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Savant Syndrome and Psi

There's been quite a bit of interest in the nine-year-old girl Nandana, who is said to have a telepathic connection with her mother. The child is severely autistic, but the mother started to notice that she seemed to know exactly what she was going to be given to eat, or the details of a trip the family was about to make, before being told about them.

In a test, a poem was given to the mother to read to herself and Nandana was then able to type it in a laptop without any prompt. She also identified a six digit number, a nine-digit number, and simple words and phrases. It's said she didn't look at her mother while typing. However I didn't see any measures being taken to control for cueing by either of the parents, so the testing probably won't carry much weight.

Even so, the affair has aroused the usual sort of anxieties among sceptics, who to reassure themselves want the parents apply for James Randi's million dollars. The couple seem to be sensible, so I'm sure they won't. The idea of them co-operating with Randi's people only - inevitably - to be told that their daughter failed, then finding themselves being denounced across the Internet as heartless publicity-seekers, is upsetting to even think about. Events like this remind us that this is psi's natural habitat, in the home, in relationships and domestic situations, and often where there is some stress or maladjustment, which doesn't therefore lend itself very well to verification.

In a sane world we should be able to treat these things as part of life, without accusations of fraud or the exploitation of children. Which, oddly enough, is exactly what we do with Savant Syndrome, to which Nandana's ability clearly belongs, even though in many respects that's as challenging to science as psi itself.

Khaleej Times, in which the feature article about Nandana first appeared, later interviewed Darold Treffert , an expert in Savant Syndrome. Treffert was consulted in the making of the film Rain Man, which he credits with doing more than anything to educate the public about the phenomenon. He thinks that around 10% of autistic children exhibit savant abilities, usually in one of five categories (in order of frequency): calendar calculating (such as naming which of the next thirty years February 9 will fall on a Friday); music, art, mathematics and mechanical/spatial abilities (such as model making and assembling complex machinery). By contrast, reports of ESP are rare: in one sample of 561 savant children, it was reported by the parents of just four.

We marvel at savants, and yet we don't on the whole question their abilities. Obviously they can demonstrate their skills easily enough, but it's not the whole story. We accept it readily because it reinforces what we already think about brain/mind, that it has almost limitless powers. Savant Syndrome is just part of the much larger mystery that neuroscience has started to unravel.

To me that seems a bit complacent. Treffert cites severely cognitively disabled youngsters who know every detail of city transport systems, can assemble jigsaw puzzles without any picture to guide them, and recite Gibbon's Decline and Fall forwards and backwards. There's one who played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concert No 1 having heard it only once, and another whose understanding of numbers enables him to fiddle at casinos: police raids on his house and bank account have seized $700,000, but prosecutions fail because the courts recognise he is severely mentally retarded and doesn't understand that what he has done is wrong. All this makes Nandana's ability to identify simple phrases in her mum's mind look almost pedestrian.

It's easy to think of savant abilities as something that some autistic children are gifted with, as if to recompense them for the inconvenience of being severely retarded. The bits of their brain that deal with the day-to-day stuff are seriously defective, but that somehow frees up other bits, the source of creative genius and memory, which in other people lie dormant. But there are reasons to doubt this. In his recent book Islands of Genius Treffert gives examples of perfectly normal people who acquired savant abilities as a result of a brain injury or disease.

A 54 year old construction worker recovers from a stroke and, having previously shown not the slightest interest in such things, becomes an accomplished poet, artist and sculptor.

Twelve elderly persons with dementia demonstrate an ability for art and music, sometimes prodigiously so, as the disease progresses. No such talent was observed before they became ill.

A 54-year old surgeon recovers from being struck by lightning. He becomes obsessively interested in classical music, in particular with a tune that keeps repeating in his head. He eventually transcribes it as a sonata and becomes a professional musician, while retaining his surgical skills.

A 40-year old motivational speaker recovers from a major concussion to discover that he can play guitar and piano. He now makes his living as a composer of movie sound-tracks.

The literature of the near-death experience contains similar examples, such as Tom Sawyer, the young blue-collar worker who after recovering from a road accident became obsessively interested in quantum mechanics.

This is all quite provocative. The unchallenged materialist assumption has been that savantism will one day be accommodated by physicalist theory, such as the computational and modular 'bottom-up' processes popular with AI and Darwinist proponents. It will be revealed as some kind of malfunction of the mechanisms that underlie normal memory, motor skills, emotions and everything else. I doubt that. My reading is far from comprehensive, but I'm not aware of any serious attempt to include this kind of phenomena in such models, and it's hard to see how that could be done.

This phenomenon of 'acquired' savantism forces us to think about the matter in a different way. We can't just attribute it to autism, that highly mysterious entity which we may assume has some curious property all of its own. This is about the effects of damage to brain tissue, pure and simple. It's as if I was to take a hammer to my six-year-old laptop, and instead of instantly expiring it suddenly blossomed into the latest supercomputer performing a thousand times faster.

