Saturday, April 17, 2021

His Poor Strategy for Examining the Mind-Body Problem

John Horgan (long-time columnist for Scientific American) has a new book on the mind-body problem. You can conveniently read it for free at  Horgan has produced many words, but offers very little original insight on questions of mind and body. 

I can think of some general approaches that might be fruitful in gaining some insight on the problem of mind and body.  A good approach would be as follows:

First, make a very thorough study of long-made claims about the brain, to try to determine how solid such claims are.  This would involve trying to figure out whether there is really any robust evidence for the claims that are so often made about brains, such as the claim that brains store memories, and claims that brains produce ideas and understanding.  Such a study would be extremely involved, and would need to involve an in-depth examination of whether the typical research practices of modern neuroscientists are sound, or whether they are faulty. 

Second, make a very thorough study of whether the brain actually has the type of physical characteristics that it would need to have if the claims typically made about brains are correct. Such a study would need to ask questions such as this:

  • Does the brain actually have any mechanism for writing learned information?
  • Does the brain actually have any mechanism for reading learned information?
  • Does the brain actually have any characteristics allowing an instant retrieval of learned information?
  • Does the brain have the type of stablity needed to store information for many decades, or does it have the kind of high molecular turnover that would prevent such a thing?
  • Does the brain actually have the kind of speed it would need to be the cause of instant human recall and fast thinking?
  • Has anyone ever found any sign of stored learned information in brains?
  • Does anyone actually understand any system by which a brain could translate learned information or episodic memories into brain states?

Third, make a very thorough study of whether the brain actually appears like some organ that is storing memories or producing thoughts. Such a study would need to ask questions such as this:

  • Do brains really look different or act different when people are engaging in actions such as thinking or recalling memories, or are the differences in its appearances at such time merely the kind of differences we would expect to see by chance variations?
  • How much of their memories do people lose when you remove half their brain?
  • Can people with only half a brain (or much less) still think well and understand well?
  • Are some people able to think and remember well with much smaller than half a brain?
Fourth, make a very thorough study of claims of paranormal phenomena, which would involve studying very many long volumes discussing people who have reported such experiences.   Such a study would need to ask questions such as this:
  • Is there real evidence for ESP and clairvoyance, human mental abilities that cannot be explained by brain activity?
  • Is there real evidence that human consciousness can exist outside of the brain (something which, if true, would in itself disprove claims that minds are made by brains)?
  • Is there evidence for apparition sightings that cannot be credibly explained as hallucinations?
  • Is there evidence from things such as near-death experiences and mediumistic phenomena that a soul can survive death?
After doing all of this work, you may gain some insight about whether conventional claims about the mind and body (claims that the mind is purely the product of the brain) are credible, or whether they are merely speech customs that are contrary to the evidence.  But it seems that John Horgan's new book fails to do any of this work. 

Horgan show no real signs of having made any serious and thorough study of cognitive neuroscience and whether its claims are warranted. Horgan has apparently made no serious study of evidence for paranormal phenomena.  Horgan's approach is to merely have a set of main chapters, each of which deals with what one particular living person thinks on questions of mind and body, each a person who Horgan has chatted with. So Chapter One is devoted to describing what Cristof Koch thinks about mind-body questions; Chapter Two is devoted to describing what Douglas Hofstadter thinks about mind-body questions; Chapter Three is devoted to describing what Alison Gopnik thinks about mind-body questions; and so forth.  Strangely, Chapter Five is devoted to describing what a Freudian lawyer thinks about mind-body questions; Chapter Seven is devoted to describing what a novelist thinks about mind-body questions; and Chapter Nine is devoted to describing what an economist thinks about mind-body problems.  This is not at all an algorithm with much of a chance of shedding any interesting new light on questions about mind and body.  Consequently Horgan's book is not worth reading. We get lots of "personality sketch" and "biographical background" material, but little evidence that Horgan has asked the questions he should have asked when writing on the topic of the body and mind.  The quotes we get from the stars of Horgan's book rather seem to be all little sound bites rather than long illuminating paragraph quotes. It seems Horgan hasn't given the people he interviewed the type of tough questioning he should have given them, and he says, "When I’m interviewing someone, I have an extra incentive to be nice," and "I want subjects to like me," which may suggest he has been tossing softball questions to the people he has interviewed. 

In Chapter Four, Horgan pretty much suggests that he has done nothing to seriously study evidence for the paranormal (so very relevant to questions of mind and body), and that his failure to do so is based on fear of such scholarship being a bad career move for him:

"After I became a professional science journalist, my interest in the paranormal, or psi, faded as I delved into more scientifically acceptable mysteries. I decided that ghosts, telepathy and telekinesis are woo. My skepticism is not strictly rational—that is, based entirely on objective, empirical analysis. Like, say, sexual faithfulness, skepticism has become a fundamental part of my identity, personal and professional. A choice. I’m proud of my skepticism, but a little ambivalent, too, because it is based in part on cowardice (again, like sexual faithfulness). I fear if I become too open-minded toward the paranormal, I might harm my image as a science writer, such as it is, and my self-image.  I might forget who I really am."

We have every reason to believe after such a frank confession that Horgan has deliberately avoided studying the paranormal, not because of any sound intellectual reason, but because he fears that learning about such a topic might lead him to be disapproved by his peers. What he describes as his "skepticism" may better be described as an obstinate refusal to examine evidence that might shake prior opinions. Apparently such cowered-by-the-herd behavior is very common. Horgan quotes biologist Rupert Sheldrake as saying "that scientists constantly confess, privately, that they keep their belief in the paranormal secret for fear of damaging their reputations." It is unwise to suggest that by studying evidence for the paranormal, someone will "forget who he really is," and such an investigation may instead help you discover something about who you really are (something much more than the mere ephemeral apelike neural epiphenomenon depicted by many who haven't studied the paranormal).

Horgan fails to discuss in much of any substantive way any of the main problems that plague contemporary neuroscience, and says very little about the details of the brain. He incorrectly defines the mind-body question as "how matter generates mind" rather than some more appropriate definition such as "the problem of what is the relation between mind and body." He ends up with a kind of shoulder-shrugging chapter that seems to say or insinuate that we can't get much of anywhere understanding much of anything about mind-body questions. This is not at all correct. By very carefully and thoroughly studying a large set of things that Horgan has not paid attention to (such as anomalous medical cases, out-of-body experiences, the slowness, high noise levels, high protein turnover and many very serious physical limitations and functional shortfalls of all brains, the explanatory failures and defective procedures of neuroscientists, and the abundant evidence of paranormal mental phenomena that cannot be explained as brain activity), we can gain very solid reasons for reaching the extremely important mind-body realization that our minds must have some source other than our physical bodies.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Brain Bluffs at One Web Site

The web site "The Conversation" is a site that has a byline of "Academic rigor, journalistic flare." But looking through the site's articles on the topic of the brain, I found quite a few articles that were lacking in academic rigor. 

One recent article was entitled "Your brain thinks -- but how?" The article provided zero evidence that brains are capable of any such thing as thinking. The author was given a question of "How does a brain understand things?" The author failed to give the only candid answer someone could give to such a question, which is something "No one understands how a brain could ever understand anything."  

