Of Rubber Hands and Auto-Association

This is, by no means, a newly-discovered phenomenon. On the contrary, it has been observed as a sort of dime-store parlor trick by countless neurology students for quite some time. It does, however, serve for me as the most recent addition to a growing body of examples for which predictive-associative memory very elegantly accounts for widely-varying neuro-psychological effects.

To elaborate, the high-level "map" of one's body in 3-dimensional space is a construction of associated sensory modalities: proprioceptive inputs, nociception, even vestibular sensation. Most importantly here, however, is that visual cues are also a major component. "Invariant representations," for those uninitiated in the term, are those sets of neurons (or respective columns) which, by means of excitatory feedback, have primed to fire together based on previously-experienced patterns. That is to say, having fired together before, they have since "wired" together.

More precisely, the invariant representation of the stimulus is the next-higher-level unit upon which the set converges: it casts the final vote as to whether the represented stimulus has been satisfied (it then, of course, functions as a component of the next-level invariant representation).

One notable feature of an invariant representation is that the entire set (or sequence, when discussing temporally-relevant representations) need not be directly activated to provoke a response from the group; feedback from above primes the expected pattern, which, if satisfied enough to activate the point of convergence, "speaks" for all of the inputs. In this way, a pattern may "auto-associate" to itself.

With enough of the components, the (very) high-level invariant representation for "my left hand" may be activated, even if I don't have one anymore. "I know my arm is somewhere over there, I feel pain, and, by God, I see a hand where I might expect to. That must be mine!"


A Brief Comment on a Historic Event

A large contingent of people seem to be so distracted by their knee-jerk, xenophobic, Jesus-based paranoia that they are failing to recognize the historical significance of what really just happened.

Sadly, it appears that we may not have gotten as far as I hazarded to hope last night.  On the flip side, the significance of the victory is compelling: the weight of a vocal marginalia is no longer a mandate over the rest of the more-reserved majority.

And to suggest that African-American excitement and pride before this landmark event is evidence of a racial bias to this election is dishonest and childish.  Were that Senator (now President-elect) Obama's only platform, he would have enjoyed the same success as earlier black candidates.

This is a moment that the black community is entitled to be proud of.  It's a moment for America to be proud of.  I know I am.

The American Dream is not, in fact, dead.


Pallin' Around with the Godless

There are much better ways to handle this smear campaign -- rebuking the ads is certainly fair, but it doesn't appear that Hagan nor her campaign are doing so for the right reasons.

It shouldn't be that Kay Hagan really is a "good, God-fearing Christian," but that she seeks to represent North Carolinians of ALL backgrounds. My inkling, however, is that atheists are considered an expendable demographic. Replace this with any of the other, similar, base accusations made all over the country during this campaign season where the name of one voter base is being used as a pejorative to scare another. ("No, ma'am, [he's not an Arab], he's a good, decent family man.")

Atheists? It could be worse, huh? She could have been caught "pallin' around with those Muslim Arabs and Terrorists!" I'm disappointed in Kay Hagan, Elizabeth Dole, and North Carolina. Most importantly, though, I'm disappointed in America.

This isn't the country my teachers gave me so many reasons to be proud of.


The Most Important Question

Whether by way of the recently-resurgent Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Chomsky's Universal Grammar, Alan Turing's famously eponymous intelligence test, or the various shades of pseudo-scientific neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), language is often alternately described as the seat of human consciousness or the pinnacle thereof. On one hand, we can hold few -- if any -- thoughts which aren't immediately underwritten by our own internal monologue; on the other, we're largely and arguably unable to provide each other with any evidence of our personal worlds' existence except, as Huxley wrote, "through symbols and at second-hand."

For which reasons I say language is both. And neither.

Vernon Mountcastle, Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and discoverer of the the cortex's columnar organization, postulated the existence of a common algorithm by which the functionality of any region of the cerebrum was largely identical to that of any other. Despite superficial physiological differences among neurons, he posited, what largely accounts for the functional differences between regions of the brain is proximity to a sensory input area. More recent research bears this out in many ways; as we find the neural activity in hierarchically-lower, primary sensory areas somewhat erratic and prone to shifts nearly concurrent to the outside world, the "upstream," hierarchically-higher areas behave much more statically, consonant to the notion of object permanence often considered a hallmark of higher intelligence. That is to say, while we hear, view, or touch the world with the respective sensory apparatus, we "listen," "see," and "feel" in a largely homogeneous, non-unique way -- whether the converging association of neurons (or their host columns) represents a diagonal line, a set of eyes, nose, and mouth comprised of the same, or the lovely female singer they belong to.

Armed with this premise we may begin using language as a powerful inductive tool to offer us a glimpse into the mechanisms of cognition unrivaled by modern cerebral imaging. But how?

As Jeff Hawkins, founder of the companies Palm and Numenta, writes in his 2004 manifesto On Intelligence, there is an inherently "nested" structure to the universe around us to which hierarchically-associative modeling is well-adapted. Additionally, the time-delayed feedback by which the system is modulated provides the temporal context necessary to recognize the sequences in which natural phenomena occur.

