Saturday, June 9, 2018

Tucson article / Bourdain / Weiskrantz memorial

it's been a rather emotional couple of days. it was Larry Weiskrantz's memorial. and then my favorite living author Anthony Bourdain died. strangely these have been helpful in putting things into perspective, for something i've struggled with for a while.

people often think of Bourdain as a TV celebrity. i enjoyed watching those shows too. but Kitchen Confidential was something else. in a better world that would have been how i like my book on consciousness to read like. but too bad i'm not as good a writer, nor do i think the world is quite ready to accept a scientist to write in that kind of tone exactly.

but i have to say that sense of mourning paled in comparison when i watched Larry's memorial online ( unlike my relationship with Bourdain, i knew Larry in person. in the last post i also hinted at some interesting kind of academic lineage. but above all, Larry's work defined my adult life. one could sum up all my work on consciousness to date as nothing more than some footnotes to help people understand what blindsight really means. i only got to have work to do at all thanks to people who continue to miss the point entirely (e.g. this; search for the word "judiciously").

it is in this sentimental context that i respond to this piece on the Tucson conference, which just came out. on a different day maybe i would have been more bothered by how lunatic some of my soundbites appeared, when they are somewhat taken out of context. but i guess these are just the nature of soundbites.

i did write to Dave Chalmers to clarify and had a nice exchange of a few emails. thanks Dave for ever having a heart so big to not take offense.

i may write more to clarify later. but for now... whatever is really all i can come up with. i'm sorry. just as Bourdain was important but not nearly as important as Weiskrantz, whatever happens to the Tucson conference is just not that important to me anymore. if you are bothered or intrigued by the article and wanted to talk more, i can only recommend two things.

first is to go to the other conference which is actually run by a professional society. without doing that one really should not be judging the field, making funding decisions for or about it etc.

second is to watch the stream from Larry's memorial (, and ponder in that context what they mean when people say the modern study of consciousness was revived / reorganized in the 1990s.

to those who know the history - as a field we have made a Faustian pact of sort, and borrowed something we don't deserve via sheer black magic. we should be aware that we will probably have to repay that debt one day. sometimes debts are better settled sooner rather than later, for the interests may well rake up.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

i remember Larry Weiskrantz

it's been a long time since i last posted. it's been some funny few months, more than just busy. i'll explain in another post.

today i have to finish a piece that is almost overdue.


when i tell people i went to Oxford for graduate school, and i study consciousness, people often ask if i have worked with Larry Weiskrantz. short answer is: no, not really. he only taught me how to tickle myself.

there is a longer version of the story, but i'm sorry that it is no less corny.

when i was a graduate student in Dick Passingham's lab, it was clear from the beginning that i had no idea what i was doing. with inexplicable kindness, Dick trained me from scratch; i literally didn't even know where the central sulcus was.

my general scientific ignorance, together with being a foreign student, mean that often i found it easier to sit by my office and read, rather than to socialize at work. Larry would call in now and then, check on how i was doing. in the beginning he would just crack some random jokes, perhaps to cheer me up as i probably looked miserable and overworked. i wasn't expecting the retired former head of department to be quite so friendly. at one point he realized my real interest was to study consciousness, he seemed ever the more amused. consciousness? with Dick? and a philosophical bent! really!?! oh how wonderful!

we would bump into each other in the corridor, at talks, at conferences, but most often he would call in - sometimes looking for another colleague who worked in the same office - and casually take a peek at what i've been reading. from there we would often talk a little, especially if i were (caught) reading something 'conceptual'. sometimes these 'tutorials' were short, in the form of a pun  - sometimes at the expense of the relevant author - followed by a jolly smile. but sometimes they could be more elaborate, with interesting historical references too.

once i was reading a paper by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Daniel Wolpert, and Chris Frith, an fMRI study on why we can't tickle ourselves. with some pride Larry told me he had done a similar behavioral study decades earlier, and one of the authors was my advisor Dick's wife, Claire! what a small world!