Instead, we have an answer that is purely psychological, without referencing any specific thing in the brain. There is no mention of neurons or synapses or connections.  There is a reference to the psychology term "schemas," which is not a neuroscience term, but merely a term meaning something like a model or a concept of how something works.  You don't explain understanding by using a word that presumes understanding.  All in all, the article is compatible with the assumption that the modern biologist has no idea at all how a brain could produce thinking or understanding. 

Another article on the site is entitled "How brains do what they do is more complex than what anatomy on its own suggests."  The article is a strange inconsistent mixture of the usual brain-related dogmatic posturing along with some epistemic humility that is utterly inconsistent with such dogmatism. The author claims the brain's jobs include learning and reasoning, and he also states this groundless claim: "the frontal cortex of the brain makes optimal choices by computing many quantities, or variables – calculating the potential payoff, the probability of success and the cost in terms of time and effort."  But the author also states this:

"How the brain works remains a puzzle with only a few pieces in one seems much closer to figuring out how we really see. Neuroscience has only a rudimentary understanding of how it all fits together."

So with his left hand the writer is writing as if things are nicely figured out, and with his right hand he is writing as if nothing much is understood, not even how people see things. 

Another article on the site has the very silly title "Brains manage neurons like air traffic controllers manage airplane movements." Besides the fact that there is no evidence that brains manage anything (merely evidence that minds manage things), there is the fact that neurons do not move around in the brain, in contrast to airplanes that do move very quickly.  In this article we have this misleading statement: "It is important to note that neuron activity — a series of Morse code-like impulses — is not random." Neurons do indeed fire at random intervals, and if you do a Google search using the exact search phrase of "neurons fire randomly" enclosed in quotes, you will find many matches for that phrase. Also, no one has ever discovered anything like a Morse code used by neurons.  The Morse code is a code in which particular combinations of dots and dashes stand for particular letters in the alphabet. No one has ever discovered any code in the brain, under which particular combinations of neuron firing and non-firing stand for particular letters, or stand for anything else. 

Another article has the very untrue title "How memories are formed and retrieved by the brain revealed in a new study." The article is boasting about some study done by its authors. The study didn't reveal anything about how memories are formed or retrieved; it merely analyzed brain waves during memory formation and retrieval, looking for some correlations between activity in different brain regions. The study has the same old Questionable Research Practices predominant in cognitive neuroscience studies done these days. These include:

  • The study was not a pre-registered study describing a particular hypothesis to test and a protocol to follow, meaning that the authors were free to keep analyzing data in innumerable different ways, slicing and dicing the data until some correlation was found. 
  • The study does not mention any blinding protocol, an absolute essential for a study of this type to be taken seriously.
  • The study used study group sizes as small as 5 and 7, which are much smaller than the 15 subjects per study group needed for a modestly persuasive result. 
  • The study makes no mention of using control readings, in which subjects had their brain signals read when not engaging in any memory activity. 
Studies like this should persuade no one. You can get a thousand-and-one false alarm effects using tiny study group sizes such as 5 and 7, effects that would be very unlikely to show up using decent study group sizes such as 20 or 40.  

Each region of the brain is constantly active, from an electrical standpoint, with the average neuron firing between about one to several or many times per second, regardless of whether you are doing anything related to memory. So any neuroscientist can measure brain activity during memory action, and state that two brain regions are "working together" on the grounds that both are active during memory action.  You would get the same amount of activity (the same "working together") if no memory activity was involved.  If the experiments of this paper had been properly designed, with the use of controls in which brain signals were read when no memory activity was going on, the experimenters would probably have seen no greater activity (or correlation between brain areas) during memory activity than during mind activity when there was no memory action. 

The study in question is based on dubious claims of "coupling" and "synchronization" between wave oscillations in different brain areas. The approach of this paper is similar to the type of silliness that would be going on if you simultaneoulsy tracked in real time the heart beats of ten women in the same room as you, and then claimed that there was some great significance in one of the heart pulses being "coupled" or "synchronized" with yours (ignoring the fact that you would expect one such case of "synchronization" purely by chance).  

Then there is an article entitled "How the brain makes choices: the sinuous path from decision to action." The article gives us no explanation as to how a brain could do any such thing as make a decision or a choice.  The article says, "how we deliberate and commit is a complex process that we only partially understand," but has no discussion of such alleged partial understanding. The very title of the article tells us that the article isn't really about "how the brain makes choices" but about something going on after a decision. 

The there is a clickbait article with the title "Deciphering how memory works in the brain – at the level of individual cells."  The article merely discusses a speculative model presented in a paper entitled "A neural-level model of spatial memory and imagery."

Then there is an article entitled "How your brain retrieves a memory when you sense something familiar."  But it's another "how your brain does something" that does nothing to show how a brain could do something. All we get is a claim that some particular region of the brain is "involved" in memory processing.  Such claims are made on the basis of mere readings of activity during memory action, but such readings mean nothing because all regions of the brain are constantly active. We get no insight of how it is that a brain could instantly recall facts about a person after seeing that person or merely hearing his name, a feat of retrieval that should be absolutely impossible given the brain's lack of any indexing system or addressing system that might allow very fast information retrieval. 

Using an expression popular in Texas, you might say that the people who call themselves cognitive neuroscientists are pretty much "all hat and no cattle" when they try to provide evidence for their dogmas about cognitive abilities of brains. We know that minds think and believe and imagine and remember detailed information, but we do not know (or have any good basis for supposing) that brains do any such things. 


Saturday, March 27, 2021

Recent Study Finds No Correlation Between Number of Brain Cells and IQ

Our science news are hopelessly biased towards propagating prevailing beliefs about the mind and brain. It seems that whenever there are published scientific studies that seem to support prevailing dogmas about the brain, we will see many press stories talking about such studies, no matter how insufficient their sample sizes may or no matter how dubious their methodology may be, and even if the stories were only done with mice rather than humans. But if we have a study providing results conflicting with prevailing dogmas about the brain, it will usually not be covered by the science news sites even if the study had a good sample size and used humans. And so despite reading several science news websites every day, I read no mention in them of a recent study finding the important result that there is no correlation betwen the number of brain cells and intelligence. 

The study published in the January 2021 volume of the journal Cerebral Cortex was entitled "Is There a Correlation Between the Number of Brain Cells and IQ?" The authors (Nicharatch Songthawornpong, Thomas W Teasdale, Mikkel V Olesen, and Bente Pakkenberg) examined 50 brains of Danish males who had died for reasons other than brain disease. It was possible to reliably estimate the IQ of these Danish males because they all had taken a military mental performance test that very highly correlates with IQ, and is essentially an intelligence test. 

The paper very clearly states its results:

"In our sample of 50 male brains, IQ scores did not correlate significantly with the total number of neurons (Fig. 1A), oligodendrocytes (Fig. 1B), astrocytes (Fig. 1C) or microglia (Fig. 1D) in the neocortex, nor with the cortical volume (Fig. 2A), surface area (Fig. 2B) and thickness (Fig. 2C). This also applied to estimates of the four separate lobes (frontal-, temporal-, parietal-, and occipital cortices; see Supplementary Material). Neither did IQ score correlate significantly with the volumes of white matter (Fig. 2D), central gray matter (Fig. 2E) or lateral ventricles (Fig. 2F), nor with the brain weight (Fig. 3A), or body height (Fig. 3B). All of these correlation coefficients were less than 0.2."

