Edge 176— January 12, 2005
(6,500 words)



The Edge Annual Question — 2006
WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

The Hindu, La Vanguardia, Financial Times, Radio3 Scienza, Washington Times, Taipei Times, Berliner Morgenpost, The New York Times, The News & Observer, The Sunday Express, New Scientist, Australian, La Stampa, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Vintrenta Auvi, The Hankyoreh, Slashdot, Arts & Letters Daily, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, Boing Boing, Yahoo News, Huffington Post


Edge Annual Question traffic report: 1st week in January
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MIRROR NEURONS AND THE BRAIN IN THE VAT [1.12.06]
by V.S. Ramachandran



Researchers at UCLA found that cells in the human anterior cingulate, which normally fire when you poke the patient with a needle ("pain neurons"), will also fire when the patient watches another patient being poked. The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others. [1] I call them "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Llama neurons". (I wonder how the mirror neurons of a masochist or sadist would respond to another person being poked.) Dissolving the "self vs. other" barrier is the basis of many ethical systems, especially eastern philosophical and mystical traditions. This research implies that mirror neurons can be used to provide rational rather than religious grounds for ethics (although we must be careful not to commit the is/ought fallacy).

[Continued...]


 


"I can answer the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?"
— James Lee Byars, founder, The World Question Center



"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." — BBC Radio 4


The Edge Annual Question — 2006

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?


The Edge Annual Question — 2006
WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

The Hindu, La Vanguardia, Financial Times, Radio3 Scienza, Washington Times, Taipei Times, Berliner Morgenpost, The New York Times, The News & Observer, The Sunday Express, New Scientist, Australian, La Stampa, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Vintrenta Auvi, The Hankyoreh, Slashdot, Arts & Letters Daily, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, Boing Boing, Yahoo News, Huffington Post


Edge Annual Question traffic report: 1st week in January
Dates
Hits
Unique Visitors
January 1-7
34,667,049
363,711


Opinion
Gene discoveries highlight dangers facing society

By Alok Jha
January 3, 2006

Royal Society president Martin Rees said the most dangerous idea was public concern that science and technology were running out of control. "Almost any scientific discovery has a potential for evil as well as for good; its applications can be channelled either way, depending on our personal and political choices; we can't accept the benefits without also confronting the risks. The decisions that we make, individually and collectively, will determine whether the outcomes of 21st century sciences are benign or devastating."

Professor Rees argues that the feeling of fatalism will get in the way of properly regulating how science progresses. "The future will best be safeguarded — and science has the best chance of being applied optimally — through the efforts of people who are less fatalistic."



09 January 2006
“Los genios son de ciencias y de letras” [PDF]
Lluis Amiguet

AUDACIOUS KNOWLEDGE
What is a dangerous idea? One not assumed to be false, but possibly true?What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" These are the questions of the last two years that Edge Foundation asked of 120 free thinkers. The audacious and stimulating answers have been reproduced by in hundreds of newspapers such as The New York Times or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Among the hundreds of ideas are the demonstration of life in other planets, or that life has been a unique chance of existing; concerns over the fact that there are genetic differences relating to intelligence between ethnic groups and between the sexes; the inference that global warming is not so worrisome, the notion that there are alternatives to the free market.



Arts & Weekend
Seductive power of a hazardous idea
By David Honigmann
Published: January 11 2006

The results (collected at www.edge.org) give an insight into how philosophically minded scientists are thinking: the result is somewhere between a multi-disciplinary seminar and elevated high table talk. The responses to Brockman's question do not directly engage with each other, but they do worry away at a core set of themes. Many agree that neuroscience at the micro level and evolutionary psychology at the macro level have abolished free will. Richard Dawkins is typical: "Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world." Holding people responsible for their behaviour is, in his view, completely irrational.



The Third Ring: Radio3 Science
The Internet Society
11/01/2006

Theories of social nets and their relationship with the contemporary sociology, dangerous ideas of scientists on Radio3 Scienza on Radio3.

