Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

26 MARCH, 2012

The Happiness of Pursuit: What Science and Philosophy Can Teach Us About the Holy Grail of Existence


“When fishing for happiness, catch and release.”

The secret of happiness is arguably humanity’s longest-standing fixation, and its mechanisms are among the most consuming obsessions of modern science. In The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life, Cornell University psychology professor Shimon Edelman takes an unconventional — and cautiously self-aware of its own unorthodoxy — lens to the holy grail of human existence, blending hard science with literature and philosophy to reverse-engineer the brain’s capacity for well-being. What emerges is a kind of conceptual toolbox that lets us peer into the computational underbelly of our minds and its central processes — memory, perception, motivation and emotion, critical thinking, social cognition, and language — to better understand not only how the mind works but also how we can optimize it for happiness.

As it turns out, a fundamental truth about happiness lies in the very language of the Declaration of Independence, which encouraged its pursuit:

The focus on the pursuit of happiness, endorsed by the Declaration of Independence, fits well with the idea of life as a journey — a bright thread that runs through the literary cannon of the collective human culture. With the world at your feet, the turns that you should take along the way depend on what you are at the outset and on what you become as the journey lengthens. Accordingly, the present book is an attempt to understand, in a deeper sense than merely metaphorical, what it means to be human and how humans are shaped by the journey thorough this world, which the poet John Keats called ‘the vale of soul-making’ — in particular, how it puts within the soul’s reach ‘a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence.’

Though much of the book is rooted in scientific inquiry and research, Edelman begins with a disclaimer against the classical conception of science, one that echoes this beautiful recent definition of science as “systematic wonder”:

According to one popular conception of science that goes all the way back to Francis Bacon’s invention of it in 1620, scientific endeavor is all about getting answers from nature. That said, given the quality of answers one gets depends conspicuously on the quality of the questions one asks, scientific inquiries lacking in intrepidity, imagination, and insight are likely to yield little more than scientifically validated tedium.

Edelman goes on to explore “three things everyone should know about life, the universe, and everything.” (Cue in Neil deGrasse Tyson on the most important thing to know about the universe.) The first has to do with the arrow of time and the idea that the universe is built around an asymmetry between the past and the future, governed by the basic laws of physics. The second hinges on the predicament of being alive and the awareness that “life is fragile and time is irreversible,” and that terrible things can happen in a flash, leaving us unable to undo them, but we can anticipate and try to prevent them through insights from our past experience. From these two follows the third fact: that the future is predictable from the past, but only up to a point.

The reason for this predictability is the sheer physical inertia of the universe. On an appropriately short time scale, things are guaranteed to stay as they are or to carry on changing in the same manner as they did before. There are also many kinds of long-term regularities, such as cycles of seasons. Animals can evolve to rely upon seasonal changes n the environment and to anticipate them from telltale cues (think of migratory birds that respond to the first frost.) Or, animals can evolve sophisticated brains that represent patterns of change in the environment and anticipate the future by treating it as a statistically projected extension of the past. Either way, it is the capacity for forethought that distinguishes, on the average, between the quick and the dead.

Forethought, in fact — the distillation of experience using statistical inference — plays a large part in how the brain computes mind, and computation is a central element of cognition. The best way to understand the building blocks of the mind, from perception to action, Edelman argues, is by considering them as a web of interlinked computations:

Computationally… the unfolding of behavior can be thought of as a ball rolling down a continually shifting landscape of possibilities, always seeking the deepest valleys. This computational understanding of the nature of perception, motivation, and action offers some intriguing insights into the meaning of, and the prospects for, the pursuit of happiness.

Of particular note is this discussion of the function and nature of memory, something we’ve previously explored:

Far from being a mere repository for odd pieces of information, your memory is charged with relating the episodes of your life to each other, seeking recurring patterns — crisscrossing paths that run through the space of possible perceptions, motivations, and actions.

Because of its likely evolutionary roots in way-finding, episodic memory relies heavily on taking note of locations in which events happen and of their spatial relationship, turning a representation of the layout of the physical environment into a foundation for the abstract space of patterns and possibilities that it constructs over the mind’s lifetime. As they fall into place the paths through the possibility space can support mental travel in space and time, which are both simulated to the best of the mind’s knowledge and ability. Episodic memory is thus the mind’s personal space0time machine — a perfect vehicle for scouting for and harvesting happiness.

Among our most potent weapons in the arsenal of happiness, however, is one of the defining characteristics of our species: language. Paralleling Mark Changizi’s insights on how language helped us evolve and Mark Pagel’s case for language as the origin of the human social mind, Edelman observes:

Language is unique among cognitive functions in the degree to which — in the best co-evolutionary tradition — it both helps and is helped by social interactoins. As social animals, we revel in group play, which is what language evolves to promote and we evolve to master. Happiness and misery being the two-pronged stimulus with which evolution prods its pack animals, is it any surprise that we can be moved to tears or to laughter by a few well aimed words?

(Cue in Terin Izil on the power of simple words.)

Edelman ties it all back to foresight:

Both in language and in cognition in general, mastery comes down to the same two abilities: first, understanding the world by seeking patterns in sensorimotor activity and learning to relate them to a wider context, including your own and other people’s experiences and mind processes; and second, using understanding to support foresight. The big picture is in fact even simpler than that: understanding and foresight are really two sides of the same coin, because they both hinge on knowledge of the causal structure o the world.

One particularly fascinating discussion deals with the concept of concepts — a corollary of our tendency to think in terms of generalized patterns of information, from which we distill causal knowledge about the world to employ in our understanding, prediction, and forethought. This capacity for pattern-recognition, Edelman argues, is what gives rise to the Self, presenting a fine addition to this ongoing exploration of what is a person and what constitutes character, or personality:

A persistent cluster of such conceptual knowledge accrued by a mind becomes the effective Self…

Learning the code that one must live by is hard work for which we, as creatures that are subject to evolutionary pressure, are rewarded with transient effort- and success-related happiness — not because we are entitled to it, but because creates that are thus rewarded learn better and are less likely to go extinct. To be happy, or for that matter to have any kind of feeling toward a percept, a thought, or an acton, a cognitive system must have a capacity for phenomenal experience — a capacity that is predicated on certain structural qualities of the representation-space trajectories that the system’s state can follow. Insofar as feelings are included in the evolutionary causal loop, creatures like us, which take life personally by virtue of constructing and using phenomenal Selves that feel, have a competitive edge over zombies that by definition do not (which explains why the latter are such a rarity in real life.)

This gathering of experiential patterns, in fact, appears to be a central component of happiness:

Cognitively transparent (hence peaceful), gradual self-change of the kind that promotes well-being and, indeed, happiness is helped along by the accumulation of experience. That life experience is good for your practical wisdom has been noted by philosophers; more importantly, this notion turns out to be very much along the lines of what science has learned about the role of experience in cognition.

That blend of philosophy and science is indeed the defining, winning characteristic of The Happiness of Pursuit, the underlying message of which may seem simple — roughly captured by the tired yet infinitely true adage, “Stop and smell the roses,” and premised on the idea that experience itself, or “pursuit,” is the true fountain of happiness — but it cuts to the heart of what we intuit to be true, and does so with a razor-sharp blade of science and critical thought.

Edelman sums up the practical advice that emerges in seven words:

When fishing for happiness, catch and release.

Public domain images courtesy of Flickr Commons

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22 MARCH, 2012

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


“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


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.


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


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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