Monday, March 31, 2008

Dick to the Dawk to the PhD

UPDATE: This apparently features an equal amount of ID as evolution. Ergo, video = fail.

UPDATE 2: This movie was apparently made by the producers of Expelled. I refuse to disseminate creationist bullshit.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Nailing one's self to a cross cannot be healthy

A bunch of Christians doing silly and unsafe things for their beliefs.

Categorized as humor because I find it funny, in a sick, misanthropic way.

Via Evolved and Rational.

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Carnival of the Godless

Carnival of the Godless #88 is up at Atheist FAQ.

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Post for someone I know

I used to know Tope Awe when I lived in Chadbourne Residential College. She was the Multicultural Resident Liaison when I was there.

She is in danger of being deported to Nigeria, a place she hasn't seen for twenty years, because her father's medical visa has expired.

Tope is a third-year pharmacy student, the Multicultural Resident Liaison, a founder of the African Students Association, and someone whom I and many others acknowledge has contributed a lot to UW-Madison.

She deserves to finish her education!

The Wisconsin State Journal has an article about her - please take the time to read it.

If you live in Madison, please, PLEASE send a message of support for Tope, if you can, to our senators and representative.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Large hadron colliders

XKCD makes me lol.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008


I am a synesthetic, and so are a few other people I know. Neuroscience is massively awesome to me already, since I'm a neuroscience student; it becomes so much more thoroughly amazing when there is a personal aspect to a topic.

Synesthesia is a phenomenon where two senses are linked neurologically in a way that stimulating one gives not only stimulation of that sense but another sense - for example, thinking words have a color, feeling noise, et cetera. I do not experience it as strongly as some; I have a sort of olfactory-visual synesthesia, in that I instantly associate a smell with a color, but do not really see the color - I have an inkling of what shade or what kind of hue it might be, but do not know a color.

The 'clinical diagnosis for synesthesia is as follows (

4.2 Synesthesia is involuntary but elicited. It is a passive experience that happens to someone. It is unsupressable, but elicited by a stimulus that is usually identified without difficulty. It cannot be conjured up or dismissed at will, although circumstances of attention and distraction may make the experience seem more or less vivid.

4.3 Synesthesia is projected. It is perceived externally in peri-personal space, the limb-axis space immediately surrounding the body, never at a distance as in the spatial teloreception of vision or audition. My subject DS, for example, is a college teacher who, on hearing music, also see objects - falling gold balls, shooting lines, metallic waves like oscilloscope tracings - that float on a "screen" six inches from her nose. Her favorite music, she explains, "makes the lines move upward."

4.4 Distinguishing the experience of perception as "near" (e.g., chemosensation, touch, proprioception, body schema, the orientation of one's body within Euclidean space) or "distant" (e.g., seeing, hearing) is concordant with concepts of classical neurology and neuroanatomy. This idea was most clearly articulated by Paul Yakovlev (1894-1983) who mapped "three spheres of motility" onto three anatomical divisions of the neuraxis (Yakovlev, 1948, 1970).

4.5 Synesthetic perceptions are durable and generic, never pictorial or elaborated. "Durable" means that the cross-sensory associations do not change over time. This has been shown many times by test-retest sessions given decades apart without warning. "Generic" means that while you or I might imagine a pastoral landscape while listening to Beethoven, what synesthetes experience is unelaborated: they see blobs, lines, spirals, and lattice shapes; feel smooth or rough textures; taste agreeable or disagreeable tastes such as salty, sweet, or metallic.

