Isolation: Individual, Social, Cosmic

For centuries, philosophers have debated the duality and unity of the mind and the brain.  What has been forgotten is the third entity  – the environment within which both exist. Isolation from the environment can have profound effects on the existence of both the mind and the brain.

Total isolation from the environment happens in states of extreme sensory deprivation.  Imagine the elimination of vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and sensation of gravity.  Total darkness, no sound, and no sense of touch or taste and even not feeling the weight of your own body.  How long would somebody be able to stand this state of total sensory deprivation? Some may find it calming if it only lasts for a few minutes.  In fact, the sensory isolation tank, devised by John Lily, is used by commercial relaxation centers.  Beyond an hour or so, however, total sensory deprivation starts to disrupt mental functions and, if prolonged, can have more devastating effects.  A related phenomenon is the Ganzfeld effect, which refers to the exposure to a low-level uniform stimulus for a prolonged period and which can lead to the same effects as sensory deprivation.  It is unclear how many hours of total sensory deprivation a human being can tolerate.  However, the experience is so unpleasant and terrifying that it is a common technique that is used for torture and punishment of prisoners.  Any experiments investigating the sensory deprivation phenomenon are so unethical that they have been seldom reported. Even animal experiments of such states are difficult to find.  Prolonged sensory deprivation would lead to the total disruption of the experience of one’s own self.  In the beginning, a person loses their sense of time, and soon hallucinations and delusions set in. This terrifying state leads to anxiety, panic, and paranoia.   If a person cannot change his situation, then the prolonged deprivation leads to a state of hopelessness, helplessness, and depression. Suicidal tendencies are likely to emerge.   Varying sensory stimulation is therefore an essential biological need without which the human mind cannot function.  

Social isolation, in its extreme form, is a complete lack of contact with other human beings, and can have as devastating an effect on the human mind as sensory deprivation.  Social isolation is associated with loneliness but is not synonymous with it. Just like loneliness, it can be experienced even if the person is not isolated.  This is known as perceived social isolation.  Depending on its severity, the effects of social isolation can be as or even more devastating than sensory deprivation.  Isolation of children from their mothers can have a long-lasting impact on social behavior and physical health for the rest of a child’s life. Harlow’s experiments with baby monkeys taken away from their mothers and instead given an artificial mother led to the development of intense anxiety and depression.  Early life isolation has been shown to lead to atrophy in areas of the brain, particularly the hippocampus. In the elderly, social isolation is common leading to depression and cognitive deficiencies, including memory impairment. The effects of social isolation on the brain are so severe that a new discipline of social neuroscience has developed.  However, the impact of social isolation is not limited to the brain. It has been shown that even physical health is impacted. Increased levels of stress biomarkers have been measured in animal and human studies of social isolation.  Social isolation can quickly lead to a state of depression and anxiety.   Social isolation of white divorced males is identified as a high-risk factor for suicide. The social isolation of prisoners has also been linked to suicide. Social media and modern life have decreased social isolation but increased perceived social isolation. New communication technologies have reduced the social isolation of the elderly.  However, for the young, social media is a necessity but can lead to perceived social isolation if the individual is marginalized. Increased depression, paranoia, and suicidality are linked to actual or perceived social isolation. Therefore, social contact and interactions are innate needs without which humans can suffer from severe neurobiological and emotional disruption.

Cosmic isolation is the realization that humanity resides on a tiny planet from which it cannot escape and that there is no external communication from any extraterrestrial life or civilization.   Cosmic isolation is imbued with both the experience of sensory deprivation as well as social isolation. In some ways, we are not completely deprived of seeing the universe  – we see the moon, the sun, and the stars every day (except in big cities where the view is obscured by tall buildings, skyscrapers, and preoccupations of everyday terrestrial life).  Occasionally, we see meteor showers, comets, and eclipses with the naked eye. Courtesy of NASA, we are supplied with amazing photographs of distant galaxies, star clusters, and gas clouds giving birth to stars.  The amateur and professional astronomer can see much more with augmentation of their senses with highly sophisticated technologies of telescopes.  Telescopes are scattered all around the globe, turned towards the cosmos – listening and seeing.  So in a way, there should be no sensory deprivation except for the ordinary person who hardly looks up to the sky and for whom the moon and sun have become a routine sight.

