Thursday, July 9, 2020

Gender Differences in Brains Help Discredit Prevailing Dogmas About Brains

Many people are interested in differences between the brains of males and the brains of females, and differences between males and females in IQ tests and memory tests. A careful examination of this area provides some evidence against the claim that the brain is the source of human intelligence, and the claim that memories are stored in synapses of the brain.

The brains of males are significantly larger on average than females -- about 10% bigger. But we know that females tend to be shorter and weigh less than males. Some say that the relative size of female brains (female brain sizes compared to female body sizes) is no smaller than the relative size of male brains.  But in a scientific paper a scientist states, "After correcting for body height or body surface area, men's brains are about 100 g heavier than female brains in both racial groups."  That difference of 100 grams is about 7% of the total weight of a male brain (about 1350 grams). 

So using the idea that the human mind is produced by the brain, we should expect that males do about 7% better at school and about 7% better in IQ tests.  But this is not at all the case. Males and females do about the same on IQ tests, with a difference of less than 1% or 2%.  In the United States females tend to get just as high academic grades as males.  In this regard, the claim that the brain is produced by the mind fails the observational test. 

Now let's consider human memory. The standard academic dogma (unsupported by any facts) is that memories are stored in the synapses of brains. The persistence of this dogma is mystifying, given what we know about the instability of synapses. Humans can reliably remember things for longer than 50 years, but individual synapses do not last for years. The proteins that make up synapses are very short-lived, having an average lifetime of only a few weeks. states, "Multiple studies[22] [23] have found a higher synaptic density in males: a 2008 study reported that men had a significantly higher average synaptic density of 12.9 × 108 per cubic millimeter, whereas in women it was 8.6 × 108 per cubic millimeter, a 33% difference." The 2008 study mentioned is the study "
Gender differences in human cortical synaptic density" you can read here

Now, this 33% difference is quite a big difference, much bigger than the brain size difference previously mentioned. Under the assumption that synapses are the storage place of memory, we should expect (given this 33% greater synapse density in males) that either males tend to have stored much more memories than females, or that males are better at remembering things than females. But  such things are not true. 

There is no evidence that males store more memories than females. One good way of testing whether males store more memories than females is simply to look at academic scores. If males tended to store more memories, they would tend to have higher academic scores than females. But females do just as well as males in tests of learned information. 

Below is a quote from an article in the New York Times indicating that boys do not do better than females (on average) in school tests:

"The study included test scores from the 2008 to 2014 school years for 10,000 of the roughly 12,000 school districts in the United States. In no district do boys, on average, do as well or better than girls in English and language arts. In the average district, girls perform about three-quarters of a grade level ahead of boys. But in math, there is nearly no gender gap, on average. Girls perform slightly better than boys in about a quarter of districts...Boys do slightly better in the rest."

Here are some quotes from the scientific paper "The Role of Sex in Memory Function: Considerations and Recommendations in the Context of Exercise": 

"Females tend to outperform males in episodic memory function....Females tend to perform better than males in verbal-based episodic memory tasks, as opposed to spatial-based memory tasks []. Females generally access their memories faster than males [], date them more precisely [], and use more emotional terms when describing memories []. Superior verbal memory for females also appears to be independent of intelligence level []. Additionally, females also have greater specificity for events imagined to occur in the future []. In general, females outperform males on autobiographical memory (particularly with high retrieval support via verbal probing []), random word recall [], story recall [], auditory episodic memory [], semantic memory (driven by superiority in fluency) [], and face recognition tasks [,]."

So the paper is telling us that female memory performance is better than male memory performance in all these areas. But how can that be, if males have a synaptic density 33% greater? We have here additional evidence that there is no truth in the common claim that memories are stored in human synapses. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Long Article Tries to Show Neural Memory Storage, but Gives No Real Evidence for It

In Discover magazine, there was recently a long article entitled “What Happens in Your Brain When You Make Memories?” An article like this is an attempt to convince us that scientists have some good understanding of how a brain could store memories. But the article completely fails at such a task, and provides no substantial evidence for any such thing as neural memory storage.

We are told the following: “In the 1990s, scientists analyzed high-resolution brain scans and found that these fleeting memories depend on neurons firing in the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking.” There is no actual evidence that the front part of the brain is responsible for high-level thinking. You can read here for evidence that specifically contradicts such a claim. 

The quote above includes a link to a brain scanning scientific paper. That paper provides no evidence that memories depend on neurons firing anywhere. In any type of brain scanning study, the two main questions to ask are:  how many subjects were used, and what was the percent signal change detected during some supposed activation of some brain region? The paper does not tell us either of these things. It mentions some brain scanning study, but does not tell any details of how many subjects it used, or what percent signal change was detected. We can only assume that the study was one of those ridiculously common studies that either: (1) used too small a sample size to get a result of good statistical power, or (2) detected only meaningless signal changes such as less than 1%, the type of differences we would expect to get by chance, or (3) had both of these problems. When scientists use impressive sample sizes or when they get impressive brain scanning results regarding percent signal changes, they almost always tell us about such a thing. When there is a failure for a paper to mention either of these numbers, we should assume it is because the numbers were not impressive, and not good evidence.

The article then states the dogma that memories form when synapses are strengthened: “When a long-term memory is formed, the connections between neurons, known as synapses, are strengthened.” There is no evidence that this is true. When stating the sentence above, the article has a link to a paper that provides no evidence that memory storage involves synapse strengthening.

In fact, there are reasons why it cannot be true that memories are formed by synapses being strengthened. The first is that synapses are too unstable to be a permanent storage place for memories. The proteins in synapses have an average lifetime of only a few weeks. But humans can accurately remember things for 60 years, which is 1000 times longer than 50 weeks. Synapses do not last for very long. The paper here says that half-life of synapses is "from days to months." The 2018 study here precisely measured the lifetimes of more than 3000 brain proteins from all over the brain, and found not a single one with a lifetime of more than 75 days (figure 2 shows the average protein lifetime was only 11 days). 

The second reason is that humans are able to instantly form permanent new memories at a rapid clip. This was shown in an experiment in which humans were able to remember fairly well images they were only exposed to for a few seconds. The experiment is described in the scientific paper “Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details.” The experimenters showed some subjects 2500 images over the course of five and a half hours, and the subjects viewed each image for only three seconds. Then the subjects were tested in the following way described by the paper:

"Afterward, they were shown pairs of images and indicated which of the two they had seen. The previously viewed item could be paired with either an object from a novel category, an object of the same basic-level category, or the same object in a different state or pose. Performance in each of these conditions was remarkably high  (92%, 88%, and 87%, respectively), suggesting that participants successfully maintained detailed representations of thousands of images."