[click here: Ascolto]



Editorials/OpEd
Dangerous questions for dangerous times
By Suzanne Fields
January 9, 2006


Forget for a moment the substance of the arguments in defense of Darwin, Intelligent Design and the Bible. These arguments will take care of themselves in real time, by the clock and according to the calendar. No one proves or disproves any of the theories about the origin of our planet.

But how we choose to conduct these debates, the knowledge we bring to the argument, is crucially important. Intellectual revolutions have a way of changing how we think. The way we frame the argument, the idols, gods or the God we celebrate, ultimately informs politics and dictates policy.

You could visit a provocative cyber salon known as The Edge (www.edge.org) to test yourself against the edgiest thinking on these subjects. John Brockman, who likes being described as a "cultural impresario," poses a question every year that would tempt an answer from Dr. Faustus. This year he asks contributors for "dangerous ideas." "The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious," he writes. "What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"



Editorials
What is the worst thing that could go wrong with our society?
By Alok Jha
Jan 04, 2006


Academics see gene cloning perils, untamed global warming and personality-changing drugs as presenting the gravest dangers for the future of civilization

...Richard Dawkins, of Oxford University, said our increased understanding of how our brains work would lead to difficult questions in defining morality.

"As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics," Dawkins said.

"When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software. Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?" he said. ...



08 January 2006
Risky ideas; What do scientists currently regard as the most dangerous thoughts? A New Yorker literature agent collected answers
By Ulli Kulke; Marina kitchens

Der New Yorker Literatur-Agent John Brockman schafft es immer wieder zum Jahreswechsel, auf seiner Website einen "Think Tank" aus namhaften Wissenschaftlern und KŸnstlern zu versammeln. Viele Dutzend Persšnlichkeiten der unterschiedlichsten Fachrichtungen antworten ihm jeweils auf eine bestimmte Frage. Diesmal bat Brockman seine Adressaten um "gefŠhrliche Ideen", die schon bald vielleicht Šhnliche Verwerfungen bewirken kšnnten wie die Darwinsche Evolutionstheorie oder die Kopernikanische Revolution. Wir stellen kurze Auszuge, die Kernthesen, aus einigen Antworten vor.


Sunday, January 8, 2006
READING FILE

Be Afraid

Edge.org canvassed scientists for their "most dangerous idea." David Buss, a psychologist at the University of Texas, chose "The Evolution of Evil."

The dangerous idea is that all of us contain within our large brains adaptations whose functions are to commit despicable atrocities against our fellow humans — atrocities most would label evil.

The unfortunate fact is that killing has proved to be an effective solution to an array of adaptive problems in the ruthless evolutionary games of survival and reproductive competition: Preventing injury, rape, or death; protecting one's children; eliminating a crucial antagonist; acquiring a rival's resources; securing sexual access to a competitor's mate; preventing an interloper from appropriating one's own mate; and protecting vital resources needed for reproduction. ...

The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology, or exposure to media violence.


Arts & Entertainment
January 8, 2006
The most dangerous idea
J. Peder Zane, Staff Writer

Each Christmas, the Manhattan literary agent John Brockman gives his pals a "riddle me this."

A year ago he brain-teased: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" And this time: "What is your dangerous idea?"

Brockman's challenge is noteworthy because his buddies include many of the world's greatest scientists: Freeman Dyson, David Gelertner, J. Craig Venter, Jared Diamond, Brian Greene. Yet their ideas, delineated in brief and engaging essays, are not just for tech-heads. The 119 responses Brockman received to the most recent question -- posted at www.edge.org -- are dangerous precisely because they so often stray from the land of test tubes and chalkboards into the realms of morality, religion and philosophy. ...



January 8, 2006
Dangerous Ideas About Modern Life
By Dan Fielder

Free will does not exist. We are not always created equal. Science will never be able to address our deepest concerns. These are just three of some of the most controversial theories advanced by some of the world's leading thinkers in answer to the question: "What is your dangerous idea?"

