Podcast 118 – “Human Nature, Synesthesia and Art”


Guest speaker: Dr. V.S. Ramachandran


[NOTE: All quotes are by V.S. Ramachandran.]

“Let’s think about what the standard explanations were [before the late 1990s] for synesthesia. The most common explanation, which we used to hear until about five or ten years ago was, ‘Oh they’re just crazy, they’re nuts,’ because it doesn’t make any sense. And this is a common reaction in science. If it doesn’t make any sense you brush it under the carpet.”

“It turns out that synesthesia is more common among acid users, but that to me makes it more interesting, not less interesting.”

“You cannot solve one mystery in science by using another mystery.”

“Synesthesia my even hold the key for understanding the emergence of language and abstract thought.”

“It turns out that it [synesthesia] is much more common among artists, poets, and novelists.”

“One of the things you know as a physician is that when you think something is crazy it usually means you’re not smart enough to figure it out.”

“Art is not about copying. It’s about distortion and exaggeration, but you cannot randomly distort an image and call it art.”

“There is only one pattern of neural activity that can exist at one time, and it will destroy any other competing patterns of neural activity. This means there is a bottleneck of attention. You can only pay attention to one thing at a time.”


PCs – Right click, select option
Macs – Ctrl-Click, select option

Posted in Art, Consciousness, V.S. Ramachandran and tagged , , .

One Comment

  1. Comments from original blog page: http://www.matrixmasters.net/blogs/?p=241

    WOW. Thank you so much for sharing this great talk with us Lorenzo. This is the first I’ve heard of Professor Ramachandran and it wont be the last. His webpage is http://psy.ucsd.edu/chip/ramabio.html I cant wait to here more.

    I actually heard about this guy not too long before this podcast was posted (very synchratic)…I’m not sure how many people know about this site, but there’s a site much like Matrix Masters called http://www.ted.com which is basically a database of interesting people (including Ramachandran) who give extremely interesting lectures(just not so much on entheogens, substances, etc.) They’re more about cutting edge ideas that anyone can relate to that may help bring about some real change for our society.

    By the way the artistic credit for this piece I am pretty certain is incorrect. The posted image was produced by Robert Venosa, for examples of his work/syle: http://www.venosa.com/

    The only other individual that is known for this particular style is his partner Martina Hoffman.

    I think you are right, Louis. Thanks for pointing that out. I misread the directory where that image was stored and posted it by mistake. . . . Great eye, BTW!

    He gave a similar speech at the TED conference…if anyone hasn’t checked out http://www.ted.com, you should! I especially like the one’s filed under “the hive mind”

    With respect, this theory of neural activity you propose above is simply incorrect. What we think of as a single thought in our mind is composed of many fragments of thoughts. Links between thoughts produce thinking. Solving harder, more complex problems requires more and better connections….

    For reference:

    The Neuroscience Behind Intelligent Memory

    by Barry Gordon, M.D., Ph.D.

    While we make a big distinction between memory and our thoughts, our brains do not. All mental activity – memories, perceptions, actions, thoughts, and emotions – arise from the activity of nerve cells. The memories and thoughts most important to us usually require the coordinated action of thousands, if not millions, of nerve cells. But they’re all still the product of these tiny activities. (These activities can be actual nerve firing or they can be the absence of firing. Both are part of the message or code nerve cells use, just as white spaces around a letter are as important as the black lines of it.) What memory does, and what it is, is let the nerve cell activity “remember” what it has done in the past. In essence, memory is the retrieval of knowledge about nerve cell activity, or inactivity, from the past.

    When nerve cells fire, they carry information and so the memory is active and usable. But this form of memory is transient. By itself, it can exist only a few fractions of a second. What makes a memory permanent is not a nerve cell constantly firing but, over time, acquiring more potential for being able to fire. In other words, a nerve cell becomes more sensitive to firing or to staying quiet. When this happens, the memory is latent – it’s not actively influencing what’s going on, but it could.

    This sensitivity to being triggered into action can be increased or decreased. The processes that change susceptibility are built into nerve cells. There are many of these processes, including temporary changes in the permeability of the nerve cell membrane, growth of new parts of the nerve cell, and permanent changes within its DNA. Correspondingly, they can take place over different time frames. Changes in the permeability of the nerve cell membrane can occur in fractions of a second, while changes in the proteins within a nerve cell and growth of new parts of the cell can take hours or days to accomplish. And DNA can take weeks to months or years to change.

    A crucial influence on nerve cell sensitivity is individual experience – whether and how often they’ve fired before. If a nerve cell has fired in the past, in general it will be more sensitive to what caused it to fire. Yet, if a nerve cell has been active over long periods of time, it gradually becomes less sensitive and needs increasingly more stimulation to set it off or produce changes.

    This sensitivity is basic to creating intelligent memories. Changes in sensitivity, when repeated over and over, produce particular kinds of memories – memories that arise through practice. Repeating a thought or action strengthens the appropriate individual connections between nerve cells. This is learning. Generally, this learning happens relatively slowly. But each repetition adds to the learning.

