Wednesday, April 25, 2018

An Analogy Clarifying Why the "Brain Stores All Your Memories" Dogma Is Implausible

Let us imagine a man named Ed who gets a job as a warehouse worker at a warehouse called Warehouse B. Ed reports to work on the first day.

Ed: Reporting for work, sir.
Supervisor: Welcome to Warehouse B. Let me brief you on the job we need you to do.
Ed: I'm all ears.
Supervisor: We want to start storing at this warehouse all the information we get from our television set.
Ed: I see you have lots of empty shelves here. That's good; they'll be lots of storage room. So you do have a video recorder to start recording the shows?
Supervisor: Absolutely not. Such devices are forbidden here.
Ed: So how could you store all the information coming from the TV?
Supervisor: That is something you must figure out, given the rules I set.
Ed: Okay, give me the rules.
Supervisor: Nothing can be written down. We have no pens or pencils here, and you can never bring any. Writing with a pen or pencil or electronic device is forbidden here. If you want to store information, you can only use chemicals or proteins or electricity.
Ed: Chemicals or proteins or electricity?
Supervisor: Yes, we have all kinds of chemicals you can use to store the information from the TV. Plus we have lots of batteries, which you can set to any voltage you want. Plus we have lots of proteins lying around: ham, cheese, you name it. You can any use of these things to store the information from the TV set. But no writing is allowed.
Ed: How on earth could I use chemicals, electricity and proteins to store all that complicated information from the TV set?
Supervisor: I don't know. It's your job to figure that out.
Ed: Can I use some type of electronics to store the information from the TV shows?
Supervisor: No, electronics are strictly forbidden here.
Ed: I see you have lots of boxes.
Supervisor: Yes. If you figure out how to store information from the TV shows using chemicals, electricity, and proteins, you can put your successful solution in a box, and store it on the shelf.
Ed: How many of these TV shows do you need to store?
Supervisor: We need to store all the programs we get for the next 50 years. And after we've stored that, we need to be able to retrieve the information instantaneously. So if someone wants to know what was in some particular show on some particular date, we have to get that information from the shelves real fast.
Ed: So these boxes on the shelf will have to be carefully sorted and labeled, according to some system allowing rapid retrieval.
Supervisor: But you can't label the outside of any box – no writing allowed here. And once you've put a box on a shelf, you can never sort the boxes. And you can't label any of the shelves or aisles.
Ed: Wait a minute. I'm trying to imagine two years into the future, when thousands of these unmarked boxes are on the shelf. How on earth would anyone be able to instantly find a particular box when somebody asked for the info from one particular show – say, the information from the next Super Bowl or from the last episode of America's Got Talent?
Supervisor: I don't know. That's your job to figure that out. We have lots of wire – you can use as much of that as you want. But you can't bend the wire into letters. No writing allowed. And there's one other big problem.
Ed: What's that.
Supervisor: We have ten employees here who like to steal stuff. So once you start putting things on the shelves, whatever you put will get stolen real frequently.
Ed: Can you fire those employees?
Supervisor: No, they're guaranteed lifetime employees, because they're the warehouse owner's kids. They'll stay working here, no matter how much they steal. And another problem is that we get lots and lots of rats who come out every night, and who eat lots of any proteins or chemicals put on the shelves.
Ed: Can we just use some poison to kill off those rats?
Supervisor: No, that's strictly forbidden.
Ed: So let me see if I have this right. I have to set things up so that all the information that comes from the TV for the next 50 years gets stored on our shelves. But I can't use any electronics or writing to store all that information. All I can use is electricity, wire, chemicals and protein. I can use boxes, but none of the boxes can be labeled, marked or sorted. I've got to set things up so that the information from any requested TV show can be instantly retrieved, even though we'll just have shelves filled with unlabeled boxes. The information has to stay put for 50 years, even though there's ten employees who will be stealing lots of it every night, and lots of rats who will be eating up lots of chemicals or proteins I use to store the information.
Supervisor: That's about it. Can you think of some way to handle this?
Ed: Hell, no! I quit!

As you may have guessed already, Warehouse B is an analogy. Warehouse B represents the difficulty of storing information in a human brain. The stream of information from the television set represents the stream of information that flows through a particular person's senses as he lives. Storing the information from 50 years of TV shows would be about as difficult as storing the information from 50 years of living.


In our analogy, Ed is told that he must store the complicated information from the TV using only chemicals, electricity, and proteins, not by using any kind of electronics or writing. This corresponds to some limitations that would be in a brain if a brain were to store memories. We have no electronics in our brains. And neuroscientists examining brain tissue with electron microscopes have never detected any actual writing in the brain. In other words, even if we were to examine neurons at a magnification of 500,000 times, we would never see any tiny little letters that corresponded to some words in your memory.

Neuroscientists claim that the brain stores the very complex information we remember by using only chemicals, electricity and proteins. No neuroscientist has ever given a credible detailed explanation as to how such a miracle of encoding and translation could be accomplished. How, for example, could there ever be some combination of chemicals, electricity or proteins that represented your concept of your country or your religion or your mother?

In our analogy, Ed is told he must stick to a system of storage that is woefully unsuited for the instantaneous retrieval of specific information. He is told that he must put things in unmarked boxes that must be put on unlabeled shelves. Once lots of information accumulates, this system will not be able to handle instantaneous retrieval of specific information. For example, if someone asks three years from now, “What happened in the last Super Bowl?” or “Who were the winners at the Oscar awards two years ago?” no one at Warehouse B will be able to produce a quick answer. With thousands of unmarked boxes on the shelves, there will be no way to get such information instantaneously.

A brain would suffer from exactly this problem if it stored memories. For the brain has no coordinate system or position notation system by which an exact brain location could be located (such as neuron number 343,363,233), nor any labeling capability by which particular neurons or groups of neurons can be labeled. So an instantaneous recall of a specific memory (such as what a particular famous person looks like) should be impossible if it is stored in the brain. Also, neurons cannot be sorted, given the way they are arranged in a brain, with hundreds or thousands of connections between each neuron and nearby neurons. Given such an arrangement, you can no more sort things than you could sort the trees in a forest.

Suppose someone asks me, “Who was John F. Kennedy.” I instantly am able to recall an image of his face, and various facts about him, such as that he died by assassination on November 22, 1963. But how could I find that information so quickly if it was stored in some very tiny little part of my brain, perhaps from a location near neuron number 825,223,252? There would be no way for my brain to know where that exact location was.

It won't do any good for you to suggest that perhaps my brain scans all of its neurons to find that information. When you are asked some specific question, you do not at all have any type of thought experience similar to what it might be like to scan through all of your memories. You just instantly remember something. And if your brain was scanning through all its neurons to retrieve some information, that would take hours or days. You wouldn't be able to remember something instantly.

There is one other state of affairs in Warehouse B which is analogous to the situation in the brain. It is the fact that in Warehouse B there is a rapid loss of information stored on the shelves. In Warehouse B any information put on the shelves has a large chance of being lost within a few weeks, because of all the thievery by the ten guaranteed lifetime employees who are larcenous and can steal without risk, and because of all the rats that eat things on the shelves. In the brain there would be an equally great loss of any information stored, because of the rapid turnover of proteins. The most popular theory of memory storage in the brain is that memories are stored in synapses. But the proteins in synapses have an average lifetime of only a few weeks. There are other types of turnover going on. Synapses themselves have lifetimes of less than a year, as do the protrusions known as dendritic spines and synaptic boutons. As discussed here, there is no understanding of how the brain could possibly store information long enough so that you could remember things that happened decades ago. 

