Monday, November 30, 2020

A Psychologist's Dubious Generalizations

 At an online site we have an interview with a psychologist who has written a book that claims to be teaching lessons about the brain. In the interview we have the usual oracular proclamations by a neuroscientist, without any reference to specific research studies or specific experiments. We are expected to accept such  ex cathedra declarations, like some Sunday school student is expected to accept whatever dogmas are taught by some minister teaching his class. 

The psychologist gets off to an extremely bad start by saying in the first paragraph, "Every thought you have, every emotion you feel, every action you take is ultimately in the service of regulating your body." That statement is quite absurd and untrue.  Philosophical thoughts and political thoughts and religious thoughts have nothing to do with regulating your body. The psychologist repeats the same obviously untrue statement later in the interview, by saying, "Everything you think, feel, and do is a consequence of your brain’s central mission to keep you alive and well by managing your body budget."  Of course, this is nonsense.  When you watch TV or play games or read a novel, such activities are not at all "a consequence of your brain’s central mission to keep you alive and well by managing your body budget." 

The rest of the interview just follows the old technique of describing the workings of the mind or will, and describing that as some action of the brain. The psychologist presents no evidence that most of the things described are products of the brain; she just keeps saying your brain does this and your brain does that.  Our psychologist makes this claim: "Emotions don’t happen to you—they are made by your brain as you need them."  No, you don't need to feel anger or disappointment when your favorite quarterback throws an interception; and you don't need to feel lust when you see a naked person on your laptop or TV; and you don't need to feel joy when your sports team does well; and you don't need to feel hate when you see someone on TV acting in a revolting manner;  and you don't need to feel grief when someone dies; and you don't need to feel wonder when you look at a sky ablaze with stars. 

Later our psychologist tells us "your brain doesn't know what's going on in the outside world." That at least is correct, although completely inconsistent with many of the other statements she makes.  Your brain does not know about the outside world, and no one has ever discovered knowledge of the outside world by examining neurons. It is only your mind that knows things. 

The interview was the usual procession of softball questions we see in interviews with scientists. Just once I would like to see a journalist asking a lot of probing questions when interviewing some authority spouting doubtful claims about the brain.  In such an interview, in which a journalist would act like a real journalist, there would be frequent questions like this:

  • "Is there any robust evidence for such a claim? If so please explain what that evidence is."
  • "So you mention some studies. Were they well-designed pre-registered studies using a good blinding protocol and adequate study group sizes after a sample size calculation was done? Or were such studies the kind of weak research that uses questionable research practices?"
  • "On a scale of 1 to 10, in which 1 is pure speculation, and 10 is something directly observed like a moon of Jupiter is directly observed, how strong would you rate the evidence for that claim you just made?"
  • "So you say your brain is thinking, but do you really have any understanding of how neurons could produce a thought?"
  • "So you say your brain remembers things, but how could a brain remember things that happened 50 years ago, when the brain replaces its proteins at a rate of 3% per day?"
  • "Do you really have any understanding of how a brain could translate some learned konwledge into brain states or neural states? If so, explain how that works."
  • "Do you really have any understanding of how a brain could instantly remember some knowledge learned many years ago? If so, explain how that works."
  • "So if brains do our thinking, how come so many of Lorber's patients had above-average IQ's and brains that were mostly destroyed by disease?"
  • "If brains store memories, how come no one has ever found a memory in the brain of a dead person?"
  • "So is it your habit to just always say 'the brain does this' when you merely know that a mind or a person does that thing?"
  • "Have you studied evidence with conflicts with your claims about the brain, such as evidence for psychic phenomena? If so, what fraction of the 100 main books presenting such evidence did you read?"
  • "Have you studied neuroscience case histories that seem to conflict with the standard claims about brains, such as people who think and remember well after removal of half a brain? How do you explain such cases?"
  • "When you first started thinking that the brain does that thing, was it because some experiment or observation forced you to believe that, or did you just start thinking the brain does that thing because the people at your school thought such a thing?"

Friday, November 20, 2020

No One Can Credibly Explain Why a Brain Would Store a Memory in One Specific Spot

 The theory of the Christmas activity of Santa Claus is one that very small children will accept, but a theory that a child will discard once he gets a little older.  There are too many obvious detects in the theory for a mature mind to hold it: the impossibility of fitting toys for all the world's children in a single sled, the impossibility of such a sled being able to deliver millions of toys on a single night, and the impossibility of Santa Claus getting into so many locked homes.  Like the theory of Santa Claus, the theory that brains store memories does not hold up well to scrutiny.  Among dozens of good reasons for rejecting the theory, there are:

