Sunday, 26 May 2013

God is on the Radio

To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the person looking for a pattern it won't be long before they find it. This is down to a psychological tendency to perceive significant pieces of information in otherwise meaningless. Fascinations with the numbers 3, 23 and 666 have caused people to unconsciously seek out and find these numbers occurring in dates, co-ordinates, numbers of freckles etc. Fortunately the pseudo-science of numerology is down to an error in perception and not based in fact or else we would all be dead many times over from multiple apocalypses . The name given to this error in perception is apophenia.

An exceptional case of apophenia was that of John Nash, the brilliant mathematician shown in the film 'A Beautiful Mind'.  Nash's talent for observing patterns soon became pathological when he developed schizophrenia and began hearing voices in random noise and hallucinating. White noise be made to give a message if looked for enough and people consistently mention in pop culture that 'hidden' messages are to be found in songs played backwards.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Cultural Influence of Perception

It may appear clear as day what image is being portrayed in the adjacent picture  but what you see here is very much a result of your cultural upbringing. Constraints of your physical environment have such a conditioning effect that you will assume that the image is of a white family sitting in a room near the corner. The animal is a dog and over the woman's head on the left is a window. However when this image is shown to someone in Africa , it is found that they see it as a black family sitting outdoors. The room corner is a tree and the window is an object being balanced on the woman's head.

Good or Bad Technology?

In this course so far we have had a very wide discussion of many topic areas and one theme that has kept coming up has been technology and the contribution of new technology to science and society. We have seen things like drones that are a danger but also things like attempts to make an artificial brain which have great potential for positive change. Today I want to talk about a new system as discussed in this article which could have a big impact on education systems – automated marking.
This kind of system is already well established in online courses where grading software automatically picks out key words in a text to give an automatic grade to a piece of work without it ever being read by a person. However, this article outlines how four different states in the USA have introduced this kind of software into their secondary school system. The article goes on to discuss whether this kind of system of grading will discourage creativity and proper essay writing.

Friday, 24 May 2013


In the attempt to understand, labels are used, however they can be- at best- a partial glimpse of a given phenomena from a given perspective at a given time.

They're useful, like signposts, but signposts shouldn't be taken too seriously and if history teaches us one thing it's that boundaries tend to be redefined over the course of time.

The (recently mentioned) launch of DSM 5 is a road atlas of many of these place names, an attempt to reduce complex experiences into given conditions, and this in turn often leads to looking for a physical corelate: i.e. a gene. A recent Science News article explains that they have not yet found one for depression.

Bayes' Theorem

I decided to write an article about Bayes' theorem as it is a recurrent topic in artificial intelligence and its understanding can be quite useful in everyday life (especially if you like gambling). The best example to introduce Bayes' theorem is the Monty Hall problem. Let's play a game! Considering that we have 3 doors with one of them hiding a reward, you must first pick one of the doors without opening it, so you do not know its content. Then, following the script, one of the two doors that haven’t been selected will be opened and will not hide the reward. Now, the real problem starts, would you exchange the door that you have selected for the other door, or would you keep it ?
Most people will tend to say that it does not change anything but it is actually more interesting to pick the last door. You’re skeptical ? So was I when I first learnt about Bayes theorems but it has shown to work very well. The fact that people do not easily understand Bayes theory is simply because the human brain is not optimised for rational decisions.

Life and Death of Neurons

 A recent study by Cusack et al. , published in the May issue of Nature Communications sheds light on the mechanisms underlying axon pruning and apoptosis. Axon pruning is an essential mechanism as it allows faulty connections to be severed. It is also part of normal development and has an important role to play as part of learning and memory. Axon pruning, although essential for the well being of our brains, can be a dangerous gamble as the poison released by the neuron to severe its axon could kill the entire cell if released improperly. Apoptosis, a more radical mechanism consisting of the intentional destruction of an entire cell is also sometimes required as it permits the weeding out of broken or incorrectly located neurons that could have a negative impact on the body.


With the recent and mediated works on electroencephalogram (EEG) Brain-computer interface, I was quite intrigued by the fact that brain signals were only exploited to move bionic arms (cf Professor Kevin Warwick’s work) or cursors on graphical interfaces. That’s why I decided to investigate and came across a very special brain signal called P300. This brain signal is unconsciously activated every time an object is recognised as millions of neurons fire at the same time. I think this study was worth reading as the way they use EEG is unlike anything I have previously seen.

