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Neurons Gone Wild (meltingasphalt.com)
119 points by xena on March 3, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 37 comments

Couldn't help but think of this (apocryphal apparently, huh?) story:

One night at Cheers, Cliff Clavin explained the "Buffalo theory" to his buddy Norm:

"Well ya see, Norm, it's like this. A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members.

In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Excessive intake of alcohol, as we know, kills brain cells. But naturally, it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine!

That's why you always feel smarter after a few beers."

I feel the assumption that alcohol kills only the weakest cells is probably false. However, it does give me the idea of a mental boost supplement snake oil scheme...

That is a rationalization for drinking beer. I'm not against alcohol, but I am against people deceiving themselves about its effects. Alcohol will make you less, not more intelligent.

It's a joke on a sitcom. Not meant to be taken at face value.

In defense of your comment, a lot of younger alcoholics think it is funny because they want it to be true.


Except it's not always true. A little bit of alcohol can take the edge off, reduce the stress. I don't know about you, but I myself am like 20 IQ points dumber when stressed out.

That's the ballmer peak

Obligatory xkcd reference: http://xkcd.com/323/

It's a very thought provoking piece. I stop short of fully endorsing it because it postulates a lot of things without much appeal to real science, despite portraying itself as scientific. In particular, I'm not sure how much of the brains characteristics can truly be attributed to fractal extrapolation of (idealized) behavior of individual neurons.

That complaint aside, at the consciousness level, I do think the multiple agent idea is an interesting framework for thinking about the brain. When I was in middle school, I suffered from paralyzing self-consiousness, which in retrospect was probably due to high levels of anxiety. At that age, I had come to think of my non-stop inner dialog and cacophony of voiceless mental urges as being like an internal parliament. In my later teenage years, number of stressful shocks to my system caused me to enter a period of depression, but I think it also gave me an opportunity to disrupt the mental patterns I had developed. Emergence from that depression, and I think also the inhibition lowering effects of alcohol, gave me a chance to reorganize my mental pattern in a way that gave my "self" more agency, and less to my various urges. Well, aside from my urge to use alcohol, which I would have to come to grips with years later.

I would later have another depressive episode, followed by another period of plasticity where I think I was able to really alter my mindset and habits. These depressions I experienced felt in many ways like an agent that hijacked many of my mental processes that normally felt under control of my conscious self, like my feeling of motivation, my emotions, and my thought patterns, rendering my conscious self frustratingly powerless.

Putting my scientist hat back on, it's tough to tell how much my personal experience and the tidy explanation of some psychological disorders and phenomena indicate a reality of a hierarchy of more or less discrete agencies.

The article is not necessarily scientific in that I'm not sure how you'd test or falsify the ideas, but at the same time it's a very interesting and perhaps very useful philosophical piece.

Often, ideas for science come from logically robust philosophical reasoning. I mean, sometimes they come from freak accidents also. But there's definitely validity in the simple (and awesome) exploration of cool ideas, as long as it's logically consistent.

The multiple agents idea gave me a weird momentary spell of depersonalisation, which was interesting. It's certainly compelling and not really incompatible with modern scientific understanding - it seems a plausible abstraction/description considering the way the brain is known to be wired together.

I also experienced some depersonalization thinking deeply about this.

I once created a tulpa through a technique called muscle testing. You most commonly see it using demonstrations where one person holds his arm out and the other person tries to press down on it. You get either a 'weak' response or a 'strong' response. You can 'ask' the muscle test yes or no questions and the body will answer you.

I used a variant of this test that you can perform by yourself, described in this video:


I would ask the test just about anything that came to mind. Typically I would 'calibrate' things on the Hawkins scale of consciousness:


At one point I got the distinct impression that the test was messing with me. I asked it point blank if it was intelligent, I got back a 'yes' response. From then on I would deal with it as one might an imaginary friend. At first it was strictly through the test, then by working out a way to 'share' my brain with it.

I initially thought the test was acting as some sort of conduit to another world. Eventually I figured out that it was somehow a part of my consciousness. After a year or so I slowly tapered off on communicating with it through the test, eventually I stopped communicating with it at all.

The experience was incredibly illuminating, I now have an intuitive grasp of my subconscious and how it operates.

