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.


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.


The Miracle of My Hippocampus – and other Situated Mental Organs

I’m not very good at organizing.

pilesThe pile of papers, files, receipts, and other stuff and shit accumulating on my desk at home has grown to huge proportions. So today I decided to put it all into several boxes and bring it to the co-working space – where I could spend the afternoon going through it and pulling the items apart. I’m in the middle of doing that now. Here’s a picture of my progress. I’m feeling fairly productive, actually.

10457290-Six-different-piles-of-various-types-of-nuts-used-in-the-making-of-mixed-nuts--Stock-PhotoSome items go into the trash bin; some go to recycling; most of them get separated into piles where they will be stashed away into a file cabinet after I get home. At the moment, I have a substantial number of mini-piles. These accumulate as I sift through the boxes and decide where to put the items.

Here’s the amazing thing: when I pull an item out of the box, say, a bill from Verizon, I am supposed to put that bill onto the Verizon pile, along with the other Verizon bills that I have pulled out. When this happens, my eye and mind automatically gravitate towards the area on the table where I have been putting the Verizon bills. I’m not entirely conscious of this gravitation to that area.

Gravity Fields in my Brain

What causes this gravitation? What is happening in my brain that causes me to look over to that area of the table? It seems that my brain is building a spatial map of categories for the various things I’m pulling out of the box. I am not aware of it, and this is amazing to me – I just instinctively look over to the area on the table with the pile of Verizon bills, and…et voilà – there it is.

Other things happen too. As this map takes shape in my mind (and on the table), priorities line up in my subconscious. New connections get made and old connects get revived. Rummaging through this box has a therapeutic effect.

The fact that my eye and mind know where to look on the table is really not such a miracle, actually. It’s just my brain doing its job. The brain has many maps – spatial, temporal, etc. – that help connect and organize domains of information. One part of the brain – the hippocampus – is associated with spatial memory.


User Interface Design, The Brain, Space, and Time

I could easily collect numerous examples of software user interfaces that do a poor job of tapping the innate power of our spatial brains. These problematic user interfaces invoke the classic bouts of confusion, frustration, undiscoverability, and steep learning curves that we bitch about when comparing software interfaces.

This is why I am a strong proponent of Body Language (see my article about body language in web site design) as a paradigm for user interaction design. Similar to the body language that we produce naturally when we are communicating face-to-face, user interfaces should be designed with the understanding that information is communicated in space and in time (situated in the world). There is great benefit for designers to have some understanding of this aspect of natural language.

Okay, back to my pile of papers: I am fascinated with my unconscious ability to locate these piles as I sift through my stuff. It reminds me of why I like to use the fingers of my hand to “store” a handful of information pieces. I can recall these items later once they have been stored in my fingers (the thumb is usually saved for the most important item).

Body Maps, Brain, and Memory


Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.03.46 PMLast night I was walking with my friend Eddie (a fellow graduate of the MIT Media Lab, where the late Marvin Minsky taught). Eddie told me that he once heard Marvin telling people how he liked to remember the topics of an upcoming lecture: he would place the various topics onto his body parts.

…similar to the way the ancient Greeks learned to remember stuff.

During the lecture, Marvin would shift his focus to his left shoulder, his hand, his right index finger, etc., in order to recall various topics or concepts. Marvin was tapping the innate spatial organs in his brain to remember the key topics in his lecture.

My Extended BodyMap

18lta79g5tsytjpgMy body. My home town. My bed. My shoes. My wife. My community. The piles in my home office. These things in my life all occupy a place in the world. And these places are mapped in my brain to events that have happened in the past – or that happen on a regular basis. My brain is the product of countless generations of Darwinian iteration over billions of years.

All of this happened in space and time – in ecologies, animal communities, among collaborative workspaces.

Even the things that have no implicit place and time (as the many virtualized aspects of our lives on the internet)… even these things occupy a place and time in my mind.

Intelligence has a body. Information is situated.

Hail to Thee Oh Hippocampus. And all the venerated bodymaps. For you keep our flitting minds tethered to the world.

You offer guidance to bewildered designers – who seek the way – the way that has been forged over billions of years of intertwingled DNA formation…resulting in our spatially and temporally-situated brains.



We must not let the no-place, no-time, any-place, any-time quality of the internet deplete us of our natural spacetime mapping abilities. In the future, this might be seen as one of the greatest challenges of our current digital age.


