We had read that Dr. Henry Markram of the Blue Brain project had given a talk at TED (technology, entertainment, design), but the video wasn’t released until this month. This talk is geared towards a general audience, rather than getting into the specific details of the Blue Brain project, as he has before. It is engaging and includes many suggestions towards the future of neuroscience and AI.
Although I’ve been a longtime fan of Ramachandran’s excellent book Phantoms in the Brain, this TED talk is like a compressed summary of the highlight’s of his research. He’s a great speaker and he covers in 20 minutes my two favorite examples in the book (Capgras delusion and mirror treatment for phantom limb syndrome). Perhaps the best part of the talk is that, after listening to it, I was convinced more than ever before of the statistical nature of sensory perception (ie. the brain attempts to find the most likely explanation for sensory observations) and the integrative nature of central processing of multiple modalities.
Atul Gawande also recently wrote a New Yorker article about treating phantom itch with Ramachandran’s mirror box. I found this part of Gawande’s article on statistical inference in perception most interesting:
You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals. When Oaklander theorized that M.’s itch was endogenous, rather than generated by peripheral nerve signals, she was onto something important.
I’m not familiar with this field but I wonder if anyone has tried to quantify what percent of our conscious experience that we normally believe to be 100% due to sensory input is actually recall from memory/inference based on past observation. Also, can this percentage adaptively change? Perhaps there are situations where the brain chooses to rely more heavily on memory and other cases where it relies more on primary sensory input.
Interview with Steve Grand on building human level artificial intelligence at Machines Like Us. Really interesting. Via Chris Chatham at (the excellent) Developing Intelligence.
In particular, MLU asks why his current project to create an android was done as a physical robot rather than as a simulation. The answer, that you can cheat too much in a simulation, is familiar to those from the Brooksian school of embodied intelligence. He says that simulations still aren’t good enough to provide the kinds of physical constraints, like gravity and friction, etc, that you get when building real robots .
However, with the availability of free 3D simulation environments that handle physics, like Breve, we are getting a lot closer. Building a robot within a simulation like this, particularly where you don’t modify the code of the the simulation environment itself, is a terrific way to balance the competing interests of keeping yourself honest and avoiding the painstaking mechanical engineering required to construct complicated robots. This kind of environment allows you to build a body with primary sensory systems and primary motor outputs in a similar fashion as one would with real robots.
Why there aren’t more who have adopted this kind of “in silico embodiment” philosophy I think is the result of taking Brooks’ a bit too seriously. Brooks idea of embodiment is very well founded, but back in the day when he first made those statements, there really were no good ways to simulate the physics of an embodied creature very faithfully. Today that is not the case. Moreover, building real physical robots is great if you have a lot of time, or an engineering team, but it’s a huge investment that distracts from the real problem of understanding the nature of intelligence. The fact that the world has extremely few labs that can make that investment is one of the many reasons there aren’t more serious strong AI researchers any more.
Update: Steve apparently received a few comments along these lines and replies.
In September, 2006, I described my “new brain/mind theory” here and received some challenging criticism from Eric Thomson and Mike S. (see below). To meet these challenges, I prepared a reduced model discussed in a web page linked to a paper in .pdf form. Since my approach is based on little-known thermodynamics, I have also written about mechanical metaphors that may be helpful in explaining my ideas.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a popular technology for stimulating human cortical neurons, due to its safety, noninvasiveness, and efficacy. A TMS device is just a little coil of wire, through which 10,000 Amps of current is cranked during a period of only a few hundred microseconds; the resultant rapidly-changing magnetic field induces eddy currents in the brain. Depending on the protocol used, TMS can drive/inhibit a region of cortex corresponding to roughly a cubic centimeter or two, and is being explored for the treatment of depression, the reduction of auditory hallucinations during schizophrenia, and the alleviation of tinnitus and migraines. Thousands of papers on medicine and psychology have been written using this tool.
Yet the device itself is expensive and rare — they can run from $20,000 to $50,000 or even more, despite the fact that they are, in essence, a coil, a switch, a bank of capacitors, and a power supply. Much of the art lies in making the devices safe and fail-proof. Is it possible to hack/engineer a system that is safe, fault-tolerant, efficacious, and inexpensive? And furthermore, can we facilitate a community that will devise such devices, and share information about protocols and approaches to brain hacking?