    You know these kinds of memories well. They are the memories you acquire when you learn how to ride a bicycle, drive a car, play golf or to add 2 + 2. As you acquire them, you can strengthen them quickly if each time you think about the precise right way and immediately correct your mistakes. However, if a task is complicated, you need a great deal of practice.

    Although so far the focus has been on individual nerve cells, keep in mind that most of the memories that mean anything to us take long chains of nerve cells. Catching a ball requires a whole sets of nerve cells for seeing, as well as sets of nerve cells for hand control, body motion, and coordination. Nevertheless, individual nerve cells and the connections between them are the basis for these activities, no matter how complicated.

    On their own, individual nerve cells learn by experience. But in brains like ours, there are also other circuits that can tell these nerve cells when and what to learn, and whether something needs to be learned very quickly. These other circuits monitor what’s important and what needs to be repeated and remembered. These control circuits also dictate how the more basic neural circuits are wired together, which get inputs and which do not, and which chains of circuits are beefed up and which are broken up and rewired.

    And, as you may have guessed, our brains also have circuits that monitor and control the controlling circuits. And there are undoubtedly monitors and controls for the monitoring and controlling circuits, and so forth. Neuroscience doesn’t completely know how many levels of controls our brains possess. They’re hard to identify or track down because there is not a strict hierarchy. Instead, some controlling circuits seem to influence other controlling circuits at the same level and sometimes lower-level processes can boss around their controllers.

    Our brain’s basic wiring plan governs how we perceive, act, think, and remember. But to understand intelligent memories, we need to elaborate beyond this basic scheme and look at the links between nerve cells and nerve circuits. It’s these connections that are the true building blocks of thoughts, and Intelligent Memory. (“Intelligent Memory” is our shorthand term for all the different intelligent memories. They all work much the same way; it’s just their specific content, such as words or images, that differ.)

    What we think of as a single thought in our mind – “ball” for instance – is composed of many fragments of thoughts. If you think about a ball, you do not normally separate its color from its roundness or its bounciness. However, your brain does. Its color and shape and function are stored in different regions of the brain, although not every distinct element has its own region.

    Most complex thoughts are learned; they are not innate. When elemental thoughts arise from the senses, its usually constant exposure, like playing with balls as a child, that gradually produces the whole idea inside our minds. The same process seems to work for thoughts or concepts that have no obvious sensory or other correlates.

    Elements of thoughts are linked in many ways. Sometimes they are linked just by being part of the same context in the world, as in the case of a ball. But the most interesting links for our purposes – the links that make up intelligent memories – are ones we discover and put into place. They are the links, for example, that allow a child to see the similarity between the ball he is throwing and the planet he is standing on.

    The links between elements of thoughts, or between thoughts themselves, are patterns of neural activity. Therefore, they can be learned.

    Links between thoughts produce thinking. Some kinds of thinking generated by these links may seem so ordinary that we don’t call them thinking at all. Being hungry, passing a candy machine, and stopping to put in a coin is hardly a Nobel prize-winning connection. But even this thought required having the elements inside of our head (some coming internally, from our hunger; others coming externally, from the image of the candy machine) and then making the connection between them. (It also involved acting upon that connection.)

    Solving harder, more complex problems requires more and better connections. But this should not obscure the fact that the same basic components are required – elements of thought and the links between them.

    Solving a problem involves getting to a destination. Creative thinking differs in that what’s required to solve a “problem” often isn’t really known. But the directions our thoughts travel for creative thinking are still links, and they still arise from the same nerve cell activity and the same learning process.

    Links are the streets that take us from thought to thought. But finding connections between thoughts, or finding the best ones, can be like trying to find the best route to a destination. The first route we explore may have many false starts or roads that look good on paper but don’t work in practice. With time, though, we find a shorter work or faster route. So it can be with thinking. Over time, we can prune away the false starts and wrong directions, and eliminate the links that look good originally but prove to be rocky or difficult or time-consuming.

    This process of finding the best mental route – and recognizing it – is the third part of Intelligent Memory. Many of us know this part by a variety of names, such as logic and critical thinking. We probably don’t think of it as memory. But it too is a product of nerve cells. So it too can be learned or taught to perform better.

    At least two more aspects of memory are important for understanding thinking, learning and creativity, and how they can be improved. One is the special way the brain has for boosting learning when it needs to. The other is how we can use memory to create miniature intelligences in our minds, to help eliminate the bottlenecks of certain kinds of thinking.