What this means is that the authors found:

  • It is not at all true that the more brain cells you have, the more likely you are to be smart.
  • It is not at all true that the more gray matter in your brain, the more likely you are to be smart.
  • It is not at all true that the more white matter in your brain, the more likely you are to be smart.
  • It is not all true that the heavier your brain, the more likely you are to be smart.

Although such results do not by themselves show that your brain is not the source of your mind, such results are quite compatible with the hypothesis that your brain is not the source of your mind. In Figure 1A of the paper, we see that 3 of the 7 or 8 subjects with the lowest number of neuron cells had above average intelligence.  The correlation between the number of neuron cells and intelligence was actually a very slight negative correlation, although not statistically significant. 

The results of this study should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the posts on this site, such as my post here discussing how removal of half of the brain (to stop very epileptic seizures) has little effect on intellect or memory. The results of this study should also come as no surprise to anyone familiar two items  mentioned by the study's authors: that "the rather large difference in neocortical neuron number between men and women (16% higher in men, Pakkenberg and Gundersen 1997) does not match with the minor gender difference in IQ (Halpern and LaMay 2000) and that highly demented female Alzheimer’s disease patients have normal neocortical neuron numbers (Regeur et al. 1994Pelvig et al. 2003)."

The 2019 study discussed here studied the brains of 324 people by brain scanning, and found no good evidence for any relation between brain parameters or knowledge and intelligence. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

Why a "Mechanical Memory" Theory Does Not Work

Neuroscientists rarely advance detailed explicit theories claiming that brains store memories in some very specific way. They are usually content to speak vaguely about such a topic, as they do when they claim not very specifically that memories may be stored through "synapse strengthening" without stating some specific idea about how memory storage could work in such a way.  I know why neuroscientists are so vague on this topic. It is because any attempt to postulate a detailed specific theory of memory storage in brains will have all kinds of glaring defects and credibility shortfalls (just as there would be glaring defects and credibility shortfalls in any specific detailed theory attempting to explain how Santa Claus could deliver toys to all the world's good children on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve). 

But very rarely an attempt will be made to advance a detailed explicit theory about brain memory storage. Let us look at one such recent attempt, and how it falls flat on its face.  The theory was advanced by Benjamin T. Goult of the University of Kent, in a paper entitled, "The Mechanical Basis of Memory – the MeshCODE Theory." 

Goult advances the theory that human memory information is stored in binary format. Binary is when information is stored as merely a sequence of ones and zeroes, such as 10110010101010110010101101111001. There are quite a few severe problems with such an idea, including the following:

Problem #1: Human experience and learning does not occur in binary format.  When we see things or hear things or feel things, there is not passing through our bodies anything like a stream of binary numbers such as 1100101010101010010101.  Auditory and visual perceptions occur in an analog form that is entirely different from the digital form of binary information. 

Problem #2: Whenever human experience or learning is capable of being translated into binary format, it requires translation schemes and encoding protocols that are not known to exist anywhere in the brain or body. Some things that humans learn or experience are capable of being translated into binary by means of translation schemes and encoding schemes. But such schemes are complicated. For example, visual information seen with the eye or a camera can be translated into binary through an RGB method in which each pixel is represented by three different numbers between 1 and 256: one number representing the red intensity, another number representing the green intensity, and another number representing the blue intensity. Then those three decimal numbers can be translated into binary format. But such a technique for converting analog visual information into digital binary information involves translation schemes and encoding schemes that are not known to be available anywhere in the brain or body.  Similarly, strings of text such as "my dog has fleas" can be translated into binary by a computer system that (a) has knowledge of the English alphabet; (b) has a table like the ASCII table that translates English letters into decimal numbers; (c) has a subroutine for converting such decimal numbers into binary. But no such things are known to exist in the human brain. Human minds are familiar with the English alphabet, but on the neuron level and synapse level we have no evidence of any familiarity with such an alphabet.  There is no reason why the brain's biochemistry  would have some encoding scheme based on something like the English alphabet, which has existed for less than 3000 years. Converting analog data such as sounds into binary requires two different conversions (from analog into decimal, and from decimal into binary). There is zero evidence that the human body has ever internally done either one of these types of conversions. 

Problem #3Much of human experience could never be translated into binary format.  Humans remember emotions, and there is no way to translate such emotions into binary format. Humans also remember things like pleasures, pains, tastes and smells, and there is no way to translate such things into binary format. Humans also remember learned physical skills, such as how to ride a bike, how to swim, how to dance and how to play a musical instrument. Such skills cannot be translated into binary format. 

Problem #4The human body is not known to have anything like any capability for writing learned information in binary format.  Scientists have not discovered any capability for writing learned information in any form to any part of the brain. 

Problem #5: The human body is not known to have anything like any capability for reading information in binary format.  Scientists have not discovered any capability for reading information in any form from the brain, with the exception of the DNA-reading capability found in brain cells and all other cells, which is not memory information. 

Goult's paper does nothing to address the first three of these problems. He does make a very clumsy attempt to address Problem #4, by speculating about how something known to exist in the brain might function as a system for storing binary information.  He mentions a protein called Talin, and (as we see in Figure 2 of his paper) he speculates that perhaps when some section of such a protein is folded, that stands for "0" and when the same section of such a protein is not folded, that stands for "1."  

This wildly imaginative speculation is about as silly as claiming that clouds might store binary information, because round clouds might stand for "0" and oval-shaped clouds might stand for "1."  Such clouds would not meet the essential characteristic of a binary storage system, that there be only two possible states. Since there would be 100 gradations between "round" and "oval" shapes, you could never store binary information in clouds. Similarly, sections of a protein molecule would have 100 or more possible states of folding. So it would never work to try to store binary information by using the shapes of particular sections of a protein molecule to stand for either 0 or 1. And if information were stored in such a way, there would be no way to read it as binary, as the body has no such thing as some mechanism for analyzing the shapes of sections of protein molecules. 

Contrary to Goult's speculations, protein molecules are totally unsuitable for storing binary sequences.

protein molecule

No binary storage capability in something like this

Let's imagine some protein molecule in which particular sections of the molecule would always toggle between two states (contrary to the evidence that no such two-state toggle could exist, and that such sections could have innumerable different shapes).  Then how much binary information could be stored in such a protein molecule? No more than a few bits. 