Just as Ed will never be able to figure out a system by which Warehouse B could actually store decades of TV shows (in a manner allowing instantaneous retrieval) given the limitations that the Supervisor has stated, our neuroscientists will never be able to specify a detailed scenario by which a brain could store memories for 50 years despite rapid protein turnover, and also allow specific memories to be instantly retrieved in the way our minds do, so that someone can name some obscure person, and you instantly recall facts about such a person you haven't thought about in many years. The most reasonable conclusion is that memories involve some mental facility other than the brain. We don't know how such a facility works, just as we don't have any reasonable idea of how a memory like a human's could possibly work using a brain.  But by postulating a non-neural basis for memory, we at least have a hypothesis that is not ruled out by what we know about the brain.

Nature never told us that a brain stores all a person's memories, and your body does nothing to suggest to you that you are retrieving memories from your brain. The idea that brains store memories is simply one that scientists gradually started assuming, without ever having sufficient evidence for such a conclusion. 

In one respect, the brain is even less suitable for storing memories than the Warehouse B described here. I described Warehouse B as having boxes and shelves, which would allow for some type of grouping effect, in which related bits of information can be grouped together. But in a brain, physical grouping should be impossible. The brain is a mass of neurons, and the average neuron is connected to 10,000 other neurons. In such a system there would seem to be no way in which related data items can be physically grouped together like pages in a manila file, nor any way in which data can be arranged in a discrete sequence, with a start point and a stop point.  As discussed here, such a system should not at all be suitable for storing long sequences, such as humans remember when they memorize songs, lists, and theatrical roles. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Split-Brain Cases Conflict with "Brains Make Minds" Dogma

Certain stories crop up in the scientific literature, and persist year after year despite a lack of solid basis in fact. One such story is that Galileo threw spheres of different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to test whether they would reach the ground at the same time. A wikipedia.org article on the experiment says such an experiment (never reported by Galileo) probably never occurred.

Another such story is the idea that Darwin found evidence for his ideas about evolution in finches he studied at the Galapagos Islands. Page 35 of a long paper on the topic by a Harvard scientist (entitled “Darwin and His Finches: The Evolution of a Legend” ) states Darwin “never actually put finches forward as evidence for the theory of evolution.” Page 39 states this:

In spite of the legend’s manifest contradictions with historical fact, it successfully holds sway today in the major textbooks of biology and ornithology, and is frequently encountered as well in the historical literature on Darwin. It has become, in fact, one of the most widely circulated legends in the history of the life sciences, ranking with famous stories of Newton and the apple and of Galileo’s experiments at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

On page 134 of his recent biography of Darwin, A.N. Wilson states the following:

Peter and Rosemary Grant, evolutionary biologists from Harvard University, spent twenty-five summers studying these birds....They revealed that the beak changes were reversible -- this is hardly 'evolution.'  Beaks adapted from season to season, depending on whether droughts left large, tough seeds, or heavy rainfall resulted in smaller, softer seeds.

A legend that arose fairly recently is that split-brain patients patients have a splitting of their perception, or maybe something like “split consciousness.” Such an idea was based on research done by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga. A split-brain patient is a patient who has a severing of the corpus callosum, a mass of fiber-like nerves that connect the left hemisphere of the brain and the right hemisphere of the brain. 

Even though split-brain patients continued to show a unity of consciousness, and did not by any means show something like a split personality, materialists have tried to make as much hay as possible out of the research of Sperry and Gazzaniga. For example, in 2007 psychologist Steven Pinker claimed that “Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull,” and spoke as if this alleged observation was evidence against a human soul. Such a claim was bogus. None of the experimental results reported that split-brain patients had two consciousnesses.

In 2014 the wikipedia.org article on split-brain patients stated the following:

In general, split-brained patients behave in a coordinated, purposeful and consistent manner, despite the independent, parallel, usually different and occasionally conflicting processing of the same information from the environment by the two disconnected hemispheres...Often, split-brained patients are indistinguishable from normal adults.

On page 202 of his recent book "The Consciousness Instinct" neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga claims  that “a neurosurgeon can disconnect the two hemispheres of the brain and produce two minds in your single head.” The claim is false, and he provides no historical examples of this happening. In fact, on page 203 Gazzaniga refers to split-brain patients, and says, “Oddly, after having their brains cut in half, all those patients said they felt fine, and the only difference they noted was the loss of seizures.” That statement contradicts his statement on page 202. 

In the video here we see a split-brain patient who seems like a pretty normal person, not at all someone with “two minds." And at the beginning of the video here the same patient says that after such a split-brain operation “you don't notice it” and that you don't feel any different than you did before – hardly what someone would say if the operation had produced “two minds” in someone. And the video here about a person with a split brain from birth shows us what is clearly someone with one mind, not two. 

A  scientific study published in 2017 set the record straight on split-brain patients. The research was done at the University of Amsterdam by Yair Pinto. A press release entitled “Split Brain Does Not Lead to Split Consciousness” stated, “The researchers behind the study, led by UvA psychologist Yair Pinto, have found strong evidence showing that despite being characterised by little to no communication between the right and left brain hemispheres, split brain does not cause two independent conscious perceivers in one brain.”

The press release states the following: “According to Pinto, the results present clear evidence for unity of consciousness in split-brain patients.” The paper states, “These findings suggest that severing the cortical connections between hemispheres splits visual perception, but does not create two independent conscious perceivers within one brain.” Their paper had the visual below showing their results:



Pinto and his colleagues criticize the research previously done on this topic, saying the following:

Strikingly, although this clinical observation features in many textbooks (Gazzaniga et al., 1998; Gray, 2002) the reported data are never quantitative...Sperry notes: ‘Although the general picture has continued to hold up in the main as described [… .] striking modifications and even outright exceptions can be found among the small group of patients examined to date.’

So apparently the original researchers weren't very numerically precise in measuring things, and got mixed results. Such nuances were ignored by a host of writers eager to use Sperry and Gazzaniga's research as something to prop up conventional dogmas that the brain generates the mind. Now doing things in a proper quantitative way, Pinto and his colleagues have come up with a result conflicting with the result of Sperry and Gazzaniga, a result telling us that split-brain patients have a perceptual unity of consciousness.

Pinto's paper notes that his findings spell trouble for two theories of consciousness, the Global Workspace Theory, and the Integrated Informaiton Theory, which are just flavors of the theory that brains make minds:

This preserved unity of consciousness may be especially challenging for the two currently most dominant theories of consciousness, the Global Workspace theory (Baars, 1988, 2005;Dehaene and Naccache, 2001) and the Integration Information theory (Tononi, 2004, 2005; Tononi and Koch, 2015). A core assumption of the Global Workspace theory is that cortical broadcasting of selected information by the ‘global workspace’ leads to consciousness. Thus severing of the corpus callosum, which prevents broadcasting of information across hemispheres, seems to exclude the emergence of one global workspace for both hemispheres. Rather, it seems that without a corpus callosum either two independent global workspaces emerge, or only one hemisphere will have a global workspace, while the other does not. In either case, an integrated global workspace, and thus preserved conscious unity, seems to be difficult to fit into this framework.

The general prediction of the "minds come from brains" dogma would seem to be that if you split a brain so that the left half is not connected to the right half, this should result in two minds -- perhaps a "left half of the body in conflict with the right half of the body" situation. But no such thing occurs. After the split-brain operation there is still one consciousness and one self that at worst has some minor perceptual issues.  The result of a unified consciousness in split-brain patients is perfectly compatible with the thesis of this website, that the human mind is not produced by the brain.