Questioning the Answer


Have you ever found yourself searching and searching and searching for an answer to a question? You explore all perspecives. You look at it from many point of view. Time drags on – you are still searching – climbing into your mind’s attic for new insights in hopes to find it.

You pause and ask yourself: Uh, what exactly was the question? Now you try to articulate the question, and then you realize that you never really knew what the question was. So then you try to come up with the right question.

Having shifted gears, it doesn’t take you long to find it – it pops out crystal clear. And just as soon as the question comes, the answer comes along right after it. You find yourself in a new place of understanding, and you realize: everything happened in exactly the right order.

Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 6.08.43 PM


The Body Language of a Happy Lizard

lizardhappy-dog-running-by-500px-600x350I love watching my dog greet us when we come home after being out of the house for several hours. His body language displays a mix of running in circles, panting, bobbing his head up and down, wagging his tail vigorously, wagging his body vigorously, yapping, yipping, barking, doing the down-dog, shaking off, and finally, jumping into our laps. All of this activity is followed by a lot of of licking.

There was a time not long ago when people routinely asked, “do animals have intelligence?” and “do animals have emotions?” People who are still asking whether animals have intelligence and emotions seriously need to go to a doctor to get their mirror neurons polished. We realize now that these are useless, pointless questions.

Deconstructing Intelligence

self-cars-300x190The change of heart about animal intelligence is not just because of results from animal research: it’s also due to a softening of the definition of intelligence. People now discuss artificial intelligence at the dinner table. We often hear ourselves saying things like “your computer wants you to change the filename”, or “self-driving cars in the future will have to be very intelligent”.

The concept of intelligence is working its way into so many non-human realms, both technological and animal. We talk about the “intelligence of nature”, the “wisdom of crowds”, and other attributions of intelligence that reside in places other than individual human skulls.


Can a Lizard Actually Be “Happy”? 

I want to say a few things about emotions.

The problem with asking questions like “can a lizard be happy?” is in the dependency of words, like “happy”, “sad”, and jealous”. It is futile to try to fit a complex dynamic of brain chemistry, neural firing, and semiosis between interacting animals into a box with a label on it. Researchers doing work on animal and human emotion should avoid using words for emotions. Just the idea of trying to capture something as visceral, somatic, and, um…wordless as an emotion in a single word is counterproductive. Can you even claim that you are feeling one emotion at a time? No: emotions ebb and flow, they overlap, they are fluid – ephemeral. Like memory itself, as soon as you start to study your own emotions, they change.

And besides; words for emotions differ among languages. While English may be the official language of science, it does not mean that its words for emotions are more accurate.

Alas…since I’m using words to write this article (!) I have to eat my words. I guess I would have to give the following answer the question, “can a lizard be happy?”

Yes. Kind of.

The thing is: it’s not as easy to detect a happy lizard as it is to detect a happy dog. Let’s compare these animals:

HUMAN        DOG         COW           BIRD         LIZARD         WORM

This list is roughly ordered by how similar the animal is to humans in terms of intelligent body language. Dogs share a great deal of the body language that we associate with emotions. Dogs are especially good at expressing shame. (Do cats feel less shame than dogs? They don’t appear to show it as much as dogs, but we shouldn’t immediately jump to conclusions because we can’t see it in terms of familiar body language signals).

3009107.largeOn the surface, a cow may appear placid and relaxed…in that characteristic bovine way. But an experienced veterinarian or rancher can easily detect a stressed-out cow. As we move farther away from humans in this list of animals, the body language cues become harder and harder to detect. In the simpler animals, do we even know if these emotions exist at all? Again…that may be the wrong question to ask.


It would be wrong of me to assume that there are no emotional signals being generated by an insect, just because I can’t see them.

ants communicating via touch

Ant body language is just not something I am familiar with. The more foreign the animal, the more difficult it is for us humans to attribute “intelligence” or “emotion” to it.

Zoosemiotics may help to disambiguate these problematic definitions, and place the gaze where it may be more productive.

I would conclude that we need to continue to remove those anthropocentric biases that have gotten in the way of science throughout our history.

8212f1d8d4ab1d159c6e0837439524c3When we have adequately removed those biases regarding intelligence and emotion, we may more easily see the rich signaling that goes on between all animals on this planet. We will begin to see more clearly a kind of super-intelligence that permeates the biosphere. Our paltry words will step aside to reveal a bigger vista.

