The Human Mind: Unfiltered and Infinite

So a few nights ago I was watching TED talks before bed (#nerdlife) and there was a really interesting talk by  Ray Kurzweil who talked about the evolution of the human brain. In his talk he talked about how as Google moves towards more and more intelligent searching and our technologies for imaging the brain become more and more advanced, we will move towards adding these neurotechnologies to our brain so that one day we will truly have an infinite source of knowledge by inserting nanobots into our brain that connect to a cloud service.

Ultimate point – we will put Google in our brain.

And Google will learn to understand what webpages are saying. So when we ask Google it won’t bring up search results, it will have read and can deliver responses to complex questions (it can already tell you the answers to a large number of simple questions, and yet can’t tell me why the chicken crossed the road).

And I thought oh good God.
I mean can we just go back to Google – who already knows far too much about my existence thanks to my laziness with telling it not to track me – being in my brain and possibly searching based on my thoughts.
My mind will be Google’s.
Google already owns my digital data. It’s like the Miranda Rights of the internet. “Anything you search or post can be used to sell things to you. If you do not want us to do this, too bad. Do you understand these rights?”
But Google may one day have access to my subconscious thoughts?! Google will own my consciousness. Which means Google will own me?
Remind me to opt out of this nanobot thing. I would rather be the dumb old lady.

But this all got me thinking about what this means for the human species.

Google was added to the dictionary in 2006. True Story. It replaced a previous definition from 1907 that had something to do with cricket (the sport not the insect)...

Google was added to the dictionary in 2006. True Story. It replaced a previous definition from 1907 that had something to do with cricket (the sport not the insect)…

The big thing for me is that it already kind of bothers me, is that we live in a “Google it” world. And in full disclosure of my hypocrisy, I was overjoyed when they updated Google Now so that Google checked for my responses. (Hallelujah I don’t have to hit send anymore when I tell Google to text people! She ASKS me if I want to send the message and then turns the mike back on.) When my mom asks me what she should wear, I ask Google what the weather is. She commented “I wonder if it’ll be nice in Ottawa this weekend…” and I asked Google. Before I leave the house, Google tells me how long it will take to get to work. Google knows my habits, my appointments, my interests and concerns. And it’s terrifying.

But back to the issues at hand:

  1. To be useful, Google needs to know our needs. Like how Google noticed that I had a recurring appointment every Tuesday and started automatically giving me departure times and directions. So Google needs full access. It needs to know everything about us to know what we would need. If Google is in our brain, how do we clear browser history?
    If Google knows everything about our existence, then the access to our thoughts thing that I feared a few weeks ago when I talked about Mark Zuckerburg’s outrageous claim that one day our thoughts would be uploaded to Facebook, might actually be something we should be concerned about
  2. If we all have access to this vast array of knowledge – what does this mean about experts and intelligence tests? No one likes a know-it-all. And knowing and understanding are two vastly different concepts.

So Issue #1A: By wanting to know it all, are we essentially exposing every fiber of our existence to the world? Are we uploading our private thoughts to the internet in a quest for unlimited knowledge and smooth, hands-free access to the knowledge contained in the internet?

Issue #1B: We’re creepy enough with the internet as is… I think this may allow us to hit creepy level 1000. What happened to getting to know someone the old fashioned way?

Issue #2: Are we going to be smarter? Or dumber with more declarative/factual knowledge?

Potential bonus: If Google indeed monitors our consciousness, perhaps this technology could be used to flag individuals in need of mental health aid – for example, if Google noticed cognitive markers for an eating disorder or noticed that you were suicidal, perhaps Google could connect you to services or at least make recommendations. But this may not be enough – telling someone they have depression won’t make them get help, so at what point does Google become responsible for safeguarding our lives and sanity, and at what point is it reasonable to breach the privacy of the human mind?

But I mean the real question on everyone’s mind I’m sure (no pun intended) is will this be like smart phones and we’ll just use these nanobots to search more pictures of cats. Pictures that can be uploaded directly to our visual cortex?

the truth right there.

the truth right there.

The Beginning Disguised as an End

“I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

So the semester is officially over. There will be no more caffeine and will-power fueled discussions when I would sort of rather be snuggled on my sofa watching Grey’s Anatomy. I have no idea where the last three months of my life have gone but I know I learned a lot more and a lot less than I expected. I did not learn the names of more than 3 names in psychology, I did not learn dates and achievements, but I did learn a lot about the world. From within the four walls of LMX219 I have questioned some of my most fundamental assumptions, coming up with a lot more questions than answers, and really only apparently learning that certainty is complete and total bullshit. A thought that should serve me well in life in general.

We’ve tackled some pretty big questions, and as Claude so cogently pointed out – few of us posed questions, most sought answers. For me this only resulted in more questions. But let’s look at the Big Questions Directory:

  1. What is psychology?
  2. What is science?
  3. Is Psychology a science?
  4. What are the flaws with science?
  5. Do we ever know anything?