"Rubber Hand" illusion could give prosthesis a sense of touch

Merleau-Ponty said: "The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them." The importance of this insight is that what makes a limb yours is not just it, but its involvement in "projects". These projects are the everyday activities in the context of the environment that your combined senses apprehend. You hear not only with your ears, but with your eyes too, as demonstrated by the McGurk effect. So too you feel with your eyes as in Botvinick & Cohen's "rubber hand" experiment. This one in particular has very real application in robotics.

Sleeping on The Job

In my experience most employers want (or at least say they want) to have creative employees.  It seems that there is a general acceptance that it's possible to make someone creative. To this end there is no end to the number of training companies that provide creativity training. However, when you're around as long as I am (Digital, Compaq, HP, Microsoft) you get to see a pattern: two examples keep recurring - the No. 1 example cited is 3M and the 20% creativity time (recently emulated by Google) which resulted in the development of Post-Its and the other classic example being the potential of hypnagogia - the altered mental state that occurs between sleeping and waking during which Kekulé correctly hypothesised that that the structure of benzene was a closed ring after imagining the molecules forming into snakes that swallowed their own tails, while he was half asleep in front of his fire.
The fact that the discovery of the benzene ring happened almost 115 years ago and even the Post-It example is almost 40 years old tells me that induced creativity doesn't have a great hall of fame to refer to. However, undaunted I've been looking into hypnagogia....

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Psychology and Psychiatry

I once knew a guy who was an aircraft engineer, by all accounts very good at his job and something he enjoyed doing, however he didn't like flying- in fact he was afraid of it and had only attempted it once or twice ever in his life.

The thing is that didn't make him less of an engineer, nor does it make the confident frequent flyer anything of an expert in mechanics or avionics.

There may be some argument to say that if he worked designing the interiors of aircrafts, that his lack of flying experience might have made it difficult for him to make the ergonomics just right for flyers, but even then his inexperienced perspective might allow him to see the aircraft from a different perspective than someone who may be desensitized through the course of regular travel.

Annoying Noises Prohibited Here...

A good few years ago my cousin and I were chatting and the subject turned to tolerance of other people’s quirks and foibles. We were intrigued and amused to discover that we were very alike in our mutual irritation of the habits of our nearest and dearest. I asked her what exactly it was that drove her crazy about her husband and she said “When we’re watching television I just get so annoyed by, well, his breathing”. In a lightbulb-type moment, I knew exactly what she meant, having grown up with several family members who insisted on breathing too, an annoyance which would have me grinding my teeth in irritation! Luckily, neither of us is annoyed by our own breathing or chewing habits! We laughed it off and decided that we must have some kind of intolerance gene in common. Other than family members anyone I told the story to looked as if they thought I’d lost the plot entirely.

Fast-forward another few years and I notice that another family member seems unusually intolerant of the rest of us. When she sees someone tapping their foot or something moving out of the corner of her eye, she gets really annoyed and asks them repeatedly to stop. It irritates her no end that others put their feet up on the  footstool as they relax at home and absentmindedly rub their feet together. And, as in all the best families, one person’s annoyance becomes a neat weapon which another will happily use against them and so the battle lines are drawn.  I have some sympathy for her plight, it’s true her breathing does me in, but I’m a foot-rubber so we cancel each other out!

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Irony and Machines

“I'd kill for a Nobel Peace Prize.” ―Steven Wright 

Could a machine learn how to detect irony in written text, as in the above quote for example? I’ve been working on this topic for my thesis so I thought I’d share a small introduction as a blog post here. First we must ask the question; what is irony and what is it used for? As Veale (2010) states: “Irony is an effective but challenging mode of communication that allows a speaker to express sentiment-rich viewpoints with concision, sharpness and humour”.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Genetic Algorithms & Optimisation of Cognitive Models

As a computer scientist, I have already used Genetic Algorithms (also called GA), which are interesting tools for Artificial Intelligence purpose. However, I was wondering if we could potentially use them in Cognitive Modelling.  Before explaining why they are so interesting, I will first describe the principle of Genetic Algorithm.
Genetic Algorithms somehow mimic the natural selection process. When given a solution for a particular problem, it simply creates duplicates of this solution but with small random modifications. We can say that the new solutions now have different characteristics or "genes". Those new solutions are then assessed with a “fitness” function which evaluates the difference between the expected result and the actual output. The best solutions are then used to create a new generation of solutions with different genes and the whole process can now starts again. Also, the level of mutation between two generations is very important as a low level will slow down the evolution process while a high level will simply generate freaky solutions and make the new generation evolving in the wrong way. The process stops when a solution is considered as accurate enough by the fitness function.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Brain + computer: The next chapter