4.6 Though synesthetes are often carelessly dismissed as being just poetic, it is we who must be cautious against unjustifiably interpreting their comments. For example, my index case MW described the shape of mint as "cool glass columns." On analysis, this turned out to be his shorthand way of trying to convey the quality of the tactile experience - "what is it like." When pressed to elaborate the sensations he felt, he said:
I can reach my hand out and rub it along the back side of a curve. I can't feel where the top and bottom end: so it's like a column. It's cool to the touch, as if it were made of stone or glass. What is so wonderful about it, though, is its absolute smoothness. Perfectly smooth. I can't feel any pits or indentations in the surface, so it must not be made of granite or stone. Therefore, it must be made of glass.
It must be noted that hippocampal seizures can induce sensations similar to synesthesia. The Preserved Neural Connectivity theory, mentioned by Simon Baron-Cohen in his book Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synaesthetes Color Their World, states that
beyond the normal human fetal stage, the brain does not have direct neural connections between the auditory and visual areas. This theory goes on to suggest that, probably for genetic reasons, in individuals with synesthesia the pathways between the auditory and visual areas of the brain exist beyond the early embryonic stage, when normally such connections would die off. Certainly there is evidence that these connective pathways between the auditory and visual areas of the brain exist during fetal development in other species, such as the macaque monkey and the domestic cat. These pathways, or projections, are transient; typically, they disappear approximately three months after birth. There is some evidence that they may exist in human newborns and, as in cats and macaques, get pruned as the brain biologically matures.

We in cognitive science do not know the complete mechanisms by which synesthesia works, but certainly, the Preserved Neural Connectivity theory posits an idea about the developmental neurological aspects of this - synesthesia almost always manifests before age 4, and persists into one's adulthood.

Richard E. Cytowic, a cognitive scientist at Monash University in Australia, asserts that the limbic system is the critical brain center for synesthesia. PET and fMRI could serve as useful in evaluating this. Eraldo Paulesu at London University tested this by examining color-noise synesthesia in a PET scanner, giving subjects words or tones. Two brain areas of particular interest emerged: the posterior inferior temportal cortex and the parietal-occipital junction.

The posterior inferior temporal cortex participates in visual processing, particularly face recognition, sentence comprehension, writing, and spelling.

The parietal-occipital junction participates in understanding hearing.

Both of these areas activated in the brain while a synesthete listened to words. In a non-synesthetic person, neither area activated. The limbic system didn't activate either so Cytowic's theory was debunked, but new areas emerged as the focus for synesthesia.

Sensory research isn't my field, but the effects of this on cognitive processes contain some mental gymnastics, according to Simon Baron-Cohen, for those who have it.

Both as a neuroscience student and a synesthete, I can say that this has some implications for the future of developmental neuroscientific research, especially where comparisons are drawn between brains and a computer.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Four thousand dead

Let me take a moment to register my extreme dissatisfaction - no, outrage - at my government.

The four thousandth soldier has been killed. The Iraq death toll - Coalition members, Iraqis, and insurgents - is 655,000.

As my friend Chris says, it's a fucking milestone, but not a good one.

"That's bullshit, get off it
This war is for profit
Violence and occupation
Do not bring liberation"

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A thought

Nature is not so much a majestic righteous force as it is an enigmatic and amoral opportunist. And morality is based on evolutionarily advantageous behavior.

Thoughts on morality?

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Friday, March 21, 2008

On deception in religion

PZ Myers wins the internet today for being ejected from a screening of the creationist propaganda film Expelled while Richard Dawkins was let in.

Speaking of propaganda, let me talk about deception.

Several months ago, there was a website called, which seemed to be an innocuous secular website until you visited it and found out there was GOD GOD GOD GOD plastered all over it.

A lot of conservative Christian groups employ such tactics - there is a group at Wisconsin called Primetime which does not bill itself as Christian, but is very obviously, if you read more about it, a worship service. Chi Alpha, in addition (and I actually visited one of their stupid things before learning they were Christian and politely getting the fuck out of the room), does not bill itself as Christian until you notice the fine print and see that they are affiliated with Campus Crusade.

Notably, our favorite cult-we-love-to-hate, Scientology, also does this by way of their 'free stress tests', which are nothing more than their opportunity to push Dianetics on you and use one of their 'e-meters', which are nothing more than multimeters. You can fuck with these by coating your hands in silicone!

Oddly enough, I have never seen any of this from another religious group.

Why, then, are groups such as these employing deceptive tactics?

They both know well that they're incredibly despised, perhaps, but hoodwinking someone into getting affiliated is not the way to go and not the way to get someone who's going to actually come to your cause. The best organizations I know - here I'm talking about secular organizations - don't employ misinformation.

