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sábado, 22 de noviembre de 2014

The Brain’s Inner Language

Video|2:25 Credit Probing the Parliament of Neurons Clay Reid and colleagues are going deep into

SEATTLE — When Clay Reid decided to leave his job as a professor at Harvard Medical School to become a senior investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle in 2012, some of his colleagues congratulated him warmly and understood right away why he was making the move.

Others shook their heads. He was, after all, leaving one of the world’s great universities to go to the academic equivalent of an Internet start-up, albeit an extremely well- financed, very ambitious one, created in 2003 by Paul Allen, a founder of Microsoft.


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Mapping the Highways of the Brain
Deanna Barch and her colleagues are trying to map connections in the human brain. The study is part of the Human Connectome Project.


Still, “it wasn’t a remotely hard decision,” Dr. Reid said. He wanted to mount an all-out investigation of a part of the mouse brain. And although he was happy at Harvard, the Allen Institute offered not only great colleagues and deep pockets, but also an approach to science different from the classic university environment. The institute was already mapping the mouse brain in fantastic detail, and specialized in the large-scale accumulation of information in atlases and databases available to all of science. Photo


When neurons in the brain of a live mouse, top, are active, they flash brightly. Dr. Clay Reid, above left, and colleagues at the Allen Institute for Brain Science are working with mice to better understand the human mind. Above center, areas of the mouse cortex related to vision, and connected to other parts involving visual perception. Credit Zach Wise for The New York Times

Now, it was expanding, and trying to merge its semi-industrial approach to data gathering with more traditional science driven by individual investigators, by hiring scientists like Christof Koch from the California Institute of Technology as chief scientific officer in 2011 and Dr. Reid. As a senior investigator, he would lead a group of about 100, and work with scientists, engineers and technicians in other groups.

Without the need to apply regularly for federal grants, Dr. Reid could concentrate on one piece of the puzzle of how the brain works. He would try to decode the workings of one part of the mouse brain, the million neurons in the visual cortex, from, as he puts it, “molecules to behavior.

There are many ways to map the brain and many kinds of brains to map. Although the ultimate goal of most neuroscience is understanding how human brains work, many kinds of research can’t be done on human beings, and the brains of mice and even flies share common processes with human brains.

The work of Dr. Reid, and scientists at Allen and elsewhere who share his approach, is part of a surge of activity in brain research as scientists try to build the tools and knowledge to explain — as well as can ever be explained — how brains and minds work. Besides the Obama administration’s $100 million Brain Initiative and the European Union’s $1 billion, decade-long Human Brain Project, there are numerous private and public research efforts in the United States and abroad, some focusing on the human brain, others like Dr. Reid’s focusing on nonhumans.

While the Human Connectome Project, which is spread among several institutions, aims for an overall picture of the associations among parts of the human brain, other scientific teams have set their sights on drilling to deeper levels. For instance, the Connectome Project at Harvard is pursuing a structural map of the mouse brain at a level of magnification that shows packets of neurochemicals at the tips of brain cells.

At Janelia Farm, the Virginia research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, researchers are aiming for an understanding of the complete fly brain — a map of sorts, if a map can be taken to its imaginable limits, including structure, chemistry, genetics and activity.

I personally am inspired by what they’re doing at Janelia,” Dr. Reid said.

All these efforts start with maps and enrich them. If Dr. Reid is successful, he and his colleagues will add what you might call the code of a brain process, the language the neurons use to store, transmit and process information for this function.

Not that this would be any kind of final answer. In neuroscience, perhaps more than in most other disciplines, every discovery leads to new questions.

With the brain,” Dr. Reid said, “you can always go deeper.

‘Psychoanalyst’s Kid Probes Brain!’ Photo
A diamond-tipped slicer is used to prepare a piece of a mouse’s brain for examination with a modified electron microscope at the Allen Institute. Credit Zach Wise for The New York Times

Dr. Reid, 53, grew up in Boston, in a family with deep roots in medicine. His grandfather taught physiology at Harvard Medical School. “My parents were both psychoanalysts,” he said during an interview last fall, smiling as he imagined a headline for this article, “Psychoanalyst’s Kid Probes Brain!

I pretty much always knew that I wanted to be a scientist,” he said.

As an undergraduate at Yale, he majored in physics and philosophy and in mathematics, but in the end decided he didn’t want to be a physicist. Biology was attractive, but he was worried enough about his mathematical bent to talk to one of his philosophy professors about concerns that biology would too fuzzy for him.

The professor had some advice. “You really should read Hubel and Wiesel,” he said, referring to David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, who had just won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for their work showing how binocular vision develops in the brain.

He read their work, and when he graduated in 1982, he was convinced that the study of the brain was both hard science and a wide-open field. He went on to an M.D.-Ph.D. program at Cornell Medical College and Rockefeller University, where Dr. Wiesel had his lab (he would go on to be president of Rockefeller).

As his studies progressed, Dr. Reid began to have second thoughts about pursuing medicine rather than research. Just a week before he was to commit to a neurology residency, he said, “I ran into a friend from the Wiesel lab and said, ‘Save me.’

That plea led to postdoctoral research in the Rockefeller lab. He stayed as a faculty member until moving to Harvard in 1996.

