We are always dreaming

Take a large pot of water and leave it out in sub-freezing temperatures for a few days. It will turn into a block of ice.

Now take that pot of water and put it on the stove and crank up the flame. Before long, it will start to boil.

Let it cool for a few hours at room temperature and it will resume its familiar liquid form.

If you drop a live fish into liquid water it will swim around and do fishy things.

Things would not go so well if you drop a fish onto a block of ice. Fish are not good skaters.

And if you drop a fish into boiling water…well, the fish will not be very happy.

Think about these states of water as metaphors for how your brain works. A block of ice is a dead brain. A pot of boiling water is a brain having a seizure. Water at room temperature is a normal brain.

The fish represents consciousness.

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Liquid brain

There is a constant low level of electrical activity among neurons (like water molecules bouncing off of each other, doing the Brownian dance). Intrinsic random neuronal activity is the norm – it keeps a low fire burning all the time. In a sense, the brain has a pilot light.

A bit of randomness is helpful for keeping the mind creative and open to new ways of thinking – consciously and unconsciously. Like the ever-present force of natural selection that curates random mutation in genetic evolution, there are dynamical structures in the brain that permit more meaningful, useful energy to percolate from the random background.

Command and control

The majority of the brain’s activity is unconscious. At every second of your life a vast army of dynamical structures are buzzing around, managing the low-level mechanisms of multi-sensory input, attention, memory, and intent. These structures are vast, short-lived, and small. And they are entirely inaccessible to the conscious mind.

The command and control area of the brain is located at the front-top of the neocortex. The signature of consciousness is a network of relatively stable, large-scale dynamical structures, with fractal fingers branching down into the vast network of unconscious structures. The buzz of the unconscious mind percolates and fuses into something usable to the conscious mind. It offers up to the conscious mind a set of data-compressed packets. When the command and control center relaxes, we experience wandering thoughts. And those thoughts wander because the brain’s pilot light provides constant movement.

These ideas are derived from Dehaene’s Consciousness and the Brain.

Surrender to dreaming

When we start falling asleep, the command and control center begins to lose its grip. The backdrop of randomness sometimes makes its way past the fuzzy boundary of our consciousness – creating a half-dreaming state. Eventually, when consciousness loses out, all that is left is this random, low-level buzz of neural activity.

But dreaming is obviously not totally random. Recent memories have an effect…and of course so do old but powerful memories. The physical structure of the brain does not permit total randomness to stay random for very long. Original randomness is immediately filtered by the innate structure of the brain. And that structure is permeated with the leftovers from a lifetime of experience.

So here’s a takeaway from recent neuroscience, inspired by the findings of Stanislas Dehaene: WE ARE ALWAYS DREAMING. That is because the unconscious brain is continually in flux. What we recognize as dreaming is merely the result of lifting the constraints imposed by the conscious mind – revealing an ocean – flowing in many directions.

The unconscious brain can contribute to a more creative life. And a good night’s sleep keeps the conscious mind out of the way while the stuff gathered in wakefulness is given a chance to float around in the unconscious ocean. While in the ocean, it either dissolves away or settles into functional memory – kicking out an occasional dream in the process.

 

Hummingbird on a wire

hummingbirdI looked out the window this morning and I thought I saw a speck on the window pane. Upon closer look, I realized that the speck was a hummingbird perched high on a wire spanning two telephone poles.

I became the bird’s dedicated audience for about three minutes. I watched closely as the tiny bee-like creature surveyed the surroundings from its high vantage point.

What was the bird thinking? And can I use the word “thinking” to describe the activities in this bird’s mind? For that matter, does the bird have a mind? It certainly has a brain. And that brain has a special feature: its hippocampus is five times larger than that of song birds, seabirds, and woodpeckers. According to this article, “The birds can remember where every flower in their territory is and how long it takes to refill with nectar after they have fed.”

Thinking is a by-product of an animal body, which is a member of a species with specific needs, skills, and adaptations to a particular environment.

Fear (and Love) of Heights

If I were perched on a wire as high as the hummingbird, I would be terrified: “Get me down from here!” On the other hand, a bird feels perfectly at home at such high altitudes.

