Monthly Archives: March 2011

Conventional Misconceptions: You Only Use 10% of Your Brain

As far as misguided sayings go, “You only use 10% of your brain” ranks highly. There’s no way to discern what it means exactly, and most interpretations fall victim to weird fallacies; for example, if the brain is a wholly material structure in an emergent deterministic framework (or even fundamentally deterministic, as may prove to be the underlying case of quantum mechanics), then “you” are your brain and body. Your perceived free will may deceive you into thinking that you control your body, but ultimately all actions you perform are predictable. Therefore, you cannot “use” yourself in any real sense; you merely are yourself. This “usage” of self is illusory.

But let’s set this argument aside for now. Let’s just assume that “you use ___% of your brain” is a phrase that indicates a percentile of brain activity. An upper bound is needed to give fractional activity, so if we assume that activity refers to firing rate, than the upper bound is every neuron in your brain firing at maximum speed. Not only would this result in ludicrous, possibly fatal seizing, but it would also be remarkably discordant since different neurons have different firing rate maxima. Using 100% of your brain, in this situation, would be profoundly awful. Thus, “using only 10% of your brain” is simply safe and healthy, not a sign of unreached potential.

Here’s another possibility; maybe 10% brain usage refers to the percent positive change in the brain’s glucose consumption based on an arbitrary standard, like baseline awake-state alpha rhythm-level glucose consumption. Already some issues arise here because if we rely on an arbitrary standard, 10% brain usage depends on brain state. In addition, in order for this to make sense, we still need an upper bound. There are simply biological limits to how much glucose a neuron can process within a given time frame, so we can use those as our upper bound. However, as is the case with firing rate, a brain consuming 100% of possible glucose would be utterly dysfunctional. For a small example, you would be simultaneously trying to sit and stand. For a larger example, your prefrontal cortex would literally be overwhelmed by trying to think about everything you possibly could at once. It such a model, you should be thanking goodness that you only use 10% of your brain. And furthermore, at any given moment, you would be using any number of percentiles below 100%, not a consistent 10%.

Since potential’s been brought up, maybe that’s what the saying refers to. In fact, a common variation on “You only use 10% of your brain” is “You only use 10% of your brain’s full potential“. The recent film, Limitless, attempts to wrangle with this concept, of course on the basis of total logical shenanigans. Whatever do we mean when we wish to remove the brain’s limits, as the  film title suggests? Should our brain spontaneously stimulate growth of totally new neural regions to allow itself to be powered via photosynthesis? And if there is no limit to its capabilities, how can there be a fractional standard by which to measure brain usage?

Maybe what people mean is that we only use 10% of the brain’s full potential in terms of a theoretical plastic Hebbian maximum. That is, every circuit in your brain that facilitates some task does so optimally. However, given that brain plasticity is stimulus-dependent, one must perform the skills they wish to become optimal at. Given time constraints, however, it would certainly be difficult to become fully proficient at every possibly skill that exists. The show Dollhouse suggests in its “doll architecture” the artificial imposition of a Hebbian framework wherein all skills can be imposed into an already optimized system. However, this is probably impossible for a) reasons; the brain is very unlikely to have enough space within the skull to accommodate such elaborated neural clusters and b) an immediate transformation of long-term potentiation and other lengthy metabotropic processes that give rise to Hebbian learning is, quite frankly, implausible if not outright impossible (unless you’re in a simulated computer environ where variables can be changed hither-thither).

found on: https://i1.wp.com/www.dollhouse-online.net/gallery/albums/cap210/normal_img000995.jpg

Yeah, right.

The fact of the matter is, we use just about all of our brain just about all of the time. In fact, when you don’t call upon certain populations of neurons for a enough time, they tend to die or are “reassigned” to work in a nearby network that is getting used so they aren’t wasting energy– the “use it or lose it” principle (there are notable exceptions, but that’s a separate discussion). Even while you sleep, your brain is doing scads of things: maintaining autonomic processes, keeping your limbs paralyzed, consolidating memories, and so on.

So, the next time you reassure yourself about a personal failure by thinking to yourself, “Well, I was only using 10% of my brain,” remember: it was really more like 100%.

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Tell your friends about the mighty hexagon, and how!

Getting in shape? Try the hexagon. It’s only the finest shape in existence. Just take a gander at this glorious structure:

found on: https://i1.wp.com/www.topnews.in/usa/files/multiwall.jpg

Ok, these hexagons aren't planar, so they're not perfect, but let's just allow some leeway for non-Euclidean geometry or just assume these are differentiable manifolds, mmk?

