TED Conversations

Serge Patlavskiy

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Are cognitive abilities indeed dependent on the number of neurons? Is mental (not social) development indeed dependent on thermal cooking?

Are cognitive abilities indeed dependent on the number of neurons? Is mental (not social) development of humans and other organisms indeed dependent on what they eat? Let us discuss these questions in more details.

Topics: neurons
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    Dec 22 2013: I would say every aspect of our experiences are dependent upon the functionality of our brain. This would include neurons, axons, neurotransmitters, dendrites, etc.

    There is also correlation between our cranial capacity and our cognitive abilities. For example, I believe the mean cranial capacity for chimps and our distant ancestor Homo Erectus is about 800 or 900 and something cubic centimeters. For us modern humans its around 1300 i believe. (I don't know the exact number and I'm sure there is someone on this site who can correct me if I'm wrong).

    So why is this important? because the bigger the cranial capacity the more information our neurons can hold and process. This also allows for more complicated connections between other neurons....this is just one aspect to answering your question but there are other factors as well.

    From my understanding we are our neurons but we are also more than our neurons. The issue is that we do not experience anything that goes on in our brains. We don't experience the voltage changes and chemical interactions. In all honesty if the brain sciences were never developed it would appear that our experiences are completely independent from our brain. Even in the 1970's the brain was thought to be a black box (it was only responsible for imputing and outputting information). It was thought to not have any relation to consciousness. Which now brings us to a philosophical enigma?:

    How is it possible that our brain states (or cognitive states) relate to our experiences? From my understanding there is no way to know for sure. You can take a metaphysical approach or naturalistic approach and you are still stuck with the mystery but from my understanding, I would say all the evidence states that it is the case that our cognitive abilities are dependent upon the number and functionality of our neurons. How that's the case, I think the answer is unclear.
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      Dec 23 2013: Orlando: "So why is this important? because the bigger the cranial capacity the more information our neurons can hold and process."

      Two remarks here. First, it is not information that is being processed. Information is what we have in result of processing the physical (sensory) signals and/or the already memorized elements of our subjective experience. Buy the way, from the fact that some physical signal has been processed does not follow that the new information will be necessary acquired yet. As a case in point, we may be looking at the same photo, but it may be informative for you, whereas not informative for me.

      Second. Even when we consider a computing machine (a computer), its computing power depends not only on the number of transistors, but on processor's architecture too. As I have mentioned in my commentary in the main thread, cognitive abilities, in fact, depend on three factors: X, Y, Z. Here, symbol X stands for the number of neurons, Y stands for something that we can guess about (like the number of synapses per neuron, etc.), and Z stands for something that we still cannot even guess about. For example, we do not know what is the actual role of each of these factors.

      To the point, Neanderthals' cranial capacity was bigger than that of modern human. And what to do with the fact that Ivan Turgenev's brain weighted 2012 grams while Anatole France's brain weighted just 1017 grams? Does it mean that they had different number of neurons while having comparable cognitive abilities (they both were prominent writers)?
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        Dec 23 2013: Hi Serge,

        Now you are correct in saying that "the fact that some physical signals has been processed does not follow that the new information will be necessary acquired yet". Yes, I understand that it is very difficult for the brain to acquire new information. There is a lot that has to go on before that happens and the brain typically looks toward old solutions to new problems. As for your example about a photo being informative to me but not to you, I can't speculate as to why there would be a difference. It could be a combination of factors ranging from the environment that we were brought up in to the complexity of our brains but this would not negate the fact that we are seeing the same photo.

        As for your second paragraph I agree with you once again but I must address that I have never stated that our brain is like a computer and I have acknowledge that there is much more that goes on than cranial capacity and the number of neurons that reside in our brains. What I mentioned is that our experiences are linked to the functionality of our brain (all parts). We just don't know exactly how that happens or if there is one part of our brain that is responsible for certain experiences.

        As for the your last paragraph, you really misunderstood my point so I'll go into more detail and for your sake here is a quote by Dean Falk who is a paleoneurolgist at Florida State University:

        "if you look at the correlates with the archaeological record, there does seem to be an association between brain size and technology or intellectual productivity". His team is doing research on the correlations between cranial capacity and our cognitive abilities in relation to innovation.

        As I stated earlier brain size is only one factor: UC San Diego physical anthropoligist Katrina Semendeferi and her colleagues found that the Brodman area 10 in our prefrontal cortex "nearly doubled in volume after chimpanzees and bonobos branched off from our human lineage"

        to be continued.
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          Dec 24 2013: Orlando: "As for your example about a photo being informative to me but not to you, I can't speculate as to why there would be a difference."