Consider a hawk sliding across the horizon above a vast valley. Looking down from its vantage point, the hawk may experience inner-peace – possibly moments of boredom (if you will permit me to apply these human-oriented emotion labels to a hawk’s subjective experience). A human hang-glider would experience exhilaration, and moments of fear. And maybe…moments of that same inner-peace that the hawk experiences.

Above image from: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/hang-gliding/

When I have joyful flying dreams, my brain is not triggering the fear network. I am experiencing a peaceful freedom from gravity – with touches of exhilaration.

I wish I could become as light and deft (and fearless) as a bird, and watch the world from the tallest treetops in my neighborhood.

Thelonius Monk’s Shapeshifting Chord

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One of my part-time hobbies is being a Monk interpreter. A Monk interpreter not only learns how to play Monk’s compositions, but also makes a point of getting into the head of this eccentric man. The reason to do this is that Monk was an improvisor – and he was driven by an inner vision. If you can tap that inner vision, then you can generate Monk-like music – and improvise on it…even while playing Beatles songs.

I wrote a piece in 2013 about Monk as a mathematician.

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Math can be about patterns (visual or sonic). Math does not always have to be expressed in numbers. Monk once said,“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians”.

A Symmetrical Chord

The chord I’m talking about has four notes. It is typically used as a dominant chord – which naturally resolves to the tonic. Unlike the classical dominant-seventh, this chord has a flatted fifth – which makes it slip into a symmetrical regime – as shown in the picture above – inscribed in the circle of fifths.

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According to Wikipedia, this chord is called the “Dominant Seventh Flat-Five Chord“. The cool trick about this chord is that it can resolve to either of two different tonics – each being a tri-tone apart.

So for instance, a chord with these notes:     Eb   F   A   B      can resolve to either Bb or E as the home key.

This chord also happens to contain 4 of the 6 tones in a whole tone scale, which Monk famously used (often as a dominant arpeggio).

If you are not familiar with music theory, you may still appreciate the beauty of sonic geometry and how it can generate such variety. If you apply similar concepts to rhythm as to harmony then you have a wonderfully rich canvas for endless musical expression. I like the way Monk wove these geometries together in a way that makes the foot tap and the ear twinge – and the brain tweak.

Monk was of course not the only one to apply these ideas – but he did accomplish something remarkable: the application of embodied math. If you have spent as much time as I have learning his language, listening to him improvise can cause a smile – or the occasional giggle – to pop out. Like an inside joke.

There is plenty of material on the internet about Monk. Here’s one voice among the many who have acquired an appreciation for Monk:  How to Listen to Thelonius Monk – by George H. Jensen, Jr.

“The Gene” doesn’t exist. It’s always a tangled hierarchy of genes plus environment

Maybe I’m obsessing over a tiny bit of language here, but I really believe that the language we use has a large impact on the way we think about things, and thus, the way we go about solving problems. Take the concept of “gene” for example.

Everything I’ve leaned about genetics tells me that there is no clear obvious separation of genes and environment. It’s like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set.

seepferdseepferdIf you try to untangle the source of something to determine whether it is from genes or environment (nature vs. nurture), you usually fail. And that’s because the interactions of genes with the environment is really like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set. You can keep zooming in, but you’ll never find the boundary.

And this is fundamental to how nature operates.

Both Environment and Genetic Makeup Influence Behavior

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From Wikipedia:

Nature versus nurture debates assume that variation in a trait is primarily due to either genetic differences or environmental differences. However, the current scientific opinion holds that neither genetic differences nor environmental differences are solely responsible for producing phenotypic variation, and that virtually all traits are influenced by both genetic and environmental differences.

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it is rarely productive to talk about a “gene” in the singular. “Genes” is almost always a plural concept. And the reason is because the interaction of genes and environment (the fundamental basis for evolution) goes all the way down to the level of the genes themselves. In other words:

At a Basic Level: Genes are the environment for genes

The way a gene is expressed is influenced by the other genes who take part in the choreography of expression.

I originally learned this from reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. From the point of view of the single gene, being the most atomic unit of selection, EVERYTHING other than itself…constitutes the environment. That includes other genes.