The overwhelming implication in this surely is to reinforce the filter or valve theory of consciousness, that the function of the brain is to focus attention in this reality, and when that function is compromised, another reality breaks through. It's the same effect that may be had by ingesting hallucinogens, by fasting, mediation and various religious practices, and of course the near-death experience. As Edward Kelly writes in Irreducible Mind:

What psychedelics have in common with all other means of producing mystical states may consist not in the engagement of any highly specific final common neurophysiological pathways, mechanisms, or modules, but rather in some sort of more global disruption or "loosening" of the normal mind-brain connection, which in turn enables fuller expression of an objectively real transpersonal component of human personality.

Treffert himself is especially intrigued by the 'acquired' version of savant skills, and speculates that such abilities may be available to all of us, if we could only learn how to tap them. I'm not convinced about that. It's one thing for a poet or musician or artist to feel occasionally that they are in touch with some greater reality, but it might diminish the act of creation if they felt all the time that they were just taking dictation.

But Treffert is spot on when he says:

No model of brain function, including memory, will be complete until it can fully incorporate and explain this jarring contradiction of extraordinary ability and sometimes permeating disability in the same person. Until we can fully explain the savant, we cannot fully explain ourselves.

Science as Propaganda

In the comments to a recent post a sceptic tried, in the usual way, to convince us to abandon our delusions. He cited various references, including a fMRI study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2008, which claims to have demonstrated that psi does not exist.

Again, as is often the case, the study says more about the urgent disbelief of debunking psychologists than it says about psi. It's shortcomings were widely noted at the time, but since sceptics take it so completely at face value I thought I'd give it another look.

The experiment was carried out by Samuel Moulton, a Harvard psychology graduate, and his mentor Stephen Kosslyn, who is well-regarded for his brain studies on mental imagery and visual perception. The authors consider that the evidence for psi so far is highly dubious. Anecdotal experiences can be attributed to cognitive illusions, while the outcome of ESP experiments is ambiguous. By contrast, they think that brain scanning technology is sufficiently reliable to settle the matter. If psi exists then, ergo, it ought to show up in fMRI scans.

Accordingly they recruited 19 bonded pairs of people - twins, couples, friends - which they whittled down to 16, one acting as sender and the other placed in the scanner as receiver. The receiver was shown two pictures, one being 'sent' by the sender and the other a control, and asked to guess which by pressing a button. The results came out at 50%, as expected if chance alone was operating, nor did anything unusual show up on the scans.

They conclude:

Analyses of group data revealed no evidence whatsoever of psi. Psi and non-psi stimuli evoked widespread but indistinguishable neuronal responses . . . The results support the null hypothesis that psi does not exist.

The study shows an impressive attention to detail, and in its technical aspects looks extremely solid, eg:

Functional series were analyzed using FMRIB's Improved Linear Model (FILM; Woolrich, Ripley, Brady, & Smith, 2001), which removes nonparametrically estimated temporal autocorrelation in each voxel's time series before applying the general linear model (GLM). For each series we modeled neural responses to the psi stimulus, non-psi stimulus, and feedback stimulus, as well as their temporal derivatives by convolving the basic waveforms (based on onset time and duration) of these variables with a double-gamma canonical hemodynamic response function (Glover, 1999). The same temporal filtering that was applied to the data was also applied to the model. For every functional volume, the following linear contrasts were employed to create statistical parametric maps (SPMs): non-psi > psi, and psi > non-psi.

So these guys know their stuff. Or do they?

Moulton and Kosslyn talk as if they're pioneering a new method which will settle the psi controversy once and for all. But they make no mention at all of any of the successful previous psi research using scanners, which even by this time was quite significant. Critics gave them such a hard time about this, they eventually went to Dean Radin to ask him what they'd missed (see a description here) - something they might have usefully done at the outset.

Then there's their method of producing ESP, which I did not at all recognise. If it wasn't tried and tested, it's not surprising that it was unsuccessful here. The more so, considering that the receiver is in a noisy machine and being asked to perform tasks in quick succession - hardly conducive to the relaxed state of semi-disassociation that is known to be ideal for generating psi.

And interestingly, despite their insistence that their methodology beats 'behavioural' research, it still centred on a cognitive process, of conscious knowing. At least one of the earlier fMRI studies bypassed this by looking to see if a light flash stimulus on the sender provoked the same response in the receiver's brain as in the sender's - it did.

In the earlier studies, moreover, efforts had been made to find participants that really could have produced psi. These authors knew enough to understand that bonded pairs are more likely to produce psi interactions than those that are not. But they seemed to think that alone would guarantee it. Earlier successful fMRI experiments selected people who had demonstrated psi abilities, for instance having worked as healers or taken part in a successful previous study.

There are other possible explanations for the negative results. Perhaps the ESP activity was there, but masked by the activity relating to visual perception. Or the signal might have simply been too weak to pick out from the noise. It's not clear why the experimenters were impressed by the absence of activity in the brain relating to psi if there was no psi in the first place - unless they saw the sender's intention as a material entity that was bound to register visibly among the receiver's neurons.