However, some have likened our lack of communication with other life forms as analogous to deafness and other forms of sensory deprivation. Though our senses have been heightened with X-rays, gamma rays, and radio waves receiving telescopes, they are not part of our biological apparatus.  Unless the information from these instruments is turned into photographs or translated into frequencies that can be heard – they do not really relieve the cosmic sensory deprivation that humans feel.  More importantly, despite the sensory input that we receive, there is no ‘social’ communication.  No message, contact, or exchange with an extraterrestrial organization has been reliably received and recorded. That this is not a trivial need is evidenced by extensive science-fiction literature of imaginary alien beings and contact with them. Carl Sagan promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a mission to search for extra-terrestrial life forms. The recent discovery of distance planets or exoplanets has generated considerable excitement.  This is despite the fact that these planets are almost infinite distances away and beyond the reach of the human civilization, which finds even escaping the gravity of earth challenging.  The vastness of space combined with the expanse of time makes it almost impossible that contact with an ET life will ever be made.  Yet human desire remains alive in the arts as well as in science to “seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”  Therefore, cosmic isolation is a form of sensory deprivation and social isolation unique to humans. Even if there is no actual sensory deprivation, the uniformity of the unchanging infinite universe could exert a Ganzfed effect of sorts on humanity. Moreover, the lack of any evidence of life forms in the vast universe can lead to an immense perceived social isolation.  What is the effect of this experience of this twin isolation on humanity?  Just like sensory and social isolation causes psychosis to set in in an individual, the sense of cosmic isolation may be the cause of many of humanity’s irrational thoughts (religious delusions, UFOs, intense desire to make contact with alien beings) and self-destructive behaviors (creating nuclear war and climate change akin to suicide,).  

Unlike sensory and social isolation, cosmic isolation is not the deprivation of an essential or innate biological need but an acquired sense of isolation as we get to know more and more about the universe.  However, even though it is an abstract concept and acquired need, the perceived sense of cosmic isolation may be the most devastating as it affects the humankind as a whole. There is also no escape from cosmic isolation – all a person has to do is it to look up. How humanity handles its sense of cosmic isolation will be critical to its survival and further evolution.

Space, Race, and Grace

The Dragon rocket roared and lifted off from NASA Cape Canaveral.  It flawlessly sped away from earth into the pristine realms of space.   Down below at Cape Canaveral, the people cheered.   But far away in Minneapolis USA, the crowd was not looking up.  The Black Lives Matter groups were protesting the senseless killing of a black man by the police.  Soon rioting, looting, and more violence will occur. Soon, amazingly, the astronauts would reach the space station and dock with it.   Once inside, they would meet with their colleagues already there and then together all would talk to the cameras.  Millions watched the five men with superior physiques and intelligence as they spoke with mission-control on earth.  Tens of millions watched the protests and the violence, which would grip the country in the coming days.

The next day, Elon Musk, the prophet of space travel,  sent a letter to all his employees.  He declared that now that the Dragon mission was successful, all resources of Space X will be focused on developing the Starship.  The Starship is the massive rocket developed by Space X, designed to take humans to the moon and then to Mars.  Elon Musk’s stated humanitarian mission is to colonize Mars so that mankind can survive.  Survive the dwindling resources on planet earth, an asteroid hit, or some other calamity. Except that there are still plenty of resources on earth and an asteroid hit is a remote possibility.  Implicit in Musk’s endeavor is the message that somehow, if mankind can go into outer space, most of its problems will be solved. Such is his passion that it seems not only a mission for mankind’s survival but for its salvation.  It is written that he had a traumatic childhood in South Africa until he escaped and came to America and found great success here.  So can mankind also escape its childhood and go to a different place and find happiness and success? 

While Dragon was getting ready to launch, a white policeman was pressing his knee into a black man’s neck until the black man died – while cameras watched.  The policeman looked straight at the cameras as if he was doing nothing wrong.  The whole world already reeling from a deadly COVID-19 virus, erupted.  It would be an understatement to say that the two pictures of the rocket and of the policeman kneeling on the neck of another human being, are highly incongruent to our minds.  How can so much technological progress take place while mankind’s moral behavior still remains the same as that of a million years back?  One can easily picture a Neanderthal leaning on another Neanderthal’s neck, a Mediaeval warrior doing the same, or this happening in the World Wars.   It also seems to be happening uninterrupted in the US from the time of the slave trade to the present.

In that respect, nothing has changed, and there are no signs that anything will change.  So it would be no surprise if, on Mars, a similar scene is enacted.  And just like back on earth, there may be another World War.  The US has already made plans for a Space Force, and other countries are doing the same.  Inevitably, conflict is likely.  Will there be a nuclear war in outer space.   At some time in the future, will humans on the earth watch flashes of energy on the moon and Mars, which they know are bombs being dropped on the enemy or by the enemy?  What would Musk think, if when he is old, this kind of scenario is playing out in front of his eyes?  Will he shrug it off, attributing it to the nature of mankind, and keep dreaming about conquering other planets.  The dichotomy and vast chasm between the thinking and the emotional aspects of human nature could never be greater.  And yet, we continue to struggle to explain these two aspects of human behavior.