Incidentally, this is a characteristic of cults - refer to these characteristics from

Various groups within the ACM have differing concepts about what defines a cult. They often list a group of factors that a cult exhibits. In their list of "Characteristics of a Destructive Cult," reFOCUS lists five. 3 They do not say how many of the 5 must be present in order for a faith group to be called a cult:

  1. An authoritarian power structure, with control concentrated at the top.
  2. Charismatic or messianic leader(s) (They define Messianic as meaning that the leaders identify themselves as God or state that they are the only persons capable of interpreting the Bible properly.)
  3. The use of deceitful methods in recruitment of new members and/or raising of money.
  4. Isolation of their membership from society; filtering of information.
  5. The use of mind control methods on the membership.

Certainly, a number of these groups - I can think of a few Christian ones offhand - fit 1, 2, and 3 - not so much 4 and 5, those are reserved for the most damaging groups. Certainly, a number of fundamentalist groups do not fit these criteria. Certainly, a number of fundamentalist groups do, some of which are in the mainstream.

It defies logic to recruit members via knowingly - the key word is knowingly - feeding them falsehoods and hiding information; that implies something is VERY wrong with the organization - corruption, power structure, damaging beliefs, et cetera. I wonder if the fundies have actually thought about these things.

This scares me not only as an atheist but as a human being who cares for the well-being of her classmates.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Atheist Apocalypse !

I have never seen anything this full of win.

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On sanity

My friend Chris has a great post on sanity. My take on his post is that sanity is an entirely subjective thing and that what is really needed is maturity, which a great many adults do not have.

Most of you who read this have probably gathered by now that I think about 99% of people are insane, and in this particular little post I'm going to talk about it.

Insanity, that is.

What seems to pass for insanity these days is a number of things: limited perspective, bias, mob mentality, and any number of other stupid things which make people idiots but are unfortunately part of humanity.

For example, the Scientologists - make no mistake, they are a cult, and I think Anonymous is the best thing that has ever happened to the poor people they abuse - have fooled a whole lot of people into joining them. Most low-level Scientologists, what the Scientologists would call 'non-OT' or 'OT-I' or 'OT-II', don't know anything about the organization and simply say what the organization tells them to say. They are labeled insane frequently, and indeed, they act kooky, but one has to consider the fact that they're under a very complex form of control and that their problem is one of ignorance and being belittled and hoodwinked by Midget Miscavige and his cabal.

By the way, folks, go to the sites,,, and - I absolutely implore you, educate yourselves about the abuse that these people perpetrate. They're worse than the fundies, in many respects, and I didn't even think that was possible until I learned about what THESE assholes do. This atheist blogger says 'Go Anonymous!'

Also, politicians tend to be full of it. Chris's post has a lot on this.

Evolutionarily, humans are social animals. Our brains, particularly our limbic systems, are wired for certain behaviors. Mob mentality arises from this, since it is evolutionarily advantageous for a group to act the same way in certain situations, and so is a child listening unconditionally to its parents, since more often than not, parents have their child's best interest in mind. Religion arose out of humanity's discomfort with the unknown; atheism is the provenance of we who are more comfortable with it and prefer accuracy. I do not know about whether there are neural correlates to being susceptible or not susceptible to herd behavior, but the differences are usually extremely pronounced.

I wonder if we could postulate about the 'evolvedness' of human brains - are the more logical brains more advanced on the evolutionary spectrum? Greta Christina made a post about atheist morality vs. theist morality that makes a good point - our morality is largely hard-wired by evolution.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Dr. Dawkins comes to Madison


There were two lectures - a private lecture and a public lecture.

I went to both. AHA turned up about half an hour early for the lecture, and I nearly giggled when I saw Dr. Dawkins, who is a rather short man but possibly the most cantankerous person you will ever meet, and he signed my book.

Chris and I, notably, showed up in Scarlet Letter t-shirts and we got in the first two questions:

I asked a question about neurotheology. Dr. Dawkins didn't seem to be familiar at all with the terms and explained to the audience what the God helmet experiment was, but he didn't answer the question. (Chris, Karl, please correct me if I'm wrong - I probably didn't hear the tail end of the question, as I can get slightly ADD sometimes if someone rambles on for more than a couple minutes.)

Chris asked a question about a Kantian characteristic in Dawkins' book The God Delusion, which sad to say I have not read yet partially because I think I've heard all the arguments and, frankly, I agree with Dawkins on virtually everything he says. I am not familiar with Kant, so go to Chris's blog if you want to know more about this.

