On the COVID-19 Crisis

Some tentative conclusions based on my reading of epidemiological models and qualitative reports:

1. The most effective strategy so far involves a combination of widespread testing, social distancing, elevated hygiene, and tech-enhanced contact tracing. If these steps are done well, lockdowns might be fully avoidable. This has been the strategy of Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong.

2. Many if not most countries simply do not have the resources for widespread testing yet, and may not have the political will for invasive social monitoring.

3. Given the situation, lockdowns should be understood as a way to buy time for manufacturers of testing kits, and for vaccine and treatment researchers. For both economic and psychological reasons, lockdowns cannot continue indefinitely.

4. Vast sections of the world may have to practice periodic lockdowns, until either (i) governments are ready and willing to enforce widespread testing *and* contact tracing, or (ii) a vaccine or effective treatment becomes widespread. Privacy concerns and economic concerns will have to engage in a direct debate if this stage is reached. Also, lifting a lockdown prematurely can cause a bounce-back of the infection rate.

5. A lockdown does not necessitate economic collapse or starvation: countries, provinces, and communities can do a great deal to ensure money and food reach people. The policies enacted in the UK and Denmark guarantee 75-80% of wages, and preserve crucial employer-employee relationships, enabling a speedier return to employment. And even a poor country like India always has vast amounts of foodgrain in storage (which often goes to rot). International cooperation is needed to ensure distribution and prevent wastage. Protection of farmers is also essential. Cash crop growers will be particularly badly hit by the almost inevitable collapse of demand for non-essential products.

6. Some form of basic income is essential for workers in what is known as the ‘gig economy’ in advanced countries, and the ‘unorganized sector’ in poor countries. An additional challenge in poor countries is that many people still do not have bank accounts.

7. Given that the economic consequences of the shutdowns are already being felt, there is little to be gained for the time being in speculating about whether governments have overreacted in the recent past. Governments clearly underreacted in January and February, but there is nothing we can do about that now. Having convinced ourselves of this, we might ease our anxieties a little by leaving detailed analysis of should-haves, would-haves, could-haves and might-haves for the post-crisis reckoning, and focus on what is in front of us. Less what-ifs and more what-nows.

8. The very concept of over- and under-reaction is too blunt an instrument when planning actions in the present. Each region and polity faces unique challenges, so there cannot be a one-size-fits-fall response to the pandemic. Instead of a one-dimensional ‘scale of reaction’, the key for the present is the alignment between responses and the specific circumstances they are responding to.

9. The crisis now is not just the coronavirus, but a causal web that includes our prior reactions to it. This is inflammation at the level of the body politic.

To participate in this Consciousness Survey, you’ll need to find the answer to a very easy question

Interested in participating in a (totally unscientific) survey on consciousness and related questions? The link is in the preceding post. Once you complete the survey, you’ll be able to see the results. It should take between 20 and 45 minutes to complete, and will hopefully be stimulating, at least somewhat.

The password for the post is the last name of the philosopher who coined the term “Hard Problem of Consciousness”. It is very easy to google the answer. Capitalize in the standard way.

Cheers!

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Is there a ‘multi-dimensional universe’ in the brain? A case study in neurobabble

I was asked a question on Quora about a recent study that talked about high-dimensional ‘structures’ in the brain. It has been receiving an inordinate amount of hype, partly as a result of the journal’s own blog. Their headline reads:

‘Blue Brain Team Discovers a Multi-Dimensional Universe in Brain Networks’

As if the reference to a ‘universe’ weren’t bad enough, the last author, Henry Markram, says the following:

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What neuroscience too often neglects: Behavior

A Quora conversation led me to recent paper in Neuron that highlights a very important problem with a lot of neuroscience research: there is insufficient attention paid to the careful analysis of behavior. The paper is not quite a call to return to behaviorism, but it is an invitation to consider that the pendulum has swing too far in the opposite direction, towards ‘blind’ searches for neural correlates. The paper is a wonderful big picture critique, so I’d like to just share some excerpts.

neurobehav_krakauer_etal_poeppel2017

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“Conscious realism”: a new way to think about reality (or the lack thereof?)

Venn

Interesting interview in the Atlantic with cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman:

The Case Against Reality

“I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind. Here’s a concrete example. We have two hemispheres in our brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed there was a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious agents there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the mathematics forced me to recognize this. It suggests that I can take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s conscious agents all the way down.”

[…]

Here’s the striking thing about that. I can pull the W out of the model and stick a conscious agent in its place and get a circuit of conscious agents. In fact, you can have whole networks of arbitrary complexity. And that’s the world.

[…]

“As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.”

I don’t agree with everything in the article (especially the quantum stuff) but I think many people interested in consciousness and metaphysics will find plenty of food for thought here:

The Case Against Reality

Also, the “conscious agents all the way down” is the exact position I was criticizing in a recent 3QD essay:

3quarksdaily: Persons all the way down: On viewing the scientific conception of the self from the inside out

The diagram above is from a science fiction story I was working on, back when I was a callow youth. It closely related to the idea of a network of conscious agents. Here’s another ‘version’ of it.

TriHead

Not sure why I made it look so morbid. 🙂

The Emotional Gatekeeper — a computational model of emotional attention

My paper is finally out in PLoS Computational Biology. It’s an open access journal, so everyone can read it:

The Emotional Gatekeeper: A Computational Model of Attentional Selection and Suppression through the Pathway from the Amygdala to the Inhibitory Thalamic Reticular Nucleus

Here’s the Author Summary, which is a simplified version of the abstract:

“Emotional experiences grab our attention. Information about the emotional significance of events helps individuals weigh opportunities and dangers to guide goal-directed behavior, but may also lead to irrational decisions when the stakes are perceived to be high. Which neural circuits underlie these contrasting outcomes? A recently discovered pathway links the amygdala—a key center of the emotional system—with the inhibitory thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) that filters information between the thalamus and cortex. We developed a neural network model—the Emotional Gatekeeper—that demonstrates how the newly discovered pathway from the amygdala to TRN highlights relevant information to help assess threats and opportunities. The model also shows how the amygdala-TRN pathway can lead normal individuals to discount neutral but useful information in highly charged emotional situations, and predicts that disruption of specific nodes in this circuit underlies distinct psychiatric disorders.”

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Here’s the full citation:

John YJ, Zikopoulos B, Bullock D, Barbas H (2016) The Emotional Gatekeeper: A Computational Model of Attentional Selection and Suppression through the Pathway from the Amygdala to the Inhibitory Thalamic Reticular Nucleus. PLoS Comput Biol 12(2): e1004722. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004722