What you're describing is known as Applied Kinesiology[1] and is not supported by evidence[2]. The Hawkins scale of consciousness is equally unsupported.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Applied_kinesiology

[2] http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/Tests/ak.h...

Of course it isn't. I don't use it anymore. It was hard to keep taking seriously when I was calibrating things in the billions. It felt distinctly like Dragonball Z.

The muscle test itself is interesting all on its own without the need to have to explain exactly what it's doing. You don't know what answer any given test is going to return and you can ask follow up questions to try to understand why. The test was coherent for me, up until it wasn't, that event created the tulpa.

> [Agency is] built into the brain's fabric and architecture. Because even neurons have agency

It seems like a borderline category mistake to claim that because the components of some system have property P then that system is somehow better fitted to have property P itself. There are exceptions (like P="reliability", or P="speed", thinking of transistors in a chip, perhaps) but in general, it doesn't seem to follow. Few transistors have Turing completeness, for example, but could be components of a system possessing that property. I don't see prima face why Agency should belong to the class of properties that transfer upwards from component to composed system.

Anthropomorphizing neurons by ascribing "selfishness", "adventurousness", and so on to them seems to compound this error in an effort to persuade. I doubt Dennett intends this in the excerpted quote.

Anyway, the "heterarchy of agents" view of mind doesn't need personality-endowed neurons, and has some compelling features which are explained pretty well in the article.

Regards "level 4, the self", though, I wonder how well evidenced a "prime-ministerial agent" type of self is. The article seems to take that on faith versus alternate models such as a set of competing high-level agents that compete or cooperate to occupy the driver's seat. Equating this with abnormal states of affairs like schizophrenia or demonic possession seems a bit facile.. (even disregarding the implied antique three-faces-of-Eve view of schizophrenia.)

Just because there aren't gross changes in behaviour or mentation, how would you know that a single top-level agent is consistently running the show? We're all familiar with mood-swings and role strain, but our strongly held belief in a ruling self makes us attribute these to other factors than agent swap-out. I think it's equally plausible that pathological multi-agency could be ascribed to abnormally divergent agents, rather than the mere existence of more than one top-level agent.

Maybe swapping top-level agents in and out is SOP, and a uniquely privileged Self should be treated with caution as a possible metaphysical fiction.

If we agree that system A possesses agency, then either the components possess it, or at some level of abstraction it emerges from the relations of the components.

The property of wetness emerges from the relations and mechanics of water molecules interacting with other water molecules. A hydrogen or oxygen element does not posses wetness, nor does it emerge from the interaction between a hydrogen and 2 oxygen.

However, wetness is a binary category, where as agency as defined in the article is a continuous category. We say that a slave has some agency, but less agency than their master. If we define 0 as no agency whatsoever and 1 as ultimate agency, then it's likely that everything in the universe has agency 0 < x < 1.

This of course still doesn't show that agency necessarily increases as you go up the abstraction stack. Does a city have more agency than it's citizens? What about the set of all living things? I would say that the molecules of a rock have more agency than the rock itself.

I think the agency property really breaks down when you look at it hard enough.

Clearly it can't be agents "all the way down" (in any case, the component parts of the neurons do not have agency), but the idea that it will be easier to evolve a high-level agent if the components themselves are agent-like seems coherent. It would be interesting if this could be sharpened into a testable prediction, in some kind of toy model.

I could see it go the other way too--for example large companies and states struggle to act as coherent agents, because the individuals and business units inside them scheme against each other, pursuing their own agendas. In order to maintain high-level agency they need to suppress low-level agency, e.g. armies training their soldiers to blindly follow orders.

The most interesting part of the article is the section on tulpas. I never knew there was a word for that, much less a community around it.

A link about conscious entities lurking unseen within my own mind, and slenderman? No, just no. Not clicking it.

This article is fascinating and struck a very particular chord with me. It puts elegantly and concisely into words feelings and intuitions that I've been having in the recent years, and gives me a vocabulary to deal with hard situations I am encountering currently in my life. Thanks to the author for writing it.

Reminds me of Eric Raymond’s “Dancing With The Gods — An autobiographical account of my ‘religious’ beliefs and how they got that way”: http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/dancing.html

Author’s note: “If you start this, please read it through. Stopping partway would probably leave you with some very silly misconceptions.