Ally asked a question about the His Dark Materials series of books by Philip Pullman, which is notable for its anti-religion, particularly anti-Catholic, motif. Dawkins said he did not, in fact, think the book was atheist, but rather anti-religion, and apparently has read the whole series. (The movie was apparently more explicitly anti-religion than the book.)

Someone asked a question about the Catholics' new set of deadly sins, which include such apparent vagaries as pollution, genetic engineering, and contraception. (Ratzinger is a fucking joke!) Dr. Dawkins said something along the lines of the fact that human genetics is certainly something to pay attention to ethical stuff about, but that Ratzinger is in fact a dogmatic asshole.

Someone asked a question about the fallacy from human imagination. Obviously, not enough people understand that people are idiots and cannot perceive everything.

I also pissed off Dawkins (which mortified me, as I didn't know whether his response was humorous or serious) when asking him about his appearance in South Park and his erstwhile marriage to Janet Garrison, who he labeled a 'bald transvestite'. (I was a little bit concerned about the fact that he used the term 'bugger' to describe the act of anal sex, but he isn't homophobic, to my knowledge. Dawkins is an obstinate old Englishman.) The point of the question was to ask him about whether he thought anything might trigger a schism in atheists down the road.

"Define satire!"
"[South Park] is a poorly animated, poorly drawn, poorly written, no-good two-bit excuse for a show!"
"You want good satire? Do you know about Monty Python's Life of Brian?"
Parker, Stone, you have been warned.

Karl wishes he had a tape recorder. Damn you, Karl. (I just about died.)

The public lecture was awesome. AHA made an amazing 85 bucks. Dawkins talked about the fact that you can't put a label on a child, about the fact that there are many fallacies which religious people use to attempt to back up their notions, and that religion is destructive. I am sure anyone sitting around me saw me cringe when the picture of female genital mutilation was up on screen.

Marcus Brigstocke's rant about the Abrahamic religions was awesome:

"I'd like to start this week with a request, and this one goes out to the followers of the three Abrahamic religions: the Muslims, Christians, and Jews. It's just a little thing, really, but do you think that when you've finished smashing up the world and blowing each other to bits and demanding special privileges while you do it, do you think that maybe the rest of us could sort of have our planet back? I wouldn't ask, but I'm starting to think that there must be something written in the special books that each of you so enjoy referring to that it's okay to behave like special, petulant, pugnacious pricks.

Forgive the alliteration, but your persistent, power-mad punch-ups are pissing me off. It's mainly the extremists obviously, but not exclusively. It's a lot of 'main-streamers' as well. Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about.

Muslims: listen up my bearded and veily friends! Calm down, okay? Stop blowing stuff up. Not everything that said about you is an attack on the prophet Mohammed and Allah that needs to end in the infidel being destroyed. Have a cup of tea, put on a Cat Stevens record, sit down and chill out. I mean seriously, what's wrong with a strongly-worded letter to The Times?

Christians: you and your churches don't get to be millionaires while other people have nothing at all. They're your bloody rules; either stick to them or abandon the faith. And stop persecuting and killing people you judge to be immoral. Oh, and stop pretending you're celibate -- it's a cover-up for being a gay or a nonce. Right, that's two ticked off.

Jews! I know you're god's 'Chosen People' and the rest of us are just whatever, but when Israel behaves like a violent, psychopathic bully and someone mentions it that doesn't make them anti-semitic. And for the record, your troubled history is not a license to act with impunity now.

Please don't kill us, seriously. As far as I'm concerned this is the only chance we get. When we die it's all over - there's no virgins and pearly gates waiting for us, no big, beardy man saying: [in deep, echoing voice and upper class accent] "Right, so how do you think that went, then? Killed a lot of people in my name I see. Not really what I had in mind. Um, tell you what, have another go as a worm."

I am going to be more brutally honest and be less 'respectful' of other people's views and stop caring about how they feel about their deeply-held religious beliefs being attacked - they attack my atheism all the time; I have the right to attack their Christianity or their Judaism or their Islam or their Hinduism or their Buddhism (I know they're full of shit anyway). Religion should be examined as thoroughly as scientific hypotheses are. People can have their perspectives, but I like to rip perspectives apart.

