Why can’t we perceive cells? Or atoms?

I was asked the following question on Quora:

Why can’t we see, touch, hear and smell on a cellular level? And what happens if we can?

Here’s what I wrote:

Essentially, we perceive the visible world in the way that we do because of our overall size, the shape of our eyes, and the sizes of objects in the world that are relevant to our voluntary behavior.

This question might seem silly, but a closely related question can serve as a springboard for us to think very deeply about physical scale, and how it relates to biological life and to the very concept of a scientific law.


But first lets deal with the basic question.

Let’s pull out a section from the question comment, which helps clarify the question:

“And if I had a microscopic glasses(as if) since child seeing on cellular level, would that be too much for the capacity of the brain?”

When you perceive something or measure it with a device, there is almost always a trade-off between scope and resolution. We all experience this regularly. When you zoom in on Google maps, you get more detail, but for a smaller region. When you zoom out, you get a wider view, but everything is less detailed.

This is also true of measuring devices like microscopes and telescopes. If you want both detail (high res) and a wide view (large scope), then you typically have to piece together multiple narrow high-res ‘views’.

For both humans and machines, the need for piecing together multiple views or ‘snapshots’ of the world relates to a limit on the amount of information that can be processed simultaneously.

I can give you a super-high-res map of your city that is as big as a room, but because of your size and the size and shape of your eyes, only a certain amount of this map can be visible at a given time. This is a physical constraint. You can get around this by standing far away, or by using special lenses.

But there are additional constraints within our visual system.

The human eye possesses a region of high sensitivity called the fovea centralis. We can only process detailed visual information if it arrives at this part of the eye. The foveal region is around 2 degrees of arc, which is roughly the width of your thumb when held at arm’s length. Everything outside this region is perceived rather poorly. So it is by moving our eyes that we create a picture of the world.

Now imagine if you had to navigate the world but saw things in your fovea at the resolution of maybe ten or a hundred micrometres, which is the scale of biological cells. All other things being equal — such as body size and movement speed — you would have to look around for minutes or perhaps hours before you got any sense of where you were or what was in front of you. By the end of this period you might even forget what you saw initially!

This kind of visual resolution amounts to navigating the world with a microscope attached to your eyes! You’d have to be extremely still, since any slight movement would completely change what is in your field of view. And random breezes would bring dust particles and fluff into your field of view. It would be mind-numbingly irritating and laborious! 🙂

Perhaps an alternative would be to look at things from thousands of miles away. But that would be pretty pointless for an organism that is meter-scaled, not mile-scaled! By the time you reach your destination, it might not even exist any more!

Here’s another way to think about this: the objects that humans are interested in — food, mates, predators, shelter, clothing — exist on scales far larger than cells. If we ate food one cell at a time, we’d be searching for food all the time, and would probably never even fill our stomachs!

If we were amoeba-sized, we’d be interested in objects that exist at that scale. But we would not see such objects in any normal sense, since as far as we know, vision requires the complex multi-cellular apparatus of the eye and the nervous system.


A more tricky issue

There is actually a subtle philosophical point that can be gleaned from this line of thinking. It’s probably best to proceed further only if you’ve already understood what I’ve written above, particularly the parts about the fovea and dust.

The physicist Erwin Schrödinger once asked a question that seems equally bizarre, in his book What Is Life?

Why are atoms so small?

What a strange question! Schrödinger refines it by asking why atoms are so small compared to us. His answer, essentially, is that organisms with the kind of perceptual apparatus we possess could only arise if the world in which they live contains law-like regularities that are relatively predictable, and therefore useful for survival. But atoms are governed by quantum mechanics and are unpredictable.

So it would be impossible to live and perceive at the level of atoms. You need to move upwards in scale until regularities start to emerge from the wild world of quantum noise. The world in which regularities become visible is the classical world! Intriguingly, life seems to emerge at precisely the scale at which quantum effects become less common — in fact life may even straddle the worlds of quantum and classical. Photosynthesis involves quantum mechanical processes, and some quantum effects may even occur in proteins and DNA. But multi-cellular life tries to find safe neighborhoods of scale, far away from quantum mischief!

Anyway, if you’re curious, here’s the relevant excerpt from Schrödinger’s book What is Life?

