Monday, September 22, 2008

Armchair Neuroscience

I'm really grateful for my undergraduate education at the University of Chicago. I believe it's the best liberal arts school in the country, in large part because it lacks the name recognition of Harvard or Yale while still placing academically in the top ten undergraduate institutions in America. No one goes to the University of Chicago for the fame or connections they might get at Harvard, and as a result the school attracts only those students who really want to learn. At the University of Chicago, they teach you how to think and analyze everything.

The joke in college was that a University of Chicago student didn't need to know anything about a subject to have an opinion on it. This is pretty much true. I distinctly remember getting an A on a paper about The Brother's Karamazov when I had only read the first quarter of the book. The trick was to relate the concepts discussed in class with the material I had actually read and with other texts read in that class. While I'm sure my professor would have been mortified to find this out, it speaks a lot about learning to analyze abstract concepts and come to conclusions that happen to be right.

In other words, The University of Chicago taught me to bullshit well.

Most of the time I talk about a topic, I really do understand the subject matter. But I'm not willing to let a lack of expertise or study prevent me from sharing my opinion, so today's topic is neuroscience. As a disclaimer, I've never studied this subject in an official capacity in my life. All the information I have is from personal reading into other studies, most of which are (I think) peer reviewed.

There! That's a more accurate disclaimer than you'll hear from any journalist, and yet they are often no better qualified than I am to write about these topics. In particular, I recently read an article on msnbc.com that hypothesized that your brain could be controlled by an inner zombie.

Yes, that's really their conclusion. And by "conclusion" I mean "hypothesis supported by circumstantial evidence that's phrased as a question so no one can refute your claim because you're not officially making one". Since there's no challenge in ridiculing a claim like this, let me instead give a fair and impartial summary of the article. Then I'll rip it to shreds and propose a hypothesis that better fits Occam's Razor by several orders of magnitude.

I'll admit the term "inner zombie" is just a term chosen to generate interest in the article. And in some sense it worked-- I'm linking to it. All they really mean by inner zombie is a thought process that's not conscious and not (always) connected to the rational decision making. The article cites some studies where people are blinded by deactivating the visual processing section of their brain, and then shown a word. The people have no conscious knowledge of the word, but when they are asked to "guess" what word might have been shown, they properly guess the word with much higher than expected accuracy. There's also a study that shows people who are temporary blinded can still reflexively react to visual information they can't see. And while the article doesn't mention it, there's also a study done on people who are blind because their brain doesn't process images even though their eyes are fine. Compared to other blind people, these people do a much better job than of dodging obstacles while walking down the street, like other people or sign posts.

I'd like to note that these results are all from real, peer reviewed studies. Scientists aren't questioning the validity of these results. But they also aren't jumping to the same conclusion that MSNBC did. Here's the basic argument the article makes:
  1. People show the ability to reflexively process and react to visual information even when they consciously report blindness.
  2. Therefore an unconscious process has control over their conscious minds.
  3. Perhaps all consciousness is controlled by these unconscious processes and consciousness is a myth.
It's step 3 that doesn't make any sense. Sure, humans have unconscious processes that handle the same information conscious sections of the brain handle. But why does that mean the whole brain is controlled by the unconscious part? Given our daily experience, I'd suggest that the reverse is true. Our general actions are primarily controlled by conscious processes, and only when consciousness shuts off do the unconscious sections take control. There's no reason to suggest consciousness is a myth and a "zombie" is "controlling your brain".

But the brain is a really strange organ. The reasons the brain work this way are rooted in the differences between human brains, standard mammal brains, and the reptilian brain. Next week I'll talk more about these things and explain why I think dogs have consciousness but lizards do not.

4 comments:

Dave Mark said...

I agree that they took it a little too far. Of course, in an election season, some of the people I have heard speak about their choice of candidates lead me to believe that there is some sort of "inner zombie"... but I digress.

If you want an interesting read on how our subconscious works, read "Blink" by Malcom Gladwell. Fun read. Very informative.

Ted Vessenes said...

What? And spoil my baseless speculation by actual factual information? Basing beliefs on hard facts sounds like a positively un-American idea!

Seriously though, I'll check it out. On the subject of books, I'd been meaning to ask-- didn't you edit or author contribute a book on Video Game AI? I'd been meaning to check it out but haven't gotten around to it yet.

Sander said...

"Our general actions are primarily controlled by conscious processes" This may seem so, but by definition of subconsciousness, you don't know that this is the case. If I'm not mistaken there have also been experiments where researchers were able to detect that people were about to make a certain decision (opening a door I believe) and could respond to that before those people were consciously aware of this decision. This implies that there is at least some degree of decision making going on in our subconscious minds. If you extrapolate from this, it could be the case that in fact all decisions are made subconsiously and our 'conscious' decision making process is just trying to justify these decisions.

Dave Mark said...

I was a contributor to "AI Game Programming Wisdom 4". I'm also in the process of writing a book tentitively titled "Behavioral Mathematics for Game AI" which should be out by the Game Developers Conference in March.