I love the similar hypothesis put forward by Robert Kurzban in "Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite" that the conscious mind (the self) is simply a "press secretary" for the modular parts of the human brain, and literally doesn't know what's going on in most of it, but can invent reasonable justifications for a behaviour after the fact if questioned about a particular act.

I'm interested in this field of study. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like it's primarily economic theory applied to the brain/neurons?

If I were to be interested in learning more about the ideas and theories that this article inherits from, where would I start?

Dan Dennett, the author of the piece that sparked this one, is an obvious intellectual ancestor to these ideas. I can't recommend his book "Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking" enough. In it, he lays out his entire model of the mind, and really, the whole universe. It's eminently approachable and provides a good introduction to the way of thinking lying behind this article.

Alright, a little crazy -- Doesn't this tulpa concept remind you of the growth of artificial intelligence?

I read this article hoping for some neuroscience but just got a few buzzwords and a lot of argument by analogy. This is not reductionism or science. It's just another artificial conceptual framework built on top of pop evolutionary psychology.

It does not purport to be science; not really. It's supposition. That is not a knock against it.

The existence and nature of consciousness, and its relationship to the computing and (perhaps) learning systems we now build, is a big open question, and the single biggest gaping hole in our knowledge about the world. It seems likely that filling that gap will require conceptual frameworks for thinking about consciousness far outside of the ones we've had up to this point -- they have failed for thousands of years.

The goal of the article is not to present fact put to provide a tentative exploration of the space of possible explanations of something we simply do not understand at all.

you and the article 'do not understand [it] at all', maybe, but a generalization ignorant of probable scientific excourse is the opposite of scientific, as the GP pointed out.

A fascinating piece, even if I don't hold the author's materialistic views.

Regarding exorcisms, one aspect that is not addressed is sometimes external manifestations of demonic activity/presence not explainable (or seemingly not explainable) by biochemical processes.

Now, one can dismiss such claims out of hand if one considers a priori that such occurrences are impossible (i.e. that the super-natural does not exist), and so are necessarily explainable as deceptions, misperceptions, or yet-to-be understood natural phenomena. That's fine, but then care should be taken that one does not vacillate between that position and claiming that no one has ever shown any evidence of supernatural phenomena. Anyway, the latter point is a bit of a nit, but I've seen armchair skeptics make the mistake often enough that it bears pointing out.

In my own life, I have on several occasions observed or experienced some phenomena which seemed to defy laws of nature. With respect to the demonic, I can relate one such experience, from which I must necessarily omit certain details so as to not betray anyone's privacy:

Several years ago, I met someone whom I will refer to as "Jim". Jim suffered from serious mental illness and had been unable to develop an awareness that he had a problem for which medical treatment was necessary (and readily available). I tried to be a good friend, but Jim's life was upside down and he regularly got into (sometimes serious) trouble with local law enforcement. I visited him and picked him up from the county jail on several occasions over the years. As I got to know Jim better, I also discovered he had something of an obsession with "the devil" and demons, as well angels and manual copying of long portions of the Christian Bible.

One evening, Jim seemed to be struggling with an intense episode of paranoia and I went to visit him at his request. Upon entering his apartment, I felt that something was... wrong, very wrong. I couldn't quite figure out what it was, but then Jim spontaneously began to verbally relate knowledge of events in my life which were in no way recorded in digital or physical media (Facebook, paper trash, etc.) – private things, secret things, spanning years before I met Jim (and in precise form) of which I had never spoken. It began with one sudden statement, which startled me, which reaction elicited a pained laugh from Jim. He then proceeded to relate more "secret knowledge". His intense gaze (at me) and manner of speech throughout seemed "detached" from the world around him... for just a moment I was genuinely frightened. I said a silent prayer, abruptly changed the subject, and then hurried him out the door so we could go get a late dinner and coffee. Later conversations with Jim suggested that he didn't recall the incident; I've never asked him how he knew those things. Sadly, Jim disappared some time later, after a failed intervention to get him medical help. If he's still alive, I hope a couple of things for Jim. One, that he will realize he needs medical help to deal with his mental illness, and will avail himself of it. Two, that if he is under demonic influence, then he will meet with a kind soul who is able to help deliver him. I have spoken with a real-life exorcist – I didn't seek him out, I met him in passing – and was told that my experience with Jim was a possible sign of demonic activity though not necessarily possession.