But what if you wanted to store a decent chunk of information, such as, say, the famous line, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal"?  That requires the following binary sequence:

 01000110 01101111 01110101 01110010 00100000 01110011 01100011 01101111 01110010 01100101 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01110011 01100101 01110110 01100101 01101110 00100000 01111001 01100101 01100001 01110010 01110011 00100000 01100001 01100111 01101111 00100000 01101111 01110101 01110010 00100000 01100110 01100001 01110100 01101000 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01100010 01110010 01101111 01110101 01100111 01101000 01110100 00100000 01100110 01101111 01110010 01110100 01101000 00101100 00100000 01110101 01110000 01101111 01101110 00100000 01110100 01101000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01100011 01101111 01101110 01110100 01101001 01101110 01100101 01101110 01110100 00101100 00100000 01100001 00100000 01101110 01100101 01110111 00100000 01101110 01100001 01110100 01101001 01101111 01101110 00101100 00100000 01100011 01101111 01101110 01100011 01100101 01101001 01110110 01100101 01100100 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01101100 01101001 01100010 01100101 01110010 01110100 01111001 00101100 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01100100 01100101 01100100 01101001 01100011 01100001 01110100 01100101 01100100 00100000 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01110000 01110010 01101111 01110000 01101111 01110011 01101001 01110100 01101001 01101111 01101110 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01100001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01101101 01100101 01101110 00100000 01100001 01110010 01100101 00100000 01100011 01110010 01100101 01100001 01110100 01100101 01100100 00100000 01100101 01110001 01110101 01100001 01101100 00101110

But there would be no way to store that in a Talin molecule under Goult's speculation. Under his speculation, each Talin molecule could store no more than about 13 of these digits. So storing a binary sequence like the one above would require many Talin molecules.  But Talin molecules do not exist in any linear sequence in the brain. Instead they are scattered in three dimensional space.  There would be no way to trace any sequence such as the one above in the brain. There would be innumerable routes between the different Talin molecules scattered throughout three-dimensional space, not a single linear route. Similarly, if I pour a jumbo box of Alpha Bits cereal (each piece of which is a letter) into a bucket of thick mud, and shake the thick mud, then the Alpha Bits letters would be scattered in a three dimensional way, and there would be no way to recognize a particular path from one letter to the next letter. The resulting mess could always be read in a million different ways, depending on how the path was traced in three-dimensional space. 

A DNA molecule is a one-dimensional thing. It has a very clear beginning and end, and once you are at one point in the sequence, there is always a very clear "next token" and a very clear "previous token." A DNA molecule is a physical structure that allows linear reading.  Talin molecules scattered in different positions in three-dimensional space (among very many other protein molecules) could never be a system allowing information to be read in any kind of regular, linear way.  

Were binary information to be stored according to Goult's speculation, there would be no way to read it. Reading such information would require some shape recognizer or fold shape recognizer that could traverse Talin molecules to analyze what shapes particular sections had. No such thing exists. 

What Goult has imagined is that protein folding could be used to store binary information. Protein folding is a mysterious thing, and we don't know how it happens. It is known that protein folding is relatively slow. For a new protein molecule to assume its characteristic three-dimensional shape requires between 50 seconds and 3000 seconds. Such a process is way, way to slow to be an explanation for human memory acquisition, which can occur instantly. 

Then there is the question of protein molecule lifetimes, which Goult ignores. Protein molecules in synapses have only short lifetimes averaging less  than two weeks.  According to the paper here, the half-life of the Talin molecule is only about 18 hours. Synapse proteins such as Talin therefore have lifetimes 1000 times too short to explain human memories, which can survive for 50 years of more. This factor alone is a decisive reason for rejecting Goult's theory altogether, along with every other claim that long-term memories are stored in synapses.  

Trying to lessen the probem of instant memory retrieval, Goult mentions several times the idea of indexes in the brain, which would make retrieval faster. He fails to tell us the reality here, that there is zero evidence for any kind of indexing in the brain. In fact, we know of the strongest reason why indexing should be impossible in the brain. It is that the brain is absolutely lacking in any type of coordinate system or position notation system or addressing system.  

Think of how an index works in a book. The index has lines that link topics with page numbers that represent exact locations in the book. But the brain is like a city in which none of the streets have names, and none of the houses have house numbers (or a book in which none of the pages are numbered).  Lacking any such addressing system, there is no way in which a brain could ever have an indexing system.  That's one of many reasons why instant memory retrieval cannot be reading information stored in brains.  Finding a memory stored in a brain would be as slow as finding an index card in a swimming pool that was a disorganized heap of index cards.  

Goult tells us, "Synapses are the perfect system for optimised cell signalling between connected cells, and there are approximately 100 trillion synapses in the brain."  The claim that synapses are "the perfect system for optimised cell signalling between connected cells" is pretty much the opposite of the truth. To the contrary, it is well known that synapses transmit signals with low reliability.  A particular signal will have a probability of less than .5 (and as low as .1) of transmitting successfully across a chemical synapse; and a brain signal would need to cross countless such unreliable synapses to move a tiny distance in the brain.  One expert tells us that a signal passing through a synapse "makes it across the synapse with a probability like one half, or even less." This is a very major reason for thinking that when humans recall with 100% accuracy large bodies of information (as people do such as stage actors who play Hamlet), they cannot possibly be retrieving information stored in or around synapses, as Goult imagines. An analogous situation is some person in a very noisy cafeteria, giving a message to the person next to him (who has only a 50% chance of hearing the message right), and then saying, "Keep the message passing on." If the message has to pass through 100 people in the cafeteria, from one to another, with each one having only a 50% chance of passing the message on accurately, we have pretty much the perfect recipe for unreliable signalling. 

A second reason why synapses are quite the opposite of being "the perfect system for optimised cell signalling between connected cells" is that chemical synapses are a very serious signal slowing factor. Each jump across the gap of a synaptic junction causes what is called a synaptic delay, of between .5 milliseconds and sometimes as much as 2 to 4 milliseconds. The problem is that a huge number of these synaptic junctions must be traversed each time a brain signal crosses every centimeter. The cumulative effect of such synaptic delays should make brains way too slow to account for instant human recall and very fast human calculation speed by many savants.  The problem is discussed in great detail in this post. 

There is no observational evidence to substantiate Goult's theory. No one has detected any binary information stored in any Talin molecule in the brain. No one has detected any binary information stored anywhere in the human body. There is genetic information in DNA molecules, but that information is not binary information. 

We know what binary information would look like if it were stored in the body. There would be a very long continuous sequence of physical items that could have only two possible states. It would be an arrangement nothing at all like what Goult has imagined.  An example might be a long molecule with only two elements, existing in a long string-like sequence. For example, the molecule might have a composition with a very long sequence like this: COOOCCCOCOOOCCCCOCOOCCOCCOCOCOCCOCOCOCOCOCCOCOCOCCOCOCOCOC. 

Under such a system, the C's (carbon atoms) might stand for 1, and the O's (oxygen atoms) might stand for 0.  We see no such sequences in any molecules in the body.  Carbohydrates are combinations of three types of atoms (carbon, oxygen and hydrogen), not two. Protein molecules are made from twenty different amino acids, and each such amino acid is built from at least four different atoms (nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and carbon).  Goult speculating about binary information stored in protein molecules is like someone speculating that clouds store advertising messages.  Just as clouds bear no resemblance to a system for storing advertising messages, protein molecules bear no resemblance to a system for storing binary information. 

Some of the things I have mentioned here are "show stoppers" not merely for Goult's scheme but also for any and all attempts to imagine the brain permanately storing information in binary format or any other material format. 

I have argued at length in various posts on this blog (such as this one) that the concept of an engram (an alleged place in the brain where a memory is stored) has no robust observational basis.  It is interesting that Goult's paper is part of a group of five papers by different authors, and one of those papers suggests abandoning the use of the term "engram," replacing it with "more neutral" terms such as cell assembly (supporting memory).  Besides discussing numerous ways in which current neuroscientists are using language in dubious and objectionable ways, the authors (Hardt and Sossin) state, "Stated succinctly, the term engram may reflect more wishful thinking than how memory and brain actually relate." 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

When Clue-Blind Professors Ignore All the Signs

The 1999 film "The Sixth Sense" is widely considered the best film of the director M. Night Shyamalan, who wrote the script. If you have not seen this film, I suggest streaming it or catching it on or pay TV before reading the rest of this post, which has spoilers concerning its ending. 

