Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How the brain works, part 2

Tonight I played nay (middle eastern flute) in a middle eastern music and dance concert at UCSB (Santa Barbara, Ca., here's the URL). We had a guest artist, an oud player from New Mexico who was originally from Iraq. (You see, the university is having a middle eastern conference this weekend and the focus is on Iraq. You can read about it linked from the URL I gave above under "Performances".) The guest artist's name was Rahim Alhaj (Here's his web page). He was a really nice person and he plays amazingly well! I love the mellow sound of his oud and the way he plays the strings very softly even while he's going quickly, unlike some other people who strike the strings hard.) 

But this isn't what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about is that he told me afterward that when he first saw me sitting on stage during the rehearsal he thought to himself, "I've met this guy before somewhere!" He couldn't get it out of his head that we had definitely met somewhere before. Now, I don't think I've met him before anywhere, but I"m not sure. He, at first, suggested that maybe we had met at some airport somewhere. Well, that's a good bet if it's someone from far away because people meet quickly in airports all of the time while traveling to distance places and then never see each other again. (Someone should write a story about that sometime. About how chance meetings in airports and railroad stations, etc., can sometimes end up changing people's lives and the person who has the effect on someone will never know what effect they had. Very Buddhist, connectedness of everything in the world, etc.) Anyway, he then said what many people say these days, "maybe in a previous life..." Now, how many people who say this really truly believe in previous lives? Probably no more than half, I would think. 

So, had we met before? Maybe. Probably not. Yes, I do have my Buddhist moments and thinking of it in that way, I can't say we *didn't* meet in a previous life. But then I also have my Atheist moments (one day I'll have to try writing about how Buddhism and Atheism are compatible and even in many ways the same thing) and during those moments I have what Occam's Razor would say is a much more likely possibility, and it tells you something about how the brain works. (See, I *did* get to the topic finally!) 

You see, the brain is primarily a pattern matcher. We see evidence of this visually all of the time. Just think of all of those optical illusions we've all seen since childhood. Many of them deal with how the brain completes a pattern, fills in a missing line, etc. We also have lots of evidence that the hearing brain is a big pattern matcher as well. Think about what happens when you hear the beginning off a song you know. You tend to fill in the rest. Sometimes we hear a song which is similar to something we know and we may say, "I know this song!", only to have another person say, "Ah, you know a similar one! This one is new!" We do it with other senses as well. How many times have you tasted something which tasted familiar but knew you had never eaten it before? Then you realized what the similar item was later. You then tend to think of those two things together even if they're not really related at all, simply because your brain said, "this is like that", "this fits a pattern that I know already". How about touch? Do we do it there? I think so. We might feel some fabric and say, "Oh, that feels like silk!", even though we know it isn't. We don't put it in a category by itself even though we know it's something different. Instead, we try to clump it in with other stuff we already know. 

Researchers on how the brain works sometimes call this "clumping". We know, for example, that people can only remember, on average, about 7 things at a time. You can remember more than 7 things fairly easily, however, if you clump some of them together. It's harder to remember 7 random numbers (14, 23, 74, 89, 52, 28, 93) than it is to remember numbers in which you can see a pattern (11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77). This is because, in the first case, you're remember 7 items while in the second case you're only remember three (two digits, both the same, increasing by one). 

How many times have you met someone and said, "You remind me of someone I know. I remember. You look sorta like Joe!", or something similar? We tend to clump people we know into categories according to how they look, how they act, etc. 

So, my theory is that Rahim probably met someone who looked sorta like me and the two faces were close enough that his mind simply merged the two and said, "we've met before". It's a rather common occurance, actually. But knowing that the brain is always pattern matching, helps you see how such things can happen. It also helps you deal with those times when your brain is tricked by events or items which are so close that your brain claims they're the same (usually only until someone points out how they're different at which point you immediately see the difference and say, "oh yeah, how could I have missed that!"
This pattern matching thing is huge, actually. Once you start recognizing pattern matching and clumping when it's happening, you start to realize that it's happening all of the time in many forms. Habits, for example. (Buddhism would, at this point, mention "karma". When you do something, "good" or "bad", you build up a "habit" of acting that way. When you find yourself in a similar situation again, you will now have a small tendency to repeat the action. If you repeat it, you will then have a stronger tendency to repeat it again when the situation occurs again. In this way we all build up "habits" or "tendencies toward a particular view or action", otherwise known as "karma". There's no such thing as "good" karma or "bad" karma. There's only "karma". If you act the way you want to be, you'll eventually find yourself being that way and it won't be an act.) You see, your brain matches a pattern, fits the next thing into the overall view which you've built up over the years. You can chanage your entire view of the world but it takes a while because you need to break down all of those associations which you've built up. Eventually, you end up with a new world view and you start to fit new experiences, etc., into that instead. It definitely works. I can tell you first hand. But not tonight. 