          I mean a photo of your hometown or your family. Yes, the same photo reflects the same kind/amount of e/m signals, but, after processing these physical signals each of us will receive different information. It means that information is a purely subjective construct. What is recorded on CD-disc is not information but just physical signals. For a physical signal to become information, there must be a consciousness-possessing subject in the first place.

          Orlando: " "if you look at the correlates with the archaeological record, there does seem to be an association between brain size and technology or intellectual productivity"."

          It is not good when the archeologists and neurophysiologists encroach on the field of consciousness studies. For them, it would be not bad first to provide a definition of "intellectual productivity".
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      Dec 23 2013: Orlando: "From my understanding we are our neurons but we are also more than our neurons. The issue is that we do not experience anything that goes on in our brains. We don't experience the voltage changes and chemical interactions."

      There is a difference between studying brain and studying consciousness. The method of decomposition (used by Physics and Neurophysiology) is good when studying of how the wall clock works by decomposing it into gears and springs and applying the laws of Physics. To study consciousness we have to apply the methods that would make it possible for us to formalize an organism as a whole self-organizing complex system.

      Orlando: "How is it possible that our brain states (or cognitive states) relate to our experiences? From my understanding there is no way to know for sure."

      First, brain states and cognitive states are not the same things. Second. There definitely is a way "to know for sure". However, to do this, the extremely complex explanatory framework has been constructed. This framework makes it possible for us not to decompose the Whole into parts, but to dissociate it into other wholes with formation of a chain, whose elements obey some fundamental law of development. To the point, this new framework can be used to approach not only consciousness-related phenomena, but also such problems as transmutation of elementary particles, and the problem of nonlocal entanglement.
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        Dec 23 2013: Finishing the rest of the quote from the first post:

        "the horizontal spaces between neurons in this subarea widened nearly 50%, creating more room for axons and dendrites". the implications of this "means that you can have more complicated connections and ones that go farther away, so you can get more complex and more synthetic communications between neurons".

        So I can't account for the two writers that you mentioned but this was where I was coming from in relation to cranial capacity and its relationships to our neurons.

        You mentioned Neanderthals. Yes they had huge heads and they also had a bit of innovation. But from my understanding Neanderthals are extinct. You don't seem to acknowledge the hard work that it takes for our brains to be the way it is now: developing sophisticated civilizations and technology. It took a very long time for that to happen and I'm sure if Neanderthals were around today, then who knows, they may contribute to the betterment of the world or they would be a step above chimps. I'm not a scientist so I can't really say.

        Personally I don't there is much difference between studying the brain and studying consciousness but that is because I believe that consciousness have naturalistic properties. Your are correct that the approach may be a bit different but every neuroscience book that I've read or any book relating to the science of the mind has mentioned the issue of consciousness or the mind-body problem so to me they are not mutually exclusive.

        I disagree with your last paragraph on two counts: "brain states and cognitive states are not the same things":

        This may be true but I would argue that it is more likely that we do not know how brain states become cognitive states or how physicality turns into abstract phenomena.

        I can't say anything about the framework you mentioned. I'd like to know more but I'm not sure how "we can know for sure" so enlighten me on your next post.
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          Dec 24 2013: Orlando: "You don't seem to acknowledge the hard work that it takes for our brains to be the way it is now: developing sophisticated civilizations and technology."

          It is because I make a difference between "cognitive abilities" on one side, and the "amount of knowledge" and "skills" on the other side.

          Orlando: "I disagree with your last paragraph on two counts: "brain states and cognitive states are not the same things".

          This follows from my explanatory framework. Your task consists not in agreeing or disagreeing with my ideas, but in constructing your own explanatory framework and demonstrating that in case a theory sees no difference between brain states and mental states it will have better predictive and explanatory power.

          To the point, the difference between studying brain and studying consciousness consists in the fact, that in the first case we can apply third-person approach (we are here, while our object of study is out there), while when studying consciousness, we have to apply first-person approach. I mean that we have to use our exemplar of consciousness simultaneously as an object of study and as a tool of studying.