I was going to source back to the answers to these, but I realized that these were evolving answers, like knowledge in general, as time passed I evolved the answers got into finer detail, brought up the things that really bugged me, like emotions, multiple times. You want my answers? My thoughts still in development? Start here.

What’s really funny for me is that from all the talk of magic and thinly veiled, perhaps unknowing references, the most significant and valuable lesson I learned from this course is that life really is Harry Potter.

No seriously, hear me out.

Gateway to the ShireEvidence:

  • Science was often discussed as magic, don’t believe me – ask Google.
  • Way back, we were told to go home and sit in front of our toilets – why? Because he wanted us to go into the Chamber of Secrets. Or gain access to the Ministry of Magic (I didn’t know the toilets fed into D’Orio and Marion, I thought Marion only had the gateway to the Shire.) Really, which is all a giant metaphor for our access to knowledge and awareness – he wanted us to reveal the dirty, messy truth of life
  • There was talk of divination
  • Science does a lot of stuff that no one knows how – they just do it.
  • The scientists hide away in their secret labs – kind of like Hogwarts no?
  • Herbology = botany, potions=chemistry, charms = physics; best of all – History and Systems = Defense Against the Dark Arts, complete with a Claude-Lupin parallel.
  • My cross-cultural prof and forensic psych profs both brought up Harry Potter completely unprovoked – cross-cultural pointed out how strange it would be if he walked in in the robes like they wear in Harry Potter.
  • There are certain behaviours that are often classed as unforgiveable – just like the unforgiveable curses – for example, we don’t like psychopaths, because they try to control us (ahem, Imperio!) and am I the only one who classed Voldemort as a psychopath?! We’re also not such big fans of murderers or people who knowingly make people suffer pain. When thinking of the big unforgiveables in society, really those are the big universals
  • taken from

    taken from

    Look at the four houses – they are based on core personality traits and diagnostic categories – Slytherin for example are quite obviously the psychopaths, Ravenclaws are extremely smart (IQ), Griffindor are the highly loyal and brave, and then there’s Hufflepuff, which I could probably label too but really function as comic relief, they are the opposite of Ravenclaw

  • Notice how Harry’s mother’s love provided a shield against evil, not saying science is evil, just that traditional magic (science) could not account for the old magic (love and emotions) much in the way that I have argued that the area that science cannot explain is love and emotions.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

Moving on.

While I intend to continue on with this exploration and questioning, both from my notes as well as from readings of material that provoke more question, I feel like I should at this point go over some closing thoughts for the course. Because let’s face it, from here I have no idea what I am doing or how I’m going to do it. I am however working on pieces on emotions and on what the brain does, so check back in the coming weeks!

A general discrepancy between what science should be and what it is was present in most of the course, and now that I am reflecting back on the course, that was the ultimate point.

The difference between what is and what should be – the failed expectations.

See science is lovely, in theory, it works out perfectly, it is a very powerful system if it works but the problem is that it essentially relies on assumptions. Like I talked about – it measures a few singularities and then leaps to the general. Which is somewhat logical – the classic “If Socrates is a man and all men are mortal then Socrates is mortal.” But the problem is that we don’t really know anything, we just pretend to.

Then life gets in an muddles everything.

Science tries to eliminate emotions, to eliminate humanity to a degree because it mutates what is potentially an all powerful system into a believable, but vulnerable, system – it creates flaws that dent its utility. Just like us. What surprises me is how science tries to deny its flaws. It expects to be rational, it labels emotions, the essence of humanity, as irrational or problematic for some other reason. Essentially, it seems to me that scientists attempt to pathologize humanity in an attempt to deify itself – to perfect our exploration and development of knowledge. Accepting that we cannot be completely unbiased, that emotions colour everything (perhaps the source of the colour associations with emotions? Just a thought), then you have to accept that our expectations are baseless and we are helpless to find reality and truth.

But see the thing is that just because we might be wrong, doesn’t mean we cannot be right. It just means that you should not be too convinced that you have found a truth unless you are prepared that you may have found nothing more than a stepping stone, a false truth.

We become frustrated in life when what we expected to happen fails. We want to believe we are as powerful as our thoughts. We come equipped with all this big beautiful brain power, we have the capacity to understand limitless possibilities, imagine things that don’t exist yet. But I was watching Grey’s Anatomy last night and an interesting thought came up

“We’ll try again, and we’ll going to fail again, because that’s what progress looks like.”
“Progress looks like a dead sheep?”
“No, progress looks like a bunch of failures.”