The survey, conducted by the New York-based Website The Edge, produced 116 responses that were all the more striking for being put forward by experts in relevant fields.

Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel argues, for instance, that by observing someone's brain activity we know what they're going to do even before they do, which begs the question "Is one to be held responsible for decisions that are made without conscious awareness?" Free will, he says, is therefore an illusion.

Geneticist J. Craig Venter argues that "there are strong genetic components associated with most aspects of human existence", from intelligence to willpower, and that a growing awareness of these essential inequalities will lead to more social conflict.

So next time you fall off your cabbage soup diet or alcohol-free January plan, don't beat yourself up, just tell yourself you lack the willpower gene. ...



Soundbites
07 January 2006

"The danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal."

Genome sequencing pioneer Craig Venter suggests greater understanding of how genes influence characteristics such as personality, intelligence and athletic capability could lead to conflict in society (Edge.org magazine, 1 January)



Miriam Cosic
January 06, 2006

The wilder shores of creativity

He asked his roster of thinkers - V.S. Ramachandran, Paul Davies, Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond, Daniel Goleman, Matt Ridley, Simon Baron-Cohen, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Martin Seligman, among the most famous - to nominate an idea, not necessarily their own, they consider dangerous not because it is false, but because it might be true.

Two ideas with enormous ramifications for the arts resonated though the tens of thousands of words of text. ...



January 5, 2006
FROM CLONING TO PREDETERMINATION OF SEX: THE ANSWERS OF INVESITGATORS AND PHILOSOPHERS TO A QUESTION ON THE ONLINE SALON EDGE
Scientists discuss dangerous ideas
By Giovanna Zucconi

Per quanto spaventevole e surreale possa apparire l'idea di ventiquattrore senza connessione alcuna, se non con i propri pensieri o con la mancanza dei suddetti, considerare la solitudine addirittura una minaccia per l'umanità così come la conosciamo sembrerebbe una provocazione. E infatti lo è. Sul filo del paradosso, così ha risposto il neurobiologo californiano Leo Chalupa alla domanda posta dalla rivista Edge: qual è, secondo lei, l'idea più pericolosa oggi in circolazione? Pericolosa non perché è falsa, ma perché potrebbe rivelarsi vera? Chalupa argomenta appunto che l'iper-informazione che ci bombarda è una forma di totalitarismo, serve a intasare l'attività neuronale, cioè a impedirci di pensare. E che un'intera giornata di solitudine sarebbe perciò eversiva: molti, pensando e ripensando, metterebbero in discussione la società in cui viviamo. ...


Munich, January 5

Feuilleton
By Andrian Kreye

Dangerous ideas

Who controls humans? God? The genes? Or nevertheless the computer? The on-line forum Edge asked its yearly question — and the answers raised more questions.

Once a year self-styled head of the Third Culture movement and New York literary agent John Brockman asks his fellow thinkers and clients a question, who publishes their answers every New Year's Day in his online forum edge.org. Thus Mr. Brockman fulfills the promise that is the basic principle of Third Culture.

The sciences are asking mankind's relevant questions he says, while the humanities busy themselves with ideological skirmishes and semantic hairsplitting. It is about having last words, which have never been as embattled as in the current context of post-ideological debates and de-secularization. That's why this year's question 'What is your dangerous idea' seemed unusually loaded. Since it's inception in 1998 the forum had mainly dealt with the basic questions of science culture per se. But maybe that's why this year the debate has brought out the main concerns of Third Culture more direct than in the years before.



Barcelona, January 5

VINTRENTA AVUI
By Santi Mayor Farguell

La pregunta de l’any

Laweb Edge.org penjarà l’1 de gener la pregunta de l’any. La del 2005 va ser resposta per 120ments de l’anomenada ‘tercera cultura’, que van reflexionar sobre l’enunciat “Què creus que és veritat tot i no poder-ho demostrar?”. Amb l’any nou, coneixeremla nova pregunta i, sobretot, les noves respostes.