Magnificent, aren’t they? Those, dear reader, are matryoshkanated carbon nanotubes (ok, they’re actually quadruple-walled carbon nanotubes, but the chemistry community really needs to hit up some fun descriptors like “matryoshkanated”). And why are carbon nanotubes magnificent? Why, because they’re made of hexagons!

Hexagons occur all over nature. At the most miniscule, 6 carbon atoms will sometimes bond at 120 degree angles thus forming a benzene ring. Unlike non-aromatic 6-carbon rings in chair or boat formation, benzene is a near-perfect, planar hexagon due to resonance, a phenomenon in which electrons are associated with more than one atom or bond. Resonance structures tend to afford molecules unusual thermodynamic stability; in the case of benzene (or its functional group form, -phenyl), electrons are delocalized cyclically, and conservative forces mold the molecule to a stable, planar conformation (a perfect hexagon). These 6-carbon rings can be conjugated in arrays to form giant masses of hexagons, as is the case with graphite. So now you know why pencils are great; they use hexagons to enable writing in zero gravity.

Snowflakes get the esteemed honor of being the standard similes for uniqueness. What you didn’t know, however, is that at their tiniest, snowflakes are pristinely hexagonal, as reflected in their more macroscopic six-spoked morphology. The following micrograph illustrates this hexagonality quite aptly:

https://i0.wp.com/www.stephouse.net/~magpieblog/magpie/snowflake_giant.jpg

Snowflakes exhibit six-fold radial symmetry derivative of the six-fold crystalline structure of ice, which effectively lies in hexagonal sheets (much like the graphite mentioned earlier, though a more accurate analogy would be graphene). As such, a single ice crystal will incorporate water droplets in the atmosphere around its six prism facets (which can be seen in the picture above), thus promoting proliferation of “arms” in a six-fold array. Hence, six-armed snowflakes are born as more and more water droplets are incorporated into the structure. An important distinction to make between snow and sleet: snowflakes are not frozen water droplets– sleet is. Simply put, snowflakes are amalgamations of water vapor and ice crystals.

Let’s move on to hexagons in biology. The hippocampus contains cells known as grid cells, which fire according to where a hippocampus-possessing animal is in allocentric space. The grid formed by their firing patterns occurs in tessellated triangles (effectively equilateral depending on how fast a given organism is moving), which, of course, create hexagonal patterns. Evolution has determined that hexagons and their constituent parts are ideal for mapping space. How’s that for hexagonal excellence?

In a recent post, I expounded on the various merits of the star-nosed mole. One of these merits included its possession of highly specialized sensory organs known as Eimer’s organs, which lend star-nosed moles their unparalleled tactile sensitivity. Of course, they’re arranged hexagonally:

The cause of this hexagonality is probably a result of space-saving tessellative arrangements of circular cells, but let’s use the next example to explore this idea  a little more thoroughly.

Perhaps the most familiar example of hexagons in nature is brought to us by bees. It’s amazing they haven’t gotten patents on hexagons; they bloody live by the mantra of hexagon excellence. Just take a look at the honeycomb below:

found on: https://i1.wp.com/www.gpscellphonetrackingtips.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/beehive.jpg

Honeycombs probably appear as tessellated hexagons for the following reason. If you arrange circles tangent to one another in the most space-saving manner, gaps of space with three vertices inevitably result. If you have seven such circles arranged in a radially symmetric manner, drawing lines tangent to exterior six circles produces a hexagon. Resolving the gaps between the circles results in the following:

found on: https://i0.wp.com/myfundi.co.za/eng/images/a/a5/Img04280.jpg

Christaller's Central Place Theory's idealised distribution of settlements.

In the case of honeycomb, the molding of individual cells probably proceeds towards a space-saving arrangement of congruent circles. Circles are easy. However, arranging the circles in a space-saving manner produces the “gaps” mentioned earlier in the form of wax boundaries. These gaps waste space, so they are carved out from the cells inward, thus forming a tessellation of hexagons. Now, bearing in mind the notion that if bees die, the world dies–hexagons are truly masters of us all.