Let us imagine that memories were being stored in the brain by a process of synapse strengthening. Each time a memory was stored, it would involve the synthesis of new proteins (requiring minutes), and also the additional time (presumably requiring additional minutes) for an encoding effect in which knowledge or experienced was translated into neural states. If the brain stored memories in such a way, it could not possibly keep up with remembering most of thousands of images that appeared for only three seconds each.

In the Discover magazine article, we are then told an inaccurate legend of scientific achievement: “ In a 2012 Nature study, Tonegawa and researchers at MIT and Stanford University used optogenetics to demonstrate that our memory traces do indeed live in specific clusters of brain cells.” No, Susumu Tonegawa and his colleagues did not do any such thing. In the post here you can read a rather lengthy discussion of various memory-related papers authored by people working at Tonegawa's MIT memory laboratory. These papers suffer from a common defect of using too-small sample sizes. Again and again when looking up the memory-related papers authored by people working at Tonegawa's MIT memory laboratory, I found papers that used sample sizes so small that were not good evidence for anything. In a neuroscience experiment, the absolute minimum for a somewhat compelling result is 15 animals per study group (and in most cases the number of animals per study group should be much higher, such as 25 or more). But again and again when looking up the memory-related papers authored by people working at Tonegawa's MIT memory laboratory, I found papers that used sample sizes of 10 or smaller. Such papers are not good evidence for anything.

In the Discover magazine article, we have a clear description of the utterly fallacious experimental technique used by Tonegawa, a technique that has given him the wrong idea that he has found a memory in brains. Here is what the article says:

"In the paper, the research team describes how they pinpointed a particular group of neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in the formation of long-term memories, that start firing under certain conditions. In this case, the researchers did so by having mice explore an unfamiliar cage. '[Then] you give [the mouse] mild electric shocks to their footpads,' says Tonegawa. 'And the mouse will immediately form a memory that this cage is a scary place.' The next day, says Tonegawa, when the mice were placed in the cage without being zapped, this conditioning led them to fear that environment. The researchers later injected the rodents with a protein that can trigger brain cells — specifically, the neurons in the hippocampus that the scientists were targeting — by flashing them with blue light. ''These proteins have a chemical property to activate cells when light of a particular wavelength is delivered,' adds Tonegawa. Then, when the scientists flashed the mice with pulses of light in an entirely different environment, the neurons in the hippocampus they had labeled with the protein sprung into action — and the mice froze in place. The researchers think the animals were mentally flashing back to the experience of being shocked. 'That’s the logic of the experiment,' says Tonegawa. 'You can tell that these neurons, which were labeled yesterday, now carry those memory engrams' ”

There are two reasons why this technique is fallacious and unreliable, and does not provide any evidence at all that memories are stored in the brains of these mice. The first is that when the brains of the mice are being flashed with pulses of light, this is a stimulation effect that itself may be causing a freezing effect causing a mice to “freeze in place,” even though no fearful memory is being recalled by the mice.  In fact, it is known that stimulating many different regions of a rodent brain will cause a mouse to “freeze in place.” A science paper says that it is possible to induce freezing in rodents by stimulating a wide variety of regions. It says, "It is possible to induce freezing by activating a variety of brain areas and projections, including the hippocampus (Liu et al., 2012), lateral, basal and central amygdala (Ciocchi et al., 2010); Johansen et al., 2010; Gore et al., 2015a), periaqueductal gray (Tovote et al., 2016), motor and primary sensory cortices (Kass et al., 2013), prefrontal projections (Rajasethupathy et al., 2015) and retrosplenial cortex (Cowansage et al., 2014).”  Therefore there is no reason at all to assume that the “freeze in place” is actually being caused by a recall of a memory. The “freeze in place” effect could be caused simply by the stimulation being delivered to the brains of the mice, without any recall occurring.

The second reason why such an experiment is no evidence at all for memory storage in a brain is that “freezing behavior” in mice is very hard to reliably measure. In a typical paper, judgments of how much a mouse froze will be based on arbitrary, error-prone human judgments. The reliable way to measure fear in mice is to measure their heart rate, which goes up very suddenly and rapidly when mice are afraid. But inexplicably, neuroscientists almost never use such a technique. Since scientists like Tonegawa do not use reliable techniques for determining whether rodents are afraid, and since the experiments depend on assumptions that the animals were afraid,  we should have no confidence in the results of experiments like those described above.

freezing behavior in rodents

The Discover magazine article then proceeds to describe some work by neuroscientist Nanthia Suthana, in which epilepsy patients had their brains scanned when using video games.  We are told that some evidence was found that some kind of brain wave called theta oscillations was more common during memory recall. But we are not told how large an effect size was found, and have no way of knowing whether it was merely some borderline result unlikely to be replicated. We are not given a link for any paper that has been published,  and we are told that there are merely two papers "in peer review." We have no mention of how many subjects were used.   And memory retrieval is something quite different from memory storage.  These are all quite a few reasons why such an experiment is not anything like substantial evidence for any neural storage of memories.

The last gasp of the Discover article is to claim that "Sah and his colleagues used optogenetics in rats to identify the circuitry in the brain that controls the return of traumatic memories."  The "return of traumatic memories" refers to memory retrieval, which is an entirely different thing from memory storage.  We are given a link to some study behind a paywall, and the abstract mentions no actual numbers, meaning we have no basis for any confidence in it.  Given the rampant sample size problem in experimental neuroscience, in which too-small study groups are being used in most studies, we should have no confidence in any study if we merely can read an abstract that does not mention how large a study group was used.