Why are atoms so small? A good method of developing ‘the naive physicist’s ideas’ is to start from the odd, almost ludicrous, question: Why are atoms s o small? To begin with, they are very small indeed. Every little piece of matter handled in everyday life contains an enormous number of them.

[…]

Now, why are atoms so small? Clearly, the question is an evasion. For it is not really aimed at the size of the atoms. It is concerned with the size of organisms, more particularly with the size of our own corporeal selves. Indeed, the atom is small, when referred to our civic unit of length, say the yard or the metre. In atomic physics one is accustomed to use the so-called Angstrom (abbr. A), which is the 10^10th part of a metre, or in decimal notation 0.0000000001 metre. Atomic diameters range between 1 and 2A.

[…]

Why must our bodies be so large compared with the atom? I can imagine that many a keen student of physics or chemistry may have deplored the fact that everyone of our sense organs, forming a more or less substantial part of our body and hence (in view of the magnitude of the said ratio) being itself composed of innumerable atoms, is much too coarse to be affected by the impact of a single atom. We cannot see or feel or hear the single atoms. Our hypotheses with regard to them differ widely from the immediate findings of our gross sense organs and cannot be put to the test of direct inspection. Must that be so? Is there an intrinsic reason for it? Can we trace back this state of affairs to some kind of first principle, in order to ascertain and to understand why nothing else is compatible with the very laws of Nature? Now this, for once, is a problem which the physicist is able to clear up completely. The answer to all the queries is in the affirmative.

The working of an organism requires exact physical laws

If it were not so, if we were organisms so sensitive that a single atom, or even a few atoms, could make a perceptible impression on our senses — Heavens, what would life be like! To stress one point: an organism of that kind would most certainly not be capable of developing the kind of orderly thought which, after passing through a long sequence of earlier stages, ultimately results in forming, among many other ideas, the idea of an atom.

[…]

Physical laws rest on atomic statistics and are therefore only approximate

And why could all this not be fulfilled in the case of an organism composed of a moderate number of atoms only and sensitive already to the impact of one or a few atoms only? Because we know all atoms to perform all the time a completely disorderly heat motion, which, so to speak, opposes itself to their orderly behaviour and does not allow the events that happen between a small number of atoms to enroll themselves according to any recognizable laws. Only in the cooperation of an enormously large number of atoms do statistical laws begin to operate and control the behaviour of these assemblies with an accuracy increasing as the number of atoms involved increases. It is in that way that the events acquire truly orderly features.

You can read the complete passage, which is in Chapter 1 of the book, online here: [What is Life – pdf]

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What does the frontal lobe have to do with planning and decision-making?

I was asked the following question on Quora:

Why is planning & decision making situated in the frontal lobe?

Here’s my answer:

Why not? 🙂

I suppose the most obvious answer is the fact that the motor cortex resides in the frontal cortex.

Now you may justifiably ask: what does the motor cortex have to do with planning and decision-making?

The connection is this: to a large extent, the purpose of the brain is to control the body. So planning and decision-making, at the simplest possible level, involves determining when and how to move the body.

From this perspective, it is interesting to speculate that all thoughts derive from the process of virtual or simulated movement. Thought arises in the ‘gap’ between perception and action.

The way an organism interacts with its environment can be understood in terms of the perception-action loop.

Stimuli from the outside world enter the brain through the sensory organs and percolate through the various brain regions, allowing the organism to form neural ‘representations’ or ‘maps’ of the world. Signals originating inside the body (such as from the stomach or the lungs) allow for similar maps of the inner world of the organism.

By using memory to compare past experience with present conditions, an organism can anticipate the future to meet its current needs: either by acting in the present, or by planning an action for some future time.

The signals that control our voluntary muscles emanate from the motor cortex: the neurons in this part of the brain are the ‘switches’, ‘levers’ and ‘buttons’ that allow us to change our body position and configuration.

So going back one more step, the signals that influence the motor cortex constitute the ‘proximal’ decision signal. Much of the input to motor cortex comes from premotor and prefrontal areas, which are nearby in the frontal lobe. The thalamus also sends important signals to motor cortex, as do the neuromodulatory systems (which include the dopamine, acetylcholine, norepinephrine and serotonin systems).