          You have your own exemplar of consciousness. Then, try to explain for its mechanisms being based on the data of perception of your unique consciousness-related phenomena. If you will have anything ready, then you are welcome to submit your results to my discussion forum http://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/general_theory
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    Dec 19 2013: What is the standard scale to measure cognitive abilities between species? I mean, is there a science that can measure a relative cognitive coefficient for each species? The more complex the biological/social needs of an organism, the more number of neurons and the more complex it's brain will need to be, I guess. So how correct it will be to say a monkey is dumber compared to human? The cognitive need of monkeys and humans are vastly different.
    I understand that it takes a human being (of a given cognitive ability) to make a cathedral, but it sure takes a dog to identify a person by smell, or it takes a bat to fly blind.
    Are we seeing a a problem of scaling consciousness here?
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      Dec 19 2013: What we're seeing is a problem with the scientific validity of a TED Talk... It's misleading and, dare I say, pseudoscience.
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        Dec 20 2013: This is a reply to your question to me below. I did follow the links from Serge's blog and did find his publication in the Journal of Conscientiology: "The Journal of Conscientiology (JofC) publishes research papers and articles related to the study of the consciousness, with the aim of deepening our understanding of consciousness. The science of conscientiology analyzes the consciousness by examining its physical and its non-physical attributes (including energies, non-physical bodies, multiple existences (lives) and multidimensional communications and manifestations). As a logical extension of this, analyses in conscientiology typically incorporate parapsychic and paranormal capacities as instruments for conducting research. The lucid out-of-body experience stands out among them as an invaluable tool for advancing research into the nature of consciousness as multi-dimensional. The JofC is committed to providing a forum for the unbiased publication of research and exchange of ideas associated with these concepts."

        I saw no work in Nature.

        Here is the link FYI for the International Academy of Consciousness to which you refered: http://www.iacworld.us/ From that link, here is the description of the orientation of that group: This site offers an overview of IAC's
        activities and the sciences of Projectiology
        and Conscientiology, which study consciousness
        beyond the brain, investigating psychic awareness and
        paranormal phenomena as tools to understand the multi-dimensional
        nature of humanity."

        I do understand that Suzannah and Serge have different professional associations.

        I found reporting of Suzannah's work by googling her. You can too.
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      Dec 19 2013: Pabitra, I would appreciate your looking at the talk yourself, as a scientist, to form an independent conclusion. I would be interested in reading your point of view, as I believe you have training in biological science.

      I wish Christophe, who has graduate training in neuroscience, would come around as well.
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        Dec 19 2013: As requested, I went through the talk a second time and read the transcript lest I I should miss something important.
        I shall give credit to Suzana for demystifying the specialty of a human brain as she concluded it is just the right kind of brain of a primate at its evolutionary stage.
        I shall however not be persuaded by her talk that the mental development of humans has scientifically established relationship with thermal cooking. In my opinion. What she has done is, at best, educated speculation. Aided metabolism of foods ( thermal cooking as in this case) is nothing unique in animal kingdom. There are known species of birds who eat small pebbles (metabolism aids) to digest their food (grains). This does not appear to have resulted in maintaining a more complex brain by reducing energy demand.
        I am not a neuro-scientist but know for a fact that human brain's information processing capability is nothing of the sort of a super computer. On account of energy constraint human brains constantly compromise input data and use neuronic short cuts to achieve what we think is a feat. For example when you are reading this text your brain is scanning only the first alphabet of each word and the next significant consonant and conjuring up the word from memory.
        I have a fundamentally different idea of cognition and consciousness where brain does not figure in a central way as in Suzana's talk. The sea squirts of the tunicate family at the young larvae stage eat their own nervous system (notocord) and the rudimentary brain (cerebral ganglion) as food when their purpose of movement for the rest of their lives is over.
        However, I shall give her benefit of doubt against pseudo-science.
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          Dec 19 2013: Thank you, Pabitra. I don't have the background for analysis in this field, but I do note that Nature and the National Academy of Sciences also have vetted this work and considered it significant. Those organizations use peer review by scientists with a record of peer-reviewed publications in scholarly journals.

          Often hypotheses are derived from small samples that are later tested on different and broader samples. So I can respect first, exploratory steps.

          Thank you for reviewing the talk.
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          Dec 20 2013: Fritzie,

          Could you please provide the sources for Nature and the National Academy of Sciences as I'm really interested in reading what they have to say about this.

          And I'd also like to point out that Serge has great credibility in this field. He's has a background as a physicist, is founder and director of the Institute for Theoretical Problems of Interdisciplinary Investigations. Has had numerous papers published in nature. And is a member of the International Academy of Consciousness.