Mathematics and physics were becoming increasingly important in neurobiology, a trend that has continued, but there was still a certain tension between different mind-sets, he recalled. He found that there were intangible skills involved in biological research. “Good biological intuition was equally important to chops in math and physics,” he said.

Torsten once said to me, ‘You know, Clay, science is not an intelligence test.’

Though he didn’t recall that specific comment, Dr. Wiesel said recently that it sounded like something he would have said. “I think there are a lot of smart people who never make it in science. Why is it? What is it that is required in addition?

Intuition is important, he said, “knowing what kind of questions to ask.” And, he said, “the other thing is a passion for getting to the core of the problem.

Dr. Reid, he said, was not only smart and full of energy, but also “interested in asking questions that I think can get to the core of a problem.

At Harvard, Dr. Reid worked on the Connectome Project to map the connections between neurons in the mouse brain. The Connectome Project aims at a detailed map, a wiring diagram at a level fantastically more detailed than the work being done to map the human brain with M.R.I. machines. But electron microscopes produce a static picture from tiny slices of preserved brain.

Dr. Reid began working on tying function to mapping. He and one of his graduate students, Davi Bock, now at Janelia Farm, linked studies of active mouse brains to the detailed structural images produced by electron microscopes.

Dr. Bock said he recalled Dr. Reid as having developed exactly the kind of intuition and “good lab hands” that Dr. Wiesel seemed to be encouraging. He and another graduate student were stumped by a technical problem involving a new technique for studying living brains, and Dr. Reid came by.

Clay got on this bench piled up with components,” Dr. Bock said. “He started plugging and unplugging different power cables. We just stood there watching him, and I was sure he was going to scramble everything.” But he didn’t. Whatever he did worked.

That was part of the fun of working in the lab, Dr. Bock said, “not that he got it right every time.” But his appreciation for Dr. Reid as a leader and mentor went beyond admiration for his “mad scientist lab hands.

He has a deep gut level enthusiasm for what’s beautiful and what’s profound in neuroscience, and he’s kind of relentless,” Dr. Bock said.

Showing a Mouse a Picture
That instinct, enthusiasm and relentlessness will be necessary for his current pursuit. To crack the code of the brain, Dr. Reid said, two fundamental problems must be solved.

The first is: “How does the machine work, starting with its building blocks, cell types, going through their physiology and anatomy,” he said. That means knowing all the different types of neurons in the mouse visual cortex and their function — information that science doesn’t have yet.

It also means knowing what code is used to pass on information. When a mouse sees a picture, how is that picture encoded and passed from neuron to neuron? That is called neural computation

Nuno da Costa of the Allen Institute prepared a slice of mouse brain for the modified electron microscope at Dr. Reid’s lab in Seattle. “With the brain, you can always go deeper,” Dr. Reid said. Credit Zach Wise for The New York Times

“The other highly related problem is: How does that neural computation create behavior?” he said. How does the mouse brain decide on action based on that input?

He imagined the kind of experiment that would get at these deep questions. A mouse might be trained to participate in an experiment now done with primates in which an animal looks at an image. Later, seeing several different images in sequence, the animal presses a lever when the original one appears. Seeing the image, remembering it, recognizing it and pressing the lever might take as long as two seconds and involve activity in several parts of the brain.

Understanding those two seconds, Dr. Reid said, would mean knowing “literally what photons hit the retina, what information does the retina send to the thalamus and the cortex, what computations do the neurons in the cortex do and how do they do it, how does that level of processing get sent up to a memory center and hold the trace of that picture over one or two seconds.

Then, when the same picture is seen a second time, “the hard part happens,” he said. “How does the decision get made to say, ‘That’s the one’?

In pursuit of this level of understanding, Dr. Reid and others are gathering chemical, electrical, genetic and other information about what the structure of that part of the mouse brain is and what activity is going on.

They will develop electron micrographs that show every neuron and every connection in that part of a mouse brain. That is done on dead tissue. Then they will use several techniques to see what goes on in that part of the brain when a living animal reacts to different situations. “We can record the activity of every single cell in a volume of cortex, and capture the connections,” he said.

With chemicals added to the brain, the most advanced light microscopes can capture movies of neurons firing. Electrodes can record the electrical impulses. And mathematical analysis of all that may decipher the code in which information is moved around that part of the brain.

Dr. Reid says solving the first part of the problem — receiving and analyzing sensory informationmight be done in 10 years. An engineer’s precise understanding of everything from photons to action could be more on the order of 20 to 30 years away, and not reachable through the work of the Allen Institute alone. But, he wrote in an email, “the large-scale, coordinated efforts at the institute will get us there faster.” He is studying only one part of one animal’s brain, but, he said, the cortex — the part of the mammalian brain where all this calculation goes on — is something of a general purpose computer. So the rules for one process could explain other processes, like hearing. And the rules for decision-making could apply to many more complicated situations in more complicated brains. Perhaps the mouse visual cortex can be a kind of Rosetta stone for the brain’s code.

All research is a gamble, of course, and the Allen Institute’s collaborative approach, while gaining popularity in neuroscience, is not universally popular. Dr. Wiesel said it was “an important approach” that would “provide a lot of useful information.” But, he added, “it won’t necessarily create breakthroughs in our understanding of how the brain works.