At the end of the film there is a plot twist that isn't really a plot twist because you should have been able to anticipate it, although most people fail to do so. The story goes like this:

First, we see a child psychologist character named  Crowe (played by Bruce Willis) being shot in the chest at point-blank range by someone intruding into his home. Then we see Crowe meeting a boy who confesses that he sees ghosts walking around, who are unaware they have died.  There are various spooky occurrences, and at the end comes the big plot twist. It turns out that Crowe, who most viewers of the movie thought was a regular physical person, is actually a ghost, one of the deceased people that the boy can see. Only at the end of the movie does Crowe realize that he was killed in the gun attack at the beginning of the movie. 

Members of the original audience of the movie must have kind of slapped their foreheads upon seeing the movie's ending, saying to themselves, "I'm such an idiot -- why didn't I figure that out all along?" There were actually two very clear reasons for suspecting that Crowe (the Bruce Willis character) was a ghost throughout his interactions with the boy. They were:

(1) We see the character Crowe shot at point blank range at the beginning of the movie. 

(2) After he was shot, we never see Crowe having a back-and-forth two-way conversation with anyone other than the boy who sees ghosts who do not know they are dead. We see Crowe talking to his wife, but she is just staring into space, as if she could not even see or hear him. 

In retrospect, it was easy to figure out the plot twist at the end, that all through the movie the boy was talking to the ghost of Crowe. But the audiences who first saw the movie were clue-blind, and very surprised by the ending. There is today a large group of people who seem even more clue-blind. This group is the group of materialist professors who deny the existence of a human soul, and claim that all mental phenomena come from the brain, and that the brain is the storage place of memories. 

Let us consider some of the clues that reality has given us about the relation of the body and the mind.

  • Scientists discovered the genetic information in all cells around 1950, but it is now the year 2021, and no has ever discovered any stored memory information in a brain of a human being, even through brain tissue has been examined at resolutions vastly greater than the resolutions sufficient to discover DNA in cells. 
  • Many humans (both children and adults) have had half of their brains removed to stop very bad and frequent epileptic seizures, but when surgery is done, it has little effect on intelligence or memory, with learned knowledge being well preserved. 
  • Many humans can remember very well things they learned or experienced 50 years ago, but the average lifetime of the proteins in synapses (claimed to be the storage place of memories) is 1000 times shorter than 50 years (less than two weeks). 
  • Humans are able to form new memories instantly, in contradiction to all theories of brain memory storage, which typically postulate "synapse strengthening" that would take minutes.
  • Even though the brain has no physical characteristics that would allow any such thing as instant memory retrieval (something like an indexing system or a position notation system or coordinate system that might allow stored information to be quickly found), humans are able to retrieve learned information instantly upon hearing some person name or event name or place name, even if they haven't heard such a name in many years.
  • Very many humans (as many as 10 percent or 20 percent of the population) report floating out of their bodies, and observing their bodies from above them in space. 
  • Inside brains there is very severe noise of several different types that should prevent humans from being able to reliably recall large bodies of information, but it is a fact that many people (such as actors playing the role of Hamlet) can recall very large bodies of textual information with perfect accuracy. 
  • There are hundreds of documented cases of people who saw an apparition of someone who died, but who they did not know was dead, only to soon learn that the person had died about the time when the apparition was seen. 
  • There are also very many cases of apparitions seen by more than one person at the same time, something we should expect to never or virtually happen if a mere brain hallucination was causing the sighting of the apparition. 
  • Instead of having some vastly greater brain connectivity that might help explain the superiority of the human mind, a study found that brain connectivity is about the same in all mammals; so we have the brain connectivity of mice. 
  • As discussed here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here, there is two hundred years of written evidence (often written by very weighty figures such as scientists and doctors) for the reality of clairvoyance, an ability that is not explicable under any theory that minds are created by brains. 
  • Quite a few people who have lost  half of their brains due to disease or epilepsy surgery have average or above average intelligence; and the physician John Lorber showed that some people have above-average intelligence despite having the great majority of their brain tissue destroyed by disease. 
  • Besides a wealth of narrative evidence that some humans can have ESP (an ability inexplicable as a brain effect), there is abundant robust laboratory experimental evidence for ESP (discussed here, here and here). 
  • No one has any credible detailed theory of how a brain could ever store learned information (such as academic information) or episodic memories as neuron states or synapse states; and if such a thing were happening, it would require a whole host of very specialized memory-encoding proteins, which have never been discovered (along with some not-yet-discovered encoding scheme millions of times more complicated than the genetic code discovered around 1950). 
  • Brains show no signs of working harder during heavy thinking or memory recall, and brain scan attempts to find signs of such greater activity merely report variations such as half of one per cent, the kind of variations we would expect to get by chance, even if brains don't produce thinking or recall. 
  • Because of numerous severe slowing factors such as the cumulative slowing effect of synaptic delays and dendrites, signal transmission in the brain should be way too slow to account for the blazing fast thinking speed of some people able to do mathematical calculations at incredible speeds, and also the instant memory recall humans routinely show. 
  • People with dramatically higher recall of episodic memories or learned information seem to have no larger brains or brain superiority that could explain this.
  • Contrary to the dogma that brains produce minds, ravens with tiny brains can do as well on quite a few mental tasks as apes with large brains; and also tiny mouse lemurs do just as well on quite a few cognitive tests as mammals with brains 200 times larger. 
  • As discussed here and here, scientists have very well documented inexplicable physical effects occurring around some people, suggesting they either have powers that cannot be explained in terms of brains and bodies, or are somehow in contact with others who have such powers. 
  • There are numerous reasons for suspecting some source of a human soul or spirit outside of the human body, including the sudden unexplained origin of the universe with just the right expansion rate to allow eventual planet formation, the very precise fine-tuning of fundamental physical constants and laws of nature needed for biological habitability, the origin of life so hard to explain as a chemical event, the extremely hierarchical organization of biological organisms, the great abundance of complex fine-tuned protein molecules in organisms (each seeming to involve a vast mathematical improbability), the great abundance of immensely organized biological forms that are not explained by genomes that merely specify low-level chemical information, and abundant photographic evidence for paranormal effects that seem to suggest some unfathomable intelligence beyond any human understanding (see here and here for examples). 
  • People (sometimes called autistic savants) with very serious brain defects sometimes have astonishing powers of memory almost no one else has. 
  • Dying people commonly report seeing apparitions of the dead (usually their relatives), as reported here, here, and here; people having near-death experiences very frequently report encountering their deceased relatives; and widows and widowers frequently report voices or apparitions corresponding to their deceased spouses -- all just exactly as we would expect if we have souls that survive death. 
  • Many decades ago Leonora Piper was studied at great length for many years by scientists and scholars, and for many years she reported information about deceased people that should have been unknown to her. 
  • Human beings have many subtle and refined mental abilities (such as philosophical imagination, artistic creativity, musical ability, and subtle spirituality) that are inexplicable as results of brain evolution, such things having no value in increasing survival or reproduction. 