Word. Thanks Grey’s. And my parents told me TV rots your brain. Pft.

calvin-and-hobbes ontologicalThis course has allowed me to question everything I know, even the things I didn’t know I didn’t know. This has not weakened my faith in psychology, one course could not do that. It has given me an appreciation for the issues and complexities and has taught me that this is the tragedy of human life. We come equipped with the power to learn anything, but we are limited by time, our existing knowledge, and the currently available explanations.

We talked about science versus art versus … something else? And I realized that science, because it believes in its methods, when it fails blames the technology, when it can’t find an answer it’s because the technology, the tools, have not developed enough to meet the ideas of the scientist’s mind. Art doesn’t really fail per say, except perhaps in trying to convey the message, except, art is almost more about what you do see than what you were supposed to see. Art does not have an expectations necessarily, it is developed over time, and what comes out of it, appreciated by the artist, if they really hate it, it’s their fault, or maybe just a lack of inspiration, a lack of a light inside themselves. Then there’s the grey areas like psychology. I hate to call it an art, because I think in society’s mind that makes it less legitimate, but it’s not always as cold and methodical as science, it requires more intuition and humanity than that. See when science fails it blames the technology, but if psychology does the same – it blames the technology, for me that says that all humanity is the same. It denies that it failed not because the technology doesn’t exist but because the same patterns cannot be found because humanity is not a set of carbon atoms (well we are. But not really. At least for me. I am sure the Brain Campers would have something to say about this) – so we’re not going to be identical, patterns are going to be harder to find, expectations more frequently denied. End game? Psychology is a science in it’s methods, but an art in its conclusions and applications.

In understanding expectations versus reality I realized how this explains everything.

Depression becomes a realization that our expectations and reality don’t match.

Schizophrenia, a refusal to accept this.

Anxiety, a fear that because of this we are not the foolproof dieties we want to be. A realization that our brain allows us to imagine beyond our lifetime, but that we have a lifetime.

Science, an attempt to deny this, by rigidly controlling how we make expectations.

Art, the realization and expression of this beauty and pain through some medium – baring our humanity to the world.

Psychology an attempt to figure out what this expectation-reality discrepancy means to us, and attempt to accept it and bring peace to our existence.

We can’t be perfect. Life isn’t perfect. Sometimes things go horribly and painfully wrong. And there is nothing we can do about it. The problem of science is the same problem humanity has faced for years – the problem that we are stuck in this loop of thinking we know and then realizing that we don’t. This is life and the course and this is my realization of the course. The last AHA! Moment of the semester!

I’ve still got a fair amount of material I’m working on, but I’d love to hear from you. Send me your suggestions, let me know what you think.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

― Voltaire

Flawed but Useful: In Which I Defend the Process of Research

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

― Albert Einstein

The more I think about it the more I see that the process science, particularly psychology, uses may be flawed, but at the end of the day the result is still good.

Psychology, and arguably the other sciences in some experiments, is a field where through experience and thinking about things, you can often arrive at the same answer as a long and expensive experiment, but where that experiment still tells you nothing with certainty. I have noticed that in psychology, we have these theories, that in a sense guide our investigation of individuals, but we don’t necessarily use to know anything. Probably a by-product of the number of studies that are correlational in nature. Even when they are experimental, we come up with these cool results, but rather than proclaim them to the world, we downplay them and say, well they might not generalize, outside this setting, or we might have missed some other variable.

In a sense this almost seems to be a field aimed at confirming intuition. Of course, especially when it comes to mental illness and understanding how to best treat them, human instinct has come up with some pretty bizarre ideas. Some pretty damaging solutions. Does this mean that as a field it is flawed? No. Sometimes even science science gets it wrong (drug companies I’m looking at you).

There is always room for improvement.

Perhaps because of the nature of evolution and development? We are finding new answers not because our science was flawed but because humans have changed – our environment, physiology, work habits, mating practices – we are qualitatively different from the generations before us, and will be different from the ones that follow – with development comes new issues and old issues die off. Before the invention of cars, drunk driving wasn’t a problem, before medicine advanced allowing us to live longer, many of the problems of old age, such as dementia, were never experienced.

I have read articles exploring the idea that if our DNA is 99% identical to the apes, and we are classed as a different specifies, at what point while man kind again be classed as a different species. It is easy looking retrospectively at skeletons and say, their skeletons and tools look different. But our sizes and shapes have changed as a result of our sedentary lifestyle – I am quite sure hundreds of years from now, if anthropologists dug up our bodies, they would find a species with a c-curved spinal shape from our poor posture and tendency to look down at our phones – would they class us as the first of a new species? Would my grandparents be classed as homo sapiens and I as homo praesent (somewhat funny, apparently the Latin word for phone, is almost the same as “present” oh the irony…either that or Google translate is having a laugh because other sources told me the closest word is telephonatus)?

Just a thought.

