Monday, March 12, 2007

Neuroscience watch: Brain cells release information more widely than thought

Recent research has shown that the brain works more chaotically than previously thought.
The brain appears to process information more chaotically than has long been assumed. This is demonstrated by a new study conducted by scientists at the University of Bonn. The passing on of information from neuron to neuron does not, they show, occur exclusively at the synapses, i.e. the junctions between the nerve cell extensions. Rather, it seems that the neurons release their chemical messengers along the entire length of these extensions and, in this way, excite the neighbouring cells.

The findings of the study are of huge significance since they explode fundamental notions about the way our brain works. Moreover, they might contribute to the development of new medical drugs. The study is due to appear shortly in the academic journal "Nature Neuroscience."

Well, anyone who has listened to someone thinking out loud about who to vote for or where to seat people at a critical dinner party will have likely heard an approximate simulacrum of the chaos. But, that aside, if the information in the brain is really released in waves (?) and not simply at the synapses, then many materialist theories may be due for a revision.

Update: Philosopoher A.J. Meyer reminisces about an early intimation of this discovery:

You wrote:

"But, that aside, if the information in the brain is really released in waves (?) and not simply at the synapses, then many materialist theories may be due for a revision."

This lead me to recall an idea I had almost 40 years ago, which I mention in the following article.

The segment below was taken from the original version, which was written in January 1996 and after a great deal of editing, was published as a chapter in “Fifty Years of Modern Computing,” 1996, Faircount International.

The book's main sponsor, was the organization that funded the development of the first useful computers - the U.S. Army.

In December of 1969, I gave a talk on the future outlook for computers and holography in Houston, Texas, at a conference jointly sponsored by IBM and the Optical Society of America. A static hologram basically can be thought of as a global associative read only memory.[1] That is, the data are not stored at specific addresses as in the digital computer, instead they are stored globally. Much of human memory also appears to have a similar global character. Studies done by Adey with rabbits seemed to indicate that there appeared to be some sort of globalized phase modulation in the rodent's brain waves as they learned mazes. In my talk I made a presumptuous jump and suggested that human memory might have a dynamic holographic structure, that is, a global associative read and write memory. Dennis Gabor took me to task; he rightly stated that almost every major technical advance in information handling or data processing is compared to the human brain. He mentioned that the brain in the past was compared to telephone exchanges, to the ENIAC etc. and he seemed to consider his "baby" just a minor achievement. Since my talk was the last of the conference, we didn't stop talking, we rode to the Houston Airport together all the while animatedly involved in a wide exchange of ideas. I remember that he said that even if true holographic TV could be achieved, that unless there was nearly life-sized reconstruction, it would probably fail. Because, it would be difficult to get involved in a drama composed of tiny toy sized people speaking with "large" voices. Our eyes and brain easily compensate for small two-dimensional TV pictures, but it might be difficult to enjoy a mini-football game or mini-drama on the dining room table with little people scurrying about. As we drove to the airport, Prof. Gabor told me he loved Houston's architecture, I believe this was because he was so interested in the future, as his 1963 book "Inventing the Future" attested. Houston in 1969, just after the lunar landing, certainly gave the impression of a metropolis looking spaceward, or possibly being launched upward. Within about one year and nine months from this last time I saw him, Dennis Gabor was awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of holography. He passed on in 1979.


[1]If a hologram H (a1, a2, a3, ..., an-1, an) results from the interference pattern of the combined fields emanating from n objects ai, i=1 to n, then the illumination of H by the radiation emanating from any one the objects or any subset of objects will result in the reconstruction the original set of wave-fronts plus their complex conjugates {ai}*.

To illustrate: {a3, a5} x H (a1, a2, a3,..., an-1, an)= {a1, a2, a3,..., an-1, an}+{a1, a2, a3,..., an-1, an}*.

My next book! The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, Harper August 2007).

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Article of interest: Why soldiers pray

In an interesting article on why people pray and why there are sometimes atheists in foxholes, author Andrew Carroll observes:
"Some of my colleagues have wondered out loud how there can be a God with all of this suffering," Lt. Col. Scott Barnes wrote in an October 2005 email home from Iraq. It is a question that transcends war and relates to any catastrophe involving loss of life, and theologians and philosophers could not have provided a more impassioned answer: "Where is God?" Col. Barnes went on to write. "He is in the will of the sergeants helping organize a blood drive as only they can, He is in the hearts of the soldiers who immediately rolled up their sleeves to give what they had to save a dying brother whom they don't even know." Like those who came before and after him, Col. Barnes saw the worst of human nature in a war zone. But in the selflessness of his brothers and sisters in arms, he also witnessed the best.

