quantum vibration consciousness – cause or vehicle?

Sir Roger Penrose is known for his maths. But maths reaches out into most places if you let it. So will his pal Stuart Hameroff, he proposed an idea back in the 1990s that consciousness came from quantum vibrations in the inner working of brain neurons. The idea seemed wacky at the time, but as the quantum nature of the universe, the world and everything in it has become more apparent, they two boffins recon that it’s time to revisit the idea.

In an article the journal Physics of Life Reviews, they suggest that quantum vibrations in the microtubules inside neurons could be the stuff of consciousness, and that manipulation of these vibrations could provide treatments for a range of mental, neurological, and cognitive conditions.

The whole idea is complex and intriguing, but for the moment I’m less interested in the fine details under discussion than the discussion itself.

The materialist view is that you need to find the structure that is causing consciousness, because consciousness, like everything, is just a matter of material. Finding that this but of matter vibrates in a curious manner then lays itself open to the idea that it proves the material underpinning of this intriguing phenomenon.

But the problem here is that the same vibrations could be a consequence of consciousness and not the cause. The material observations would be similar if not identical but the drivers are wholly different.

The two scientists recognise this in their piece. “Did consciousness evolve from complex computations among brain neurons, as most scientists assert? Or has consciousness, in some sense, been here all along, as spiritual approaches maintain?” ask Hameroff and Penrose. The theory is quite capable of accommodating each view.

So is consciousness a merely material thing, or a spiritual entity lived out in a physical being?



Can I find a brain booster?

Increasing how well our brain works is one of the key goals of education systems, and for many people it is an on-going drive through life. Many careers involve a need to think more clearly that the competition, to see problems with greater clarity than others or handle more data than the opposition. There are claims that a modest increase in average IQ translates into a noticeable increase in national wealth, and national wealth has linkage with national health. So if you could find a brain boost it would be a no-brainer to use it.

An article in the Guardian eloquently shows just how far we are from achieving that.

In it, Oliver Burkeman checked out the various claims associated with products ranging from brain-food drinks, to on-line mind trainers and electrodes stuck to the head. The end outcome is that the highest achievers are controversial at best. Most are in the snake oil territory, but even the ones that have some claim for success are disputed.

For a brain booster to be worthwhile, the benefit needs to be out of dispute. If you need to have a massive population take the stuff before you can start to see a statistically significant benefit above the random noise of normal, then the effect isn’t very effective.

Interestingly the take home from the piece is that if you really want to boost the brain, then stop using tools that make life easy. Using a sat-nav soon causes you to loose the ability to map read. Using a diary makes you sloppy at remembering where you need to be. It’s just the same as driving to work will reduce your fitness to walk.

To boost the brain you need to use it. There is still no magic fix.

Please put the person back into healthcare innovation

I went to a meeting today. Organised by BioCentre, it was considering innovation in healthcare. And what was interesting was that although we bumped into thoughts about technology, many of the questions, issues and comments drew more on the need to consider the person who the system was trying to serve, than the tools that provide the service.

Around the world, healthcare systems take different approaches to providing diagnostic, treatment and support facilities. None are perfect. All are over stretched. In the UK, the beloved NHS is stretched to breaking point as demand rises far above anything that the system can ever provide. This is due to a combination of increased health expectancy, combined with increased medical capability… we have solved the easy problems, and now expect the complex ones to be removed as well. And on top of this, the cost of the new technologies is escalating. Asprin is cheap – MRI scanners aren’t

In a US-styled, privately-funded system, even the most affluent of workers fear illness and redundancy. Illness, because they know their expensive insurance plans only purchase limited cover. Redundancy, because with no job they will be able to afford little cover

So you could have expected the discussion to revolve around need for widgets and gadgets that increase efficiency.

Instead, most of the conversation revolved around the need to take our services back to ones that see patients as people, and point to the notion that doing so could make them less costly.

I spent this last weekend trying to get a neighbour admitted to hospital. He has a chronic illness, and on top of that has not held down food or fluids for days. It took a dozen phone calls with triage nurses and doctors and three visits from ambulance crews before he was eventually taken in. But what was incredible was the need in each call to start the story from the beginning. No where in the system recorded information from previous calls, or if it did, the operators chose to ignore it.

There were two key consequences. Firstly, and least importantly, we all wasted hours as I retold, and retold and retold the stories. But secondly, I came to the end feeling completely dehumanised. Why? Because no one remembered me. Key to human interactions is relationship building.

Key to that is remembering people from one conversation to the next. Only the insanely self-centred like multiply retelling their story, particularly when the details are deeply personal and normally private.

In this case, innovation would create a process where people were treated as humans – individuals with known names and known histories. Where their story was not lost as soon as it was given, and where conversations continued from one interaction to the next. Do that and you will take one step towards putting the person back into the system.

Google: One step closer to an artificial brain – says Smithsonian

Artificial brains always grab attention. And the Smithsonian’s article title points to further progress. Google, with all it’s might, has pushed achievement in an intriguing direction. Image recognition is about as hard as you get for a machine, and tooling up a network of 16,000 computers so this mass capability can teach itself to spot cats is amazing.

Amazing for a number of reasons. One, that it worked, and could then go on to recognise other things as well, such as porpoises. Two, that this takes 16,000 highly capable computers to do a task that our brian does without thinking.

But it does point to possibility. We can now look at what the computre has taught itself to do, learn from that and build the next network in such as way that it can do it better, where better may be faster, more accurately, use less resources… etc.

It’s a long way from creating anything small and simple enough to be useful. It’s a huge way from creating anything that will meet or beat human flexibile capability. Note the claim was an artifical brain, not artificial intelligence…

Remember though that the first computers could do simple maths with small numbers, but occupied a shed… and now look a what you’ve got in your pocket.

An interview with E O Wilson – of ants and ambition

I had the privilege of interviewing E O Wilson over the summer. I’d been commissioned by Third Way magazine. Its one of the perks of being a writer, that every now and again you get asked to meet people who you have read, and read about, for years. Sometimes the meeting disappoints – but not this time.

We met on Skype. A poor substitute to talking with a table and a couple of cups of coffee in between, but vastly better than nothing. Edward is clearly not as young as he was when he did his first research, but his mind has lost none of its alertness and his ambition is still fuelled by a thirst for greater knowledge: he’d just come back from a research expedition to visit some of the island he’d studied 5 decades earlier.

And I was struck by the islands. I asked him why work on islands. His explanation was that they are perfect natural laboratories – particularly ones in relatively close-packed archipelagos. Each island is it own almost-closed ecosystem. It has its own fauna and flora, and if separated by great enough differences this can include its own sets of birds – as Charles Darwin discovered when he ventures to the Galapagos islands in H.M.S. Beagle. Tracing the similarities and difference is these isolated evolutionary systems gives clues and insights into ecosystems and evolutionary mechanisms. You can see species adapt, and speculate on the consequence of such adaptation over time.

In one set of experiments he eradicated all life on one island in a group, and then monitored its return. An interesting way of seeing life return, not be being re-invented, but by re-population.

As well as being known for his work on ants, E. O. Wilson has become a passionate campaigner for the ecosystem. His Biodiversity Foundation aims to “to promote worldwide understanding of the importance of biodiversity and of the preservation of our biological heritage.” It’s interesting though that despite the fact that he believes all life has evolved randomly and has its own right and value, he quickly these becomes highly anthropocentric in his rhetoric. The site states “We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.” Is it really just about our use, and the value to us as humans? An interesting thought…