So our tests might be wrong, that’s going to have to be okay, there’s not much we can do about it. Want to know how we validate our new tests? By measuring correlation with the old test, which we are now arguing was missing something. So we’re making sure this new test is good enough by making sure it lines up with the flawed test.

riiiggghhtBut let’s say this works, eventually you get back to the original test, how was that test validated? Everyone agreed? Given the amount of controversy in the field, and the fact that each new test is developed because the authors argue that the old measure isn’t good enough, I find this highly suspicious. There are literally hundreds of tests of depression. Hundreds. Of course it’s not that straight forward – we add in the idea of incremental validity, it has to predict something else. For scientists to accept a new measure there has to be something it adds – incremental validity, otherwise what’s the point. But the incremental validity seems no more valid than the idea of convergent validity supporting the validity of a test.

Many of these measures involve issues of clinical concern, say for example depression. If the previous measures were used to make diagnoses, and the diagnoses are used to form the groups to be compared in validating the discriminability and general validity of the new measure – how do we know that the previous measure wasn’t so flawed it misdiagnosed. Now your results are impacted by the inaccuracy of your groups. Yet we assume that this is not the case, we may be perpetuating diagnostic and measurement flaws.

At this point I really just seem to be a trouble-maker, raising issues without truly acknowledging the benefits and solutions.

So allow me to flip the coin.

Our measures are potentially flawed so why use them?

Because we need some way of understanding – so we generate tests aimed at capturing the generalities of the disorders, and we make ourselves aware that an atypical presentation is possible. Maybe the new tests are because we have learned more and we are trying our best to include all the specifics we know. The measures may be flawed, but at least they tell us something. To know nothing is terrifying and useless. Identification is the first step in treatment, not the last, so if our measure was flawed, the individual may not get the diagnosis, but they can still have the help. If they were diagnosed, essentially their treatment will be no different, except in cases where medication (i.e. antipsychotics for schizophrenics, or lithium for bipolar) is needed. Basically? We have to start somewhere.

Where do we start? With our understandings and interpretations of human behaviour. We cannot do like the theoretical physicists and think about our subject matter until the answer dawns on us (we we can but we have to have something to observe directly to spark our thoughts). While we have an intimate connection with  our subject matter, which could afford us access to more information, we are in a sense studying variations of ourselves. But we don’t necessarily understand our own mind, how are we to claim we understand the human mind – its functions, processes, limits, flaws, and potentials? The layman bases his understandings of others minds on how he would process the information, he doesn’t necessarily understand his own mind, but he uses his potentially flawed understandings to believe he understands the minds of others.

Psychologists adopt a much more rigorous methods, but we cannot completely detach ourselves from the issues of the laymen. Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should recognize that while we don’t always understand our subject matter, neither do scientists. Do they know what an atom looks like? No, it’s too small to observe, but based on their conceptualization (which took quite a few tries by the way), they conduct experiments and make predictions – they have no concrete knowledge of the nature of an atom, but they use the theory like it’s fact. Do they know how the heart functions completely undisturbed? No, they see how it functions through imaging techniques (which could disturb the function in some way) or through scopes or when the chest is open. That understanding is still very advanced, and so they use it in medicine. Do they always get the results they were expecting? No.

We think we understand, we sometimes do, but sometimes, we are surprised and learn something new.

As Claude tells us, it is only through being proven wrong that we learn anything.

Studying the human mind, means we will often be wrong, but we can accept this issue, because we also have the opportunity to learn/understand something – may not perfect knowledge, but for me there is no true distinction between knowing fact and believing fiction. Both depend on our appraisal of the information and our experience of knowledge and understanding. If we accept that there is no way of knowing then we are helpless to function, predict, and understand.

At the end of my seventh semester, halfway through my fourth year, do I have a solidified theory of the human mind? No, how could I? It’s much too diverse. I have theories of specific areas of the human mind but no theory can cover everything. We are too different with too many parts. And then there’s the issue of knowing more than we can explain – like knowing how to run without being able to explain how.

Life is complex, we are going to be wrong sometimes, but like I said, we have to start somewhere. I have no solution to this issue, I cannot make the measures perfect, I cannot predict much with absolute certainty. The only solution I can propose is to accept this – let it be ok to be wrong, accept that only in this moment is our explanation useful in any way. Accept that we don’t know things, but we can have ideas, it is not wrong to use these ideas. We have to start somewhere.

In my mind, if we can accept that our process is flawed and somewhat illogical, then we’re alright. As long as we accept that moving from the specific to the general isn’t exactly right, and because of that we cannot reasonably argue that our specific assumptions based on our potentially flawed generalizations, we cannot argue with absolute certainty that we are right, then we’re ok.

For a really interesting TED talk from Kathryn Schulz check out here.

“Without being sure of something, we can not begin to think about everything else.”

― Kathryn Schulz

Check out next week – Claude and I had some really interesting conversations on the brain and what it does, I’m working on some stuff, but my minds a little busy and these things are a little messy.