Category Archives: brain functioning

State of AI progress

An MIT Technology Review article introduces the man responsible for the 30-year-old deep learning approach, explains what deep machine learning is, and questions whether deep learning may be the last significant innovation in the AI field. The article also touches on a potential way forward for developing AIs with qualities more analogous to the human brain’s functioning.

Future discussion topic recommendations

Several of us met on Labor Day with the goal of identifying topics for at least five future monthly meetings. (Thanks, Dave N, for hosting!) Being the overachievers we are, we pushed beyond the goal. Following are the resulting topics, which will each have its own article on this site where we can begin organizing references for the discussion:

  • sex-related influences on emotional memory
    • gross and subtle brain differences (e.g., “walls of the third ventricle – sexual nuclei”)
    • “Are there gender-based brain differences that influence differences in perceptions and experience?”
    • epigenetic factors (may need an overview of epigenetics)
  • embodied cognition
    • computational grounded cognition (possibly the overview and lead-in topic)
    • neuro-reductionist theory vs. enacted theory of mind
    • “Could embodied cognition influence brain differences?” (Whoever suggested this, please clarify.)
  • brain-gut connection (relates to embodied cognition, but can stand on its own as a topic)
  • behavioral priming (one or multiple discussions)
  • neuroscience of empathy – effects on the brain, including on neuroplasticity
  • comparative effects of various meditative practices on the brain
  • comparative effects of various psychedelics on the brain
  • effects of childhood poverty on the brain

If I missed anything, please edit the list (I used HTML in the ‘Text’ view to get sub-bullets). If you’re worried about the formatting, you can email your edits to and Mark will post your changes.

There’s no such thing as a male or female brain

See this New Scientist article. Excerpt:

When the group looked at each individual brain scan, however, they found that very few people had all of the brain features they might be expected to have, based on their sex. Across the sample, between 0 and 8 per cent of people had “all-male” or “all-female” brains, depending on the definition. “Most people are in the middle,” says Joel.

This means that, averaged across many people, sex differences in brain structure do exist, but an individual brain is likely to be just that: individual, with a mix of features. “There are not two types of brain,” says Joel.

‘Entangled’ consciousness app approaching release

The Global Consciousness Project, Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS, for which I was once Hawaii state coordinator) and Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) are collaborating to release a smart phone app, Entangled, that aims to

  • Monitor your mind’s influence on your physical environment
  • Let you take part in large-scale consciousness experiments
  • Support ongoing development of a”consciousness technology” platform for developers and artists
  • Monitor global consciousness data in real-time

Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, let me explain that I gently stepped away from IONS after nearly 20 years because I did not see enough focus on or progress toward their stated goal—scientifically researching consciousness. I fully enjoyed their practice-oriented emphases on intuitive, embodied, mindful living, but while they remained ‘entangled’ in New Age phenomenalism and esoteric speculations, true scientific programs at many universities and research organizations have made steady, sometimes frustratingly slow progress (which is how science typically works). So, please don’t take this post as a tacit endorsement of any of the sponsoring organizations. They each raise interesting questions and do some work of scientific merit or promise, but (in my view) if you’re interest is in verifiable, repeatable, causally intelligible phenomena, you must stay vigilant of the unscientific chaff.

That said, the spike in non-random streams in random number generators immediately prior to the 9-11 atrocity remains one of the very few well-documented phenomena that could be taken to imply a correlation between a specific objective event and human transpersonal consciousness. In the view of the Global Consciousness Project, by collecting large samples of the right sorts of data, they can test their hypothesis that “Coherent consciousness creates order in the world. Subtle interactions link us with each other and the Earth.” As I understand it, they are extrapolating to the transpersonal level how an individual brain achieves coherent, self-aware states. Also, they would say we’re aware of the apparent precognitive 9-11 phenomenon because someone was collecting the relevant data that could then be recognized as correlated. The Entanglement app aims to collect more of such data while also providing users real- or near-real-time feedback.

If truly well-designed scientific research programs can show significant evidence of direct, entanglement-like correlations between objectively observable phenomena and consciousness (shown in brain functioning), I’ll be excited to learn about it. I think this is a monumental challenge.