Let’s get even larger-scale. About 50 million years ago, a volcano erupted in what is now Northern Ireland. The molten basalt this volcano spewed forth cooled and then contracted, a process which forced fractures to occur, resulting in a vast number of hexagonal basal columns now called Giant’s Causeway. Unsurprisingly, this spot is a hot tourist location as well as one of the “greatest natural wonders in the United Kingdom” according to whomever is responsible for making such lists. At any rate, that person understands the astounding wonder that is the hexagon.

found on: https://i2.wp.com/www.travelet.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/giante28099s-causeway-ireland4.jpg

The hexagonal basalt columns of Giant’s Causeway are certainly large, but you can’t see them from space. A literally astronomically-proportioned hexagon swirled into existence atop the north pole of Saturn eons ago in a proud salute to the baffling science of fluid dynamics. A circular storm makes sense intuitively. Take Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, for instance; like a hurricane, it spins. In spinning, conserving distance traveled dictates that objects travel in a circular fashion. A hexagonal one, however, is slightly baffling.

It turns out that the ratio of the planet’s angular velocity to that of jet streams surrounding its north pole may be responsible for the peculiar hexagonal maelstrom. Physicists at Oxford simulated Saturn’s odd north pole by spinning a fluid at a particular rate relative to the spinning speed of the container it was in. Depending on the ratio used, apparently ellipses, squares, and triangles could be formed in addition to hexagons. Of course, the “most beautiful” planet in our solar system elected the hexagon because it knows what’s what.

found on: https://nothingnerdy.wikispaces.com/file/view/saturn_hexagon.jpg/131493807/saturn_hexagon.jpg

Even pseudoscience has realized the penultimate power of the hexagon; so-called hexagonal water is marketed as a “perfect substance” that can reverse the effects of aging. It’s probably what the invisible pink unicorn drinks.

It would seem, as such, that the prevailing Christian assumption that the number 6 is evil must be decidedly wrong. Hexagons are good. Oxygen is evil.


Conventional Misconceptions: Oxygen is Good

People believe plenty of silly things. It shouldn’t be surprising if you meet someone who believes shaving their body hair and eating it will bring them fortune when playing the stock market. People have believed stranger things. For example, some people believe that inhaling higher concentrations of oxygen improves health, reduces stress, enchants life, brings world peace… you get the picture. A strange belief, to be sure, not to mention the fact that it’s flat-out incorrect. The human body is a delicate thing. It needs food and water to survive, but not too much. And of course, across a shorter time span, it needs oxygen. But not too much!

Seriously, folks. If there is a Melkor in the periodic table, it’s oxygen. It’s a greedy, vermicious little knid. As soon as early life on the juvenile Earth began releasing oxygen as a waste product, the world was doomed. Utterly doomed. Oxygen, dear reader, is Original Sin.

But enough of this blasphemy and Faustian drama! Let’s get to some fun facts:

1) Oxygen is the second most electronegative element in the periodic table (after fluorine). For example, carbonyl groups (oxygen double-bonded to carbon) are effectively polar, and render adjoining alpha hydrogens more acidic than would be in a normal carbon-hydrogen bond. In addition, high levels of reactive oxygen species are totally toxic to cells. As mentioned before, oxygen is a greedy, vermicious knid. Moar electrons, plz!

2) Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe, so there’s plenty of greed to go around, so to speak.

3) By mass, oxygen is the most abundant element on Earth (not including the core, about which little is known).

4) Earth’s atmosphere didn’t contain free oxygen until photosynthesis evolved. As soon as photosynthesis cropped up, oxygen wasted no time in rushing off to pollute the Earth with its boundless electrophilia. First order of business: rusting iron and creating banded iron formations. Second order of business: saturating organic matter. Third: infesting the atmosphere, thereby wiping out anaerobic organisms in what is considered the largest scale extinction of life in Earth’s history. Oh yeah, this was then followed by what was probably the longest glaciation in Earth’s history (they don’t call it the oxygenation catastrophe for nothing). And you thought Hitler was evil (apologies, see Godwin’s Law).

5) Nowadays, oxygen comprises 20.9% of Earth’s atmosphere. Reduce that by 5% and you get mass extinction. Increase by 5% and everything catches fire. How’s that for ironic? Oxygen can both create Hell and cause it to freeze over. Evil is a hard word to define, but oxygen really seems like a good synonym.

6) Most aerobic organisms are evolved to manage oxygen in the quantities in which it is present (now we depend on our tyrant). In humans, decreasing oxygen intake can result in hypoxia, which can result in massive cell death, notably in the brain (the hippocampus is one of the most sensitive regions, and portions of it are often the first to go). Oxygen therapy, wherein above-normal doses of oxygen are administered to someone in a hypoxic state, can help rectify hypoxia.

