Why human memory is not a bit like a computer’s

DisintegrationofPersistence(This is a cross-post of a 3 Quarks Daily article I wrote last year.)

A few months ago I attended a rather peculiar seminar at MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. A neuroscientist colleague of mine named Robert Ajemian had invited an unusual speaker: a man named Jim Karol, who was billed as having the world’s best memory. According to his website, his abilities include “knowing over 80,000 zip codes, thousands of digits of Pi, the Scrabble dictionary, sports almanacs, MEDICAL journals, and thousands of other facts.” He has memorized the day of the week for every date stretching back to 1AD. And his abilities are not simply matter of superhuman willingness to spend hours memorizing lists. He can add new items to his memory rapidly, on the fly. After a quick look at a deck of cards, he can recall perfectly the order in which they were shuffled. I witnessed him do this last ‘trick’, as well as a few others, so I can testify that his abilities are truly extraordinary [1].

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A Clockwork Orange? (A brief musing on the concept of a neural “code”)

I was asked this question on Quora:

Are there many layers of neural codes from the human retina to the optic nerve and the optic nerve to the brain, or are they essentially same signals relayed?

Here’s how I responded:

Here’s a question: in a system composed of clockwork, is there a “code”?

I ask this because I find that the “code” metaphor is often misleading when thinking about biology. Codes are composed of symbols. But it is not clear that neurons communicate using symbols.

The way a neuron affects other neurons is more like how a gear affects other gears. There is no code — there is causality. An active neuron releases some neurotransmitter, and this in turn makes other neurons more active. It’s like a complex network of dominoes.

Does the idea of a “code” help us understand how one domino affects the next one in the chain?

I admit that by the time a human is thinking in terms of words and symbols, “code” is probably a useful metaphor for what is going on. But the origin of coding schemes remains a great mystery in neuroscience, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. So I recommend starting with a much less loaded metaphor, such as clockwork or dominoes. Thinking in mechanical terms helps us realize what exactly neuroscience and AI research are trying to achieve.

For now, there is a fascinating gap in our understanding of what exactly codes are in the first place.


Anyway, if you are interested in the causal “domino effect” that starts at the retina, have a look at this answer:

Yohan John’s answer to In which format is information stored in the brain?

 

Is the mind a machine?

My latest 3QD essay explores the “mind as machine” metaphor, and metaphors in general.

Putting the “cog” in “cognitive”: on the “mind as machine” metaphor

Here’s an excerpt:

People who study the mind and brain often confront the limits of metaphor. In the essay ‘Brain Metaphor and Brain Theory‘, the vision scientist John Daugman draws our attention to the fact that thinkers throughout history have used the latest material technology as a model for the mind and body. In the Katha Upanishad (which Daugman doesn’t mention), the body is a chariot and the mind is the reins. For the pre-Socratic Greeks, hydraulic metaphors for the psyche were popular: imbalances in the four humors produced particular moods and dispositions. By the 18th and 19th centuries, mechanical metaphors predominated in western thinking: the mind worked like clockwork. The machine metaphor has remained with us in some form or the other since the industrial revolution: for many contemporary scientists and philosophers, the only debate seems to be about what sort of machine the mind really is. Is it an electrical circuit? A cybernetic feedback device? A computing machine that manipulates abstract symbols? Some thinkers so convinced that the mind is a computer that they invite us to abandon the notion that the idea is a metaphor. Daugman quotes the cogntive scientist Zenon Pylyshyn, who claimed that “there is no reason why computation ought to be treated merely as a metaphor for cognition, as opposed to the literal nature of cognition”.

Daugman reacts to this Whiggish attitude with a confession of incredulity that many of us can relate to: “who among us finds any recognizable strand of their personhood or of their experience of others and of the world and its passions, to be significantly illuminated by, or distilled in, the metaphor of computation?.” He concludes his essay with the suggestion that “[w]e should remember than the enthusiastically embraced metaphors of each “new era” can become, like their predecessors, as much the prisonhouse of thought as they at first appeared to represent its liberation.”

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily:

Putting the “cog” in “cognitive”: on the “mind as machine” metaphor

Why an organism is not a “machine”

I just came across a nice article explaining why the metaphor of organism as machine is misleading and unhelpful.