Postscript: See also this scientific paper "The Myth of Dual Consciousness in the Split Brain."

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Argument for Determinism Collapses Once We Discard the "Minds Come from Brains" Dogma

In history organized religions have sometimes taught evil doctrines, such as the doctrine that heretics should be burned at the stake. Governments have sometimes taught evil doctrines, such as the idea that some particular people are subhuman, and deserving of death. And sometimes scientists can teach evil doctrines. There are two evil doctrines taught by a small minority of modern scientists, but not a majority of them. One is the "no free will" doctrine of determinism, and the other is the doctrine that there is an infinity of parallel worlds in which there are an infinite number of copies of each one of us, with every imaginable variation of events. I will explain in this post why both of these doctrines are evil, in the sense of being corrosive to the morality of people who adopt them. Neither of these doctrines is actually a scientific doctrine, as there is no evidence for either of them, and neither of them is capable of being verified. But in the 2017 collection of essays at edge.org entitled “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” there are two essays that attempt to spread one of these evil doctrines. The definition of "evil" I am using here is the definition of "harmful or tending to harm" given by several dictionaries when they define the word "evil." By "evil" I simply mean "pernicious."

The doctrine of the infinity of parallel universes, with an infinite number of copies of you and everyone else, is taught by physicist Frank Tipler in an essay in the 2017 edge.org collection. Tipler states the following:

That is, there has to be a person identical to you reading this identical article right now in a universe identical to ours. Further, there have to be an infinite number of universes, and thus an infinite number of people identical to you in them.

Tipler misinforms us and misleads us by claiming that most physicists believe in this doctrine, and by claiming that its originator Hugh Everett supplied a “proof” for it. Neither statement is true. The most popular interpretation of quantum mechanics is still the Copenhagen interpretation, not Everett's crazy interpretation. Everett supplied neither proof nor the slightest bit of evidence for this theory of parallel universes. And neither does Tipler, who also fails to supply any argument at all for believing in such a thing.

What is called the Everett "many worlds" theory is a theory supposedly based on quantum mechanics. The theory holds that every instant the universe is constantly splitting up into an infinite number of copies of itself, so that every possibility (no matter how unlikely) can be realized. The theory has a name that makes it sound not so unreasonable (with all the planets being discovered, the phrase “many worlds” doesn't sound too farfetched). But the name “many worlds” doesn't describe the nutty idea behind the theory. The theory would be more accurately described as the theory of infinite duplication, because the theory maintains the universe is duplicating itself every second. Or we might also call the theory “the theory of infinite absurdities,” since it imagines that all absurd possibilities (no matter how ridiculous) are constantly being actualized.

There is no evidence whatsoever for this theory, which is endorsed by only a minority of theoretical physicists. The Everett "many worlds" theory has been firmly rejected by physicists such as Adrian Kent, T. P. Singh (who says it has been falsified), and also Casey Blood, who calls it “fatally flawed.” No one has ever observed a parallel universe. We also cannot plausibly imagine such a theory ever being verified. To verify the theory, you would need to travel to some other universe to verify its existence, which is, of course, impossible. Even if you did travel to such a universe, you could never verify the idea that every possibility is occurring in other parallel universes.

Why is the Everett “many worlds” theory an evil doctrine? It is because if a person seriously believed such a doctrine, such a belief would tend to undermine any moral inclinations he had. I will give a concrete example. Imagine you are driving in your car at 2:00 AM on a bitterly cold snowy night, and you see a scantily clad very young child walking alone far from anyone. If you don't believe in the Everett “many worlds” theory, you may stop you car and call the police to alert them of this situation, or do something like give your warm coat to the child to keep her warm. But if you believe in the Everett “many worlds” theory, you may reason like this: regardless of what I do, there will be an infinite number of parallel universes in which the child freezes to death, and an infinite number of other parallel universes in which the child does not freeze to death; so there's really no point in doing anything. So you may then drive on without stopping or doing anything, convinced that the multiverse would still be the same no matter how you acted.

Imagine any moral situation in which you should act in some moral way. In any such situation, your tendency to act morally will be dulled if you believe that there are an infinite number of copies of yourself, and that all possible outcomes will occur an infinite number of times. So the Everett “many worlds” theory is an evil doctrine, if we define an evil doctrine as one that tends to produce evil actions, or reduces the chance of moral behavior.

Another evil doctrine taught by some modern scientists is the doctrine of determinism, that free will doesn't exist. This doctrine has been taught by many believers in the dogma that minds come from brains, and is dependent on such a dogma. Determinism is taught by Jerry Coyne in a post in the 2017 edge.org collection of essays. Coyne states the following:

A concept that everyone should understand and appreciate is the idea of physical determinism: that all matter and energy in the universe, including what’s in our brain, obey the laws of physics. The most important implication is that is we have no “free will”: At a given moment, all living creatures, including ourselves, are constrained by their genes and environment to behave in only one way—and could not have behaved differently. We feel like we make choices, but we don’t. In that sense, “dualistic” free will is an illusion. This must be true from the first principles of physics. Our brain, after all, is simply a collection of molecules that follow the laws of physics; it’s simply a computer made of meat. That in turn means that given the brain’s constitution and inputs, its output—our thoughts, behaviors and “choices”—must obey those laws.

Determinism is an evil doctrine, because it tends to weaken or destroy any sense of shame or guilt a person might have. Determinism offers an excuse (a kind of “get out of jail free” card) for any evil thing that you might do. If you believe that you have no free will, and that everything you do is completely mandated by the particles and electricity in your brain and the laws of physics, you may kill, maim or rape without feeling any sense of guilt at all. Why feel guilty about your conduct, when your neurons and brain chemicals and brain electricity made you do it? A person should only feel guilty about anything if there is free will.

Thankfully, there is a way to completely undermine the evil doctrine of determinism, to make it melt into the ground like the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy threw a bucket of water on her. We can make determinism melt away by simply discarding the unwarranted doctrine that the human brain generates the human mind. Take a look at Coyne's argument for determinism in the quote above. It is entirely predicated on the dogma that the mind is generated by the brain. But if our minds are not generated by our brains, there is not the slightest reason to doubt our free will. If my mind is some spiritual reality or soul reality or some mental reality that is not generated by my brain, then if I do something wrong I can't blame my neurons or some chemical reactions or electricity in my head; I can only blame my self.

The fact that we can defeat the evil doctrine of determinism, and preserve a belief in free will, is a practical reason for believing that the brain does not make the mind. But such a practical reason is only one of many reasons for believing that minds do not come from brains. They include the following:

  • the fact that there are many dramatic cases in the medical literature of people who had more or less normal minds even though large fractions of the brain (or most of their brains) were destroyed due to injury or disease, including super-dramatic cases of people with good minds but less than 15 percent of their brains;
  • the fact that there is no scientific understanding at all of how brains or neurons could be producing consciousness, thought, understanding or abstract ideas (mental things that are very hard or impossible to explain as coming from physical things);
  • the fact that there is no plausible account to be told of how brains could possibly be storing memories that last for fifty years, given the high protein turnover in synapses, where the average protein only lasts a few weeks;
  • the fact that there is no understanding of how brains could achieve the instantaneous recall of distant, obscure memories that humans routinely show, given the lack of any coordinate system or indexing in a brain that might allow some exact position of a stored memory to be very quickly found;
  • the fact that there is no understanding whatsoever of how concepts, visual information, long series of words, and episodic memories could ever be physically stored by a brain in any way that would translate all these diverse types of information into synapse states or neuron states;
  • the fact that for more than 40 years numerous people have reported vivid near-death experiences occurring after their hearts stopped and their brains were inactive, during times when they had no brain waves, and they should have had no consciousness at all, with many of the medical details they reported during such experiences being independently verified (as described here).