I think the main advances are going to be made by individual scientists working in small groups,” he said.

Of course, in courting and absorbing researchers like Dr. Reid, the Allen Institute has been moving away from its broad data-gathering approach toward more focused work by individual investigators.

Dr. Bock, his former student, said his experience suggested that Dr. Reid had not only a passion and intensity for research, but a good eye for where science is headed as well.

That’s what Clay does,” he said. “He is really good in that Wayne Gretzky way of skating to where the puck will be.

A version of this article appears in print on February 25, 2014, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Brain’s Inner Language.

ORIGINAL: NYTimes

Hamlet’s Transhumanist Dilemma: Will Technology Replace Biology?

To be, or not to be: that was the question back when

Machines did not challenge the reign of men.

Will technology replace biology: that is the question now

When computers get exponentially smarter: why shouldn’t we bow?

Thus the dilemma facing the human race

Is about hardware and coding: What type to embrace?

Whether ’tis nobler to run DNA

On an ancient biological hardware – Evolution’s play!

Or ‘tis better to get up-to-date

And run binary code on the supercomputers of late.

But who is to say?

Is it nobler to suffer in the flesh

The slings and arrows of biology as destiny?

Or to hack ‘tis cursed body; and by technology

To live. Forever!

No more sickness, no more aging, no more death

Our mortal flesh is heir to.

The choice is yours and mine to make

But what a bind we find ourselves into:

To pick between humanity and immortality.

But what is human anyway?

A temporary grouping of the bits

En route to fall apart…

Or is there more to it?

A soul? A genome code? A conscience? Or, a pattern?

Some kind of essence, anyway?

I still don’t know for sure what it is

So, why am I afraid to lose what I don’t know?




Authors’ note:
As you may see this post is neither polished nor really finished. It is a work in progress and as such it may and probably will change as my personal thoughts and feelings about the technological singularity evolve.

Feel free to contribute your thoughts and feelings on the subject…




ORIGINAL: Singularity
by Socrates
September 18, 2010

Leonardo’s Brain: What a Posthumous Brain Scan Six Centuries Later Reveals about the Source of Da Vinci’s Creativity

How the most creative human who ever lived was able to access a different state of consciousness.

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One September day in 2008, Leonard Shlainfound himself having trouble buttoning his shirt with his right hand. He was admitted into the emergency room, diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, and given nine months to live. Shlain — a surgeon by training and a self-described “synthesizer by nature” with an intense interest in the ennobling intersection of art and science, author of the now-legendary Art & Physics — had spent the previous seven years working on what he considered his magnum opus: a sort of postmortem brain scan of Leonardo da Vinci, performed six centuries after his death and fused with a detective story about his life, exploring what the unique neuroanatomy of the man commonly considered humanity’s greatest creative genius might reveal about the essence of creativity itself.

Shlain finished the book on May 3, 2009. He died a week later. His three children — Kimberly, Jordan, and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain — spent the next five years bringing their father’s final legacy to life. The result is Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius (public library | IndieBound) — an astonishing intellectual, and at times spiritual, journey into the center of human creativity via the particular brain of one undereducated, left-handed, nearly ambidextrous, vegetarian, pacifist, gay, singularly creative Renaissance male, who Shlain proposes was able to attain a different state of consciousness than “practically all other humans.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

Noting that “a writer is always refining his ideas,” Shlain points out that the book is a synthesis of his three previous books, and an effort to live up to Kafka’s famous proclamation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” It is also a beautiful celebration of the idea that art and science belong together and enrich one another whenever they converge. To understand Leonardo’s brain, Shlain points out as he proves himself once again the great poet of the scientific spirit, we must first understand our own:

The human brain remains among the last few stubborn redoubts to yield its secrets to the experimental method. During the period that scientists expanded the horizons of astronomy, balanced the valences of chemistry, and determined the forces of physics, the crowning glory of Homo sapiens and its most enigmatic emanation, human consciousness, resisted the scientific model’s persistent searching. The brain accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s volume, yet consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. A pearly gray, gelatinous, three-pound universe, this exceptional organ can map parsecs and plot the whereabouts of distant galaxies measured in quintillions of light-years. The brain accomplishes this magic trick without ever having to leave its ensorcelled ovoid cranial shell. From minuscule-wattage electrical currents crisscrossing and ricocheting within its walls, the brain can reconstruct a detailed diorama of how it imagines the Earth appeared four billion years ago. It can generate poetry so achingly beautiful that readers weep, hatred so intense that otherwise rational people revel in the torture of others, and love so oceanic that entwined lovers lose the boundaries of their physical beings.