  • the fact that brain proteins have a lifetime of less than two weeks, which is 1000 times shorter than the longest length of time that humans can remember things (60 years or so);
  • the fact that no one has any coherent explanation as to how human learned knowledge could ever be translated into neural states or synapse states;
  • the fact that humans can form new memories instantly, much faster than the time required for some kind of cellular or synapse modification to occur;
  • the fact that no one has ever found any trace of stored information (other than the DNA information in all cells) by studying brain tissue;
  • the fact that removing half of someone's brain (as is sometimes done to treat epilepsy patients) has little effect on memory;
  • the fact that no one can explain how a brain (without any indexing system and without any position notation system) could ever instantly find the exact spot where some memory was stored in it, which would be like instantly finding a needle in a haystack. 
The more we scrutinize the theory that memories are stored in brains, the more problems we become aware of. Let me discuss a problem that was not one of the 30 reasons I previously gave for rejecting the claim that memories are stored in brain, but a different reason.  I refer to the problem that no one can give a credible explanation as to why a brain would store a memory in one specific spot in the brain. 

Let us consider some examples of information storage, and consider the question:  when a piece of information is stored, why is it stored at the specific place that it is stored?

Example of information storage

Why is the information stored in the specific spot where it is stored?

Arrival of a new email

All new emails are put at the top of a “stack” of emails

A student taking notes on one day in a class on some subject

The student selects a subject notebook, and writes at the first blank page of the notebook

A person making a diary entry

The person makes the entry in whatever page is marked with a date corresponding to that day's date

You save a new file on your computer

You are provided an interface allowing you to select some folder or directory on your digital device. After you choose a name for the file, the operating system in your computer creates a new file in the specified location, using an operating system routine for selecting empty space in that location.

You buy a book, and take it to your house

You manually select at random an empty space on a bookshelf, and put the book there

You receive an important letter you want to save

You select the appropriate file folder in your file box or file cabinet, and stick the letter in that file folder

You add an item to a “to do list” document you have on your computer

You simply scroll down to the end of your document, and write the new item at the end of the document

You just type some new text in whatever computer document you are currently working on.

Within your document is a blinking cursor that represents the current position, and your newly typed text is added at that position in your document.

You take a new photo with your digital camera. 

The digital storage card in your camera is like a stack of photos, and each new photo gets added to the end or beginning of the stack.

So we can see that when information is physically stored, there are specific reasons why particular items of information get stored in specific locations. Let us now consider the human brain, and the theory that a new memory gets stored in some tiny little spot in the brain. Such a theory raises the question: why would a brain store some new memory exactly at that spot, rather than any of 10,000 other little spots in the brain? There are various possibilities you can imagine, but none of them seem to be credible. 

One possibility you might imagine is that a brain puts a new memory kind of "at the top of the stack" or "at one end of a chain." Being very imaginative, you can imagine extraterrestrial organisms that might have some kind of stack-like brain or chain-like brain, so that the organism might put each new memory at the top of such a stack or at one end of such a chain. But the human brain bears no resemblance to a chain or a stack. There is no "end writing position" or "first writing position" in the brain to which a brain could write if it were following a "put new information at the end" rule, or "put new information at the beginning" rule. 

Another possibilty you might imagine is that a brain might have something like a cursor or a movable write unit that moves from place to place in the brain to write memories at different locations. If the brain had such a thing, we could explain why a brain would store a memory in one specific spot. The explanation would simply be that the writing of a new memory occurs at whatever location the cursor or movable write unit is located. However, the human brain has no such thing as a cursor or movable write unit.  There is nothing that moves around in the brain other than electricity and chemicals.  We can certainly imagine some strange extraterrrestrial organism with a brain including a movable writing unit having the job of moving around in the brain and writing to different locations, but there is no sign of any such thing in the brain. 

You do not get around this difficulty of explaining why storage would occur at some exact location by speculating that there is one tiny brain region (such as the hippocampus)  where the brain stores all its new memories.  For such a region of the brain would consist of 10,000 smaller sub-regions, and the question would always remain: why was the memory put in one specific spot rather than in any of the other 10,000 spots?

We cannot get around this difficulty by imagining that a brain simply selects a random brain location to write some memory.  The selection of one specific random location is something that a human mind or a computer program can do, but there is no evidence that the human body ever subconsciously selects a random location in the body.  If you ask me to select a random city in America, I have knowledge of the cities in America and a mind capable of performing such a random selection task.  But it would be absurd to maintain that a brain has some kind of subconscious knowledge of some set of possible brain locations where a memory could be written, and some kind of subconscious ability to make a random choice from such a set of locations, choosing subconsciously a random place to write a memory. Nor could we ever explain how a brain (completely lacking in any coordinate system or position location system) could ever cause a memory to be stored exactly in some precise spot that it had randomly selected. Such a thing would be as hard as writing to hay strand #282,035 after your mind had randomly chosen such a hay strand as the place in a huge hay stack where something should be written.  

