Friday, 27 February 2009

Special ain't so special?

In 1920, a few villagers caught 2 girls in remote countryside west of Calcutta. They had been spotted previously with adult wolves and were found in a wolf den with two wolf cubs. The den was dug up, the mother wolf killed and the girls taken away. J A L Singh, an Anglican missionary, who ran an orphanage, took them in and gave them their names - Kamala & Amala.

Kamala was thought to be five or six years of age and Amala around two years old. They were dishevelled, ate raw meat in the manner of dogs, and howled but could not talk. The were indifferent to temperature - a characteristic of people leading rugged lives - had sharp hearing, good vision in the dark and a strange gleaming look in their eyes.

Kamala and Amala stood and walked on all fours. Kamala was so adept as a quadruped that she could outstrip on four legs anyone on two legs and climb and jump easily. But like many other children of her feral background she never seriously mastered walking upright and resorted to hands and knees when needing to. Amala died the year after she was found. Kamala survived into her teens and managed to learn only some three dozen words.

It is interesting to note that Kamala & many other feral children successfully managed to blend very well into the lifestyles of animals they were raised by. If Kamala continued to live with the wolves, she would never realize that she had the ability to speak & master a language, or the ability to walk upright. To Kamala, these ordinary human abilities might have appeared as superpowers!

It makes me wonder if there are many such superpowers hidden inside all of us. Take the example of Kim Peek (The Rain Man). Kim remembers everything, literally everything. Ofcourse it comes with a price - social & developmental disabilities (especially motor skills). While the origin of Kim's abilities have been traced to congenital abnormalities in the brain, it becomes exciting once we remember that the human brain is extremely malleable in our early years. In other words, it is highly possible that a child can grow these abnormalities during it's early development purely because of the way it is raised. Kamala & other feral children have more than proved this to be true.

But why then is it so rare to find guys like Kim with extraordinary abilities? My bet is that the answer lies in the human tendency to outcast everything that is 'not like them'. Kim himself is still considered a disabled person - someone who needs to cured. No wonder that most people who display special abilities today are either raised by non-humans or picked up these abilities even before they were born amidst us. The rules & guidelines based on which our society is built, only promotes those behaviors & abilities that make it easy for new kids to blend with the adults - be like everyone else.

Maybe it is possible to develop abilities like that of Kim & many more like him, without having to compromise social skills or any other essential abilities of the human mind. If only we were more open to explore lifestyles that appear alien, in comparison with the majority that form our social order.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Unconnected Dots

Leslie Brothers attached electrodes to the brain of a monkey which was watching videotapes of the face of another monkey. She found neurons selectively responsive to the other monkey’s facial expression of emotions. An identical behavior is found in human infants where the selectively repond to expressions on adult faces.

A child invariably stares longer at an object that you drop out of your hand, but does not fall down. Somehow, it knows that all objects are supposed to fall to the ground - gravity. We all are prejudiced even before birth, that the light (sunlight) always comes from the top, which is why the same shaded-circle appears bulged when seen at an angle & depressed when seen upside-down.

All these support Darwin's view that emotional & cognitive behaviors are remnants of actions that were functional in evolutionary history. Since the feeling of self-awareness & consciousness is invariably linked with emotions, this suggests that the notion of Self itself might be an evolutionary functionality.

On the other hand, William James held that emotions are internal perceptions of physiological processes in our own bodies — tense facial muscles, sweaty palms, and especially the effects of the autonomic nervous system, such as a pounding heart, faster breathing, and higher blood pressure. Recent works on Somatic Theory by Antonio Damascio also strongly uphold this view. This seems to suggest a bodily (somatic) source for Self.

In a very different plane, Donald Griffin has studied the mental abilities of insects and animals. He associates consciousness with complex and novel behavior in changing or unfamiliar circumstances. For instance, Bees can communicate the direction and distance of food sources and can distinguish between water, nectar, and a possible hive site; they do their waggle dance only when other bees are around, but they have limited ability to modify their behavior in new circumstances. African Grey Parrots can talk excellently but they fail to comprehend the meaning of Self. They often refer to themseves in third person saying - "Polly needs water" instead of saying "I need water". Some apes can recognize parts of their body in a mirror & even communicate to some extent symbolically & even with the use of sounds. But their communicative abilities are greatly dwarfed in front of that found in humans to reveal anything more than evolutionary impressions of Self.

But works of Griffin & others bring out a curious observation - the notion of Self began to emerge only after organisms started to indulge in a social life. Greater the complexity of social interactions & social needs, the more expressed the recognition of self & our feelings towards it.

Though there are many such alternate views to view the source of emotions, self & consciousness, they don't seem to be in contradiction with each other. They just seem to be talking about the same source, seen from different angles. Will all the views converge? Can there be a unified theory for defining everything that is human?