While reading some tech blogs, i came across a startling new development in the interface between brains and computers. I quote from the blog "A brain-computer-interface technology created by researchers at Columbia University could turn our brains into automatic image-identifying machines that operate faster than human consciousness." This method combines the image-processing power of the human brain with computer vision to search through images 10 times faster than they could on their own. This cortically coupled computer vision system dubbed C3 vision, was developed to allow hours of footage to be processed very quickly. With the stark increase in recording systems, far too much data is generated on a daily basis, but processing that data can be an arduous task. The brain emits a signal as soon as it sees something interesting, and that "aha" signal can be detected by an electroencephalogram, or EEG cap. While users sift through streaming images or video footage, the technology tags the images that elicit a signal, and ranks them in order of the strength of the neural signatures. Afterwards, the user can examine only the information that their brains identified as important, instead of wading through thousands of images.
After reading the article the system struck me as oddly familiar. A little recollection brought me to the Doctor Who episode "The Long Game". An episode where the Doctor lands in a space station in the year 200,000. It was a news broadcasting station, where the reporters interfaced with all the incoming information from the surface directly via neural implants at amazing speeds. However, it also showed how such a system was capable of being exploited. Think about it, what's the worst part about having employees? Taking care of their working conditions, work-life balance, addressing employees concerns and needs etc. But if you only needed the processing power of their brains, the most 'profitable' way of using it would be to draw a line between the person and his brain. Using the brain as you would use a computer CPU. The long term implications portrayed in that old, sci-fi series are morbid, to say the least, as seen int he latter half of the episode, where the control hub of the entire station was run by dead people, whose brains were directly linked to the core system. Is that what man kind is be destined for, to be used as replaceable computer parts in a vast bio-computerized array? I shudder at even considering the possibility.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Robot Rights

“As long as humans or animals are still tortured on this earth, we have bigger problems to tackle than the ethical situation of robots!” said one of the many outraged comments under this German newspaper article I recently read. I can’t say that I am not quite sympathetic with this view, but Kate Darling’s idea of why we should think about robot rights now is motivated in an interestingly different way.

“We should give robots similar rights to animals – they should for example not be allowed to be tortured” says Darling, who is an IP Research Specialist at the MIT Media Lab and a Ph.D. candidate in Intellectual Property and Law & Economics.

I think a lot of people stopped reading after this statement – so if you were about to, too, just bear with me for a little longer.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Physics x Consciousness

For long, scientists have held the belief that material entities, stars, planets, rocks,atoms, quarks are fundamentally different from the rather intangible aspects of our existence like, ideas, thoughts and consciousness. However, recent developments in theoretical physics, most notably Grand Unified Theory, String theory and quantum mechanics have brought those seemingly hippy ideas of 'oneness' into the realm of scientific inquiry. Since 1864, when Maxwell published a paper explaining the electromagnetic field which outlines the dynamic inter-relation between electricity and magnetism, which were then thought of as completely separate phenomenon, physicists have worked on trying to unify all observable phenomenon into a grand unified theory, or as it's popularly known, the 'Theory of everything'. While we are still far from developing that theory, work on it has sparked a number of questions which may very well hold the answer '42'.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Meditate on this I will

My last post on binaural beats got me thinking of something we touched upon when discussing the electroencephalograph (EEG) machine and methods last semester. The lecturer showed us slides of EEG readings from patients in various states and I remember being startled at one example where it was shown that an alert mind is in a beta frequency of 13 – 30 Hz but that some people who are awake can lower themselves into a theta frequency of only 4 – 8 Hz. This is a lower frequency of brain activity than that shown in daydreaming. The only instances where lower frequencies are recorded in the delta category of 1 – 3 Hz are when people are unconscious or in a deep sleep. The image below the break puts this in context.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Invasion of the Toxoplasmoids

They are among us. They look just like us, but they are not just like us. They are hosts to the Invaders, beings who lodge themselves inside human brains, controlling behaviour for their own primordial ends. The elderly lady beside you on the bus who smells faintly of cat-pee and mothballs – she could be one of Them. The student behind you, snuffling loudly and popping another Panadol from the packet – is he one? The orange girl nattering into her mobile with one hand, plucking fine white hairs out of her scarf with the other – is it her? Indeed, given the statistics, the chances are that at least one member of the CogSci class is host to behaviour-modifying t.gondii oocysts. Even you, gentle reader, could be one of Them.

Binaural beats

When I was reading about the Mozart effect in RLV Poehls earlier blog post I was reminded of a few pieces I had previously read on the effects of listening to Binaural beats. Binaural beats are a type of musical frequency which, when listened to through headphones send a different signal through each ear into your brain. These frequencies can be tailored to many different states but the desired result is to suggest a particular state to your brain. So for example a frequency of x hertz suggests to your brain that it is time to go to sleep. Many people use binaural beats as a lullaby in this way with many playlists on YouTube for this purpose and even several mobile phone apps on IPhone and Android.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Retroperception: Problems for Enactivism?