7) Oxygen therapy ceases to be therapy when administered to someone in a non-hypoxic condition. In fact, it can result in hyperoxia (bet you didn’t see that coming), a condition in which excessive oxygen partial pressures toxify numerous bodily tissues. The body simply is not adapted to handle excess oxygen. Plus, there’s only so much hemoglobin in blood, and therefore only so much oxygen that can be fixed per cycle of blood circulation. Ray Kurzweil falls victim to this flawed reasoning by eating more vitamins than his body can absorb. However, excess vitamins generally aren’t harmful. Oxygen is.


Extreme Schnozzes

Ever watch The Most Extreme? If you have, it goes without saying that you thought to yourself, “Self, The Most Extreme would indubitably profit from a ‘Most Extreme Noses’ episode”. And even if that’s not something you’ve thought, well now you’re thinking it! Imagine that. Implanting thoughts is as easy as getting people to read.

So, without further ado, and in no particular order, Martholomew Gumblesworth proudly presents The Arguably Most (But-Honestly-Arbitrary-Given-Lack-of-Quantifying-Criteria) Extreme Noses!

Goblin Shark

found on: https://i1.wp.com/www.omgblog.com/images/2009/goblin-shark-thumb.jpg

When schnoz meets Jaws.

Look at this idiot! It’s amazing he even manages to eat with that enormous snout sticking out of his face. You could probably land planes on that thing. And who knows what it’s good for–it’s probably the product of ridiculous evolutionary female choice selection. Or maybe the Cloverfield monster uses goblin sharks as darts, and only allows those with the biggest noses to survive. In any case, its rostrum exceeds any other shark’s in relative size, which is pretty darn extreme.

Fei Jianjun

found on: https://martygumblesworth.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/rhinocarcinoma12.jpg?w=199

Meet Fei Jianjun. One day, he discovered an unpleasant red bump on the tip of his nose, but did not seek medical attention due to poverty. Over the next year, his honker enlarged to the size pictured above, so large that his eyes were literally pushed to sides of his face, earning him “diseased freak status” in his village. As such, Fei rarely left his house as he was thought to be a vector for illness. To boot, it shouldn’t come as much surprise that once your nose swells to the size of an apple that considerable pain results. Eventually, a local hospital offered him free surgery, and a CT scan revealed that the cause of his troubles was a rhinocarcinoma, which they shrank via radiation.

In general, the whole situation is undilutedly awful, but he did get free healthcare out of it. And any nose that gets you free healthcare is an extreme nose.

The Monoclonius

found on: https://i2.wp.com/www.fusegallerynyc.com/07Robins/images/monoclonius.jpg

The rhinoceros has a pretty extreme nose. Its name means “nose horn”, after all. But why include a silly rhinoceros on this list when a much larger, much more extreme version of such a nose once sniffed the earth?

Of all the unicorn-like ceratopsids, the monoclonius has by far the largest nose horn. At 2.7 m in height, this brawny beast could snag a white rhino on its horn and toss it like a plush toy. You could also wrap lights around it and pretend it was a small Christmas tree. You know the holidays get extreme when you use a dinosaur nose to supplement decorative traditions.

Adrien Brody

found on: https://i1.wp.com/iconsoffright.com/news/Adrien%20Brody.jpg

Adrien Brody’s nose is the Mount Everest of Hollywood schnozzes. It dwarfs other actors’ noses and cackles maniacally, screeching tyrannical nose insults in the form of snot rockets. It towers menacingly, Barad-dur-like, growling malediction in the language of Mordor. It snores, and tectonic plates shift. And so on.

Brody’s nose is also probably partially responsible for landing him his role as Jewish-Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman in The Pianist. His masterful portrayal of said role then landed him an Oscar, not to mention the opportunity (which was taken) to ravish Halle Berry with a kiss. Getting an Oscar and making out with Halle Berry? That’s an extreme nose.