Friday, 20 February 2009

I was - I am

If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.

- Kurt Lewin (American Psychologist)
I'm often tempted to believe - I means everything that is unique to my existence. Just to see if such a definition has any relevance in the chain of evolution, let's take a blue-green algae with a boring lifestyle. Broadly speaking, it does 3 things over the course of it's life -
  • Interact with the environment.
  • Reproduce.
  • Die. (Woah! Isn't it remarkably similar to our lives)
So all that can be unique to an algae's existence is - the way it interacts with the environment. Within the lifetime of an algae, this way is completely determined by its genes. Crude as it may seem, millions of years of evolution has added just 1 more category of activity in the lives of humans -
  • Store our interactions & learn from them.
While an algae can learn only from it's genes, humans can learn in innumerable ways. But this small change is sufficient to completely alter the meaning of I. While the way an algae interacts with it's environment evolves over thousands of generations, the way we interact with our environment evolves with every interaction. So apart from the way we interact, the interactions themselves become a part of us, part of I. No prizes for guessing what takes care of this - the human brain.

Looking through the glass, this essentially means -
  • I = genes (in algae) = genes + brain (in humans)
  • Understanding an algae = understanding it's genes + it's environment ; Understanding humans = understanding our genes + brain + environment
  • While I evolves over generations in an algae, it evolves continually in humans
While most of the things I've mentioned above might appear common sensical, they give a direction to delve deeper. On a different note, returning to common sense is also essential to discard some of the long held prejudices & start afresh.

Amidst all this, am I suggesting that - it is I or the notion of Self which has been driving evolution all along?

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Weird Connections

"Truth is but a feeling, which is just chemical & electrical signals in the human brain. So what then do we mean by a quest for truth? Where then, do we hope to reach in pursuit of truth?"
Often, explorations in the areas of Cosmology, Human Mind/Brain and similar fields tend to blurr the difference between science & religion. Because they are all lands of uncertainty. And like every other uncertain world (any world for that matter), they are founded & built on beliefs, not established facts.

The root cause of this uncertainty, is multiplicity of interactions - too many wires in the circuitry. What brings life to the whole design is not the wires, but the way the wires are connected. It is the connections that make the design - alive!

Ironically, these very connections that keep us alive, also make it extremely difficult for us to comprehend everything that is connected with being alive. Here's why - Can an organism alone, without it's environment be called alive? Can there be a mind to think, if there is no world to cause thoughts? Philosophical as they may sound, I feel it's very necessary to understand this relation between our mind & our environment, the society & all the other minds around us.

#1. In a particularly interesting case, a lady by name Diane Fletcher was being treated by David Milner, a neuropsychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Fife. She had been blinded in the traditional sense of the world because of a gas tragedy. At one point, Dr. Milner held up a pencil. "What's this?" he asked. As usual, Diane looked puzzled. Then she did something unexpected. "Here, let me see it," she said, reaching out and deftly taking the pencil from his hand. Dr. Milner was stunned, not by her ability to identify the object by feeling it but by her dexterity in taking it from his hand. As Diane reached for the pencil, her fingers moved swiftly and accurately toward it, grasped it and carried it back to her lap in one fluid motion. You'd never have guessed that she was blind. It was as if some other person—an unconscious zombie inside her—had guided her actions.
(from Phantoms in the Brain, VS Ramachandran)

Cases like the above revealed that even the simplest of human abilities like vision (you may say it's not so simple after all), is not something that is realized in a specific region of the brain. Even if the pathway to give you the sensation of vision is damaged, the pathways to help you process the information your eyes receive & act accordingly may be intact, like in the above case - multiplicity.

So in the above example, can we say that Diane knew what the world around looked like even though she did not feel the knowledge? Doesn't it mean that our existence has much more to it than the feeling of existence? What then does it mean when we say - "I pursue ..." , if there is another (or many) I within us that pursues something else that we might be completely unaware of?

It's precisely such a multiplicity of existence (of particles) that drove classical physics into the quantum arena. Can there similarly be a new way to define/redefine the way we understand - I ?

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Certainly Uncertain

"Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it."
- Stuart Sutherland (British psychologist)
#1. More than fifty years ago a middle−aged woman walked into the clinic of Kurt Goldstein, a world−renowned neurologist with keen diagnostic skills. The woman appeared normal and conversed fluently; indeed, nothing was obviously wrong with her. But she had one extraordinary complaint — every now and then her left hand would fly up to her throat and try to strangle her. She often had to use her right hand to wrestle the left hand under control, pushing it down to her side — much like Peter Sellers portraying Dr. Strangelove. She sometimes even had to sit on the murderous hand, so intent was it on trying to end her life.

