I think, therefore I am. I think.
Digging deeper into the mystery of the brain, soul, and consciousness.
The human brain is, according to most scientists, the most complex system we know in the universe.
Granted, there may be other, more complex, entities somewhere in the vastness of our cosmic bubble, such as an AI civilization in a galaxy billions of light years away. But for all that we currently know, the brain is it.
This level of complexity invites mystery. “How we know we are" remains profoundly confusing, notwithstanding the remarkable progress in cognitive neurosciences and computer science.
The discussion goes back thousands of years. Plato was a dualist, believing that the soul inhabited the body for a short time before returning to its heavenly home. Aristotle, on the other hand, would not separate the two. Descartes took Plato's lead and ran with it, becoming the father of modern dualism, placing soul apart and before body (or matter): “I think, therefore I am," means that thought precedes material existence.
The challenge for Descartes was the different nature of the soul-stuff. (Philosophers would say soul and matter were two ontologically different substances.) Being immaterial, the soul had no physical properties. How, then, could it interact or affect matter? If thoughts were somehow caused by the soul, how would they cause the brain to act? This is sometimes called the binding problem: how does soul bind to the brain?
Materialists would dismiss the existence of the soul or avoid attributing anything nonmaterial as the source of human consciousness. All there is, they would say, is matter, protons, neutrons, and electrons interacting with one another, making up molecules, neurons, and dendrites. Somehow, the complexity of the brain engenders consciousness. If for dualists the mystery is in the binding, for materialists it is in understanding how it is possible for matter to think and have self-awareness.
The word “emergence" is often invoked as the possible explanation: electric currents and neurotransmitters flow through many neurons, connected by many dendrites, and this complex bioelectric activity creates a new level of brain functioning we perceive as subjectivity. It sounds appealing, but after years of speculations, we have nothing concrete.
We need new ideas
In order to make progress, new ideas are badly needed. Enter New York University philosopher David Chalmers, whose work has helped clarify what the complications are about. In 1995, Chalmers, still in his native Australia, published a paper separating the quest for understanding consciousness into two very different ways: the "easy" and the "hard" problems. The "easy" problems, which are, in fact, extremely complex and keep thousands of neuroscientists very busy, are related to common cognitive and physiological functions, such as how we see, how we hear, how neuronal impulses translate into muscular action, etc. Years of research, aided by functional magnetic resonance imagery and other brain-activity measuring devices, have shown that neuronal firing in certain areas of the brain are directly correlated with specific cognitive and physiological functions. The materialists feel quite at home here
According to Chalmers, the “hard problem" is a very different story. His ideas reenergize those of the great Victorian physicist John Tyndall, who, with remarkable prescience, wrote in his 1868 address to the Physical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science:
The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously, we do not possess the intellectual organ nor, apparently, any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass by a process of reasoning from the one phenomenon to the other. They appear together and we don't know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened and illuminated as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain, were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be, and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem. How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness? The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.
In other words, Tyndall recognized that a strictly materialistic approach to explain consciousness would never work. We may identify the physiological activity related to a feeling, located in specific or combined areas of the brain. We may identify not just the neuronal firing, but also the chemicals flowing from point A to point B as the feeling is felt. But such scientific descriptions of the phenomenon will still not illuminate the feeling itself.
A gap in our argument
There is something missing here, a gap in our explanatory argument that fails to link physicochemical phenomena with the ineffable experience of feeling something. And it doesn't need to be anything as lofty as love or religious ecstasy. Kicking a stone will do it, as one can locate the regions in the brain associated with the pain but can't grab on to how the firing of specific neurons translates into having pain or why certain kinds of pain make you cry and others don't, be the pain physical or emotional. This is what Chalmers calls the “Hard Problem."
A strict reductionist approach that takes a bottom-up methodology to the mind seems to be missing something essential about what's really going on. It is not that science is unable to ever figure out the mind, or that the problem of understanding the mind is that we can't step out of it. The problem is that this kind of approach—focused on local cause-and-effect mechanisms within the brain and on neurons firing across their synaptic connections—is doomed to fail.
The mind is a challenge because it works more like a city than a household, with several networked links resonating at different times and with different subgroups of nodes, such that understanding the behavior of individuals or even of smaller groups won't tell the whole story of what's going on. No approach can capture the whole of what goes on over time in a large city like New York or Rio, even if a city is made of small neighborhoods—and those neighborhoods, of a few individuals. One may capture certain mass events, like rush hour traffic or festivals, parades or open-air concerts, but not the global behavior of the city. You can describe a city, its neighborhoods and museums, and its history, but not explain it, at least not in some clear deterministic way. As Nobel Prize physicist Phil Anderson once remarked: “More is different."
Chalmers suggests that what's missing is some kind of new physical property attached, somehow, to brain activity. In a recent conversation in physicist Sean Carroll's podcast Mindscape, Chalmers used the analogy of trying to explain electromagnetism without the concept of an electric charge. You just can't do it. Adding charge as a new property of certain particles of matter opens a whole new universe of explanation that encompasses many kinds of phenomena. Perhaps, he suggests, that's what we need to explaining consciousness, a new ontological player, as fundamental as mass and charge. Perhaps. Unfortunately, no one has any real idea of what it could be.
While the debate rages on, Chalmers recently published a new paper suggesting an über-problem of consciousness, that he calls the “Meta Problem of Consciousness." Essentially, the meta-problem is why we ask questions about the problem of consciousness. What is it about our kind of consciousness that makes us puzzle about its nature? In a sense, this is related to the easy problems, given that it is connected with behavior. The meta problem links the three problems of consciousness in an organic whole. For example, would we now say that only a fully-developed consciousness is able to puzzle about its existence? Is it at this level of self-awareness that we would credit an AI with consciousness?
Chalmers suggests that the meta problem is amenable to scientific inquiry and carefully considers a few avenues for its empirical study. I hope colleagues in mind studies will take this seriously.
Perhaps, after thousands of years of speculation, the effort will shed some light on the mystery of consciousness. Perhaps.
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Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NDg5NTg1NX0.kdBYMvaEzvCiJjcLEPgnjII_KVtT9RMEwJFuXB68D8Q/img.png?width=980" id="59914" width="429" height="350" data-rm-shortcode-id="b11e4be64c5e1f58bf4417d8548bedc7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" width="1920" height="2560" data-rm-shortcode-id="4089a32ea9fbb1a0281db14332583ccd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" width="819" height="1072" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff5edf0a698e0681d11efde1d7872958" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="8827e55511c8c3aed8c36d21b6541dbd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQwMjc3N30.nBGAfc_O9sgyK_lOUo_MHzP1vK-9kJpohLlj9ax1P8s/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a2f6" width="1440" height="1440" data-rm-shortcode-id="4fe28368d2ed6a91a4c928d4254cc02a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="67542ee1c5a85807b0a7e63399e44575" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Research has shown how important empathy is to relationships, but there are limits to its power.
- Empathy is a useful tool that allows humans (and other species) to connect and form mutually beneficial bonds, but knowing how and when to be empathic is just as important as having empathy.
- Filmmaker Danfung Dennis, Bill Nye, and actor Alan Alda discuss the science of empathy and the ways that the ability can be cultivated and practiced to affect meaningful change, both on a personal and community level.
- But empathy is not a cure all. Paul Bloom explains the psychological differences between empathy and compassion, and how the former can "get in the way" of some of life's crucial relationships.
Ultimately, this is a fight between a giant reptile and a giant primate.
The 2021 film “Godzilla vs. Kong" pits the two most iconic movie monsters of all time against each other. And fans are now picking sides.