A simple, if not simplistic, explanation is given by Koestler in his book – ‘The Ghost in the Machine.’ In the book he attributes the self-destructive nature of human beings to the flawed architecture of the brain. Mclean’s formulation of the triune brain with the cognitive, emotional, and reptilian brains working concurrently and to a large extent independently within the human brain, may also explain the contradictions of human behavior.  It would explain the rapid advancements in rocket technology while little or no improvement in humans’ violent and destructive nature. So if you go to the first-principles and see the brain as it is, you find a flawed structure.   And if that is the case, then reaching the moon and Mars is likely to amplify mankind’s tendency for self-destruction, rather than solve it.   

Freud, in a rare letter exchange with Einstein, was asked about how violent human conflict could be avoided. Freud expressed deep pessimism about the ability of humans to control their aggression. He felt that the only way this may be achieved is through social institutions which formulate a code of conduct for everybody to follow. Religion is one such social institution.   Messiahs of the world’s religions have all come up with solutions quite similar to each other, though in different forms and shapes.   ‘Love thy neighbor’ runs in all religions except in some when it is fine to be violent if you want the other to accept your gospel.  What is fascinating is that many of these solutions were formed hundreds and thousands of years ago.  But unlike the advancement in technology,  there has been no advancement in most religions’ moral code. In fact, the tendency is to interpret the religious doctrines, precisely as they were formulated thousands of years back.  Humankind has no confidence in its ability to interpret moral issues any better now than in the infancy of human civilization.  Needless to say that these interpretations are not only outdated but have often led to greater acts of violence.  The human tendency for violent behavior has increased and become much more threatening to mankind’s existence since man sailed and discovered new continents. And this tendency is likely to increase further when mankind colonizes the moon and Mars.

Musk may be advised to go back to the first-principles and also tackle the problem of the flaw in the human brain architecture. Developing the technology of matter without progress in the development of the mind may lead to even greater acts of self-destruction. However, it may be much more challenging to fix the flaws of the brain architecture – it is not rocket science.

The Mind of A Virus (COVID-19): Watson, Turing and Searle

Does the virus have a mind? Is it thinking? Is it scheming how it can inflict maximum damage?  From how we describe it (we have not attributed a gender yet), it would seem that not only does it have a mind, but it has a very devious and highly calculating one.  Consider a recent interview of a famous virologist who tested positive and had a severe life-threatening illness.  In the interview, he says – “they (the viruses) got me, I sometimes thought.  I have devoted my life to fighting viruses, and finally, they get their revenge”.  Or from an article in the journal Nature– “ once the invader’s genetic material gets inside the cell, the virus commandeers the host molecular machinery to produce new viral particles.  Then, the progeny exit the cell to go and infect others.” Besides invader, other references to the virus are – the invisible enemy and the enemy with which we are at war.

One could attribute these descriptions of the virus to our tendency for personification and animism. It may sound ridiculous to think that a virus has a mind.  But that depends on what we call a mind.  And as it turns out, it is not easy to define what is a ‘mind’ as it remains a debated subject in a field of philosophy called the ‘Philosophy of Mind.’  Starting from Descartes, whose cogito ergo sum divided the brain and the mind, philosophers and neuroscientists have been debating the nature of what is called the mind and how it relates to the physical aspect of the organism.  The debate is mostly about the human mind, but arguments to support or deny a mind in other animals such as a cat or a dog, which appear to possess a mind, are also proposed.  The argument however, has never stretched to the earliest living entities – the viruses. Viruses are so ancient and rudimentary that even their status as living organisms is questionable.  But currently, in the middle of a pandemic, COVID19 has proven to be not only a formidable problem, but it also appears to be highly intelligent.  It has spread over the whole world in the space of a few months.  It has infected and killed hundreds of thousands of humans, a species which prided itself on having a monopoly over an intelligent mind. It has many ways of spreading and surviving on all sorts of objects for several days.  Once inside a human, there is widespread damage within cells of lungs, heart, and kidney, while the immune response is either too little or too much. All this time, the virus replicates relentlessly.  Though humans may be projecting their own thoughts when they describe the virus’s intentional behavior, it becomes more and more difficult not to think that there is a ‘mind’ of the virus, which creates the havoc.  In fact,  some theories of philosophy-of-mind are compatible with the notion that the virus has a mind.

Behaviorism, as conceptualized in psychology (Watson, Skinner) or within the field of philosophy-of-mind terms, postulates that mental states are just descriptions of behavior or dispositions to behave in certain ways made by third parties to explain and predict another’s behavior (Glibert Ryle 1949).  In such a formulation, we do not have to postulate the existence of mental states even in humans. And if survival behavior is the sole description needed for a seemingly intentional mental state, then the virus’s behavior can be used to conceptualize the  ‘mind’ of the virus.  Attachment to specific receptors, cleaving of the human cell wall, replication by hijacking the host’s resources, bursting out of the cell to infect other cells, and spreading in the blood could all be labeled as intentional and intelligent behavior. Furthermore,  maneuvers to escape the host’s immune mechanisms and change the host’s response (e.g., cough or seek the comfort of other humans which could serve as hosts) so that further spread could occur, could be taken as evidence of an intelligent mind.  After all, these behaviors have ensured survival for millions of years of the virus or its ancestors.  Under behaviorism, for the presence of a ‘mind’, the actions of the virus are all that matter.   Under this theory, the personification of the virus attributing to it intent, purpose, and even intelligence are not absurd or off the mark.

