Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Your brain is virtual

Apparently the brain uses a virtual machine architecture when solving problems or imagining the future. It takes a slice of the forebrain and midbrain to generate a model of the whole brain and run a simulation, complete with emotions, memory, and symbolic reasoning. It runs several of these virtual brains in parallel to solve each problem, creating new ones and retiring others as it hones in on a solution. Even stranger, many parts of the brain spend a lot of time simulating the behavior of other parts of the brain. The reason: Long-ranged communication within the brain is expensive in energy consumption and heat generation, and requires some fairly bulky infrastructure. Hence simulations shaped by a minimum flow of outside data is an efficient way to get things done.

Simulations. It's simulations all the way down.

Postmodernism, BS, and Constructed Realities

If you've spent anytime around academia in the humanities during the past thirty or so years you've probably had to wade through the stinking heap known as postmodernism. To keep things short and sweet, postmodernism is the most infamous of the there-is-no-objective-reality schools. According to many of it's followers there are only cultural constructs such as Text that we can deconstruct and analyze within the context of the current oppressive patriarchal power structures.

This is the same school of thought that tells us that science has no special power when it comes to describing the world -- it's just one more social construction erected by evil dead white men. We're all blank slates with no essential nature as biological beings, and because of that we can never really know what's going on in one another's heads. Even our emotions are social creations.

In other words, it's a whole lot of flagrant solipsistic BS. But not entirely. Our realities are flawed constructs. The postmodernists got that right. But rather than blank slates arbitrarily filled in by the environment, biology plays a major role in both the choice of content and the construction of our more complex psychological structures.

We're each a slate born mostly empty, but we also come with innate content that guides what gets written down. Those basic drives and preferences bias us towards paying attention to those aspects of the universe that aid us in survival, reproduction, and the pursuit of the emotional and physiological balance known as homeostasis. That and they make us hunger for the socialization and meme-swapping behavior that is the basis of culture. The latter two are so crucial to our ability to survive and reproduce that our brains are extraordinarily sensitive to all the trappings of culture. More than one luminary in the field of neurology has commented that the organ of thought is made in part to be shaped by such bodies of shared concepts and values.

So it's complicated. We're neither nature nor nurture, but rather products of nature through nurture as they say in the sciences these days. Not hardwired by genes or programmed by the environment, but softwired to generate the feedback loops that adapt us to the world.

Updates

School, the job hunt for this summer, genre writing, and self-teaching myself computer science skills outside of school are still keeping me plenty busy this week. That said, there are several dozen Hacking the Brain, States and Nations, and military technology articles on tap for this blog. Hopefully things will slow down in week or two and I'll be back to posting here with greater regularity. In the meanwhile I've got to make sure I'll be able to keep a roof over head and eat once school is done. You know, small stuff :)

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