Neuroscience and Physics?

Physics is like an entangled particle of neuroscience - one studies the nature of reality as it is, and the other strives to reveal the machinations and content of our skewed interpretations of reality. They seem inexorably linked; like the yin and yang of science.

For the last fifty years, physicists have been fruitlessly searching for the unified theory that combines general relativity, which explains the behavior of stars and planets, and quantum mechanics, which explains the behavior of atoms, electrons, and quarks. String theory is the leading candidate to solve the problem, but it not only lacks evidence, it lack an experimental paradigm to prove it right or wrong. It is based on elegant formulas, and apparently, the math is beautiful, but the explanation is a bit of a mess. For it to be true, it requires an extra seven dimensions, additional to the four we have now.

String theorists are very attached to their Big Answer - and they are protective over it. How could they not be? They've spent their lives trying to prove this thing correct, so they instinctively attack any voice of dissent.

Well, not to goad, but there is a huge voice lurking - Garrett Lisi, is a ski bum physicist who dropped out of academia for ten years, and recently returned with a unique Theory of Everything. Typically, in the stodgy academic community, he's been met with a lot of resistance from the string theorists who are quick to dismantle his ideas. It should be noted that his theory only needs the four dimensions we live in now.

It's an interesting story about science - I think Lisi (who some call the next Einstein) is onto something with his theory. But I find it disturbing that the old-guard string theorists feel the need to attack it. This idea that the science community holds truth as its #1 priority is a flattering representation at best. In my experience, scientists hold their celebrity and reputation in more esteem than the explanatory power of their discoveries. It's the same in politics, art, and music. Science at least boasts a system of selecting out the bullshit - over time.

The encouraging thing is to see how the internet enables a faster mode of communication and posting theories and studies. Lisi received acclaim and criticism by posting his theory on arXiv, a non-peer-reviewed site on physics and mathematics. Maybe the internet will do to science what it has done to the music industry - remove the dinosaurs and let the highest quality product stand out.

The other interesting facet of physics that relates to neuroconsciousness is how often the most atheistic of physicists sound like they're referring to almost supernatural phenomenon when describing current theories (or like they just dropped acid). It's almost like a cognitive dissonance - sure, you don't believe in God or ghosts, but you're asking me to believe in an infinite number of universes and eleven dimensions? Maybe this is why I like Lisi's theory so much, it appreciates the elegance and reality of nature without having to write a science fiction story to explain it (don't get me wrong, I love the science fiction stories, just not sure I believe them).

I consistently go back and fourth on the idea of a multiverse, which is consonant with quantum physics. The other option is determinism, which basically states there is only one possibility for every outcome, which means fate is real, and free will is an illusion. If I had to chose which of those is true, I have no idea what I'd prefer.

[In an interesting side note, a few psychologists examined the moral implications of determinism. What happens when individuals start to believe they lack free will.]

What's interesting about physics is that discussions on the topic almost serve as a blank canvas for people's predilections and beliefs - from lay person to nobel prize winner. It's very much like religion - it often tries to explain the almost unexplainable. It would be an interesting question to give people the choice: string theory/multiverse vs. determinism - or maybe the third option is "God made it all." Then again, it seems God falls into the determinism category. Certainly, people's answers would elucidate a lot about their character - like a physics/neuroconsciousness rorchach test.


The Uncanny Valley Theory Gets Deeper...and Creepier

Human face emulation for video games is starting to hit a new level as we approach sci-fi reality one creepy step at a time. I'm not sure I would have been able to tell this woman was computer generated if I hadn't known prior to watching it, though I feel confident I still would have caught on. Still, it's the closest I've seen.

(Though on second watching it's impossible to miss her animated movements - I think I was initially distracted by the discomfort of finding her attractive. Eat your heart out Jessica Rabbit. Still, the uncanny valley theory strikes again.)

You have to love the self-deprecation of the guys that built her - she slings barbs at her own creators. What an animatronic bitch.

The challenges of this kind of work is apparently getting the eye movements right, as well as the naturally asymmetrical gestures of human facial musculature.

The creators of the chip technology, which enable this feat, say by 2020 we won't be able to distinguish between real and computer generated - still a ways to go...