You also do not get around this difficulty by speculating that a brain stores a single new memory in very many separate spots, as that creates a host of difficulties such as how the memory could be divided up into so many different spots, and how the information could be instantly distributed to so many different spots. Then there would be the extremely great difficulty that a memory stored in many different spots would be like scattering each word on a page so that each word was stored in a different spot in your home. Just as such a thing would make it a thousand times harder to instantly retrieve the information on the page, a memory scattered among a thousand different brain places would be vastly harder to retrieve, making it all the more harder to explain how humans are able to instantly retrieve a memory.  Moreover, if we imagine a thousand different storage locations for a single memory, then we simply have the original problem a thousand times worse; for the question would be: why were those thousand locations chosen rather than any of a million other possibilities for the thousand places to store the memory?

There is no credible theory of how a neurally stored memory would end up in one specific spot in the brain, rather than any of a thousand other little spots in the brain.  What I have discussed here is only one of very many reasons why the idea of a neural storage of memories is untenable. 

Let us consider a case in which a memory arises, and what neuroscientists would need to explain under the theory that memories are stored in brains. Let's imagine a case in which a 13-year-old boy is scared very bad when someone sticks a gun in his mouth. The boy grows into a man who remembers this event for 70 years; and whenever he sees a hand gun (even guns with a different color or caliber), he instantly thinks of that moment when someone placed a gun in his mouth. Here are the things that would need to be explained under the theory that memories are stored in brains.
  • How a brain could instantly form a permanent memory (for such a memory would appear instantaneously as soon as this traumatic event occurred), at a speed many times faster than the minutes required for some protein synthesis needed for synapse strengthening or synapse modification. 
  • How a brain could translate into neural states or synapse states this sensory experience of having a gun placed in your mouth.
  • How a brain could somehow select some location (among countless thousands of brain spots) for this memory to be stored.
  • How a brain could somehow find such a location inside a brain that has no coordinate system and no position notation system, so that the memory could be stored in such a location.
  • How a brain could instantly retrieve this memory whenever the boy saw a gun, which would be like instantly finding a needle in a haystack, given a brain with no coordinate system and no position notation system.
  • Why such a memory could be retrieved by a brain, even when the person saw guns of a different color and caliber than the gun that was inserted in his mouth. 
  • How this neural memory trace would somehow be translated into a recollection briefly active in the person's mind after he saw a gun years later. 
  • How this memory could ever be accurately stored and accurately recalled (with a transmission across innumerable synapses) in a brain with so much signal noise that each time a signal passes across a synapse, it is transmitted with a reliability of less than 50%. 
  • How this memory could be preserved for 70 years, in a brain consisting of proteins with such short lifetimes (two weeks or less) that 3% of the brain's proteins are replaced every day. 
To  explain this case of the boy instantly forming this memory in a brain and remembering it for 70 years, neuroscientists would need to explain all of these things. Neuroscientists cannot even give a credible explanation for any one of these things.  

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Preprint Server Counts Suggest Engrams Are Not Really Science

 The arXiv science paper server at is a widely used resource for finding and reading scientific papers. On its home page we read, "arXiv is a free distribution service and an open-access archive for 1,780,158 scholarly articles in the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, statistics, electrical engineering and systems science, and economics."  It has become something of a custom for physicists to upload "preprints" of physics papers to this server. Although mainly associated with physics papers, the server also has a huge number of quantitative biology papers. 

An interesting way to use the arXiv server is simply to search for a topic, and see how high the paper count is (in other words, how many papers the server has on a particular topic). Such a method gives a rough idea of how much work has been done on a particular topic. It is not at all true that you can prove something is really science by doing a search for some topic and getting a high paper count. For example, when I search for papers with the word "string" in the title, on October 23, 2020, I get a count of 12,766 papers, a large fraction of which are papers expounding versions of string theory. But string theory is a speculative edifice that is not at all "science with a capital S," and has no observational basis. 

While we can't tell that something is science just by searching for a topic and getting a high paper count, if we search for a topic and get a very low count, that is a reason for suspecting that the topic may not be any such thing as "science with a capital S."  That's what happens when I search for the topic of "engram."  An engram is an alleged brain location where a memory is stored, or some kind of "memory trace" in the brain.  When I search for papers having "engram" or "engrams" in their title, using the arXiv science paper server, the server gives me a count of 0 such papers. 

Could it be that the arXiv science paper server just doesn't have many papers on biology? No, it has tons of papers on quantitative biology.  Below are a few examples of paper counts when I search for some biology topics:


Number of papers on arXiv server having that topic in their title


1115 papers


 1738 papers


 2046 papers


708 papers


0 papers


0 papers

So how come the server gives us no papers when we search for "engram" as the topic? Maybe it's because engrams aren't really science with a capital S. 

