An ocean of consciousness

November 15, 2018

How do minds and brains relate to each other? I was talking with Ashley, my niece Zoe’s partner about this, and she said she believed in an ocean of consciousness. (I misheard her the first time, I thought she said a notion of consciousness.)

I was sure I’d heard the phrase before, and I just looked it up: it seems common parlance for universal consciousness.

I’ve tended to believe in consciousness being created by the brain (or perhaps by the body and the brain together, though the brain is itself part of the body, so one might just say by the body). But, like most neuroscientists (computational in my case, but I’ve not heard anything different from clinical or experimental neuroscientists), I’ve not had much clue how the brain might give rise to consciousness. But what has been clear is that consciousness can change if the brain is stimulated, whether electrically or using drugs (or in any other way). I’d tended to think of that as being conclusive evidence for the brain being the seat of consciousness: but that neither speaks for nor against an ocean of consciousness. For the evidence doesn’t distinguish between whether the brain is entirely responsible for consciousness, or whether the brain simply connects the body to the ocean of consciousness. Indeed, the phrase seat of consciousness can be interpreted either way.

I seem to hold two diametrically opposed views.

From my own work as a computational neuroscientist, I know that we create our world from our sensory perceptions, and that our internal world is but a model of the macrocosm out there. And as a scientist, I have spent a lot of time making computational models of parts of the brain (and I’m very aware of the sophisticated models like NEST, or those of the Human Brain Project). However, I am very aware of both (i) what these models can and cannot do, and (ii) just how limited these models are when compared to the extraordinarily complex systems that really do take place in neural tissue. (Here, I’m thinking of the different type of ions, of the zoo of ion channels, the range of neuromodulators, not to mention the different proteins involved in neural excitability: and I haven’t even started on either glial cells or the amazingly complex three dimensional interconnection  between neural calls).

On the one hand, I can believe that somewhere in that complexity there is room for  generation of consciousness, (even though I cannot imagine what it might look like: the scientists within me requires that it be explainable).

On the other hand, each morning, I do some yoga, and I briefly meditate, and that seems to connect me to the world, to ground me within the world. This makes me more inclined towards the ocean view.

Could I then join resolve these different viewpoints by looking in the brain not for generation of consciousness, but for connection to the ocean of consciousness? But what might this look like? Would it be any less of a mystery than seeking to generate consciousness from matter? 

As I read this through, I am struck by the difficulty of talking about this at all. Phrased like “we create our world from our sensory perceptions” require a “we” and an “our” that has perceptions, and  world. I’m also struck by the range of difficulties within the area: the question’s just too big. I once wrote a short paper about the neural construction of perceptual time, and that seemed hard enough on its own, without considering any other issues! Maybe this is all just too hard!

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Dunfermline abbey, west door.

November 9, 2018

Version 2Where do you think this might be? Italy? France? Spain?

In fact, it’s the tympanum of the West door of Dunfermline Abbey, in Scotland. While it’s famous for holding the bones of Robert the Bruce, it is one of the most ancient religious buildings in Scotland.

The tympanum above is (I think) 11th century, much older than the doors of the Cathedral in Dunblane where I live. I’m interested in the designs on the outermost stones – the inner ones seem to primarily have a chevron design on the innermost two, a flower-like pattern on the next one, and chevrons again on the 4th one.   On the outermost ring, some are faces, some interlocked rings, and some other designs that I don’t recognise. I’m sure these have symbolic meanings, but I don’t know what they might be.

I think this tympanum is exceptionally beautiful.

 

A Schrödinger border…

November 7, 2018

This morning I read in the Times letters of the concept of a Schrödinger border: researching it on the internet, I see that it’s not a new concept, but still, I think there’s mileage here.

To me, it would mean a border that

  • one can detect which side of it one is on

but

  • is never actually crossed (or if you prefer, one quantum tunnels through the border)

So, if one never actually crosses the border, but it still exists, this could satisfy contradicting demands from different politicians. This could be a way forward not just for the Irish border, but for a future Scotland/England border as well. Indeed, it could allow for local borders wherever one would like them (for example, for the Kingdom of Fife)….

This could be a politically useful application of quantum physics.

Retirement: a new experience.

September 30, 2018

After 34 years and 1 month at Stirling University, I am finally retiring. Officially, from 3 October (my 66th birthday) I will be retired, but my Department held a party for me (and my wife) on Friday, and I’ve decided that I will not work this week, if only to ensure that i actually feel as though I have retired.

Last week was eventful: on Monday we bought a new car (a Jaguar – the first properly good car I’ve had in my life), on Tuesday our beloved, but very old dog, Lara was put down, on Thursday I gave my last lecture, and on Friday, there was the party for my retirement. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I feel just a little unsettled this Sunday evening, looking forward to next week, (and beyond) not quite knowing what to expect.

