Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

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Philosophy Tuesday

August 7, 2018

Some time ago I heard a story about AI research.  The researchers had set up a neural net and busily spent their days entering “facts” into the computer.  Each night, the computer would chew on these “facts” and spit out what it figured out, essentially spitting out its interpretation of how, and what, the world was.

One morning, it declared, “All people are famous.”

To the researchers, this was a puzzle — until they realized that they’d begun entering information about people into the system and that, thus far, they’d only chosen and entered “notable” individuals.

To the computer/AI, it made clear, perfect, logical sense.  It only knew of famous people.  Thus, everyone must be famous.

While I don’t think it was their intention, the researchers built a pretty good example of how our own brains work.

Though sometimes we are admonished to “read between the lines,” our brains are always doing just that.  They take all the vast amounts of information that comes in, parses it, organizes it, and looks for patterns… and then goes even further beyond to look for logical truths.  “If such is such, and such is also such, then it follows that…”

To once again quote the great Carl Sagan: “The brain does much more than just recollect, it inter-compares, it synthesizes, analyzes, it generates abstractions.”

Abstractions, deductions, and truth/realities that totally fit with whatever knowledge and experience it has at that point in time.

This is all great, except that we don’t know our brains have done that.  And that from thereon out, our brains will filter our new experiences and observations through that truth it already knows, even hiding things from our consciousness.  And even more so that we will take many actions based on all those, quite potentially flawed, deductions.  Sometimes it will work out.  Sometimes our actions will be downright unproductive.

Thanks to that triple whammy, it can be tough for our patterns and predictions to get updated with new knowledge and experiences that, should at least, be coming in all the time.  If we’re lucky, a different logical deduction will emerge and compete with an old one such that they balance each other out.  Or we may get a half-update, where the brain still partially holds onto the vestige view, ready to jump back to it at the earliest “confirmation.”

In moments of our most desperate want, deductions can collide to create twisted logics of epic proportions, with epic(ally poor, often) results.

But by stepping back and choosing to go into a series of inquiries to do some heavy re-examination, we give our brains a chance to go back to the primordial and recalculate.  By taking ownership of our views and deductions and realities we gain agency to revise them.  We can come up to date with our stories so that they are in line with where we are today and where we want to go, crafting them so that they serve us well.

Then we can show those AIs how its really supposed to be done…

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Philosophy Tuesday

July 11, 2017

This is a philosophical statement. It is intended to spark thinking and examining.

Our brains have a pretty darn strong us/them detector.  And it’s a fast one too, as in tenth of a second fast.  See someone, or an image of someone, and boom, before we even register there’s a face there that part of our brain has slapped a label on it.  Recent neuroscience research is even able to watch this happen in real time.  Show test subjects a face, see their brain reaction.

Ok, that we split people into us/them groups is not all that surprising.  What might be, though, is that WHAT is pegged as different and other is completely arbitrary.  More than that even;  in fact highly malleable.

Take those same images, the ones shown to the test subjects where their minds were observed categorizing the people in the photos as in/out, us/them, kin/other, and show them a second time, this time with many of the people in the photos wearing a baseball cap of the local popular sports team.  That “other” response… goes away.  Just doesn’t arise.  The first time through:  person gets flagged as other.  Second time through with the hat:  nope, part of my tribe.

That’s fascinating.

Even crazier, the research found that the sensitivity of the detector (ie, make our brains ping “other” more often) can be heightened by simply placing someone in a room with a foul odour in the background.

So easily malleable.

Our brains “otherize” people based on all sorts of things:  skin colour, hair length, gender, body proportions, accents, perceived upbringing, fashion sense, music tastes, choice of operating systems, the list goes on.  And there’s nothing inherent, or even correct about any of it.  So much can set it off.

Which means we can adjust it.  We’re not locked into anything.  No one is.  Baseball caps can change the detector’s response (for or against – put on your rival’s team and watch it swing wildly);  with mindfulness and choice we can do the same.  That to which we do or do not recoil from is under our control.

And even when our detector pings based on one of those hundreds of hidden variables, it’s still just a ping.  It’s no different than the feeling you have right now of a thousand cockroaches and ants crawling all over you and up your arms and into your hair and along the soles of your feet, just from reading this sentence.*  Feelings can be great indicators of something, and so is this.  But they are not a determiner.  That meaning is all up to us.