i told him i'd read the paper and come back to chat with him more about it. but he said unfortunately he had to have back surgery and may not see me for a while. before goodbye, he said: maybe next time i see you i can tickle myself~

i did see Larry in a few weeks, and the surgery went ok. i was glad to be able to hear more stories.

but he never told me that in this small world, Dick was also once a postdoc in his lab. had he done so, maybe i would not have been so completely puzzled when Dick told me i could study whatever topic i wanted, when i stayed on to do a postdoc with him after my PhD. i asked Dick: really? i can study visual awareness in your lab even though you told me many times you have little interest in perception? but why?

i have never gotten an answer to that, just as Larry never told me why he had a young postdoc working on action and the prefrontal cortex in his lab, funded by a grant on visual awareness.

they say there are two kinds of scientists: the creative and the careful. Larry was certainly well known for being enormously imaginative, but i think it would be wrong to think he didn't value careful experimentation just as much. you can tell by how he chose his colleagues and collaborators. just as he was quick to crack irreverent jokes, i vividly remembered how stern he looked, with disapproval, when i once described someone else's decade-old study with the details mixed up. from Larry, i've learned that you can be funny and serious at the same time. to do good science, you have to be.

another time we were discussing with another professor how long it may take for one to read a doctoral thesis, and Larry said he would spend at least one day just to check all the references. i don't think that was a joke.

the power of puns and jokes is, they can stay on even if people don't fully get what they mean. i think Larry understood that. what does blindsight really mean? everyone says they know what is it, but do they truly get how deep the implications are? i guess it is our jobs to see to it they do. Larry had done enough for us.

every now and then, as i read papers i thought of how serious Larry was about getting things exactly right, especially regarding knowing the literature. i would recall his stern look of disapproval and feel we all still have a lot of shaping up to do. but as though he would also remind us: don't forget to tickle yourself now and then to see what happens too!

thank you Larry, those puns meant a lot to an awkward graduate student, once trying too hard to impress

Monday, February 12, 2018

between the vanilla & the metaphysical

on social media, the last week has been an interesting one for consciousness. from Anil Seth's pushback againat panpsychism, we see some interesting discussion coming out of it re: the legitimacy of consciousness research. and independently there's also been some relevant discussion by serious AI researchers too.

to recap, a certain pop media article claimed that panpsychism i.e. roughly the idea that simple creatures / plants may be conscious to some degree, is gaining academic credibility. i thought my response was a bit harsh, but one notable 'tweet' may be Adrian Owen's, which openly called panpsychism 'nonsense'. hurray, Adrian~

in truth, much as i agree, i do worry a bit that this may become a war between the disciplines. whereas in neuroscience panpsychism is generally written off, in philosophy some seriously people do take it seriously. some have now expressed the worry that they may get caught in the cross-fire.

that's a point that i think some scientists without my unhealthy level of philosophical bent may not appreciate initially. why would anyone be so crazy to think consciousness is everywhere? in a way, it all goes back to the issue of the hard problem. when it comes to qualia, i.e. the subjective, ineffable, qualitative, phenomenological aspects of conscious experiences, e.g. the redness of red when you see red.... that sort of thing is just not easy to model with an usual reverse engineering approach. when we write programs to do things like humans, we look through the lines of codes, where does it ever say that red has to look a certain qualitative way? why does it have to feel anything at all? it's not clear if there is something it is like to be the program. why isn't color just a wavelength, that is just different from the others? why does it have to feel this very specific way? if there is such a thing as subjective experiences for a program, to be represented by some numbers, the program will work just fine if we had swapped these numbers for red vs green. so long as such 'labels' are consitent, the program will work just fine. but our subjective experiences don't seem to work that way. and because it is so hard to pin down what may be the mechanisms / basis, some radical solutions like panpsychism are considered live possibilities by serious philosophers - maybe qualia is a fundamental property of physical stuff so we can't explain it in simpler mechanistic terms.