Despite its long length, the Discover article fails to give us any solid piece of evidence suggesting that memories are stored in brains.  The Discover article is a kind of Exhibit A to back up my claim that scientists have no actual evidence basis for believing that memories are stored in brains.  Their "best evidence" for such claims are "house of cards" studies that do not meet the requirements of compelling experimental science.  We have no solid scientific basis for believing that memories are stored in brains, but we do have good scientific reasons for believing that memories cannot be stored in brains.  One such reason is that people do not suffer substantial losses of learned information when half of their brain is removed in hemispherectomy operations.  See the paper here for a discussion of 8 people who had "no observable mental changes" after removal of half of their brains. The paper specifically mentions "their memory was unimpared."  The second reason is that the proteins that make up the synapses of the brain have average lifetimes 1000 times shorter than the maximum length of time (60 years) that humans can retain memories. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Study Finds "Poor Overall Reliability" of Brain Scanning Studies

For decades neuroscientists have been trying to use brain imaging to get evidence that particular regions of the brain cause particular mental effects.  The technique they use typically works like this:

(1) Put a small number of subjects in an MRI brain scanner, and either have them do some mental task or expose them to some kind of mental stimulus.
(2) Use the brain scanner to make images of the brain during such activity.
(3) Then analyze the brain scans, looking for some area of higher activation.

Often sleazy and misleading techniques are used to present the data from such studies. Techniques are very often used that make very small differences in brain signal strength look like very big differences.  A discussion of such techniques, which I call "lying with colors" can be read here.

Claims that particular regions of the brain show larger activity during certain mental activities are typically not well-replicated in followup studies. A book by a cognitive scientist states this (page 174-175):

"The empirical literature on brain correlates of emotion is wildly inconsistent, with every part of the brain showing some activity correlated with some aspect of emotional behavior. Those experiments that do report a few limited areas are usually in conflict with each other....There is little consensus about what is the actual role of a particular region. It is likely that the entire brain operates in a coordinated fashion, complexly interconnected, so that much of the research on individual components is misleading and inconclusive."

An article on states the following:

"Small sample sizes in studies using functional MRI to investigate brain connectivity and function are common in neuroscience, despite years of warnings that such studies likely lack sufficient statistical power. A new analysis reveals that task-based fMRI experiments involving typical sample sizes of about 30 participants are only modestly replicable. This means that independent efforts to repeat the experiments are as likely to challenge as to confirm the original results."

There have been statistical critiques of brain imaging studies. One critique found a common statistical error that “inflates correlations.” The paper stated, “The underlying problems described here appear to be common in fMRI research of many kinds—not just in studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition.”

Another critique of neuroimaging found a “double dipping” statistical error that was very common. New Scientist reported a software problem, saying “Thousands of fMRI brain studies in doubt due to software flaws.”

Flaws in brain imaging studies were highlighted by a study that found "correlations of consciousness" by using an fMRI brain scan on a dead salmon. See here for an image summarizing the study.  The dead salmon study highlighted a problem called the multiple comparisons problem. This is the problem that the more comparisons you make between some region of the brain and an average, the more likely you will be to find a false positive, simply because of chance variations. A typical brain scan study will make many such comparisons, and in such a study there is a high chance of false positives. 

Considering the question of “How Much of the Neuroimaging Literature Should We Discard?” a PhD and lab director states, “Personally I’d say I don’t really believe about 95% of what gets published...I think claims of 'selective' activation are almost without exception completely baseless ”  This link says that a study, "published open-access in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the methods used in fMRI research can create the illusion of brain activity where there is none—up to 70% of the time."

A new study has raised additional concerns about the use of brain imaging in neuroscience.  The study was announced in a Duke University press release entitled, "Studies of Brain Activity Aren't as Useful as Scientists Thought."  The study discusses a meta-analysis which looked at the question of how reliably there occurs a region of higher brain activation, in cases when a particular subject had his brain scanned at two different times. 

What neuroscientists would like for there to be is a tendency to get the same result in two different scans of a person's brain taken on two different days, when the person was engaged in the same activity or exposed to the same stimulus.  But that doesn't happen.  We read the following in the press release, which quotes Ahmad R. Hariri:

"Hariri said the researchers recognized that 'the correlation between one scan and a second is not even fair, it’s poor.'...For six out of seven measures of brain function, the correlation between tests taken about four months apart with the same person was weak....Again, they found poor correlation from one test to the next in an individual. The bottom line is that task-based fMRI in its current form can’t tell you what an individual’s brain activation will look like from one test to the next, Hariri said....'We can’t continue with the same old ‘"hot spot" research,' Hariri said. “We could scan the same 1,300 undergrads again and we wouldn’t see the same patterns for each of them.”

The press release is talking about a scientific study by Hariri and others that can be read here.  The study is entitled, "What is the test-retest reliability of common task-fMRI measures? New empirical evidence and a meta-analysis." The study says, "We present converging evidence demonstrating poor reliability of task-fMRI measures...A meta-analysis of 90 experiments (N=1,008) revealed poor overall reliability."

In a neuoscience study, the sample size is how many subjects (animal or human) were tested. Figure 1 of the Hariri study deserves careful attention. It has three graphs comparing the kind of sample sizes we would need to get reliable results in brain imaging studies (ranging from between 100 and 1000) to the median samples size of brain image studies (listed as only 25).  This highlights a problem that I have many times written about: that the sample sizes used in neuroscience studies are typically way too small to produce reliable results. As it happens, the problem is even worse than depicted in Figure 1, because the median sample size of a neuroscience study is actually much less than 25. According to the paper here,  "Highly cited experimental and clinical fMRI studies had similar median sample sizes (medians in single group studies: 12 and 14.5; median group sizes in multiple group studies: 11 and 12.5)."

Neuroscientists have known about this shortcoming for years. It has been pointed out many times that the sample sizes used in neuroscience studies are typically way too small for reliable results. But our neuroscientists keep grinding out countless studies with too small a statistical power. In the prevailing culture of academia, you are rewarded for the number of papers published with your name on it, and not too much attention is paid to the reliability of such studies. So if you are a professor with a budget that is sufficient to fund either 100 fMRI scans on 100 subjects in a single study of relatively high reliability, or 10 little low-reliability studies with only 10 subjects each, the prevailing rewards system in academia makes it a better career move for you to do 10 unreliable studies resulting in 10 separate papers rather than a single study resulting in a single paper.

Figure 5 of the Hariri study is also interesting. It rates reliability in various tests of mental activity while subjects had their brains scanned at two different times.  There's data for a single task involving memory, which failed to reach a reliability of either "excellent" or "good."  This task involved a retest of only 20 different subjects. On the left of the figure, we have results for an Executive Function (EF)  test tried twice on 45 subjects, and a "relational" test tried twice on 45 subjects. The relational test is discussed here.  In the test you have to look at some visual figures, and mentally discern whether the type of transformation (either shape or texture) that occurred in a first row of figures was the same transformation used in the second row of figures.