Ultimately you can keep going ‘back’ to see how every part of the brain influences the ultimate decision: sensation, memory and emotion all play a role. But the prefrontal and premotor areas constitute the most easily identifiable decision areas.

As to why these brain areas are located in the frontal lobe at all… this is a much more difficult question. The short answer is evolution by natural selection. But the long answer is still incomplete. Brains are soft tissue, so they don’t leave fossils.

Could the brain be a radio for receiving consciousness?

 

bradio.pngHere’s an answer I wrote a while ago to the following question:

 Is there any conclusive proof that the brain produces consciousness? What rules out the case that brain acts as receptor antennae for consciousness?

This is actually a fun question! Taken in the right spirit, it can be a good way to learn about what science is, and also what the limitations of science are.

What would count as proof that the brain produces consciousness? In the future we might try an experiment like this: we build an artificial brain. Let’s say we can all agree that it exhibits consciousness (leaving aside for now the extremely tricky question of what the word “consciousness” even means). Would this prove that the brain “produced” consciousness? Maybe.

But maybe the brain-as-antenna crowd would claim that their favored hypothesis hasn’t been ruled out. After all, if consciousness is somehow floating in the ether, how could we be sure that our artificial brain wasn’t just tuned to the ‘consciousness frequency’, like a gooey pink radio?

We’d need to construct some kind of cosmic-consciousness-blocking material, and then line the walls of our laboratory with it. Then we’d be able to decide on the question one way or the other! If our artificial brain showed no signs of consciousness, the antenna crowd could claim victory, and say “See!, you need cosmic consciousness in order to get biological consciousness! Consciousness is like yogurt: if you have some you can always make more.”

Constructing an artificial brain is hard enough. We have no idea if we will ever have enough understanding of neuroscience to do so. But constructing a consciousness-shield is straight out of science fiction, and just sounds absurd.


In any case, there’s actually a much bigger problem facing any scientific approach to consciousness. No one has any idea what consciousness is. Sure, there’s plenty of philosophical speculation and mystical musing, but in my opinion there’s almost nothing solid from a scientific perspective.

Here’s why I think science cannot ever address the subject of consciousness: science studies objectively observable phenomena, whereas the most crucial aspect of consciousness is only subjectively observable. What are objectively observable phenomena? They’re the ones that more than one person can observe and communicate about. Through communication, they can agree on their properties. So the word “inter-subjective” is a pretty good synonym for “objective”. Objectivity is what can be agreed upon by multiple subjective perspectives.

So the sun is a pretty objective feature of reality. We can point to it, talk about it, and make measurements about it that can be corroborated by independent groups of people.

But consciousness is not objective in the same way that the sun is. I do not observe anyone else’s consciousness. All I observe are physical perceptions: the sights and sounds and smells and textures associated with bodies. From these perceptions I build up a picture of the behavior of an organism, and from the behavior I infer things about the organism’s state of mind or consciousness. The only consciousness I have direct experience of is my own. And even my own consciousness is mysterious. I do not necessarily observe my consciousness. I observe with my consciousness. Consciousness is the medium for observation, but it not necessarily a target of observation.

Clearly all the scientists who claim to study consciousness would disagree with my perspective. Their approach is to take some observable phenomenon — either behavior or some neural signal — and define it as the hallmark of consciousness. There’s nothing wrong with defining consciousness as you see fit, but you can never be completely sure if your explicit definition lines up with all your intuitions about the boundary between conscious and non-conscious.

For example, Information Integration Theory (IIT) proposes that there is a quantity called phi (which at the current historical juncture appears impossible to compute) that captures the degree of consciousness in a system. Armed with this kind of theory, it is possible to argue* that extended, abstract entities — such as the United States as a whole — are conscious. Some people like this generous approach. Why lock up consciousness in skulls? The proponents of IIT have gone so far as to claim that they are okay with panpsychism: the idea that everything from quarks to quasars is at least a little bit conscious.

If everything is conscious, then the question of whether the brain “produces” consciousness — or the universe “transmits” it — becomes moot. There is no ‘problem of consciousness’, since it’s already everywhere.