This past August at Foo Camp, a hackers’ conference in Northern California, a group of people got together and set out to do just that. We are designing a safe, noninvasive, modular, and “open source” brain stimulator that will open up the field of circuit modulation to a wider audience. Members of the group include therapists and mental health professionals, engineers, programmers, and others interested in either the development of such devices, or the sharing of information on this front. Key to the design is safety — we want to make sure that the devices we create are as safe as devices on the market. Also, all the information is released under the Creative Commons “Attribution and Sharealike” license. This is a new model for “open source” medical device development — which may move it beyond the domain of simply creating “cool toys,” and to creating real devices.
You can find out more information, or contribute to the project, or learn from the project, at
“Quad Nets” proposes a new kind of “artificial intelligence” that uses devices other than computers. Chiefly presented through Images, the Quad Net approach integrates physics, neuroscience and psychology in primal forms, initially rudimentary, but suitable for unlimited development in size and complexity.
I am an amateur and have privately worked in these areas for many years. Unfortunately, I have not found a means of communication through established channels. I hope that the readers of this blog will provide needed critical review. Thanks to the “neurodudes” for making this medium available.
Bob Kovsky (rlk “at” sonic.net)
In the provocative-hypothesis-of-the-week department:
Kevin Lafferty, a parasitologist, has put forth the idea that a fairly ubiquitous parasite (infecting O(10%) of Americans, and up to 2/3 of people in places like Brazil) is responsible for some of the diversity of human culures (1). The parasite uses common housecats to increase its transmission to the next host in the life cycle, and has a subtle effect on human personality, with some studies claiming that it even causes neuroticism, and even schizophrenia. (One clinical report (2) claims that “subjects with latent toxoplasmosis had higher intelligence [and] lower guilt proneness.” Hmm!)
Anyway, Lafferty noted that toxoplasmosis varies in prevalence from world region to world region, and then tries to draw correlates between these prevalences and local cultures:
“Drivers of the geographical variation in the prevalence of this parasite include the effects of climate on the persistence of infectious stages in soil, the cultural practices of food preparation and cats as pets. Some variation in culture, therefore, may ultimately be related to how climate affects the distribution of T. gondii, though the results only explain a fraction of the variation in two of the four cultural dimensions, suggesting that if T. gondii does influence human culture, it is only one among many factors.”
I wonder how one could test this hypothesis? Look for recent immigrants from one culture to another, who have lower Toxoplasmosis incidence? (Preferably finding populations that go in opposite directions, as a control.) Track culture change vs. migration vs. climate change?
Unlikely, perhaps. But nice that people are still thinking big 🙂
(1) Lafferty, K
Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Picked up by the popular press here
(2) Flegr J, Havlicek J.
Changes in the personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis.
Folia Parasitol (Praha). 1999;46(1):22-8.
Shannon Moffett, author of The Three Pound Enigma [book website; Amazon], was kind enough to send us a copy of her book to review. To be honest, when I first took a look at the book, I was pretty sure that — while it might be a great, general-neuroscience-interest book for the public — it would certainly not appeal or be informative for the specialist in our Neurodudes audience. Now, after reading her wonderful book, I realize how wrong I was.
Full review is after the jump.
This article in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience is interesting in the sense that they are do human brain stimulation of the hypothalamus, for the treatment of cluster headaches – but they then do positron emission tomography (PET) to examine the downstream neural circuits responsible for the abolition of the perception of headache.
This moves the field of brain stimulation from simple stimulate-and-see-what-happens, towards more of a study of human neural circuitry and how stimulation drives activity in connected locations. It’s possible this will lead, in the future, to better and more focal stimulation protocols, as people figure out what the “circuit-level” phenomena are that correct particular aspects of neural dysfunction. Perhaps someday we will have a map of the “hot spots” where stimulation of a small chunk of matter can modulate a wide degree of neural circuitry for the better.
(Last year, Helen Mayberg and colleagues’ deep-brain-stimulation-and-depression paper got at this issue as well, in which they stimulate the cingulate and (perhaps surprisingly) sent depressed patients into remission, and furthermore changed the activity of frontal structures from the abnormal state, back to a more normal pattern of activity.)
These studies are perhaps setting a good precedent for brain-stimulating neuroclinicians to follow.