THYMOS
A newsletter of research on Consciousness, Mind and Life

by piero scaruffi

Researchers are welcome to submit news and articles about breakthroughs and events in the areas of cognitive science, artificial intelligence, neurobiology, artificial life, linguistics, neural networks, connectionism, cognitive psychology, mind, philosophy, psychology, consciousness. Email the editor at this Email address. Readers who would like to receive periodic news and updates on cognitive science, philosophy of mind, neurobiology, artificial intelligence, etc, are invited to register to my mailing list.

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November 2001
  • The cell's cytoskeleton contains protein structures called "microtubules". We used to think that neurons had no inner structure, but now more and more attention is being paid to its internal structure and in particular to its cytoskeleton. The microtubules of the cytoskeleton could give rise quantum processes and account for free will, and this has started a whole school of thought about quantum consciousness. (Lots of information on the cytoskeleton at: Nature.com). Kazuhisa Kinoshita at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden is one of the researchers who are studying the behavior of microtubules. He has published a paper in which he describes the "dynamic instability" of these structures (they self-destroy rapidly) and shows how he has produced microtubules in vitro that are instead "well-behaved", a step towards understanding them better.
  • Bose-Einstein condensates are exotic materials in which all atoms become one, they become indistinguishable. Some theories of consciousness (see my book, chapter on Consciousness) are interested in Bose-Einstein condensates because consciousness behaves like a Bose-Einstein condensate and one only has to prove that Bose-Einstein condensates are possible in the brain to make the connection. Unfortunately, so far Bose-Einstein condensates have been produced only for elements that hardly qualify as "thinking" stuff (rubidium, sodium, hydrogen, helium, lithium). Giovanni Modugno at the University of Firenze has successfully produced a Bose-Einstein condensate out of a mixture of rubidium and potassium atoms. This has added potassium to the list of condensable elements and, most important, the technique they employed promises to further expand this restricted family, thereby making Bose-Einstein condensates more common than we previously thought.
  • There has been growing debate about the regeneration of neurons since it was first announced that our brain is capable of creating new neurons not only during development but also in adult age. This would mean that our brain is not just slowly "dying" but continuously being regenerated. David Kornack at the University of Rochester and Pasko Rakic of Yale Univ now report that they have found no evidence of new neurons in the neocortex of adult primates (the neocortex being where most of our "intelligence" resides). The only cells that are created are supporting cells that have little to do with "thinking". This is somewhat in contrast with previous experiments that showed growth of new neurons at least in the hippocampus.
June 2001
  • Researchers at the Institute for Neuroscience in Baltimore report that a protein called "agrin" has been found to regulate the immunological synapse. This synapse is not the kind of synapse found in the brain: it represents the border between the organism and the antigen that has infected it. The immune system works thanks to two cellular systems, both of which involve cells called "lymphocytes". One kind of lymphocytes produce a circulating (i.e., mediated by body fluids) immune system derived from B-cells ("B" because they are derived from bone marrow cells). The other kind of lympohocytes produce a cellular (i.e., mediated by cells) immune system derived from T-cells ("T" because they are derived from the thymus). B-cell immunity includes the circulating antibodies, whereas T-cells act as coordinators and effectors of the immune system. The findings show that it is agrin that determines if and when a "T cell" signals. Agrin is so called because it is an "aggregating" protein:it induces the aggregation of signaling proteins, i.e. it helps in the "construction" of nervous pathways (or, better, "signaling domains"). It is released from the terminals of motor neurons and it is well known to be involved in the development of the nervous system. (Incidentally, it is also abnormality associated with Alzheimer's disease). This finding confirms that agrin is responsible for the creation of signaling domains in both immune and nervous system; and it sheds light on how it "regulates" immune-system cells. Given the similarities between immune and nervous system, it is likely that this research will also shed light on how the brain is built and regulated.
  • www.humanbrainmapping.org is the website of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) a Boston-based organization dedicated to neuroimaging research and in particular to creating a neuroimaging database. Both the name and the mission mirror the Human Genome Project. Unfortunately, the neuroimaging community has not done a good job of sharing data. Therefore there isn't yet a global repository of brain images.