Neuroscientists like me will probably still have jobs even if society decides to bite the panpsychist bullet. We have other things to worry about beyond consciousness. In fact many of us are actively uninterested in talking about consciousness — we call it “the c-word”. We’re happy to just study behavior in all its objectively observable glory, and hope to understand how the brain produces that. Whether and where exactly consciousness arises during this process seems like a question we can leave unanswered for a generation or two (while enjoying the various after-work conversations about it, of course!). For now we can focus on how our gooey pink radios give rise to language, or memory, or emotion, or even the basic control of muscles.


Notes

* Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel wrote a very interesting essay entitled ‘If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious’.

More on the dreaded c-word!

Here are some consciousness-related answers that may be of interest:

How does the brain create consciousness?

What percent chance is there that whole brain emulation or mind uploading to a neural prosthetic will be feasible by 2048? [I’ve posted this one on this blog too.]

What are some of the current neuroscientific theories of consciousness?

What do neuroscientists think of the philosopher David Chalmers?

Is anything real beyond our own perspective?

What is the currently best scientific answer to the psycho-physical (body-mind) question?

What’s the deal with “brainwaves”?

I was asked this question on Quora recently:

The brain has neurons which approximately perform function evaluations on their inputs. How would this cause brainwaves of different frequencies? Why are they related to the level of arousal in the brain (sleep/meditation etc)?
Is there some sort of “controller” that synchronizes the firing?

Here’s my answer:

This is an excellent set of questions!

Short(ish) answers:

1. Why does the brain have waves?

There is no consensus on their functional role, but some researchers think oscillations facilitate flexible coordination and communication among neurons.

2. The brain has neurons which can approximately be understood as performing function evaluations on their inputs, though the actual mechanisms are more complex. But how would this cause brainwaves of different frequencies to exist?

There are several possible mechanisms that can cause the input-output transformation of neurons to lead to oscillations when the neurons are connected in networks. Furthermore, neurons themselves often have intrinsic oscillatory properties (other than basic spiking), such as rebound excitation following inhibition.

3. Is there some sort of “controller” that synchronizes the firing?

There is no single controller causing synchronization or oscillation — there are actually several local and meso-scale mechanisms, often involving inhibitory interneurons*. (Note that synchronization and oscillation are distinct phenomena. You can have synchronized non-oscillatory processes, and oscillations that are not synch-ed.)


Long answers:

What are brain waves?

Even though we use the generic term ‘brain waves’, there are actually a variety of distinct mechanisms at work that lead to rhythmic behavior in different frequency bands. And in many cases we still don’t know what the mechanism is that causes a particular brain rhythm, or can’t decide among multiple plausible mechanisms.

Even though I’m a computational neuroscientist, I find it hard to conceptually integrate all the different perspectives on neural activity. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, so here goes!

The most fine-grained perspective involves measuring the voltage of an individual neuron. This voltage can change in various ways. The most well known is the spike, or action potential. Spikes travel efficiently down the axon, and typically cause vesicle release in the synapse, which allows neurotransmitters to affect the post-synaptic neuron. But spiking is not the only kind of voltage fluctuation in a neuron. There are also ‘sub-threshold’ fluctuations, which are often oscillatory. These oscillations may represent oscillatory and/or synchronized inputs to the neuron that are insufficient to cause spiking. Single-electrode and multi-electrode recordings of cell activities can pick up both the sub-threshold fluctuations and the supra-threshold spiking.

Brain waves were first discovered through electroencephalography (EEG), which has been around for a century or so. Unlike electrode-based recording, EEG is non-invasive (meaning we don’t have to poke any sharp objects into anyone). But the main drawback of EEG is that it is a coarse-grained measure of neural activity. It measures the cumulative electrical activity of very large numbers of neurons.

It’s also important to realize that EEG essentially measures the synchronized inputs to a brain area, rather than the firing outputs. This has to do with the biophysics of the technique, which you can read about in more detail in my answer to the question “Are EEG voltages related to the average action potential firing rate of the cortical neurons near the electrode or are the voltages the average of low frequency voltage oscillations of the neurons?” EEG effectively measures the degree of synchronization of neurons that send inputs to the brain region directly underneath the EEG electrode.

Other techniques that can pick up oscillatory activity include magnetoencephalography (MEG) and Electrocorticography (ECoG).