Cognitivism is another theory about what constitutes a mind. It attributes the working of the brain to be similar to a computer.  The brain’s operations are thought to be similar to computer processes or computer states carried out by the brain’s hardware.  A separate consciousness or mind is not required.  If a computer’s behavior is indistinguishable from that of a human,  then according to the famous ‘Turing Test‘ it could be said that a computer has a mind. The virus RNA can be thought of as hardware on which the computer program of the arrangement of the genetic code runs. One could perceive the ensuing behavior of the virus in terms of survival, deception of the host, and hijacking the host’s resources as very human-like behavior.   In this respect, the virus can very much be thought of as having a ‘mind’ and working intelligently and with intent to infect hosts and host-cells and replicating itself.

Objections to both behaviorism and cognitivism and similar monistic philosophies of the mind have been raised by many.  Searle’s Chinese Room argument showed that even though all computations can be carried out by a computer, it still does not know what it is doing devoid as it is of any semantic meaning.  Other objections relate to the absence of the so-called ‘qualia’ – the something else which makes us conscious and have intent and possibly free will.  It is hard to ascribe consciousness and subjective experience to a virus.

So if consciousness, behaviorism, and cognitivism are rejected, then what are we left with?  How do we explain the mindless virus, which is proving to be a formidable match for the superior intelligence that we are so proud of?  What we are left with is the randomness of nature, which has helped the virus survive possibly for 300 million years once it was formed.  Once, millions of years back, when a random piece of RNA bumped into a cell and got inside, chance had it that some proteins were formed, which enveloped the RNA and preserved it.  By chance, at some point in a long time, it came in contact with other cells and was able to repeat the cycle, and the more efficient processes survived.   Then again, by chance over millions of years, the virus’s spreading properties increased. Still, it remained hidden in wild animals such as bats with a limited random spread. Until, one day, it got exposed to organisms with large organs full of air and studded with proteins that it had perfected attaching to.  As it spread, the only constraint to its randomness was the non-random concentration of these living beings with large aerated organs and a tendency to be in close approximation.  The non-random or intelligent behavior attributed to it is actually the non-randomness in its environment constructed by humans.  In that sense, our own intelligence is reflected in the virus, our own manipulation of the environment.

Can the Brain understand the Brain: Incompleteness, Uncertainty and Strange Loops

To make the human brain better, humans first have to understand how the brain functions.  However, that task is much more difficult than what it seems like on the surface.

Besides the great difficulties in investigating higher mental functions, which are common with all epistemology, we are faced with some unique challenges when the brain tries to study itself.  These difficulties have more in common with investigations in mathematics and physics, where problems of measuring and describing a system while being within the system itself have been studied in more detail.  These difficulties are – 1) Is it possible for an observer within the system to study and understand the system wholly and accurately; 2) Is it possible for an observer in the system to study the system without changing it; 3) How can a system reflect upon itself?

Kurt Godel described the limits of a logical system to fully understand itself in his Incompleteness Theorem: a system with self-evident assumptions (axioms) will always contain unanswerable questions if consistent and if all questions can be answered, some of the answers may not be accurate and the system will be inconsistent.   In the case of the brain, by definition, any starting point of investigation regarding the brain about itself is a  ‘self-evident’ property.  Therefore, even questions about its basic functions may be unanswerable.  This may be a reason why even the salient properties of the brain such as volition, consciousness, emotions, self-identity, and abstract thinking are so difficult to conceptualize and study. Despite decades of research, very little is known about mechanisms behind these functions.  Keeping Godel’s theorems in mind, the only way a true understanding of brain function may arise is if something outside the system would study the brain.  At present, there are two possible candidates to conduct such an investigation – an artificial entity or an alien life force. In the case of an artificial entity, the limitation would be that the artificial entity is likely to be developed by humans and so may suffer the same limitations of logical accuracy and consistency as the human brain itself.  The case of an alien life force is purely speculative and assumes that even if such an entity exists it has some interest in studying the human brain.