Dinosaur_615I have never taken LSD or ayahuasca, but I’ve heard from those that have that they have seen this super-intelligence. Perhaps these chemicals are one way of removing that bias, and taking a peek at that which binds us with all of nature.

But short of using chemicals….I guess some good unbiased science, an open mind, and a lot of compassion for our non-human friends can help us see farther – to see beyond our own body language.

Virtual Reality is Biologically Inevitable

Musicophilia_front_coverI am reading Oliver Sacks’ Musicopholia. He discusses several patients he has seen who suddenly become obsessed with music, or suddenly start hearing music in their head as a result of a brain injury. These are called “musical hallucinations”. He describes temporal-lobe epilepsy patients who have musical hallucinations just before a seizure. Fascinating stuff.

It reminds me of how our brains are in the habit of “playing” things – not just music, but scenarios, stories, past experiences, and experiences we wish we could have.

virtual_reality_helmetThe term “Virtual Reality” is usually accompanied by high-tech images of people with clunky things stuck on their heads.

But there is another way to understand virtual reality: it is an inevitable fact of biological evolution on Earth.

What? Virtual reality is more than just a technological innovation?  A gimmick? Yes. Absolutely. Virtual reality has its roots in the early formation of life on Planet Earth.

Years ago I read Daniel Dennett’s book Kinds of Minds. I remember looking at diagrams of how animals form internal representations of the external world.


Dennett shows how the evolution of nervous systems gave way to brains and ultimately consciousness. And along the journey, internal representations became increasingly sophisticated and better at predicting the outcomes of potential actions.

Throughout the history of biological evolution, animal brains became increasingly complex and adaptive to the complexity of the environment (which itself became more complex because of the brains of other animals…and so on). From genetic adaptation … to consciousness: all animals build internal representations of the word in order to function within it. This might be considered the very basis – the original impetus – of intelligence.


There was an amazing discovery that I leaned about from reading On Intelligence: The neocortex at the top of the human brain sends information DOWN, as well as information being sent UP from the senses. In other words, while the senses are passing information from the ears, eyes, fingers, etc. up to the higher levels of the brain, the higher levels of the brain are also sending down “expectations” of what might be coming up.

To put it another way. The brain is constantly projecting an internal virtual reality and checking to see if this matches up with the signals coming in.


If everything matches up, and if the colliding signals are in agreement, the brain interprets this to be “business as usual”. But if any differences are detected, then various neural networks kick into action, and attempt to process this difference. This may seem strange if you are used to thinking of the brain as a passive recipient of information from the senses.

But consider this: it would be very inefficient to try to soak up the entire gamut of high-resolution reality as it floods-in through the senses. Who has time for that? It is more efficient to run an internal virtual reality based on expectation in parallel with actual reality and only jump into action with something doesn’t match up. Apparently, the six layers of neocortex described in the book are in the business of doing just that. And the higher the cortical layer, the more abstract the processing.

Think about it: the higher-region of the brain is projecting as much virtual reality down toward the senses as the senses are sending signals up to the higher regions of the brain.

Thus: the brain is a virtual reality engine.

And the collective of all animal brains have a major impact on the environment. It’s a feedback loop. The biosphere is a gigantic feedback loop of internal representations, which constantly change reality and subsequently adapt to it.

This massive cross-projection of multiple virtual realities within the biosphere started even before there were animals with brains. One could say that biological evolution has always been in the business of mapping reality into various internal representations – stored in the genes of organisms – as well as in the extended phenotypes that adorn the environment. Human brains are just the most sophisticated version of the self-reflection that emerges from the fabric of the biosphere.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.21.09 PMSo, consider the musical hallucinations that Oliver Sacks describes. Consider the unfortunate individuals who fall victim to schizophrenia. Consider the anxiety of playing out the evening’s events before your first date. These are internal virtual realities gone awry.


Sony-virtual-reality-headsetWhen I see images of people with big-ass chunks of technology stuck on their faces, I wonder whats going on in the scope of the big picture – in terms of the evolution of brains. Is our internal virtual reality not sufficient enough? Is technological virtual reality just a continuation of the human instinct to tell stories, paint pictures, make movies, and games?