The Hammer-Headed Bat

found on: https://i0.wp.com/lh6.ggpht.com/_JwTvDWpU4xI/TXDNf9tSGWI/AAAAAAAAFvs/LPe2SRPxp9Q/Hammer%20Headed%20Bat_thumb%5B3%5D.jpg

Bats tend to look fairly hilarious. Some have enormous ears, and some have enormous noses. In fact, the aptly-named hammer-headed bat’s nose exceeds the volume of its brain by a factor of at least 2. It also contributes heavily to the species’s sexual dimorphism, with only males possessing the enlarged rostrums. These noses, in addition to lengthened mouth cavities and larynxes, enable male hammer-headed bats to emit loud honks.

It probably comes as no surprise that the caliber of these honks influences how sexually attractive the males are to coeds. This phenomenon can be seen in full-thottle when males gather together, often around riverbanks, to compete for mates in a behavior known as lek mating. Effectively, a gaggle of males sit around trying to out-honk each other while the females fly around listening in for the finest honks, much like a bar scene where scads of males try out their pickup lines. Since nose size contributes to the quality of the honks, females select for the finest, and probably most pronounced, noses. When a nose determines whether one gets laid or not, one must submit to the extremity of said nose. Plus, these fellows can allegedly be used as hammers. And hammers are useful.

Cyrano de Bergerac

found on: https://i1.wp.com/www.acertaincinema.com/workspace/media/jose-ferrer-cyrano-de-bergerac.jpg

Like many great men, the fictional Cyrano de Bergerac falls in love with his cousin, Roxane. And also like many great men, Cyrano is profoundly ugly, due in large part to his large nose, which causes him great distress. People, cruel as they must be to make Cyrano pitiable, say that his nose is large enough to be used as an umbrella.

In the eponymous play, Cyrano demonstrates mastery of duelling, music, wit, and so on. He also writes beautiful love sonnets and the like, but is too shy to approach his buxom cousin with them. Meanwhile, she falls in love with the handsome but stupid bloke who hasn’t the parlance to charm her. This mentally-impaired Adonis asks Cyrano to furnish him with the verbiage to fully woo Roxane, which Cyrano agrees to do. Roxane eventually falls in love with these words, and when she finally discovers that it is Cyrano who was behind them, she falls for him, nose and all. Of course, to be properly depressing/moving, she admits her love to Cyrano as he is dying.

If we are to subscribe to the Sixteen Candles-y notion that ugly people persevere as sharp-witted, successful, and talented, all of Cyrano’s skills owe themselves to his nose. Plus, it can apparently be used to shield people from rain. Totally extreme.

The Proboscis Monkey

found on: https://martygumblesworth.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/proboscismonkey2.jpg?w=300

This monkey’s nose is so extreme that people just call the animal it’s attached to the proboscis monkey. It’s the nose monkey. You see that guy over there, with the nose? Yeah, that’s the proboscis guy.

As with hammer-headed bats, nose size in proboscis monkeys underscores a sexual dimorphism in the species. While female proboscis monkeys have fairly prominent noses, they don’t quite have the Kilroy-was-here factor that the males do. And, once again as with hammer-headed bats, we can be sure nose size plays into how hot male proboscis monkeys are to the ladies.

It would be fair to say that proboscis monkeys can have erections for noses. As is the case with most cardiovascular animals, proboscis monkeys experience increased heart rate when they’re excited. As the excitement rises, so does the level of blood saturation in their nasal tissue. With noses engorged thus, a resonating chamber is created that can amplify the sound of calls, especially warning signals. This is quite useful; if one proboscis monkey detects danger, he will become fearful and therefore excited, thus making him better at communicating danger to his compatriots. Super-siren nose that makes you look like Squidward? Extreme.

Pinocchio

found on: https://i1.wp.com/freebirdsigns.com/images/products/14773b2971c73b-43.-Pinocchio.jpg

This kid can’t tell a lie without his nose erupting outward like the Ruyi Jingu Bang when Sun Wukong needs to steal cookies from the top shelf. Think about the implications; to weaponize that honker, all Pinocchio needs to do is stand in front of someone, point his nose at their eye, and say, “I’m a real boy! I’m a real boy!” Too bad he gave up his superpower, it was pretty extreme.

Star-Nosed Mole

found on: https://martygumblesworth.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/starnosedmole.jpg?w=300

Most animals interpret the topology of their environments with favor to a particular sense. Humans favor sight. Dolphins favor sound. Moles favor touch. And the star-nosed mole possesses the most highly-developed touch organs known, right in its nose.