Seoul, January 5,2006
THE HANKYOREH

By Cheolwoo Oh



Posted by ScuttleMonkey on Tuesday January 03, @11:27PM

from the shhh-it's-too-dangerous-to-talk-about-here dept.

GabrielF writes "Every year The Edge asks over 100 top scientists and thinkers a question, and the responses are fascinating and widely quoted. This year, psychologist Steven Pinker suggested they ask "What is your most dangerous idea?" The 117 respondents include Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond -- and that's just the D's! As you might expect, the submissions are brilliant and very controversial."
[...click here]


 


Researchers at UCLA found that cells in the human anterior cingulate, which normally fire when you poke the patient with a needle ("pain neurons"), will also fire when the patient watches another patient being poked. The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others. [1] I call them "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Llama neurons". (I wonder how the mirror neurons of a masochist or sadist would respond to another person being poked.) Dissolving the "self vs. other" barrier is the basis of many ethical systems, especially eastern philosophical and mystical traditions. This research implies that mirror neurons can be used to provide rational rather than religious grounds for ethics (although we must be careful not to commit the is/ought fallacy).

MIRROR NEURONS AND THE BRAIN IN THE VAT [1.10.06]
by V.S. Ramachandran

Introduction

Six years ago, Edge published a now-famous essay by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran ( (known to friends and colleagues as "Rama"), entitled "Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution" [2]. This was the first time that many in the Edge community heard of mirror neurons which were discovered by Iaccomo Rizzolati of the University of Parma in 1995. In his essay, Rama made the startling prediction that mirror neurons would do for psychology what DNA did for biology by providing a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments. He further suggested "that the emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system set the stage for the emergence, in early hominids, of a number of uniquely human abilities such as proto-language (facilitated by mapping phonemes on to lip and tongue movements), empathy, 'theory of other minds', and the ability to 'adopt another's point of view'.

In the past few years, mirror neurons have come into their own as the next big thing in neuroscience, and while the jury is still out on Rama's prediction, it's obvious that something important is unfolding:

Interesting new research is being conducted in neuroscience labs in the US and Europe and discussed at conferences and in the press:

Two weeks ago Edge received Rama's essay in response to the 2006 Edge Question, "What is your dangerous idea", which we are publishing as a separate feature. Rama's "dangerous if true" idea is "what Francis Crick referred to as "the astonishing hypothesis"; the notion that "our conscious experience and sense of self is based entirely on the activity of a hundred billion bits of jelly — the neurons that constitute the brain. We take this for granted in these enlightened times but even so it never ceases to amaze me". He then goes on to characterize Crick's "astonishing hypothesis" as a key indicator of "the fifth revolution" — the "neuroscience revolution" — the first four being Copernican, Darwinian, Freudian, and the discovery of DNA and the genetic code.". "that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons." Central to this revolution are mirror neurons.

Rama also asks an interesting question:

Lets advance to a point of time where we know everything there is to know about the intricate circuitry and functioning of the human brain. With this knowledge, it would be possible for a neuroscientist to isolate your brain in a vat of nutrients and keep it alive and healthy indefinitely.

Utilizing thousands of electrodes and appropriate patterns of electrical stimulation, the scientist makes your brain think and feel that it's experiencing actual life events. The simulation is perfect and includes a sense of time and planning for the future. The brain doesn't know that its experiences, its entire life, are not real.

Further assume that the scientist can make your brain "think" and experience being a combination of Einstein, Mark Spitz, Bill Gates, Hugh Heffner, and Gandhi, while at the same time preserving your own deeply personal memories and identity (there's nothing in contemporary brain science that forbids such a scenario). The mad neuroscientist then gives you a choice. You can either be this incredible, deliriously happy being floating forever in the vat or be your real self, more or less like you are now (for the sake of argument we will further assume that you are basically a happy and contended person, not a starving pheasant). Which of the two would you pick?