Our brains continue to hand us these us/them judgments, all the time.  But that is no straightjacket.  It does not doom us to certain actions and reactions.  Rather, we are getting a signal:  to be present, to be mindful, to look around, and to be curious.  There can be gold on them thar other hills.

 

* Sorry for that sensation…

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Philosophy Tuesday

February 14, 2017

This is a philosophical statement.  It is intended to spark thinking and examining.

“Standard social and business practices* are built on certain assumptions – shared understandings that have evolved from older beliefs and conditions.  And while circumstances may have changed since the start of these practices, their continued use feels right and true to us, regardless of whether they have evolved to keep up with the pace of change.  In just such a way a business culture arises and perpetuates itself, perhaps long after its usefulness has passed.”

Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (emphasis mine)

 

* And personal practices too…

I really like the way they put it up there:  …their continued use feels right and true to us.  Because it just does, doesn’t it?  “This is how it’s done” or “this is how it is,” we think/say, and off we go on autopilot to follow down the same well worn, known, and comfortable path.

We’re born into a social world and inherit all this ‘common’ knowledge and ‘truths’, and we decide many more things as we go along, and soon things are chugging away quite handily on their own without our involvement or attention, carrying us for a ride.  We’ll even do things we know don’t produce the outcome we most desire because it’s comfortable and known (which is a wild topic for a whole other post).  And so on we all go, from our personal selves to society, through household to country to – for some things – the world.

When we roll our eyes at work for some perceived inanity we have to deal with, it’s birth was no different than the unseen and unexamined inanities we hold and act out in our own lives.  When we see them, we can slap an expiration date sticker on them, let them phase out, take stock of all aspects, and create anew from intentions.

It may be little tweaks.  It may be wholesale transformations.  But it will now be worthy of guiding our action.

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Philosophy Tuesday

August 2, 2016

This is a philosophical statement.  It is intended to spark thinking and examining.

“We are not rational creatures.  We are rationalizing creatures.”

There was a great segment on This American Life a couple of weeks back that was wonderful for illustrating just how funny (and, to look at it in certain ways, insane) our choice making processes can be.  How easily they are hijacked by things hidden in the background, things that are hidden deep within our context.  And so, also showing how powerful our context can be.

This is the story about how, even with all the knowledge in the world, and even with personal, demonstrable, reproducible, success, Wilt Chamberlain refused to shoot his free throws on the basketball court underhanded.  That is, shoot them “granny style.”

The very name given to it gives a hint of why there are less than a handful of players who shoot that way in the league.   Even though those who shoot granny style shoot their free throws incredibly well, remarkably better than any other players.

Wilt Chamberlain tried it for a season, and went from being a 40% to a 60%+ thrower, in very short order.  Those who shoot underhanded all the time range up in the 80s-95s.

But Wilt doesn’t stick with it.  He goes back to the ‘regular’ throwing style, and his percentage drops significantly, and opposing players go back to fouling him as a tactic, since a free throw was the most certain way to ensure he would fail to make a basket.

I love this story as a reminder that, really, knowledge often makes no difference.  Especially this being a sport, where there are statisticians and analysts and you can see clear, measurable results, from a different technique.  There is no missing bit of information, here, it’s all known and on display.

But the choice is the “non-rational” one.  They’re choosing to hurt the team by costing them points.

Our views and our contexts shape so much of not only what we see, but also what choices we make and what actions we take*, on a fundamental level.  So very often hidden from us.  They didn’t interview Wilt (or Shaq, for that matter, who also never shot underhand even though he was invited to) to ask why he switched back.  To hear what his reasoning was.  But I wager what he would have answered would have had a great rationalization that “made sense” to him.

Things usually make sense to us.  We have our reasons.  We can build reasons for just about anything.  We can argue for our reasons.  And we will even defend, with fury, those rationales.  Even if they’re not the authentic reasons and rationales.  We can hide those reasons that don’t sound so great when viewed in a straight way, viewed in that “well, when you put it that way…” sort of way.

I think we often forget, or ignore, that our emotions, our feelings, our views, our contexts, our worlds, do not have an impact – a very large impact – on our choices.  We live in the scientific age of enlightenment, where we are educated and don’t let that mushy stuff get in the way.  Or, of course, that’s our story.  The unfortunate thing is that if we are unaware, or ignore, that other side of things, the non rational/logic side, we cede a lot of control.   And we shortchange ourselves from winning the playoffs, whatever that “playoffs” may be in our life.

