TED Conversations

Brian Johnson

Scientist at Intel Corporation 1987-2008

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Models for the human brain need to reflect the biological details of the brain and the computer is inadequate for this.

In thinking about the human brain , as well as brains other mammal species, analogies to computers have been proposed. I would argue that digital computing as we know it today gives an overly simplified model to the "wetware" of brains which leads to simplistic mechanistic views. Neurons have been thought to function like transistor switches ; being connected in circuits and having discrete firing pulses across their synapses. New scientific data suggest much more complicated functioning [ several examples are described in "Rhythms of the Brian" by Gyorgy Buzsaki ]. All regions of a neuron cell surface have been found to be subject to stimulation from the intracellular and intercellular medium, ion channels have voltage dependence driven by intercellular oscillatory waves and most importantly all parts of a neuron can function like a resonator-oscillator leading to potential waves being transmitted across large regions of cells as well as leading to neural firing. This enables regions of the brain to become synchronized. As an aside this functioning is likely to be the basis for alpha,theta ... voltage waves that can be measured with EEG. This operating mechanism of oscillation also enables very fast communication across large regions of the brain [ neuron firing is actually very slow ( tens of msecs ). In contrast transistors are either on ( high current) or off ( low current) and only their connections through circuits lead to information processing. The extreme power of computing hardware is the speed in which billions of transistors can operate. The extreme power of the brain is likely to be driven by the enormous complexity of interactions of neurons with their cellular environment and their synchronization by oscillations, as well as the signal processing of vast interconnections of neurons though pulse firing at synapses.

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    Jan 21 2014: Tuck this delightful intellectual tour-de-force away for a rainy day, friend Brian. Vascular surgeon Len Shlain's standing room only Alphabet Versus the Goddess lecture at Pepperdine's Distinguished Lecturer Series in 2006. When he wrote the book in 1998, so little was known about epigenetics that Shlain was regarded as a bit of a fringe kook, like many scholars ahead of their time, right? He was more warmly welcomed in Europe early on, but science finally caught up with him, so that this Pepperdine audience treats him like the interdisciplinary savant he was.

    The incredible slide show may have been produced by Len's daughter Tiffany, who had two of her films shown at the Sundance Film Festival a few years back.

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    Jan 20 2014: My Right Brain Trust friend, Darold Treffert (Kim Peek's doctor and friend) who has studied autistic savants for 50 years, on genetic/ancestral memory. He believes otherwise inexplicable unlearned/untaught savant behavior may be a result of gen mem.

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    Jan 20 2014: Since our brain doesn't exist in a vacuum, its easy to trace its "footprints" in our cultures. Here is an excerpt from my review of my late friend Leonard Shlain's wonderful book, The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image:

    " In The Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson lists these twelve empires and dynasties that fell in a mere hundred years since 1891: Spanish, Manchu, Romanoff, Austrian-Hungarian, Ottoman, Imperial German, Dutch, French, British, Japanese, Nazi Germany, and Soviet. The United States, with more than 900 military bases worldwide, is an empire that is solely based upon oil and could certainly fall soon after the world runs out of oil and natural gas in the next few decades.

    "When the New Dark Ages, which will apparently be presided over by the New World Order, begin, humans will abandon the northern latitudes and deserts and trees will disappear, being burnt for warmth. At that point people will use anything for fuel, including millions of scholarly tomes written in the accursed linear alphabet that describe in left brain labyrinthine detail how our empires rose and fell. As much as I love to read and write, I suggest that that might not be as great a loss as it seems at first. The wise and discerning right brain can easily condense the knowledge contained in those mountains of books into a single, profound fact: Empires rise and fall because of the left brain folly of us idiots of the male persuasion!"
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    Jan 20 2014: The philosopher Mary Midgley explains that "The bifurcation seems to have become necessary in the first place because these two main functions – comprehensiveness and precision – are both necessary, but are too distinct to be combined.”

    But the brain is so incredibly plastic and changeable throughout our lifetimes that hemispheric generalizations are just that. In the early 1980s a PBS program on the brain showed a CAT scan of an adult brain that was 90% dead as a result of hydrocephalus, with only a living brain stem and a thin shell of living cells just under the skull. That brain belonged to a fairly healthy, well adjusted young man with an I.Q. just below MENSA levels! It was a complete mystery to neurologists at the time, because the fetal stem cells that permitted 99% of his brain's functions to migrate to those few living cells hadn't been discovered yet.