Brain rhythms tend to be grouped into frequency bands. The most well-studied bands have been assigned Greek letters that reflect the order of their discovery. Here’s a list of the bands, along with their frequency ranges in hertz (Hz). I’ve linked to their Wikipedia pages, when available.

  • Slow 3: 0.025-0.067
  • Slow 2: 0.200-0.500
  • Slow 1: 0.500-1.429
  • Delta: 1 – 4
  • Theta: 4 – 8
  • Mu and SMR: 7.5 – 12.5
  • Alpha: 9 – 13
  • Beta: 14 – 30
  • Gamma: 30 – 80
  • Fast: 80 – 200
  • Ultrafast: 200 – 600.000

What are the mechanisms that cause brain waves?

Through a combination of experimental techniques and theoretical approaches, neuroscientists have come up with several mechanisms that can explain oscillations in various frequency bands. In many cases it is not clear which mechanism is in fact at work.

I can’t really go though all the theoretical mechanisms that have been proposed, but I can talk about one that is very intuitive to understand: the PING model of Gamma activity. This model, developed by Nancy Kopell, has been widely corroborated by experimental work. (There may be different types of Gamma, however, and not all of them are covered by this model.)

PING stands for pyramidal-interneuronal network gamma, and involves interaction between excitatory cells and inhibitory cells, resulting in the creation of a nonlinear oscillator. The following diagram [1] illustrates the mechanism quite nicely:

The E(xcitatory) cells excite the I(nhibitory) cells, which in turn inhibit the same excitatory cells. This results in an oscillation whose frequency is determined by the rate of integration of the I-cells. Fast I-cells can produce fast rhythms.

There are plenty of other mechanisms for oscillations, but the PING model will give you a flavor of how they can be constructed. Arousal levels can by incorporated into models by incorporating factors such as neurotransmitter level fluctuations, and the effects of such fluctuation on the sub-threshold and/or firing properties of neurons. Changes in behavioral state can also change the inputs to various brain areas from the body and from the outside world, which in turn will affect the network activity mode. This is a vast topic for theory and computational modeling.

What is the purpose of brain waves?

This is actually still a very contentious issue. The field of neuroscience can be broadly divided into researchers who care about oscillations, and researchers who don’t. People who don’t care about oscillations are more interested in the firing activities and the input-output transformations of neurons and networks. Some of these researcher even go so far as to claim that oscillations are ‘epiphenomena’ — mere side-effects of the ‘main’ neural processes, such as integration, contrast enhancement, switching, resetting, and so on. I was broadly in the ‘skeptics’ category for many years, but I’ve started to realized that oscillations can’t be ignored. The power in various frequency bands often correlates strongly with behavioral measures, so oscillations are at the very least telling us something important about how the brain works.

One theory of brain waves that is becoming popular is the idea of coordination, or “communication through coherence”. The idea is that neurons which are in the same sub-threshold oscillatory state are more likely to be able to communicate spikes with each other. This is shown diagrammatically below [2]. The black neuron is out of phase with the blue neuron, so it communicates with the blue neuron less effectively that the red neuron.

As I mentioned earlier, synchrony and rhythmicity are completely distinct. Presumably you can get coherence without any rhythms, just by synchronizing groups of neurons. But maybe rhythmic behavior is more easy to control.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. There is definitely a lot more to the story of brain waves, and in the coming decades hopefully researchers will work towards an integrated theory.


Images from:

[1] Cortical enlightenment: are attentional gamma oscillations driven by ING or PING? | pdf

[2] A mechanism for cognitive dynamics: neuronal communication through neuronal coherence. | pdf


Further reading

* What do inhibitory neurons do in the brain? by Yohan John on Neurologism

Are EEG voltages related to the average action potential firing rate of the cortical neurons near the electrode or are the voltages the average of low frequency voltage oscillations of the neurons?

What changes occur in the brain when we close our eyes?

Is working memory associated with synchronization between oscillations in the prefrontal cortex and oscillations elsewhere in the brain? (e.g. parietal cortex)?

Medical Imaging: How strong is the correlation between a fMRI and an EEG?

Does the membrane time constant of neurons put a constraint on the frequencies seen in neuronal brain waves?