A second limitation of the brain studying the brain arises from the principle of physics that an observer while studying a system changes the system.  Also known as the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, this phenomenon becomes very pertinent to the brain even if the investigation is merely thinking about itself.  Descartes’ “I think therefore I am’  is not entirely accurate if as soon as somebody starts thinking about themselves, they induce a change in the ‘I am’.  Furthermore, the current methods of conducting human brain research are so intrusive and uncontrolled that the investigator or observer changes the system dramatically.  A common method is to study brain function is to use a brain scanner, e.g., a PET scan or a structural or functional MRI scan.  At present, the technology of obtaining neurochemical and physiological measures of brain function is primitive in nature and most images are noisy and distorted.   Beside brain imaging artifacts, scan testing is usually anxiety provoking, and it is difficult to translate findings from a person while lying in a scanner to a person while going about in real life.  Ethical issues of studying living human brain function lead to further confounds of subject selection, adequate controls, and confounding factors such as medications or drug use.  In this scenario, obtaining objective knowledge regarding brain functioning free of observer bias or effect seems to be quite impossible.  Quantification and statistical analyses of these images have been unable to provide any deep understanding of higher brain function in health and disease despite decades of research.  The Uncertainty Principle is difficult to get around by definition, so all that can be done is to reduce its impact as much as possible.  This requires an exponential increase in the technology to study the living brain so that information can be obtained with minimal artifacts and with the least amount of disturbance to the system.

Finally, the very process of brain delving deeper and deeper into itself, parsing its functioning and physiology into smaller bits and then coming back to how that knowledge determines behavior, identity and consciousness seems like very strange endeavor. Douglas Hofstadter has coined the term – ‘strange loop’ in which delving deeper into levels leads to coming up to the starting level again.  At present, a strange  loop seems to exist in neuroscience research between system-level neural circuit oscillations as the basis of human behavior and reductionist-formulations of a single gene or molecule determining behavior.  Brain function is thought to arise from neuronal firings which are then related to subgroups firing, then to membrane electrical potential changes, then to molecular changes such as protein changes or gene expression changes. However, this reductionist approach has not yielded any particular molecular or gene expression abnormality related to higher mental function.  Therefore, it has to be postulated that a pattern of interaction between genes or molecular changes may explain the behavior.  To test this out, dynamic pattern of changes at the molecular level need to be looped back to neuronal firing and oscillations and group of neurons firing.  Most of neuroscience research at present follows one arm of the loop: from behavior to single molecule or brain region abnormality. Even though this reductionist approach has not led to any major findings in terms of the basis for higher level mental function, it remains the dominant paradigm in neuroscience investigations.  This may be due to a stubborn reductionist philosophy in science, a byproduct of how funding mechanisms reward research into the identification of single discrete findings, and publication bias which also caters to the same biases. The other arm of the strange loop – starting from dynamic relationship of molecular changes and working up towards neuronal level firings and networks changes has not been pursued as much. Whether following the full loop will increase our understanding of the brain or such scientific investigation will meaninglessly keep on looping back on itself remains unclear at this stage.

Doors of Escape – Open or Closed: Substance Use and the Brain

Doors of EscapeSince time immemorial, humans have used substances to alter their brain function – but it has been mainly to get high.  In a 2015 review paper, researchers from Spain described that the earliest alcoholic drink dates back to nearly 7000 B.C. in China while coca leaves have been chewed since 8000 B.C. in South America.   Tobacco was being smoked from 2000 B.C. while opium has been found in skeletal remains since 600 B.C. and even prehistoric art shows use of poppy seeds in religious ceremonies.  Beside these obvious pleasure-inducing substances, hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus use has been suspected since 8600 B.C.  and mescaline, a psychedelic, use has been dated to at least 500 B.C.

Most substance use has been directed towards enhancing either emotions, thought or behavior – which usually works in the very short-term but in the long-term may actually make the brain more out of balance.  Alteration of the brain so as to lead to a more harmonious function for the betterment of society has been less of a focus of attention.  Are there any substances that can make the human brain better in terms of harmonizing emotions, thoughts and behavior?   This question has been seldom asked.

One of the characters in Kurt Vonnegut’s  book Galapagosstates – “Why so many of us knocked out major chunks of our brains with alcohol from time to time remains an interesting mystery.  It may be that we were trying to give evolution a nudge in the right direction – in the direction of smaller brain.”    Vonnegut in his half-humorous way seems to be implying that the size and workings of the brain may be too much for the brain to handle. The brain is an organ which is constantly working – producing thoughts, emotions and motor behavior that may be too exhausting or anxiety provoking and it’s functioning may need to be decreased or slowed down.  Even when there is no scarcity, humans still suffer from existential angst – a state of anxiety and lack of fulfillment that seems to be part of the human condition.  Substance use may help in decreasing this inherent state of human suffering.

Aldous Huxley chronicled his experiences under the psychedelic mescaline in the book –Door of Perception.  He was so impressed by the vivid and profound perceptions of trivial things such as a tree, the folds in his clothes, that he became a firm believer that drugs such as mescaline could lead to a state of transcendence.  He also talked about developing a substance, which only produced ‘good’ effects such as increasing our perceptions, thinking and sense of contentment but no side effects.  However, in his more famous book – Brave New World, he described a dystopian world in which the dictatorial regime made such a substance called Soma available for free use for everybody as a means of societal control.  A recent  (troubling) trend is the return of the acceptability of use of psychedelic drugs such as marijuana, ketamine and psilocybin, not only for their medicinal properties but also as lifestyle drugs in healthy individuals.