This is another of those not good or bad, right or wrong, smart or dumb things.  It’s a human thing.  We have our emotions and socials and constructs just as much as we have our logical and figure-out side.  It’s what makes our lives so rich and wonderful.  The more we be present to and incorporate the “all of us”, the more we can create and fulfill on the possibilities we so amply want.

 

* Not to mention it shapes our very experience of the moment

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Philosophy Tuesday

May 10, 2016

This is a philosophical statement.  It is intended to spark thinking and examining.

If there’s one thing we are pretty sure about, it’s the primacy of our senses.

There’s something fundamental about our senses that seems to be so unalterable.

Take, for instance, getting shot.

(Woah, crazy escalation to an extreme example!   Sorry for that, I promise it will tie together a moment…)

We can also begin with the much more simple and common act of hitting our thumb with a hammer.

WHAM!  Hammer into thumb.  That’s gotta hurt.  A lot.

Is there any way that it couldn’t?  It’s our senses.  It’s nerve connections directly to our brain.  Is there anything that could possibly alter the experience of body parts being subjected to misapplied hammer mashing?

Turns out, yes.  Context can.

The context that we bring to the injury can alter how much it hurts.

An episode of Radiolab explores this through the research of a young World War 2 medic who noticed that soldiers consistently had very different levels of pain compared to people he had treated back home who had suffered similarly grievous injury.

Same kinds of injuries, different levels of pain.

Seems so weird!

Yet, as he came to realize, the pain we feel isn’t just about the bullet, it’s with the story that comes with the bullet.  The narrative that we construct around it.

Our story filters the pain.  Our context impacts our experience.

That’s some power, context has.

Even something as primal as the pain of getting shot.

There’s an invitation to inquiry, here, out of this.  An insight.*

“If something that seems so certain and unalterable like pain can be altered by the contexts I have created and am carrying around, what other ‘inviolable truths’ about how things are, and how they’re not, are likewise being influenced by my contexts?”

Maybe things are much more mutable than we often let them be.

 

* There’s a second, more direct, insight too.  When we next do smash our thumb, or hit our head, or something else owie, how we relate to that injury makes a difference in how much it hurts, and for how long.  It’s kinda fun to play with.

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Philosophy Tuesday

December 22, 2015

Continuing from last week…

When it comes to who we are being and acting in the world, and the ability to affect and impact and choose our being, much like riding a bike it is largely hidden from our consciousness.* Knowing, and understanding, makes little difference.

Even more crazily, sometimes we’re not even aware of the impact in our lives (and the lives around us) of those ways of being and acting.

Outside of the moment, over a cup of tea with a friend, we can explain things so well, and in such detail, can’t we? We know why we are the way we are, why we repeat those things we’d rather not do, why we can’t be that other way, and we often even know who to blame for it all.

Outside of the moment, we can also plot going forward who we want to be, what we’re going to do (or, more often, not do) when we next do that thing or see that person or encounter that situation. We strive and plot to be more free.

IN the moment, however, that very moment of that thing is right here right now, before we even get a chance to realize it, we fall back on those familiar patterns, fall back on those things we know ourselves to be. In those moments we are, well, ’ourselves’. Just like the backwards bike, all that explanation of why we are ‘ourselves’, and all that working forward of how we will now steer instead of the usual ‘ourselves’ is all for not. We pitch over and fall.

Nuts.

Just like that bicycle, as Destin showed us, there has to be another level going on here, a level beyond understanding or reasoning that’s into the realm of getting, or groking, something that makes us who we are, in those moments. Something inaccessible with our “usual” ways of figuring things out or talking about it or understanding it or making a plan or strategy or etc. Just as knowing our history of how we learned to ride a bike makes little difference on our ability to actually ride it, and just as understanding the physics and mechanics and the body and etc also makes little difference.

It has never made much difference in those areas of life so important to us, those questions about how do I live the best life I can live, how can I communicate better, how can I truly forgive, how can I be more generous, loving, open, free, alive, excited, self-expressed, creative, productive, how can I have peace of mind no matter the circumstance, how can I do right to others, how can I be the best authentic expression of me I can be?

We have all changed and transformed during our lives, so it’s clearly possible.