JB

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN, a neuroscientist, is professor and director, Center for Brain and Cognition UCSD. His honors include election to a Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford; The Ramon Y Cajal award from the international neuropsychiatry society; presidential lecture award, American Academy of neurology; election to the Athenaeum. London; and the C. U. Ariens Kappers medal from the Royal Nederlands academy of sciences. He was the 2003 BBC Reith lecturer and in 2005 was elected an honorary life member by the Royal Institution of Great Britain  and awarded their annual Sir Henry Dale prize He is the coauthor (with Sandra Blakeslee) of The Phantom In the Brain, and the author of A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness.

V.S. Ramachandran 's Edge Bio Page


MIRROR NEURONS AND THE BRAIN IN THE VAT

"I am a brain, my dear Watson, and the rest of me is a mere appendage." — Sherlock Holmes


An idea that would be "dangerous if true" is what Francis Crick referred to as "the astonishing hypothesis"; the notion that our conscious experience and sense of self is based entirely on the activity of a hundred billion bits of jelly — the neurons that constitute the brain. We take this for granted in these enlightened times but even so it never ceases to amaze me.

Some scholars have criticized Crick's tongue-in-cheek phrase (and title of his book) on the grounds that the hypothesis he refers to is "neither astonishing nor a hypothesis". (Since we already know it to be true) Yet the far-reaching philosophical, moral and ethical dilemmas posed by his hypothesis have not been recognized widely enough. It is in many ways the ultimate dangerous idea.

Let's put this in historical perspective.

Freud once pointed out that the history of ideas in the last few centuries has been punctuated by "revolutions," major upheavals of thought that have forever altered our view of ourselves and our place in the cosmos.
First, there was the Copernican system dethroning the earth as the center of the cosmos.
Second was the Darwinian revolution; the idea that far from being the climax of "intelligent design" we are merely neotonous apes that happen to be slightly cleverer than our cousins. Third, the Freudian view that even though you claim to be "in charge" of your life, your behavior is in fact governed by a cauldron of drives and motives of which you are largely unconscious. And fourth, the discovery of DNA and the genetic code with its implication (to quote James Watson) that "There are only molecules. Everything else is sociology".

To this list we can now add the fifth, the "neuroscience revolution" and its corollary pointed out by Crick — the "astonishing hypothesis" — that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons.

If all this seems dehumanizing, you haven't seen anything yet.

Consider the following thought experiment that used to be a favorite of philosophers (it was also the basis for the recent Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix): Let's advance to a point of time where we know everything there is to know about the intricate circuitry and functioning of the human brain. With this knowledge, it would be possible for a neuroscientist to isolate your brain in a vat of nutrients and keep it alive and healthy indefinitely.

Utilizing thousands of electrodes and appropriate patterns of electrical stimulation, the scientist makes your brain think and feel that it's experiencing actual life events. The simulation is perfect and includes a sense of time and planning for the future. The brain doesn't know that its experiences, its entire life, are not real.

Further assume that the scientist can make your brain "think" and experience being a combination of Einstein, Mark Spitz, Bill Gates, Hugh Heffner, and Gandhi, while at the same time preserving your own deeply personal memories and identity (there's nothing in contemporary brain science that forbids such a scenario). The mad neuroscientist then gives you a choice. You can either be this incredible, deliriously happy being floating forever in the vat or be your real self, more or less like you are now (for the sake of argument we will further assume that you are basically a happy and contended person, not a starving pheasant). Which of the two would you pick?

I have posed this question to dozens of scientists and lay people. A majority argue "I'd rather be the real me." This is an irrational choice because you already are a brain in a vat (the cranial cavity) nurtured by cerebrospinal fluid and blood and bombarded by photons. When asked to select between two vats most pick the crummy one even though it is no more real than the neuroscientist's experimental vat. How can you justify this choice unless you believe in something supernatural?

I have heard three counter-arguments on the premise of this experiment. First, the brain, as Antonio Damasio argues so eloquently, is a natural extension of the body, not an isolated computer sitting on your neck. True, but this "embodiment" plus visceral and proprioceptive inputs can also be simulated. Second, what if the vat isn't well maintained? What if it falls down and crashes? This could happen, but such an accident can also happen to the real you. Third, the simulation of Einstein and Gates (and everyone else) can never be exact. This might be true, but it's not relevant. So what if the simulation is only 98% correct? Your own brain fluctuations from year to year are probably as great, if not greater.