Arthur Koestler in his book ‘Ghosts in the Machine’( disagreed with Huxley that drugs like mescaline and LSD can lead to some kind of Nirvana when the inherent architecture of the brain continues to remains faulty or may actually get more damaged. In the book, Koestler, gives a detailed exposition about why the faulty brain architecture may be the cause of most of humankind’s problems including the possibility of future extinction.  Next he asks –  what can be done about the situation and whether some kind of substance induced manipulation could make the thinking and emotional parts of the brain work more harmoniously?   According to Koestler, a substance that can cure the paranoid streak in mankind without other potential side effects may be the only way mankind could be saved. Koestler acknowledges that even the idea of this kind of tampering with the brain may seem fantastic and not acceptable but he states that humans would readily accept such a substance because they would see its positive effects in themselves in terms of feeling healthier.   Eventually society will see its benefits and it may even  be added to the water supply such as chlorine is added at this time.  Koestler’s hope of finding such a substance seems to be wishful thinking.  Moreover, though he used terms such as harmonious working or cooperation of brain areas with each other – he left these concepts vague.  What exactly would feeling more ‘healthy’ mean if such a state was achieved?  Koestler says that effect in an individual may be difficult to perceive but  communities will see beneficial effects such as decrease in crime rates and suicide.

Though many new psychopharmacological agents have been introduced since 1967 when ‘Ghosts in the Machine” was first published, most have been developed to treat psychiatric illnesses.  Even though the mechanism of many of the mood regulating, anxiolytics and antipsychotics is purported to be better coordination of the cortex and the limbic system – no clear cut evidence exists that these medications actually have such an effect.  Furthermore, these medications have significant side effects and administering them to healthy subjects or adding them to the drinking water seems to be out of the question.  So does any evidence exist for a substance which can change brain architecture so that the dissonance between the new cortical thinking areas and the old emotional areas can be decreased and adding it to the drinking water can lead to a decrease in society’s ills.

Lithium is a monovalent ion like sodium which is naturally found in water and in some geographical areas it is in higher concentrations compared to others.  It has been used since the early sixties in psychiatry when John Cade in Melbourne, Australia discovered that it could be used for the treatment of Bipolar Disorder. It can relieve depression, decrease manic symptoms and can also lead to mood stability.  It is one of the most neurotrophic substances known to man in that it has been shown to lead to an increase in the growth of neurons.  Beside mood stability, it has also been shown to decrease impulsive behaviors such as violence.  The only limitation for its widespread use is that in higher concentrations it is highly toxic and can lead to brain damage, cardiac arrhythmias and kidney failure.   However, in very low doses, as that are present in drinking water, it hardly has any discernible effect.  Several studies have reported lithium concentration in drinking water to  be inversely correlated with population suicide rates, homicide and crimes.  Therefore, it would seem that lithium, in low concentrations would come closest to the substance that Koestler was thinking of.  Unfortunately,  at this time the mechanism of action of lithium is not known. It also remains the only substance in its class and no other substance has yet been found which has a similar effect as lithium on mood regulation.

Even if a substance like lithium was found to have properties, which could better an individual’s mental life and decrease societal ills, it is unlikely to have a major effect in adults in whom the brain is fully formed and has limited capability of change.  So the doors of escape seem to be locked in this regard unless such a substance is shown to have an effect on children’s developing brain or even on the fetus soon after conception.   How can such an effect be studied remains an open question.


Should Humans Colonize Mars (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brain)

An argument to colonize Mars had gained considerable strength recently with some prominent scientists and business leaders expressing interest and drawing up plans to do so.   Mars, we are told, is very similar to Earth because of its similar diurnal cycle, existence of atmosphere, presence of water and even the possibility of life.   People however lament about the distance, the difficulty of aligning a spaceship towards Mars and difficulties of communicating with earth from so far away. But for the continuity of mankind, it is argued, it is essential to colonize another planet because a catastrophic event can happen anytime on earth – an asteroid hit or a war which leaves earth a nuclear wasteland.

Except that these two catastrophic scenarios are not the same. The first is a cosmic event over which mankind has little or no control. Humans themselves, however, will cause the second.   Despite the dangers of a full blown nuclear war being known now for nearly eight decades, mankind’s appetite for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction continues to increase unabated. Even if the existing nuclear stockpile was used in the event of a third world war a nuclear catastrophe on earth is assured. So the question arises that even if the humans were able to escape the nuclear catastrophe on earth and colonized Mars, will this scenario not replay again there. And if they escaped Mars and the same self-destructive event happened there they will need to go to another planet, then another planet and so on.   If mankind continues to develop technical abilities to develop more and more sophisticated weapons but at the same time continues to survive by hopping on to other planet(s) then in time the destructive capabilities of these weapons is bound to increase exponentially. It will then become just a matter of time whether humankind’s ability to find newer worlds can keep ahead of its capability for destroying itself.   And we will be back to the situation that we are at at present.