So we have here the interesting case of two thinking tasks applied to 45 subjects on two different days, while their brains were scanned. This makes a better-than-average test of whether some brain region should reliably be activated more strongly during thinking.

The result was actually a flop and a fail for the hypothesis that your brain produces thinking.  In the Executive Function test (corresponding to the third column of circles shown below), none of the 8 brain regions examined produced a greater activation that appeared to an extent that was either Excellent, Good, or Fair.  In the relational test (corresponding to the fifth column of circles shown below), none of the 8 brain regions examined produced a greater activation that appeared to an extent that was either Excellent, Good, or Fair.  The figure is shown below:

brains do not cause thinking
Figure 5 of the Hariri study (link)

The brain regions used in the tests graphed above were not random brain regions, but were typically the regions thought most likely to produce a correlation.

Such results are quite consistent with the claim I have long made on this blog that the brain is not the source of the human mind, and is not the source of human thinking.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Global Workspace Theory Sure Isn't an Explanation for Consciousness

Neuroscientists have no credible explanations for the most important mental phenomena such as consciousness and memory. All that scientists have in this regard are some far-fetched speculations or weak theories that don't hold up to scrutiny.  Supposedly the two most popular theories of consciousness proposed by scientists are one theory called integrated information theory and another theory called global workspace theory. You can read here why integrated information theory does not work as a credible theory of consciousness.  Global workspace theory isn't any better.

The wikipedia article on global workspace theory starts out by explaining it this way:

"GWT can be explained in terms of a 'theater metaphor.' In the 'theater of consciousness'  a 'spotlight of selective attention' shines a bright spot on stage. The bright spot reveals the contents of consciousness, actors moving in and out, making speeches or interacting with each other. The audience is not lit up—it is in the dark (i.e., unconscious) watching the play. Behind the scenes, also in the dark, are the director (executive processes), stage hands, script writers, scene designers and the like. They shape the visible activities in the bright spot, but are themselves invisible."

As a causal explanation for why a brain might be able to produce understanding or consciousness, this is a complete failure, as it does not refer to anything in the brain, but refers to some theater. At most it is some metaphor merely describing selective attention, but selective attention (or mental focus) is merely an aspect of understanding once it exists, not an explanation of consciousness or understanding.  You can't spotlight your way to consciousness. Also, there's nothing in the brain that actually corresponds physically to a spotlight. When you're thinking about something, it is not at all true that some particular region of your brain lights up like some area under a spotlight, contrary to the misleading statements and misleading visuals often given on this. Actual signal strength differences (typically far less than 1%) are no greater than we would expect from random variations.  

In an interview in Scientific American, Bernard Baars attempts to explain global workspace theory, but fails rather miserably to give a coherent explanation of how global workspace theory is anything like a theory explaining consciousness.   He is asked by the interviewer, "What is global workspace theory?" What we then get from Baars is  an answer that kind of wanders around all over the place for 11 paragraphs without giving much of any answer that anyone will be able to grasp. 

There is some mention of some swarm computing setup: "If you put a hundred crummy algorithms together and let them share hypotheses and vote on the most popular one, it turns out that very inadequate algorithms could jointly solve problems that no single one could solve." There is entirely irrelevant for any explanation of consciousness or understanding, because particular areas of the brain are not like little micro-processors running software code. There is nothing like software code that runs anywhere in the brain. 

Baar's rambling and muddled answer to the question ends like this:

"Part IV of my latest book On Consciousness: Science & Subjectivity develops GW dynamics, suggesting that conscious experiences reflect a flexible 'binding and broadcasting' function in the brain, which is able to mobilize a large, distributed collection of specialized cortical networks and processes that are not conscious by themselves. Note that the 'broadcast' phase proposed by the theory should evoke widespread adaptation, for the same reason that a fire alarm should evoke widespread responding, because the specific needs for task-relevant responders cannot be completely known ahead of time. General alarms are interpreted according to local conditions. A brain-based GW interacts with an 'audience' of highly distributed, specialized knowledge sources, which interpret the global signal in terms of local knowledge (Baars, 1988). The global signal triggers reentrant signaling, resonance is the typical activity of the cortex."
Baar's scrambled 11-paragraph answer is a complete failure as an attempt to explain how a brain could produce consciousness or understanding. Electrical signals travel around in the brain, but there is nothing like a broadcast in the brain that could explain consciousness or understanding.  And it's rather silly to be trying to use fire alarms as part of an attempt to explain consciousness or understanding. 
To understand how impotent the idea of broadcasting is to explain consciousness or understanding, let's consider the city I grew up in. When I was a boy there were in my city several very high broadcast towers that broadcasted TV signals and radio signals. Almost every house in the city had an old-fashioned TV that picked up these TV signals, and also an old-fashioned radio that picked up the old-fashioned radio signals. But none of this huge amount of broadcasting and broadcast reception resulted in the slightest bit of consciousness in any of the antennas, the television sets or the radios.  The idea of broadcasting is worthless in explaining consciousness. 
We cannot at all explain consciousness by saying that it adds up from the activity of a bunch of networks that "are not conscious by themselves."  There is no reason why the activity of a bunch of unconscious networks should add up to be a conscious reality, any more than having a house made of bricks should add up to be a wooden house.

The reality in the brain is that there are billions of cells that each emits electrical signals.  A rough analogy might be a packed stadium with 80,000 people who are each making noise during a football game.  But still you have a unified self and a unified stream of thought from a mind. There's not the slightest reason why that would emerge from the activity of billions of individual neurons, just as there's not the slightest reason why a single paragraph of speech would ever flow from the lips of 80,000 people in a stadium.

A broadcast is a stream of tokens that can give information to an agent capable of understanding who is listening to such a broadcast. But a broadcast does nothing to ever produce such an agent of understanding.  The flow of tokens during a broadcast is rather like the stream of bullets from a machine gun.  Thinking that you can broadcast your way to consciousness is as silly as thinking that you can machine-gun your way to consciousness.