The diminishing plausibility of materialism is more easily understood when we consider that this sort of behaviour, by no means rare, is regarded as the "problem" of altruism.

The article is in support of Carroll's just-published book Grace Under Fire: Letters of Faith in Times of War

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Ignorance is diss?: Why do people who know little of spirituality denounce it?

Columnist Suzanne Fields with the Washington Times raises an interesting point that has long bugged me too, about the recent anti-God campaign waged by ultra-Darwinists:
Now the God-deniers are not even getting good press in the liberal publications, mostly because they're woefully ignorant of what they rage against. ...

Yes, exactly. As a member of the Canadian Science Writers' Association and the Word Guild (a Christian writers' organization), I get to see the conflict between materialism and non-materialism from several different views. What strikes me most forcibly, from reading the militant materialist atheists' work, is that they are commonly fundamentally ignorant of what they seek to debunk and - it gets better - they parade ignorance as some kind of virtue.

For them, perhaps that's just as well. As Fields goes on to note, in recent history, systems dominated by materialist atheists have been more likely to be murderous than others. If that's an accident, it's certainly an accident with consequences.

Fields' article asks why there are so few atheists in politics. Well, one reason might be that only God knows why many of them seek office in the first place, so if they run into trouble, well ... who ya gonna call?
My next book! The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, Harper August 2007).

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Thinkquote of the day: Skeptical of "skepticism"

In its March-April Newsletter, the Center for Naturalism (there is no mind, only matter) offers a variety of resources, including a link to an article by Ralph Dumain that attempts to explore the uses of the terms "naturalism" and "materialism." It appears that, for all practical purposes, the terms are commonly used in the same way.

In my previous book By Design or by Chance?, I used the term "naturalism" and in the present, co-authored book, Spiritual Brain, I called it materialism.

That said, author Ralph Dumain shares my, um, skepticism about the use of the term "skepticism" to cover the waterfront of materialism and naturalism:
I have a fundamental problem with adoption of the term skepticism. As represented in magazines like Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, the term is applied to paranormal and other claims deemed disreputable by these proponents of reputable science. I object to the term because some of the individuals involved themselves and their knowledge claims merit skeptical scrutiny, but more generally because "skepticism" is also a philosophical position which I would not want to adopt or see confused with the specific meaning adopted by the "skeptical" movement, which has ties to secular humanist and atheist circles.

Indeed. One possible difference between materialism and naturalism that occurs to me is this: A materialist must deny the existence and efficacy of the mind and therefore - to grab an example - use every tool available at his disposal to discredit psi/paranormal research. But, if he decides to start calling himself a naturalist, it is unclear why he must continue to do that. We don't know all that is in nature (think of the dark matter problem, for example). If some people can beat the odds on guessing remote information, well then they can.

I myself call these skeptical inquirers "unidirectional skeptics" because their skepticism (of psi research, for example) flows only one way. Their agenda is pretty obvious, and that's not surprising because they have a complex problem on their hands: Whereas a non-materialist like myself can readily conceded that some claims for psi are not validated in the lab, the materialist must insist that no such claim is ever legitimately validated. His entire system depends on no psi claim ever being true. So he is - understandably - in a constant state of agitation about such claims and must seek to discredit every one. The worst part of his being such a busy little bee is that he helps to winnow the better ones.

Plus, in a display of absurd pretension, the unidirectional skeptics also like to call themselves "freethinkers" and to announce to the world that they engage in "free thought." Oh really? Tell that to poor young Sam Harris, the non-materialist atheist. He can tell you how much free thought is allowed in such groups. And it's all the funnier because they represent such a small splinter of atheism.

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Announcement: The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul

"mohammed" kindly writes to ask what's happening with The Spiritual Brain.

Well, after some consultation, a subtitle has been decided on: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul. I don't think the search 'bots have picked it up yet at Amazon, but when they do, that's what they are supposed to pick up. The thesis is controversial enough, I think ....

I am currently addressing fiddly bits of the proofreading, so now there is nothing left on the authors' side but the index. The shipping date is August 15.

Basically, books are inherently fiddly. I learned why that is so when I was a book editor. Let's say the book has half a million characters (no unusual number). Any one of them can be erroneous and any group can be erroneous in a number of ways and at a number of levels. I am not talking about whether people like what the book says, but whether objectively speaking, there is an error in the presentation. Editing is a wonderful job for an obsessive person, because you will always find something wrong - something that you can actually fix. Or, after publication, something that you can obsess about.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

My previous books are By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg 2004) and Faith@Science.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).

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