So while there is a practical moral reason for believing that minds do not come from brains, what we may call a reason of convenience, there are many more evidence reasons and logic reasons for thinking such a thing, reasons that hold with equal strength even if we pay no attention to practical consequences.

Do not believe in the evil nonsense of determinism. You are a person with free will and moral responsibility. If you do some evil thing, you should feel guilt, because it is your self who made the bad decision, not your neurons.

As for Everett's "many worlds" theory, the fact that a small minority of physicists believe in such raving nonsense is simply something that exposes as false the myth that the modern scientist is necessarily a very logical thinker deciding on reasons of evidence. Clearly it is very possible for the modern scientist to believe something that is both absurd and unwarranted, whenever such a belief becomes fashionable in his or her little academic tribe. This is another reason why we should never be intimidated by people making arguments along the lines of "it must be true, because most of the scientists believe it."

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Animal Experiments Conflicting with the Dogma That the Brain Stores All Memories

Scientists have long advanced the dogma that memories can only be stored in brains. But there is a line of experiments that challenge such a dogma. The experiments involve worms. The worms in question have an astonishing ability. You can cut off the head of one of these worms, and it will grow a new head.

In the 1950's the scientist James McConnell did astonishing experiments with flatworms. He trained flatworms (planaria) to respond to lighting cues. He then cut off the heads of the flatworms, leaving only half a worm. He was not surprised to see the tail of the worm regrow into a full worm that included a new brain. Such a thing had been observed long ago. But what was surprising was that the worms seemed to remember the learning that had previously been provided. Under the prevailing dogma of neuroscience – that all memories are stored in the brain – such a thing should have been impossible. The learning should have been lost when a worm's first brain was cut off. McConnell's research was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The paper stated, “ It was concluded that in planaria the rudimentary brain is necessary for learning to take place but not for retention of the learned response."

More recently, scientist Michael Levin of Tufts University has replicated McConnell's findings. Spending lots of money, Levin developed a fancy machine called the Automatic Training Apparatus, designed to test flatworms in a way that would be computer-assisted and involve less subjective interpretation by humans. 

device

 Levin's machine

Levin's results were similar to McConnell's. The sequence he documented over and over again was:
  1. A worm was trained in some way.
  2. The worm had its head severed.
  3. The worm regrew its body, growing a new brain.
  4. The worm was then retested to see whether it remembered its previous learning.
  5. It was found repeatedly that the worm seemed to remember what it had previously learned before decapitation.

Levin published his research in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The paper was entitled, “An automated training paradigm reveals long-term memory in planarians and its persistence through head regeneration.”

It is impossible to explain these results under prevailing dogmas that memories are stored in brains. An article on Levin's research includes some weird speculation involving RNA molecules going from the head of the flatworm into the tail, and then migrating back into the head after the head had regenerated after decapitation. But the article concedes that this scenario is “imaginary,” and scientists haven't even maintained that memories are stored in RNA molecules.

But there is a scenario that can explain experimental results such as McConnell's and Levin's. Consider the following hypothetical scenario.

  1. All animals with brains (include flatworms and humans) have something like a soul. In the case of a flatworm, we might call this a mini-soul.
  2. Such animals store memories not mainly in brains, but mainly in souls.
  3. When a flatworm is decapitated, its brain is lost, but its soul or mini-soul is preserved, and still holds the animal's previous memories.
  4. When the decapitated flatworm grows a new brain, it is able to remember its previous learning, because it is retrieving memories not from its newly regenerated brain but from its soul or mini-soul that was never damaged.

The experimental results of McConnell and Levin are inconsistent with the idea that memories are stored only in brains, but are quite consistent with the scenario above.  These experiments should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the research of Karl Lashley. Lashley spent years doing experiments with a variety of animals to determine how much memory was affected by removal or damage to parts of the brains. He found many examples of animals remembering things well even after large parts of their brains had been removed. See the beginning of this post for some examples. 

Are there any other experiments hinting at the existence of a soul? Yes, but they involve not animals but human beings. The experiments I refer to are experiments involving ESP and remote-viewing. Innumerable scientific papers have been published documenting positive results in such experiments. In the case of the Joseph Rhine experiments at Duke University, we have experiments showing spectacular results that we would not expect to see merely by chance even if everyone on the planet was tested for ESP.

What do such experiments have to do with the soul? Abilities such as ESP and remote viewing are utterly inexplicable under a neurological framework. Evidence for such abilities suggests very strongly that the human mind involves some paranormal or spiritual or transcendent component that goes beyond anything that can be explained by using the nervous system and the brain. The term “soul” can be used as a vague term for such a component.

Of course, you can deny all of this if you wish to cling to materialist dogmas about the brain, and maintain that the mind and memories are 100% brain effects. But life is going to be hard for you. You must explain away or deny the worm experiments done by multiple researchers. You must explain away or deny tons of experiments showing paranormal human abilities, experiments done for more than 100 years, including experiments done at leading universities and experiments long funded by the US government. You must deny all the evidence involving near-death experiences, suggesting that human consciousness can continue when the brain is inoperative, including many cases of people verifying details of their medical procedures when they should have been completely unconscious. You must claim that memories are all stored in brains, even though there is no plausible mechanism by which human brains could store memories for longer than a year or two, given all the structural and protein turnover occurring in synapses (discussed here). You must somehow claim that memory recall is purely neurological, even though no one has the slightest idea of how a brain or mind could ever know how to find the exact location in the brain where a memory was stored. You must also maintain that somehow all our abstract thoughts are made by neurons, although no one can explain how one neuron or a trillion neurons could combine to make an abstract concept such as “life,” “universe,” or “nation.” You must also maintain that somehow the brain is constantly using a vast wealth of encoding schemes and decoding schemes that allow it to translate concepts, episodic memories and visual memories into molecular storage, even though no one has ever found such an encoding scheme, no one has ever spelled out in detail how such encoding schemes could work, and if such encoding schemes existed they would require some insanely intricate design scheme almost infinitely more complicated than the design scheme behind DNA (creating a gigantic “intelligent design” issue materialists would prefer to avoid). You must also explain away cases such as John Lorber's and these cases, which suggest that minds can function very well even when a large fraction of the brain is damaged or a great majority of the brain is gone.

Good luck doing all that without tying your prose into knots.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Our Minds May Arrive Top-Down Not Bottom-Up

Conventional thinking has been that the human mind is a bottom-up kind of thing. The idea is that your mind is produced solely by some combination of neurons in your brain  -- that your consciousness and self somehow "bubble up" from these neurons. The thinking is kind of like this: your consciousness is like some juice, and your brain is the juice maker.

But there are some good reasons for thinking that this “bottom-up” assumption is quite false. For one thing, we have no understanding of how mere neurons (physical things) can produce the wonderful thing we call consciousness (a mental thing). Imagining that a mere grapefruit-sized blob like the brain can produce the human mind (a totally different type of thing) seems rather like imagining that a stone can be squeezed so that blood will drip out of it. We also have no understanding of how brains can store human memories that last for 50 years. As discussed here, rapid molecular and structural turnover in synapses should make it quite impossible for brains to be storing memories for longer than about a year. The speed with which we can recall memories seems inexplicable given any theory that memories are stored in brains, for reasons discussed here. Then there is the fact documented by the physician John Lorber that some humans can retain fairly normal minds and memory even though most of their brains have been destroyed by disease. Then there are near-death experiences, in which people undergoing cardiac arrest often report floating out of their bodies, sometimes reporting accurate details of the medical efforts going on while their heart was stopped. Such a thing should be impossible if the human mind is merely a bottom-up effect produced only by our brains.