Bugger what everyone else thinks.

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Monday, March 10, 2008


Something that has boggled my mind is the question of why 90% of people are religious. The answer to this question intrigues me, both as a neuroscientist and an atheist, precisely because it is not understood from either a neuroscientific viewpoint or an atheist viewpoint, both of which are the viewpoints I have on it.

Neurotheology is a booming new subset of neuroscience, devoted to the study of the neural bases of why people have the beliefs they do, in fact pioneered by UW's own Richard Davidson, who did studies on Buddhist monks back in 2002 (he's chums with the Dalai Lama, I think). Richard Davidson conducted a study in which he performed an EEG on both Buddhist monks and college students, instructing each to meditate, and found that the Buddhist monks had much more active gamma waves than the college students.

Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Canada (and in fact an alumnus of UW), did an experiment called the 'God helmet' experiment. People who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy experience sensory hyperstimulation, and individuals will interpret what they see in the context of their perspectives on society (for example, seeing Ronald Reagan's face in a potato chip as opposed to, say, Nixon's or Muammar Ghadhafi's). Individuals who are religious will probably perceive a sensory hyperstimulation as what they think is a spiritual experience. Persinger's tests on people such as nuns showed they were extremely sensitive in their temporal lobes. Famously, Richard Dawkins's experience wearing the 'God helmet' gave him no hyperstimulation, and his temporal lobe was found to be less sensitive. (Persinger also pioneered the Tectonic Strain theory, in which the magnetic field of the earth produces piezoelectric signals that create UFOs; this idea was challenged by Chris Rutkowski of the University of Manitoba, who had an Earthlight theory which replaced 'piezoelectric signals ' with 'triboluminescence'.

So perhaps we atheists have less sensitive temporal lobes, and religious people probably have hypersensitive ones.

This is something to ask Dr. Dawkins about tomorrow when he visits. And yes, I will actually have the chance to ask him this in person. (It's great, being a regular at my campus's atheist society.) But he's an evolutionary biologist, so I don't know much how he's going to answer this.

I think it's a combination of temporal lobe sensitivity, overexposure to religion, underexposure to secular society and differences of opinion, and flexibility of mind that makes people more religious, and that atheists are not as temporally hypersensitive and have a better balance of exposure and a more flexible mind .

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Saturday, March 8, 2008

On misanthropy

I admit it - I am a misanthrope. I sit here and laugh, sardonically, at the foibles of my own species.

I have a damned good reason to, too.

Humans are, and I will be blunt, incredibly stupid creatures. We all have our problems. The more average of the species usually have some prejudices, even some they're not willing to confront - look at all the racists, sexists, homophobes, and other assorted morons.

Even the better and more learned and well-adjusted of us still have problems. To give a slightly less, uh, gravitas-laden example, I am still trying to reconcile the very 'straight-acting' image of a friend who just revealed he was gay with my prior image of people who are gay. A thought on this particular image might be that such a revelation made me think of all the other so-called 'straight-acting' guys I've known in my time on this campus who turned out to be gay, and how that totally threw a wrench into my gaydar. Masculinity and femininity are fluid things - I'm a fairly androgynous woman, by a lot of standards; all my major interests are ones that many think of as traditionally masculine, and gender is something I do not take into account when I define myself. (I can think of a few friends I have who exhibit some very androgynous qualities too - mostly the people that I'm closer to, in our campus atheist society, than others.) I used to have a more uniform perception of gay men as universally less masculine than non-gay men. I was wrong on that count. I've even known more effeminate straight men.

We suck. Really. Lest you think I am being depressing, step OUT of your self-created rose colored world and look, LOOK at what is going on. I am not being depressing. I am being realistic. Depressing would be neglecting of the small but significant amount of GOOD things we've done.

As I said, we've done good things, but we've done bad things that make a lot of the good things look mediocre in magnitude. For example, this was posted on an e-mail group that I occasionally read:

"my mother is very very very ill.? her sixth pregnancy, after that she tried to kill me a couple times.? I am the oldest and she identified with me.? that was bad b/c she hates herself.

and then in a very unfortunate piece of timing - her seventh pregnancy, I became the victim of a group of young adults who tried with fairly good seriousness to kill me over the next several months.? due to sheer luck the initial murder attempts didn't work.? but then they kept coming back.? I ended up pregnant, with a forced abortion, two STDs, and brain injury/weakness when I was 12 - and nothing was done.

that's what I mean.? I was literally abducted over and over from home, school and NOTHING was done about it.? nothing.