An Elegant Explanation of Addiction

Marc Kern has an excellent post on the nature of addiction. He basically breaks down the various addictions into active (e.g., gambling, smoking, shopping, drinking, etc) and passive (e.g., failing to exercise, inability to work or study, watching too much TV).

It is a subtle and seductive process, which occurs over the course of time. What seems to happen is this: In the early stages of our unhealthy behavior, we are sociologically introduced to a substance or an activity that gives us immediate positive feelings while masking the realities and responsibilities of everyday life.

Through friends, acquaintances, advertising, or just plain accident, we are introduced to things like cigarettes, alcohol, street drugs, pornography, shopping, the advantages of being sick, certain types of food, or even the 'good old' work ethic.

Through the gradual use of these substances or behavior patterns our biological drives take over and we start to need or even crave this stimulus. Before we know it, the needs of our mind have taken control and through our psychological processes we can feel stimulated and relaxed at the same time.

We can feel powerful and friendly, or closeted and protected from the world. It is the FEELING that leads to the ACTION. The substance or behavior that seems to work the best becomes our "Elixir" of choice, our "secret thing" that we do that we think no one else recognizes in us.
This is a theory that strikes a rare balance between neurological and consciousness-based ideas. I tend to shy away from molecular neurobiological explanations of addiction. Of course there are neurological underpinnings to any behavior, but the understanding of how and why an addiction takes place has to be seen in the context of an individual's life experience as well.

For more, I take you to Walk Hard, the Dewey Cox Story:


Lady Demands Government Explain Rainbows

"We as a nation have got to ask ourselves what the hell is going on."

I mean, rainbows are pretty perplexing, I know, but I don't think it's a consipiracy...

This really didn't need an explanation, it's just plain funny...


Funny British Journalist Lady Experiments With Weed for 30 Days

Almost like a British Super Size Me, Nicky Taylor will smoke pot for 30 days to determine its effects on her while she investigates the medical, legal, and social ramifications of legalizing marijuana. Get ready, she's a giggler...

The clip below is particularly funny as we watch her try her first joint since college in an Amsterdam coffee shop - she is aptly warned to take a "few puffs" and wait ten minutes before she takes anymore. In a distinctly British way she calmly describes her feeling of utter panic after smoking not two or three, but 25 puffs before it sets in. You feel for her a bit, but it's pretty funny.

Vaughn from Mind Hacks posts all 6 YouTube links and focuses on the difference between the two main active ingredients - THC and cannabidiol. Cannabidiol with THC makes people giddy and calm, while THC alone tends to make people agitated and paranoid (as Nicky shows us quite clearly). Since researchers say cannabis has anti-depressant effects, I'm sure our science-fiction pharmaceutical industry will finally find a way to circumvent the law and make pot pills a reality.

Anyway, the program is a good combination of entertaining and informative...

Life and Radiohead

From one of the Radiohead Video contest winners for the song, Reckoner.

I don't know the literal interpretation of the video, but it looks like life proliferating on earth and then out into the cosmos. I may be projecting here, but it shares an idea I've always had about life in general - on this planet we evolved from unicellular organisms into human beings with civilizations that will inevitably burn the place down. But life will find its way around somewhere else in the universe - just takes a while before it develops the self-awareness we have. Makes me wonder how many times it has already happened in the history of the universe...

Beautifully and tastefully done. Radiohead are at the forefront on how to share and create art.


SSRI's For Life?

Yikes, came across this today on Furious Seasons - from Paxil Progress, this patient is told by his doctor that he'll have to remain on Paxil for the rest of his life.

"'[Y]ou may just be one of those people that have to stay on Paxil the remainder of your life. It is like insulin for diabetics. Many people take SSRIs for their whole life. Plus, because of the length that you have been on Paxil, you may never be able to get off it.'"
No big deal, right?


Mel Brooks on Psychoanalysis in 1977

I've just caught a few scenes from Mel Brooks movie, High Anxiety, described by my cable service as:

"A doctor with vertigo heads the institute for the Very Very Nervous." Classic Mel Brooks (apart from when he wasn't doing The Producers as a musical, then a movie, then a musical again, then a movie again...).