If you think this scenario is farfetched just look at what's going on around you in the world; Cell phones, iPods, Palm Pilots, the worldwide web, email, blogs, e-publishing, and virtual reality. We are all slowly and imperceptibly approaching the brain in the vat scenario where all functions will be literally at your fingertips as you become dissolved in cyberspace.

What about "culture"? I think of homo sapiens as "the cultured ape" because it is cultural diversity above all that defines us as a species. Through the emergence and further elaboration of a group of neurons called "mirror neurons" our brains have become symbiotic, or parasitic, with culture (a child raised in a cave would not be recognizably human.) Can we simulate cultural sophistication in the vat? Will the world in the 25th century be hundreds of warehouses with thousands of brains in rows and rows of vats? They could even all be identical to each other to save time and effort programming. Why not? No one brain would know it was the same as every other.

Iaccomo Rizzolati and Vittorio Gallasse discovered mirror neurons. They found that neurons in the ventral premotor area of macaque monkeys will fire anytime a monkey performs a complex action such as reaching for a peanut, pulling a lever, pushing a door, etc. (different neurons fire for different actions). Most of these neurons control motor skill (originally discovered by Vernon Mountcastle in the 60's), but a subset of them, the Italians found, will fire even when the monkey watches another monkey perform the same action. In essence, the neuron is part of a network that allows you to see the world "from the other persons point of view," hence the name “mirror neuron."

Researchers at UCLA [1] found that cells in the human anterior cingulate, which normally fire when you poke the patient with a needle ("pain neurons"), will also fire when the patient watches another patient being poked. The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others. I call them "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Llama neurons". (I wonder how the mirror neurons of a masochist or sadist will respond to another person being poked.) Dissolving the "self vs. other" barrier is the basis of many ethical systems, especially eastern philosophical and mystical traditions. This research implies that mirror neurons can be used to provide rational rather than religious grounds for ethics (although we must be careful not to commit the is/ought fallacy).

I previously suggested in my earlier piece — "Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution" [2] — that the emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system set the stage for the emergence, in early hominids, of a number of uniquely human abilities such as proto-language (facilitated by mapping phonemes on to lip and tongue movements), empathy, "theory of other minds", and the ability to "adopt another's point of view".

This resulted in the ability to engage in goal-directed imitation, which was a crucial step in imitation learning. Once imitation learning was in place it allowed the rapid horizontal and vertical propagation of "accidental" one-of-a-kind inventions, which provided the basis for culture, the most human of all traits. Evolution, you could say, became Lamarckian rather than purely Darwinian. (In using the phrase "accidental innovation" I do not mean to belittle those flashes of inspiration, insight and genius that arise all too rarely when the right combination of genetic and environmental circumstances fortuitously prevail in a single brain.

My point is only that such innovations would be lost from the meme pool were it not for mirror neuron-based abilities such as imitation and language). Even that most quintessentially human trait, our propensity for metaphor, may be partly based on the kinds of cross domain abstraction that mirror neurons mediate; the left hemisphere for action metaphors ("get a grip") and the right for embodied and spatial metaphor. This would explain why any monkey could reach for a peanut but only a human, with an adequately developed mirror neuron system, can reach for the stars. This "co-opting" of the mirror neuron system for other more sophisticated functions may have been but a short step in hominid brain evolution but it was a giant leap for mankind. I suggest this crucial step emerged 100 to 200 thousand years ago in the inferior parietal lobule.

Of course, we must avoid the temptation of attributing too much to mirror neurons — monkeys have them but they are not capable of sophisticated culture. There are two possible reasons for this. First, mirror neurons may be necessary but not sufficient. Other functions such as long working memory may have co-evolved through parallel selection pressures. Second, the system may need to reach a certain minimum level of sophistication before primate cognition can really get off the ground (or down from the trees!)