It would be an understatement to say that the star-nosed mole has two hands growing out its face. It wouldn’t even suffice to say it has four. Not to mention that a light knock to your hands does not kill you. Needless to say, star-nosed moles have mighty sensitive sniffers. This super-sensitivity results from clusters of mechanoreceptors that project up through columns of epidermal cells from the dermis up to the skin’s surface. These structures are made of familiar things–skin cells, nerve endings, and so forth–but their arrangement is so specialized as to earn them the title of “organs” (Eimer’s organs, specifically). And a star-nosed mole’s nose has about 25,000 of them, and it’s only 1cm wide. Your nose barely even contains that many tactile nerve endings.

An article in Nature dubbed the star-nosed mole that “fastest-eating animal” (segues to a fastest-eaters edition of The Most Extreme, but that’s for another time). The heavy myelination of Eimer’s organ neurons improves signal transmission from the sense organs to the mole’s brain, where analysis of the edibility of an object can take as little as 120 milliseconds, which borders on the limits of neuronal transmission speed. This animal’s nose helps it evaluate food in 120 milliseconds. Extreme.

As if that wasn’t enough, the star-nosed mole can smell underwater by exhaling nose bubbles onto something it wants to smell and then inhaling them. How extreme is that?

The Elephant

found on: https://i2.wp.com/sneezl.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/elephant-gross.jpg

Elephants are sort of extraordinary. They’re the largest living land animals, they mourn their dead, have conveyor belts for teeth, and destroy civilizations when they’re sexually frustrated. Oh and they paint, too.

They also have trunks, which are of course just awesome noses.

Elephant trunks are in many ways the equivalents of human hands. Elephants use them to greet one another, embrace, and play. They use them to pick things up and put food and water in their mouths. They can bathe themselves by sucking up water into the body of the trunk and then spraying it on themselves. They can snorkel. They can pick up tiny seeds without crushing them, plant them, wait for a tree to grow, and then uproot it.  And, naturally, they can use their trunks to forage for or store goods in the butts of other elephants. The trunk is a nose that knows no bounds.

And of course, elephants have stupendous olfactory senses, which are augmented by their ability to direct their trunks towards or away from the sources of aromas. Extreme? Yes.


This post about perceptual semantics dissembles its “seriousness” with broccoli pictures

One of the great human pastimes is disagreeing about things. You deem broccoli horrible? Well, I think it ROCKS. Broccoli rocks, folks–make no bones about it. It’s an intrinsically great food, possibly even a great humanitarian. And people who say otherwise are simply wrong.

Puns induce laughter about as much as broccoli rocks.

An error in reasoning presents itself here; this argument masquerades as an argument over broccoli, but it pertains to something else entirely. It’s a taste-based squabble in broccoli’s clothing. A difference in primary gustatory area associations hidden in a Trojan broccoli flower. What this argument really pertains to is subjective experience, and as soon as that becomes obvious, there can be no argument. You don’t have to agree to disagree, you instead agree that your perceptions differ from those of your broccoli-hating antagonist.

So, we’ve brought up the “S” word. Through a derisive lens, subjectivity appears the guiding star for people who avoid questioning viewpoints, changing their perspectives, and so on. Defining words becomes an especially muddled process; really staunch subjectivists refuse to do it. Anything can mean anything. You ask what kind of chairs a true subjectivist likes; he says, “Define ‘chair'”. You try, but he questions every word you use to define “chair”, creating a geometrically expanding tree diagram of attempted definitions. You argue that using words to question words is internally inconsistent, but you are denied again. And you never find out what kinds of chairs he likes!

It’s worse when you meander over to fuzzier words: “evil”, “consciousness”, “art”, and “love”, for instance. Words like these get to sit on pedestals so high they are literally hidden from view in the clouds. By extension, it’s hard to discern if there really is meaning sitting up on those pedestals at all, as opposed a big foofaraw. And yet, these words get used constantly and–most importantly–they are understood.

Translation: BROCCOLI FOR THE BROCCOLI GOD.

Yeah, sure: people will quarrel over what art “really” is, but at the end of the day, the word exists. It exists in most languages, in fact. Same goes for love, consciousness, and evil. These words are cultural tropes, and they reflect massed perception across generations of human beings. These words, alongside all others, function like any categorical perceptions; they are neural designations that enable an intentional agent to formulate hypotheses about his or her environment. I love, therefore I ____________.

The blank, of course, is where things differ from individual to individual. It represents qualia, or the hypotheses people formulate on the basis of perception. And while there are minute differences from person to person, the fact that the word exists alone indicates that it has anthropological relevance and consistency.