The machine conception of the organism in development and evolution: A critical analysis

This excerpt makes a key point:

“Although both organisms and machines operate towards the attainment of particular ends that is, both are purposive systems the former are intrinsically purposive whereas the latter are extrinsically purposive. A machine is extrinsically purposive in the sense that it works towards an end that is external to itself; that is, it does not serve its own interests but those of its maker or user. An organism, on the other hand, is intrinsically purposive in the sense that its activities are directed towards the maintenance of its own organization; that is, it acts on its own behalf.”

In this section the author explains how the software/hardware idea found its way into developmental biology.

“The situation changed considerably in the mid-twentieth century with the advent of modern computing and the introduction of the conceptual distinction between software and hardware. This theoretical innovation enabled the construction of a new kind of machine, the computer, which contains algorithmic sequences of coded instructions or programs that are executed by a central processing unit. In a computer, the software is totally independent from the hardware that runs it. A program can be transferred from one computer and run in another. Moreover, the execution of a program is always carried out in exactly the same fashion, regardless of the number of times it is run and of the hardware that runs it. The computer is thus a machine with Cartesian and Laplacian overtones. It is Cartesian because the software/hardware distinction echoes the soul/body dualism: the computer has an immaterial ‘soul’ (the software) that governs the operations of a material ‘body’ (the hardware). And it is Laplacian because the execution of a program is completely deterministic and fully predictable, at least in principle. These and other features made the computer a very attractive theoretical model for those concerned with elucidating the role of genes in development in the early days of molecular biology.”

The machine conception of the organism in development and evolution: A critical analysis

I’ve actually criticized the genetic program metaphor myself, in the following 3QD essay:

3quarksdaily: How informative is the concept of biological information?

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Image source: Digesting Duck – Wikipedia

Perception is a creative act: On the connection between creativity and pattern recognition

An answer I wrote to the Quora question Does the human brain work solely by pattern recognition?:

Great question! Broadly speaking, the brain does two things: it processes ‘inputs’ from the world and from the body, and generates ‘outputs’ to the muscles and internal organs.

Pattern recognition shows up most clearly during the processing of inputs. Recognition allows us to navigate the world, seeking beneficial/pleasurable experiences and avoiding harmful/negative experiences.* So pattern recognition must also be supplemented by associative learning: humans and animals must learn how patterns relate to each other, and to their positive and negative consequences.

And patterns must not simply be recognized: they must also be categorized. We are bombarded by patterns all the time. The only way to make sense of them is to categorize them into classes that can all be treated similarly. We have one big category for ‘snake’, even though the sensory patterns produced by specific snakes can be quite different. Pattern recognition and classification are closely intertwined, so in what follows I’m really talking about both.

Creativity does have a connection with pattern recognition. One of the most complex and fascinating manifestations of pattern recognition is the process of analogy and metaphor. People often draw analogies between seemingly disparate topics: this requires creative use of the faculty of pattern recognition. Flexible intelligence depends on the ability to recognize patterns of similarity between phenomena. This is a particularly useful skill for scientists, teachers, artists, writers, poets and public thinkers, but it shows up all over the place. Many internet memes, for example, involve drawing analogies: seeing the structural connections between unrelated things.

One of my favourites is a meme on twitter called #sameguy. It started as a game of uploading pictures of two celebrities that resemble each other, followed by the hashtag #sameguy. But it evolved to include abstract ideas and phenomena that are the “same” in some respect. Making cultural metaphors like this requires creativity, as does understanding them. One has to free one’s mind of literal-mindedness in order to temporarily ignore the ever-present differences between things and focus on the similarities.

Here’s a blog that collects #sameguy submissions: Same Guy

On twitter you sometimes come across more imaginative, analogical #sameguy posts: #sameguy – Twitter Search


The topic of metaphor and analogy is one of the most fascinating aspects of intelligence, in my opinion. I think it’s far more important that coming up with theories about ‘consciousness’. 🙂 Check out this answer:

Why are metaphors and allusions used while writing?
(This Quora answer is a cross-post of a blog post I wrote: Metaphor: the Alchemy of Thought)

In one sense metaphor and analogy are central to scientific research. I’ve written about this here:

What are some of the most important problems in computational neuroscience?

