Friday, July 19, 2013

Hacking the brain: Embedded meaning

Yesterday, while poking around on YouTube, I came across a gorgeous visual music piece that pretty much nails what it's like inside my head on those good days when words are just flowing off my fingertips. Spheres and rays, and shifting colors, all rotating and dancing in response to the intensity and tones of the strings in Max Richter's "Infra 5." It gives an impression of all the interconnected variables in play while writing, especially when working on fiction, and most especially on a novel. All those elements acting on one another to produce a cascade of effects and evoked emotions with their own rules-driven choreographies and a little randomness thrown in.

Of course someone else might not see that all. At least not on their own without having it explained to them. Even then they might not see the likeness. And there's no actual information embedded in the display of shapes and motion. At best just an evoked impression of similarities.

She sighed and fell onto the bed like an autumn leaf tumbling from a tree branch. The car's tires shrieked like death itself as the vehicle skidded to a halt, just inches away...

Like, like, like.

But what if we could tweak our minds to embed and read information in a complex visual display like those dancing cosmic spheres, as automatically as our brains already do with spoken words and sentences. There's hardly any conscious thought involved on our part once we've learned a language, and we also do so to a lesser degree with visual symbols like written words. Though those take much longer and far more effort to learn than their spoken counterparts. Imagine if you could tell everything you needed to about a song by seeing a complex and reactive array of shapes and colors and light, and appreciate the song as fully as if you'd heard it just then. It could create an entirely new type of perspective and reveal new information or emotional responses not available to most people. Like flying above one's hometown for first time, an experience that creates a novel appreciation of scale and distance, and allows an airborne viewer to see patterns in buildings and traffic that are otherwise invisible while on the ground.

Other Brain Stuff this Week

Chimps, Orangutans Have Human-Like Memories - Wired Science:

'via Blog this'

In other news, there are articles popping up around the science news-o-sphere about a study that reportedly proves some species of great apes have human-like, highly integrated autobiographical memories. In other words, that they have a recall of past situations they've experienced, rather than just a recollection of objects and entities and some loose associations and spatial relationships between them. To remember navigating a maze you don't necessarily need to recall the experience of running through it - of all the emotions, and textures, and the floor beneath your feet, and what you were thinking about. All you need is the ability to recognize a few landmarks in relation to one another. In fact, we human beings use that same form of abbreviated memory more of than than not.

Ah!  Right at that corner.

This intersection looks familiar. Left here. 

After reading up on the study, it doesn't sound like there is conclusive evidence to definitively say that chimps and orangutans remember past situations, and not just elements within them.

That's not to say they don't. It's just a lack of cinching empirical data at this point.

The wetware behind autobiographical memory is a fairly recently evolved systems, with its roots potentially grounded in an older predecessor system. It's one that we use to reconstruct situations we lived through: the visual cortex rebuilding the sights, and its finished signals talking to the frontal lobe and the other sensory cortices like smell an audio-processing as they work together in tandem.

The large apes are our closest remaining kin, with big brains filled with some nifty and fairly new wetware. So it's possible they've either got an autobiographical memory system similar to ours. The Japanese snow monkeys I once worked with, living in large family groups, certainly had an immense recall of all things related to social situations and the behaviors of individuals. My suspicion, though, is that when it comes to the apes the matter won't be conclusively settled until we'v mapped all the pathways of our autobiographical system and compared it to the grayware within the heads of our cousins.

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