Shlain argues that Leonardo —
  • who painted the eternally mysterious Mona Lisa, 
  • created visionary anatomical drawings long before medical anatomy existed, 
  • made observations of bird flight in greater detailed than any previous scientist, 
  • mastered engineering, architecture, mathematics, botany, and cartography, 
might be considered history’s first true scientist long before Mary Somerville coined the word, presaged Newton’s Third Law, Bernoulli’s law, and elements of chaos theory, and was a deft composer who sang “divinely,” among countless other domains of mastery — is the individual most worthy of the title “genius” in both science and art

The divergent flow of art and science in the historical record provides evidence of a distinct compartmentalization of genius. The river of art rarely intersected with the meander of science.
[…]
Although both art and science require a high degree of creativity, the difference between them is stark. For visionaries to change the domain of art, they must make a breakthrough that can only be judged through the lens of posterity. Great science, on the other hand, must be able to predict the future. If a scientist’s hypotheses cannot be turned into a law that can be verified by future investigators, it is not scientifically sound. Another contrast: Art and science represent the difference between “being” and “doing.” Art’s raison d’être is to evoke an emotion. Science seeks to solve problems by advancing knowledge.
[…]
Leonardo’s story continues to compel because he represents the highest excellence all of us lesser mortals strive to achieve — to be intellectually, creatively, and emotionally well-rounded. No other individual in the known history of the human species attained such distinction both in science and art as the hyper-curious, undereducated, illegitimate country boy from Vinci.

Artwork from Alice and Martin Provensen's vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo. Click image for more. 
Using a wealth of available information from Leonardo’s notebooks, various biographical resources, and some well-reasoned speculation, Shlain sets out to perform a “posthumous brain scan” seeking to illuminate the unique wiring of Da Vinci’s brain and how it explains his unparalleled creativity. Leonardo was an outlier in a number of ways — socially, culturally, biologically, and in some seemingly unimportant yet, as Shlain explains, notable ways bridging these various aspects of life.For instance:

Leonardo was a vegetarian in a culture that thought nothing of killing animals for food. His explanation for his unwillingness to participate in carnivory was that he did not want to contribute to any animal’s discomfort or death. He extended the courtesy of staying alive to all living creatures, and demonstrated a feeling of connectedness to all life, which was in short supply during a time that glorified hunting.

He was also the only individual in recorded history known to write comfortably backwards, performing what is known as “mirror writing,” which gives an important clue about the wiring of his brain:

Someone wishing to read Leonardo’s manuscripts must first hold the pages before a mirror. Instead of writing from left to right, which is the standard among all European languages, he chose to write from right to left — what the rest of us would consider backward writing. And he used his left hand to write.
Thoroughly confusing the issue was the fact that sometimes he would switch in mid-sentence, writing some words in one direction followed by other words heading in the opposite direction. Another intriguing neurological datum: Careful examination of two samples of his handwriting show the one written backward moving from right to left across the page is indistinguishable from the handwriting that is not reversed.
Leonardo’s quirks of penmanship strongly suggest that his two hemispheres were intimately connected in an extraordinary way. The traditional dominance pattern of one hemisphere lording it over the other does not seem to have been operational in Leonardo’s brain. Based on what we can extrapolate from the brains of people who share Leonardo’s ability to mirror-write, the evidence points to the presence of a large corpus callosum that kept each hemisphere well informed as to what the other was doing.

Further evidence that his corpus callosum — that thick bundle of fibers connecting the left and right hemispheres, consisting of more than 200 million neurons — was “afairly bursting with an overabundance of connecting neurons” comes from his unusually deft fusion of art and science. For instance, Shlain points out, no other artist in history labored so obsessively over perfecting the geometrical details of the science of perspective. Before delving into Leonardo’s specific neuroanatomy, Shlain points out that because our brains have the maximum number of neurons at the age of eight months and because a dramatic pruning of our neurocircuitry unfolds over the next decade, those early years are crucially formative in our cognitive development and warrant special attention. (Tolstoy captured this beautifully when he wrote, “From a five-year-old child to my present self there is only one step. From a new-born infant to a five-year-old child there is an awesome distance.”) Leonardo’s own childhood was so unusual and tumultuous that it calls for consideration in examining his brain development. The illicit child of a rich playboy from the city and a poor peasant girl from the picturesque Tuscan town of Vinci, he grew up without a real father — an ambitious notary, his father refused to marry Leonardo’s mother in order to avoid compromising his social status. The little boy was raised by a single mother in the countryside. Eventually, his father arranged for his mother to marry another man, and he himself married a sixteen-year-old girl. Leonardo was taken from his mother and awkwardly included in his father’s household as a not-quite-son. But the father-figure in his life ended up being his kindly uncle Francesco, whom the boy grew to love dearly. He remained in contact with his mother throughout his life and evidence from his notebooks suggests that, like Andy Warhol, he invited her to live with him as she became elderly. Shlain to two perplexities that stand out in Leonardo’s upbringing:
  • First, contemporary psychologists agree that removing young children from their mothers makes for substantial attachment and anxiety issues throughout life, producing emotionally distant adults. 
  • Secondly, Leonardo’s illegitimacy greatly limited his education options, as the Church, in one of its many strokes of gobsmacking lack of the very compassion it preaches, decreed that children born to unwed parents were not eligible for enrollment in its cathedral schools
Shlain writes: 

Outside of the prohibitively expensive alternative of private tutors, admission to one of these schools was the only means to learning the secret code that opened the doors of opportunity.

That secret code was knowledge of Latin and Greek, without which it was practically impossible to participate in the making of the Renaissance. And yet Leonardo had an especially blistering response to those who dismissed his work due to his lack of education:

They will say that because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to treat of. Do they not know that my subjects require for their exposition experience rather than the words of others? And since experience has been the mistress, and to her in all points make my appeal.