Yes, it’s consciousness again. Or rather, perceptual experience. This time, some musings about what the newly-minted cognitivist phenomenon of retroperception (see this Mindhacks post for a summary) might mean for enactivist theories of perceptual experience.

Before we begin, let us take note of a critique levelled against cognitivism by the enactivist Thompson (2007) - that the representationalist, information processing account has replaced the mind/body problem with a new mind/mind problem. This is to say, how and why does hidden cognitive processing, which goes on ‘in the dark’, yield conscious experience, and how can we take seriously a body of thought which so often seems to end up pushing our experience of the world towards an epiphenomenal status? Contrary to representationalist accounts, enactivism denies that human beings experience an ‘external’ world indirectly via some kind of 'internally constructed' model and suggests instead that, through our sensorimotor systems, we have a form of direct access that constitutes the ‘bringing forth’ of a subjective, experiential world. Therefore, like enactivism's forerunner phenomenology, the description of our experiential world could be seen as enactivism’s prime concern. This must include explaining the perceptual quirks that have been comprehensively documented by cognitive psychologists. In their influential 2001 article, Noe and O’Reagan do a good job of explaining various peculiar facets of visual experience within their own theoretical framework. 

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

What does Intelligence give us?

Does increased intelligence result in more “mind”? Aside from being contentious, the point I am trying to illustrate and question here is whether people who are smarter qualify as human minds more than those of lower intelligence.  Would you be a different person if you were more intelligent? Would you have the same opinions and personality traits? It goes without saying that an increase in IQ does cause a change in brain morphology as does simply getting older.  However could this trait be a scalable measure of our ability to experience and to have qualia?

I was reading an article recently which postulated what life might be like if everyone were twice as intelligent. For this purpose we shall take that to mean scoring twice as high on an IQ test. One of the resulting benefits they discussed might be a greater appreciation for art, science, music etc.  This seems to hint explicitly that appreciation is linked to understanding.  Intelligence by that fact must equate to more than just computing ability.

Monday, 29 April 2013

After-Death Consciousness...Dualism Revived?

Ever wonder what happens to consciousness when we die? Until the advent of modern cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) the answer seemed clear; the heart stopped beating, the lungs stopped working and blood could not reach the brain so it shut down. Consciousness shut down along with it.  But researchers are taking another look at consciousness during the time of clinical death. The website describes the initiative as “The Human Consciousness Project will conduct the world’s first large-scale scientific study of what happens when we die and the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death. The diverse expertise of the team ranges from cardiac arrest, near-death experiences, and neuroscience to neuroimaging, critical care, emergency medicine, immunology, molecular biology, mental health, and psychiatry.”

It seems clear that when the heart stops, so too does blood flow to the brain and if CPR is not performed, death will occur. When a patient is in cardiac arrest blood flow to the brain stops after approximately 10 seconds. However, Dr. Sam Parnia who is leading the AWARE Study as part of the Human Consciousness Project says that death is a process rather than a moment. Even after the heart has stopped,  brain cells do not appear to shut down for some time. This gives medical staff time to carry out CPR to keep the heart beating and blood flowing to vital organs including the brain. While brain activity has stopped, it appears that there may still be something going on in the minds of some patients.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

What cognitive ecology can tell us about Shakespearean Theatre

Everyone who has seen a theatre production of the same play twice (at different evenings, in different theatres, in different years, in different countries…) will have noticed something: You do not see the same play twice.

This in itself is not surprising as the European theatre tradition is largely build on the idea of constant re-interpretation and ongoing modernization of plays, and the definition of drama furthermore implicitly entails that the text never functions as more than a basis for all the add-ons that constitute a play – one might promptly think of: the actors, the playing setting, the audience space.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A Kind of Summary...

Being an engineer I'm quite taken by Benny Shanon's parametric model of consciousness. However I must admit his 13 parameters seem a bit artificial and he's very light on providing the normal ranges for them, although I was originally drawn to his approach by his contention that he had experienced the abnormal ranges. Anyway, given the bones of a model I decided to try to use it to summarise the module.
Here's my attempt:

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Enactivism and Mirror Neurons

Imitation and physical coupling are believed to support bonding and relationship formation. There is a school of thought that imitation is not merely a social skill, but results directly from the existence of so called mirror neurons in the brain. A leading proponent of this theory is  V. S. Ramachandran, who in his essay “Mirror Neurons and Their Role in Human Evolution” goes so far as to say that this is how language developed:

“Moreover, as Rizzolati has noted, these neurons may also enable you to mime — and possibly understand — the lip and tongue movements of others which, in turn, could provide the opportunity for language to evolve. (This is why, when you stick your tongue out at a new born baby it will reciprocate! How ironic and poignant that this little gesture encapsulates a half a million years of primate brain evolution)”

The Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness is a very subjective term or concept that is extremely difficult to define or identify as definitively being present but I’m going to have a go at discussing it anyway. Don’t worry; however, I wouldn’t dare mention the term ‘N _ ture vs. N_ _ ture’. The Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven has written extensively on this topic and his work gives some interesting insights.