But if the human mind is not a bottom-up kind of thing, maybe it is a top-down kind of thing. Maybe the human mind is an effect produced by some cause outside of the human body. Maybe instead of something coming from inside our bodies, the human mind is instead coming mainly from outside of our bodies. Such an idea seems very abstract and philosophical, but perhaps we can take a stab at trying to make it more understandable, by the use of some imagery. The images I will offer are quite schematic and speculative, but they may at least serve as a kind of crude device to help clarify a particular philosophical possibility. To be visually displayed adequately, a model like the one I will present would require a sophisticated animation; but not being an animator, I'll have to make do with some rather crude diagrams.

Let us start by imagining that there might be some cosmic source of minds, which may be the source of human minds and other types of minds (possibly also minds on other planets). We can visualize this mind source as being rather like a giant balloon filled with either hot gas or a warm fluid. 


Now let us imagine that your mind and the mind of each of us is like a little protrusion or bump on the surface of this giant balloon. We normally think of balloons as being spherical, but a balloon can have lots of little bumps and protrusions (for example, in one of the big balloons used in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, there may be little bumps corresponding to the nose or ears of some cartoon character). We can imagine that there might be billions or trillions of little bumps on the huge balloon of the cosmic mind source, and that each little bump might correspond to a particular person.

In the schematic diagram below, we see two little balloon bumps or protrusions corresponding to particular persons. They exist on the circumference of the great sphere of the cosmic mind source, and are some of billions of similar little bumps or protrusions on that sphere. 



I use red and blue in this diagram simply to illustrate different persons. But the idea is that the mind substance or consciousness fluid inside your little balloon bump is very much the same mind substance or fluid that is flowing around inside the huge balloon of the cosmic mind source. The same mind substance or fluid is flowing around inside your mind and all other minds that exist as little bumps on the circumference of the balloon. Under this model your mind does not arise from your brain, but from the cosmic mind source. So instead of there being a million different mind sources for a million different humans (each being a brain), there is instead a single mind source for these million human minds.

If you got your mind in such a way, by being a little protrusion off of the circumference of the huge balloon of the cosmic mind source, you might think of your mind as originating from inside your body. But in this model your mind does not at all originate from your body. It comes from the cosmic mind source. In fact, under this model the only way in which any mind can exist is by being inside the great balloon of the cosmic mind source, or as a kind of protrusion on the circumference of that balloon.

But notice that there is a little neck that connects your little bubble with the vastly greater bubble of the cosmic mind source. That little neck may be almost totally closed, or it may be more widely open. When that little neck is almost totally closed, you may feel no connection whatsoever with some great higher reality beyond yourself. But when that little neck is open wider, you may feel more of a sense of being in touch with some great reality beyond yourself. Perhaps mystical experiences or paranormal psychic experiences occur when this little neck opens much wider than normal. Under this model there is a direct line that can be traced between any one mind and any other mind, with no more than distance and bottlenecks inhibiting communication. So the potential for connectivity is almost limitless.

The diagram below illustrates this idea. The second person (shown in blue) is much more prone to spiritual or psychic or mystic experiences, because the neck-like opening at the base of his little bubble is much wider. In this model, all minds are inside the same vast balloon of mind-fluid. So when the neck like opening widens, a person may have greater connectivity with other minds, which may or may not correspond to minds inside bodies. In the visual below, I illustrate this idea, borrowing a line from one of the Star Wars movies.

theory of mind

In conventional bottom-up models of the mind, ESP is impossible. But in this model something like ESP is quite possible. Below is a diagram illustrating what happens. There is a path that can be traced from any given mind to another, since no mind exists outside of the huge bubble of the cosmic mind source. In the diagram below, we see ESP occurring between two minds.



When a person undergoes a near-death experience, it may be a little like depicted in the visual below. Such a person may undergo transcendent experiences, as he starts to move outside of the little bubble like protrusion that he has been previously confined to.




And what about when a person dies? It may be like the diagram below. Inside the great cosmic mind balloon may be trillions of minds, some corresponding to what we may call “the living,” and others corresponding to what we may call “the dead.” The main difference between the living and the dead is simply when you are living, you are isolated in a little protrusion on the circumference of the great cosmic mind balloon. When you exist in such an isolated little protrusion, you have little feeling of connectivity with other minds. But when your mortal life ends, you are no longer in that protrusion. Then you may have a great connectivity with a horde of other minds floating around inside the huge cosmic mind balloon.



Now you may ask: in this model, what is outside this vast balloon of cosmic mind fluid? The answer is: no mind at all. In this model, there are no little bubbles at all floating outside of the great cosmic balloon of mind fluid. Every single mind exists as a protrusion on the circumference of this balloon, as shown in the diagrams below, or in a more central position inside the balloon. The result is that all minds in the universe have a real degree of connectivity. For minds that exist within the main part of the balloon, and not its outer circumference, there may seem to be a tremendous degree of connectivity. If you are such a mind, you might easily or instantly be able to connect with many other minds, perhaps in something like mind-reading or thought-reading.

The images I have presented here are extremely crude. Do things work exactly as I have diagrammed here? Probably not. What I have discussed is a kind of crude schematic visualization designed to make you think about radically different ways in which reality could work, rather than an attempt to describe exactly and literally some alternate way in which reality works. The visualizations I have presented are kind of metaphorical, but there may be strong similarities between these metaphors and the way in which consciousness works.

But what is fascinating here is how easy it is to create a top-down idea of mind, under which various types of anomalous phenomena fit in naturally. Under a bottom-up theory of mind, things such as ESP, apparitions sightings, mystical experiences, and near-death experiences may seem like unthinkable abominations. But such things fit in easily and naturally once we move to a top-down theory of mind.

The biggest failure of all bottom-up theories of human mentality is not their failure to account for fairly rare paranormal phenomena but their failure to adequately account for the everyday reality of the human mind. We cannot account for our minds or our very long-term memories neurologically. Brains seem to have no functionality that can account for either the storage or the instant retrieval of very old memories, for reasons discussed here and here and here. The idea that there is some special combination of cell connections that can cause something like the lofty thoughts of philosophy to emerge from mere neurons does not seem credible, and seems hardly more credible than the idea that some combination of vines, roots, and trees in a dense Amazon jungle would cause that jungle to become conscious. Nor can we account for the origin of our minds using Darwinian ideas. As argued here, the human mind has many “luxury item” characteristics (such as math abilities, musical abilities, artistic creativity, abstract reasoning, and spirituality) that are not things that increase an organism's chance of surviving in the wild, and which therefore cannot be accounted for by using the explanation of natural selection (which is merely the threadbare, thimble-sized idea that fit stuff prospers, and unfit stuff doesn't).

But if we develop a top-down theory of the mind's origin, then all of the marvels of the human mind may become easily explicable. If human minds come top-down from some cosmic mind source, we would indeed expect that our minds should have every wondrous ability they have ever displayed.