CPS (child protective services) was involved and did - nothing.? and then denial and denial and denial and denial and denial and denial..

I really thought I was the crazy one.? but in my case there is proof.? I learned to look for proof.? that was the only way out of denial."

This is only one example of many, many more that the human race has produced.

No wonder cynicism is so prevalent in the 21st century. Diogenes would laugh from his tub. (Little known fact about Diogenes: He was a frequent public masturbator and ate onions every day. Great minds can be colorful.)

What can we do about this?

For one, I want to make people smarter. That is essentially what I want to do with my life.

For two, we need to educate people at every possible opportunity. Require college education. Be vehement about encouraging reasoned debate, annihilating misinformation and deception, and making it CLEAR that science and reason reign supreme. Provide a baseline of services to people, allowing them to get better services if they can afford it. Distribute birth control worldwide. Learning never hurts.

For three, we need to be cognizant, to deal with our problems in the short term, of how far humanity has come. We have modern medicine, universities, democracy, the scientific method, and we're not completely extinct.

We're a species and we need to start evolving in the RIGHT direction.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008


From Action Potential, the Nature Neuroscience blog, there's a post on SSRIs and their effectiveness.

If the placebos are only marginally less effective than SSRIs, might we use placebos to wean individuals off a drug? There is, of course, the fact that SSRIs actually block the receptors, but placebos might do wonders for the psychological aspects of the problem - there is, after all, a mental component to illness - if you're more optimistic about dealing with an illness, you're more likely to get better (this decreases in more severe illnesses, but stress takes a toll on the body).

One of the comments also mentioned Chantix, an antismoking drug. Chantix works on the nicotinic receptors and blocks them, which is why I think this drug will actually work - because it does things to the reward pathway.

Whee, drugs.

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Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is coming to Wisconsin next week! I bought a ticket and will be showing up in the scarlet letter A t-shirt from his website. Also, AHA is doing a table there. I am excited, and will be bringing my The God Delusion book in the hope of getting it signed by Richard Dawkins, who is one of my heroes.

I encourage all of you to visit the OUT Campaign website, where there is a bunch of good merchandise for purchase.

We watched a documentary on the Dover trial last night, and it provided a glimpse into how ignorant people can be - even Michael Behe, a surprisingly credentialed biochemist (surprisingly credentialed as in 'how the fuck did he get his credentials?'.), who apparently thinks the bacterial flagellum did not evolve from the poison spine on Yersinia pestis when the author of the only article he cited to make his statement says the flagellum DID evolve from the poison spine.

I have an idea. It is a radical one, but one that I think needs to be implemented.

Require that every college student takes a full year of biology, chemistry, and physics. Require everyone who teaches anything, from the university level down to the elementary level, to have a PhD. Abolish religious schools (it is abominable to brainwash young people). Require that every citizen get a college education, and support them when they have familial or financial hardship. (This includes the Amish - I don't give a shit what they think about education and their imaginary friend, we do not need uneducated people running around the country.)

If we can make our university system anything similar to the Irish university system in this respect, where anyone who has the ability can go to college there, that would be a big step.

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Monday, March 3, 2008

Animal cognition

Humans are not special. This simple four words sums up quite well what we in science have been saying all along that most people have ignored out of their own insecurity.

From National Geographic:

In 1977 Irene Pepperberg, a recent graduate of Harvard University, did something very bold. At a time when animals still were considered automatons, she set out to find what was on another creature's mind by talking to it. She brought a one-year-old African gray parrot she named Alex into her lab to teach him to reproduce the sounds of the English language. "I thought if he learned to communicate, I could ask him questions about how he sees the world."

When Pepperberg began her dialogue with Alex, who died last September at the age of 31, many scientists believed animals were incapable of any thought. They were simply machines, robots programmed to react to stimuli but lacking the ability to think or feel. Any pet owner would disagree. We see the love in our dogs' eyes and know that, of course, Spot has thoughts and emotions. But such claims remain highly controversial. Gut instinct is not science, and it is all too easy to project human thoughts and feelings onto another creature. How, then, does a scientist prove that an animal is capable of thinking—that it is able to acquire information about the world and act on it?