Narrating an achievement legend that is groundless (something very common these days in academia), Baars makes these mostly false claims:
"Our individuality is a function of the cortex, which is now proven by brain studies to be 'the organ of consciousness.' Wilder Penfield discovered that in 1934 via open-brain surgeries in fully awake patients, who were able to talk with him and gesture."
The brain is an organ, and the cortex is not an organ, but only a small fraction of an organ. So calling the cortex "the organ of consciousness" is nonsense.  There are no brain studies showing that the cortex produces consciousness. To the contrary, we know that after hemispherectomy operations in which half of the cortex (and half of the brain) is removed and discarded, to stop very bad seizures,  people are just as conscious and just as intelligent as they were before such an operation.  And we also know from the studies of people like physician John Lorber that people have existed with very good consciousness and above-average intelligence, even though they had brains and cortexes that were almost entirely destroyed by disease. Such medical case histories debunk claims that the cortex is the source of consciousness. Of course, an operation by Penfield in which people can talk and gesture during brain surgery does absolutely nothing to establish that the brain or the cortex is the source of consciousness.  So it is wrong for Baars to be citing such a thing as evidence that Penfield discovered that consciousness comes from the cortex.

Baars has tried to suggest the idea that consciousness comes from a broadcasting of something from the cortex. But the cortex of the brain is an actually an extremely bad broadcaster.  Electrical signals in the cortex travel from one neuron to another with a very low reliability.  It has been estimated that the chance of an action potential traveling between two adjacent neurons in the cortex is below 50%, and as low as 10%.  A scientific paper says, "In the cortex, individual synapses seem to be extremely unreliable: the probability of transmitter release in response to a single action potential can be as low as 0.1 or lower." It's implausible to be saying that cortex cells that are such bad and unreliable information transmitters (such bad broadcasters) are somehow giving rise to consciousness through some kind of broadcasting effect. 
Baars has some book describing his ideas on this topic.  But I see no reason why anyone should buy such a book, because nothing that Baars states in his Scientific American interview should give us any confidence that he has any substantive explanation for how a brain could produce consciousness, thinking or understanding.  When asked about the "hard problem of consciousness" he states there is no evidence for it, which makes no sense, and is like saying there is no evidence for the problem of the origin of language or the problem of the origin of life.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Groupthink and Peer Pressure Make It Taboo for Neuroscientists to Put Two and Two Together

Why do so many neuroscientists go far astray in their dogmatic declarations about the brain? To understand the speech tendencies of neuroscientists, we must understand the environments that create and employ such scientists. Neuroscientists are created in university departments that are ideological enclaves. An ideological enclave is some environment where almost everyone believes in some ideology that the majority of human beings do not profess. Different departments of a university may tend to be places where different ideologies are concentrated.

A seminary is an example of an ideological enclave. A seminary is an institution where people are trained to be ministers or priests of some particular religion. A university graduate school program (one issuing masters degrees and PhD's in some academic specialty) may also be an example of an ideological enclave. Just as a seminary trains people to think in one particular way, and to hold a particular set of unproven beliefs, many a university graduate program may train people to think in a particular way, and to hold a particular set of unproven beliefs. Neuroscience graduate school programs tend to train people to believe that all mental phenomena have a cause that is purely neural, and that your mind is merely the activity of your neurons. This strange belief is not a belief professed by the majority of human beings.

It would be incredibly hard for any ideological enclave to enforce its belief ideology if the enclave got its members by some random selection process that gave it new members reflecting the thinking of the general population. Instead, things are much easier for the ideological enclave. There is what we can call a magnet effect by which the ideological enclave only gets new trainees when people choose to join the enclave. This guarantees that each new set of trainees will tend to be people favoring the ideology of the enclave. The great majority of the people signing up to be trained in the ideological enclave will be those attracted to its ideology. The great majority of the people signing up to be trained in a theological seminary will be those who favor the theology being taught in that seminary. Similarly, the great majority of the people signing up for a university graduate program in neuroscience or evolutionary biology will be people favoring the belief dogmas popular in such programs.

Once a person starts being trained in an ideological enclave, he will find relentless social pressure to conform to the ideology of that enclave. This pressure will continue for years. The pressure will be applied by authorities who usually passed through years of training and belief conditioning by the ideological enclave, or a similar ideological enclave elsewhere. In a seminary such authorities are ministers or priests, and in a university graduate school program such authorities are professors or instructors. Finally, after years of belief conditioning the person who signed up for the training will be anointed as a new authority himself. In the university graduate school program, this occurs when something like a master's degree or a PhD or a professorship is granted. In a seminary, this may occur when someone becomes a minister or priest.

Groupthink is a tendency for some conformist social unit to have overconfidence in its decisions or belief customs, or unshakable faith in such things. Groupthink is worsened by any situation in which only those with some type of credential (available only from some ideological enclave) are regarded as fit to offer a credible judgment on some topic. In groupthink situations, an illusion of consensus may be helped by self-censorship (in which those having opinions differing from the group ideology keep their contrary opinions to themselves, for fear of being ostracized within the group). In groupthink situations, belief conformity may also be helped by so-called mindguards, who work to prevent those in the group from becoming aware of contrarian opinions, alternate options or opposing observations. In an academic community such mindguards exist in the form of peer-reviewers and academic editors who prevent the publication of opinions and data contrary to the prevailing group ideology. We saw an example of such conformity enforcement in neuroscience not long ago when an “outrage mob” of 900 petitioners forced the retraction of a neuroscience paper which seemed to have no sin worse than contrarian thinking.

ideological enclave

For the person who completes the program of a university graduate school program, and gets his master's degree or PhD, is that the end of the conformist social influence, the end of the pressure to believe and think in a particular way? Not at all. Instead, the “follow the herd” effect and the pressure to tow the “party line” of the belief community typically continues for additional decades. The newly minted PhD rarely goes off on his own to become an independent thinker marching to his own drummer, outside of the heavy influence of the belief community. Instead, such a person usually becomes a kind of captive of a belief community. The newly minted PhD will very often get a job working for the very ideological enclave that trained him, a particular academic department of a university. Or, he may end up employed by some very similar academic department of some other university, a place that is an ideological enclave just like the one in which he was trained. Such employment typically lasts for decades, during which someone may be stuck in a kind of echo chamber in which everyone parrots the same talking points. So when there is groupthink and ideological conformity in some academic specialty, peer pressure can continue to act for decades on someone like a neuroscientist or a string theorist or an evolutionary biologist.