Let us imagine an extraterrestrial planet on which the skies were always covered with thick clouds. Imagine that on such a planet the clouds are so thick that you can never see the sun in the sky. Intelligent beings on such a planet might wonder: how is it that their planet is lit up with light during the day? Unaware of the sun above them, such beings might come up with a bottom-up theory of illumination: that the dirt and rocks and the trees give off light during the day, which keeps the land illuminated. Such beings might think that such a theory was a certainty, and say to themselves, “Of course, it must be true; where else could light be coming from?” But they should instead be considering a top-down theory of illumination – that the illumination of daylight comes from a great unseen source above them.

Similarly, the average scientist holds to a bottom-up theory of consciousness, that our consciousness bubbles up from little neurons in our head. He says to himself, “Of course, this theory must be true; where else could our consciousness be coming from?” But such a person should be considering a top-down theory of consciousness, that our minds come mainly from some great unseen source. Just as it seems far-fetched that rocks or dirt or trees could illuminate a planet, it seems far-fetched that the great universe-pondering effect of human mentality could possibly arise from a little blob of protoplasm inside our skulls.

Nowadays scientists advance the subtle doctrine that all material particles derive their mass from some cosmic reality called the Higgs Field.  It may be that all conscious minds derive their consciousness from some cosmic consciousness field that can be roughly compared to the Higgs Field.

Postscript: Scientist Bernard Carr stated the following:

The existence of telepathy also suggests that our minds are part of a communal space rather than being wholly private. This "Universal Structure", as I term it, can be regarded as a higher dimensional information space which reconciles all our different experiences of the world. It necessarily incorporates physical space but it also includes non-physical realms which can only be accessed by mind.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Fancy New Technology Fails to Prove Memory Dogmas

If tortured sufficiently, data will confess to almost anything.
Fred Menger

Some will claim that fancy new technology such as optogenetics and alleged "mind-reading machines" help prove conventional dogmas about the brain, such as the dogma that your brain stores your memory, and the dogma that your brain generates your thoughts. I will explain in this post why such claims are unfounded.

Memory Experiments with Optogenetics

Contrary to claims sometimes made, scientists have no solid evidence for any such thing as a memory trace (also called an engram), a physical change in a particular part of the brain that corresponds to the storage of a memory. How memory works is a great mystery. There are some scientists that have claimed to have learned or discovered something about memory traces or engrams, but such claims are not well founded. An engram is a hypothetical group of cells that might store a memory.

Some have claimed that optogenetics experiments prove something about memory.  There is a general reason why such experiments prove nothing about human memory: all of the widely reported  optogenetics memory experiments so far have only been done with animals.  It is entirely possible that there is a fundamental difference between animal memory and human memory.

In 2013 we had an example of a very dubious scientific paper claiming to have found something relevant to this issue. Two scientists (Xu Liu and Steve Ramirez) claimed to have created a false memory in a mouse. Their paper was entitled “Inception of a false memory by optogenetic manipulation of a hippocampal memory engram.” Their claim was picked up by countless mainstream news sources, which failed to apply critical scrutiny to the very dubious claim. 

The experiment was done using some mice that were genetically engineered to be light sensitive.  An optical device was connected to part of their brains.  Mice were put into a box and given an electric shock. This, the scientists claimed, created a memory in part of the brains of the mice. 

Then later, when the mice were in a different room, light was transmitted over the optical device, into the brains of the mice. This, the scientists claimed, activated the memory that had been stored in the brain of the mice – supposedly because the mice “froze.” I may note that the use of the term “froze” and “freezing” in the study is kind of loaded terminology, a kind of non-objective “assuming what you are trying to prove” terminology. The correct objective way to describe a mouse that is not moving is to say the mouse was temporarily not moving. “Froze” is a loaded term specifically designed to get someone to think that a mouse stopped moving because of fear, but you can't tell how a mouse is feeling or what it is recalling merely by the fact that it stops moving.

We are told that this was an “implanted memory,” because the original memory was created not in the second box but the first box. This term is inaccurate. If an experiment like this were ever done in a convincing manner, the most it would demonstrate is an electronic activation of a memory. It is also inaccurate to describe the result as an inception or implant of a false memory (as their scientists did in their scientific paper). If I have a memory of being punched on Fifth Avenue, and then I recall or relive that memory while on Lexington Avenue, that is not a false memory. It is a true memory of something that happened in a different place.

A more serious objection to the research is that is did not provide convincing evidence of a memory activation or any type of unusual memory effect at all in the mice being studied. There are three reasons why I make this claim.

The first reason is that the number of mice tested was very small. When you read the paper, you will find the number of mice used was only about 6. That's way too small a sample size to be drawing any reliable conclusions. With a sample size that small, the results could easily have been due to coincidence. An experimenter wishing to show some particular effect could just keep trying until some round of experiments showed the desired effect. That would be hard to do with a large sample size, but easy to do with a very small sample size such as only 6 or 8 mice.  See this post for a discussion of five other optogenetic memory experiments that only used small sample sizes, less than the 15 animals per study group recommended for reliable experimental results. 

The second reason is that the conclusion about whether the memory was being remembered was presumably based on an observer judging whether a mouse froze, or stopped moving. The authors did not explain how it was determined that particular mice had “frozen,” and we can only assume that such a determination was reached from a subjective human judgment. Given the start-stop, helter-skelter way in which mice move, any judgment about whether a mouse froze is going to be a subjective judgment. So there is too much of a possibility of observational bias here, one in which an observer subjectively reports the effect he is hoping to find. Similarly, you might subjectively report that your goldfish in a goldfish bowl tends to move towards you when you are looking into the bowl, but that would probably tell us more about your desire to see something than about the goldfish.

The third reason is that the freezing effect could have been produced not by a recall of memories, but by the very fact that the energy was being transmitted into the brain of the mice. Imagine you are running along, and suddenly a scientist switches on some weird thing that causes some energy to pour into your brain. This all by itself might cause you to stop, even if it didn't cause you to recall some memory that caused you to stop. What could have been going on in the mice was just a kind of pausing effect caused by a novel stimulus rather than a recalled fear effect. 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., 2010Gore 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).”

We have no idea what was going on in the minds of these mice. It is not sound to assume that a mouse is “frozen in fear” merely because it stops moving, or to assume that the mouse is remembering something when it stops moving. We have no way of knowing what mice are remembering at any particular moments. We can also ask: why didn't the scientists try to use dissection to confirm their claim of a memory stored in some particular spot of the brain? The technique would be simple: train a mouse to fear some particular stimulus, then dissect some little part of the brain where you think the memory is stored, and see whether the mouse still fears the stimulus. 

A more recent paper by Ramirez and Liu was published in Nature, and was entitled, “Activating positive memory engrams suppresses depression-like behaviour.” But the paper shows the same type of methodological problems of their earlier paper. Figure 2 of the paper says that in one group there were only 6 mice used and 6 mice for the control group, and elsewhere the paper states that a control group had only 3 mice. These sizes are way below the 15 animals per study group (control and non-control) recommended for a reliable experimental result.  The authors claim to have counted differences in the degree to which mice “struggled” when presented with a maze – again something involving a subjective interpretation in which a researcher might tend to see whatever he wants to see. The authors' interpretation of what is going on is speculative. The authors do not present any solid evidence that they actually activated a memory by optogenetic stimulation.

But to its credit, Nature did publish an article entitled “Brain-manipulation studies may produce spurious links to behaviour,” pointing out that shooting light into one part of a brain (the technique used by Ramirez and Liu) may cause other parts of the brain to fire off, resulting in unpredictable effects. “Manipulating brain circuits with light and drugs can cause ripple effects that could muddy experimental results,” the article cautions. That's another reason for doubting these mouse memory studies based on optogenetic brain stimulation, since it undermines the whole simplistic idea of “stimulate just this area and activate just this memory.”