How computational models may help develop tailored solutions for bilingual aphasia

Although quite a lot is known about monolingual aphasia and its treatment options, bilingual aphasia research has been lagging behind and has only recently become the subject of systematic investigation.  As a result, formalized accounts of treatment scenarios and outcomes are few and display a huge amount of variability.  In Faroqi-Shah et al.’s recent meta-analysis for example, some of the studies reviewed were primarily naming therapies, whilst others aimed at improving sentence production and still others were more globally directed at improving communication abilities. In addition to this, as a group of patients, bilingual aphasics vary greatly along dimensions such as age of acquisition, pre-stroke proficiency in L1 and L2 and post-stoke impairment in each of the two languages. According to a recent study by Kiran and colleagues “the factors that influence treatment outcomes are not well understood. Static factors, such as pre-stroke language state, the etiology of aphasia, and level of impairment between the two languages as well as dynamic factors, such as treatment methodology, and current language exposure, add to the complicated portrait of bilingual aphasia rehabilitation.”

Neurovalidity and the Knowledge of Salmon

In this entertaining talk skeptical social psychologist Carol Tavris notes the tendency to add the prefix 'neuro' to a variety of different fields of study with the intent of adding status and validity, likening it to how the suffix 'behaviour' had to be added to various phenomena in the behaviourist era.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Empathy: Inherited or taught?

Whether empathy is inherited or not is quite an interesting question for me. I always wondered how I resemble my parents, and most often I find similar characteristics, or similarity in decision-making. Looking through a child's evolution over the years, we see that the child learns from the environment around him/her. However, are certain traits inherited?

In the following article, Perri Klass shares her observations whether empathy is inherited or not.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The use of psychedelic drugs for the enhancement of creativity has always amazed me. My first encounter was Christabel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge which was allegedly written (the first part at least) while he was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs (probably a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by mushrooms). His friend Wordsworth was also alleged to have snorted cocaine regularly (and probably together, in Dove Cottage).

The novelist-philosopher Aldous Huxley (1959/1971) made similar observations following his personal experience with another psychoactive substance, mescaline.

“…A man consists of what I may call an Old World of personal consciousness and, beyond a dividing sea, a series of New Worlds – the not too distant Virginias and Carolinas of the personal subconscious and the vegetative soul; the Far West of the collective unconscious ... ; and, across another, vaster ocean, at the antipodes of everyday consciousness, the world of Visionary Experience…”

Read on....

Jeff Stibel's 'Intelligent Internet', Enactivism, and the End of Days

The internet is ‘a new entity’, on its way to becoming ‘a new life form’; it is ‘a global brain’ that is ‘starting to develop intelligence’. So gushes Jeff Stibel, a brain scientist turned businessman/technoevangelist who expounds his futurist faith with buttock-clenching enthusiasm in this video. Computers are wired together by the internet like neurons in a brain. We have brains and are smart. Thus, the internet must be getting smart too.

Given its naturalistic position that cognition is the sense-making of living, embodied organisms in the world and that 'autonomy' and 'experience' should be central to any account of cognition, what would an enactivist take on such claims regarding the internet be? I can only speculate as follows:

A Different Way to Learn

The following is a description of learning: “[People] achieve a routinized, taken-for-granted mastery of certain skills. Then [they are confronted] with a new problem … which forces [them] to rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery and to integrate their old skills with new ones. Then these new sorts of problems are practiced until a new higher-order routinized, taken-for-granted mastery occurs. This cycle is repeated … This cycle is the basis for producing expertise in any area.” Who would have guessed that, in context, this description refers to playing video games? (see here)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

L’art pour le cerveau

Times in which art was done or appreciated purely for its own sake (if these times have ever existed) are clearly over: Nowadays people do not only want to possess art(works or knowledge) to impress their friends and work mates, no, art is also good for your brain!

Everyone has surely heard of the popularized version of the Mozart Effect, which suggested that "listening to Mozart makes you smarter", or that early childhood exposure to classical music has a beneficial effect on mental development. 