Such peer pressure can be something that tells people they are  supposed to think in one way, and may also be something that tells people they should not think in some other way. The enforcement of belief taboos and speech taboos is one of the main tendencies of ideological enclaves and belief communities. Such taboos are promoted by those interested in preserving the ideological cohesiveness of the belief community. The belief community of neuroscientists enforces thinking taboos that can prevent neuroscientists from reaching conclusions that follow rather obviously from particular observations. Such taboos can make it culturally forbidden for neuroscientists to put two and two together. “Put two and two together” is a phrase referring to reaching an obvious conclusion. Let me give some examples where belief taboos prevent neuroscientists from putting two and two together.

Example #1: Near-death Experiences and Apparitions

Human beings often have near-death experiences. In such experiences people very often report floating out of their bodies and observing their bodies from a distance. It is quite common for extremely vivid near-death experiences to occur during cardiac arrest, when brain activity has shut down because the heart has stopped. The type of accounts given by those who have near-death experiences tend to have very similar features, the type of items listed on the Greyson Scale. These include things such as passing through a tunnel, encountering deceased relatives, feelings of peace and joy, being told to go back when reaching a border or boundary between life and death, and so forth. Near-death experiences do not have the kind of random content we would expect from hallucinations. Near-death experiences also very often occur when any brain hallucination should be impossible, because the heart has stopped and electrical activity in the brain has stopped. When people report having near-death experiences when their hearts are stopped, they can often recall details of the activity of medical personnel working nearby them, details they should not have been able to observe given their deeply unconscious medical condition.

In addition, perfectly healthy humans are often surprised to see an apparition of someone they did not know was dead, only to soon find out later that the corresponding person did die, typically on the same day and hour as the apparition was seen. You can read about 165 such cases here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Moreover, a single apparition is often seen by multiple witnesses, as discussed in 50+ cases here and here and here and here.

There is a very clear conclusion that must be reached when someone puts two and two together regarding what we know about near-death experiences and apparitions. The conclusion is that human consciousness is not actually a product of the brain, and can continue even when the brain has stopped working because of cardiac arrest. But to conclude such a thing would be to violate a belief taboo enforced by groupthink and peer pressure in the neuroscientist belief community. The belief taboo is that you cannot believe in any type of human soul, but must believe that all human mental activity comes purely from neurons. So in this case the social taboo (enforced by groupthink and peer pressure) prevents neuroscientists from putting two and two together.

Example #2: The Lack of Anything in Brains Suitable for Long-Term Memory Storage or Instant Memory Retrieval

Humans are capable of accurately remembering episodic memories and learned information for more than 60 years. Humans also routinely show the ability to instantly recall information learned many years ago, given a single prompt such as a question or the mention of a name or place. But we know of nothing in the brain that can explain such abilities.

A computer hard disk may read and write information by using a spinning disk and a read-write head, but we know of no similar thing in the brain. We know of nothing in the brain that seems like a unit specialized for reading stored information, nor do we know of anything in the brain that seems like some unit specialized for writing information. No one has ever discovered any type of encoding system by which any of the vast varieties of information humans remember could ever be translated into neural states or synapse states. Nor has anyone ever discovered anything like some indexing system that might explain how humans could instantly recall things.

Although it is often claimed that memories are stored in synapses, the proteins that make up synapses are very short-lived, having lifetimes of only a few weeks or less. There is nothing in the brain that is a plausible candidate for a place where memories might be stored for either several years or six decades. Humans are able to remember very large bodies of information with 100% accuracy, as we see on the stage when we see an actor recall all of the lines of the role of Hamlet without error or all of the lines and notes of the roles of Wagner's Siegfried or Tristan without error. But such 100% recall of large bodies of learned information should be impossible if it occurred through neural activity, given the high levels of signal noise in a brain. It has been estimated that when a neural signal travels from one neuron to another in a cortex, the signal transmission occurs with far less than 50% reliability. Other than the genetic information in DNA, no one has ever found any sign of stored information in a brain, such as memory information that could be read from a dead organism after it died.

There is a very clear conclusion that must be reached when someone puts two and two together regarding what we know about the limits of the human brain. The conclusion is that the brain cannot be the storage place of human memories. But to conclude such a thing would be to violate a belief taboo enforced by groupthink and peer pressure in the neuroscientist belief community. The belief taboo is that you cannot believe that any major facet of the human mind comes from something other than the brain, but must believe that all human mental activity comes purely from neurons. So in this case the social taboo (enforced by conformist groupthink and peer pressure) prevents neuroscientists from putting two and two together.

Example #3: The Results of Hemispherectomy Operations or Even Greater Brain Tissue Loss

A hemispherectomy operation is an operation in which half of a patient's brain is removed, typically to stop very bad seizures the person is suffering from. Hemispherectomy operations provide an excellent test for dogmas regarding the brain. From the dogma that the brain is the cause of human intelligence and the storage place of memories, we should expect that suddenly removing half of someone's brain should cause at least a 50% drop in intelligence, along with a massive loss of memories and learned information.

Nothing of the sort happened when such operations were done. You can read about the exact effects of hemispherectomy operations by reading my posts here and here and here and here. In most cases hemispherectomy operation does not cause a significant reduction in intelligence as measured by IQ tests. In quite a few cases, someone did better in an IQ test after half of his brain was removed in a hemispherectomy operation. Hemispherectomy operations also do not seem to cause major loss of memories.

Brain-ravaging natural diseases sometimes provide an even better test of dogmas about the brain. Such diseases often remove much more than half of a person's brain. Astonishingly, the result is often a person of normal intelligence and sometimes even above-average intelligence. The physician John Lorber studied many cases of people who had lost the great majority of their brains, mostly because of a disease called hydrocephalus. Lorber was astonished that more than half of such patients had above-average intelligence. Then there are cases such as the case of the French person who managed to long hold a civil servant job, even though he had almost no brain

There is a very clear conclusion that must be reached when someone puts two and two together regarding what we know about how loss of half or most of the brain has little effect on intelligence or memory. The conclusion is that the brain cannot be the storage place of human memories, and cannot be the source of human intelligence. But to conclude such a thing would be to violate a belief taboo enforced by groupthink and peer pressure in the neuroscientist belief community. The belief taboo is that you cannot believe that any major facet of the human mind comes from something other than the brain, but must believe that all human mental activity comes purely from neurons. So in this case the social taboo (enforced by an echo chamber of groupthink and peer pressure) prevents neuroscientists from putting two and two together.