Sometimes, even knowing that knowing makes no difference, I still (amusingly) get caught up in the trap of explaining and figuring out and trying to understand. And, no surprise, it still doesn’t work. But when I’m in the mode of discovery**, of being mindful, of exploring philosophy, practicing rigorous ontological inquiry… when I let go of the knowing I can suddenly grok what’s there and transform that area of life for me. Things open up.

IN the moment, the next time, I can choose.

I can ride the different bike and have it go the other way.***

I, we, gain access to being who we want to be.

 

* This is similar to where some neuroscientists are starting to question whether we have free will or not, for the parts of the brain for a decision light up before we consciously make that choice. If that’s so, do we really have freedom? Yes/no… mindfulness can give us choice possibility even if the brain bits get activated first, and transformation of an area rejiggers things so that differing, and even multitudes, parts of the brain can light up in those situations, the parts that more directly correspond with the options we’d like to have.

** This is really being willing to let go of all I’ve logically put together and so deliciously tied into a wonderful interconnected superstructure of understanding and reasoning and protective armour and boy you’re not going to get me and I’m going to be right! … letting go of that for what’s instead possible.

*** And unlike the Destin’s bike example, we can always quite easily return to riding the “regular” bike if we choose or deem it more appropriate in that moment.

**** This post was a tough one to write.

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Philosophy Tuesday

December 15, 2015

I love knowledge. Knowledge is awesome. I love figuring things out. The why of things fascinates me.

Unfortunately, in many ways and in many instances, we don’t actually know what we think we know.*

And knowing often makes absolutely no difference.

Dustin (of Smarter Every Day) made a great video on riding a backwards bicycle – a bicycle where the handlebars worked in reverse to what we’re familiar with. Turn left, the wheel goes right. Turn right, the wheel goes left.

So what happens when he tries to ride it? He cannot. He falls off. Repeatedly. No matter how much he thinks about it, no matter how much he tries to just make his hands do the opposite thing, no matter how much he even understands about the physics, the mechanics, the principles, of the bike, no matter what tricks he tries, it makes no difference. He falls off. So does everyone else.

And then, he realizes something even deeper: he never “knew” how to ride a bike.

He could ride a bike, clearly. But it wasn’t due to knowing. There was something more intrinsic going on there. He uses the word “understand” to designate that next level down of knowing, but I prefer the terms “get” or “grok”. Understand for me denotes an explainable comprehension, taking what we know and understanding how those knowing bits fit together, link together, or influence each other. I can understand that using the pedals causes the wheels to turn which generate gyroscopic forces that keep me upright. Understandable. Doesn’t help my balance one bit, though.

Getting or groking is a level of immediate being and acting that is beyond our ken.

It happens to me all the time in my martial arts training. I may know about a concept, and I may understand the principle, , and I can even be told “how” to do the move in whatever language** and analogies the instructor may come up with***, but nine times out of ten I’m still unable to perform what is being instructed. I have to use use that knowledge and use my understanding as a lighthouse to guide me until there’s a moment where something goes clunk and I suddenly am not only doing it, but it becomes automatic. It becomes the (first principle type of) foundation from which the movement comes from, and also a foundation where all my movements (in martial arts or not) are affected.

That we have these levels of knowing/understanding/groking is fascinating, and not that hard to understand in the realm of physical activity. We would be hard pressed to describe how we are balancing right now — we just do it. We weren’t born with it, we clearly had to learn it in order to be able to walk. Yet we do it.

The even more amazing thing is that the same holds quite true about who we are and how we operate in our daily lives.

More next week…

 

* – And, the humour here is that even though I KNOW this fact, even there it makes no difference, I still not only try to know/understand everything as though it will make a difference, but I will also be sad and indignant when I realize it! Then I laugh about it… we are such funny creatures, aren’t we?

** – As someone who has both taught kung fu and moreover written a book on it, it is almost comically difficult to translate body motion and body feeling into words that communicate something. You can describe the angle and position of the body, but that’s not very helpful for the reasons being discussed…

*** – …thusly analogy is often quite helpful. Because of its abstract nature, it forces us to go beyond our usual understanding and just grasp out at the poeticness of the analogy, trying to capture that feeling or embody that spirit. If we can let that “knowing” desire go, it’s surprisingly often quite fruitful, letting us experience and grok the new thing.