Intriguingly, in 2000, Eric Altschuller, Jamie Pineda and I were able to show (using EEG recordings) that autistic children lack the mirror neuron system and we pointed out that this deficit may help explain the very symptoms that are unique to autism: lack of empathy, theory of other minds, language skills, and imitation. [3] Although initially contested, this discovery — of the neural basis of autism — has now been confirmed by several groups including our own (spearheaded, in part, by Lindsey Oberman in my lab).

Mirror neurons also deal a deathblow to the "nature vs. nurture " debate (I like Matt Ridley's suggested replacement "Nature via Nurture") for it shows how human nature depends crucially on learnability that is partly facilitated by these very circuits. They are also an effective antidote to sociobiology and pop evolutionary psychology; the assertion that the human brain is a bundle of instincts selected and fine-tuned by natural selection when our ape-like ancestors roamed the savannahs. Even if you admit some truth to this view I have never understood why the savannah is such a big deal. Why stop there? We spent a much longer time as fish in the Devonian seas 500 million years ago. One could argue that the reason we enjoy going to aquaria is that our piscine ancestors spent millions of year's time looking at and enjoying other fishes. If you think this idea is silly, you should see some of the others that have made it into print and clutter the literature. Yes, genes profoundly influence behavior. No ape, even if educated at Eton or Harrow, will ever speak with a proper public school accent. But, the notion that human talents and follies are governed mainly by instincts hard-wired by genes is ludicrous.

Thanks to mirror neurons the human brain became specialized for culture, it became the organ of cultural diversity par excellence. It is for this reason (rather than moral reasons or political correctness) that we need to cherish and celebrate cultural diversity. To be culturally diverse is to be human and that's a good enough reason to celebrate. Indeed, mirror neurons may help bridge the huge gap between the "the two cultures", the sciences and the humanities, which CP Snow claimed could never be bridged. Based on all these ideas, I stand behind my pronouncement that "mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology", a prophesy already starting to come true. In fact when I saw Rizzollati at a meeting recently he complained, jokingly, that my off-the-wall remark is now quoted more often than all his original papers!

One could, I suppose, simulate mirror neuron-like activity in the brain in the vat — even simulate "culture" in a culture medium. There is nothing that logically forbids this but it would be virtually impossible in practice because of the contingent nature of culture; the fact that it depends crucially on the rapid spread of unique innovations, or "memes".

Who could program the "culture" into the brains in the vats without first having themselves discovered culture? One could also make a strong case for the idea that you cannot program innovation given its highly contingent nature and dependence on rare combinations of fortuitous circumstances. It is conceivable, though, that one could achieve a reasonable approximation of culture. Even if we could generate "fake" culture and create a reasonable simulacrum in the vat, the question arises: Would we ever want to? I confess I have a sentimental attachment to my "real " brain even though I can't defend my choice rationally. It may just be pure narcissism. But, under some circumstances to which people are subjected, whether a starving peasant in Bangladesh or a torture victim in a secret jail, I might easily be swayed to choose the brain in the vat!

I will conclude with a metaphysical question that cannot be answered by science. I cannot decide whether the question is utterly trivial or profound. I call it the "vantage point" problem foreshadowed by the Upanishads, ancient Indian philosophical texts composed in the second millennium BC, and by Erwin Schrödinger. I am referring to the fundamental asymmetry in the universe between the "subjective" private worldview vs. the objective world of physics.

Physics depends on the elimination of the subjective: there are no colors, only wavelengths; no frequency, only pitch; no warmth or cold, only kinetic activity of molecules; no subjective "self" or I, only neural activity. Physics doesn't need, and indeed doesn't acknowledge, the subjective "here and now", or the "I" who experiences the world. Yet to me, my "I" is everything. It's as if only one tiny corner of the space-time manifold is "illuminated" by the searchlight of my consciousness. Humankind, it would seem, is forever condemned to accept this schizophrenic view of reality; the "first person" account and the third person account.

