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?

Friday, 8 March 2013

Inventing a Sixth Sense

What’s the difference between perceptual awareness and tummy shirts? Well, maybe it’s that awareness has lately been making its fashion comeback in the scientific world.
For many decades, consciousness and perceptual awareness were regarded as the “ugh, yuck” -topics by many scientists – and if you liked to be seen as a serious researcher, you better kept your fingers away from these dirty, subjective phenomena. “Do not play with the consciousness people”, is what you’re mother would have told you.

Although maybe not as fast as fashion, this is changing: Starting in the 1980’s, interest was arising again (although definitions of what the phenomenon under scrutiny is, vary hugely). 
Now, a main part of the research on consciousness examines the relationship between the experiences reported by subjects and the activity that simultaneously takes place in their brains—that is, the study of the neural correlates of consciousness. 

The hope was to find a particular active part of the brain or a particular pattern of global brain activity, from which one could predict conscious awareness, and thus many brain imaging techniques, such as EEG and fMRI, have been used in these studies. 

The Uncanny Valley

As some of you may know, I am fond of cybernetics and spend a considerable amount of time reading about the last technological achievements. A few days ago, I came across an article talking about the problem faced by designers when trying to make robots appear more familiar and more particularly, about a problem known as the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley, first described by Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, is a phenomenon which points out the fact that robots and prosthetic limbs can become more humanlike and equally familiar to humans, until a certain point where they will start appearing strange.

Neuroarthistory : What Neuroscience can tell us about Art

Francesco’s last post reminded me of a conference/summer school that I am thinking of attending this summer on the contributions of Neuroscience to our understanding of art. While Francesco discusses how art can be used to explain neuroscience, this post is about how neuroscience can enhance our understanding of art.

In the last few years, two exciting new fields of study have emerged, Neuroarthistory and Neuroaesthetics which are attempting to bring together the study of Art and Neuroscience.

The summer school will be directed by one of the leading neuroarthistorians, John Onians. Onians suggests that our knowledge of phenomena such as neural plasticity and mirror neurons could allow us to answer with a new level of precision some of the most challenging questions about both the creative process and the response to art. He has been working in collaboration with neuroscientist Semir Zeki to investigate what goes on inside the brain of artists, using neuroimaging to study the underlying neurobiological processes involved in the creation and appreciation of visual art.

A Rat brain to brain interface: towards an organic computer?

Some of you may have come across some very recent research that was well documented under various science news segments and was published in Scientific Reports on the 28th February. This 2013 study entitled 'A Brain-to-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sensorimotor Information', was led by Miguel Nicolelis who is a well known Brazilian scientist famous for his work on 'reading monkey thought' and a pioneer of devices that allow paralyzed individuals to control robotic limbs and computers with their thoughts. In this study the authors hypothesized that by using a Brain Machine Interface approach, that they may be able to create a new artificial communication channel between animals; in this case two rats.

Thursday, 7 March 2013


I have always been enchanted by storytellers. I really appreciate when teachers or friends tell me something hard using metaphors, stories or figurative examples. This is the story of the collaboration between the Artist Matteo Farinella and the neuroscientist Hana Ros of University College London. Together, they created the graphic novel Neurocomic.

Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained

A few days ago I was reading an article that reminded me of a post on this website by RLV Poehls ''The most complex simulation... or the biggest waste of money?".
This is the article and I encourage you to read it as it is very clear. It is a scientific overview of the possible problems that President Obama's "activity brain mapping" project may encounter.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Oscillations and Illusions in the Science Gallery

I love Dublin’s Science Gallery and its eclectic and somewhat irreverent mix of science, art and creativity. It’s interactive, informative, and even provocative at times. If you haven’t been for a visit, you really need to make the time. They have talks, film showings, workshops and exhibitions across a range of subjects. Coming up in the next few weeks are a talk by economist Constantin Gurdgiev, the Irish Premiere of the film “Girl Rising”, a global campaign to empower and educate girls and young women and Fame Lab which is like an “X-factor for scientists” where young researchers hone their skills at communicating their work in a particular field to a wider audience. This week sees another installment of the 5-minute rapid-fire “Ignite” talks which allow participants to inform and convince their audience of their passion and knowledge for a wide range of topics from economics to robotics to dolphins to food production. You get to present 20 slides which are set to advance every 15 seconds, so you have to move quickly through your topic and try not to trip yourself up. The line-up for this coming session looks like a smorgasbord of interests!

Who wants to live forever?