Embodied consciousness and the Flow Genome Project

In line with our July joint meeting with the NM Tech Council, I’m reading a fascinating book (Stealing Fire) on the variety of ways humans can experience states of flow (optimal states of consciousness and performance). The authors, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, explain the significance of flow and introduce their Flow Dojo concept in the videos linked below. Applying methods for achieving flow is often categorized in the consciousness hacking movement, also called brain hacking.

What is Flow (6+ minutes)

The Flow Dojo (4+ minutes)

All Flow Genome Project videos

Long (1 hour) interview by Jason Silva follows:

Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

The Journal of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience is here and it’s open access. This Wikipedia article gives a good overview of this developing field.  And here‘s a Psychology Today article applying it to healthy adult development.  From the latter:

“The first guiding principle is that it is necessary to ‘quiet the limbic system’ (van der Kolk et al., 2005) to help emerging adults achieve a greater sense of safety. Quieting techniques facilitate attachments by promoting self-soothing and regulation. This is especially relevant when challenges are associated with trauma, anxiety disorders, and emotional/self-inhibitio­n. Emotional and cognitive learning cannot take place in a state of fear. This also includes protecting the brain from the neurotoxic effects of excess alcohol and substances, lack of sleep or nutrition, and the distorting effects of untreated psychiatric symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis.

“The second guiding principle is the belief that it is essential to support the psycho-neurobiological development of a coherent self, an organized self, and a self-regulated self (Schore, 2008; Siegel, 1999; Gedo & Goldberg, 1973). This principle puts an emphasis on the processes of self-informed agency, self-directed empowerment, and an adaptive balance of vulnerability, collaboration, and boundaries for self-protection. This second pillar emphasizes the self-actualizing and motivational patterns of the developing individual.

“The third and last precept is drawn from neurocognitive modes of decision-making (Noel et al., 2006); therapeutic experiences of processing and problem-solving through emotional states of activation that occur in real-time within meaningful relationships are essential for achieving growth and change. Such experiences exercise and grow the networking between the limbic system and pre-frontal cortex which are naturally primed to sprout through emerging adulthood. Using mindfulness techniques such as “Reaction & Reflection,” while in relation, promote neurocognitive growth and, in turn, facilitate the further development of mindfulness, cognitive and executive functions, and competent self-governance.”

Brain’s facial-recognition mechanism revealed

Caltech researchers have identified the brain mechanisms that enable primates to quickly identify specific faces. In a feat of efficiency, surprisingly few feature-recognition neurons are involved in a process that may be able to distinguish among billions of faces. Each neuron in the facial-recognition system specializes in noticing one feature, such as the width of the part in the observed person’s hair. If the person is bald or has no part, the part-width-recognizing neuron remains silent. A small number of such specialized-recognizer neurons feed their inputs to other layers (patches) that integrate a higher-level pattern (e.g., hair pattern), and these integrate at yet higher levels until there is a total face pattern. This process occurs nearly instantaneously and works regardless of the view angle (as long as some facial features are visible). Also, by cataloging which neurons perform which functions and then mapping these to a relatively small set of composite faces, researchers were able to tell which face a macaque (monkey) was looking at.

These findings seem to correlate closely with Ray Kurzweil’s (Google’s Chief Technology Officer) pattern-recognition theory of mind.

Scientific American article

BMCAI library file (site members only)

Neuroplasticity at the neuron and synapse level – Neurons sort into functional networks

“Until recently, scientists had thought that most synapses of a similar type and in a similar location in the brain behaved in a similar fashion with respect to how experience induces plasticity,” Friedlander said. “In our work, however, we found dramatic differences in the plasticity response, even between neighboring synapses in response to identical activity experiences.”

“Individual neurons whose synapses are most likely to strengthen in response to a certain experience are more likely to connect to certain partner neurons, while those whose synapses weaken in response to a similar experience are more likely to connect to other partner neurons,” Friedlander said. “The neurons whose synapses do not change at all in response to that same experience are more likely to connect to yet other partner neurons, forming a more stable but non-plastic network.”

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