          You can find this out by Googleing him.
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      Dec 19 2013: As I have indicated many times when commenting on this talk, it is a rude and impermissible methodological blunder to compare the cognitive abilities of the representatives of different species. We can only compare a human with a human, a cow with a cow, a monkey with a monkey, and so on. Even within the same species, say, humans, we have Chess Tournaments for men and separately for women. Rats, bats, apes (as well as all other species) need not become as intelligent as we are -- they already are expediently intelligent. Moreover, no proof exists that prehistoric man was duller than we are now.

      Suzana remains deaf to the expressed arguments, and, as I think, for a good reason. The case is that in her talk she states not her personal views, but just re-states all that pile of misconceptions the modern science has accumulated for the last two centuries concerning the consciousness-related and evolutionary problematic. Let us recollect that yet at the beginning of 20-th century the African pigmies were not treated by Darwinists as cognitively able as other humans.

      To the point, Pabitra, yours are cool glasses. They must be for underwater swimming? :-)
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    Dec 18 2013: Gerald O'brian: "You still don't explain how your definition of consciousness is any different from simple computing. And you're excluding organisms with no brains, aren't you?"

    "Simple computing" presumes only processing of the physical signals by transforming/transducing them from physical signals of one kind into physical signals of another kind. To the point, by "physical signal" I mean the change of the state of any material system with time. It can be a change of the temperature of a material body, a change of the number of atoms constituting the given material body, a flow of electrons, electromagnetic radiation coming from a distant star or other sources, etc.

    As to consciousness, it is not only processing, but also conceptualization, or meaning assignment. And this is what computers lack.

    Second. I hold that it is an organism as a whole self-organizing complex system that possesses consciousness, but not its organs, like a brain, spinal cord, etc. Therefore, for there to be consciousness, a brain is not required in the first place.
  • Dec 16 2013: Are we what we eat?? LOL Well Serge, I think people should come to the conclusion that we are not what we eat, even though it certainly influences our (mental) health. So does what we drink.

    Personally I believe our brain is the receiver of our body. It connect our body to our mind, or spirit. It is our spirit that thinks, loves and sees. Our sense organs don't see or smell but pass that on, thus only providing the input.

    There is actually a reason for the way we can reflect, reason and decide, in freedom, what to love.
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      Dec 16 2013: I hold that it is not a brain (or sense organs) that possesses consciousness, but the organism as a whole self-organizing complex system. It is definitely not the eye that "sees", but our mind. There is a difference between "looking at something" and "seeing something as". The first phrase means that the physical signal of certain frequency and amplitude reaches sensory receptors in the eye and is energetic enough to excite them. Then, the receptors generate the physical sensory signal -- the electric impulse which starts traveling along neuronal channels to the brain.

      The second phrase means that after processing the physical sensory signal we may or may not conceptualize it as a certain new element of our subjective experience, for example, "letter A". Therefore, a situation can be that we may be looking at something, but seeing nothing.
      • Dec 16 2013: Thanks Serge,
        --"Therefore, a situation can be that we may be looking at something, but seeing nothing."--
        And this happens more often than we may realize. Often we do indeed not see what we" looking at because there is no reference point.
        Most obvious the problem is with a picture, and that is the reason we may put a dime or a pencil in the picture as a reference..

        I see our mind as a spiritual level 'above' the brain. Our brain can, as a receiver show us which part of it is used for certain emotions or moods or reasonimgs. But the brain itself cannot change itself to compensate damage or sickness. That is the power and use of the mind. If it could, then why not stop a cancer?
        I do not believe there is any organ in the body that can change, regrow or alter itself. For one thing, because without the spirit, the body is dead. A NDE does not kill us, unless we do not come back and then our body dies.
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    Dec 30 2013: @Serge............I stand corrected. Thank you.
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    Dec 29 2013: This is such an interesting question. Indeed it may be that number of neurons are important to think outside the box. What say you ?
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      Dec 30 2013: The ability to think "outside the box" does not mean that the humans think "outside the box" for the all day long, whereas the rest of animals may just enjoy an ordinary thinking. No, whatever organism we take, for it, the normal thinking is an ordinary thinking, whereas intuitive thinking (or thinking "outside the box") takes place sporadically, or as an exception. That is why I state that there are as geniuses so blockheads among the representatives of all species.