Immortalization has multiple meanings depending on your interpretation. For some, an imprint of your hands in the Hollywood walk of fame is enough. On a more practical end, Henrietta Lacks has been immortalized via a cell culture (HeLa) taken from her and made to infinitely reproduce in cell cultures around the world. In both these highly contrasting examples there is an obvious deficit. The mind is left behind.

The functionalist adage of uploading your mind on to a computer and living forever as a machine, is an incredibly over-simplified proposal.  How would it work? One thought at a time perhaps.  Would I simply become replicated (nothing simple about it) whereby there could be two versions of me in existence, one digital, one biological? Or would I be uploaded, resulting in a genuine shift in perspective? I've always believed that a replication of my mind resulting in a digital thinking entity which can live separately from me is not living forever as a machine but is creating an impostor which appears to emulate my thoughts. When I die, the lights will go out for me and my view of the world while leaving behind no more than an echo of what I was like. And in the grand scheme of things, who cares?

The Internal Alarm Clock

Last night as I was going to sleep my mind was occupied by the thoughts of the large amount of work I would need to get through in the coming days, which meant I was going to have to get up early again this morning. I don't normally set alarms unless I absolutely have to as I usually find myself waking up one, two or five minutes before the thing goes off anyway, as if by magic. Then it hit me and I had the inspiration for my next blog post, what if I don't in fact have magical powers? Is there a scientific reason for this phenomenon?

Can robots behave morally better than humans ?

In response to the debate initiated by Ruairi concerning the fear of drones trying to take over the world, I thought it could be interesting to write a post about artificial intelligence and ways of simulating decision making. People usually think that drones can actually think and pick their targets without any human interventions. Despite the lack of information about the design of those drones due to their confidential aspect, the advances in neural networks show that we are still very far from creating machines which can embed large scale neural network to treat a visual input (e.g. Google X’s neural network), so we can easily guess that drones do not analyse and “understand” all the input data by themselves.

Therefore, we can also suggest that drones are only able to treat the input data to fly to a given location but there is no proper decision making involved. Drones are simple deterministic systems. Moreover, even if drones were implemented with large scale neural networks, their reactions could be assessed during the testing phase so no new behaviours could emerge from encountering new stimuli. Of course, this would mean that their systems wouldn’t be able to learn anything but it is the only safe way to keep machines predictable and so, under control.

Sleep Learning Myth

Sleep learning is based on the assumption that people can learn an information given to them during their sleep.
This process typically involves playing a sound recording to a person during his sleep, and attempts to  help this person in the learning process. The probable consequence of this is that the person would memorize a word by word passage, and memorize the information.
Is it true or false?

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Perfect Pitch: Acquired or Inherited?

There has been some interesting research done recently into perfect pitch and its role in musical perception and cognition by Diana Deutsch, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego. She and her team have been investigating whether having perfect pitch is an inherited trait or an acquired skill related to early musical training, or both. Having already found that native speakers of tonal languages are much more likely to have perfect pitch than those whose native tongue is non-tonal, in this study Deutsch only looked at non-tonal language participants to see if there might be a genetic basis for this ability. Taking two groups of participants, some of whom had perfect pitch and some without, they matched them for age and onset of musical training and tested them on both visual and auditory digit span. They found that those with perfect pitch had a much longer auditory attention span than those without and speculated on a link between the enhanced ability to discriminate tones in spoken words and their perfect pitch, and how this might have genetic underpinnings. A synopsis of the paper they presented to a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in October 2012 can be found here. Professor Deutsch hypothesizes that, given the higher prevalence of perfect pitch among tonal language speakers, there may be a critical period in infancy during which perfect pitch ability may be set down. It may be that musical training at an early age is a factor in developing this skill but there remains much room for further research. Also linked on the website are lots of other fascinating experiments related to music and perception, including those on musical illusions such as the Glissando and the Octave Illusions which Professor Deutsch has found in her research. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

Conceptual Combination: An Embodied approach

Conceptual combination (CC) is the process whereby complex concepts are constructed from simpler constituents (e.g., stone wall from 'stone' and 'wall'). Basically, it investigates the processes involved in creating and understanding new meanings from old referents. So it investigates how one may interpret novel combinations e.g. 'cactus beetle', 'elephant complaint' and so on.  The ability to construct such combinations is essential to the open-ended, creative character of human cognition, allowing the production of an unlimited set of ideas from a finite base. Researchers interested in concepts have studied at length the psychological phenomena associated with CC in order to better understand the cognitive processes underlying it. However, research on CC has thus far failed to yield any consensus on the nature of these processes. For a comprehensive and critical review of the major theories and models of conceptual combination click here.