Perhaps the evolution of virtual reality is just that: a continuation of something that we have been doing since we became human: extending our inner-virtual reality with more and more artificial layers on the outside.

Humans are not content with plain old “natural” virtual reality. We have to take it to extremes. And given that we are not content with reality as it is (both internal and external), I guess it’s inevitable.

Why Having a Tiny Brain Can Make You a Good Programmer

This post is not just for software developers. It is intended for a wider readership; we all encounter complexity in life, and we all strive to achieve goals, to grow, to become more resilient, and to be more efficient in our work.


Here’s what I’m finding: when I am dealing with a complicated software problem – a problem that has a lot of moving parts – many dimensions, I can easily get overwhelmed with the complexity. Most programmers have this experience when a wicked problem arises, or when a nasty bug is found that requires delving into unknown territories or parts of the code that you’d rather just forget about.

Dealing with complexity is a fact of life in general. What’s a good rule of thumb?


parts-of-the-brainWe can only hold so many variables in our minds at once. I have heard figures like “about 7”. But of course, this begs the question of what a “thing” is. Let’s just say that there are only so many threads of a conversation, only so many computer variables, only so many aspects to a system that can be held in the mind at once. It’s like juggling.

Most of us are not circus clowns.

Externalizing is a way of taking parts of a problem that you are working on and manifesting them in some physical place outside of your mind. This exercise can free the mind to explore a few variables at a time…and not drop all the balls.

Dude, Your Brain is Too Big

I have met several programmers in my career who have an uncanny ability to hold many variables in their heads at once. These guys are amazing. And they deserve all the respect that is often given to them. But here’s the problem:

kim_peekPeople who can hold many things in their minds at once can write code, think about code, and refactor code in a way that most of us mortals could never do. While these people should be admired, they should not set the standard for how programming should be done. Their uncanny genius does not equate with good engineering.

This subject is touched-upon in this article by Levi Notik:

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 9.47.43 AM

who says: 

“It’s not hard to see why the popular perception of a programmer is one of some freak genius, sitting by a computer, frantically typing while keeping a million things in their head and making magic happen”

wsshom1A common narrative is that these freak geniuses are “ideal  for the job of programming”. In some cases, this may be true. But software has a tendency to become complex in the same way that rain water has a tendency to flow into rivers and eventually into the ocean. People with a high tolerance for complexity or a savant-like ability to hold many things in their minds are not (I contend) the agents of good software design.

I propose that people who cannot hold more than a few variables in their minds at once have something very valuable to contribute to the profession. We (and I’m taking about those of us with normal brains…but who are very resourceful) have built a lifetime’s worth of tools (mental, procedural, and physical) that allow us to build complexity – without limit – that has lasting value, and which other professionals can use. It’s about building robust tools that can outlive our brains – which gradually replace memory with wisdom.

My Fun Fun Fun Job Interview

I remember being in a job interview many years ago. The guy interviewing me was a young cocky brogrammer who was determined to show me how amazingly clever and cocky he could be, and to determine how amazingly clever and cocky I was willing to be. He asked me how I would write a certain algorithm (doesn’t matter what it was – your typical low-level routine).

Well, I was stumped. I had nothing. I knew I had written one of these algorithms before but I couldn’t for the life of me remember how I did it.

Why could I not remember how I had written the algorithm?

Because I did such a good job at writing it, testing it, and optimizing it, that I was able to wrap it up in a bow, tuck it away in a toolbox, and use it for eternity – and NEVER THINK ABOUT HOW IT WORKED ANY MORE.


“Forgetting” is not only a trick we use to un-clutter our lives – it actually allows us to build complex, useful things.

Memory is way too precious to be cluttered with nuts and bolts.

tech_brogramming10__01a__630x420Consider a 25-year-old brogrammer who relies on his quick wit and multitaskery. He will not be the same brogrammer 25 years later. His nimble facility for details will gradually give way to wisdom – or at least one would hope.

I personally think it is tragic that programming is a profession dominated by young men with athletic synapses. (At least that is the case here in the San Francisco Bay area). The brains of these guys do not represent the brains of most of the people who use software.

Over time, the tools of software development will – out of necessity – rely less and less on athletic synapses and clever juggling, and more on plain good design.


The Password Crisis is NOW

We saw it coming.

As far back as several decades ago. Remember those innocent, nostalgic days when we only had to remember a few passwords? Like an email account, or maybe an online banking account?