All these clues tell us in a very loud voice that we are souls rather than being mere products of brains, souls that can sometimes display (either through their own ability or through interaction with other souls) powers far beyond any neural explanation. Such clues give us every reason for thinking that our memories are not stored in our brains, and that our memories and minds and identities will survive physical death, because they never were products of our brains. But our materialist professors continue to ignore every one of these clues, and believe the groundless idea that our minds are merely the products of brains that store our memories. 

We should not call such professors "clueless," because that might suggest they have not been given clues. A much better term to use is "clue-blind." Should we say that our materialist professors are as clue-blind as the original audience of "The Sixth Sense"? That would not be a very apt comparison, because such an audience had only two clues to which they were blind. But our materialist professors are blind to so many different very obvious clues. 

To get a better analogy for how enormously clue-blind our materialist professors act, let us imagine another movie, one we may call "The Boy Who Saw Ghosts."  The plot might go like this:
  • At the beginning of the movie, a psychologist named R.J. Chenson might get shot by an intruder, not merely in the chest, but shot right through the center of the forehead two times.
  • We might then see an ambulance arriving, and the wife saying, "I think he's dead -- there's been no pulse for five minutes, and the whole bed is very wet with blood."
  • We might then see a visual of Chenson's mother weeping while looking at a picture of her son. 
  • We might then see someone buying a tombstone engraved "R.J. Chenson."
  • We might then see a newspaper headline saying, "Friends Say Chenson Was a Great Guy."
  • Instead of knocking on the door to see the boy who sees ghosts, Chenson might simply walk through a locked door to see him.
  • Chenson might always leave a room by simply walking through a solid wall. 
  • Instead of looking like a regular person, Chenson might always look transparent as he interacts with the boy. 
  • Whenever Chenson talks with the boy indoors, we might see the boy's breath, as if it was almost freezing (it is reputed that ghosts can cause temperature drops).
Now imagine an audience were to watch this movie, and suppose the audience was to ignore all of these hard-to-ignore clues, and still keep thinking that Chenson was a regular physical human as he talked to the boy throughout the movie, believing that idea until the end of the movie when it was revealed that Chenson was killed by the intruder's gunfire. How clue-blind would such an audience be? Such an audience would be like materialist professors who continue to maintain that we are merely accidental soulless products of activity in a brain that stores our memories, despite so many powerful clues telling us that exactly the opposite is true, that we are souls hanging around in bodies that are not essential for our minds or our memories, and residents of a purposeful cosmos.  

Another analogy for our clue-blind materialist professors is the analogy of someone who intends to drive from St. Louis to New York, and drives halfway from St. Louis to Los Angeles, constantly ignoring the setting sun ahead of him which tells him he is traveling west rather than east, and constantly ignoring the road signs telling him he is driving west rather than east.

ignored clues

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

They're Desperately Seeking Non-noise From the Brain's Dominant Noise

Brains are extremely noisy. Many neurons fire at unpredictable intervals, just as maple leaves fall from a tree in autumn at unpredictable intervals. A scientific paper tells us, “Neuronal variability (both in and across trials) can exhibit statistical characteristics (such as the mean and variance) that match those of random processes.” Another scientific paper tells us that Neural activity in the mammalian brain is notoriously variable/noisy over time.” Another paper tells us, "We have confirmed that synaptic transmission at excitatory synapses is generally quite unreliable, with failure rates usually in excess of 0.5 [50%]." A paper tells us that there are two problems in synaptic transmission: (1) the low likelihood of a signal transmitting across a synapse, and (2) a randomness in the strength of the signal that is transmitted if such a signal transmission occurs. As the paper puts it (using more technical language than I just used):

"The probability of vesicle release is known to be generally low (0.1 to 0.4) from in vitro studies in some vertebrate and invertebrate systems (Stevens, 1994). This unreliability is further compounded by the trial-to-trial variability in the amplitude of the post-synaptic response to a vesicular release." 

The 2010 paper "The low synaptic release probability in vivo" by Borst is devoted to the topic of what is the chance that a synapse will transmit a signal that it receives. It tells us, "A precise estimate of the in vivo release probability is diffult," but that "it can be expected to be closer to 0.1 than to the previous estimates of around 0.5."  Slide number 20 of the 2019 Power Point presentation here has a graph showing that this release probability is often around 0.1 or 0.2, and the same page mentions 0.3 as a typical release probability. 

Another paper concurs by also saying that there are two problems (unreliable synaptic transmission and a randomness in the signal strength when the transmission occurs):

"On average most synapses respond to only less than half of the presynaptic spikes, and if they respond, the amplitude of the postsynaptic current varies. This high degree of unreliability has been puzzling as it impairs information transmission."

All of these facts are extremely damaging to all claims that the brain is the storage place of human memories, and the source of human thought. We know that humans can recall large bodies of information with perfect reliability. This happens every time someone plays the role of Hamlet, and correctly speaks every word in the 1480 lines in this role. The same reliability occurs when numerous Muslim scholars correctly recall every word in their holy book, a book of more than 6000 verses. Akira Haraguchi was able to recite correctly from memory 100,000 digits of pi in 16 hours, in a filmed public exhibition. Besides such feats of perfectly reliable retrieval of very large bodies of information, there are also numerous math calculation savants who can perform very complex calculations with perfect accuracy.  No such feats should be possible if they are produced by brains dominated by noise, brains in which signals are transmitted so unreliably.

So what do you do if you are a scientist or philosopher handling the topic of brain noise, but mind-chained to the dogma that everything mental comes from the brain? You desperately seek to evade the clear message spoken by the brain's physical characteristics (the message that brains are physically unsuitable for massive accurate memory recall and accurate complex calculation),  and you  try to suggest that maybe there's non-noise in all of that tons and tons of brain noise.  A pair of recent essays have been examples of such a thing. 

An article in Quanta magazine is entitled "Brain’s ‘Background Noise’ May Hold Clues to Persistent Mysteries."  We see two of the tricks often used when discussing quarter-baked ideas without any real observational basis. The first trick is to use some very vague and not-very-confident phrase such as "could hold clues" when discussing some unsubstantiated idea. The second trick is to use the vague claim that a "growing number" of scientists think something or suspect something, which doesn't really mean anything substantial, since the "growing number" might be something like "2 out of 20,000 increasing to 3 out of 20,000." Whenever people make a claim of a "growing number" of scientists believing something, they never give actual statistics backing up such a claim, and so we should suspect that there's no actual basis for such a claim of growing popularity.  The two tricks were used in this sentence: "Lendner is one of a growing number of neuroscientists energized by the idea that noise in the brain’s electrical activity could hold new clues to its inner workings." 

What follows in the article seems to be just an example of why people say "torture the data sufficiently and it will confess to anything," although in this case we don't even have such a "confession." We have a discussion of some scientists trying mathematical transformations of brain noise, eagerly trying to extract something that can be called a meaningful signal. No evidence is provided that the brain noise being analyzed is anything other than noise.  We merely get the impression of scientists desperately seeking some signal where there is none.  A similar thing might happen if biologists were to mathematically analyze dog barks in a hundred different ways, eagerly looking for some evidence of a dog language in the barks. 