"That's why I started my studies with Alex," Pepperberg said. They were seated—she at her desk, he on top of his cage—in her lab, a windowless room about the size of a boxcar, at Brandeis University. Newspapers lined the floor; baskets of bright toys were stacked on the shelves. They were clearly a team—and because of their work, the notion that animals can think is no longer so fanciful.

Certain skills are considered key signs of higher mental abilities: good memory, a grasp of grammar and symbols, self-awareness, understanding others' motives, imitating others, and being creative. Bit by bit, in ingenious experiments, researchers have documented these talents in other species, gradually chipping away at what we thought made human beings distinctive while offering a glimpse of where our own abilities came from. Scrub jays know that other jays are thieves and that stashed food can spoil; sheep can recognize faces; chimpanzees use a variety of tools to probe termite mounds and even use weapons to hunt small mammals; dolphins can imitate human postures; the archerfish, which stuns insects with a sudden blast of water, can learn how to aim its squirt simply by watching an experienced fish perform the task. And Alex the parrot turned out to be a surprisingly good talker.

What about humans is so different that these same behaviors in humans are thought to be higher cognition whereas these behaviors in nonhuman animals are not? Certainly, there is some hubris inherent in that assumption. I'm curious about whether they've done any brain-wave studies on these animals, or whether they've put any through fMRI.

I sort of wish I got that job at the Harlow Primate Laboratory now.

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On neurogenetics

Robert Plomin, in 2003, saw that the gene IGF2R (allele 5 .) is correlated with high intelligence - it occurred in 26% of people within 1 standard deviation of average IQ, currently set at 85-115, and in 53% of people with an IQ of 140 or above. IGF2R, insulin growth factor 2 receptor gene, is on chromosome 6 and codes for metabolism of glucose in the brain.

Dysbindin-1, a gene implicated in schizophrenia, has also been linked to impaired cognitive function.

In my emails with Richard Haier, professor emeritus of psychology and a faculty member of the UC Irvine hospital, I have been told that epigenetics is important in finding the neurogenetic bases of intelligence.

So where do we proceed from these two genes? There are as many as 100 other genes implicated in intelligence, and many more which are implicated indirectly in cognitive impairment. It is easier to destroy than to augment an organism, they say.

Possible sources of genetic material may be other genes on chromosome 6, other genes implicated in neurological and psychological illness, and genes on chromosome 2. I make note of chromosome 2 because it is the one chromosome that is completely peculiar to humans; early in our genetic history two chromosomes fused at their telomeres, evidenced by the abundance of telomeric material in the middle of the chromosome and two groups of centromeric material in the chromosome. Interaction between each gene might give rise to peculiar features that only humans possess, and since we share 99% of genetic material with chimpanzees, this fusion might have produced some peculiarities in cognition of people.

There are of course more pieces of evidence that say we are not as cognitively different from other animals as once thought.

There is a comic from XKCD which depicts a stick figure bent over a PC. A voice, presumably the stick figure's partner, asks the stick figure if it is coming to bed. The stick figure says 'No! Someone is wrong on the internet!' Replace 'on the internet' with 'about neuroscience', and you pretty much have part of how I hope to communicate after I earn my PhD .

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Philosophy of Mind by Jaegwon Kim

As a neuroscience major reading this book, I kind of felt a little bit like this book was meant more for laypeople.

I'm currently borrowing this text from a friend - Chris, my good friend and also the president of our campus atheist society and organizer of our campus's philosophy club (of 'The Uncredible Hallq' fame). I was curious about what philosophers of mind had to say about things they probably hadn't done any research about.