Now we’re hitting the ‘P’ word pretty hard. So what is meant by perception, anyway? To illustrate perception in action, the McGurk Effect serves well. Click that hyperlink and watch the video, would you? Just a slovenly young gentleman saying “Da da, da da, da da” or perhaps “Ga ga, ga ga, ga ga”, right? Now close your eyes and play the video again (these instructions are making me feel like a failed magician, so please be awestruck by the video). Sounds… sheep-like, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps like the stuttered lyrics of The Beach Boys’s “Barbara Ann”? Well, that’s because the audio is “Ba ba, ba ba, ba ba”. Now you can happily watch the reactions of excited Japanese people to the McGurk Effect without spoilers.

This recurring broccoli is almost as invasive as a retrotransposon.

There are two interesting facets to the McGurk Effect:

1) Your visual processing stream influences how you perceive sound.

2) Assuming lack of blindness, deafness, feralness, etc., everyone‘s visual processing streams influence how they perceive the sounds used in the McGurk Effect the same way.

In general, brains are pretty much the same. Yeah, they’re plenty complicated. Yeah, no two brains are identical. But they’re built of the same building blocks, with the same receptors, the same transmitters, and the same layouts. γ-Aminobutyric acid inhibits receiving neurons. Purkinje cells populate the cerebellum. Betz cells are found projecting long axons to local circuit neurons in the spinal cord. The posterior superior temporal sulcus preferentially processes human bodily movements. The medial temporal region of the left hemisphere prefers non-human movement. Heschl’s gyrus activates during processing of semantic information. Unpleasant words activate right amygdala and auditory cortex, while pleasant words activate left frontal pole. And for people familiar with broccoli, there’s probably a very special cluster of neurons in the temporal lobe that devotes itself to firing for broccoli. That’s just how things organize themselves. And yeah, brains are plastic, but the mechanisms for that plasticity are the same across different brains, too.

Goodness, that’s a lot of links.

Anyway, the point: perception exists, and it varies how we describe and think about things, but one can be objective about that subjectivity. After all, perception works pretty much the same way in everyone. There does not have to be a screen in between people who perceive things differently. They’re both perceiving, after all. Sure, you can argue for perceiving perception differently, but then we’d just be stuck in a rut, wouldn’t we?

If you haven't read Le Petit Prince, then SHAME ON YOU.

Extending this notion of universal perceptual mechanics to semantic kerfuffles, we come back to the notion of definition. In computer programming, defining is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

1) >>> x=1; y=2; z=3;

2)>>> Wow, turns out it’s easy as just 1, in fact.

3)   File “<stdin>” , line 2

Wow, turns out it’s easy as just 1, in fact.

^

SyntaxError: unexpected token ‘out’

>>>

Easy as a nympho on scopolamine, no? Defining art in code, however, is a completely different ballgame. But that’s kind of the point of art, isn’t it? Questioning the very paradigms that conventionally define it? It’s almost like the word has more value when its definition is just out of reach (of course, that itself can be seen as a definition, but that’s a discussion for a separate blog post). But what about something like consciousness? What does that word mean, seriously?

Like art, consciousness gets regular updates and reinterpretations from those investigating it. Like any firmly established word, it has its cultural roots. Just about everyone has a basic sense of what consciousness is. However, as we learn more about what contributes to conscious experience, it becomes valuable to ask more and more exacting questions, questions that enable the building of an experimental paradigm. Questions like: What neural mechanisms give rise to shifting between conscious and unconscious states? Is linguistic confirmation a valid way to assess consciousness? How do attention and sense modalities contribute to awareness? And these inquiries barely scrape the surface of the leviathan that is the meaning of “consciousness”.

Anyway, the point: think about a chair. Take away fragments of that chair. When does it stop being a chair? Neurally, the answer is, “the object in question ceases to be a chair when the object no longer brings to threshold your neural cluster responsible for responding to objects it has learned to discern as chairs”. After all, there are no chairs out in the “real world”. Chair is simply the word we assign to objects perceived as, well, chairs. Now think about the word “is”. What is “is”? A singular third-person verb indicating equivalence? Really? That’s all you’ve got? Sometimes, you can be surprised by words. Sometimes, it’s fun to reduce things to the absence of meaning. Consider it a thought exercise.

Seriously though, broccoli is fantastic. That is the only absolute truth mankind can ever know.