  • If we needed any further evidence that our mind shows us only what it wants to show us, Yoram Bonneh, of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, has documented how tthe brain erases some aspects of the visual field.He prepared a computer screen with a swirling pattern of blue dots superimposed on some stationary yellow dots. To most observers, the yellow dots appear to come and go. But in reality the erasing happens in the mind, not the computer (see the story in Nature Magazine). Of course, one cannot rule out that similar "discarding" or even altering of reality do not occur more often, during our daily life. Bonneh's explanation of this "motion-induced blindness" is that our mind has a theory of the world and sensory inputs must conform with that theory or are discarded. The illusion may well be the result of a fight for supremacy between the circuitry of the brain that makes sense of the world as a whole and the circuitry of the brain that deals with sensory input, the former suppressing sensory input that conflicts with its theory the world.
  • Andrew Cohen, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Howard Georgi have presented a theory on how the universe came to be a four-dimensional one. According to their theory, the universe may have started with just a single dimension: time. As the universe cooled down after the big bang, space was born with its three dimensions. Far from being eternal, space would merely be the stage on which particles interact: there is no space without particles. Particles came first, space was a consequence. A fundamental theory of spacetime must therefore start with particles, and then deduce space. This would represent a complete reversal of our cosmology, as dramatic as the one due to Copernicus centuries ago. In the beginning , after all, there was only a point. Whatever the universe was before the big bang, it did not have a spatial dimension: it was one dimension-less dot. The "big-bang" explosion caused a cooling of the temperature, and with the cooling things started (literally) materializing: particles, atoms, molecules, etc. These are moving objects, and they move in three dimensions. In a sense, each dimension corresponds to a level of energetic excitation. A little energy is enough to move in one direction, but only back and forth: the world has one dimension. A little more energy is needed to start moving sideways as well. Even more energy is necessary to move up and down while moving back and forth and sideways. A new dimension arises when the universe's energy allows movement of a new kind. Needless to say, the question is now: why three? Why not two or four? One reply could be that maybe we are still transitioning and that eventually a fourth spatial dimension will be born and then another and then another. (As a reminder, superstring theory presumes ten dimensions). Another question is: why were dimensions born in later stages of the universe if they require some energy and energy was maximum at the very beginning, in the infinite density and temperature of the (dimension-less) big bang? That requires some technical discussion on that "energy". But the bottom line is that we know some particles (the gluons that glue together quarks in protons) are very weak at high energies and very strong at lower energies.They "embody" energy that can do amazing things, but they will do them only at low energies. It would not be surprising if the same turned out to be true of all dimension-creating particles. Interestingly enough, this theory is relatively simple to test. If it is true, then elementary particles such as quarks and gluons should move in fewer dimensions when the conditions of the early universe are replicated inside colliders. Raise the temperatures and those particles should start moving only back and forth on a straight line. If we could raise the temperature to the level it was during the big bang (don't try this at home), particles should stop moving completely.
May 2001
  • Kevin Warwick is professor of Cybernetics at the Reading University (UK). In 1998 he made the headlines by inserting a microchip in his arm and connecting it to the environment (his house). This way Warwick added a new type of interaction between his body and the environment. In September, Warwick plans to connect such a microchip with his nervous system to gather information about the sensations and the feelings associated with our mental life. First and foremost, Warwick wants to "store" information about our internal life. This will provide invaluable knowledge and possibly allow to neutralize some emotions (eg, pain). Note that Warwick is both the subject and the object of his experiments. The closer you get to consciousness, the less you can use external objects. Rats are great to figure out how conditioning works, but not ideal for figuring out how it feels to be human. Later, the same chip will be implanted in his wife. Once the two chips are connected, telepathy will become reality, as each of the two will be able to "feel" the emotions of the other. Cyberpunks will love the idea that same day we will exchange emotions just like today we exchange emails.