Please note that my relating the above is not my way of "pounding the table" to insist that demons are real. It's a very personal and unexaggerated anecdote offered, for what it's worth, in relation to the idea that exorcisms and experience of the demonic would somehow always relate to "internal" phenomena.

One interpretation that you seem to overlook in favor of an external demonic possession: he has sociopathic tendencies (perhaps spying on you) and was attempting to manipulate you into thinking he is/was possessed. Maybe you even got wasted with Jim once and let out some secrets. Anyway, I If true, he succeeded in defending his criminal behavior by outsourcing his internal evil on bogus societal constructs such as religion or demonic possession. I see why you got downvoted though; the OP makes a yet another more plausible case of splitting of the self, or growth of a more evil, maniacal self.

Actually, I didn't overlook the "spying" interpretation. It's certainly a possibility given Jim's tendency to compulsive and obsessive behavior. But as I noted, the things he related were not accessible in any recorded medium, nor did I speak of them to Jim nor anyone else during the time I knew him. Prior to that, I lived in a different part of the country and was even out of the country for awhile. Some of the things I'm fairly certainly I never related to anyone at any time.

I was never intoxicated during the time I knew Jim – I gave that up several years prior.

Jim never claimed to be possessed, nor anything like that. He would have found the idea repulsive. On the contrary, he generally considered himself to have a privileged relationship with God – a not uncommon delusion among persons suffering from severe mental illness. At the same time, I never heard him justify his personal behavior on that basis. Generally, Jim seemed to believe that other people, especially the police, had serious moral and intellectual defects which caused them to misunderstand and persecute him. He also displayed paranoia (sometimes extreme, to the point of self-harm) about most everything and everyone.

Finally, I never gave (and don't give) Jim a "pass" because I believe he was possessed. In fact, I'm not sure he was. The only thing I am certain of is that he displayed all the signs of serious, prolonged and untreated mental illness. I also thought he was deeply spiritually troubled – so I prayed for him a lot (still do) and I tried to encourage him to seek the counsel and ministry of a couple of wise pastors in the area. However, for all his hyper-religiosity, Jim displayed a strong aversion to church and to authority figures in general. The incident I described previously did make me consider that some aspects of his malaise might be related to demonic influence, and the events seems to defy a natural explanation, but I cannot presume to know for certain.

Fascinating story. Thanks for sharing, though I hope you understand my general doubt. But you'd expect that since I'm so far away from these strange occurrences.

Getting back to the point of this thread: when you pray, are you praying to something external, or are you praying to an internal divided, yet more divine, disconnected self?

I understand completely, and take no offense of any kind.

When it comes to personal prayer, my understanding has been shaped most strongly by the following two texts:



When it comes to corporate prayer, my experiences and understanding have been most strongly influenced by public worship in the "style" of what is sometimes called the Traditional Latin Mass:


There are numerous texts which attempt to explain what the latter "is all about". A favorite of mine is a guide, of sorts, for uniting one's personal prayer with the corporate prayer of the Mass:


Finally, a mode of silent corporate prayer which is also intensely personal is called "Eucharistic Adoration", during which one's attention is directed toward Jesus, who Catholics believe is bodily present under the appearance of bread. Many believers also make "holy hours" before the Eucharist on their own at little chapels throughout the world. There is even an online chapel, of sorts:



A common thread to all of the personal dimensions of these kinds of prayer is that there is frequently an interior dialogue, perhaps deliberately shaped according to a method of discursive meditation. However, there is also understood to be an exterior object of prayer, God Himself or the Saints and Angels. The dynamic by which the interior dialogue is (or can be, in any case) supplanted by something which transcends the one who prays has been the object of much writing over the past 2,000 years of Christian history. Generally speaking, the subject matter is treated by the ascetical and mystical branches of Catholic theology. The second link from the top is to a book which tries to summarize the most accepted schools of thought in those areas, i.e. within the Western Catholic Church.


This isn't even porn.

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