    Nerve cells learn when they are exercised. Practice, which stimulates connections, makes them learn. However, they also learn when they are told they to. When we deliberately activate the circuits that signal something is important, the circuits pass on the message and tell the appropriate target nerve cells that what is happening is important and should be learned well. This happens naturally when something is emotionally important. The brain centers involved in emotions are directly connected to the learning system, and automatically activate the teaching circuits. This is why emotionally significant events – our first day of anything, the birth of child, the death of a parent, a disaster – become so engraved in our memories. They literally are etched, by strong emotions. We can take advantage of this natural learning booster by believing something is important. If we try to learn without interest, very little gets saved. But if you can force yourself to treat what you are trying to learn as important, your brain will become your ally and trigger the learning circuits. The difference is astounding. Without interest, people learn perhaps 10% or less of what they’re taught. With interest, over 90%.

    Given that interest and motivation synergistically tickle nerve cells and make them learn much faster, this is another mechanism we can use to enhance our Intelligent Memory.

    The bottleneck mentioned earlier arises with our conscious thinking and attention. When we are fully alert, we can keep no more than a few thoughts in our mind at once. (Perhaps just only one thought at a time can be maintained consciously.) Our unconscious, automatic mind, on the other hand, does not have such a bottleneck or limitation. It can handle many thoughts and thought processes simultaneously. And fortunately, much of our mental activity takes place unconsciously and automatically. When you walk, you don’t think about every irregularity in the pavement or every step. Those perceptions, decisions, and actions are handled automatically and unconsciously.

    Your mind did not always perform such mental tasks automatically. There was a time when you had to learn them. Driving a car is a good example of mental skills that have become automatic.

    When you were learning to drive, you had to learn to pay attention. You watched your hands on the steering wheel, the hood of the car, each sign and traffic light, the other cars on the road, and every pedestrian. You also had to think about what to do in special situations: the stop sign or the yield sign, a car getting too close, a pothole. But as you practiced driving and became better, your ability to detect what was happening on the road as well as your reactions became automatic. You didn’t have to consciously look for a stop sign or a red light in order to notice it and automatically respond the right way. And if a pothole suddenly appeared, you immediately saw it and not only swerved but checked your mirrors for other cars nearby.

    What you did through all this practice and attention was create automatic mental abilities. You used your conscious mind and deliberate intention to instruct your brain on what to attend to, what decisions to make, and what to be done. Your conscious mind programmed the necessary circuits in your brain. It instructed your vision to pay attention to the color red. Your mind established a network of override circuits so that the need to stop took precedence over almost everything else. It also set up a watchdog circuit, so you would not stop too quickly if a car was on your tail. Finally, it programmed what you have to do to stop: take your foot off the gas and push the brake pedal. All these mental processes were practiced to the point that they became instinctive, like a separate intelligence or “minimind” operating on its own.

    Now that you are an experienced driver, these miniminds are vigilant whenever you’re behind the wheel, ready to respond to any stop sign or stop light. You don’t have to think about them, and they no longer require your conscious attention. Because they’re automated, they work in parallel with your conscious mind. They augment your abilities. They augment your intelligence, without costing you any additional conscious mental effort.

    Elementary mental processes happen fast. They operate in hundreds of a second, or at their slowest, in tenths of a second. However, these elementary mental processes are often strung together in chains and loops and these strings of processes can take a fair amount of time to unfold. Conscious minds may need more than a second to appreciate a situation, and several seconds of backwards and forwards thinking to come up with a response. Our unconscious, automatic minds, on the other hand, are much simpler and more direct, and can work much faster. A baseball thrown by a professional pitcher moves too quickly from the pitcher’s mound to the plate for the batter’s conscious thought to react (which takes a minimum of 1/4 of a second). But the batter can preprogram his miniminds to watch the pitcher’s throw and to watch the ball, so that his swing has a decent chance of connecting.

    All of your thinking, all of your decisions, all of your creativity comes from the same kind of miniminds you apply to skillful driving. But these miniminds cannot always substitute for careful, deliberate thinking. Sometimes, the information they use is too limited, and the judgments they make are too quick. Still, they augment the powers of your conscious mind.

    These miniminds, which represent intelligent memories, take time to be constructed, but they are extremely persistent once they have been built. This is often an advantage, since a useful mental tool should be kept around. However, this persistence can also cause problems. Problems can arise when a minimind has not been constructed properly or when its operation has taken wrong turn that becomes permanent. For example, making a snap judgment using these miniminds is a big reason people make errors on everyday problems, particularly those involving statistics and logical thinking.

    A first step in enhancing your miniminds is to understand what types you have available. The ones that work well can be left alone, while the ones that repeatedly make mistakes need to be retrained. When you survey your mental abilities and needs, you may well discover that you need certain abilities – miniminds – that you do not currently have. These gaps need to be identified and filled, and to take their place alongside your high-functioning miniminds. And, of course, you need to train the intelligent memories that orchestrate these particular miniminds, so the right ones can be used in the right situations.

    Now you know more about your Intelligent Memory, and how you can consciously exercise this memory and make it stronger.

    About the Author

    Barry Gordon, M.D., Ph.D. is founder of the Memory Clinic and the Cognitive Neurology/Neuropsychology group at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. For more information, see Dr. Gordon’s book Memory: Remembering and Forgetting in Everyday Life.

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