There's another way to do a search on the arXiv server. You can search for any use of the search topic in the abstract of the paper. When I do such a search, I get only 5 papers. Four of the five papers have no solid observational grounding, and are the kind of mathematical speculation papers that scientists write when they attempt to substantiate very doubtful speculations such as string theory or dark energy or primordial cosmic inflation.  The only paper built upon observations is a paper entitled "Recording and Reproduction of Pattern Memory Trace in EEG by Direct Electrical Stimulation of Brain Cortex."  The paper does not actually provide robust evidence that any such thing as a memory trace was detected.  To do such thing, you would need to have a study group of at least 15 animals, but we read in the paper that "the experiments were performed on 5 outbred male rats."  Using such a too-small study group, you have too high a chance of a false alarm.  

There is another "preprint paper server," one more oriented toward biology papers.  It is called bioXriv, and bills itself as "the preprint server for biology."  When I use that server to look for papers that contain "engram" in the title, I get only 6 papers.  Below is a comparision with other topics:


Number of papers on biorXiv server having that topic in their title


2777 papers


 376 papers


 2651 papers


1021 papers


6 papers


8 papers

The first of these six papers using "engram" in its title is a speculative paper with no observational grounding. The second of these six  papers uses study group sizes of only 5, which are way too small to provide any robust result.  The third paper has a similar problem, using study group sizes of only 8, way too small to provide any robust result.  The fourth paper is a mouse study that fails to mention anywhere how many mice were used, which typically occurs only when some way-too-small study group size was used.  The fifth paper suffers from the same problem, the only difference being that it vaguely suggests that way-too-small study group sizes of only 4 were used.  The sixth paper uses way-too-small study group sizes of only about six. 

Now let's look at the eight papers using "engrams" in their title. The first paper has "schematic" visuals based on imaginary hypotheticals.  The second paper tries to use the word "engrams" as much as it can, but provides no physical evidence for such a thing. The third paper was a rodent study using study group sizes of only about 8, way too small for a robust result.  The fourth paper was a rodent study using study group sizes of only about 5, way too small for a robust result. The paper confesses, "Data collection and analysis were not performed blind to the conditions of the experiments," a major procedural defect. The fifth paper is a theoretical paper not providing any observational results. The sixth paper and the seventh paper used way-too-small study group sizes of only 5.  The eighth paper is merely a theoretical work based on mathematical simulations. 

So the only six papers on the biorXiv server mentioning "engram" in their title fail to provide any robust evidence of engrams. Its the same thing for the 8 papers using "engrams" in their title. All in all, we have in these very low server counts (and the weaknesses of the papers coming up in the searches) a strong suggestion that engrams (supposed neural storage sites for memories) are not any such thing as well-established science, and that the evidence for engrams is merely very weak evidence rarely conjured up by scientists clumsily trying to provide some evidence for something they want to believe in. Engrams are not an example of science with a capital S. 

My criticisms of such papers for using too small study group sizes is partially based on the guideline in the paper "Effect size and statistical power in the rodent fear conditioning literature – A systematic review," which mentions an "estimated sample size to achieve 80% power considering typical effect sizes and variances (15 animals per group)," and says that only 12% of neuroscience experiments involving rodents and fear met such a standard. 

None of these papers I have referred to (on either preprint server) claims to have used a blinding protocol for both data gathering and data analysis. Most of them make no claims about blinding, which is usually a sure sign that no blinding protocol was followed. One paper makes a brief claim to have used a blinding protocol for experimentation, but makes no such claim for data analysis. Another paper claims briefly to have used a blinding protocol for statistical analysis, but makes no such claim in regard to experimentation and data gathering.  None of these papers describes in detail a specific blinding protocol. 

When blinding protocols are not thoroughly implemented, there is a large chance of bias and scientists reporting hoped-for effects that are not really there.  Unless a paper describes in detail a blinding protocol, you should be rather skeptical that any halfway-decent blinding protocol was used.  Similarly, if someone says, "I paid all my taxes," but doesn't release his tax forms, you should be rather skeptical that he did pay all his taxes. 

The failure of experimental neuroscientists to adequately follow blinding protocols is a huge problem in contemporary neuroscience research, as big as the failure of most such neuroscientists to use adequate study group sizes. Be suspicious of junk science wherever you find experiments not using proper blinding protocols.  A PLOS Biology article tells us, "Recent analyses have found, for example, that 86%–87% of papers reporting animal studies did not describe randomisation and blinding methods, and more than 95% of them did not report on the statistical power of the studies to detect a difference between experimental groups." 

Ian Stevenson MD once made some candid comments relevant to the topic of engrams, stating this:

"Neuroscientists and psychologists cannot tell us either how we store memories or how we retrieve them. Suggestions that experiences leave 'traces' in the brain (whether in altered neural networks or otherwise) have not so far led to further understanding." 

red flags of junk science