Descartes was an idiot about the mind. Dualists = fail! Presupposing that the mind is separate from the body fails to answer the question of 'So where is the mind, then?', and claims the mind is a separate entity. It is very simple common knowledge that the mind is simply a bunch of cognitive functions. His list of arguments:
'I am such that my existence cannot be doubted. My body is not such that its existence cannot be doubted. Therefore, I am not identical with my body. Therefore, the thinking thing that I am is not identical with my body.'
Is it just me, or does this remind me of the argument of someone who is dissociating?
'My mind is transparent to me - that is, nothing can be in my mind without my knowing that it is there. My body is not apparent to me in the same sense. Therefore, my mind is not identical with my body.'
First of all, transparency of mind is only achieved when one knows oneself, and one can have things in their mind without being completely aware that it is there at a point in time. Also, this statement smacks of ignorance of anatomy.
'Each mind is such that there is a unique subject who has direct and privileged access to its contents. No material body has a specially privileged knower - knowledge of material things is in principle public and intersubjective. Therefore, minds are not identical with material bodies.'
Again, incredibly bad logic and a twisting of the definition of knowledge.
'My essential nature is to be a thinking thing. My body's essential nature is to be an extended thing in space. My essential nature does not include being an extended thing in space. Therefore, I am not identical with my body. And since I am a thinking thing (namely a mind), my mind is not identical with my body.'
... okay, now this just smacks of really bad logic. A child can figure out the fallacies and bad connections in this shit. I'm almost tempted to stop pointing out the flaws and just make fun of this, because the flaws in these arguments should be readily accessible.
'If anything is material, it is essentially material. However, I am possibly immaterial - that is, there is a world in which I exist without a body. Hence, I am not essentially material. Hence, it follows (with the first premise) that I am not material.'
Ho ho ho, now dualism is getting into things that haven't been proven to exist. Smacks a bit of religiosity to me.
'Suppose I am identical with this body of mine. In 1995 I existed. In 1995 this body did not exist. Hence, from the first premise, it follows that I did not exist in 1995. But this contradicts the second premise, and the supposition is false. Hence, I am not identical with my body.'
This requires a definition of existence. The general fact that we exist for more than seven days is generally accounted for by a continuity of mental processes and biological processes - not every cell is replaced at one time. Bad definition of existence.
'Suppose I am identical with this body of mine. Then, by (NI), I am necessarily identical with this body - that is, I am identical with it in every possible world. But that is false, for (a) in some possible worlds I could be disembodied and have no body, or at least (b) I could have a different body in another possible world. So it is false that I am identical with this body in every possible world, and this contradicts the second line. Therefore, I am not identical with my body.'
One of my problems with modern philosophy, and part of why I tend to stay the hell away from any part of it that doesn't appear to be well-informed by science, is that it postulates about 'possible worlds'. Look, folks, there is no possible other world that we know of. Postulating another possible world is like assuming there's some sort of deity, and that's just bad science. Russell's teapot.

Bluntly put, I do not respect dualists.

The rest of the book makes me wonder whether this Dr. Kim has read much in the way of neuroscience texts.

I give it maybe three stars.

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On transhumanism

A little about myself:

I am planning to earn a PhD in neuroscience.

I am hoping to find the rest of the genes which influence intelligence (Robert Plomin et al. have started the work already, and I hope to help finish the work!), and with that information, I'd like to make people smarter.

I am a supporter of transhumanism, which is a doctrine that says humanity deserves to be 'better than well' (see for a small introduction). A large part of this entails improvement of the human body by mechanical and biological means. There is already some fusing of the human body with technology, such as the use of prostheses and implants, a few of which interface with the neural network (there are chips in existence which allow the blind to 'see' with their tongue), and Wisconsin's own professor Paul Bach-y-Rita, who is sadly the late Paul Bach-y-Rita, pioneered the use of neuroprosthetics particularly as they relate to neuroplasticity. If we can use these for therapeutic functions, why not for enhancement?

The general arguments against transhumanism seem to stem from the religious or bioconservative groups (bioconservative meaning 'don't touch biology, let it be the way it was before Homo sapiens put its pink fleshy hands on it!'). Religious groups seem to claim transhumanists want to 'play (insert imaginary friend of choice here)', largely because transhumanist technology would impart unto folks qualities that religious people usually ascribe to their deities or qualities that are 'superhuman', such as super strength or the ability to manipulate certain material. The bioconservative motivation is self-explanatory, so I won't explain that much more.

Personally, I'm all for uploading my brain and becoming one with the Series o' Tubes!

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First post.

This is a blog about neuroscience, atheism, philosophy, neurotheology, transhumanism, and lots of things.

I am currently studying neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

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