Category Archives: cognition

The real problem of consciousness

See this article. A few excerpts:

“A new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive.”

“The brain is locked inside a bony skull. All it receives are ambiguous and noisy sensory signals that are only indirectly related to objects in the world. Perception must therefore be a process of inference, in which indeterminate sensory signals are combined with prior expectations or ‘beliefs’ about the way the world is, to form the brain’s optimal hypotheses of the causes of these sensory signals.”

“A number of experiments are now indicating that consciousness depends more on perceptual predictions, than on prediction errors. […] We’ve found that people consciously see what they expect, rather than what violates their expectations.”

Book review – Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, by Max Tegmark

Max Tegmark’s new book, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, introduces a framework for defining types of life based on the degree of design control that sensing, self-replicating entities have over their own ‘hardware’ (physical forms) and ‘software’ (“all the algorithms and knowledge that you use to process the information from your senses and decide what to do”).

It’s a relatively non-academic read and well worth the effort for anyone interested in the potential to design the next major forms of ‘Life’ to transcend many of the physical and cognitive constraints that have us now on the brink of self-destruction. Tegmark’s forecast is optimistic.

Wild systems theory (WST) – context and relationships make reality meaningful

Edward has posted some great thoughts and resources on embodied cognition (EC). I stumbled on some interesting information on a line of thinking within the EC literature. I find contextualist, connectivist approaches compelling in their ability to address complex-systems such as life and (possibly) consciousness. Wild systems theory (WST) “conceptualizes organisms as multi-scale self-sustaining embodiments of the phylogenetic, cultural, social, and developmental contexts in which they emerged and in which they sustain themselves. Such self-sustaining embodiments of context are naturally and necessarily about the multi-scale contexts they embody. As a result, meaning (i.e., content) is constitutive of what they are. This approach to content overcomes the computationalist need for representation while simultaneously satisfying the ecological penchant for multi-scale contingent interactions.”While I find WST fascinating, I’m unclear on whether it has been or can be assessed empirically. What do you think? Is WST shackled to philosophy?

Can one person know another’s mental state? Physicalists focus on how each of us develops a theory of mind (TOM) about each of the other people we observe. TOM is a theory because it is based on assumptions we make about others’ mental states by observing their behaviors. It is not based on any direct reading or measurement of internal processes. In its extreme, the physicalist view asserts that subjective experience and consciousness itself are merely emergent epiphenomena and not fundamentally real.

EC theorists often describe emergent or epiphenomenal subjective properties such as emotions and conscious experiences as “in terms of complex, multi-scale, causal dynamics among objective phenomena such as neurons, brains, bodies, and worlds.” Emotions, experiences, and meanings are seen to emerge from, be caused by or identical with, or be informational aspects of objective phenomena. Further, many EC proponents regards subjective properties as “logically unnecessary to the scientific description.” Some EC theorists conceive of the non-epiphenomenal reality of experience in a complex systems framework and define experience in terms of relational properties. In Gibson’s (1966) concept of affordances, organisms perceive behavioral possibilities in other organisms and in their environment. An affordance is a perceived relationship (often in terms of utility), such a how an organism might use something–say a potential mate, prey/food, or a tool. Meaning arises from “bi-directional aboutness” between an organism and what it perceives or interacts with. Meaning is about relationship.

(A very good, easy read on meaning arising from relationships is the book Learning How to Learn, by Novak and Gowin. In short, it’s the connecting/relating words such as is, contains, produces, consumes, etc., that enable meaningful concepts to be created in minds via language that clarifies context.)

Affordances and relationality at one level of organization and analysis carve out a non-epiphenomenal beachhead but do not banish epiphenomena from that or other levels. There’s a consideration of intrinsic, non-relational properties (perhaps mass) versus relational properties (such as weight). But again, level/scale of analysis matters (“mass emerges from a particle’s interaction with the Higgs field” and is thus relational after all) and some take this line of thinking to a logical end where there is no fundamental reality.

In WST, “all properties are constituted of and by their relations with context. As a result, all properties are inherently meaningful because they are naturally and necessarily about the contexts within which they persist. From this perspective, meaning is ubiquitous. In short, reality is inherently meaningful.”