I had hoped to transition from being a Professor (paid) to being an Emeritus Professor (unpaid) smoothly, and therefore applied to be an Emeritus in April. But it was not to be: an email got lost somewhere, and the application will go forward to the University Court in December (where, hopefully, it will be approved). I’ve got the University to agree not to take me off their email list, and to let me keep my office for now, but my official status is unclear. I do have projects I’m working on (and indeed, I’m writing this on a laptop that belongs to the University), and these will keep me in contact with current University staff.

For now, though, I need to think a bit about ways forward. Or do I? Shall I simply go for a drive in the nice shiny new Jaguar, or for a ride on my e-bicycle?

I feel the need for something  longer-term than these evanescent though enjoyable activities. The projects I have continue the research I’ve been doing (on early auditory processing, and working with the context project at Stirling). And then there’s music: something I’ve been doing even longer than Computing (from which I’ve been earning a living since 1974). Jazz piano, and (very) basic clarinet. But how to take these disparate element forward, and make something of them, I can’t really see just now. I do, however, have the time to think about ways forward, which itself is something rather new.

Snow in Dunblane

March 1, 2018

IMG_1860

It’s not unusual to have some snow here, nor is it unusual to have it in late February or early March, but we have had rather more than usual this year. I think it’s about 30 cm (or 12 inches, or a foot in the old measures). And while it’s been really very pretty, it has brought things to a complete standstill here: no trains, no buses, the University at Stirling suspended. Just a few shops open, plus a few doing coffee (and catering for the intrepid – mostly dog-walkers, plus a few with skis on. It’s not been just the snow: it’s been quite cold (not above 0C here last few days), and quite windy. The wind has been making the snow blow about a lot, and that’s not been fun to walk in. The local river (the Allan) is beginning to freeze as well, and that’s quite unusual for this time of the year.

Meanwhile, I’m just at home, reading some papers (but no newspaper today – not trains coming up from London or Glasgow or Edinburgh), and playing a bit of music. No work tomorrow (was scheduled for an 09:00 lab on Big Data), so another quiet day!

Fixing my electric piano

February 9, 2018

IMG_1846I have a Roland FP-4F electric piano which I really like. It gets carried around quite a lot, mostly to The Dunblane for sessions (and the occasional gig!), but also to other sessions & gigs. Last week it started to have a problem with the control that mixes the rhythm and the piano sound (actually, I never use the rhythm, but well, the control’s still there), and I thought I’d better do something about it before it failed completely.

So I emailed Roland, ask asked them if they supplied spares for it. No response. Not surprising, really, because they want repairs to be carried out by their own technicians, or approved centres, but that’s at least an hour away, and I’d not have the piano for weeks. So I took matters into my own hands.

Fortunately, I have access to a reasonably well-equipped lab, with a decent sized bench on which I could take the machine apart. It (only!) has about 40 screws on the base, which I undid, and then it comes to pieces, as can be seen above. It took a couple of hours to take the appropriate circuit board out, de-solder the control and remove it, and attempt to measure exactly what sort of potentiometer it was. I eventually concluded it was a 20 KΩ linear potentiometer, and I even found the right one as manufactured by Panasonic. But instead of sending away for one (the website seemed to want one to order rather a lot of them) I bought a old fashioned one from Maplin in Stirling, and installed it, wiring it to the printed circuit board. (There was enough space!)

Re-assembling it was actually harder than disassembly – I had to take it even further apart. But it works, and I’m ready to play in a session on Sunday.

Cost of repair: £1.80 (for two potentiometers, only one of which I used), plus a total of about 7 hours work, including bussing it into Stirling, coming home for a saw to cut the potentiometer spindle down to a reasonable size, and travelling back to the Uni to finish the job. If I costed my own time, it wouldn’t be a bargain, but well….I’m partially retired, and I’ve always like mending things.

 

“Fake Blues” first gig

February 3, 2018

The new band, Fake Blues, had its first gig last night, at The Dunblane, (unsurprisingly, in Dunblane), and it went well, and was fun, The bar was busy, mostly with people that one or other of the band members knew. IMG_1532

The band is three oldies, Dave Topliff (guitar & singer), Jim Fraser, (bassist)  and myself on piano. I’m the oldest, but not by much!

We played a mixture of blues numbers, and songs written by Dave, jazz numbers and some covers. I’m biassed (obviously) but I thought we went down very well. Hoping for some more gigs too – the pub says they’ll have us back!