Mel Brooks is Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, and I almost wish he was my pyschiatrist:

Dr. Thorndyke: Dr. Montague, I'm curious, what exactly is the rate of patient recovery here at the institute?

Dr. Montague: Rate of patient recovery? I'll have that for you in a minute (pulls a calculator from his coat pocket, hits some buttons)...once in a blue moon.
What's amazing is that all the cliches of the psychiatry community is just as applicable 30 years later.


The Luck and Misfortune of Indoctrination

There are times when I see documentaries like HBO's, Hard as Nails that I think how fortunate I was to grow up in a household with no religion. I was, and am free to form my own opinions, to explore the nature of my environment as I choose. Sure, I had my fair share of political indoctrinations, but never religious ones.

Choice and will are amazingly powerful ideas, phenomenon that seem unique to human beings - though it seems the people that utilize their freedom of choice and will are the most susceptible to more extreme forms of madness and sadness.

It's then that I feel unfortunate (or maybe just scared) to be an atheist. That as Dan Gilbert attests (see TED lecture below), too many choices can cause misery. One is constantly weighing the what-if scenarios until whatever choice is made can never be perceived as the right one. More on that later...

Given my frustration and anger over the practice of religious indoctrination, like the atheist biologist, PZ Myers, and his vitriolic minions, I figured I'd find comfort in reading his blog. He practically lead the fight to smear Ben Stein's awful "documentary," Expelled, which peddles the virtues and breakthroughs of intelligent design, and defends itself against the evil tyranny of evolution proponents.

But sadly, after reading PZ's blog a while, and even commenting on a few posts, followed by being summarily ravaged by his readers for my views (and I'm an atheist), I found that instead of finding allies in this group, I found an angry mob that I couldn't relate to at all. Many of the people that find the time to comment on his blog appear to have become what they speak out against - dogmatic, pack-like, group thinkers. Their ideas are grossly simple and obnoxious - religious people are stupid, and atheists are enlightened. On top of that I find PZ to be a goading, narcissist, blowhard.

He actually commands his regular readers to vote on internet polls to skew the answers to silly religious questions. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea, and it appeals to the anarchist atheist in me, but it's the blind faith of his atheist congregation who adhere to his commandments like zombies that I find disconcerting. Of course, I'm not saying he's responsible for the comments of his readers, but he certainly seems to enjoy whipping his fanbase into a frenzy. It's reminiscent of the space monkeys in Fight Club. Though it might be part of a good cause on the surface, it breeds the same kind of indoctrination religion does.

On the flip side, the good fortune of indoctrination through religion is a confidence in life, a track. A feeling that there is a guide and/or reason, which removes the fear to take steps forward - one needn't worry, it's Meant To Be. Many of the theists I know are confident, intelligent people - their religious views relatively quiet. I only know the specifics of their beliefs because I tend to press the issue. And as I listen to their responses, I find myself envying their life as they seem to enjoy the quiet comfort that everything is in its right place. As opposed to more militant atheists (and I used to be one), I see no point in attacking people for their religious beliefs. Nine times out of ten, it just tends to polarize the issue.

We're born to believe. We're bred not just to listen to our parents, but to follow their rules with the fear of death. "If you cross that street without mommy, you'll get hit by that car." You better damn well listen. We are born with our temperaments, but otherwise, we're a sponge for the habits of our parents and culture. This ability ensures our survival - for most species, to question is to die.

But as we're learning, our biology doesn't correspond to our environment anymore. Many humans don't live in constant survival mode as opposed to the rest of the animals (excluding the ones we've domesticated). Civilization allows us to be freer to pursue other endeavors. Despite having all this extra time, the ability or inclination to question our personal indoctrinations is still fairly rare. Yes, it's still beneficial for a child to be obedient, but the side effect is that every child receives the superfluous religious and political beliefs of their parents, which carves patterns into their pliable but ultimately stubborn brains. It's pretty difficult to unlearn the wrong lessons of our parents while maintaining the good ones. Indoctrination is a double edge sword.

Blind, stupid, or some kind of neurological condition?

Check out this horse, look at those teeth!

I mean, really, how can you miss the picture that badly?