On Tue, Jun 7, 2011 at 5:53 AM, Pete Hughes <pet...@gmail.com> wrote:

> Jason,
> I found this compelling, are you saying that the difficulty of explaining
> qualia is due to the language centre of the brain being able to access only
> an abstract 'interface' (I'm a object oriented thinker) of the sensors? then
> what about emotions? I'm trying to pre-empt your response to 'why don't you
> put your hand in the fire and enjoy the information' and I just can't, I
> like the way you talk so I will pester you with the question.


Thanks, I am happy to attempt an answer.  The below is a conclusion from
taking seriously http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modularity_of_mind which is
supported by several pieces of evidence:

1. Anesthesia

The naive view is that anesthetics work by turning off the brain or causing
activity in it to cease.  This is incorrect, there is still a great deal of
activity within an anestetized mind, yet consciousness is abolished.  The
person is unable to move, remember, sense pain, etc.  Yet other brain
functions, such as regulating blood pressure or heart rate continue.  The
leading theory for why this is, is called cognitive unbinding.  Anesthetics
operate by confusing or dampening communication between neurons.
 Cognitive unbinding proposes that this causes disparate brain regions to
become cut off from each other as neural signals can only travel so far
given the interference of the chemicals.  The result is different brain
regions are cut off from each other, the pain processing part of the brain
doesn't receive information from the touch processing part of the brain, the
hippocampus doesn't receive information to encode as memories, the muscles
don't receive signals to move which are under conscious control, yet
independent brain functions (which don't require interaction with other
brain regions) such as those that control breathing or heart rate continue
to function.  It is not the sheer will to survive which keeps the lungs
breathing or heart pumping, as animals which are conscious breathers (such
as the dolhpins and whales) will suffocate under anesthesia.  This also
forbids them from sleeping, they rest only one hemisphere of their brain at
a time.

2. Different forms of brain damage

Visual information is a cast collection of processed information.  Before
the image reaches your conscious awareness your brain has applied edge
detection, depth and color perception, object recognition, motion sensing,
and blind spot extrapolation, among other things.  Each of these functions
independently and can be impaired or lost without affecting other parts of
the brain.  There are cases where brain damage to the V5 section of the
brain causes motion blindness (sufferers see the world as a collection of
static frames, devoid of any concept of motion), likewise people can lose
the ability to recognize faces, or recognize objects (these functions occur
in different parts of the brain, so while someone might lose the ability to
recognize objects they can still recognize faces and vice versa), finally
there are people who have lost the ability to process colors.  Not only can
they no longer see colors, but they lose the ability to recall colors
altogether.  Since the processing is done in specific areas of the brain,
these modules share only the high-level results of their processing with
other brain regions.  (This is the limited-access part of modularity).  It
is not possible for all areas of the brain to do everything independently of
course, so if they interact with other brain regions, they must receive high
level results, not the raw input that a particular module processed.

3. Pain perception

This is getting close to your question on emotions and why people don't
stick their hand in the fire.  It's been found that the perception of pain
is handlered in one part of the brain, but what makes pain painful
(unpleasent) is handled by an entirely different part of the brain: the
anterior cingulate cortex.  Damage to this part of the brain (or severing
nerves connected to it in an operation called a cingulatomy) brings about
the curious phenomenon of pain dissociation.  Someone with pain dissociation
can provide specific information about the location and intensity of the
pain, but it no longer bothers them or causes any distress.  An example:

Paul Brand, a surgeon and author on the subject of pain recounted the case
of a woman who had suffered with a severe and chronic pain for more than a
decade: She agreed to a surgery that would separate the neural pathways
between her frontal lobes and the rest of her brain.  The surgery was a
success.  Brand visited the woman a year later, and inquired about her pain.
 She said, “Oh, yes, its still there.  I just don't worry about it anymore.”
 With a smile she continued, “In fact, it's still agonizing.  But I don't

To answer your question about emotion I think Marvin Minsky provides a good
answer.  You might say that given the above description of pain perception,
we have only defined that feelings in terms of its effect on how we think,
you might object that I have only described how hurting affects the mind but
we still can't express how hurting feels.  Marvin Minsky called this:

“a huge mistake-that attempt to reify 'feeling' as an independent entity,
with an essence that's indescribable.  As I see it, feelings are not strange
alien things.  It is precisely those cognitive changes themselves that
constitute what 'hurting' is-and this also includes all those clumsy
attempts to represent and summarize those changes.  The big mistake comes
from looking for some single, simple, 'essence' of hurting, rather than
recognizing that this is the word we use for complex rearrangement of our
disposition of resources.”

According to Minsky, human consciousness involves the interplay between as
many as 400 separate sub-organs of the brain.  If you try to imagine the
resulting symphony of activity that comes from these individual regions,
each acting on each others' signals and in turn reacting to how those other
regions are then affected, you can see it becomes a kind of perpetual and
intertwined feedback loop of enormous complexity.  I think in short,
emotions represent changes to a large number of different brain regions


> "Your brain contains information received by the senses, it is a system
> which can enter many different states based on that information (it
> interprets it).  One of those states is your brain thinking about the fact
> that it knows it is touching the back of your hand with one of your fingers
> (that may represent only a few bits of information), now consider that your
> brain has 100,000,000,000 neurons and you can begin to see that more complex
> qualia such as vision involve vastly greater amounts of information (some
> 30% of your cortex is devoted to processing visual information).  Together
> with the modularity of mind (different sections are specialized and compute
> different things, and share the results with other brain regions), you can
> begin to see why qualia such as Red or Green are so hard to explain.
>  Consider Google's self-driving cars.  They need to determine whether the
> stop light is Yellow, Red or Green.  The cameras collect many MB worth of
> raw R,G,B data per second which is processed by a specialized function which
> determines the state of the stop light.  The result Red, Green, or Yellow is
> transmitted to other parts of the driving software, for example the parts
> which control acceleration.  This part of the software knows there is a
> difference between "Light is Red" vs. "Light is Green", but it cannot say
> how they are different or why it knows they are different (this was decided
> elsewhere).  It is much like the verbal section of your brain trying to
> articulate the difference between red and green, it knows they are different
> but cannot say how.  It does now have access to the raw data received from
> the millions of cones in your retina."

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