As we've described, all cerebral activity must follow this formula in one capacity or another and language, being just one among the myriad faculties of the brain, is no exception. Phonemes beget morphemes, beget words, beget semantically-meaningful phrases, beget conversations, and so on... but the sequence of the inputs is just as important as the set of sounds or words. While this process is evocative of the underlying neural mechanisms of thought, we absolutely cannot discuss it in terms of consciousness without involving an ultimate reference to the organism and a persistent sense of self-agency. I do hope to explore this premise in depth later, but at present let us consider language only in terms of its value in externally representing a universal cortical process.

Throughout this discussion in the days and weeks to follow, I aim to shamelessly exploit language to illustrate the manner by which the brain models and forms predictive associations (and meaningful behavior) from sensory stimuli both top-down (linguistically and psychologically) and bottom-up (chemically and physiologically), eventually reconciling the two in a discussion of the embodiment principle and proposing a practical means by which to test our theory.

I know there aren't (m)any of you out there, but I invite you all to provide your feedback and sharpshoot me at any and all opportunities!

Using Biology, Not Religion, to Argue Against Same-Sex Marriage

My iGoogle news feed served me up an article from the New York Times' "Region" section this morning entitled Using Biology, Not Religion, to Argue Against Same-Sex Marriage.  In the article, Patricia and Wesley Galloway, a couple who ironically married late in their reproductive lives and were thus unable to produce any children, make the familiar argument that marriage serves a largely procreative role and that, following logically, since homosexual partnerships did not meet this criterion should not be afforded the same privileges nor protections.

Notwithstanding a compelling and growing body of evidence that homosexual/bisexual proclivities extend well into the animal kingdom and serve an important social purpose, we might take this opportunity to reconsider the scope and purpose of marriage in modern Western society:  if, in fact, as the Galloways' premises indicate, marriage is a contract predicated upon "replenishing the population," then theirs ought to be annulled.

Of course, this is both a cold-hearted and disingenuous notion: as any romantic Hollywood rag could clarify, marriage is about far more than an impersonal transaction involving gametes and a nice warm house in which to grow 2.1 little boogers until voting age.  Rather, marriage is about people -- people who care about and are committed to one another.  

Which begs the real question, then: does marriage actually serve a biological purpose or is it simply cultural contrivance?  Although there is almost as much debate on the subject as there are traditions involving it, consensus is that marriage emerged several thousand years ago (back when the Judeo-Christian God was seeding the planet with dinosaur bones if you subscribe to that notion, or shortly after the emergence of private property and possibly agriculture, if you don't).  Not miring ourselves in the myriad flavors of polygamy, polygyny, matriarchal polyandry, nor tribal endogamies, nor suffering any sweeping generalizations, we can identify the most modern Western incarnation of marriage to have evolved between 2-300 years ago.  Before this (and to a large degree during), marriages served the principal purpose of consolidating wealth or sociopolitical power, secondarily to produce children, and finally, if one was lucky (or poor), for personal romantic reasons.

While this doesn't tell us much about what marriage isn't, on some ethnological level it does indicate what it is:  people like sex.  And people like people.  It's the story of mankind's victory over its humble and nomadic beginnings that together we are capable of more than we are on our own.  However we choose to engage these concurrent drives is under large influence of our cultures and places within it, but one thing can be certain:  marriage is not innate, and is but one of many of the artifices we use to navigate the human currents.

While the Galloways' argument may be valid -- that only a man and a woman can produce a human baby -- it's an entirely semantic premise to which I doubt that they're prepared to demonstrate their commitment.

And they shouldn't have to; they're not hurting me.


"Main Street Turns Against Wall Street"

According to this article from CNN Money Times, an unintended consequence of the mortgage securities fiasco/Wall Street "meltdown" is a bitter backlash on the part of the American middle class. As negotiations for the ($700 billion) emergency bail-out plan have heated up, so have the sentiments of those who feel they had taken a lion's share of the blame until two weeks ago, and been left to drift.

Washington hath no fury like Middle America scorned - and there's reason to think it will only get uglier. The government's massive new financial commitments will severely tie the next President's hands in addressing middle-class concerns.

The $25K-$250K/yr. voter-bloc (depending on which candidate you ask, and in which district), who "took out mortgages they couldn't afford to pay" are now feeling a little hot to be asked to potentially forego their Social Security and health care in order to prop up the very entities who have been shrinking the middle class for at least the last 10 years.  It's irony on a base-level, but still...

As a card-carrying member of the endangered Social Class in Question, I can easily relate.  Adding insult to injury, however, is the very acute appreciation that we all have a vested interest in what's happening on Wall Streeet, and that we not only can, but will, go down with the ship.  I'm in no place to speak for the majority of enranged middle-class Americans, but I feel that most are also aware of the fact.  Despite this, I think there's also a certain satisfaction to this ambivalence: my mother used to call it "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face."

An unexpected proportion of the American electorate seem to be saying, "I'm aware of the stakes, but I've been tightening my belt for years, now, and if I have to tighten it a little further then I'm ready.  I'm not going to fund your opulence any more."

My own position is a little more nuanced, but torn nonetheless.  We could very well be teetering on the brink of a precipitous decline, and the worst of our financial woes may yet to have materialized.  All the same, we've been forced into a gambit that we don't approve of:  pay an unimaginable ransom to the very forces whose "Gotcha Capitalism" (thanks, Bob Sullivan) drove us here, who had the gaul to blame us, or face almost certain economic calamity