Thanks for reading! I'd be interested in feedback if you want to give me any.
Goodnight and take care! 

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

How the brain works, part 1

[ The following is a blog entry from a previous blog which no longer exists. I'm moving it here. - raj ]
I want to investigate a topic which I find very interesting and which I firmly believe a large number of people are rather confused about. It's a rather large topic, so it will probably take a while to investigate it fully, but we'll see. I'll give it a start tonight (on the evening of my birthday). 

There seems to be a common belief that human emotions and "feelings" are one of our most prized possessions. We've all heard statements such as, "you should follow your feelings," and "love is what makes us human." Well, I'd like to challenge this notion. 

First of all, I think many people are confusing two different things here. Many people tend to use the word "feelings" to describe both emotions as well as intuitions. The first quote I mentioned above, "you should follow your feelings," is talking about intuition. It's saying you should pay attention to the unconscious part of your brain; that background processor you have which is constantly trying to analyze the input from your senses, trying to fit things together, make sense of patterns, etc. This is good advice, by the way. The unconscious mind is like free CPU time on a background processor. It can give a lot more thought to events, etc., because it doesn't need to bother with all of the day-to-day thinking which we do. (It's also intimately related to dreams, but more on that later.) 

The second quote, "love is what makes us human," is actually talking about a purely emotional response and this is the statement with which I have problems. I simply do not believe that "love" makes us human. I believe that all animals with any higher brain functions at all have emotions. Anyone who has had a pet dog or cat can see this clearly. 

Conversely, to what many people seem to believe, I firmly believe that emotions are produced by the lower level reptilian brain and not the higher level ape/human brain, and I have anecdotal evidence. For example, people will sometimes get mad about something and then immediately afterward say something like, "I don't know where that came from." People will also say, "It's like anger just took over and he became like an animal." We've all had experiences where we have suddenly become overwhelmed by emotion, love, anger, fear, etc., and couldn't really control it. Why is it that we don't seem to know where these emotions come from? I'll tell you. We don't know where they come from because they're coming from our lower-level reptilian brain. The response to input is coming from there and then rushing into our higher level brain functions, overwhelming us, and it takes us by surprise. 

So, if emotions from our lower level brain, then it would stand to reason that other animals would only have emotional reactions since they lack the higher level reasoning ability of humans, right? Well, look around you and you'll see evidence of this all over. Take some time to study the reactions of various animals and see if you can put yourself into their situation. Try to see the world as something which you don't understand but can only approach using terms as "scary", "friendly", "mad", "happy", etc., and you will suddenly realize that you're reacting in basically the same way as your pet! 

Cats and dogs have a very small ability to figure things out but mostly they mimic (learn) what they see. They're reactions to world events are almost purely emotional. This is why we hear about a family dog suddenly turning on someone and biting them, for example. Their brain suddenly produced an emotional reaction which said, "fight!" and they did just that. There's no reasoning going on there. (Right now, my wife is asleep with our cat curled up right beside her. When she leaves the house, the cat gets upset. When she returns, the cat is overjoyed to see her. Those are perfect expressions of "love" and "attachment". Emotions.) 

So, my first point in what will hopefully become a long investigation is that, far from being "what makes us human," it's the ability to think and reason which makes us human. Emotions are ALL the lower animals have. We have reasoning ability in addition. Reasoning is what makes us human. 

Over the next few days, notice when you suddenly feel some strong emotion and try to figure out what would have triggered it. In most, possibly all, cases you will find it was triggered by some conjunction of experiences of which you are probably barely aware. You will find that the emotion comes to you from somewhere and you can't really pin down exactly why or from where. It seems to arise of its own from deep within. (All of these terms have been used to describe the experience. I'm suggesting that there's a really good reason why. Deep down, we all know that emotions are a simpler, more basic, way of viewing the world and they come from a more primitive part of our brain which has almost nothing to do with our higher brain functions.) 

But don't confuse emotions with intuition. There are definitely NOT the same. Animals don't have intuition. They DO have emotions. It's ALL they have. 

