Friday, December 19, 2008

More on Journalists Suck; Thoughts About Consciousness

This, however, isn't the journalist's fault. Their sources are equally wrong. On consciousness, basically everyone sucks. But again, I like New Scientist. Despite the terrible reasoning, the actual data they display kicks ass all over the place.

"Specifically, what is it that makes the human mind so special? Like many people, I have always believed that the answer lies in our capacity for conscious thought."

"In fact, far from playing second fiddle to the conscious mind, subconscious thought processes may play a crucial role in many of the mental facilities we prize as uniquely human, including creativity, memory, learning and language."

None of these things - not one - are unique to humans. I formed each as a hypothesis, sequentially, and falsified them all. Cetaeceans use language. Apes can be taught symbols. Creativity can be found in elephants. Memory? Are you even serious? Consciousness, in every non-magic theory, cannot be confined to humans.

Mentioned somewhere else entirely, humour is also not unique.

(There is a small chance that specialized neurons which are only found in humans are required for the mind node. However, even house flies sport recognizable emotions, chiefly panic, making this doubtful. Similarly, fruit flies can pay attention.)

Humans do, however, clearly have a drastically higher degree of consciousness than any other organism on the planet. For consciousness to exist it must interact; it must do something. Whatever this is, humans are much better (also probably more versatile) in doing it.

(Or, I reject epiphenomenalism as magic.)

Our technological superiority (also not unique, see caledonian crows) is the same kind of thing as our cultural and linguistic superiority; a difference in degree, not in kind. Quantitative, not qualitative.
"Our subconscious is not an unthinking autopilot that needs to be subjugated by rationality, but a purposeful, active and independent guide to behaviour."
Which you can interrogate through your emotional problem-solving system.
"Some scientists go so far as to believe that it is responsible for the vast majority of our day-to-day activity and that we are nothing more than "zombies" guided by our subconscious."
Note the second part of the sentence contradicts the first. You aren't a zombie if anything less than all of your activity is non-conscious. Second, the fact that I experience anything is disproof that I'm a zombie, and so the second part is simply wrong. To say that humans are zombies, you must misuse the concept 'consciousness.' (Or be solipsist.)
"But as yet you cannot simply look at an image of the brain and say what kind of thought process is being used."
Since consciousness isn't physical this will be a long time in coming. Of course if it were, you would be able to simply measure the interactions of the property or particle of consciousness, but such a thing requires strong emergence to be not magic.

"What this suggests is that our brains constantly monitor our internal and external environment such that when the input becomes important enough, the subconscious decides to engage the conscious and we become aware of what is there. This is certainly what neurobiologist Michael Shadlen from the University of Washington in Seattle believes. "We suspect that the normal unconscious brain monitors the environment for cues that prompt it to decide whether to awaken and engage... The decision to engage at all is, in effect, an unconscious decision to be conscious.""

So if consciousness is illusory or doesn't do anything, why on earth would it spend all this time and effort deciding to be conscious or not?

Note that this parallels the situation with free will. At some point it would have to have been determined that the next event was subject to choice. (Again, I think both concepts are invalid.)

"Dayan says that our behaviour is often driven by more than one of the four controllers - the various types of explicit and implicit thought process may be actively integrated, and this is especially true when we are learning something new where the balance between ignorance and experience changes. Importantly, the subconscious isn't the dumb cousin of the conscious, but rather a cousin with different skills."

This integration is why it's called 'subconscious' not simply unconscious. The one shades into the other.

"Dijksterhuis is convinced that subconscious thought processes are superior in many situations - including most social interactions - because they allow us to integrate complex information in a more holistic way than can be managed by rational thought processes."

As I recently detailed in the piece on emotional logic, this is what I have found as well.

"Studies on rats and monkeys indicate that they too consign skills to subconscious control once they become expert. "Still, we may have a greater capacity for this," says Dayan, "since we have the huge advantage of being able to use language to boost our goal-directed control and so provide a much richer substrate for acquiring habitual skills.""

Dayan is not a philosopher, obviously. Like the dilettante historian previously, Dayan has no better idea than you do if or how humans are better at...consigning skills to the subconscious? It isn't even clear what, exactly, we're supposed to have a better capacity for.