In recent years the over-dramatization of these effects (which in 1998 still led an U.S. governor to spend $105,000 a year to provide every child born in his state with a classical music CD) became clear to the public, but the general question of whether arts training can change the brain to enhance general cognitive capacities is still a popular among researchers.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Bystander Effect

The bystander effect refers to: the more people, the less personal responsibility. It can be associated to cases where individuals do not offer any means of help in an emergency situation to the victim when other people are present (e.g. person being attacked or mugged during daylight and no one intervening or calling the police). The probability of help has often appeared to be inversely related to the number of bystanders. I find this very interesting. Why does this happen? Is this related to brain coupling, joint action? Find the causes below.

Cognition in underdeveloped countries

All previous posts seem to me brilliant in a sense that they involve spreading innovative ideas and evolutionary and state of the art research. While all of these are pretty, I was reading today of how 1.3 billion people in the world lack electricity and how nearly 40% of the world's population rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste to cook, breathing in toxic smoke that causes lung disease and kills nearly two million people a year (i.e. more than AIDS: 1.8 million in 2010 and three times the number from malaria: 660,000 in 2010). [Engineering & Technology, volume 8, issue 3, April 2013]
This made me question about education and cognition in such environments.

Can We Predict Presidential Elections?

I came across this article last week as I was reading some material about machine learning. Chris Wilson holds that computers cannot predict the results of the presidential election. I believe the opposite but we probably cannot decide yet. Machine learning is a mathematical model that can perform tasks that are impossible to humans (coursera link).

Monday, 8 April 2013

Him, Cyborg.

"He's more machine now than man"—Obi-wan Kenobi

The augmentation of biology with technology is not a new concept—indeed such devices play an integral role in modern human existence. However, because these contraptions are external to cognitive systems, they are not utilized as efficiently as they could be. What if this limitation could be removed and cognition could be aided directly by technology? Kevin Warwick examined just this question in a set of experiments that has since been dubbed "Project Cyborg".

Cognition gone bananas

With so much financial turmoil in the past few years, the cognition of economics has become a popular topic. Research in this area has taken two approaches: 1. analyzing the cognitive system to understand why people make certain choices regarding economic theory; and 2. analyzing economic trends in the hopes of extrapolating the cognitive processes that produced certain consequences. While both strategies sound good in theory, what if neither is the correct approach? What if the economy is something other than some combination of environmental and cognitive factors?

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Dream in code: 'Neural Decoding of Visual Imagery During Sleep'

Lucid dreaming

fMRI/EEG combination used to decode dream images

 A study recently published in the journal Science described work on dream image mapping carried out by neuroscientist Yukiyasu Kamitani and colleagues at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Computational Neuroscience labs in Kyoto, Japan.

 Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to scan the brains of three young men as they drifted off to sleep inside an fMRI scanner, while simultaneously recording their brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG).

When the men had entered a ' hypnagogic state' - when their brain wave patterns had begun to resemble those known to be associated with sleep - they were woken up and asked to describe their dreams, then allowed to go back to sleep. This procedure was carried in three-hour blocks, repeated 7 to 10 times (on different days) for each volunteer. Approximately 200 dream reports were recorded from each participant, and the reported images were then grouped into categories that were specifically oriented  to the individual's particular patterns of  repeatedly-occurring elements using the lexical database WordNet. A video montage of images from the ImageNet database corresponding to the keywords generated by the dream reports was presented to the wide-awake men while their brain activity was being monitored. An algorithm developed to recognise the brain activity ''signatures'' associated with various dream images separated non-visual brain activity from vision-related excitation patterns, to verify that dreaming involves some of the same brain areas that are associated with visual imagery. This algorithm was combined with machine-learning techniques that used the waking brain activity patterns as 'training' examples. After training the program, the researchers input patterns of sleeping brain activity - the 'test' examples - and were able to predict which category of image had produced that pattern of brain activity.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Humanoid Robot called NAO helps teach social skills to children with Autism

Autism is a group of developmental brain disorders, collectively called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) vary from one child to the next, but in general, they fall into the three domains: (1) Social impairment (2) Communication difficulties and (3) Repetitive and stereotyped behaviours. Aiden, seen in the picture to the left, is a 3 year old boy who has ASD. 

Given that the 2nd of April 2013 is World Autism Awareness Day, I thought that it would be appropriate to publish this post today.