(More than half a millennium later, Werner Herzog would go on to offer aspiring filmmakers similarly spirited advice.) Shlain writes:

Creativity is a combination of courage and inventiveness. One without the other would be useless.

So how did Leonardo muster the courage and inventiveness to turn the dismal cards he was dealt into the supreme winning hand of being history’s greatest genius? Shlain argues that while we can speculate about how much more remarkable work Leonardo may have done had he been able to command the respect, resources, and recognition “of one who claims noble blood, a university position, and powerful friends in high places,” there is an even more powerful counteragent to be made — one that resonates with Nietzsche’s ideas about the value of difficulty and bespeaks the immeasurable benefits of what Orson Welles called “the gift of ignorance, or what is commonly known as “beginner’s mind”:

A strong counterargument can also be put forth that it was precisely his lack of indoctrination into the reigning dogma taught in these institutions that liberated him from mental restraints. Unimpeded by the accretion of misconceptions that had fogged the lens of the educated, Leonardo was able to ask key questions and seek fresh answers. Although he could not quote learned books, he promised, “I will quote something far greater and more worthy: experience, the mistress of their masters.He disdained “trumpets and reciters of the works of others,” and tried to live by his own dictum: “Better a small certainty, than a big lie.” He referred to himself as omo sanza lettere — an “unlettered man” — because he had not received the kind of liberal arts schooling that led to the university. Somewhere in his late thirties and early forties, Leonardo made a concerted effort to teach himself Latin. Long lists of vocabulary words appear in his notebooks. Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language in adulthood knows how difficult the task can be.

One silver lining to his lack of formal education and attentive parenting is that he was never trained out of his left-handedness as was the practice during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — something that turned out to be crucial in the anatomy of his genius.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more
But Leonardo’s social disadvantages didn’t end with education. Based on evidence from his notebooks and biographical accounts from a handful of contemporaries, he was most likely homosexual — at a time when it was not only a crime but a “sin” punishable by death. Even in his fashion and demeanor, Leonardo appeared to be the Walt Whitman of his day — in other words, a proto-dandy who “fell into the flamboyant set.” Shlain quotes Anonimo Gaddiano, a contemporary of Leonardo’s: 

He wore a rose colored tunic, short to the knee, although long garments were then in fashion. He had, reaching down to the middle of his breasts, a fine beard, curled and well kept.

Leonardo was also unorthodox in his universal empathy for animals and philosophical stance against eating them — a complete anomaly in a carnivorous era when the poor longed for meat and the rich threw elaborate feasts around it, showcasing it as a status symbol of their wealth and power. Instead, Leonardo was known to buy caged birds whenever he saw them in the town’s shops and set them free. But Leonardo’s most significant source of exceptionalism goes back to his handedness. Left-handedness might still be an evolutionary mystery, but it is also an enduring metaphor for the powers of intuition. For Leonardo, the physical and the intuitive were inextricably linked:

Leonardo intuited that a person’s face, despite appearing symmetrical, is actually divided into two slightly different halves. Because of the crossover in sensory and motor nerves from each side of the face within the brain, the left hemisphere controls the muscles of the right side of the face and the right hemisphere controls the muscles of the left side. The majority of people are left-brained/right-handed, which means that the right half of their face is under better conscious control than their left. In contrast, the left half of the face connects to the emotional right brain, and is more revealing of a person’s feelings. Right-handers have more difficulty trying to suppress emotional responses on the left side of their face.

In a recent psychology experiment, a group of unsuspecting college students were ushered into a photographer’s studio one at a time and informed that they were to pose for a picture to be given to members of their family. The majority of these right-handed students positioned themselves unaware that they were turning the left side of their face toward the camera’s lens. All of them smiled.

Brought back a second time, the researchers informed them that, now, they were to pose for a job application photo. In this case, they adopted a more professional demeanor, and the majority of right-handers emphasized the right side of their face. The results of this experiment, along with several others of similar design, strongly suggest that unconsciously, most people know that the right side of their face is best to present to the outside world. They are also subliminally aware that their left side is a more natural reflection of who they really are.
Leonardo understood these subtleties of expression. Mona Lisa is best appreciated by observing the left side of her face.

One of Leonardo’s great artistic innovations was his inclusion of the subject’s hands in a portrait. Up to that point, portraiture included only the upper chest and head, but Leonardo saw in the expressiveness of hands a gateway to the subject’s state of mind, his psychological portraiture implicitly invalidating the mind-body split and painting consciousness itself. This brings us back to Leonardo’s own brain. Shlain’s most salient point has to do with the splitting of the brain into two functionally different hemispheres, an adaptation that catapulted us ahead of all other creatures in intellectual capacity and also accounted for Leonardo’s singular genius. Reflecting on findings from studies of split-brain patients, Shlain explains:

The most sublime function of the left hemisphere — critical thinking — has at its core a set of syllogistic formulations that undergird logic. In order to reach the correct answer, the rules must be followed without deviation. So dependent is the left brain on rules that Joseph Bogen, the neurosurgeon who operated on many of the first split-brain patients, called it the propositional brain: It processes information according to an underlying set of propositions. In contrast, he called the right hemisphere the appositional brain, because it does just the opposite: It processes information through nonlinear, non-rule-based means, incorporating differing converging determinants into a coherent thought. Bogen’s classification of the brain into two different types, proposition versus apposition, has been generally accepted by neuroscientists, and it appears often in neurocognitive literature.