      At any rate, when the brilliant (intuitive) idea suddenly strikes our head, it does not mean that it was preceded by rapid and sharp increase of the number of our neurons. It does not either mean that when we feel dull in our mind for the whole morning, the number of our neurons decreased when we were sleeping. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that intuitive thinking is dependent on the number of neurons. It is rather dependent on the connections between the neurons.
  • Dec 28 2013: The human brain consumes about 20 to 25 percent of our base metabolism, versus 3 to 8 percent for most other mammals. Cognition takes energy which goes way beyond a simple neuron count. It gets into higher level neural networks layered upon a myriad of lower level neural networks. Higher level cognition and "executive functions" make up only a small part of our brain. The main driving force in this structure is natural limits to processing power, including cost as a percent of base metabolism and actual physical processing speed. Processing power limits lead to the distribution of "sensing" to lower level neural networks which communicate upwards on an exception basis. Processing power limits also lead to the building and retention of a "map of the environment" which speeds action without requiring a lot of higher level brain processing. These maps are for the most part maintained during our almost mandatory "sleep cycle".
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      Dec 29 2013: Thanks, Tom, for sharing your views. Must admit that I were expressing very similar arguments earlier, but judging from different angle.

      First. I assume that consciousness-possessing organism, apart from being able to process the physical (sensory) signals, can also conceptualize them, or assign a meaning to that signals, thereby transforming them into new elements of own subjective experience (or, which is the same, into new information for him/her-self, or into new knowledge). In this, an organism differs from a computing machine.

      Next. The consciousness-possessing organism processes not only the physical (sensory) signals, but also the already available (or formerly memorized) elements of own subjective experience. This is a case when we create new knowledge just by pondering over the knowledge already available for us, and without processing the new physical (sensory) signals.

      Now then, the energy (elicited from food) is being mostly spent on the acts of processing of the new physical (sensory) signals, whereas much less energy is spent on the acts of conceptualization. Also, almost no energy is being spent while we construct new knowledge due to processing of the already available (memorized) elements of our knowledge.

      From the above follows that there is no direct link between the amount (quantity) of the processed physical (sensory) signals (and, hence, the amount of energy receiving due to food consumption) with the amount (quantity&quality) of the new knowledge constructed.

      However, I'm not quite certain whether I understand correctly what you mean by "natural limits to processing power". What are these limits? Maybe, you mean the natural limits of our sense organs?
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        Dec 29 2013: Serge's explanation will make sense better if you have ever experienced a sense of frustration while visiting a place of your childhood romance. The information content in the memory is same but consciousness creates new information about the long unvisited place (conjuring basically) and when that is reconciled at the point of revisit, frustration grows.

        We have this notion of ascribing superiority to the consciousness of higher order animals (placing humans at top) just on the basis of the information processing content. From a purely biological point of view, it is a questionable preference.

        I think Tom is indicating the biological limit of power quota in an organism from its total biological power needed to live. Humans, I think consume more or less 100 watts to live and the human brain has a quota of 10 watts (I may be wrong about the exact figures).

        Tom's point is interesting. On account of the power quota, human brain has learnt to 'conjure' bypassing full execution of an algorithm. Experts who know how brains conjure can trick us easily.
        You have to see Derren Brown at work to believe me.
      • Dec 29 2013: Everything stated above makes sense to me but I think we do have some nuances that could be talked about.
        To the degree our brains have multitudes of layers of neural networks, lower level networks are "sensory" to higher level cognitive networks irrespective of outside physical stimuli. That is one level's output cognition becomes a higher level's sensory input. Because processing power is limited, this multi level "distributed" exception based processing architecture along with stored maps are required for total cognition to reach high levels.
        The percent of base metabolism processing limit is an aggregate total limit, which as your discussion infers required our distant ancestors to eat cooked meat to provide more energy.
        The other natural limit is not an aggregate limit, but more of a speed limit such as computer chips are limited by circuit distance and heat generated - i.e. neural networks have the same issue especially when speed is required for a given brain function.
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          Dec 30 2013: Indeed, there are some nuances that have to be taken into account. First, I think that when talking about consciousness (or cognitive abilities), we must talk about it in its own terms. The brain's terms are not appropriate here. Moreover, instead of physical models we have to use informational models. I mean that unlike neurons, we cannot weight or measure the thoughts, or to count their exact number.

          Second. Computer processing presumes performing bit-by-bit operations, where every bit corresponds to a certain physical signal, for example, presence (1) or absence (0) of magnetic field in the given spot of material structure like HDD's disc. When considering consciousness, its act of processing, and especially re-processing of the already memorized elements of subjective experience, presumes performing not bit-by-bit operations, but system-by-system operations, where every element of subjective experience is formalized as a whole complex system.

