What’s the Brain?

One thing that we all have in common is our brains.  We all have these immensely powerful computers in our heads.  For perspective, the total of humanity’s computing power (including things like cell phones) is probably a little more than one brain.  Understanding the brain is important to operating it, so today’s post focuses on the brain.

Let’s start with an exercise.  The word brain.  Your eye falls across the word, sending the pattern of shapes into the brain.  Inside your brain, neurons search for a pattern they recognize.  They pass that information to other neurons which are looking for other patterns.  And so on.

What results is a kind of thunderstorm of activity, with many neurons firing in several discrete parts of the brain.  Some of the patterns are discarded, others are highlighted.  Finally your conscious mind is awash in a set of believed-good patterns:

  1. The recognition of the word brain in the environment.
  2. The associations, including possibly a mental picture of the human brain’s physical existence as a folded mass of neurons, also including similar words like brian, rain, etc.
  3. The relative physical location of your own physical brain behind your eyes and between your ears.

Your brain is pulling up patterns constantly.  It is analyzing your visual field for movement, color.  It’s listening for patterns and breaks in the auditory environment.  It’s pulsing out to your body and receiving feedback like an itch on your nose or weight distribution on your feet.  It’s balancing you upright (when you’re standing).

The brain is a pattern recognition wizard.  And it improves with practice.  That’s how chess masters earn that name: through repetition of action, their brains rewire themselves to match chess patterns quickly and see the game as a sequence or cascade of questions (ie, a decision tree) rather than as a single move at a time.

Your brain may not be a chess master’s, but you have pretty good reading skills.  Your brain is matching patterns as you read this, deriving meaning from the shapes and sequences.

Your brain also has the concept of reward.  The neurons that match patterns well, or that quash invalid matches result in different chemicals released in the brain.  Indeed, the brain tries to make success occur, tries to be rewarded.

But the brain is mostly operating below the conscious level.  And it’s doing a ton of work to keep recompiling itself into a more useful and more functional device in reaction to your environment.  One of the primary tools the brain uses to that end is sleep.  A good night’s rest allows your brain to improve its efficiency and keep the patterns coming smoothly.

One thing you may notice is, upon learning a new videogame for example, you may be better the second day, after you have slept.  Your brain will optimize its pattern systems to the particular controls, physics, and visual and auditory stimuli of that game.  Or if you’re learning to cook, your brain will do the same for chopping onions or estimating cook times.

Buddhists meditate because of neuroscience.  The meditation process is initially about feeding the brain white noise.  A completely placid input, which results in the pattern matchers growing very calm and quiet. That’s because over time in normal use the brain’s pattern matchers throw all sorts of patterns up the chain that should be suppressed.  They’ve become overactive, due to the pace of life and the abundance of stimuli.

Meditation allows the matchers to sort of reset, but they also let the higher-level matchers to perform functions similar to those during sleep.  The brain rewires itself.

At some level of pattern matching, the brain uses higher level beliefs to suppress or highlight patterns.  That’s why rival football fans, watching the same game, actually see different outcomes throughout.  Their brains are suppressing what the other side sees, due to higher level beliefs about their team and the other team.  It’s the equivalent to a color filter, which highlights clashing colors and masks similar colors.

The brain would normally satiate itself on certain inputs.  For example, if you play with a dog with the same toy in the same way over and over, it will get tired of it.  However, usually it won’t because there’s enough natural variation (and social feedback) to keep it interested.  That’s why football fans don’t stop watching: there’s enough variation (and they have their brains tuned to find certain patterns interesting).

Music.  Your brain likes music.  It likes new music for the novelty of the patterns.  It likes old music for both the dependable patterns it evokes and the various memories/associations that music has.  It likes its own music, too.  Studies have shown the brain produces an internal music during sleep, likely to help with the bookkeeping that goes on.  Studies have also shown that insomnia can be partly alleviated by recording the brain’s music and playing it back when someone is trying to fall asleep.

The brain is damned intriguing.  I think I’ll stop here for now as my brain seems to have exhausted its current thoughts about its kind of system.  There’s a lot more to say, though.


Understanding the Occupation

Since its inception, the Occupy movement has been ridiculed and drawn sideways dog heads from the establishment. That’s kind of cute, in that it shows exactly how baffled the establishment is, which is exactly why the Occupy movement exists! The Occupy movement represents the fact that the establishment is completely out of touch with reality, so I guess it’s acceptable and expected that this is the reaction.

The Why

I will now quote the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. […]

Now, one piece at a time, of what I think are the most essential parts there:

[…] That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men […]

Why government exists. To allow an orderly state in which we can live without constantly having to assert our rights through violence.

[… Governments] deriv[e] their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed […]

How government exists. It is by the agreement of the people that allows the government to exist, and the reason above is why the consent is given.

[…] that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it […]

Follows logically from [1] and [2] above. Given the goal, and the method, if the method is not moving toward the goal, it should be improved or replaced with one which will.

[…] to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. […]

Expands on [3]. The manner of choosing the replacement or the improvements should be according to reason.

This is why the Occupy movement exists. The government is hampering the goals that are the impetus for its very formation and existence. It must either be reformed or replaced. The old guard is unable to grasp this.

What they want, of course, is what they’ve always had. They want Occupy to step up to the microphone and say, “we want an end to the war,” which lets the establishment drag their feet, beat their chests, and blow their noses, then end the war and carry on with the old guard way of doing things.

They want something they can sell back to Occupy.

That’s worked in the past. I’ll claim that every major political struggle in the USA has actually been equivalent to Occupy, but that every one so far has been bought out by the establishment, with the possible exception of the founding of this country.