In this regard we may compare neuroscience departments of universities to some bizarre pharmaceutical manufacturer that allows its researchers to note when the company's pill causes a person to collapse, turn white, and stop breathing, but makes it a taboo for researchers to put two and two together and conclude that the company's pill is dangerous. 

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Your Physical Structure Did Not Arise Bottom-Up, So Why Think Your Mind Did?

Neuroscientists typically maintain that human mental phenomena are entirely produced by the brain. But this claim is mainly a speech custom of a social group, a belief dogma of a belief community, rather than something that is justified by facts. Looking at the human mind, we find again and again characteristics and abilities that cannot be credibly explained though any known features of the brain. Consider the following:
  1. Humans are able to recall extremely esoteric or distant items of information instantly. For example, I scored more than 50% on a pair of challenge videos playing 40 musical themes from the 1960's and 1970's TV shows, without offering any set of choices to choose from. And upon hearing of some obscure historical or literary figure he haven't heard of in 40 years, a 60-year-old may be able to identify him. But we know of nothing in a brain that could allow such instantaneous recall. Computer information systems that retrieve information instantly can do this because of features such as b-trees, hashing and indexes that are unlike anything in the human brain. 
  2. For many types of performers such as Shakespearean actors and Wagnerian tenors, recall of voluminous learned information occurs with an accuracy of at least 99%. But in neurons and the supposed storage place of memories (synapses), there are multiple types of signal noise that are believed to prevent chemical/electrical signals from being transmitted at more than a 50% accuracy. Since a chemical/electrical signal would have to pass through many different neurons and synapses, we would expect a neural recall of memory to have much less than 10% accuracy. 
  3. Humans can remember things very well for more than 50 years, but synapses (the supposed storage place of memories) are made up of proteins that have an average lifetime of only a few weeks. Based on this fact, we should not expect synapses to be able to store memories for more than a few weeks. 
  4. Humans are capable of thought, reflection, insight, imagination, and creativity, but we know of no specific features in the brain that might allow any of these things. We know of no real reason why a single neuron should be thoughtful, reflective, insightful, imaginative or creative, and we know of no real reason to suppose that billions of connected  neurons should be thoughtful, reflective, insightful, imaginative  or creative.
  5. Computers are able to store information rapidly and recall information rapidly partially because they have a specific component called a read-write head that handles such functions. But we know of no specific component in a brain that might act like a write mechanism, nor do we know of any specific component in a brain that might act like a read mechanism. 
  6. For a human brain to be able to store memories, it would need to have some incredibly sophisticated and elaborate encoding system whereby information that humans can recall (images, words, abstract concepts, feelings and episodic memories) could be translated into stored neural states. Nothing like any such encoding system has ever been discovered. If it were ever discovered it would be a miracle of design that would worsen a thousand-fold the problem of naturally explaining the origin of humans. 
  7. As discussed here, there is very good experimental evidence for paranormal abilities such as ESP, evidence that cannot be explained by brain activity. 

Clearly, the human brain is an extremely poor candidate for something that can explain the human mind. But people continue to cling to the idea that the brain generates the mind (or the equally faulty idea that the brain is the mind). If you ask someone to justify such a belief, the person may say something like this: “You must believe your mind comes from your brain, because there's no other organ in the body that could be making the mind – and of course it would be ludicrous to believe that the mind comes from something other than the body.” But such an idea should not seem ludicrous in the least when we consider that another huge aspect of ourselves – the human form or structure – cannot possibly have arisen bottom-up from anything in our bodies, and must somehow arrive from outside of our bodies or from something different from our bodies.

Let us consider how little we know about how humans come into the world. When a sperm unites with a female ovum, the result is a speck-like fertilized egg. But somehow over 9 months, there occurs a progression leading from this tiny speck to a full human baby. This process is sometimes called morphogenesis or embryogenesis. How does this progression happen? We have basically no idea.

For decades many have pushed an untenable misconception about morphogenesis. The idea is that DNA in a cell contains a blueprint or set of instructions for making a human, and that morphogenesis occurs when such instructions are read and carried out inside the human womb. But there are several reasons why this idea cannot possibly be true. They include the following:
  1. Human DNA has been thoroughly studied, and no blueprint of a human form has ever been discovered in it, nor has anyone discovered anything in it like a program, algorithm, or set of instructions for making a human, or even any organ or cell of a human. There is not anything like a general blueprint for an overall human form in DNA, nor is there anything like a blueprint for making any large system of a human, nor is there anything like a blueprint for making any organ of a human, nor is there even anything like a blueprint for making a particular type of human cell. Similarly, there is not anything like a set of instructions or program for making an overall human form in DNA, nor is nor is there anything like a set of instructions or program for making any large system of a human, nor is there anything like a set of instructions or program for making any organ of a human, nor is there even anything like a set of instructions for making a particular type of human cell.
  2. The actual information in DNA is merely very low level chemical information, information on the chemical ingredients that make up proteins and RNA. 
  3. DNA is written in a minimalist bare-bones language in which the only things that can be expressed are things such as lists of amino acids. There is absolutely no high-level expressive capability in DNA that might ever allow it to be something that might be a blueprint for making humans or a set of instructions for making humans. 
  4. The amount of information in human DNA and the number of genes in DNA are vastly smaller than we would expect if DNA was a specification of a human. For example, a simple rice plant has twice as many genes as a human. 
  5. There is nothing in the human womb that could ever be capable of reading and executing the fantastically complicated instructions that would need to exist in DNA if DNA were to be a specification of a human. Blueprints don't build things; building construction occurs only when there's an intelligent blueprint reader and a construction crew. We know of nothing in the human womb that could act like an intelligent blueprint reader or a construction crew. If a human specification were to exist in DNA, it would need to be instructions so complicated it  would require an Einstein to understand it; and there's no Einstein in the womb of a pregnant woman. 

See this post, this post and this post for a very detailed discussion of why DNA cannot be a human specification. Those posts include quotes by quite a few biological experts supporting my statements on this topic.  Below are only a few of more than a dozen similar comments that I have collected at the end of this post.