The right brain’s contribution to creativity, however, is not absolute, because the left brain is constantly seeking explanations for inexplicable events. Unfortunately, although many are extremely creative, without the input of the right hemisphere, they are almost universally wrong. It seems that there is no phenomenon for which the left brain has not confabulated an explanation. This attribute seems specific for the left language lobe.

Artwork from Alice and Martin Provensen's vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo. Click image for more.

Echoing Hanna Arendt’s assertion that the ability to ask “unanswerable questions” is the hallmark of the human mind and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous aphorism that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” Shlain describes how this interplay illuminates the creative process:

The first step in the creative process is for an event, an unidentified object, an unusual pattern, or a strange juxtaposition to alert the right brain. In a mysterious process not well understood, it prods the left brain to pose a question. Asking the right question goes to the heart of creativity. Questions are a Homo sapiens forte. Despite the amazing variation in animal communication, there is only one species that can ask a question and — most impressively — dispute the answer. But Mother Nature would not have provided us with language simply to ask a question. She had to equip us with a critical appendage that could investigate those questions. That appendage was the opposable thumb. Thumbs have a lot to do with curiosity, which in turn leads to creativity

Building on previous research on the four stages of the creative process, Shlain outlines the role of the two hemispheres which, despite working in concert most of the time, are subject to the dominance of the left hemisphere:

Natural Selection gave the left hemisphere hegemony over the right. Under certain circumstances, however, the minor hemisphere must escape the control of the major one to produce its most outstanding contribution — creativity. For creativity to manifest itself, the right brain must free itself from the deadening hand of the inhibitory left brain and do its work, unimpeded and in private. Like radicals plotting a revolution, they must work in secret out of the range of the left hemisphere’s conservatives. After working out many of the kinks in the darkness of the right hemisphere’s subterranean processes, the idea, play, painting, theory, formula, or poetic metaphor surfaces exuberantly, as if from beneath a manhole cover that was overlaying the unconscious, and demands the attention of the left brain. Startled, the other side responds in wonderment.

When a creative impulse arises in the right hemisphere, Shlain writes, it is ferried over to the left side of the brain via the mighty corpus callosum — the largest and most poorly understood structure in the human brain, and a significant key to the mystery of Leonardo’s extraordinary creativity in attaining the two grand goals of his life: to study and discern the truth behind natural phenomena, and to communicate that truth with astounding artistry. 

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

But Shlain’s most intriguing point about Leonardo’s brain has to do with the corpus callosum and its relation to the gendered brain. We already know that “psychological androgyny” is key to creativity, and it turns out that the corpus callosum has a major role in that. For one thing, Shlain points out, there are differences in the size of that essential bundle of fibers between right-handed heterosexual males, or RHHM, and all other variants of handedness, gender, and orientation — left-handed heterosexual males, heterosexual women of both hand dominances, and homosexual men and women. The notion of the gendered brain is, of course, problematic and all sweeping statistical generalizations tend to exist on bell-shaped curves, with outliers on either side. Still, Shlain relays some fascinating findings:

The most dichotomous brain — that is, where the two hemispheres are the most specialized — belongs to a right-handed heterosexual male. Approximately 97 percent of key language modules reside in his left hemisphere, making it unequivocally his dominant lobe. This extreme skewing is not present to the same degree in women, both right- and left-handed; gays and lesbians; and left-handers of both sexes.
[…]
Females, right- or left-handed, have a more even distribution between the lobes regarding language and brain dominance. Right-handed women still have the large majority of their language modules in their left brains, but whereas an RHHM would most likely have 97 percent of his wordsmithing skills concentrated in the left lobe, a woman would be more likely to have a lesser percentage (about 80 percent) in the left brain, and the remaining 20 percent in the right brain.

Shlain cites MRI research by Sandra Witelson, who found that the anterior commissure, the largest of the corpus callosum’s anatomically distinct “component cables,can be up to 30% larger in women than in men, and other studies have found that it is 15% larger in gay men than in straight men. Taken together, these two findings about the corpus callosum — that RHHMs have more specialized brains and slimmer connecting conduits between the two hemispheres — reveal important deductive insight about Leonardo’s multi-talented brain, which fused so elegantly the prototypical critical thinking of the left hemisphere with the wildly creative and imaginative faculties of the right. Evidence from his notebooks and life strongly suggests that Leonardo was what scientists call an ESSP — an individual with exclusive same-sex preference. He never married or had children, rarely referenced women in his writings and whenever he did, it was only in the context of deciphering beauty; he was once jailed for homosexual conduct and spent some time in prison while awaiting a verdict; his anatomical drawings of the female reproductive system and genitalia are a stark outlier of inaccuracy amid his otherwise remarkably medically accurate illustrations. All of this is significant because ESSP’s don’t conform to the standard brain model of RHHM. They are also more likely to be left-handed, as Leonardo was. In fact, Shlain points out, left-handers tend to have a larger corpus callosum than right-handers, and artists in general are more likely to be left-handed than the average personaround 9% of the general population are estimated to be left-handed, and 30-40% of the student body in art schools are lefties. A left-handed ESSP, Leonardo was already likely to have a larger corpus callosum, but Shlain turns to the power of metaphor in illuminating the imagination for further evidence suggesting heightened communication between his two hemispheres:

The form of language that Leonardo used was highly metaphorical. He posed riddles and buried metaphors in his paintings. For this to occur, he had to have had a large connection of corpus callosum fibers between his right hemisphere and his left. The form of language based on metaphor— poetry, for instance—exists in the right hemisphere, even though language is primarily a left hemispheric function. To accomplish the task of the poet, a significant connection must exist between the parts of the right hemisphere, and, furthermore, there must be many interconnections between the two hemispheres. These fibers must be solidly welded to the language centers in the left hemisphere so that poetic metaphors can be expressed in language. Leonardo used the metaphor in his writings extensively— another example of connected hemispheres.

And therein lies Shlain’s point: The source of Leonardo’s extraordinary creativity was his ability to access different ways of thinking, to see more clearly the interconnectedness of everything, and in doing so, to reach a different state of consciousness than the rest of us:

His ESSP-ness put him somewhere between the masculine and the feminine. His left-handedness, ambidexterity, and mirror writing were indications of a nondominant brain. His adherence to vegetarianism at a time when most everyone was eating meat suggests a holistic view of the world. The equality between his right and left hemispheres contributed to his achievements in art and science, unparalleled by any other individual in history. His unique brain wiring also allowed him the opportunity to experience the world from the vantage point of a higher dimension. The inexplicable wizardry present in both his art and his science can be pondered only by stepping back and asking: Did he have mental faculties that differed merely in degree, or did he experience a form of cognition qualitatively different from the rest of us? I propose that many of Leonardo’s successes (and failures) were the result of his gaining access to a higher consciousness.

Significantly, Leonardo was able to envision time and space differently from the rest of us, something evidenced in both his art and his scientific studies, from revolutionizing the art perspective to predating Newton’s famous action-reaction law by two centuries when he wrote, “See how the wings, striking the air, sustain the heavy eagle in the thin air on high. As much force is exerted by the object against the air as by the air against the object.” Shlain poses the ultimate question:

When pondering Leonardo’s brain we must ask the question: Did his brain perhaps represent a jump toward the future of man? Are we as a species moving toward an appreciation of space-time and nonlocality?

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

With an eye to Leonardo’s unflinching nonconformity — his pacifism in an era that glorified war, his resolute left-handedness despite concentrated efforts at the time to train children out of that devilish trait, his vegetarianism and holistic faith in nature amid a carnivorous culture — Shlain turns an optimistic gaze to the evolution of our species:

The appearance of Leonardo in the gene pool gives us hope. He lived in an age when war was accepted. Yet, later in life, he rejected war and concentrated on the search for truth and beauty. He believed he was part of nature and wanted to understand and paint it, not control it. […] We humans are undergoing a profound metamorphosis as we transition into an entirely novel species. For those who doubt it is happening, remember: For millions of years dogs traveled in packs as harsh predators, their killer instinct close to the surface. Then humans artificially interfered with the canine genome beginning a mere six thousand years ago. No dog could have predicted in prehistoric times that the huge, snarling member, faithful to a pack, would evolve into individual Chihuahuas and lap-sitting poodles.

Leonardo’s Brain is a mind-bending, consciousness-stretching read in its totality. Complement it with Shlain on integrating wonder and wisdom and how the alphabet sparked the rise of patriarchy.

ORIGINAL: Dangerous Minds
by Maria Popova

viernes, 21 de noviembre de 2014

Are Telepathy Experiments Stunts, or Science?

Scientists have established direct communication between two human brains, but is it more than a stunt?


WHY IT MATTERS


Communicating directly with the brain could help scientists better understand how it encodes information.

Two scientific teams this year patched together some well-known technologies to directly exchange information between human brains.

The projects, in the U.S. and Europe, appear to represent the first occasions in history that any two people have transmitted information without either of them speaking or moving any muscle. For now, however, the “telepathy” technology remains so crude that it’s unlikely to have any practical impact.

In a paper published last week in the journal PLOS One, neuroscientists and computer engineers at the University of Washington in Seattle described a brain-to-brain interface they built that lets two people coöperatively play a simple video game. Earlier this year, a company in Barcelona called Starlab described transmitting short words like “ciao,” encoded as binary digits, between the brains of individuals on different continents.

Both studies used a similar setup: the sender of the message wore an EEG (electroencephalography) cap that captured electrical signals generated by his cortex while he thought about moving his hands or feet. These signals were then sent over the Internet to a computer that translated them into jolts delivered to a recipient’s brain using a magnetic coil. In Starlab’s case, the recipient perceived a flash of light. In the University of Washington’s case, the magnetic pulse caused an involuntary twitch of the wrist over a touchpad, to shoot a rocket in a computer game.