2. Jordan, J. S., Cialdella, V. T., Dayer, A., Langley, M. D., & Stillman, Z. (2017). Wild Bodies Don’t Need to Perceive, Detect, Capture, or Create Meaning: They ARE Meaning. Frontiers in psychology8, 1149. Available from: [accessed Nov 09 2017]

BMAI members repository copy (PDF):

Real and false reason

Some liberals (and scientists) still think that reason is somehow above and beyond emotion. When I suggest framing in emotional terms they say sure, but that works only for emotional issues as if reason is something beyond emotion. So here’s a reminder from  this Lakoff classic:

“It is a basic principle of false reason that every human being has the same reason governed by logic — and that if you just tell people the truth, they will reason to the right conclusion. […] But many liberals, assuming a false view of reason, think that such a [moral, emotional] messaging system for ideas they believe in would be illegitimate — doing the things that the conservatives do that they consider underhanded. Appealing honestly to the way people really think is seen as emotional and hence irrational and immoral. Liberals, clinging to false reason, simply resist paying attention to real reason.”

“Real reason is embodied in two ways. It is physical, in our brain circuitry. And it is based on our bodies as the function in the everyday world, using thought that arises from embodied metaphors. And it is mostly unconscious.  False reason sees reason as fully conscious, as literal, disembodied, yet somehow fitting the world directly, and working not via frame-based, metaphorical, narrative and emotional logic, but via the logic of logicians alone.”

“Real reason is inexplicably tied up with emotion; you cannot be rational without being emotional. False reason thinks that emotion is the enemy of reason,  that it is unscrupulous to call on emotion. Yet people with brain damage who cannot feel emotion cannot make rational decisions because they do not know what to want, since like and not like mean nothing. ‘Rational’ decisions are based on a long history of emotional responses by oneself and others. Real reason requires emotion.”

Your brain on AI-powered, immersive, virtual reality social networks

Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine, forecasts virtual reality (VR) becoming our primary social environment within five years. VR experiences will be increasingly interactive (physically and socially). Our brains will process VR sensations as real.

The price of this novelty is all your data, historical and biometric, and with that will come more advertising than ever. What is the beginning of a new dimension of fun, will be the end of privacy.

AI more advanced than what keeps people addicted to current social media and search platforms will attract and keep social VR participants. How will personal and group cognition and behavior change when VR becomes more compelling than ‘legacy reality?’

See Kelly’s 5-minute talk at

Sex differences in the gut-microbiome-brain axis


In recent years, the bidirectional communication between the gut microbiome and the brain has emerged as a factor that influences immunity, metabolism, neurodevelopment and behaviour. Cross-talk between the gut and brain begins early in life immediately following the transition from a sterile in utero environment to one that is exposed to a changing and complex microbial milieu over a lifetime. Once established, communication between the gut and brain integrates information from the autonomic and enteric nervous systems, neuroendocrine and neuroimmune signals, and peripheral immune and metabolic signals. Importantly, the composition and functional potential of the gut microbiome undergoes many transitions that parallel dynamic periods of brain development and maturation for which distinct sex differences have been identified. Here, we discuss the sexually dimorphic development, maturation and maintenance of the gut microbiome–brain axis, and the sex differences therein important in disease risk and resilience throughout the lifespan.

Promising metabolic therapy for dementias

An article describes a personalized therapeutic program involving 10 patients and using multiple modalities for metabolic enhancement for neurodegeneration (MEND).

The first 10 patients who have utilized this program include patients with memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), or subjective cognitive impairment (SCI). Nine of the 10 displayed subjective or objective improvement in cognition beginning within 3-6 months, with the one failure being a patient with very late stage AD. Six of the patients had had to discontinue working or were struggling with their jobs at the time of presentation, and all were able to return to work or continue working with improved performance. Improvements have been sustained, and at this time the longest patient follow-up is two and one-half years from initial treatment, with sustained and marked improvement. These results suggest that a larger, more extensive trial of this therapeutic program is warranted. The results also suggest that, at least early in the course, cognitive decline may be driven in large part by metabolic processes. Furthermore, given the failure of monotherapeutics in AD to date, the results raise the possibility that such a therapeutic system may be useful as a platform on which drugs that would fail as monotherapeutics may succeed as key components of a therapeutic system.

Cognitive decline as early as 18 years prior to clinical diagnosis of dementia

Performance on individual cognitive tests of episodic memory, executive function, and global cognition also significantly predicted the development of AD dementia, with associations exhibiting a similar trend over 18 years.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that cognitive impairment may manifest in the preclinical phase of AD dementia substantially earlier than previously established.

Illusory Pattern Perception

This article discusses a new paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology that shows our brain’s penchant for seeing patterns can go awry. Illusory pattern perception is displayed for example in climate science denial, 9/11 truthers, Pizzagate etc. This phenomenon correlates with irrational beliefs that connect dots that aren’t there. We all have this tendency to confirm our biases. However training in critical thinking can reduce the effects of this syndrome.