What’s in an Action Potential? Turns Out Nothing Special.

This is the screen shot for the video on Awe by Shots of Awe (with Jason Silva). Watch it. Watch all of them.

So a few weeks/months back I talked about the brain and how essentially all the signals end up being transduced into the same form and raised the point that what does this mean about our reality/how does our brain know a signal communicating sound from a signal communicating taste or touch?

what if

I was really hoping that my Behavioural Neuroscience course would shed some light on the topic. Tragically, all that happened Thursday was that I confirmed that Yup – all the signals are the same, and no, the scientists don’t know how the brain figures this out, but hey they’ve got cool, essentially unproven theories. Fantastic. The big theories are that different signals have different patterns of activation (just as different sound-waves have different patterns of firing to signal intensity/frequency) and that different areas of the brain process primarily certain types of stimulus information.

Let’s just stop and think about this for a minute.

Because most sensory systems have multiple stages at which information from various sensory modalities are incorporated so that we can get a more complete picture of what is out there. Nevermind how on earth the brain knows how to send the signals to specific areas if they all arrive there in the same format from the same path, because sceince doesn’t quite have that figured out either. So fine, they are processed in different areas, but then they are incorporated into on image, so eventually the brain would be required to differentiate the signals in some way so that even in the complete picture, we would have accurate representations of all aspects of the environment. Firing patterns, is intriguing, but I wonder about the number of firing patterns that would potentially be needed, and how the different senses would code their stimuli with their unique sensory systems and not potentially end up with comparable frequencies (i.e. sound-waves and infrared waves that end up with a comparable firing pattern based on frequency and intensity).

I may be blowing smoke out of my… well you know where, but still it seemed to me sitting in the lecture hall that the answer to how does the brain sort out stimuli in the brain if the signals are all the same, one of the most basic questions in my opinion, was a giant – WE DON’T KNOW.

And you have to consider the implications here – what if your brain doesn’t actually differentiate stimuli? What if a sound wave, beyond where it activates the brain, is the same in the brain as tactile pressure? What if taste looks the same as colour when it gets to the neurons? If our brain doesn’t actually differentiate, then we truly are constructing our reality.

Just let that sink in for a minute.

The constructivists were right.

Given how our sensory systems can be obviously impaired, such as blindness, and how our environment and personal traits impact our perception of the world, then how are we to argue any other scenario than we create our own experiences.

The shadows can play tricks on us - what if this is all we see though?  Source.

The shadows can play tricks on us – what if this is all we see though?

I hated philosophy first year for this very reason, but three years later, I see why Plato’s Cave Allegory is so important, and why the great early philosophers like Descartes, Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates may have had an actual point worth two seconds of my time to consider. You cannot begin to understand knowledge and existence, until you can fully accept and understand what exactly that means – until you see that neither may truly exist.

Has it sunk deep enough yet? Don’t let it go too deep or you might not sleep tonight.

But essentially, the problem has not be satisfactorily solved and I wonder if there’s a reason for that. If either we don’t yet have the technology to solve it, or if the technology can never be invented to measure such a thing. Or perhaps we don’t want to solve it because we may find that there is no difference in the stimuli in the brain, thus opening Pandora’s Box, leaving us with a gaping fear that we are alone in our invented worlds.

An interesting point was raised in this class – how deplorable our sensory systems are. For example, dogs have WAY better smell, cats have WAY better motion vision (in case you were wondering why the cat spends half their day staring into space). But then things get a little weirder – some stimuli we are not even equipped to sense. For example, apparently hammerhead sharks can smell electricity, bats and dolphins use echolocation (which to be fair so do some blind humans) at frequencies that humans are not even able to detect. Last year I learned about bees being trained to detect bombs. I have issues telling the difference between coriander and parsley and bumblebees can detect explosives. And this is just the things that we have at least some ability to detect or conceive. What if there are stimuli that we are unable to detect – I can’t even really fathom what these would be, but still what if there are other sensory modalities all together? What if the ability of certain species to “see” outside of the spectrum we can see (400-700nm – a very small spectrum) isn’t actually “sight” but maybe “wavenphlogen”? What if there is a specifies out there that can actually sense say X-Rays (not just convert them into pictures like we do but actually detect the waves in some sense?

