Think or Thwim

A Collection of Things Worth Considering

Category: Neurology (page 2 of 3)

Holons and Turtles All the Way Down

Arthur Koestler coined the term holon in his 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine. He combined the suffix “on” meaning part (ie. neutron, proton, and electron) with the greek “holos” for whole. It refers to something that is both a complete individual, and a part of a larger whole at the same time. Likewise, the individual is made of even smaller things, which are composed of smaller things, and so on.

Brain neurons are holons, which are part of a brain, which is part of an animal. At each stage, the larger entity has properties that are greater than the sum of it’s parts. A brain can form thoughts, but a neuron can’t. An animal can be alive, but any one organ by itself can’t.

Maybe these hierarchies (or holoarchies) extend forever. US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recounts this popular story in his opinion of Rapanos v. United States:

In our favored version, an Eastern guru affirms that the earth is supported on the back of a tiger. When asked what supports the tiger, he says it stands upon an elephant; and when asked what supports the elephant he says it is a giant turtle. When asked, finally, what supports the giant turtle, he is briefly taken aback, but quickly replies “Ah, after that it is turtles all the way down.”

We’re constantly expanding how far we can see into larger and smaller scales. I think the smallest thing we’ve actually observed so far is a quark, and the largest thing is this blob.

From the introduction to the very cool book Heaven and Earth: Unseen by the Naked Eye:

Knowledge of the smallest — and largest — entities that we can contemplate helps us to define where we fit in the scheme of things. Rather surprisingly, we find that humans are about halfway between the very smallest and the largest things we know.

The classic 1977 short film, Powers of Ten, by Charles and Ray Eames echos that theme. It zooms out to show what we know abou the extremely large, and then zooms back in to the subatomic level:


9 minutes. Link to Video

Of course I don’t have any idea, but I like the idea that holarchies extend infinitely, mainly because it’s hard to find a place to draw a line. String theory is as small as we theoretically go so far. Let’s say it’s true. Strings vibrating in 11 dimensions are the building blocks of all matter. What are the strings made of? They’re obviously loops of some substance (just energy?). String theory math says some of those extra dimensions may be wrapped around themselves in unfathomably complex (to me anyway) shapes.

At the other extreme we’ve made up the word universe to encompass everything that exists anywhere. Oddly enough, the space we experience may also be wrapped into a complex shape. Theoretical physicists are routinely working with math that suggests multiple parallel universes, maybe even infinite universes. We need a new name to encompass all of them. And what if there is a creator outside the universe(s)? To me, that seems more likely than all this stuff appearing from nothing.

My personal theory is that our entire universe exists within an electron that’s part of an atom that is part of the shell of a turtle so large that we don’t a chance of comprehending it’s presence. The universe that turtle inhabits is a subatomic particle in the next scale, and so on. Turtles all the way up.

BBC Horizon – Battle of the Brains

BBC Horizon subjects seven people with very different gifts to various intelligence tests to try to understand what intelligence is and if it can be measured.

Battle of the Brains


49 minutes. Link to Video

:: deputydog

World Wide Mind

This is one of the scariest/coolest things I’ve seen in a while (and I’ve been reading Ray Kurzweil, so that’s saying a lot).

It’s a PBS show written by Michael Chorost, author of Rebuilt. Chorost calls himself a cyborg, part man, part machine. He’s deaf, and the machine part is a cochlear implant to replace his lost hearing. This show is actually the pilot for a new show called 22nd Century. It’s competing with two other shows to become a new series.

The world wide mind means human brains directly interconnected into one large neural net using wireless implants. The resulting organism is the next phase of human evolution, similar to single cell organisms evolving into multi-cell animals. E.O. Wilson describes ant colonies in a similar way. Each ant is a cell in the larger organism of the colony. The colony exhibits intelligence that the ants do not posses individually.

From Chorost’s website:

When I first read of this idea in Kevin Warwick’s book I, Cyborg, I thought it was completely insane – not least because Warwick provides no technical basis at all on which to consider it even remotely achievable. It’s not a very good book, and I went out of my way to criticize it in my own book. But Ramez Naam’s book More Than Human discusses it much more lucidly, and it convinced me that the idea was at least thinkable. So when PBS came calling, I decided to use that as a personal opportunity to talk to Smart Folks about this idea and write a show exploring it. The producer liked the idea, and off we went.

Naam and Chorost both appear in the show. About watching himself on TV, Chorost says “My voice sounds exactly the same to me coming out of the TV as it does in life, since there’s no bone-conduction component to my hearing anymore; I only hear my own voice after it gets piped through the implant.”

You can also watch the whole thing uninterrupted at the 22nd Century website.


9 minutes. Link to Part 1

Continue reading

Jeff Hawkins’ Cortex Sim Platform Available

This is the story Slashdot published:

Jeff Hawkins is best known for founding Palm Computing and Handspring, but for the last eighteen months he’s been working on his third company, Numenta. In his 2005 book, On Intelligence, Hawkins laid out a theoretical framework describing how the neocortex processes sensory inputs and provides outputs back to the body. Numenta’s goal is to build a software model of the human brain capable of face recognition, object identification, driving, and other tasks currently better suited to humans.

For an overview see Hawkins’ 2005 presentation at UC Berkeley. It includes a demonstration of an early version of the software that can recognize handwritten letters and distinguish between stick figure dogs and cats. Whitepapers are available at Numenta’s website.

Numenta wisely decided to build a community of developers rather than try to make everything proprietary. Yesterday they released the first version of their free development platform and the source code for their algorithms to anyone who wants to download it.

Do You Believe in God?