Is it possible for the Internet to one day gain consciousness?

A recent Quora answer I wrote:

Sometimes I wonder if Quora bots are conscious! 🙂
I often think about whether the internet could become sentient… and also whether it is already! But the most important question is this: how would we tell one way or the other? Perhaps each of us is like a neuron in the internet’s hive brain.
Neurons and brains are separated by a gulf of scale, structure, and complexity. How could a neuron ‘know’ that the brain it is part of is conscious? How could a brain know if a neuron (or group of neurons) is conscious? It may be an unbridgeable gap. And the same sort of gap may exist between humans and the internet. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, if the internet could talk we would not understand it.
In any case, the internet doesn’t even have a ‘mouth’ or a central communication device. How do we decide what the internet is ‘saying’? I could imagine a future in which ‘analysts’ read into the internet’s dynamic trajectories in the way astrologers read into the stars’ trajectories.
Sometimes I think of consciousness as an irreducibly social phenomenon. Consciousness may be the ‘fire’ produced by the ‘friction’ between different intelligent agents that each have partial knowledge of the world. Perhaps the test of whether the internet is conscious involves encountering an alien internet. Perhaps when civilizations from two different planets interact, their ‘planetary consciousnesses’ (or internets) interact in a way that their inhabitants only have a dim awareness of.

 

Is it possible for the Internet to one day gain consciousness?

Can science account for taste?

I was asked the question “From a scientific point of view, how are our tastes created?” Here’s my answer.

“There’s no accounting for taste!”

Typically we explain taste — in food, music, movies, art —  in terms of culture, upbringing, and sheer chance. In recent years there have been several attempts to explain taste from biological perspectives: either neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. In my opinion these types of explanations are vague enough to always sound true, but they rarely contain enough detail to account for the specific tastes of individuals or groups. Still, there’s much food for thought in these scientific proto-theories of taste and aesthetics.

[An early aesthete?]

Let’s look at the evolutionary approach first. An evolutionary explanation of taste assumes that human preferences arise from natural selection. We like salt and sugar and fat, according to this logic, because it was beneficial for our ancestors to seek out foods with these tastes. We like landscape scenes involving greenery and water bodies because such landscapes were promising environments for our wandering ancestors. This line of thinking is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go that far. After all, there are plenty of people who don’t much care for deep-fried salty-sweet foods. And many people who take art seriously quickly tire of clichéd landscape paintings.

[Are you a homo sapien? They you must love this. 😉 ]

Evolutionary psychology can provide broad explanations for why humans as a species tend to like certain things more than others, but it really provides us with no map for navigating differences in taste between individuals and groups. (These obvious, glaring limitations of evolutionary psychology have not prevented the emergence of a cottage industry of pop science books that explain everything humans do as consequences of the incidents and accidents that befell our progenitor apes on the savannahs of Africa.)

Explanations involving the neural and cognitive sciences get closer to what we are really after — an explanation of differences in taste — but not by much. Neuroscientific explanations are essentially half way between cultural theories and evolutionary theories. We like things because the ‘pleasure centers’ in our brains ‘light up’ when we encounter them. And the pleasure centers are shaped by experience (on the time scale of a person’s life), and by natural selection (on the time scale of the species). Whatever we inherit because of natural selection is presumably common to all humans, so differences in taste must be traced to differences in experience, which become manifest in the brain as differences in neural connectivity and activity. If your parents played the Beatles for you as a child, and conveyed their pleasure to you, then associative learning might cause the synapses in your brain that link sound patterns with emotional reactions to be gradually modified, so that playing ‘Hey Jude’ now triggers a cascade of neural events that generate the subjective feeling of enjoyment.

[What’s not to love about the Beatles?]

But there is so much more to the story of enjoyment. Not everyone likes their parents’ music. In English-speaking countries there is a decades-old stereotype of the teenager who seeks out music to piss off his or her parents. And many of us have a friend who insists on listening to music that no one else seems to have heard of. What is the neural basis of this fascinating phenomenon?

We must now enter extremely speculative territory. One of the most thought-provoking ‘theories’ of aesthetics that I have come across was proposed by a machine learning researcher named Jürgen Schmidhuber. He has a provocative way of summing up his theory: Interestingness is the first derivative of beauty.