So before we colonize Mars, humankind may have to first confront its self-destructive tendencies, which lie deep in its brain make up. Otherwise the effort to colonize Mars may be a futile effort.   Business and scientific leaders and organizations who are focused on the technical (Musk, Enriquez, SETI etc.) aspects of colonizing Mars may want to first focus their efforts on how to make the human brain more capable of survival in the long run. Even if we do not get to Mars, such advances may make life better and more sustainable here on earth.

Frankenstein, Spock and the Matrix: The Nature of our Anxiety Regarding Artificial Intelligence

AI Anxiety PictureThough prominent scientists such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have sounded the alarm about Artificial Intelligence and its possible negative impact on the human species, the specific nature of the anxiety about AI has not been clearly articulated.  It is important to understand the psychology of our anxiety about AI so that we can adequately manage the new technology constructively. Vague anxiety or conflicting views which are prevalent nowadays lead to confusion and disproportionate fears which themselves could be destructive. Understanding the nature of our anxiety regarding AI may help in how we develop AI so that our deepest fears are not realized.

Sigmund Freud introduced to the world, a model of the mind, to explain the origin of anxiety. According to Freud’s conceptualization, the Id – the primitive emotional part of human psyche, with its libidinal or destructive capacities , was constantly trying to resurface and was kept in check by the superego or the societal rules and laws. The constant conflict between the two was kept in abeyance by the ego, which lived at the borderline between these two mental realms.  When the ego fails to keep the Id in check or reconcile the differences between the superego and the id, anxiety results.

The most prevalent notion of the danger of AI is that AI will really be in the image of humans and will have Id like destructive tendencies  similar to humans. A second view of the danger is that AI will be pure intelligence and for it the humans would be the Id which it would find too primitive and try to suppress or even eliminate.   A third fear is that the machines will themselves develop some properties of survival and these would clash with the survival needs of the humans and lead to conflict and aggression of the AI against the humans.

For the first scenario, the prototype of man’s creation going awry is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her novel is thought to be the first biological science fiction story and is thought to be the parent of nearly all biological fiction stories until present. In her story, Dr. Frankenstein tries to create life by trying to create a superior human being. However, he is only able to cobble together this human being using varied body parts from slaughter houses and mortuaries resulting in the creation of a hideous but very strong creature whom he infuses with life using electricity. The creature is however very much like Frankenstein himself i.e. very human (the novel does not give the creature a name and in a telling twist of time, the monster is now known by the name of Frankenstein). The creature feels shame regarding his appearance, is angry at the doctor for creating him that way, is lonely and wants a companion and in the novel goes on a rampage and murders many people to exact a revenge on his creator leading in the end to the creators death itself while the creature continues to roam the world. Though Mary Shelley’s story is used as a cautionary tale regarding AI, it is really a story of a human who is dangerous and violent and may be a reflection of the murderous and libidinal Id that Freud formulated to be present in all of us. Unfortunately, the current discourse regarding dangers of AI in popular culture is based on the Frankenstein model which is really a fear of human beings about other human beings, the fallen nature of man and man’s relationship with his imagined creator. That AI technology will develop into a human like creature with complex feelings of guilt, shame, loneliness and revenge seems very unlikely and even if that happens then the development will not be something new but a replication of humans themselves in silico. Considering that there are an exponentially increasing numbers of humans in the world with their needs, talents but also profound flaws the purpose of developing such technology is as questionable as it is likely. The Frankenstein model then is really nothing more than a primal fear of death and destruction that mankind feels not only by something like AI but also from floods, earthquakes, nuclear bombs or God’s wrath. It could easily be explained by a Freudian model of projection of man’s own destructive id like impulses on something outside itself such as AI. In this model, AI technology serves as nothing more than a scapegoat for mankind’s own destructive impulses. The solution here would be to develop this insight and not act out on our destructive impulses and blame it on AI.