Last day full-time…

October 27, 2017

So that’s it then. After 33 years at Stirling University, or 37 years as an academic, or having worked or been a student since I was 17 (with time off for the occasional holiday), I’m down to 20% as from 1 November. And since I’m going on holiday to Iceland next week, today was my last day full-time at the University. I’ll be semi-retired: I can be told what to do at work one day a week, and I can do what I want (whether at work or not) the rest of the time. I’m still quite involved in things academic, between the SICSA AI theme, the University of Stirling Context project, and working with the INI DAS1 silicon cochlea.

Today was a bit of an anti-climax, however. I’ve had little teaching this semester (because of this change half-way through), and ever since I demitted as Head of Department, I’ve felt as though I had retired! Yes, we had some cake and biscuits, yes a few of us went for a drink, but it didn’t feel very celebratory. Perhaps it was the faculty meeting this morning (the usual: bring in more money, write more 4* papers for the REF, keep the lovely students happy by giving them feedback quickly, and don’t confuse them by presenting them with a web presence that doesn’t conform to University norms, be ambitious but realistic on our achieving success forms, …), perhaps it was just me, world-weary after so long in post (have I really seen it all before? Or is it really a bright and shiny new world out there?). Whatever, as the young say: it felt like a bit of a let-down.

And now? Nearly midnight, with a small nightcap of Lagavullin, and some dark chocolate (thanks, Noel, for suggesting this a a conference in Skövde quite a long time ago: dark chocolate and malt whisky are a lovely mix), I have time to reflect. I’m still interested in research, and perhaps more interested in explaining to a lay audience. Artificial Intelligence, bio-mimetic computing, early auditory processing, still needing developed. Of course I know that others can and will take this work forward. And I should be able to send more time playing music as well, and maybe playing with one electronics too.

Or maybe I’ll just drink more whisky. And eat more dark chocolate.

On turning 65

October 6, 2017

Well, here I am: 65 on the 3rd October, Tag der deutschen Einheit, for those in Germany, but no public holiday here in Scotland. And now what?

I’m planned to go down to 20% of full time at the end of this month (was to be 50%, but I reckoned, I’d end up working 100% for 50% of the salary. At least at 20% I can say “no” more easily. Plan is to work on various research projects (on the silicon cochlea, on the neuro-robotics project, on the contextual learning project, to name three), and to do a little  teaching too, but not to much, and , more importantly, to drop all the admin materials (like being in charge of impact, or of research within the Department). But it may not all be so easy.

We’ve lost 2.8 staff, out of a small group: 0.8 is me, 1.0 is one staff member who has gone to London, and 1.0 is another staff member who has been appointed to a promoted post in an ancient Scottish University. All quite normal, but unusual for us, in that they all happened so close together. So I suspect there may be pressure on me to do more teaching, marking etc …

But if required, I can resist!

Meanwhile, I’m aware I’m much less busy than last year or the year before at this time. Though still officially full time, it feels like rather less than that: I’m only working 35 hours a week, rather than the 50 odd I was usually working. And I can actually write some code again. So far, the man beneficiary seems to have been editors of journals, because I’ve agreed to review rather more than I usually do, but I’ll need to keep that within limits.

I’m trying also to take up other interests, after all, after 43 years in Computing, there might be other things to do. So I’ learning the clarinet, as well as playing piano with some friends who seem quite interested in getting a few gigs together… watch this space (and SoundCloud too!)

More thoughts on making perception primary

September 6, 2017

I wrote about the idea of making perception primary in July, and I eventually turned it into a paper for a smal meeting in Edinburgh, who rejected it. Nothing wrong with that,as it really didn’t say anything new. But now I think I can see an extension of this idea, perhaps helping to explain the views of those who think that the Universe is a simulation.

Now, I think this viewpoint is nonsensical, because the actual Universe would then have to include the simulator, and this itself might be a simulation, and so on indefinitely. So how can anyone really propose this?

Thinking of the first person experience as primary perhaps enables this viewpoint, because it then makes the rest of the Universe secondary. Like the earth-centered view of the universe, it makes the rest of the Universe secondary. That means that logical flaws in it can more easily be ignored, and ideas in this secondary Universe don’t need to be as clear. This strengthens the hand of those who have strange ideas such as simulation based Universes: such a view would have no effect on the first person experience.

There are flaws in this argument too, unfortunately. Truly simulation based universes would be undetectable if properly built however we looked for them, whether we make the first person world or the physical world primary. But that is the way with truly nonsensical ideas: they can’t be disproven because the logical flaws on which they are based enable country-arguments, rather like logical systems which include a contradiction being able to prove anything.

Maybe I should blame the post-structuralists who seem to suggest that all views can have equal validity. I truly don’t agree with this!