          That is why the idea of the limits of the processing power of a computing machine cannot be applied when talking about consciousness. Moreover, because of the system-by-system processing, the speed of consciousness is much higher than the speed of work of the most powerful nowadays computers.
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      Dec 23 2013: This implies that thermal cooking has, in all likelihood, nothing to do with cognitive abilities. Suzana states that to get more energy out of the same food (as I understand, to have more neurons for becoming cognitively able to make inventions as such) our forebears had to invent cooking. This is clearly a case of hen-egg dilemma: to become more cognitively able our forebears had to consume cooked food, but to be able to consume cooked food they had to be already sufficiently cognitively able. The case is that thermal cooking presumes there to be harnessing of fire, manufacturing of clay pottery, collecting the required raw ingredients, etc.

      And one remark: Darwinian hypothesis is about biological evolution of species, but not about the evolution of cognitive abilities.
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      Dec 22 2013: As follows from my approach, all the people are equally cognitively able (please, do not confuse cognitive abilities with amount of knowledge or skills). The people of New Guinea tribe Moruaka eat nothing but a clay, and, in so doing, they stay healthy and mentally sound (sorry, but I have only sources of this info in Russian; I would be much obliged if somebody will find something about that tribe in English online resources; it was a study conducted by anthropologist Orlando Delgari).
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    Dec 19 2013: Serge, I think it would be really helpful if you sent an email to Contact@ted.com explaining your concerns about this Talk...
    I just did this.
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      Dec 20 2013: Suzana's talk has to be assessed on whether the ideas she presents therein indeed worth spreading. There would be no problems if she stated: "As my long-term investigations show, and what is replicated in other research laboratories too, the cognitive abilities are directly dependent on the number of neurons, and on nothing else. Moreover, as it is very well proven and is now commonly accepted, an ape has better cognitive abilities than a cow."

      But, instead of this, she just spreads misconceptions. Misconceptions are not what is worth to be spreading.
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    Dec 17 2013: Cognitive abilities are related to number of neurons, there is no denying that. I think the point of Herculano-Souzel's talk is to show the link between energy cost and number of neurons.
    Nowhere does she say cooked food makes you smart. Instead, she says that cooked food provide the energy for a costly brain.
    It's a wonderful talk, I really don't understand all this reluctance.
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      Dec 17 2013: Read the comments on the Talk Page by Serge, he's made very many and good comments there regarding your questions.

      And cognitive abilities are not related to the number of neurons, there's no real proof that they are, she shows a lot of "facts" and plays a game of connect-the-dots that can be refuted at every step, she's drawing unsubstantiated conclusions and presenting them as fact... Cognitive abilities are related to the structure of the brain and not the number of neurons.
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        Dec 17 2013: I've read the comments on the talk page. I replied to some of them, but will continue on this page since the conversation has been started.

        "cognitive abilities are not related to the number of neurons" WHy do you insist on that? Obviously, they are. At the very least, you'll agree that there is a difference in cognitive ability between a 12 neuron brain and a 14 billion one, at least in potential, right??
        The "structure" argument cannot make number irrelevant because of the presuposition that the number is already there.
        I agree that rocks don't make cathedrals, structure does. But structure implies a number of available rocks.

        What are the facts in her talk that you can refute at every step? Please answer me and explain why you think the talk is unscientific.
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          Dec 17 2013: I'm actually going to refer to Serge since he's already explained my thoughts better then I could have. (in his most recent comment on this thread)
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          Dec 17 2013: I would say so: Suzana's talk is not "unscientific". It, for two thirds, does not pertain to science at all. These two thirds of her talk is, rather, playing to the gallery. Unfortunately, my very first commentary was deleted on TED, but it still is on YouTube.

          One may ask why I am so critical on this talk. The case is that for many years I am deeply involved in the problem of constructing the comprehensive scientific theory of consciousness. To approach consciousness scientifically, we must first to construct an appropriate explanatory framework. And a version of the required explanatory framework is already constructed (you can find it here http://serge7patlavskiy.wordpress.com/).

          I state that only those who have appropriate methods can talk about studying consciousness. But what we have in actual practice? Neurophysiology claims to be studying consciousness, but the methods it uses are good only for studying brain. Philosophy also claims it is studying consciousness. As result, the field of consciousness studies stays without research funds.