We are given not one bit of indication that the so-called "aperiodic signals" derived from these mathematical fiddlings with brain noise readings actually are any such thing as a signal containing information, like a radio signal. Near the end of the article, these alleged "aperiodic signals" extracted from brain noise by mathematical fiddlings are compared to dark matter, a comparison that may cause a chuckle in anyone who has critically studied modern cosmology. Dark matter has never even been observed. 

At the Salon web site, we have an article by philosopher Thomas Nail entitled "Most brain activity is 'background noise' — and that's upending our understanding of consciousness." From this title you might get the idea that Nail has drawn the correct conclusion he should have drawn from "most brain activity is background noise": that the brain cannot be the cause of perfect recollections of vast bodies of information, and cannot be the cause of human mathematical calculation that can occur so flawlessly in some gifted people.  But no, Nail has instead drawn the wrong conclusions.  He makes groundless and silly-sounding statements such as "Neurons amplify the noise and even use it to help generate novel solutions to complex problems."  No one has any understanding of how neurons could generate any ideas at all,  and if neurons were to do such a thing, signal noise would be something to be avoided, not amplified. 

Nail makes this incorrect claim: "Several critical studies in this area have shown that cognitive flux, or 'spontaneous fluctuation,' is not secondary to but rather fundamental for consciousness, as neuroscientists Georg Northoff, Robin Carhart-Harris, and Stanislas Dehaene argue." He provides links to these authors, but none of the links provides any evidence we can freely read backing up any claim that any such thing has been shown.  Two of the links are to two old books unavailable for reading without purchase. Another link is to a paywalled paper with an abstract that confesses it is merely a hypothesis (one appealing rather suspiciously to psychedelic experiences as supporting evidence). 

Nail provides no evidence for his groundless claim that "just as whirling patterns emerge from turbulent waters, our stream of conscious thoughts and feelings arise from the torrent of spontaneous brain fluctuations."  This is a very absurd analogy. Whirling patterns in water do not involve information retrieval, and are momentary things showing no great organization. But a college professor can expound for a solid hour of organized thought on some topic, showing a degree of organization a thousand times greater than anything in whirling patterns of turbulent waters, and with an abundance of information retrieval not found in whirling patterns of turbulent waters.  The spontaneous fluctuations constantly occuring in neurons (and other abundant sources of neural noise) should  prevent any such organized thinking (with very accurate recall) from occurring, if our thinking were to be coming from our brains. Later Nail switches to a thought-as-frozen-ice metaphor and then to a thought-as-riding-a-wave  metaphor, neither of which is any better than his "whirling water" metaphor. 

What Nail has given us here is the same old nonsense reductionists are always trying to get away with: the trick of trying to portray human bodies or human minds or human mental phenomena as thousands  of times simpler than they are, and then offering some "explanation" for such crude little crayon sketches resulting from their ridiculous oversimplifications. 


Nail tries to impress us with a little neuroscience jargon by using the phrase "cross-frequency coupling."  But when he then says "it works a lot like syncopation in music," we should see that such a concept does nothing to explain how a very noisy brain could be capable of such accurate memory retrieval, accurate complex calculation and very complex organized thinking.  The fact that Nail's essay fails to use either the word "memory" or "signal" shows that he doesn't understand the real problem with noisy brains: that the amount of noise in brains (and the low reliability of signal transmission across synapses in brains) should be sufficient to make it impossible for brains to be capable of accurate recall of large masses of information, and also incapable of the type of accurate signal transmission needed for complex and accurate mathematical thinking to arise from brains.  

Who are these creatures Nail is describing, whose "conscious thoughts and feelings arise from the torrent of spontaneous brain fluctuations"?  They sound like some science-fiction entities, but seem to bear little resemblance to human beings. Rather than having thoughts and feelings that merely pop up like bubbles in turbulent waters, from brain fluctuations that differ from minute to minute, humans have very long-lived thoughts and feelings that often persist for decades. Examples include the love of a husband and wife that can persist for 50 years, the love of a parent for his children that persists for decades, racial hatred that sadly can persist for decades, and also religious, philosophical and political thoughts that tend to be remarkably stable, enduring for decades.  

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Social Construction of Eager Community Mirages

People who believe untrue things often are convinced that their incorrect belief is based on evidence.  This can occur whenever there is some enthusiastic community of researchers very interested in gathering evidence in favor of such a belief. If the community of researchers is well-motivated and well-funded, it may be able to create an illusion of having a body of evidence establishing the dubious belief it is eager to prove.  We may call such a large group of researchers an eager community.  We may call the misleading body of evidence created by such a community an eager community mirage. 

The word "mirage" may refer to an optical illusion in which something appears to be in front of you, even though it isn't actually there (the classic example being some reflective material ahead of you that reflects the sky, fooling you into thinking there is a body of water ahead of you).  The word "mirage" can also refer to something that appears real but is illusory. 

Let me give a fictional example of an eager community mirage. Let us imagine a billionaire who dreams up a theory that the ghosts of dead animals live in the clouds, and that you might be able to see the ghost of your dead pet up in the sky. Having many millions to spead publicizing such an idea, we can imagine the billionaire selling many copies of some book that he wrote advancing this theory. 

Let us also imagine that the billionaire decides to spend millions of dollars trying to prove his theory. He might find thousands of people very interested in proving his strange theory, and might pay them each tens of thousands of dollars to try to prove his theory, by taking photographs of clouds in the sky, and looking for shapes that look like animals. 

Given such a large of researchers, getting such lavish funding, it would be likely that some type of superficially impressive "body of evidence" would accumulate. If the billionaire asked everyone of his thousands of well-funded researchers to send him a photo whenever they photographed a cloud that looked like an animal shape,  the billionaire would be able to accumulate a fairly nice little collection of clouds that looked like animals (particularly if each researcher had a financial incentive for each such photo sent to the billionaire). 

Would such a collection of photos be good evidence that dead animals become ghosts that live in the sky among the clouds? No, it would not be.  It would simply be the amount of evidence we would expect to get for such a hypothesis, given the very large community of eager researchers, and given the funding the billionaire had given them.  The body of evidence the billionaire would accumulate from such researchers would be an example of an eager community mirage.  Like a mirage, the illusion of good evidence would be largely based in reality.  The photos would not be faked, and would show real clouds. But the collection of such photos would not be robust evidence to prove the theory that the ghosts of dead animals rise up into the sky and live among the clouds. 

In the world of scientific academia, there exist various examples of bodies of evidence that appear to be mere eager community mirages. Such bodies of evidence can arise because there is a large community of many thousands of well-funded researchers eager to gather evidence for some particular dogma believed in by a belief community of scientists. 

Let us consider the body of evidence that is typically cited to support claims that the brain is the source of the human mind and the storage place of memories.  We do not find in such a body of evidence any "slam dunk" experiments or studies that provide "smoking gun" evidence in favor of such claims. Instead we find a whole bunch of studies providing far weaker evidence. 

Remarkably the standard for getting an experimental neuroscience paper published (and sold by some press release as being good evidence) is a very low standard, a very low hurdle to jump over. The convention is that you can get an experimental study published if your p-value is merely .05.  What is the p-value? It can be roughly thought of as the likelihood of you getting a particular result if your hypothesis of a causal effect is false. 