Neurologist and Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, V.S. Ramachandran, makes an excellent point at Beyond Belief 2006.


3 minutes. Link to Video

How Rain Man’s Brain Works

Kim Peek was the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man. He can read a book in about an hour, scanning the left page with his left eye and the right page with his right eye. He remembers essentially every thing he reads.

In this video Fran Peek, Kim’s father, describes what’s different about Kim’s brain at the inaugural meeting of the Anthanasius Kircher Society in New York on January 16, 2007, a Tuesday. Then, society members play “stump rain man.”


5.5 minutes. Link to Video

This 45 minute video has a lot more info about Kim Peek.

:: Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society

Autism Symptoms Reversed in Mice

Dr. Adrian Bird and his colleges expected to be disappointed by the results of their experiment, but they had to check, just in case. Instead, the results turned out to be rather astonishing.

Rett Syndrome is the most physically disabling disease on the autistic spectrum. Dr. Bird knew that Rett Syndrome is caused when the Mecp2 gene malfunctions and the brain’s neurons get encoded with a mutated version of the MeCP2 protein. Everyone expected the neuronal defects to be permanent and irreversible.

To test that theory, Dr. Bird bred mice with Mecp2 turned off. As expected, the mice were disabled by Rett Syndrome. However, when he reactivated the Mecp2, he was shocked that most of the Rett Syndrome symptoms cleared up. Even adult mice disabled for their entire lives quickly became normal mice.

The really good news is that Rett Syndrome is an autistic spectrum disorder. Mutated MeCP2 has been found in the related conditions, and they may be also be reversible:

  • Autism
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Childhood Schizophrenia

I wonder how it it would effect those of us on the high functioning end of the autistic spectrum who actually get some benefits from it. Until I read about MeCP2 I didn’t realize that bipolar disorder was related, but apparently it is. I have a bipolar friend who is a great artist. He likes to say, and occasionally demonstrate, that every gift comes at a cost. His creativity is balanced by deep depressions and manic periods. He swings between the two opposing states of mind and loses touch with reality at each end. My friend has taken medication to even him out in the past, but he quit years ago because he doesn’t want to miss out on the highs and his creative gift. He can easily see the harm caused by the depressions, but it’s impossible for him to see the harm done by the manic side. From his viewpoint, a “cure” to his condition is bad news. From his wife’s point of view, it’s good news. From society’s standpoint, is it good or bad?

Will this discovery give us the choice between being a great artist or being healed? Would Daniel Tammet lose his amazing math abilities? Would Kim Peak lose the ability to remember everything he reads? Would Temple Grandin lose her ability to identify with animals? Would MeCP2 turn Van Gogh into an accountant?

:: Press Release and Videos

Time is Relative – Even if You’re Not a Twin Traveling at Lightspeed

This Radio Lab segment starts with Einstein’s relativity. It’s a good explanation, but nothing out of the ordinary. Then in the portion starting at 8:56 Oliver Sachs describes something that absolutely floored me.

Your Personal Time Can Be Affected By Disease

In the 1920s there was an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica, or sleeping sickness. BBC Horizon postulates that it was an aftershock of the 1918 flu pandemic. The disease started with tremors similar to Parkinson’s disease, but eventually the patients would just seize up and remain motionless. In the 1960s Sachs began working with some of those patients.

One of his patients, Myron Z, was basically frozen in odd positions for hours at a time, but Sachs would sometimes notice that Myron had changed positions during these episodes. Sachs pointed this out to Myron, who said “That’s ridiculous. I was just wiping my nose.” Sachs then filmed Myron over 2 hours and replayed the film at a faster rate of speed. Sure enough, Myron had been moving in slow motion, so slow that it was imperceptible to people with normal time perception. However, Myron didn’t realize it. Another patient, Hestor Y, was the opposite. She was living at a greatly increased speed, but also had no idea.

The 1990 movie, Awakenings, was about Sach’s patients frozen from encephalitis lethargica. The movie is good, but it only tells the story of the typical encephalitis lethargica patients. When they were given the drug L-Dopa they would awake and have no idea they had been frozen for 40 years. Unfortunately the drug only worked for a few months, and they all returned to their catatonic states. The movie does not reference Myron or Hestor, who seem to be a subset of that group. I just ordered his book by the same name. Hopefully it will have more details.

Time Really Does Slow Down When You Are In a Wreck

Sachs goes on to talk about time slowing for people in mortal danger or for athletes in the zone. There was an experiment last year that seems to have proven that it’s true.

From a February 2006 BBC News Article:

    Mr Eagleman came up with a cunning device: the “perceptual chronometer”, a wristwatch-like device which flicked blindingly fast between two LED screens.

    Normally the flicker would be so fast Jesse could only see a blur. But if time slowed down for him, he might be able to discern the two different screens and read a random number on one of them.

    “There’s no way to fake this test,” says Dr Eagleman, “because if time is not running more slowly, they can’t see the sequence.”

    All Jesse had to do was jump, and read. As he ascended the 33ft metal cage no-one seemed to believe this curious experiment might work.

It worked. Jesse could read the numbers. Not perfectly, but well enough to show that he was keeping up with the fast watch.

:: Radio Lab | Time

Daniel Tammet – Savant

After a series of epileptic seizures at age four Daniel Tammet developed some extraordinary talents. He can speak ten languages. He has recited pi perfectly to 22,500 digits, and he can do complex math problems in his head. Additionally, he’s a rare savant with the ability to communicate how his mind works.

The Boy with the Incredible Brain is a fascinating profile:


49 minutes. Link to Video

Daniel just published his autobiography a couple weeks ago: Born on a Blue Day

:: SmashingTelly

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