#2. Not long ago, at the Rivermead Rehabilitation Center in Oxford, England, I gripped a woman's lifeless left hand and, raising it, held it in front of her eyes. "Whose arm is this?" She looked me in the eye and huffed, "What's that arm doing in my bed?" "Well, whose arm is it?" "That's my brother's arm," she said flatly. But her brother was nowhere in the hospital. He lives somewhere in Texas.
(from Phantoms in the Brain, VS Ramachandran)

The above two cases are only a handful of clinical examples which have repeatedly questioned the nature of what we call as Self or Consciousness. A few cases have even ended up as interesting lawsuits that fell deep into moral, spiritual & psychological grounds.

During my college life at BITS Pilani, I've had a good share of conversations that revolved around selfishness, altruism, social definitions of good-bad & so on. And at all those times, it was very evident that most issues related to human values, behavior & evolution, inevitably lead us into uncertain grounds. The reason for uncertainty being - the lack of objective understanding of everything that is remotely human. But I've always believed it is possible, to understand ourselves in a much deeper & scientific way than we presently do.

This blog will be my attempt to put together everything that comes close to answering the mysteries surrounding our understanding of Self, Consciousness & Human Behavior. I'm not sure how well individual posts I write here connect later on, but here I am.... pondering on things that are certainly uncertain.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Vita Beans - The Story


An Intro

All that today's mind-reading tools can tell you is that you are intuitive-extrovert-thinking-etc.. type or something like that. With new breakthroughs in neuroscience, psychology & Artificial Intelligence algorithms, we see an opportunity to add predictive advantage to the technology behind understanding how the human mind works.

Vita Beans gives you something which you always wanted - A tool to tell you how your mind works! Whether a specific experience makes you happy, sad & even better, what specific decisions you are likely to take in real-life situations.

The Science

"Psychology! It's just a play of words. Deliberately fuzzified theories to hide the fact that psychological models are no better than ordinary guess work in most cases..." - that reflects what many people feel about the apparent vagueness that is a part of traditional psychology. However, recent findings in Neuroscience and a great deal of work done at several major universities over the last few years have provided ways to make psychology more precise.

Not surprisingly, the study of how we make choices has revolved a lot around situations where we surrender ourselves to a choice - addiction. A few years ago, major findings in neuroscience explained how different regions of the brain influence addiction. Since 2005, a lot of new discoveries have succeeded in building models of how these regions & a few more, influence our everyday decision making and preferences that we exhibit.

The Connection

A lot of these theories are used to refine the way we understand and treat patients with psychological disorders. Hence many of the neuropsychological findings have been neglected outside the realm of clinical studies. At Vita Beans, we have integrated many of these models to build a closed system of perception, processing & decision making.

Before we can simulate a person's behavior, we would naturally need a lot of information about the person itself. Most of the methods that exist rely on inductive data representation techniques. However we use deductive data maps which get data from game based interactions with the person. This greatly reduces the amount of data that we need to profile & simulate a person. Our game based interactions also enrich user experience by making it enjoyable as opposed to traditional questionnaire based methods.

An Outro

The thing with non-incremental advancements in technology is that you easily get confused with the multitude of opportunities that it brings to life. It has been the same with us at Vita Beans. Though we are currently targeting areas of recruitment and employee management, we keep building things to quench our curiosity & some of them just for fun!

However, we hope that the dreams that lay ahead will shine much brighter than the ones that lit up the path that lies behind us. This pushes us everyday to nurture new ideas, build new things & get excited about new opportunities. We'd love to hear from you if you think the mysteries surrounding the human mind makes your heart beat faster too...

- Team Vita

Thursday, 5 February 2009

10 Tips to...or was it 299 guidlines for ... nah nah its Encyclopedia for ...


I know you would have gone through all such tips, guidelines, books, lectures, sessions, conferences, talks, clubs ... so on. Else you wouldn't have landed up on this ( I know because I tagged this post under entrepreneurship, startup, iPod, and all those keywords you have subscribed to.)

Encylopedia says : All the above you have done are of NO use(conditions apply).
(rude shock eh? guess ... if you were smart enough you would have seen it coming yet it feels as a pretty rude shock !)

Lets figure out ... what you encounter during the first 6 months of your startup ( your baby/dream project/ invention or patent cum ATM ... or so to that effect)

Let me walk you through ...

Usual Chores : Yes... you figure out your own means to get these chores done, like getting your company registered, PAN & TAN, Trademarking your logo, Bank account, filing returns et al.

Then while scrolling through your google reader you come across this -
"There's no doubt about it - being a startup in any economic condition is rough, and in the current tumult, mind-bending challenges aren't out of the ordinary. However, I, like most other entrepreneurs I've encountered, am a staunch optimist and thus, even in the face of hardship, seek the silver lining. Tonight, I'd like to share a few of the diamonds in the dung pile that are closest to my heart."