          Therefore, we are currently at war both with Neurophysiology and Philosophy. We are fighting for our place under the Sun. We aim to transform Consciousness Studies (as part of Interdisciplinary Investigations) into all-sufficient scientific discipline that would be treated by scientific community on par with Physics, Biology, Neurophysiology, and other natural disciplines.
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        Dec 17 2013: As far as I can tell, the big flaw is that the primates in the equation are mostly vegetarians. Baboons don't eat 8 hours a day, they eat like lions, a couple hours a day. Her argument on the limit of the dangerous 9 hours spent eating is irrelevant.
        Our ancestors were carnivores so, just like baboons, we don't fit on her correlation table.

        I'm doing your job, here.
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        Dec 17 2013: But I still think it was a fascinating talk, for linking cognitive power and energy consumption. And what I've said above doesn't cancel out her argument about cooked food being advantageous.
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        Dec 17 2013: If gorillas ate meat, they would need to eat two raw chickens everyday.
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        Dec 18 2013: Alright well, I have to acknoledge that the talk is crappier than I first thought.
        I still disagree with or can't understand a lot of the arguments made against her, but the crappiness is undoubtedly there and I appreciate this mind-opening discussion.
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      Dec 17 2013: Thanks, Gerald, for your thoughts. You write: "Cognitive abilities are related to number of neurons, there is no denying that."

      There is a difference between "being related to/with", and "being causally/directly dependent on". Suzana presumes there to be a direct dependence, which is not the case. When we talk about cognitive abilities, we should consider not only the gross amount of physical signals processed per day, but also the quality of intellectual products constructed. The quality of cognitive activity is directly dependent not on the number of neurons, but on the connections between the neurons (and on other factors too). A statement that the bigger the number of neurons, the better the links between them would be just an unfounded speculation.

      To the point, since Suzana refuses to tell us what she means by cognitive abilities and how she is going to calculate the "richness of inner mental life", then, maybe, we will hear your own definition.

      You wrote: "Herculano-Souzel's talk is to show the link between energy cost and number of neurons."

      To talk about this link we must have enough big amounts of research data. In principle, it would be a good scientific talk if it were exclusively on the new method of calculating the number of neurons. However, Suzana permits herself to encroach on the field that does not pertain to Neurophysiology. As result, her comparison of cognitive abilities between the species has nothing to do with scientific approach.

      By the way, how is she going to prove that prehistoric man was duller than we are now? See her last diagram. Darwinian hypothesis is about biological evolution, but not about the evolution of cognitive abilities. To the point, recent trends in the field of consciousness studies are toward considering cognitive abilities of all species as equally potent. All living organisms must possess equally expediently potent exemplars of consciousness, otherwise they would not be able to stay alive.
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        Dec 17 2013: "The quality of cognitive activity is directly dependent not on the number of neurons, but on the connections between the neurons (and on other factors too)."
        I agree with this, and I expect Suzana does too. As I understand this, our brains require more energy than that of other primates and number of neurons is the reason why. In the economy of evolution, you can't afford to waste energy, so there must be some kind of advantage to fuel a brain with a lot more neurons. I'm suggesting that the advantage, the pay-off, could be superior computational power (since I don't know what else brains could be used for, but perhaps someone can educate me).
        This isn't neurology, it's just economy. No-free-lunch theory.

        I would define "cognitive ability" as the ability to process information. Is this controversial?

        "how is she going to prove that prehistoric man was duller than we are now?"
        It's very unlikely that our ancestors were a lot smarter with smaller brains, or evolution wouldn't have opted for the most costly and dumber ones. I'm not saying that evolution favours intellect. But in regards to our evolution it does, because this is what mostly mattered. I don't attribute the exponencial growth of our brains in the last million years to food, like she does, but to culture in general. I think cultural selection, and sexual selection within culture, is responsable. But food is indeed part of the means.

        "All living organisms must possess equally expediently potent exemplars of consciousness, otherwise they would not be able to stay alive."
        Please rephrase or explain this point, I don't understand.
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          Dec 17 2013: "I would define "cognitive ability" as the ability to process information. Is this controversial?"

          For my definition see, for example, my today's Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/groups/consciousness.studies/310700269062547/?comment_id=386368114829095¬if_t=like#

          No, it is not information that is being processed. Information (or better say, the increment of information) -- it is what we have (or may have) in result of processing the physical (sensory) signals and/or the already available elements of our subjective experience. Information does not exist objectively out-there. A book does not contain information, but black-n-white dots only. The photo of your hometown is informative for you, but it is not informative for me. For the physical signals recorded on your CD to become information, there must be you as consciousness-possessing agent who would transform these physical (computer modified) signals into information for yourself.