    The late mega savant Kim Peek (the real Rainman), a genius in 15 fields, was born without a corpus callosum, which connects the hemispheres, so he basically had two brains and could read and memorize both pages of a book at the same time.

    Split-brain studies show that the hemispheres don't talk to each other because each is unaware of the other, and to me, this is the biggest problem of all for us humans. In Youtube videos of split-brain studies, you will see the verbal, egotistical left brain inventing stories/lying about what the right brain just did in a test, even though it actually knew nothing about it. The humility of "not knowing" is apparently unacceptable to the left brain, and this is why left brain, hunter-killer people and institutions tend to go full speed ahead and create things like atom bombs and such, regardless of consequences.

    Remember little Possum Pogo saying, "We have met the enemy... and he is us!"?
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    Jan 20 2014: Last, I promise!

    The great myth of neuroscience is that neurons run the show in the brain. In 2002, R.Douglas Fields (Sci Am, "Has Science missed half the brain?) found that glial cells and astrocytes, the 90% of brain cells once thought to be lowly support cells for neurons, not only design and lay out neural pathways, but direct their actions once neural nets are in place. So actually, Science missed 90% of the brain! And we still call it neuroscience. Sooo... most brain scientists who are worth their salt realize that we don't know Jack about the brain.
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    Jan 20 2014: Granted, the several species of small-brained upright tool-using primates that lived from 6 million years BP to 2 million years BP before a species-wide muscular degenerative disease caused their brains to expand were lower on the food chain than we are. But they lived in complete harmony with the flora and fauna that surrounded them, while we are causing so many extinctions that soon there will be no food chain at all.

    Carl Sagan and others posited that intelligence may be very rare in the universe because it is so dangerous... "Cosmic Enemy #1." Perhaps if we genetically deleted most of the left brain that would act as a "wisdom enhancer." Not as crazy an idea as you think: Hunter-killer left brain is largely expendable. Until recently, surgeons offering relief/survival to kids under age 7 with multiple daily epileptic seizures excised 80% to 90% of LB, with great majority of its functions migrating to RB successfully via unassigned stem cells. Since RB develops much earlier than LB in fetuses, perhaps LB is an evolutionary parasite, and a very dangerous one at that.

    Once we beneficially modify our brain -won't happen, because Departments of Defense and Energy (same thing) supply the lion's share of college grants in the US - then perhaps we could model computers on a healthy and sane brain!
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    Jan 20 2014: Computers cannot replicate human brains because they are fortunately not mentally defective apes like we are.

    Since the only true criteria for evolutionary success is survival and reproduction, there is little evidence to support the contention that our bigger brains are an actual improvement over small brains. My work shows that there is overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary, in fact. Ever-increasing complexity in systems, including our brain and the Internet, always results in a "crash and burn." Only the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) philosophy of engineering, biological or mechanical, is truly sustainable.