Well, reiterating ... its a lot of high-flying motivation talk n BS ! What happens ( or might ) is

# Living on No Income 
The first few months/years of startup life are often waged with salaries that would make college students cringe, but later on, this austerity can be a tremendous asset as you have massively talented engineers & execs that can live on a fraction of what larger firms would need. That extra income can be re-invested in the business for a significant competitive advantage.

# If You Can't Afford Talent, You Have to Learn It Yourself
Well, its the BEST case scenario. I tried it, but can complete it. Instead you need to dabble all possible options and find(ASAP) the reason for your stickability. (word coined by M.Bricks of Hustle)

# Surviving Tough Times Frequently Leads to Success:

Couldn't control but put in this TIP :)

# Guerrilla Marketing is Valuable No Matter How Big Your Marketing Budget Gets
As a startup, you don't have money for big advertising pushes to brand your company/product/service, so you have to rely on word-of-mouth and the viral spread of your business. what it takes to spread the idea virus will give your business a huge leg up on the competition.

Caution: You should learn where, when and to whom to market and to what extent. (learnt only by experience or watching someone do it)

# Chaos Breeds Creativity:

Very obvious from your google reads, refer there for more clarification.

# Loneliness is a Rite of Passage
Leading a company is the loneliest job you would ever have. But the startup community, particularly in the tech world, is forging more and more bonds and those connections are helping to make all of it stronger & smarter( I hope so). Starting up demands a lot of belief and self motivation towards you know what !

Someone says,

"Don't take your detachment as a cue to devolve into a hermit; consider it the hazing process for entry into an exclusive new club forged by shared experiences and then reach out to your fellow entrepreneurs."

Wihtout the mumbo-jumbo - " do not compare yourself with your other friends who are pursuing different career plans, instead ..."

My only guideline : Do not read books like this.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Brain - Mind

The 90s decade was dedicated to the Brain, as can be clearly seen from this. However, it seems that the scientists felt the need to study something that could have immediate application ... like the mind. The current decade has therefore been dedicated to Mind, (more here).

The Decade of the Mind initiative focuses on four broad areas:

Healing and protecting the mind: This is the notion of improving the public health by curing diseases of the brain that affect the mind. An example of such a disease is Alzheimer’s disease.

Understanding the mind: This aspect of the initiative seeks to understand how mind actually emerges from brain functional activity. Some of the key characteristics of the mind that are still not understood include consciousness, memory and dreams.

Enriching the mind: Improving learning outcomes in education is a key component of this part of the initiative.

Modeling the mind: A key approach to understanding the mind is to model it either analytically or using computation. Such models of mind may facilitate the creation of new hypotheses which can then be tested in the laboratory or clinic. Modeling the mind may also allow for the creation of new applications, technologies and inventions.

Which bring us to the question, Does activity in Brain result in Mind or is it the other way round? Though science likes to believe that its the former, the Hindu philosophy mentions that Mind controls not only the brain, but the whole body.

Tony Buzan a proponent of mind mapping and mind literacy has come up with various techniques to read mind. Yet, the most recent psychometric studies believe that they know nothing about how brain/mind works.

In James Randerson's "We know nothing about brain evolution" (Guardian UK, February 19, 2008) we learn that Harvard's Richrd Lewontin has pointed out the obvious:
"Why we know nothing about the evolution of cognition". He systematically dismissed every assumption about the evolution of human thought, reaching the conclusion that scientists are still completely in the dark about how natural selection prompted the massive hike in human brain size in the human line.

The main problem is the poor fossil record. Despite a handful of hominid fossils stretching back 4m years or so, we can't be sure that any of them are on the main ancestral line to us. Many or all of them could have been evolutionary side branches.

Worse, the fossils we do have are difficult to interpret. "I don't have the faintest idea what the cranial capacity [of a fossil hominid] means," Lewontin confessed. What does a particular brain size tell us about the capabilities of the animal attached to it?
Of course Lewontin is right! First, cranial capacity is not the best measure of intelligence, as brain absent humans show. While we are here, a number of studies show that some birds (notably crows) are smart - even though they do not have the brain parts we humans associate with smartness. At the time, I said,
I've long been skeptical of claims that intelligence evolved as an aid to survival. The vast majority of life forms that have survived for millions or even hundreds of millions of years did not require - or acquire - intelligence. The newer notion that intelligence is spurred by the need for complex social interactions seems a bit closer to the mark, though not entirely satisfactory. After all, many insects have achieved complex social interactions without anything like what we humans regard as intelligence.
There is no "survival of the fittest" reason why humans should be conscious! None whatever. Bacteria are way more fit than humans, but do they have thoughts? And they are probably better off without them.

So we are stuck being human and having minds, and we really can't claim that our minds give us a survival advantage. Its more the opposite. We give our minds a survival advantage.

Wouldn't it be great to explore your MIND and know how it works ?!