So, when you hear a science writer claiming that “Researchers determine that there is no ‘math gene’…”, you should conclude that the author is (1) correct, and (2) ignorant about biology.

Of course there is no math gene. Math skill (or any skill) grows out of a tangled interaction of inherited instinct (genetic makeup) and environmental factors (experience, learning, outside influences). The “nature vs. nurture” debate is counter-productive. The question should not be about determining which is the cause. It should be about determining the way these two factors come together to continually bring the natural world into being.

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Because it’s a tangled hierarchy of influences, people get uncomfortable. Science is supposed to untangle these things, right? Not always. Science can help us understand that tangled hierarchies are actually the norm. That’s nature.

This is not to say that there are no culprit genes for certain diseases or observable traits. They do in fact exist in certain cases. For instance: there do exist “single gene disorders“. But these are usually mutations – deviations of an otherwise natural situation.

John Oliver recently made a compelling rant against science journalism, and how perfectly valid science often gets trivialized, simplified, and even rendered false…for mass consumption.

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There is no single bullet theory in nature. Science writers should spend less time looking for a simple story to catch people’s eye with a punchy headline. Nature is complex…like the Mandelbrot Set. And that’s awesome.

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Cute Yet Creepy. Animal Yet Human.

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I have been thinking about the uncanny valley for decades. Here are some things I’ve written on the subject:

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The Uncanny Valley of Expression

Uncanny Charlie

How Does Artificial Life Avoid the Uncanny Valley?

Augmenting the Uncanny Valley

Over time, animated filmmakers have become more savvy about the uncanny problem. They are getting generally better at avoiding the creeps. According to this article, Disney learned its lesson, the hard way….

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“And that’s why realism-fetishizing technology like motion capture is much more susceptible to creeping us out than more “primitive” or stylized animation: it’s only when you’re purporting to offer that level of detail in the first place that you can totally, utterly screw it up.”

Despite the fact that animators are more savvy about the Valley, I still can’t help but notice a nagging, low-grade fever of optical realism that has crept into the lineup of popular animated characters (even as the accidental monsters get shuffled off to quarantine). Consumers of animated films may be unaware of it…because it has become normalized. The realism has increased, bit by bit, so that now we have quivering hair follicles, sparkling teeth, and eyeballs reflecting the light of the environment.

Imagine if our favorite classic characters were rendered like this.

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But the discomfort we call the uncanny valley doesn’t only occur when the thin veneer of visual realism unexpectedly reveals a mindless robot where “nobody is home”. The phenomenon could be seen in a larger context: it is caused by the clash of any two aspects of an artificial character that operate at incompatible levels of realism. For instance…

Can Animals Become Too Human?

I recently saw Zootopia. I really enjoyed it. Great film. But I must say, I did catch a glimpse of the Valley. There’s no denying it.

I also recently saw Guardians of the Galaxy, with Rocket Raccoon, who exhibits two very different kinds of realism: (1) Raccoon! (2) A tough guy with attitude – and a very human intelligence.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 9.55.27 PMCan contradictory behavioral realism create a different sort of valley? Technology for character animation has enabled a much higher level of expressivity than has ever been possible, with fine detail in subtle eye and mouth movements. One might conclude that since behavioral realism has caught up with visual realism, the uncanny valley should now be a thing of the past. But then again, that depends on whether the behavior and the visuals apply to the same species!

Nothing abnormal about a cartoony raccoon throwin’ shapes and talkin’ tough. But when this animal is rendered in a hyper-realistic manner, AND evoking high-res human expression, things start to feel odd.

Silvery-marmoset-6Pandas, ants, lobsters, bison, eels … in order for all of these various animals to assume the range of human emotion needed to deliver a clever line, they have to be equipped with a face with all the expected degrees of freedom. The result is what I call “rubber mask syndrome”.

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One example is the characters in Antz, whose faces stretch in very un ant-like ways in order to express very human-like things. More and more animals (unlikely animals even) are being added to the cast of movie stars. They are snarky, sly, witty, sexy, clever…and oh so human. It has all gotten a little weird if you ask me.