We see such a small section of the wavelength spectrum, we measure the rest, but what if there's more that we have not yet developed a way of detecting/measuring? What if there are species capable of SEEING radio waves? Some can already see infrared.  Source

We see such a small section of the wavelength spectrum, we measure the rest, but what if there’s more that we have not yet developed a way of detecting/measuring? What if there are species capable of SEEING radio waves? Some can already see infrared.

Our reality then becomes even more restricted and self-constructed.

Not to say all of this to say that people should necessarily live according to this potential alternate version of the world, just that one could exist and we might not know it. It’s really no different than our experience of our inner world. To put this in more tangible … ish.. form – consider the thoughts of others, the practice we learn from a young age of taking the other’s perspective. This is in a sense, us attempting to use our own mental capabilities to understand the mental workings of another being. We cannot sense their emotions or thoughts, we have no capabilities (unless you’re Edward or Jasper Cullen apparently) to perceive these directly. We infer. So the concept of another sensory modality existing for other species that we have no way of even conceptualizing, isn’t that far off.

This comes from a really interesting and mildly frightening article from here.

This comes from a really interesting and mildly frightening article from here.

Measuring isn’t everything.

That is the biggest lesson here – we can measure brain waves and activity, we can measure the frequency of waves and we have have technology to measure some pretty amazing things, but all this measurement doesn’t make the substance any more real, we might be imagining it or even if we do measure it properly, it doesn’t mean we necessarily sense it as it is. We sense it by proxy. And if you ever played Telephone as a child, you know how crossed the wires can get over time.

Which becomes even more interesting/frustrating when you consider that we have much higher cognitive abilities than lower primates and other species (or so I’ve been told) and yet we have poorly tuned sensory systems. So we have the brain power to understand so much more of the world, and yet we cannot even perceive parts of it. We have advanced beyond our capabilities in a sense, and so we can’t properly perceive the world, but we make assumptions about it in our everyday lives and cognition. We assume we see things as they are, because if we can think so loftily, why would we not have all the information we needed?

This all comes at a very interesting time as I am slowly pushing my way through Ernest Becker’s The Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man and recently read a section on anxiety and how our attempts to control our anxiety, the ego finds what produces anxiety and prevents us from exposure/experience, thus we feel less anxiety but we also pay the price of only seeing a limited vision of the world. We do not experience it fully.

Ernest Becker

Ernest Becker

[…] Freud saw that the ego grows by putting anxiety under its control, as it finds out what anxiety is for the organism and then chooses to avoid it by building defenses that handle it. The ego finds what feelings, thoughts, and situations are dangerous, and then permits the organism to exist in a world in which there is no danger by steering clear of these feelings, thoughts and situations. […] the ego “vaccinates itself” with small doses of anxiety; and the “antibodies” that the organism builds up by means of this “vaccination” become it’s defenses […] But now look what happens. The freedom from anxiety that makes possible a sort of aloof action by the human animal is bought at a price. And this price is the heaviest that an animal has to pay: namely, the restriction of experience. The ego, the unique “psychological organ” of the higher primates, develops by skewing perceptions and by limiting action.

– Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man

So basically, that which makes us human, makes us at least partially blind. And perhaps that is part of the tragedy of being human, we dull our experiences to survive, we are built for so much more and yet must limit our existence to survive, the whole time aware that there is no way to escape our mortality.

Back to the whole issue of our perceptive abilities, the processing power to the brain, and the nature of our perceptions – now we essentially have three options, both which leave us at least partly blind:

  1. Our brain and neurons are not physically capable of experience the world.
  2. It doesn’t matter what’s actually out there because our brain makes it all up.
  3. Our brain CAN experience everything but our consciousness interferes and puts a film over our eyes so that despite the power to see the reality, we are unable to do so.

It’s sort of scary to entertain any of those possibilities. That I can never truly live to the fullest, because my humanity puts a cap on my existence.

It’s powerful and terrifying to realize all this, I may have fallen off my rocker on this one, but just think about it.



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