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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 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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