Monday, 1 April 2013

A World without Words

So much of what we have studied this year is bound to language. How humans communicate with each other and the world around them is fundamental to how we understand cognition. The role of language is central to almost everything we do, instead of “you are what you eat” it’s more a case of “you are your language”. Every debate we have had can be traced or linked to language; the mind-body problem, memory, problem-solving, visual perception, ...pretty much everything we share is recorded and communicated using language.  Wittgenstein said that the limits of language are the limits of our world while Ferdinand de Saussure said “Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula.” Just the other day we saw how language develops in an infant through Deb Roy’s charting of the first years of his son’s life. At the other end of the spectrum, thinking about not having any language is beyond the imagination of most of us. The closest we can get is imagining stories of children raised by wolves like Romulus and Remus but even that is shrouded in mythology and supposition.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

15 years ago Compaq & DEC (now Hewlett-Packard) setup its Europe, Middle East & Africa centralised Technical Support Centre (naturally it wasn’t called that – it had to be called by a TLA – so it was known as TSC). The TSC had high ambitions of solving many of the intractable problems associated with 14 different countries having 14 different ways of doing the same thing – fixing product and process failures for 25 million customers.

Unfortunately, and somewhat predictably, what it initially did was spend millions of dollars industrialising the existing mess while simultaneously disenfranchising the local subsidiaries – time to hire a new sheriff! – Or could this be a case for distributed cognition?

Monday, 25 March 2013

The Quanta of Mind

Quantum Mechanics. Mind. Consciousness.

From where I'm standing, the sole feature drawing these seemingly disparate terms together is my own blissful ignorance of their precise meanings and applications.
However,  the first and fourth terms, Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness, some claim, have more linking them than their mere incomprehensibility.

Splicing these two intimidatingly complex domains together, explorers in quantum theories of consciousness seek to shed light on the nature of consciousness using the wisdom peddled by quantum theory.

Body to Body

The issue of perspective is always a curious one. For those semi-familiar with video game technical jargon, the concept of first person shooter and third person shooter are fundamental to the over-all experience of the game. I always felt that the decision to place the camera behind James Bond instead of just in front of him determined whether the game would be enjoyable or just plain irritating. Imagine if you will the possibility of addressing this problem in relation to our own bodies.  

The slightly paranormal view of an out of body experience is that of the rising from the body and floating around the room perhaps in response to great physical trauma or stress. Additionally, reports attribute them to the copious use of alcohol and mind expanding hallucinatory drugs.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Resurrection 2.0

Reductivism has greatly benefited science in that the ability to break down an area of study into a more neatly defined territory with relatively clear boundaries allows a researcher to get on with the work at hand and to have a higher hit rate of identifying that which is measurable in that set range.

However such an approach can suffer from a lack of holism and the danger of believing that the world does conveniently fit into the categories we place upon it.

A fascinating demonstration of this, as featured recently in an article in National Geographic, is the question over whether it is ethical to bring back extinct species through cloning methods.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Neuroarthistory meets Upper Paeleolithic art

Drawing on bone from Isturitz Cave, France

Lecture at British Museum on Ice Age Art exhibition

- took place on March 15, 2013:  exhibition curator Jill Cook introduced the speakers, neuroscientist Semir Zeki and archaeologist  Clive Gamble.

Professor Gamble provided context information for the exhibition in terms of geography and population: in Western Europe, 20,000 years ago at the height of the Ice age, the population moved south; into the Dordogne, to Cantabrian Spain. The total population of Western Europe at that time was approximately 17,000 people. When the Ice Age receded and they came back,  the total population of Western Europe was 60,000.

Professor Zeki introduced the connection of art with the 'primordial need' of the brain to acquire knowledge. The application of neuroaesthetics -  the formulation of neural laws about art and aesthetics - to the objects in the exhibition revealed the importance of 'significant configurations': simple patterns that are immediately recognizable, for example, two holes and two straight lines are interpreted as a face when presented in the correct positions:  :-|

Professor Zeki said that the function of art was the communication of ideas not accessible to language, emphasising features that are important in acquiring knowledge about how to live in an environment, and how to live with each other (social knowledge).

Jürgen Schmidhuber: Low-complexity art and more!

Jürgen Schmidhuber is arguably one of the world’s most interesting researchers in AI. He is a computer scientist and artist known for his work on machine learning, Artificial Intelligence (AI), artificial neural networks, digital physics, and low-complexity art. Schmidhuber is co-director of the Swiss AI lab IDSIA in Lugano and a professor of Cognitive Robotics at the Tech University Munich. It is reported that since he was 15 years old, his main scientific ambition has been to build an optimal scientist, then retire! This is the driving force behind his research on self-improving Artificial Intelligence. Between 2009-2012, the recurrent neural networks and deep feed-forward neural networks developed in his research group have won eight international competitions in pattern recognition and machine learning. His formal theory of creativity & curiosity & fun (1990-2010) explains art, science, music, and humor. Yes, his CV is impressive, but what caught my attention in particular was his 'low-complexity art' which is reinforced and mentioned in his formal theory of creativity & curiosity & fun. 