February 2001
  • Despite the hype of the joint announcement about the completion of the human genome project, almost nothing has been completed. While the media have widely reported that the number of genes in humans is 30,000, this is only a hasty estimate by the parties who wanted to make the announcement as soon as possible. The estimate by Human Genome Sciences (http://www.hgsi.com/) still stands at 100,000. The fact that Human Genome Sciences is proceeding much slower than Celera does not mean that Celera did a better job. Celera candidly admits that most of the DNA appears to be "junk". That's another thing that the human genome project was supposed to explain. It is obviously not junk. It just takes time to figure out what it is.

January 2001
  • Researchers have found strong evidence that dreaming is not a human exclusive and that dreaming helps consolidate memories. MIT researchers led by Matthew Wilson detected patterns of brain activity in sleeping rats that match their patterns of brain activity during day activity. The laboratory rats appear to be dreaming of the maze they were learning to navigate. The patterns of brain activity that were observed when the rats ran a circular maze were exactly duplicated while the rats were sleeping. The neural patterns are the firing of clusters of cells in the hippocampus, one of the main areas for memory formation and storage. The duplication was extremely faithful. One could pinpoint the place in the maze were the rat was dreaming of being. This finding is important to support theories such as Allan Hobson's and Jonathan Winson's, according to which the day's memories are "rehearsed" in the hippocampus during sleep and moved to long-term memory.
  • In 1984 the austrialian geologist Simon Wilde extracted a 4.4 billion year old crystal from an ancient rock. That crystal, according to the American geologist John Valley, is now yielding information about the Earth's past. It may signal that oceans already existed. The birth of life is assumed to coincide with the birth of water, take or leave a few million years. So far, it was believed that we living beings are 3.85 billion years old (happy birthday :-), because oceans were presumed to be 3.85 billion years old, but this finding would push back that date by half a billion years. Biologists and chemists have long debated how life could have developed so "quickly" from the "primordial soup", since the chances of the right elements occurring at the right time in the right place at the right temperature are very low. But an extra half a billion years would greatly increase the chances that chemistry worked out some magic by itself.
  • Neuroscientists and zoologists have failed to identify brain structures that are specialized for musical tasks (several structures seem to be implicated, and those structures are shared with other tasks such as language and reasoning), but their studies are showing that our brains are naturally adapted to music, and we share this property with most if not all vertebrates. This lends credibility to the thesis that music is a very ancient mechanism. First, music was one of the earliest cognitive functions performed by humans: musical instruments have been found (in France and Sweden) that are at least 50,000 years old. Thus, we were playing music way before we learned to paint, sculpt or write. Second, an analysis of sounds produced by birds and whales has shown that animals employ the same system of musical composition (rhythm, notes, harmony) that humans employ. While each animal has different anatomical structures that enable it to produce different kinds of sounds (especially whales, who boast a seven-octave range), all birds and mammals study so far tend to use the same "aesthetics". Animals tend to "sing in key" and to "rhyme". Their songs tend to employ the structure of commercial pop music (intro, refrain, bridge, refrain). That, of course, explains why we humans enjoy listening to birds singing. Animals employ counterpoint and "call and response" in a natural way. A bird's song is immediately picked up by another bird that joins in the jamming. Since those species have wildly different evolutionary ages, this phenomenon suggests that musical cognition arose very early in the development of vertebrates, way before humans were born.
    Prominent among cognitive-musical research are the works of the Canadian neurologist Isabelle Peretz (who has studied the neural circuits where musical perception occurs, as documented in "Le cerveau musical"). and the American composer Patricia Gray, whose recent article covers the universality of music. More information can be found at the Music Cognition page at Ohio State.

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