(So, maybe we need to think again about what we value most as "human", eh?)
 a lot of scientists would agree that animals have emotions. (Notice in this article that even the argument "against" agrees that animals have emotions, but simply argues against attributing them with a human-like experience. 

After re-reading this article, I think I would change the statement that animals don't have intuition. They do seem to have a form of intuition as well as having an emotional response to what happens around them. What they don't seem to have is higher level brain functions such as logic and reason. Of course, some primates seem to have some of these higher level functions to some degree, but point of the article was simply that emotions come from the lower level parts of the brain, not the higher level parts. 

Friday, May 9, 2008

Why did Apple buy a chip company?

Ok, I have to get this one out there before I'm proven right or wrong and I keep thinking about the fact that I haven't written anything on this topic, so let's get it "off my chest" now.
There has been a lot of talk about the recent purchase of the chip fabrication company, "P. A. Semi". Various people have made predictions that Apple is interested in making their own chips instead of purchasing from Intel. There are other wild predictions that Apple is interested in using the new capability in order to produce chips for future iPhones, or other future products, and thus saving money on production and bringing down prices in retail far below what competitors could accomplish. 

While all of these predictions may have some merit, they also have problems. I don't really believe that one small chip fab. company can really make Intel clones which run anywhere near as well, as fast, and as efficiently as the true Intel, or even AMD. There's a tremendous amount of knowledge of the internals of the Intel design at Intel, which makes them capable of producing "better" chips (for whatever definition of "better" happens to be their liking at the moment) and producing them a lot faster and more efficiently than any other company. AMD can pull it off these days because they, also, have a long history of producing Intel compatible chips. They didn't have that history initially, and it took them a while to come up-to-speed, but now that they have it, they're doing pretty well. Could P. A. Semi also produce thus chips? Sure, given time and probably a lot more employees and money. Would it be worth while for Apple to do this? I don't think so. Apple needs to spend their time and money on other things such as design, software, building new markets.
Similarly, I'm not really convinced that Apple would be interested in using a chip company to produce new chips for their iPhones. Maybe a smaller, specialized, chips, but not the main processor. I admit that this idea has a lot more going for it than the Intel idea, but I'm still not convinced due to the other arguments regarding investments of time and money into a business which is new to them. 

So, what
 is Apple planning to do with this new capability? Well, let's look at the big problem which Apple has had for many years now and which still plagues them today; third party hardware. Has anyone read about the latest issues with "Psystar"? Well, the problems with third party hardware actually go a long way back. A long time ago, Apple actually tried out the idea of allowing other companys to build hardware and run MacOS. It seemed "cool" for a while, but ultimately there were problems with compatibility and also simply with "look and feel". Apple likes to make sure the customer has the correct "Apple experience" with all "Apple products", or actually with any product which is perceived as running an "Apple system". Ultimately, if someone produces "crap" and runs MacOS on it, that "crap" is perceived as connected with Apple and reflects badly on them and on their other products. This only makes sense and one need look no farther than some of the "Windows crap" out there so that this is true. 

Now that Apple has released the iPhone, their problems are continuing with this new hardware. There are lots of third party iPhone applications as well as third party iPhone knockoffs being sold, mostly in East Asia countries. Apple would really like to have better control of all of this "crap" and disallow unofficial hardware and/or software from working with their products. 

I believe Apple is very interested in producing a software/hardware combination which would ultimately lock down each part of their product and put an end to the whole "third party problem" once and for all. With a chip company in-house, they will be able to ultimately produce a small "Apple chip" which can be integrated into all of their products. Their software won't run if the chip is not there and responding correctly, and perhaps the chip would monitor software running on the device and disallow access to memory or to the bus if that software doesn't respond correctly to the chip. Apple will ultimately have the complete control they desire and will be able to put an end to the "third party problem" for good. 

Could some other company reverse-engineer the "Apple chip" and produce their own fake Apple equipment? Possibly or possibly not. There are many complex cryptographic systems which could be used, with encodings which continually change with time. There are even methods of reprogramming the chip automatically with each software update. I don't think it would be too hard for Apple to stay ahead of those who would try to break the system. 

The final question, of course, is what this will do to Apple's market. Yes, it would go a long way toward guaranteeing the "Apple experience" and securing the end-user systems. However, I believe it would also alienate many "Geek" customers who like to "do more" with their equipment and "extend" the capabilities in various ways. If Apple equipment were completely locked down, I believe Apple would see their market share ultimately decrease. 

We'll have to wait and see what happens! It should be interesting!