Let's imagine an example in a neuroscience experiment. Suppose I hypothesize that some region of the brain will light up more strongly than any other region under some particular example of mental activity. I then scan brains during this mental activity, and I get some result that I judge to have a p-value of .05.  That means that if there is actually no connection between that region of the brain and the mental activity I have tested, I should not have got such a result by chance in more than 1 in 20 experiments I did. 

A very important point is that the p-value is certainly not the likelihood about whether my result would show up if many experimenters were trying my experiment. It is merely something like the likelihood of me getting the result by chance on any particular time I tried the experiment. 

Now, is it anything like convincing evidence if I do some experiment getting such a p-value of .05? Certainly not. In fact, if I do the experiment twenty times, I should expect purely by chance to get such a result about 1 time in 20, even if my hypothesis about cause and effect is totally false. 

Now let us imagine a very large body of many thousands of well-funded neuroscience researchers. Altogether they have many hundreds of millions of dollars of funding, which each researcher can partially spend 30 weeks a year trying different experiments.  A study estimated there were about 300,000 neuroscience papers published in a ten-year period, about 30,000 per year. The actual number of neuroscience experiments done could easily be 100,000 or more per year, because of a "file drawer" by which null results are not even written up, or not published.  

How many results would we expect to get each year with a p-value of .05, purely by chance, even if brains do nothing to produce the human mind, and even if brains do not at all store memories?  Very many. In fact, we should expect to get thousands of such experiments producing a p-value of .05 or smaller, even if   brains do nothing to produce the human mind, and even if brains do not at all store memories. We also should expect to see hundreds of experiments with a more impressive p-value of only .001,  purely by chance, even if brains do nothing to produce the human mind, and even if brains do not at all store memories. Since tens of thousands of neuroscience experiments are being done around the world, we would expect that purely by chance hundreds of these experiments would produce results that had a chance probability of only about .001, even if no brain cause was producing the results.  We should also remember that scientists very often claim p-value results much more impressive than their observations warrant, as happened in the BICEP2 affair and the subsequently discredited  "phosphine on Venus" paper. 

What happens during the social construction of eager community mirages is that members of the eager community go searching for all of the results that best support the belief they want to believe in, and discuss these results in a single article or paper, often a scientific paper called a "review article." Gathered together, such results may seem impressive. But the appearance of some impressive reality is very often a mere mirage.  The results discussed may be merely exactly what we would expect to get by chance, given the size of such a research community, its eagerness to establish some particular result, and the number of trials that are being done.  

To give some examples, if there exists some large eager community desiring to prove some theory that the ghosts of animals live in clouds, and such a community is well funded by millions of dollars each year, we would expect that members of this community would spend many thousands of hours each year photographing clouds and looking for shapes that look like the ghosts of dead animals; and we would expect that every year some superficially impressive results would be produced by such a community.  But we would merely be seeing what we would expect to get by chance, even if the ghosts of dead animals don't live in clouds. Similarly, if there exists some large eager community of neuroscientists desiring to prove some theory that brains produce minds and that brains store memories, and such a community is well funded by billions of dollars each year, we would expect that members of this community would spend many thousands of hours each year doing experiments trying to show that brains produce minds and that brains store memories; and we would expect that every year some superficially impressive results would be produced by such a community.  But we would merely be seeing what we would expect to get by chance, even if brains do not produce minds and do not store memories. 

Defective or questionable research practices are a key factor facilitating the social construction of eager community mirages. The weaker the standards followed, the easier it will be for the eager community to socially construct the appearance it is trying to create. In experimental neuroscience we see such defective or questionable research practices very often. To give examples:

  • Scientists know that the most reliable to do an experiment is to first state a hypothesis, how data will be gathered, and how data will be analyzed, using methods called "pre-registered studies" or "registered reports." But most experimental neuroscience studies do not follow such a standard, but instead follow a much less reliable technique, in which data is gathered, and then the experimenter is free to slice and dice the data in any way he wants, trying to prove any hypothesis he may dream up after collecting the data. 
  • Because very many neuroscience observations are the kind of observations where subjective interpretations may be at play, a detailed and rigorous blinding protocol is an essential part of any reliable neuroscience experiment. But such a blinding protocol is rarely used, and in the minority of neuroscience experiments that claim to use blinding, the blinding will usually be only fragmentary and fractional. 
  • Neuroscience experiments trying to measure fear in rodents can only do that reliably by measuring heart rate in such animals (which dramatically spikes when mice are afraid). But instead of using such a reliable technique, the most common practice in rodent experiments involving fear is to use an unreliable and subjective technique involving trying to judge so-called "freezing behavior."
  • Brain scanning experiments typically present misleading visuals in which differences of less than 1% in brain activity are depicted in bright red in a brain diagram, creating the incorrect impression there was some big difference in activity in such a region. 
  • A web site describing the reproducibility crisis in science mentions a person who was told of a neuroscience lab  "where the standard operating mode was to run a permutation analysis by iteratively excluding data points to find the most significant result," and quotes that person saying that there was little difference between such an approach and just making up data out of thin air. 
The neuroscientist community (very eager to prove dogmas that brains create minds and store memories) is only one example of eager communities in the world of scientific inquiry. Another such community is the origin-of-life research community, which for many decades has been eager to prove that life could have naturally originated from chance chemical reactions. 

A key element in the social construction of an eager community mirage may be biased interpretation of research results.  We have a gigantic example of this in the famous Miller-Urey experiment. In that experiment a small sealed glass apparatus was filled with a mixture of gases consisting of methane, ammonia and hydrogen, and subjected to continuous discharges of electricity for a week.  The result was some amino acids that formed at the bottom of the apparatus. For seventy years the eager origin-of-life research community has spread the groundless idea that such an experiment did something to show a likelihood of amino acids forming in the early Earth.  This claim never made any sense. Showing that some chemicals can form in a small sealed glass apparatus subject to continuous electricity discharge does nothing to show that such a formation would have occurred in the open atmosphere, both because gases and chemicals in the open atmosphere would have been many trillions of times more dispersed, and also because lightning in the atmosphere only occurs occasionally rather than continuously. But for 70 years the eager community of origin-of-life researchers has  misinterpreted the experiment as one showing that amino acids would have been common in the early Earth. 

Similar things happen in the neuroscientist community.  Scientists put whatever "spin" on their research results that most fit in with the belief dogmas they are eager to prove.  Such dubious or biased interpretations are endlessly repeated by other scientists eager to show that there is some evidence for some claim they want to believe in. 

I can give a little equation summarizing what I have discussed above:

Large community eager to prove some idea + lavish funding + weak research standards  + biased interpretation = occasional superficially persuasive results.

The "eager community mirage" arises when such occasional superficially persuasive results are collected from many years of effort by such a community. The result is something that may look like some body of evidence seeming to support the idea or dogma the community is eager to prove. But the result may be merely a mirage. 

A physical mirage does not stand up well to close inspection. On a hot road you may see in the distance something that looks like some water on the far horizon, but driving a hundred meters closer does not make that appearance seem more concrete. 

Similarly, socially-constructed eager community mirages do not stand up well to close inspection. The more closely we examine the techniques used to construct such mirages, the more likely we may be to realize that the body of evidence offered by the eager community to prove its favored beliefs is a mere mirage.