Neither EEG recording nor this kind of brain stimulation (called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS) are new technologies. What is novel is bringing the two together for the purposes of simple communication. The Starlab researchers suggested that such “hyperinteraction technologies” could “eventually have a profound impact on the social structure of our civilization.

For now, however, the technology remains extremely limited. Neither experiment transmitted emotions, thoughts, or ideas. Instead they used human brains essentially as relays to convey a simple signal between two computers. The rate as which information was transmitted was also glacial.

Safety guidelines limit the use of TMS devices to a single pulse every 20 seconds. But even without that restriction, a person can only transmit a few bits of information per minute wearing an EEG cap, because willfully changing the shape of their brain wave takes deliberate concentration.

By comparison, human speech conveys information at roughly 3,000 bits per minute, according to one estimate. That means the information content of a 90-second conversation would take a day or more to transmit mentally.

Researchers intend to explore more precise, and faster, ways of conveying information. Andreas Stocco, one of the University of Washington researchers, says his team has a $1 million grant from the WM Keck Foundation to upgrade its equipment and to carry out experiments with different ways of exchanging information between minds, including with focused ultrasound waves that can stimulate nerves through the skull.

Stocco says an important use of the technology would be to help scientists test their ideas about how neurons in the brain represent information, especially about abstract concepts. For instance, if a researcher believed she could identify the neuronal pattern reflecting, say, the idea of a yellow airplane, one way to prove it would be to transmit that pattern to another person and ask what she was thinking.

You can see this interface as two different things,” says Stocco. “One is a super-cool toy that we have developed because it’s futuristic and an engineering feat but that doesn’t produce science. The other is, in the future, the ultimate way to test hypotheses about how the brain encodes information.

November 21, 2014

Pathway Genomics: Bringing Watson’s Smarts to Personal Health and Fitness

Michael Nova, Chief Medical Officer, Pathway Genomics
To describe me as a health nut would be a gross understatement. I run five days a week, bench press 275 pounds, do 120 pushups at a time, and surf the really big waves in Indonesia. I don’t eat red meat, I typically have berries for breakfast and salad for dinner, and I consume an immense amount of kale—even though I don’t like the way it tastes. My daily vitamin/supplement regimen includes Alpha-lipoic acid, Coenzyme Q and Resveratrol. And, yes, I wear one of those fitness gizmos around my neck to count how many steps I take in a day.

I have been following this regimen for years, and it’s an essential part of my life.

For anybody concerned about health, diet and fitness, these are truly amazing times. There’s a superabundance of health and fitness information published online. We’re able to tap into our electronic health records, we can measure just about everything we do physically, and, thanks to the plummeting price of gene sequencing, we can map our complete genomes for as little as $3000 and get readings on smaller chunks of genomic data for less than $100.

Think of it as your own personal health big-data tsunami.

The problem is we’re confronted with way too much of a good thing. There’s no way an individual like me or you can process all of the raw information that’s available to us—much less make sense out of it. That’s why I’m looking forward to being one of the first customers for a new mobile app that my company, Pathway Genomics, is developing with help from IBM Watson Group.

Surfing in Indonesia
Called Pathway Panorama, the smartphone app will make it possible for individuals to ask questions in everyday language and get answers in less than three seconds that take into consideration their personal health, diet and fitness scenarios combined with more general information. The result is recommendations that fit each of us like a surfer’s wet suit. Say you’ve just flown from your house on the coast to a city that’s 10,000 feet above sea level. You might want to ask how far you could safely run on your first day after getting off the plane—and at what pulse rate should you slow your jogging pace.

Or say you’re diabetic and you’re in a city you have never visited before. You had a pastry for breakfast and you want to know when you should take your next shot of insulin. In an emergency, you’ll be able to find specialized healthcare providers near where you are who can take care of you.

Whether you’re totally healthy and want to maximize your physical performance or you have health issues and want to reduce risks, this service will give you the advice you need. It’s like a guardian angel sitting on your shoulder who will also pre-emptively offer you help even if you don’t ask for it.

We use Watson’s language processing and cognitive abilities and combine them with information from a host of sources. The critical data comes from individual 
DNA and biomarker analysis that Pathway Genomics performs using a variety of devices and software tools.

Pathway Genomics, which launched 6 years ago in San Diego, already has a growing business of providing individual health reports delivered primarily through individuals’ personal physicians. With our Pathway Panorama app, we’ll reach out directly to consumers in a big way.

We’re in the middle of raising a new round of venture financing to pay for the expansion of our business. This brings to $80 million the amount of venture capital we have raised in the past six years—which makes us one of the best capitalized healthcare startups.

IBM is investing in Pathway Genomics as part of its commitment of $100 million to companies that are bringing to market a new generation of apps and services infused with Watson’s cognitive computing intelligence. This is the third such investment IBM has made this year.

We expect the app to be available in midi2015. We have not yet set pricing, but we expect to charge a small monthly fee. We also are creating a version for physicians.

To me, the real beauty of the Panorama app is that it will make it possible for us to safeguard our health and improve our fitness without obsessing all the time. We’ll just live our lives, and, when we need help, we’ll get it.

——-

To learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing.

ORIGINAL: A Smarter Planet
November, 12th 2014
By Michael Nova M.D.