Note again the contradiction with the earlier idea that consciousness is in some way unique to humans, seeing that apparently rats have a subconscious to which to consign skills. (This of course falls under the other-minds problem. Do rats have a subconscious, or just something analogous?)

Anyway, new article, same stupidity.
"It can store information for more than a century if you live that long"
Not likely. Recall that every time you remember a memory, it's opened for editing, in a sense creating it anew. A future version of hard drive may be able to hold a magnetic imprint readably for a century, in isolation. The brain doesn't need to; it can remember your remembering, rather than the original occurance itself.
"INTELLIGENCE is a slippery concept to define,"
Intelligence is the ability to adapt without evolution. For a biological entity, this means you can change with your environment without having to go through a genetic reshuffling. For a machine, it means being able to change with your environment without human intervention; it does not have to be rebuilt or reprogrammed.

This definition rules out machines that simply descriminate between various objects, such as 'smart' bombs, because they do not remain smart in novel situations; they are simply a complicated linkage of dumb components. Similarly robotic arms; even if they can physically make other products than the one they are currently making, they need to be reprogrammed to take advantage of that capability. However, by this definition, we have already achieved artificial intelligence with other machines.
"so not surprisingly it has been tricky to pin it down in the brain."

"It is sometimes possible to train working memory with practice, and doing so may benefit IQ, especially fluid intelligence - the ability to solve new problems. However, this may just be a short cut to better IQ test scores rather than an indication of brain structures that confer intelligence."

Impossible. It's just as dangerous as saying that some branch of math is useless. There is, somewhere, a situation that mimics the conditions of this working-memory test, and if you practise you will deal with it better. Of course whether the training is more expensive than the reward cannot be known in advance. This is what price signals are for.
"Some can remember entire books and some can rattle off a piano concerto after a single hearing. Yet others can draw perfect circles. What leads to such islands of intelligence?"
They are also analyzing Einsteins' brain and make some statistical errors combined with focusing on the more. They should also look at how his brain might be less as in less inhibited like these savants.

First, the statistical errors. Einsteins' brain is 15% more round than the average. But of course this is meaningless; perhaps brains of ~100 IQ normally vary by 15%. Or, perhaps not. All of the examples are like this; Einsteins brain is more integrated or more tightly packed, but aside from the merging of two particular folds, none of this is meaningful without statistical perspective. But Einstein might also have been less. He was less verbally skilled, anecdotally, which may point to some mild savantism.

The mystery of savantism is not mysterious at all, especially considering you can temporarily activate savantism in normal subjects with trans-cranial magnetic fields. (This is actually in the article as well, immediately below.) The subconscious brain is chock-full of powerful mathematical and statistical modules, not the least of which is the fact that stereoscopic vision requires trigonometric calculations. (Also, dogs can do differential calculus to find the shortest routes over combinations of land and water.) If some wires get crossed and it starts passing this detailed information to the consciousness, you get savantism. Also this explains why usually it isn't passed; savants are, aside from their abilities, impaired versus their pre-injury state. Similarly, the woman with perfect episodic memory is more tormented than served by her gift.

Perhaps if civilization persists, in suitable millenia we will find mutants that can turn their savantism on and off at will, so as to quickly calculate some dates before returning to a more generally functional state.
"A good memory requires effort and attention not special grey matter."
They are wrong. Certainly it helps, but the situation is the same as in savantism. If you cross the right wires you can get extraordinary abilities, and most people don't have it because it comes at extraordinary cost.

I've had a ridiculous memory all my life. In certain fields I do not have to take notes, and actually study and repetition degrades my performance, because I get bored and resentful. Unless someone taught me the proper efforts to make and attention to pay before I was old enough to remember them doing it, I have special grey matter.

Now there is a bit of technique to it, but I do it all instinctually as far as I can tell. That is, I can with conscious effort stop myself, but otherwise I just naturally memorize things swiftly, easily, and accurately, while simultaneously filtering out everything that's irrelevant.

The only problem is that this system considers all social information like birthdays and names to be irrelevant details...

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