to some people, this problem about subjective qualia is a nonsensical problem. it's not even the kind of problem that scientists should be concerned with. to a certain extent, i sympathize. but at the same time, i think it is a legitimate thing - and maybe even important thing - for philosophers to ponder about. to some extent, their jobs are different in nature from ours. it's just good to keep the two businesses separate (in terms of evaluating what's right within each field).

but when philosophers working on these issues start to pretend that certain scientific theories support their worldview (e.g. panpsychism), then we get into trouble. as it turns out, the science itself doesn't support their views. it's just that some scientists endorse their views. but there's a world of difference between an empirically supported scientific theory, vs a theory endorsed by empirical scientists - the latter does not need to be a scientific theory at all. when philosophers cite such poor evidence as supporting their view, i fear it cheapens their philosophy, and they are asking for the backfiring.

so, all good. no need to worry about zombies for now (i.e. roughly creatures who functionally behave like us but have no subjective qualitative experiences). let's assume they don't exists - which is my tentative stance in our recent Science paper by the way, that qualia empirically correlates with certain neural computation in humans, so we should assume they do as such for now.

but there's another worry, from the opposite end. when we try to do this as a Hard Science, do we end up studying consciousness at all? or, are we just studying good old perception or attention, but we call it conscious perception just to sound sexy and cool?

this is the question brought up in a great post by @neurograce, which i find really thoughtful and fair. in truth, that's something i worry about a lot too. i thought i was to reply more directly onto @neurograce's blog, but i think the discussion on twitter more or less took care of it, with some useful input from Ken Miller too, and @neurograce kindly reflected it all on her blog - which i highly recommend.

in essence, the answer is: yes there is a meaningful work to be done, even if we aren't concerned with qualia and zombies and all that. it is just a basic neurobiological question why some processes in the brain are conscious, in the sense that we can talk/think about them, and why some processes are not. a science of the mind is incomplete if we can't say what makes the difference. however, the danger is that we need to make sure when we are talking about unconscious processes, we aren't just talking about feeble, weak, processes. for otherwise, we would just be equating consciousness with stregnth of perception. and in that case we can just talk about perception and do without the loaded c-word. there is something more to it than just strong perception though; there are very powerful forms of unconscious perception, as in the neurological phenomenon of blindsight. conscious perception just seems to be a different sort of process. mapping out the difference is meaningful work. we don't have a perfect solution as to how to do this yet. there's not yet a consensus; it's ongoing, so @neurograce's skepticism & critiques are very much welcome.

we can likewise frame this as a challenge to AI researchers: can we characterize different forms of processing, each of which somewhat similarly powerful, but some allows the system to reflect upon and report of them, and some are more opague to such introspection? like Yoshua Bengio (see this), i do think we may be getting there.... if we are careful not to confound it with other psychological phenomena such as attention, language, depth of processing etc. that is, we really need to make sure we are honing in on the critical mechanisms truly necessary and sufficient to make the difference between the conscious vs unconscious.

as the work becomes more rigorous, the concepts become better defined in cognitive/computational terms, can we just bypass the historical baggage, and avoid the c-word altogether? i think we shoulnd't, because there are already theories of consciousness that are explicitly as such, and some of them can be meaningfully arbitrated. it is odd for those doing this work to pretend we are not studying consciousness per se.

but above all, i also feel we can't sidestep it & pretend there isn't such a problem in the first place. we owe it to the rest of the field to fix this mess. people are going to talk about consciouenss and related issues. as we see in this recent debate between experts of the fear circuit like Michael Fanselow and Joe Ledoux (click the links to see their respective arguments), these are genuine problems, with real clinical and practical implications. between worrying about the metaphysical, lofty hard problems, vs going vanilla to avoid being too controversial, i fear we have not really done our jobs. amid all the pop media noise, we made it look like there are no serious scientific answers to these basic questions. it is time to do our parts.