Will We Ever Understand the Nature of Consciousness?
Advances in our understanding of cognitive processes are proving tremendous. When it comes to understanding consciousness, you might say the ghost in the machine is a chemical engineer.
Predictions are fodder for the imagination. Most of our conscious experience is spent dwelling in the past or contemplating what’s to come. These mental states are interdependent: forecasting is based on past experiences; what happens tomorrow will inevitably alter our perception of history. In fact, musing over both past and future activates the same neural regions. The hard part is staying present.
The editors at Scientific American picked twenty questions they deemed important for the future of humanity. As expected, a few are built on the speculative work of Philip K Dick, Frank Herbert, and Cormac McCarthy. Are there extraterrestrials? Will humans survive Earth by relocating elsewhere? Will our species make it another five hundred years?
These are relevant questions, especially as climate change continues its relentless march. Whether or not we’ll predict earthquakes is especially important to Angelenos like myself. Yet the questions regarding consciousness seem especially timely, which makes a brief quote feel inadequate.
It is a solid quote, however. Asking Christof Koch of the Allen Institute of Brain Science if we’ll ever understand the nature of consciousness, his two-sentence reply is especially insightful. First, he notes that many deny any potential for comprehending the seeming chaos of our hundred billion neuronal connections. Ignore the haters, he continues,
There is little rationale for burying into such defeatist talk and every reason to look forward to the day, not that far off, when science will come to a naturalized, quantitative and predictive understanding of consciousness and its place in the universe.
For a long time I fell into the former camp. Having spent my late teens and twenties studying religion, I was constantly presented with enduring and supposedly unanswerable metaphysical quandaries. Some form of belief system is erected to deal with uncertainties. End of story.
There comes a point when you recognize that mysticism and faith translate to ignorance. “I don’t know” is not analogous to “It can’t be known.” Advances in our understanding of cognitive processes are proving tremendous. The ghost in the machine is a chemical engineer.
For example, the limbic responses to stimuli that we dub emotions are rather universal—what makes us sad might vary culturally, but the neurological markers of sadness run across the board. Same for anger, joy, the gamut of feelings. Changes in skin temperature and moisture, heart rate, and neuronal firings are measurable. We might lie. Blood flow does not.
Unless you’re a psychopath, violent imagery will negatively affect you. (Psychopaths will either be neutral or even comforted by such images.) Out of body and mystical religious experiences are easily replicated with magnets. Synesthesia accounts for the creative processes of some artists, musicians, and thinkers. Research in split-brain patients has revealed the argumentative and ultimately cooperative nature of our most cherished organ.
An experiment by E.J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister highlights just how predictable humans are. Students were given lemonade, one sweetened with sugar, the other Splenda. Fifteen minutes later they were asked to make decisions regarding apartments. The Splenda group fared far worse.
The human brain is fueled by sugar; the substitute didn’t cut it. The prefrontal cortex of each Splenda student was too depleted to think clearly. Food research is especially telling in consciousness studies, since those nutrients greatly affect how and what we think. Being hangry is a real phenomenon, and it is measurable.
Assigning consciousness to a mystical, godly realm seems part of our evolutionary heritage. How could silly topics like lemonade inform the divine gift of consciousness? How, as the greatest animal ever produced, could we ever think we’ll understand our most primitive inner circuitry? The ego of these researchers.
Perhaps we need to rethink that assumption. Egoistic means believing we’re designed with an impenetrable code. Fifty years ago cracking DNA seemed unfathomable. Today I logged into 23andme to discover I’m likely to consume more caffeine than average (I do), I’m not a sprinter (I’m not), I move a lot in my sleep (my girlfriend confirms this), and I’m predominantly Eastern European (I know that) with hints of Yakut and North African (I didn’t know that). My spit and a hundred bucks revealed that and much more, and we’re really only at version 1.0.
In a culture that champions the individual, believing private thoughts inside of your head are forever yours and yours alone is understandable. But we give so much away through facial expressions and pantomimes it seems we hardly know ourselves at all. Our sacredness is relative. To many humans? Blessed. Leave your comfort zone? Meh.
Can metacognition be that metacognitive? Given how much we’ve learned in just the past decade, certainly. As we continue to wrap our heads around the nature of our heads, many other questions on Scientific American’s list will unfold: Will brain science change criminal law? Will there ever be a cure for Alzheimer’s? Will we use wearable technologies to detect our emotions? Will sex become obsolescent?
We don’t need to understand consciousness to recognize that we are, at root, animals. The last one remains a resounding no.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
International poker champion Liv Boeree teaches decision-making for Big Think Edge.
One way to limit clutter is by being mindful of your spending.
- Overbuyers are people who love to buy — they stockpile things as a result. These are individuals who are prone to run out of space in trying to store their stuff and they may even lose track of what — and how much of what — they have.
- One way overbuyers can limit their waste, both money and space wise, is by storing items at the store, and then buy them when they really need them.
- Underbuyers tend to go to extraordinary lengths to not buy things. They save money and do fewer errands, however, they often make do with shabby personal items. They may also, when they finally decide to go out to buy a product, go without entirely because the item may no longer be available.
Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks
- Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
- Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
- After one year, only one is still alive.
Discovered: destination Argentina
Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina
The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.
It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.
A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.
A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarised in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.
Harnessing the hawks
A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.
The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.
Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimise the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.
The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.
By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).
There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarise this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behaviour around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be travelled is longer.
The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.
Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.
Panama snack stop
The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor
They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.
As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favourite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.
It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.
So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.
For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.
Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.
Harsh, but not unusual
This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.
While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.
Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)
The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).
Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.
Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.
In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.
B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.
B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.
Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honour.
Strange Maps #965
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(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.
A new study has investigated who watched the ISIS beheading videos, why, and what effect it had on them
This is the first study to explore not only what percentage of people in the general population choose to watch videos of graphic real-life violence, but also why.
In the summer of 2014, two videos were released that shocked the world. They showed the beheadings, by ISIS, of two American journalists – first, James Foley and then Steven Sotloff. Though the videos were widely discussed on TV, print and online news, most outlets did not show the full footage. However, it was not difficult to find links to the videos online.
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