Acquired savantism: can tDCS make you a genius?

Allan Snyder's THINKING CAP

The real 'Rain Man'

The extraordinary abilities of 'savants' became part of popular culture thanks to the film 'Rain Man'.  Dustin Hoffman's character was inspired by Kim Peek, who was born without the corpus callosum (which connects the left and right hemispheres).

Peek was able to read two pages of a book simultaneously (one page with each eye) in eight seconds, and commit them to memory with 98% accuracy. He could recall more than 12,000 books in their entirety, and he accurately summed columns of phone numbers from the phone book.

Peek was not mentally retarded or autistic, but was unable to master basic life skills. A technical consultant on 'Rain Man', Darold Treffert, MD, researched this condition for nearly 50 years, developing the theory that savant syndrome characteristically consists of left-hemisphere dysfunction combined with right-hemisphere emergence. In other words, without the restrictions imposed by the left-brain, the right-brain is free to dazzle.

Friday, 22 March 2013

BCI: Just how far down the rabbit hole can we go?

 The most promising technology which has come into the picture recently, is that of Brain Computer Interfaces. In essence, it is a means of allowing the mind to affect changes in the external world without the need for any physical movement. For a long time the BCI technology was confined to labs for research to enable 'locked-in' patients to interact with the world, however, there are some products like Emotiv's EPOC headset, and NeuroSky headset  in the market which have started aiming at

the larger consumer base of able bodied people which may benefit from this exciting new possibility.
Apart from the infinite real-world applications and industries to which BCI's may be applied, the scope of this post is to discuss what such an interface means for cognitive sciences.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Mind Music

Technarte is an international conference on art and technology that has been taking place in Bilbao from 2006.  This year's offerings includes a piece on the dynamic visualization of the complexity of a city, a thousand years of performing robots, and audiovisual composition inspired by systemic biology.  

Of most relevance to our concerns is a piece by Eduardo Miranda (pic left), who has obtained fMRI data from three people as they listened to Beethoven's 7th symphony.  He describes it thus: 

"Currently, I am deconstructing Beethoven’s movement to its essential elements with the aid of bespoke Artificial Intelligence (AI) and storing them together with statistical information about Beethoven’s compositional decisions.

For the composition of Symphony of Minds Listening I plan to re-assemble these elements following to a method of my own, which uses fMRI information to guide the process. The original material will be modified according to a number of musical operations, also guided by fMRI information. The brain activity of 3 different minds listening to Beethoven’s music will yield 3 movements of the composition, some of which may bear more resemblance to the original Beethoven movement than others. The respective brain scans will be rendered into a movie showing the brain activity of the three persons, which can be screened during the concert."

Saturday, 16 March 2013


I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on televangelists, and in particular miracle healing, from a psychological perspective. While not one of my usual topics of discussion I did find it a rather interesting area to explore as it ties in with my interest in independent thought.

Immediately the question is raised of what a miracle is, and then whether certain individuals can invoke or perform them. Rather strikingly this question seems to have little to do with just religious belief in that there are plenty of individuals who believe in God (including a Unitarian Minister who was also part of the discussion) who simply don't believe in miracles in the sense that they are often proclaimed by certain televangelist ministries.

Holland (1965) has an interesting article in American Philosophical Quarterly on 'The Miraculous' where he clarifies two types of miracles; the violational and the contingent. A violational miracle is one that in itself violates the laws of nature, for example levitation or walking on water. A contingent miracles is one that is not in conflict with the laws of nature but just that it seems unlikely that it would have happened.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The 'extended body': SCI patients feel that their wheelchair is integrated with their body!

Research published on March 6th in the open access journal PLOS ONE (Public Library Of Science), carried out by Mariella Pazzaglia and colleagues from Sapienza University in Italy, found that a significant number of the participants in their study experienced their wheelchair as being 'internal to the corporeal boundary, suggesting a revision in their body image". The researchers explain that a prosthetic device that extends or restores movement may become part of the identity of the person to whom it belongs. Pazzaglia and colleagues state that "some individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI) adapt their body and action representation to incorporate their wheelchairs". 

Monday, 11 March 2013

Imitation of Life

After discussing my previous post on the evidence of consciousness in sleep with some classmates I felt encouraged to look more deeply into the topic and particularly into dreams. Dreams really are a fascinating question, a largely unexplained and spectacular phenomenon that we each experience in our own way every night. So what can dreams tell us about the mind and consciousness? And where should we look for answers; are we better off going to a psychic or a neuroscientist?