The 2019 study here by Ramirez and others is the latest example of an unconvincing study trying to use optogenetics to show some evidence of memories being stored in a brain.  There are two big reasons why the study shows nothing of the sort:
(1) The study uses a technique in which animals are trained to fear some stimulus, and are then subjected to a brain "cell reactivation" that can be roughly described as a brain zapping.  The animals supposedly froze more often when this brain zapping happening, and the study interpreted this behavior as evidence of an artificially produced memory recall of a fear memory. But such a technique does nothing to show that a memory is being recalled, because it is well known that there are many parts of a mouse brain that will cause freezing behavior when artificially stimulated.  The freezing behavior is probably a result of the strange stimulus, and not actual evidence of memory recall.  If you were walking along, you would also freeze if someone turned on some brain-zapping chip implanted in your brain. 
(2) The study uses sample sizes so small that there is a very high chance of a false alarm.  The number of animals per study group was only 10 to 12. But 15 animals per study group is the minimum needed for a modestly convincing result, and a neuroscientist has stated that to get a decent statistical power of .5, animal studies should be using at least 31 animals per study group. 

The second problem is one that is epidemic in modern neuroscience.  Neuroscientists are well aware that the sample sizes typically used in neuroscience studies (the number of animals per study group) are so low that there must be a very high chance of false alarms in very many or most of their experimental studies; but they continue year after year producing such unreliable studies, and foisting them on the public as evidence of things that neuroscientists want to believe in.  There is a "publication quota" expectation that provides a strong incentive for such professional malpractice. 

The “mouse memory implant” research described above is inconsistent with a body of memory research produced over a much larger period of time: the memory research of Karl Spencer Lashley. Over many years, Lashley did extensive research in which he tested how memory and learning is affected when you take out various parts of an animal's brain. In one extensive set of experiments, Lashley trained rats to run a maze. The rats then had parts of their brains removed. Lashley found the rats were able to run the maze just as well regardless of which part of the brain was removed. Strongly indicating that particular memories are not localized in one particular part of the brain, this research directly contradicts the “mouse memory implant” work that tried to suggest that a memory was stored in one particular part of the brain.

Lashley tested using three types of mazes of varying difficulty. Astonishingly, Lashley found that you could remove half of a rat's brain, and it had very little effect on the rats ability to remember either of the two simpler types of mazes.

Here are some startling results listed by Lashley (and discussed here):
  1. Rats, trained to have a differential reaction to light, showed no reduction in accuracy of performance when the entire motor cortex of the brain, along with the frontal poles of the brain, was removed.
  2. Monkeys were trained to open various latch boxes. The entire motor areas of the monkeys' brains were removed. After 8 to 12 weeks of paralysis, during which they had no access to the latch boxes, the monkeys were then able to open the boxes “promptly” and “without random exploratory movements.”
  3. Rats were trained to solve mazes, and the rats then had incisions made separating different parts of their brains. This produced no effect in memory retention.
  4. Monkeys were trained to unlatch latch boxes. After having their prefrontal cortex removed, there was “perfect retention of the manipulative habits.”
  5. A number of experiments with rats have shown that habits of visual discrimination survive the destruction of any part of the cerebral cortex except the primary visual projection area.”

After discussing these and many other experiments he did for many years, Lashley said this about the idea of an engram or memory trace: “It is not possible to demonstrate the isolated localization of a memory trace anywhere within the nervous system.”

Lashley's research is completely inconsistent with the research claim of Ramirez and Liu. Lashley's research provides compelling evidence that particular memories are not stored in particular parts of a brain. Conducted over more than 30 years with a huge number of animals, Lashley's research was many times more extensive than the scanty 6-mouse research of Ramirez and Liu that got so much press coverage. Given a conflict between the two lines of research, we should believe Lashley's research, which is so much more voluminous. Contrary to the claims of some optogenetic researchers using dubious methodology, there is no compelling evidence that particular memories are stored in particular parts of the brain, and no convincing evidence that specific memories can be recreated by stimulating particular parts of the brain. There is no good evidence for any such thing as a memory engram, a particular set of cells that stores a particular memory. Lashley's many years of research strongly indicates that such ideas are not valid, as does the research of John Lorber (who, as described here,  documented many cases of humans who functioned very well, despite having most of their brains destroyed through disease). 

In 2014 our credulous and exaggeration-prone news media reported that researchers Wiltgen and Tanaka had erased specific memories in a mouse. But the reports were based on a research paper that justified no such conclusions.  Figure 2 and Figure 3 of the paper shows that the experimenters used only 6 mice for two of the experiments. That's way too small a sample size to produce reliable evidence of an effect. The standard is that you are supposed to use at least 15 animals in each study group to get a reliable evidence of an effect. So the paper gave no clear evidence of having erased any memory in a mouse.  The paper had some of the same methodological problems as discussed above, such as relying on judgments of a mouse's "freezing rate" that is very hard to objectively quantify. 

Neuroscientist Mark Humphries has written a relevant article called "Some limits on interpreting causality in neuroscience experiments." Using the term "supernatural region" to mean an artificially created brain state not corresponding to a natural brain state of an organism, he states the following:


In optogenetics experiments, we turn on a bunch of neurons at the same time, and often hold them on for seconds at a time. Or we turn off a bunch of neurons at the same time, and hold them off for seconds at a time. This is very, very far from a natural region for any bunch of neurons we could name...So we have a fundamental limit to testing causality in the brain: we always push our neurons into the supernatural region, so we can never be sure that what we observe as a behavioural consequence is naturally causal.

There is no reliable basis for concluding that a memory was evoked because a mouse froze when its brain was optogenetically zapped to reach such a "supernatural" state. 

The Myth of the Mind-Reading Machine

In the British tabloid the Sun there's a prime example of a bunk and bogus reporting of a scientific study. The headline says, “Mind-reading machine can now translate your thoughts to text immediately by interpreting brain activity.” The text of the article is carefully worded to make you think that such a mind-reading machine was invented.

We are told this machine was “detailed in the Journal of Neural Engineering” and that the study leader was David Moses. There's no link to the study, but when I searched for such a study, I found it. The paper in the Journal of Neural Engineering co-authored by David Moses is entitled, “Real-time classification of auditory sentences using evoked cortical activity in humans.”

The abstract describes the study as follows:

Here, we introduce a real-time neural speech recognition (rtNSR) software package, which was used to classify spoken input from high-resolution electrocorticography signals in real-time. We tested the system with two human subjects implanted with electrode arrays over the lateral brain surface. Subjects listened to multiple repetitions of ten sentences, and rtNSR classified what was heard in real-time from neural activity patterns using direct sentence-level and HMM-based phoneme-level classification schemes. Main results. We observed single-trial sentence classification accuracies of 90% or higher for each subject with less than 7 minutes of training data.

This isn't mind-reading at all. It's auditory perception classification, and to only a very limited extent. Two people listened to the same ten sentences being spoken over and over again, while their heads were hooked up to equipment that monitored electrical signals from their brain. Some software used these readings to make guesses about which of these ten sentences were later spoken to the people. This type of guessing is not any type of thought reading. Something that you are hearing is not something that you are thinking. When you hear something, that's a perception, not a thought.

The Sun news story has a phony-baloney infographic telling us that in this experiment “thoughts appear on screen as words,” but no such thing actually occurred. The story has been repeated, with similar inaccuracies, by other sources such as the Daily Mail.