But what has this got to do with brains in vats? Everything. It's a fair assumption that the identity of your conscious experience (including your "I") depends on the information content of your brain, "software" representing millions of years of accumulated evolutionary wisdom, your cultural milieu, and your personal memories; not on the particular atoms that currently constitute your brain. You can't actually prove this logically, no more than you can prove that you are not dreaming right now, but it seems "beyond reasonable doubt" given everything else we know. After all your actual brain atoms and molecules get replaced every few months yet you wouldn't want to insist you are existentially reborn each time and stop planning for what (in such a view) would essentially be an identical twin in the future.

Now imagine speeding up this replacement process so that I destroy your present brain and replace it with a replica/simulacrum with identical information. There would be no reason to believe your conscious experience would not continue in that other brain (The fact that exact duplication cannot be achieved is irrelevant after all your own brain information fluctuates everyday!) But if you accept this argument then why not replace your brain with five replicas in five vats instead of just one? Would you then "continue" in all five? If so you can be Einstein, Gates and Heffner in parallel? This seems absurd because you can simultaneously subject one brain to pain and another to pleasure and the notion of a single conscious being simultaneously experiencing both seems impossible. But if this isn't true and "you" continue in only one, then what. Or who decides which vat you continue in? (Actually, this thought experiment isn't all that different from one that has actually been achieved empirically; the splitting of an adult human brain down the middle by severing the corpus callosum. The procedure is done for intractable epilepsy and divides what was apparently a single stream of consciousness into two, as shown elegantly by Sperry, Gazzaniga, and Bogen.)

Bill Hirstein and I recently showed that the isolated left hemisphere would tell you it is conscious, if asked directly. More surprisingly, we showed that the right hemisphere in such a patient does indeed have introspective consciousness, for we found it was quite capable of deliberate lying when tested through non-verbal signing (and you cannot lie without being conscious of yourself and others).

The possibility of multiple "minds" in a single brain is not as bizarre as it sounds. It often happens in dreams. I remember having a dream once in which another guy told me a joke and I laughed heartily even though the "other guy" was my mental invention, so I must have already known the joke all along!

The question of whether "you" would continue in multiple parallel brain vats raises issues that come perilously close to the theological notion of souls, but I see no simple way out of the conundrum. Perhaps we need to remain open to the Upanishadic doctrine that the ordinary rules of numerosity and arithmetic, of  "one vs. many", or indeed of two-valued, binary yes/no logic, simply doesn't apply to minds — the very notion of a separate "you " or "I" is an illusion, like the passage of time itself.

We are all merely many reflections in a hall of mirrors of a single cosmic reality (Brahman or "paramatman"). If you find all this too much to swallow just consider the that as you grow older and memories start to fade you may have less in common with, and be less "informationally coupled", to your own youthful self, the chap you once were, than with someone who is now your close personal friend. This is especially true if you consider the barrier-dissolving nature of mirror neurons. There is certain grandeur in this view of life, this enlarged conception of reality, for it is the closest that we humans can come to taking a sip from the well of immortality. (But I fear my colleague Richard Dawkins may suspect me of spiritual leanings of  "letting God in through the back door" for saying this.)
 
Will you choose the vat or the real you? This exercise might not provide an obvious answer, but fortunately none in this generation or the next will have to confront this choice. For those in the future who are forced to answer, I hope they make the "right" choice, whatever "right" means.

Think not existence closing your account and mine
Shall see the likes of you and me no more
The eternal saki has poured from the bowl
 millions of bubbles like you and me, and shall pour

The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam

___

[1]
Iacoboni M, Molnar-Szakacs I, Gallese V, Buccino G, Mazziotta JC, et al. (2005) Grasping the Intentions of Others with One's Own Mirror Neuron System. PLoS Biol 3(3): e79.

[2] Ramachandran, V.S., "Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution", Edge, no. 69, May 29, 2000.

[3] Altschuler, E., Pineda, J., and Ramachandran, V.S., Abstracts of the Annual
Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, 2000.


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