Science: the Quest for Symmetry

This essay is tangentially related to the topic of creativity and patterns:

From Cell Membranes to Computational Aesthetics: On the Importance of Boundaries in Life and Art


* The brain’s outputs — commands to muscles and glands — are closely  linked with pattern recognition too. What you choose to do depends on  what you can do given your intentions, circumstances, and bodily  configuration. The state that you and the universe happen to be in  constrains what you can do, and so it is useful for the brain to  recognize and categorize the state in order to mediate decision-making,  or even non-conscious behavior.When you’re walking on a busy street, you rapidly process pathways that are available to you. even if you stumble, you can quickly and unconsciously act to minimize damage to yourself and others. Abilities of this sort suggest that pattern recognition is not purely a way to create am ‘image’ of the world, but also a central part of our ability to navigate it.

Does the human brain work solely by pattern recognition?

Me and My Brain: What the “Double-Subject Fallacy” reveals about contemporary conceptions of the Self

MiBMy latest essay for 3 Quarks Daily is up: Me and My Brain: What the “Double-Subject Fallacy” reveals about contemporary conceptions of the Self

Here’s an excerpt:
What is a person? Does each of us have some fundamental essence? Is it the body? Is it the mind? Is it something else entirely? Versions of this question seem always to have animated human thought. In the aftermath of the scientific revolution, it seems as if one category of answer — the dualist idea that the essence of a person is an incorporeal soul that inhabits a material body — must be ruled out. But as it turns out, internalizing a non-dualist conception of the self is actually rather challenging for most people, including neuroscientists.
[…]
 A recent paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience suggests that even experts in the sciences of mind and brain find it difficult to shake off dualistic intuitions. Liad Mudrik and Uri Maoz, in their paper “Me & My Brain”: Exposing Neuroscienceʼs Closet Dualism, argue that not only do neuroscientists frequently lapse into dualistic thinking, they also attribute high-level mental states to the brain, treating these states as distinct from the mental states of the person as a whole. They call this the double-subject fallacy. ( I will refer to the fallacy as “dub-sub”, and the process of engaging in it as “dub-subbing”.) Dub-subbing is going on in constructions like”my brain knew before I did” or “my brain is hiding information from me”. In addition to the traditional subject — “me”, the self, the mind — there is a second subject, the brain, which is described in anthropomorphic terms such as ‘knowing’ or ‘hiding’. But ‘knowing’ and ‘hiding’ are precisely the sorts of things that we look to neuroscience to explain; when we fall prey to the double-subject fallacy we are actually doing the opposite of what we set out to do as materialists.  Rather than explaining “me” in terms of physical brain processes, dub-subbing induces us to describe the brain in terms of an obscure second “me”. Instead of dispelling those pesky spirits, we allow them to proliferate!
Read the whole thing at 3QD:

The Neural Citadel — a wildly speculative metaphor for how the brain works

My latest 3QD essay is a bit of a wild one. I start by talking about Goodhart’s Law, a quirk of economics that I think has implications elsewhere. I try to link it with neuroscience, but in order to do so I first construct an analogy between the brain and an economy. We might not understand economic networks any better than we do neural networks, but this analogy is a fun way to re-frame matters of neuroscience and society.

Plan of a Citadel (from Wikipedia)

Plan of a Citadel (from Wikipedia)

Here’s an excerpt:

The Neural Citadel

Nowadays we routinely encounter descriptions of the brain as a computer, especially in the pop science world. Just like computers, brains accept inputs (sensations from the world) and produce outputs (speech, action, and influence on internal organs). Within the world of neuroscience there is a widespread belief that the computer metaphor becomes unhelpful very quickly, and that new analogies must be sought. So you can also come across conceptions of the brain as a dynamical system, or as a network. One of the purposes of a metaphor is to link things we understand (like computers) with thing we are still stymied by (like brains). Since the educated public has plenty of experience with computers, but at best nebulous conceptions of dynamical systems and networks, it makes sense that the computer metaphor is the most popular one. In fact, outside of a relatively small group of mathematically-minded thinkers, even scientists often feel most comfortable thinking of the brain as a elaborate biological computer. [3]

However, there is another metaphor for the brain that most human beings will be able to relate to. The brain can be thought of as an economy: as a biological social network, in which the manufacturers, marketers, consumers, government officials and investors are neurons. Before going any further, let me declare up front that this analogy has a fundamental flaw. The purpose of metaphor is to understand the unknown — in this case the brain — in terms of the known. But with all due respect to economists and other social scientists, we still don’t actually understand socio-economic networks all that well. Not nearly as well as computer scientists understand computers. Nevertheless, we are all embedded in economies and social networks, and therefore have intuitions, suspicions, ideologies, and conspiracy theories about how they work.