What he means is that we are not simply drawn to things that are beautiful or pleasurable. We are also drawn to things that are interesting: things that somehow intrigue us and capture our attention. These things, according to Schmidhuber, entice us with the possibility of enhancing our categories of experience. In his framework, humans and animals are constantly seeking to understand the environment, and in order to do this, they must be drawn to the edge of what they already know. Experiences that are already fully understood offer no opportunity for new learning.  Experiences that are completely beyond comprehension are similarly useless. But experiences that are in the sweet spot of interestingness are not boringly familiar — but they are not bafflingly alien either. By seeking out experiences in this ‘border territory’, we expand our horizons, gaining a new understanding of the world.

For example, I’m a Beatles fan, but I don’t listen to the Beatles that often. I am, however, intrigued by music that is ‘Beatlesque’: such music can lead me in new directions, and also reflect back on the Beatles, giving me a deeper appreciation of their music.

The basic intuition of this theory is well-supported by research in animals and humans. Animals all have some baseline level of curiosity. Lab rats will thoroughly investigate a new object introduced into their cages. Novelty seems to have a gravitational pull for organisms.

But again, there are differences even in this tendency. Some people are perfectly content to eat the same foods over and over again, or listen to the same songs or artists. At the other extreme we find the freaks, the hipsters, the critics, the obsessives, and all the assorted avant garde seekers of “the Shock of the New”.

Linking back to evolutionary speculation, all we can really say is that even the desire for novelty is a variable trait in human populations. (Actually it’s multiple traits: I am far more adventurous when it comes to music than food.) Perhaps a healthy society needs its ‘conservatives’ and its ‘progressives’ in the domain of taste and aesthetic experience. Group selection  — natural selection operating on tribes, societies and cultures — is still somewhat controversial in mainstream evolutionary biology, so to go any further in our theories of taste we have to be willing to wander on the wild fringes of scientific thought…

… those fringes are, after all, where everything interesting happens! 🙂

For more speculation on interestingness, beauty, and the pull of the not-completely-familiar, see this essay I wrote. I go into more detail about Schmidhuber’s theory about interestingness:
From Cell Membranes to Computational Aesthetics: On the Importance of Boundaries in Life and Art

This has nothing to do with science, but I find this David Mitchell video on taste very funny:

After writing this answer I realized that the questioner was most probably asking about gustation — meaning, the sense of taste. Oh well.

Where do thoughts come from?

Here’s my answer to a recent Quora question: Where do our thoughts come from?

Thoughts come from nowhere! And from everywhere! I think both answers contain an element of truth.

Subjectively, our thoughts come from nowhere: they just pop into our heads, or emerge in the form of words leaving our mouths.

Objectively, we can say that thoughts emerge from neural processes, and that neural processes come from everywhere. What I mean by this is that the forms and dynamics of thought are influenced by everything that has a causal connection with you, your society, and your species.

We don’t know exactly how thoughts emerge from the activity of neurons — or even how to define what a thought is in biological terms (!)— but there is plenty of indirect evidence to support the general claim that the brain is where thoughts emerge.

The neuronal patterns that mediate and enable thought and behavior have proximal and distal causes.

The proximal causes are the stimuli and circumstances we experience. These experiences have causal impacts on our bodies, and are also partly caused by our bodies. The forces inside and outside the body become manifest in the brain as ‘clouds’ of information. In the right circumstances these nebulous patterns can condense into streams of thought. We can add to these identifiable causes the mysterious element of randomness: that seemingly ever-present “ghost in the machine” that makes complex processes such as life fundamentally unpredictable. Perhaps randomness is what provides the ‘seeds’ around which the condensation of thoughts can occur.

The distal causes are our experiential history and our evolutionary pre-history. Our experiential history consists of the things we’ve learned, consciously and unconsciously, and the various events that have shaped our bodies and our neural connections in large and small ways. Our evolutionary pre-history is essentially the experiential history of our species, and more generally of life itself, going back all the way to the first single-celled organism. The traits of a species are a sort of historical record of successes and failures. And going even further, life ultimately takes its particular forms because of the possibilities inherent in matter — and this takes us all the way to the formation of stars and planets.