it.” Sometimes, however, absurd is just absurd — yet, even so, it’s a fascinating slice of history’s collective direction of curiosity and experimental innovation. After those vintage versions of modern social media and yesteryear’s visions for the future of technology, here come some of history’s most weird and wonderful inventions, from wooden swimwear to spectacles for reading in bed, captured in archival public domain images by Holland’s Nationaal Archief.

One-wheel motorcycle

Germany, 1925

Manual dredger

Workers operated the so-called bucket dredger with their arms and legs using stepper boards. The machine is a small model, but whether it was actually realized is unknown.

Bike tyre used as a swimming aid

Invented by Italian M. Goventosa de Udine; maximum speed: 150 kilometers per hour (93 mph).

Steam automobile design circa 1845

Amphibious bicycle

This land-and-water bike can carry a load of 120 pounds; Paris, 1932

All-terrain car

This all-terrain car can descend slopes up to 65 degrees; England, 1936.

Radio stroller

Stroller equipped with a radio, including antenna and loudspeaker, to keep the baby quiet; USA, 1921.

Wooden bathing suits

Wooden bathing suits, supposed to make swimming a lot easier; Hoquiam, Washington, USA, 1929

Ice sailboat

In the 17th century, it was so cold that meteorologists spoke of a Little Ice Age. The ice sailboat addressed the challenge of transporting goods over frozen lakes and rivers. Designed by A. Terrier, January 17, 1600

Radio hat

Portable radio in a straw hat, made by an American inventor in 1931

Wetlands windmill

A windmill for draining wetlands, lightweight enough to function in marshy areas. It was designed by C.D. Muys in 1589 but was never built.

Bulletproof glass

Demonstration by NYPD's finest shooter, 1931

Clap skate

In 1936, inventor R. Handl came up with the movable heel plate, but it wasn't until 1996 that this concept revolutionized skating.

Extensible caravan

Built by an unknown French engineer in 1934.

Piano for the bedridden

Piano especially designed for people confined to bedrest; Great Britain, 1935

Hamblin glasses for reading in bed

A pair of spectacles especially designed for reading in bed; England, 1936

Electrically heated jacket

Electrically heated vest, developed for the traffic police in the United States, 1932. The power is supplied by electric contacts in the street.

Loetafoon

A turntable linked to a film projector. It comes with single, dual and triple turntable. Designed by F.B.A. Prinsen, 1929

Car with shovel for pedestrians

Invented for the purpose of 'reducing the number of casualties among pedestrians;' Paris, 1924

Hearing light for the blind

1912

Early GPS

Yesteryear's TomTom, a rolling key map that passes through the screen in a tempo determined by the speed of the car; 1932

Folding bridge for emergencies

The emergency bridge can easily be transported on a handcart; invented by L. Deth. The Netherlands, 1926

Booted rubber boat

Drawing of a 'pneumatic sports- fish and hunt boat,' an inflatable boat for one person with boots attached; The Netherlands, 1915

Faxed newspaper

In 1938, the world's first wireless newspaper was sent from WOR radio station in New York City. In this photo, children are reading the children’s page of a Missouri paper.

Snowstorm mask

Plastic face protection from snowstorms. Canada, Montreal, 1939

Gas-resistant stroller

A wartime stroller equipped with gas protection; England, Hextable, 1938

Revolver camera

A Colt 38 carrying a small camera that automatically takes a picture when you pull the trigger. At the left: six pictures taken by the camera. New York, 1938.

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20 MARCH, 2012

How Creativity Works

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Inside the ‘seething cauldron of ideas,’ or what Bob Dylan has to do with the value of the synthesizer mind.

In his 1878 book, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche observed:

Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”

Some 131 years later, Elizabeth Gilbert echoed that observation in her now-legendary TED talk.

The origin, pursuit, and secret of creativity are a central fixation of the Idea Age. But what, exactly, does “creativity” — that infinitely nebulous term — really mean, and how does it work? This inquiry is at the heart of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer — who, in my opinion, has done more for the popular understanding of psychology and neuroscience than any other writer working today, and who has previously examined such fascinating subjects as how we decide and why we need a “fourth culture” of knowledge.

Lehrer writes in the introduction, echoing Nietzsche’s lament:

The sheer secrecy of creativity — the difficulty in understanding how it happens, even when it happens to us — means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, until the Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means ‘breathed upon.’) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”

He notes how the mysteriousness and hazy nature of creativity have historically confounded scientists, and how its study has become a meta-metaphor for creativity itself:

How does one measure the imagination? The daunting nature of the subject led researchers to mostly neglect it; a recent survey of psychology papers published between 1950 and 2000 revealed that less than 1 percent of them investigated aspects of the creative process. Even the evolution of this human talent was confounding. Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity—the human imagination has no clear precursors. There is no ingenuity module that got enlarged in the human cortex, or even a proto-creative impulse evident in other primates. Monkeys don’t paint; chimps don’t write poems; and it’s the rare animal (like the New Caledonian crow) that exhibits rudimentary signs of problem solving. The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere.”

Reflecting David Eagleman’s insistence upon understanding the unconscious operations of the brain as a key to understanding ourselves, Lehrer counters the idea that imagination can’t be rigorously studied:

Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special. That’s why this book begins by returning us to the material source of the imagination: the three pounds of flesh inside the skull. William James described the creative process as a ‘seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.’ For the first time, we can see the cauldron itself, that massive network of electrical cells that allow individuals to form new connections between old ideas. We can take snapshots of thoughts in brain scanners and measure the excitement of neurons as they get closer to a solution. The imagination can seem like a magic trick of matter — new ideas emerging from thin air—but we are beginning to understand how the trick works.”

Lehrer nods to the combinatorial nature of creativity:

Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly. It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.”

At the heart of Imagine is an important redefinition of “creativity”:

[T]he standard definition of creativity is completely wrong. Ever since the ancient Greeks, people have assumed that the imagination is separate from other kinds of cognition. But the latest science suggests that this assumption is false. Instead, creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes. (The brain is the ultimate category buster.)

[…]

For most of human history, people have believed that the imagination is inherently inscrutable, an impenetrable biological gift. As a result, we cling to a series of false myths about what creativity is and where it comes from. These myths don’t just mislead — they also interfere with the imagination.”

The opening of the book’s wonderful trailer winks at Steve Jobs’s famous quote that “creativity is just connecting things”:

Lehrer goes on to explore the workings of creativity through subjects as diverse as Bob Dylan’s writing methods, the birth of Swiffer, an autistic surfer who invented a new surfing move, the drug habits of poets, Pixar’s secret sauce, the emergence of collaborative culture, and a wealth more.

But what makes Imagine outstanding is that the book itself is an epitome of an increasingly important form of creativity — the ability to pull together perspectives, insights, and bits of information into a mashup narrative framework that illuminates a subject in an entirely new way.

This practice, of course, is centuries old, dating at least as far back as medieval florilegia. But Lehrer’s gift — or, rather, grit-honed skill — for connecting dots across disciplines and directions of thought, and gleaning from these connections original insight, is a true testament to the role of the author as a curator of empirical evidence, theory, and opinion. In the excellent Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner called this the “synthesizing mind” — and Lehrer’s is positively a paragon:

The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons. Valuable in the past, the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates.”

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