Because of its fundamental flaw, the brain-as-economy metaphor isn’t really going to make my fellow neuroscientists’ jobs any easier, which is why I am writing about it on 3 Quarks Daily rather than in a peer-reviewed academic journal. What the brain-as-economy metaphor does do is allow us to translate neural or mental phenomena into the language of social cooperation and competition, and vice versa. Even though brains and economies seem equally mysterious and unpredictable, perhaps in attempting to bridge the two domains something can be gained in translation. If nothing else, we can expect some amusing raw material for armchair philosophizing about life, the universe, and everything. [4]

So let’s paint a picture of the neural economy. Imagine that the brain is a city — the capital of the vast country that is the body. The neural citadel is a fortress; the blood-brain barrier serves as its defensive wall, protecting it from the goings-on in the countryside, and only allowing certain raw materials through its heavily guarded gates — oxygen and nutrients, for the most part. Fuel for the crucial work carried out by the city’s residents: the neurons and their helper cells. The citadel needs all this fuel to deal with its main task: the industrial scale transformation of raw data into refined information. The unprocessed data pours into the citadel through the various axonal highways.  The trucks carrying the data are dispatched by the nervous system’s network of spies and informants. Their job is to inform the citadel of the goings-on outside its walls. The external sense organs — the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin — are the body’s border patrols, coast guards, observatories, and foreign intelligence agencies. The muscles and internal organs, meanwhile, are monitored by the home ministry’s police and bureaucrats, always on the look-out for any domestic turbulence. (The stomach, for instance, is known to be a hotbed of labor unrest.)

The neural citadel enables an information economy — a marketplace of ideas, as it were. Most of this information is manufactured within the brain and internally traded, but some of it — perhaps the most important information — is exported from the brain in the form of executive orders, requests and the occasional plaintive plea from the citadel to the sense organs, muscles, glands and viscera. The purpose of the brain is definitely subject to debate — even within the citadel — but one thing most people can agree on is that it must serve as an effective and just ruler of the body: a government that marries a harmonious domestic policy — unstressed stomach cells, unblackened lung cells, radiant skin cells and resilient muscle cells — with a peaceful and profitable foreign policy. (The country is frustratingly dependent on foreign countries, over which it has limited control, for its energy and construction material.)

The citadel is divided into various neighborhoods, according to the types of information being processed. There are neighborhoods subject to strict zoning requirements that process only one sort of information: visions, sounds, smells, tastes, or textures. Then there are mixed use neighborhoods where different kinds of information are assembled into more complex packages, endlessly remixed and recontextualized. These neighborhoods are not arranged in a strict hierarchy. Allegiances can form and dissolve. Each is trying to do something useful with the information that is fed to it: to use older information to predict future trends, or to stay on the look-out for a particular pattern that might arise in the body, the outside world, or some other part of the citadel.  Each neighborhood has an assortment of manufacturing strategies, polling systems, research groups, and experimental start-up incubators. Though they are all working for the welfare of the country, they sometimes compete for the privilege of contributing to governmental policies. These policies seem to be formulated at the centers of planning and coordination in the prefrontal cortex — an ivory tower (or a corporate skyscraper, if you prefer merchant princes to philosopher kings) that has a panoramic view of the citadel. The prefrontal tower then dispatches its decisions to the motor control areas of the citadel, which notify the body of governmental marching orders.

~

The essay is not just about the metaphor though. There are bits about dopamine, and addiction, and also some wide-eyed idealism. 🙂 Check the whole thing out at 3 Quarks Daily.

For the record, there is a major problem with personifying neurons. It doesn’t actually explain anything, since we are just as baffled by persons as we are by neurons. Personifying neurons creates billions of microscopic homunculi. The Neural Citadel metaphor was devised in a spirit of play, rather than as serious science or philosophy.