          "Please rephrase or explain this point, I don't understand."

          All the organisms are as equally consciousness-possessing, as they are equally alive. The anti-scientific doctrine of anthropocentrism (a view that only human is endowed with reason) has to be expelled from science as soon as possible. Moreover, every living organism has to be considered as an apex of evolution, if only because of the fact that it is alive.
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        Dec 17 2013: I don't believe information exists "out there" either. I don't believe our senses record information. They don't. What I call information is what you call information : theories built to deal with out-there signal input. Once you have ideas about what the signal could mean, you have information, which you then process. What's 5 + 8 ?

        I still don't grasp what you're saying. Correct me if I'm wrong, but are you saying anything with five neurons is as much endowed with reason as humans?
        And what's being alive got to do with being conscious? Where does that principle come from?
        Is consciousness something you define as having nothing to do with having a mind?
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          Dec 18 2013: "... are you saying anything with five neurons is as much endowed with reason as humans?"

          I hold that it is a rude and impermissible methodological blunder to compare the cognitive abilities of the representatives of different species. As to cognitive abilities, we can only compare a human with a human, a cow with a cow, a monkey with a monkey, and so on. To the point, there are geniuses and blockheads amongst the representatives of all species.

          I also hold that life and consciousness are closely interconnected, and I even talk about "life-consciousness" as the physicists talk about "space-time". The idea is that all the living organisms are equally alive. A human cannot be more alive than a cow or a prokaryote. But, for there to be an exemplar of life, there must be an exemplar of consciousness of the same equal power.
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        Dec 17 2013: Reading your consciousness page.

        The first bit about Life Ater Birth is disturbing me. What is obvious is that what gives credit to the believer is the fact that we are living after birth ourselves. Nothing else seems to justify his belief, so he might equally believe that there is whatever he wants there to be after birth.
        The other disturbing point is that the non-believer's argument is that he's never seen the mother, therefore it doesn't exist. Everyone knows that being rational implies that one does NOT trust his own observation or experience. What's missing in the metaphorical discussion is the scientific investigation that a non-believer would advocate ("sure I haven't seen her, but let's see if it makes sense anyway.")
        If I take your parable and use it to defend Satan asking to the believer that he rapes his grandmother, it still works. Though I agree that it wouldn't appeal to the sweet motherly-love nerve.

        But about consciousness, I can't access your writing because I don't have the same definition for consciousness. Would you please share what it is?
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        Dec 18 2013: You still don't explain how your definition of consciousness is any different from simple computing. And you're excluding organisms with no brains, aren't you?
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    Dec 16 2013: It's not the number of neurons that count, it's the structuring of them and their pathways, and that is something we don't understand completely yet.

    But the "Human Connectome Project" http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/ has made some great progress on this recently.

    Oh and there are 88 Talks on the topic brain http://www.ted.com/topics/brain
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      Dec 16 2013: The problem with this talk is that it creates misrepresentation of what is a mainstream science. Let us see what we have here. We have four brains of the people of unknown age, gender, race, marital and social status, education. We do not know whether these people where equally healthy either. In other words, there is nothing that we can call "making the other things equal". This amount of data is not sufficient for making any definite conclusions yet. Suzana talks about whales and elephants, but, in fact, the number of their neurons is not calculated yet.

      As to Suzana's speculations concerning the direct link between the number of neurons and cognitive abilities, they have nothing to do with mainstream science at all. As I have mentioned in my comments, Neurophysiology does not study consciousness (intellect, or cognitive abilities). It studies the physiology of higher neuronal activity. It studies brain. Indeed, to talk about cognitive abilities, we have to consider not the number of neurons, but the quality of their interconnections.
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        Dec 16 2013: Oh S!#%ยค!

        I just re-watched the Talk...

        I can believe I didn't see this the first time, it's completely unscientific!
        I think my mind drifted away after the part of dissolving brains to count neurons, which is the only noteworthy accomplishment and fact that she presents.

        I would vote to have the Talk taken off TED.com since it is exactly as you say.
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    Dec 15 2013: Then why not to use these 14 min only for covering the problem of counting the number of neurons?
  • Dec 15 2013: In essence, its an over simplification of how the brain works. There is a fair amount of truth to it, combined with a great deal of inaccuracy, mostly due to other factors not being discussed.

    Which is really the best you can hope for in a 14 minute video. Anything short of a few solid years learning biology on an academic level probably won't cut it, to be honest.