Thursday, September 6, 2007

Do-It-Yourself Zombiehood

New to me, old to the lit: a paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, which came out last November (just a month after Blindsight was released): "Attention and consciousness: two distinct brain processes".

Let me cherry-pick a few choice excerpts: "The close relationship between attention and consciousness has led many scholars to conflate these processes." ... "This article ... argu[es] that top-down attention and consciousness are distinct phenomena that need not occur together" ... "events or objects can be attended to without being consciously perceived."

Yes, part of me shouts in vindication, while the rest of me whispers Oh your god, please no.

It's a review article, not original research. As such it cites some of the same studies and examples I drew on while writing Blindsight. But what especially interested me was the suggestion of mechanism behind some of those results. Both Blindsight and Blog cite studies showing that being distracted from a problem actually improves your decision-making skills, or that we are paradoxically better at detecting subtle stimuli in "noisy" environments than in "clean" ones. Koch and Tsuchiya cite a paper that describes this as a form of competition between neuron clusters:
"attention acts as a winner-takes-all, enhancing one coalition of neurons (representing the attended object) at the expense of others (non-attended stimuli). Paradoxically, reducing attention can enhance awareness and certain behaviors."

I like this. It's almost ecological. Predators increase the diversity of their own prey species by keeping the most productive ones in check; remove the starfish from a multispecies intertidal assemblage and the whole neighborhood turns to mussels inside a month. This is the same sort of thing (except it happens within a single brain and therefore tastes more of Lamarck than Darwin). Different functional clusters (the different prey species) duke it out for attention, each containing legitimate data about the environment— but only the winner (i.e., the mussels) gets to tell its tale to the pointy-haired boss. All that other data just gets lost. And the static that paradoxically improves performance in such cases — white noise, or irrelevant anagrams that steal one's focus — play the role of the predator, reducing the advantage of the front-runner so that subordinate subroutines can get their voices heard.

I wonder. If we trained ourselves to live in a state of constant self-imposed distraction, could we desentientise our own brains...?

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10 Comments:

Blogger TheBrummell said...

I wonder. If we trained ourselves to live in a state of constant self-imposed distraction, could we desentientise our own brains...?

When I go all slack-jawed and drooly at my PhD-candicacy exams this fall, and my rampant procrastination / blogging habits come into the discussion, can I quote you here?

September 6, 2007 at 3:09 PM  
Blogger LoopdiLou said...

Does this mean mothers are the best candidates for world domination?

September 6, 2007 at 5:43 PM  
Blogger tobias said...

finally a scientifically based arguement to use when the health and saftey officials demand i turn off the radio or my mp3 player in the lab.
"no really, it will increase my productivity!"

September 7, 2007 at 4:55 AM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

I wonder. If we trained ourselves to live in a state of constant self-imposed distraction, could we desentientise our own brains...?

IM. Email alerts that dance and sign when you get new mail. The telephone. Text messages. Drop-ins demanding I pay attention them right NOW .. my life is full of self-imposed distraction.

September 7, 2007 at 4:04 PM  
Blogger has said...

I wonder. If we trained ourselves to live in a state of constant self-imposed distraction, could we desentientise our own brains...?

We could also learn how to throw ourselves at the ground and miss.

Flying zombies... Mmmm...

September 7, 2007 at 6:20 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I wonder what would happen if those neural clusters went from competition to cooperation. Obviously this seems to fly in the face of natural selection but if you look at the ecosystem there are plenty of species that cooperate with each other in a mutually beneficial way. If neural clusters were able to do this who knows what we could squeeze out of it?

On another note remember that distraction is different than changed attention. You can easily shift your focus from one thing to another but you are still focusing on the new object. Being truly distracted is actually pretty tough. Perhaps thats one of the ways the vampires in Blindsight were able to compute so much; they became experts at being in a "limbo" state so their neural clusters could act accordingly. Siri talked at first about how Sarasti seemed to be off in his own little world, barely aware of what was going on around him. Of course he could, in an instant, snap whatever he needed into focus, but perhaps it was actually a form of congnition; being intentionally unaware or conditioned to be that way.

September 8, 2007 at 2:51 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

The Bruminator asked

When I go all slack-jawed and drooly at my PhD-candicacy exams this fall, and my rampant procrastination / blogging habits come into the discussion, can I quote you here?

Sure. But I get coauthorship.


Tim pointed out that

Siri talked at first about how Sarasti seemed to be off in his own little world, barely aware of what was going on around him. Of course he could, in an instant, snap whatever he needed into focus, but perhaps it was actually a form of congnition; being intentionally unaware or conditioned to be that way.

Damn, I'm good. I just wish I could make those kinds of calls intentionally.

September 8, 2007 at 2:42 PM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

Sure. But I get coauthorship.

Brummell, M., Watts, P. 2008. Pulling a Homer: Spectacular success in a truncated PhD program by rapid neurological damage and reconstruction. J. Theor. Biol., 250: 17-24.

September 9, 2007 at 6:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder. If we trained ourselves to live in a state of constant self-imposed distraction, could we desentientise our own brains...?

Similar to Buddhists, Taoists etc..?

Those who strive to be constantly aware of all the "distractions" ?

September 14, 2007 at 7:47 PM  
Anonymous evelyn said...

Buddhist meditation practices distinguish between concentration (attention) and mindfulness (awareness). Concentration is samata, mindfulness is sati.


http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/concmind.html

Vipassana practice, also known as insight meditation, is about developing both qualities equally. Other forms of Buddhist practice focus more on one or the other early on, and once strength of mindfulness or concentration is gained, then it is used to develop the other.

If we trained ourselves to live in a constant state of concentration and awareness would we enhance the sentience of our own brains? I think that's the Buddhist goal.

Thanks!

September 24, 2007 at 8:10 PM  

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