The second model of the fear of AI is based on inherent human bias towards machines.  AI as it is being developed at present using computer algorithms and mathematical equations is likely to be very precise, accurate and far more superior to human beings in conducting many logic and computational tasks. Humans on the other hand are error prone and are limited in their mathematical abilities. As we develop AI and AI routines even though we make these ourselves our limitations also become self evident. This has led to, on the one hand the admiration for the ‘machines’ and on the other a loathing and a condescending attitude regarding AI.  The dialogue between Dr. McCoy and Spock with Captain Kirk casting the deciding vote regarding the amazing powers of emotions has been played again and again in the various episodes of Star Trek. Star Trek was conceived and televised just when computational power was being developed and may represent the earliest debate regarding the superiority of AI versus humans. However, the predominant theme of the dialogue between three principal protagonists of the original Star Trek is the romanticization of emotions and their importance. Time and again, Spock is taught an important lesson by Kirk or McCoy regarding how emotions make humans special (and superior). Spock’s saving grace is that he is half human and is able to partially acknowledge the superiority of humans because of their emotions. In an underlying ambivalence regarding the love and hate relationship with technology, the character of Spock and his vastly superior cognitive abilities are also romanticized (Spock remains one the most popular character of the series) and a fear of such a purely cognitive creature is managed using humor and making Spock partially human. This position regarding AI, is somewhat opposite to the first one. Here the humans represent the Id with their chaotic and error prone emotions. The fear is that the future AI may not like such creatures and may decide to do away with them. Though there is some hope that human beings may be saved by the magical powers of their emotions, which the machines do not have, the probability of that happening is uncertain. In this model, the humans represent the Id while the machines represent the Superego and ego which may suppress the humans, perhaps permanently.  The strategy to deal with  AI in this model would be to develop a synergistic relationship with it and give up our biases of superiority.  In this model by working synergistically both humans and AI may benefit from each other.

The third model regarding AI is probably the most alarming to humans. It is the most alarming because in this model the nature of AI, its motives and its actions, is the most unknown. It is also probably the most likely scenario of development of conflict, if it develops, between humans and AI. In this model, AI will become more complex with time and as it would be programmed to become self determining it will become autonomous. Beside being able to perform tasks autonomously, it is likely to be programmed to organize itself optimally to perform current and future more complex tasks. For consistency and stability, the original programming by humans and later on by AI itself is likely to also involve some kind of hitherto unknown homeostatic and self-preserving mechanisms.  Though the fear is that these self preserving mechanisms will be like that of the humans involving aggression as in the first model, it is also likely that these mechanisms may be entirely different from emotions and their survival properties that are known to humans. In this scenario, there is a possibility that these mechanisms may be activated if human goals (which may not be completely rational) are in conflict with that of AI. Though humans are likely to respond with actions which would involve neutralizing the AI or its actions, it is unknown how the AI will respond or what kind of properties or power it may have to try to resolve the conflict with humans. In the movie Matrix the machines are portrayed as such an entity which become autonomous and enslave and cultivate humans for their energy needs. The only model that humans are familiar with in the face of irreconcilable differences is destruction or subjugation of the other party using some kind of destructive force, hence the fear of such a scenario.

However, we do not know what the AI will be capable of. In this regard, this last scenario may be the most anxiety provoking as it not only taps the fear of AI of the first two models but also of the unknown. At the same time, this last scenario may be the most hopeful. The new AI may be able to develop some new and better ways of resolving conflict which the human brain is not capable of. This is much more likely to occur the more autonomous or independently self organizing the new AI is as human input in development of the AI  is likely to lead to human like results. This perspective needs to be kept in mind by AI programmers and developers as it may be lead to the development of a better AI brain than the conflict ridden human brain.

Ghosts in The Machine

In 1949, #GilbertRyle introduced the phrase – ‘#Ghost in the Machine’ to critique the notion that mind is distinct from the body.  The word ‘Ghost’ was used to mock the concept.

In 1967, #ArthurKoestler wrote a book with the title – ‘#GhostInTheMachine’.  Written at the height of the cold war it focused on mankind’s movement toward self destruction.  In this book, the ‘Ghost’ referred to the primitive structures in the brain that have remained preserved despite an explosive growth of the cortex which is involved in thinking.  Is this design mistake the cause of mankind’s path to self-destruction, he wondered.  He referred to #PaulMclean’s (1966) concept of the triune brain which divided the brain into a reptilian primitive brain, the emotional mammalian brain, and the thinking cortex.  Importantly, drawing on neurophysiological investigations Mclean concluded that these three brain could work independently from each other with their own inputs and outputs.

Koestler noted that other parts of the body have not evolved like the brain.  For example, the hand has evolved with little trace of the primitive claw or hoof seen in reptiles or mammals.  What if our hand had evolved like what Mclean and Koestler thought about the brain.  Here is a photoshopped picture of what the hand may look like.

Though this picture may look scary, such a hand may actually be quite useful in terms of what each part would be able to do – the claw would be very useful when to scratch or tear something apart, the hoof useful in hitting things but at the same time being warm and nice to touch and the fingers and thumb would still be available to do complex tasks.

It might be troublesome though if the three parts started working independently.  For example, the claw may scratch somoebody just when you were going to give them an outwardly warm handshake or the twisting and spasming of the claw and hoof may interfere with the fingers delicate fine movements.

Can we develop a better brainscape than what Koestler and Mclean conceptualized or is there no way out from the hand that evolution has dealt us with?