What we have here is a stunt of no obvious usefulness. It's hard to foresee how anything useful might come out of being able to predict which sentence a person is listening to by reading traces of auditory perception in his mind. The study raises ethical concerns. Did Moses and his team implant electrodes in two people's brains (presumably something that might risk brain damage) to achieve this unimportant result? 

A similar bunk story appeared in 2016, with the headline “Scientists Have Invented a Mind-Reading Machine That Visualizes Your Thoughts.” The actual activity was based on analyzing brain activity during visual perceptions, and did not involve any actual reading of thoughts (although it may have exploited perceptual after-images, as discussed below).

A 60 Minutes segment on an alleged "mind-reading machine" is preserved on a youtube.com video entitled “Mind Reading Machine on CBS Reads Your Thoughts.” But it isn't a reading of thoughts. The video shows people hooked up to a brain scanner. The people are shown viewing pictures of one of ten different objects, The machine then predicts from patterns in their visual cortex which of the ten things they were looking at. This is perception prediction, not a reading of thoughts.

In some of these experiments, the experimenters may be exploiting a kind of brief after-effect where traces of something you just saw linger for a few seconds in the visual cortex. Imagine if I hook someone up to a brain scanner, and show them a picture of a wrench for five seconds, and then ask them to close their eyes for five seconds and think of what he just saw. It is entirely possible that the parts of the visual cortex activated by such a perception will show traces that linger for a few seconds. We seem to see this in after-image optical illusions. An example of one is below. If you look at this image for 30 seconds, and then close your eyes, you should be able to still see one of the bars for a few seconds, as a kind of ghostly bar in your mind's eye. You can find many other examples of after-image optical illusions by doing a Google image search for "afterimage." 


We can imagine how an experimenter might exploit such an effect. He might hook a subject up to a brain scanner, and ask the subject to stare at an image for 30 seconds, and then close his eyes and think about the image just seen. The brain scanner might then scan the person's brain for a few seconds, and be able to predict which of 7 images the person saw, based on what was seen in the brain when the subject's eyes were closed. The experimenter might then encourage people to think such a thing was mind-reading. But this is not thought-reading. The scanner is just picking up a perceptual after-image. This is probably what is going on in the 60 Minutes video.

If an experiment like the phony description in the Sun story had actually occurred, it would be a monumental breakthrough of the greatest interest to every philosopher of mind. It would tell us that thoughts are actually generated by brains, an idea which has never been proven. There are good reasons for doubting such an idea. Among these are the fact that we have no understanding at all of how a brain could generate a thought or an abstract idea. As discussed here, attempts to search for a neuroscience explanation for how a brain could generate a thought results in a spectrum of incoherence that doesn't add up to anything.  Thoughts are mental things, so how could they possibly be generated by merely physical things like brains?  That would be rather like blood pouring out of a stone. 

Other very dubious stories in the press include one that memory can be enhanced by electrical stimulation. One headline says, “Electric pulses to the brain can improve memory as much as 15 per cent, finds study.” Such a result is unimpressive. An experimenter could show a 15 percent increase in memory retention when people held a rabbit's foot in their hands. The experimenter need merely try 20 or 30 tests, and then submit for publication whichever one produced the best performance, taking advantage of random variations.

There is no such thing as a pure memory test, since every memory test is a test of perception, concentration, and memory. It is easy to imagine how some meaningless brain stimulus might cause someone to do a little better in a memory test. Suppose you do an experiment in which you first have a subject try to memorize things under normal conditions, and then have the subject try to memorize things while some fancy brain gizmo is attached to his head. Let's imagine the brain gizmo doesn't actually do anything except give the reader a little buzzing effect. It's entirely possible that this will produce a 10 percent or 15 percent performance improvement that is purely the result of a kind of power of suggestion and expectation. The subject may kind of have the feeling that when he's wearing the brain gizmo, this is when he is expected to perform really well; so he may simply concentrate a little harder while wearing the brain gizmo. A minor difference in concentration could easily account for a 15 percent difference in performance.

It is also possible that such a minor difference in performance is simply a result of a kind of placebo effect. The power of the placebo effect is well documented. If a doctor in a white coat gives a man some sugar pill, and tells him this is a powerful cure for his ailment, the patient will very often report that the pill was effective. We don't understand why this happens again and again, and it may be a mysterious type of mind over matter. It is easily possible that such a placebo effect can also come into play in a memory test. Hook someone up to some fancy brain gizmo and test his memory, and he may perform a little better. The result may have nothing to do with the gizmo, but may be simply the person performing a little better because he believed something had been done to make him perform better, with the result being a kind of placebo effect. 

One recent experiment (dubiously billed as a test of a "memory prosthesis") involved 22 patients with brain electrodes who 100 times chose a particular visual image from a group of images. The brain electrodes recorded electrical activity in the hippocampus. Then some of these signals were played back in a later test in which patients had to pick the original image from a set of 3.  This reportedly producing a 40% increase in "memory recall" involving that particular image.  But it is known that the hippocampus has a role in visual perception, as this long scientific paper tells us. So what could have been going on here is that some of the visual perception mechanism of the brain was captured and replayed.  Such a result can be explained without any assumption that anything is going on involving memory.  We could have a bit of "perception playback" rather than enhanced memory recall. 

I can imagine a type of experiment which to the best of my knowledge has never succeeded. A person would be hooked up to a brain scanner, and would then try to concentrate very hard on one of 7 things which he had not recently seen, such as an apple, a banana, a blue ring, and so forth. Software connected to the scanner would then try and guess which of the things the person was thinking about. If the prediction was successful, would this prove that the brain is generating such ideas? Not at all. It would merely suggest that the visual cortex used by the brain in vision can be leveraged when someone is trying hard to visualize something. A mind's eye image of something is not necessarily the idea of a thing. You may first have the idea of Marilyn Monroe in a bikini, and then concentrate hard to kind of visualize that, fleshing out some details (such as imagining a particular bikini color).  If we use a little of the visual cortex when making a vivid visualization in our minds, that does not prove the preceding idea came from our brains. 

The tabloid Daily Mail has a story about a "mind-reading headset" that has "90 percent accuracy." It has nothing to do with the brain, however. It turns out that if you try hard to speak a word in your mind, so you "can hear it loudly" in your mind's ear,  you usually inadvertently use a little muscle to do that. You can prove this by trying to "silently shout" the word "banana" in your mind while holding your neck -- you should feel a little muscle movement. So the "mind-reading headset" is merely working off such a thing. And the "90% accuracy" is only for a few words that it's been trained on.  This tells us nothing about whether your brain is creating thoughts.  

You will no doubt continue to see quite a few "mind-reading machine" stories in the news, even though no one will actually create such machines. The rule on the web these days is "clicks=cash." The more you click on a link to sensational-sounding science stories, the more advertising revenue the web site makes from ads on the site.  With such a situation, there is a great incentive for careless exaggeration of science and technology developments. 

Postscript: In April 2019 we had a news story with the headline "Synthetic speech generated from brain recordings." But it wasn't at all a case of generating speech from mere neural activity recordings of someone thinking words in his mind. The neural activity recordings were taken while people were speaking aloud. Also, the fancy system also used an input of vocal recordings of what the people said. So a more accurate headline would have been "Synthetic speech generated from brain recordings and tape recordings of speech." We cannot tell from this whether the system would have failed if it only used the neural activity recordings. Such a system is not evidence that thought comes from the brain, although it could be evidence the brain helps you to move your mouth muscles.