    Father of Taxonomy Carl Linnaeus insisted that if it wasn't for extreme pressures from theologians that only recently ceased burning heretics at the stake in his time, he would not have created the genus Homo that separated us from apes. Thus I have taken it upon myself to re-assign us the taxonomic name of Pan sui fallenda... self-deceiving ape.
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    Jan 20 2014: My brain studies have resulted in these findings- One: The defective human gene myosin-variant MYH-16 radically reduced jaw muscle constriction of the cranium and allowed early hominin brains to rapidly expand after small brains proved to be successful in upright, tool-using primates for four million years. Two: Transitory hemispheric suppression studies show that the male-dominant left brain accepts false propositions because the internal structure of the proposition is valid, when the right brain knows from experience that they are false. Since the great majority of leaders are men, this is a huge problem. Three: The non-verbal right brain is the seat of perceptions of oneness with our universe, but cannot express them. The verbal left brain often misinterprets right brain phenomena, reducing universal truths to egocentric, localized myths. Over 1200 gods are listed in A Guide to the Gods, and this “My god is better than your god” brain catastrophe has resulted in the deaths of about 809 million humans, whose bodies lined head-to-toe would circle the equator 34.6 times! Four: Goddess cultures show that both our brain hemispheres and our societies were largely in balance at the dawn of agriculture. However, agriculture increased populations, wealth and power so that any added brain catastrophe might be as devastating as a lit match tossed into a gunpowder magazine. Five: The invention of linear alphabets ignited that gunpowder. The abstract letters of l-i-n-e-a-r a-l-p-h-a-b-e-t-s only acquire meaning when perceived in a sequential manner, so reading strongly stimulates the abstract, linear, and sequential left brain. The alphabetic worm – a faulty virus-riddled software program – re-wires the hard drive in the Apple computers of our brains via epigenetics by creating millions of new cells and pathways in the troublesome left brain. The resulting glitches spread throughout our cultures and then cascade from one generation to the next, at great cost!
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      Jan 20 2014: Brendan - Thank you for your response and the detailed level of information. Why evolution led to two hemisphere brains in humans and all mammals is a very interesting question. It appears that there is both duplication and asymmetry. But of course the basic body structure has symmetry : eyes, ears etc . I would suppose one aspect of this is increased about of neural tissue and thus capability that comes with two hemispheres. Asymmetry allows specialization of functions. I suspect there is a great amount of current research on this. I am not very knowledgeable with this work.

      However what I find the most interesting is whether our consciousness is related to having two hemispheres. Is there a dialogue between them ?
  • Jan 19 2014: When I was at the university I read about this idea: The human mind is the adition of the neurons electric activity plus the micro-electromagnetic field they generate all over and in the nervous system. That will imply that to know more about the mind we need to elaborate the spacial model of that quantum field. Taking that as a valid hipothesis (it seems to me) the endeavour we face to modeling a single brain is huge.
  • Jan 18 2014: Current computers can never truly approach the human brain in its complexity or have any chance at all of producing something like consciousness. I would say that a fly, that has a rudimentary brain, is far superior to any computer ever built. Consider also that if say the computer maintenance people all went on strike one day, all the computers would start to fail in a relatively short time, no inbuilt immune system nor any kind of independence from humans.

    All computers, other than some neural networks, require programming instructions to function. These must be written by a human being. Nothing creative going on here among the circuits. Every time a new technology has arisen people have claimed that the brain is a this or that, e.g. first it was a telephone exchange, next an analogue computer, then a digital one, then a parallel one, then a neural network and now maybe a quantum computer. I believe that there is a very long way to go before a true understanding of the brain will be forthcoming. Before such an understanding becomes possible no computer can be built to simulate it.
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    Jan 12 2014: Very interesting topic, thank you. I agree with you that digital computing and brain functions are not comparable truly. The degrees of freedom of 'firing' of a neuron at synapses are vastly more in case of brains because it has multiple input channels. Moreover, at the basic synaptic connection electrons are possibly quantum indeterminately moving so a classical reduction seems inappropriate.
    If it needs to be compared with computing at all - it should be quantum computing.
    There is an outside chance that the 'rich internal life' is something brain conjures up. Despite being vastly complex it is too frugal on energy consumption.
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      Jan 13 2014: Pabitra- Thanks for your thoughts on this question. My knowledge of quantum computing is very limited but I believe that quantum computing is probabilistic whereas digital computing is deterministic. This becomes a fundamental difference. We both agree that neurons have a large complex set of inputs which lead to the postsynaptic pulse , actually a train of pulses, that travel along the axon to other synapses. I would argue this mechanism is still deterministic since there is either conduction across the synapse or not. What Gyorgy Buzsaki describes in the "Rhythms of the Brain" are mechanisms by which communication occurs not through the neural network but by resonance behavior through the cellular medium or between circuits of neurons acting as oscillators. The oscillations can resonate and become synchronized. Think of it as voltage waves propagating through whole regions of the brain. What I find so intriguing about Buzsaki's findings is that they may provide a way to thinking about how the brain "integrates" sensory data with memory data. We experience consciousness as an integrated, simultaneous awareness of many things in a moment of time. That "moment" is likely to be on the order of milliseconds. Integrating information over milliseconds is like oscillatory events at kilohertz cycles. EEG measurements show waves from tens of cycles to thousands of cycles.