Those days are gone. The passwords I am now expected to remember have accumulated…like barnacles on the hull of the ship of life…like warts on the frog of society…like hangnails on the fingers of ambition. Like…

You get the point.


All My Keys Were Locked in my Car As it Was Running

In my college years, I used to keep all my keys on a chain. This included my apartment keys, my car keys, my bike keys, my work keys…a feck-load o’ keys. It was a blustering snowy night in Syracuse, and I had started the car. I had to step out to wipe the snow off the windshield – not realizing that I had locked and closed the door. THE CAR WAS RUNNING. I couldn’t get into my car to turn off the engine. I couldn’t get into my apartment, which was across the street…I was stuck.

top-worst-passwordsI won’t get into the story of how I solved the problem. I just wanted to make a comparison. IT SUCKS.

Now that most of our keys are virtual (and require memory), we have new problems.

I HAVE TO CHANGE MY PASSWORDS FREQUENTLY (because I keep forgetting them) AND THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO BE HARD FOR OTHERS TO FIGURE OUT (which means…I keep forgetting them).


Have you noticed that some web sites will rate your new password right as you are typing it? Like, it’ll say your password is STRONG or WEAK, etc? Don’t you hate it when you squeeze another password into your brain, and you strain to remember it, only to discover that you have to start all over because you forgot to include at least one number, one capital letter, at least three Chinese characters, two trigonometric symbols, and four Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Does this sound familiar? …

“I’m locked out after too many login attempts”

Many people are giving a shout-out for the new services that provide a solution by remembering all of your passwords, and reducing your need of memory to one single password that you to use for that service. It basically does the remembering for you.

I don’t know about you, but that just kinda creeps me out. A blow to the head is all it would take to knock that single password out of my memory. Then what?

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION? Multiple Biometrics


It is already becoming a standard practice to use multiple assurances (like security questions) to recover accounts, so things are moving in the right direction. It may be a while though before technology for biometrics becomes commonplace. But I think it’s INEVITABLE.

Imagine that your password is 80% reliable. Now imagine that you are using a computer that has hardware to take your fingerprint. Imagine that your fingerprint is 80% reliable. If you enter both the password and the fingerprint, then you have 96% reliability.

Imagine that you can announce your name, and the microphone picks up your voice and compares that to a pre-recorded sound of you saying your name, and that is 50% reliable. Now we are up to 98% reliability.

If the threshold for entry into an account were set to some value (like 78% for a casual social media app or, 99.5%, for a sensitive financial account) then you could issue a combination of biometric data to get the % up the the necessary threshold. This would allow for more variability, and flexibility.

Just Try To Steal My EyeBall, My Voice box, My Fingers, Or My Memory

In the future, when biometrics is a common form of password protection, you might try to run off with one of my eyeballs and use that to forge my iris scan, in an attempt to hack into my bank account.

But you won’t get very far.

thumbOne reason is that my cousin Guido doesn’t take too kindly to people running off with my body parts…if you catch my meaning.

Another reason is that there’s a lot left of me that would still be needed. And one of those things just might be a password. And the whole point is that we should have many modes of identity detection. This is the way nature prefers it.

Imagine that you and I are friends. We meet on a street corner and I tell you that I am in a bad way, and I need to borrow $200 dollars, and I promise to pay you back next month. After talking this over for a few minutes, you are probably not going to stop and say…..hmmm, are you really Jeffrey Ventrella? Prove to me that you are who you say you are!” No. You will be 100% sure it is me; you will have no hesitation about who I am (although you may have some hesitation about trusting me to pay you back – but that’s another issue, which I prefer not to get into).

Why do you know it’s me? Multimodal communication: the sound of my voice, the shape of my face, the words I speak, the clothes I wear, the fact that we are in front of the local coffee shop…the list goes on. Multiple assurances are built in to natural language. Only a rich combination of multimodal identity assurances will get us past the current password crisis.

Big Bro

This is of course not all that there is to say about how to solve the password crisis. It’s a little scary to have bits of my identity flying across the internet and being processes on servers out there in the world. A corporation or a government will probably run that server. I damn-well better trust that server!

For now, I’ll just leave it at that. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Unless you are a flower child living in a remote forest and subsisting on mushrooms and larvae, you probably have experienced password anxiety.

Tell me what YOU think!