The How

The case I’ve made here is the motivation for Occupy, and it points to what is truly desired. These protests represent a dire call and strong desire to see the establishment reformed into a useful institution. The movement has no specific demands, because it’s not about specific changes, but general changes that restore the power to the people to participate. To know that their voices count, even if their exact outcomes aren’t the ones that are implemented.

Let’s take an example, briefly, with the social programs. These need to be changed for a variety of reasons, including costs. Those that oppose changes don’t actually. They oppose destroying these programs. They don’t want a vacuum to replace them, or a corrupt system that is even more dysfunctional. But they really don’t oppose changes that strengthen them while leaving the basic benefits intact.

The list is very long, though. Improving environmental protection, internalizing market externalities, improving education, improving the culture of work/life balance, improving regulation in general, improving contracting processes, and many more.

The solution is much simpler. There are two basic problems with our government:

  • Lack of populist representation in the legislature
  • Lack of scientific process in producing and executing legislation

The House of Representatives

In the first case, the Senate bestows equal representation per state, while the House of Representatives is supposed to provide representation proportional to the population of the country.

The original twelve amendments proposed in what became the Bill of Rights included as its first proposed amendment the rule that the House of Representative would increase in membership in proportion to the size of the population. That would have protected the purpose of that body.

Without it, that body has become a second Senate.

To wit:

Wikipedia: Bar Graph of US House Apportionment

Since 1911 the number of Representatives has remained constant, but the population of the United States has roughly tripled over that time (Wikipedia: Demographics of the United States shows that the population in 1910 was around 98 million, and in 2010 it was 308 million). That has diluted the value of your representation in the Congress, which means there’s less and less reason for your representation to care what you think.

They are your representative in the collective governance of our country, and when they don’t have to care about you, the government is broken. That’s their purpose for their position to exist: to represent your interests.

Science in Government

There are a variety of fields that use scientific principles to improve outcomes. The field of accounting, when practiced properly. The military. Actual scientific inquiry and research. Business, to some extent.

The techniques in question are meant to preclude corruption and bias and error. They are things like separating the power that people have, so that one man can’t turn and lose a war for us all. They are things like double-blind experiments, to prevent bias or error.

Our government even has some of this built in. The three branches represent an example of separation of duties/powers. The FDA does require some amount of double-blindness in drug testing. Many of the other scientific parts of the executive branch use these techniques, too.

But our legislature does not, and our contracting processes do not. The bidding process know which company is bidding, and political favors can be used. The SuperCommittee didn’t put out their proposals, get them ranked, and then vote based on the outcomes. Likewise, they didn’t separate the pieces of proposals, and take a closed ballot to decide which provisions were live options, then form those into a proposal for evaluation by the CBO.

Kids in school learn about the government, they learn about the lauded Separation of Powers. It escapes me (but apparently not the establishment) that this good idea, which, I reiterate, is praised and learned in school, is not properly expanded to its maximum usefulness throughout our government.


I don’t think my ideas here are particularly radical. But I don’t think they’ll be implemented anytime soon. I hope they will be. I don’t think our government is a bad idea, I just think we have neglected the good parts.

Maybe someone needs to write a short book about our government akin to Douglas Crockford’s JavaScript: The Good Parts. There are some good ideas, they just haven’t been taken to their logical conclusion. And, as in the case of the apportionment of the House, some of them have been torn down.

The establishment doesn’t get it. Big surprise. If they got it, Occupy wouldn’t exist. Take that to your bank, withdraw your money, and put it in the vault of someone that gets it.


Disbelieving Evolution is Anti-science

For an old controversy with roots in institutional inequality (eg, the aristocracy in England in the late 18th century), evolution has a proud tradition of being rejected by the devout non-believers of science. And yet you see them claim they just make their minds up, not being anti-science or uninformed. They just buy the other argument.

The problem for their position: rejection of evolution amounts to rejection of science, due to the substance of the theory of evolution.

The theory of evolution states that those biological organisms that best adapt to their environment will tend to exist, while those maladaptive organisms will tend not to exist.

More generally, an evolutionary system (biological or not) is a system in which entities continue to exist (via simple continuation, via propagation, or some other mechanism) or cease to exist (via death, simple removal, or some other mechanism) based on having the property of being functional or not being functional in some context.

Thus, science itself is evolutionary. As are human thought, behavior, language, etc.

Science is based on the idea that explanatory power of an idea constitutes the fitness test. An idea which does not explain the evidence will tend to be rejected, while an idea which does explain the evidence will tend to be accepted.

Evolution is accepted exactly because it fits the evidence for why all of these organisms exist today while others that existed in the past died off.

Science is accepted exactly because it is a more functional way of seeking to understand the world and interact with it than other methods such as poking everything you see with a stick. If poking everything you see with a stick could generate the thrust needed to land humans on the moon, for example, then it would at least be a real competitor to science. It isn’t.

But without some better explanation than “I made my mind up” to reject evolution, any claim to be accepting of science in general would be mistaken. Moreover, any theory which explains the biological records better than evolution would instantly be adopted as a new paradigm for conducting all scientific inquiry, so those that reject evolution should be beating the rest of the scientific community in publishing astounding new findings in all areas.

It is not the case. The sad truth is that those who reject evolution do not understand it. They do not understand science. They have some vague notion, as they probably have with mathematics and other areas of knowledge.

And it is a sad truth, because a failure to model evolution and science is also a failure to model the psyche of their fellow man. And that failure leads to all sorts of anti-scientific political decisions that cause massive suffering. That failure means their own children have a lower quality of life.

Evolution is a beautiful idea that should be visited often with an eye toward how elegant systems can function. It is as beautiful as any painting or any song. And yet there are a lot of people that stare at it as if it’s a random dot autostereogram image (like those Magic Eye images that were popular some years ago), unable to bring into focus the reality before them. They dismiss it in favor of a simple line drawing with no depth or substance.