On page 26 of the recent book The Developing Genome, Professor David S. Moore states, "The common belief that there are things inside of us that constitute a set of instructions for building bodies and minds -- things that are analogous to 'blueprints' or 'recipes' -- is undoubtedly false." Scientists Walker and Davies state this in a scientific paper:

"DNA is not a blueprint for an organism; no information is actively processed by DNA alone. Rather, DNA is a passive repository for transcription of stored data into RNA, some (but by no means all) of which goes on to be translated into proteins."

Geneticist Adam Rutherford states that "DNA is not a blueprint." A press account of the thought of geneticist Sir Alec Jeffreys states, "DNA is not a blueprint, he says."  B.N. Queenan (the Executive Director of Research at the NSF-Simons Center for Mathematical & Statistical Analysis of Biology at Harvard University) tells us this:

"DNA is not a blueprint. A blueprint faithfully maps out each part of an envisioned structure. Unlike a battleship or a building, our bodies and minds are not static structures constructed to specification."

"The genome is not a blueprint," says Kevin Mitchell, a geneticist and neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin. "It doesn't encode some specific outcome."  His statement was reiterated by another scientist. "DNA cannot be seen as the 'blueprint' for life," says Antony Jose, associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland. He says, "It is at best an overlapping and potentially scrambled list of ingredients that is used differently by different cells at different times."  Sergio Pistoi (a science writer with a PhD in molecular biology) tells us, "DNA is not a blueprint," and tells us, "We do not inherit specific instructions on how to build a cell or an organ."

The visual below shows you the very humble reality about DNA (so much less than the grossly inflated myths so often spread about it): that DNA merely specifies low-level chemical information such as the amino acids that make up a protein.  Particular combinations of the "ladder rungs" of the DNA (the colored lines) represent particular amino acids (the "beads" in the polypeptide chain that is the starting point of a protein). 


Human bodies have multiple levels of organization beyond such simple polypeptide chains, including: 

  • The three-dimensional structure of protein molecules
  • The three-dimensional structure of the 200 types of cells in the human body, most of these cell types being fantastically complicated arrangements of matter (scientists have compared the complexity of a cell to the complexity of an airplane or city)
  • The structure of tissues
  • The structure of organ systems and skeletal systems
  • The overall structure of the human body, what you see by looking at a naked human body

None of the structures listed above are specified by DNA or genomes or genes. How such structures arise is unknown. 

In light of the facts I have discussed, we must draw a very important conclusion: the biological form of an individual (his overall body plan or structure) cannot originate bottom-up from something within the human body. The physical structure of a human must come from some mysterious source other than the human body or outside of the body. Much as we would like to believe the widely circulated myth that the form of your body comes from your DNA, the facts do not at all support such an idea. We know of nothing in the human body that can be the source of the human form or body plan, nothing that can explain the marvel of morphogenesis, the progression from a speck-sized egg to a full-sized human body. So the human form or physical structure or human body plan must somehow come from outside of the body or from some source other than the body. 

The person who has carefully considered such a reality should have no objection to the idea that the human mind must come from some source outside of the body or different from the human body. Both conclusions follow from similar types of evidence considerations. Just as DNA fails in every respect to be a credible source for the human physical form, the brain fails in almost every respect to be a credible source of the human mind (for reasons discussed at great length in the posts of this site).

We must climb out of the tiny thought box of materialism and consider other possibilities. One possibility is that the human mind comes from some spiritual or energy reality that co-exists with the human body. In such a case it might be true that the mind of each person has a different source, but not a bodily source. Another possibility is that every human mind comes from the same source, some mysterious and unfathomable cosmic reality that might also be the source of the human physical form.

To gain some insight on how we have been conditioned or brainwashed to favor a bad type of explanation for our physical structure and minds, let us consider a hypothetical planet rather different from our own: a planet in which the atmosphere is much thicker, and always filled with clouds that block the sun.  Let's give a name to this perpetually cloudy planet in another solar system, and call this imaginary entity planet Evercloudy.  Let's imagine that the clouds are so thick on planet Evercloudy that its inhabitants have never seen their sun.  The scientists on this planet might ponder two basic questions:

(1) What causes daylight on planet Evercloudy?
(2) How is it that planet Evercloudy stays warm enough for life to exist?

Having no knowledge of their sun, the correct top-down explanation for these phenomena, the scientists on planet Evercloudy would probably come up with very wrong answers. They would probably speculate that daylight and planetary warmth are bottom-up effects.  They might spin all kinds of speculations such as hypothesizing that daylight comes from photon emissions of rocks and dirt, and that their planet was warm because of heat bubbling up from the hot center of their planet.  By issuing such unjustified speculations, such scientists would be like the scientists on our planet who wrongly think that life and mind can be explained as bottom-up effects bubbling up from molecules. 

Facts on planet Evercloudy would present very strong reasons for rejecting such attempts to explain daylight and warm temperatures on planet Evercloudy as bottom-up effects. For one thing, there would be the fact of nightfall, which could not easily be reconciled with any such explanations. Then there would be the fact that the dirt and rocks at the feet below the scientists of Evercloudy would be cold, not warm as would be true if such a bottom-up theory of daylight and planetary warmth were correct.  But we can easily believe that the scientists on planet Evercloudy would just ignore such facts, just as scientists on our planet ignore a huge number of facts arguing against their claims of a bottom-up explanation for life and mind (facts such as the fact that people still think well when you remove half of their brains in hemispherectomy operations, the fact that the proteins in synapses have very short lifetimes, and the fact that the human body contains no blueprint or recipe for making a human, DNA being no such thing). 

We can imagine someone trying to tell the truth to the scientists on planet Evercloudy:

Contrarian: You have got it very wrong. The daylight on our planet and the warmth on our planet are not at all bottom-up effects bubbling up from under our feet.  Daylight and warmth on our planet can only be top-down effects, coming from some mysterious unseen reality beyond the matter of our planet. 
Evercloudy scientist:  Nonsense! A good scientist never postulates things beyond the clouds. Such metaphysical ideas are the realm of religion, not science. We can never observe what is beyond the clouds. 

Just as the phenomena of daylight and planetary warmth on planet Evercloudy could never credibly be explained as bottom-up effects, but could only be credibly explained as top-down effects coming from some mysterious reality unknown to the scientists of Evercloudy, the phenomena of life and mind on planet Earth can never be credibly explained as bottom-up effects coming from mere molecules, but may be credibly explained as top-down effects coming from some mysterious unknown reality that is the ultimate source of life and mind.