What really catches the eye is that one of the receivers actually did show potential evidence of psi - in the form of a relative absence of brain activity that correlated positively with the psi stimulus. The authors concede this would count as a positive result, but devote the best part of two pages trying to explain it away as an 'uninteresting artefact'. Having discussed and rejected two hypotheses, they eventually decide that the anomaly reflects the participant's 'idiosyncratic reactions to perceptual, conceptual, or affective differences between the psi and non-psi stimuli'.

Their reasoning is highly technical and difficult to appraise. But it begs a number of questions. If a single positive result can be neutralised in this way, could not similar arguments be applied in the event that other participants showed positive effects? Is there any guarantee that any of the three people whose data was rejected did not also show positive results? And what is the point of looking for evidence in the first place if it can be so easily dismissed? Surely this weakens the authors' insistence on the power of fMRI scanning to settle matters once and for all.

This is one of the more curious features of debunking studies. The sceptics embark on a process in the expectation of getting null results, are embarrassed to get positive results after all, but save the day with post hoc reasoning such as, 'yes but it wouldn't have happened if we'd done the randomisation differently'. (Radin references a wonderful study published in the The Humanistic Psychologist in 2006 by two psychologists, who carried out eight ganzfeld experiments and were shocked to get the usual 32% significance rate. To deal with this they redesigned the experiment to their own specification, and got a null result, which they then used to explain away all the rest.)

Someone who is not an out-and-out sceptic might spot the authors' hostility towards the idea of psi and wonder what effect this might have on their reasoning. To those of us who know about psi research, it stands out a mile. Their preamble makes it abundantly clear. They go to the trouble of quoting in full a rather good example of a crisis ESP episode - a woman waking one night experiencing powerful symptoms of choking and blood falling down her head, and learning two days later that her son was shot in the head at this time - but wave such testimony away on the grounds that it's probably all caused by confirmation bias, clustering illusions, etc. Even if ESP was proved, they say, it would just be an unexplained anomaly. They admit that claiming a single null result to be proof of non-existence is problematic, but consider that their results are so clear-cut it's fair to make an exception.

As an exploratory experiment it has value, and arguably forms an interesting addition to the parapsychological database. But their ambition is manifestly not to add to the database but to discredit it, backed by the big guns of contemporary neuroscience. The real story here is one of individuals setting out to rid themselves of their uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. Hence the triumphant press release that one can guess generated headlines around the world: 'ESP does not exist, Harvard scientists prove.'

The result is a curious illusion - an apparently careful, well-designed and thoroughly scientific study which is in fact only superficially so, and whose real effect is to reinforce materialist prejudices. Science as propaganda, one might say.


A Crowdfunding Appeal

Crowdfunding is a big deal these days, to judge from the number of start-ups using it to fund innovative new devices. It seems to work and I've been wondering if and when psi research would start using it.

Now someone has. The Windbridge Institute is appealing for help to fund an investigation of the healing effects on the bereaved of readings by mediums.

Director Julie Beischel comments:

For those of you who have already experienced the healing effects of a mediumship reading, putting effort into studying this may seem like a waste of time. I assure you that it is not. In our culture, science serves as an authority and only by using the tools of science can we truly affect change and potentially make this a treatment option available to everyone suffering from a loss.

Any scientific research on mediums is worth doing, so I hope this bears fruit. Michael Prescott has published Julie's email in full, and you can sign up here.


Ray Kurzweil's "How To Create a Mind"

Kurzweil2 I'm a bit of a fan of Ray Kurzweil, and had been planning to get his new book How to Create a Mind. I've since discovered a full synopsis on a website, which saves me some time and money. (For non-fiction authors the existence of such a site should be a worry - but that's another story.)

Kurzweil is that interesting type of thinker who drives scientific materialism to seemingly absurd limits. His idea is that having completely understood how humans are put together we can remake ourselves and overcome the imperfections that biological evolution saddled us with.

Kurzweil's transhumanist thinking sound kooky, even to many of his peers. But he's a credible figure, having made major contributions to artificial intelligence, notably in the field of voice recognition. I think Kurzweil's vision of the technological singularity, that machines will outstrip human intelligence by mid-century, is rather cool. I completely disbelieve it, for what I consider are sound empirical as well as practical reasons, so I'm not threatened by it, or feel the need to heckle (he gets plenty of flak as it is from other AI thinkers like Daniel Dennett). But I love it that science can let the imagination rip - it would be dull if we weren't allowed to dream.

I was curious to know, though, how does one create a mind? It's about understanding how it works. Kurzweil follows the well-trodden computational route, where lots of lower-level processes based on responses to the environment combine to produce higher level abstract thinking. He identifies the basic process as that of pattern recognition and thinks the underlying architecture is relatively simple, the kind of thing that could be readily replicated by a sufficiently powerful computer - by 2029, at the present exponential rate of progress.

He concedes that a supercomputer like IBM's Watson, currently the most advanced of its kind, could not yet pass the Turing Test, fooling a human interlocutor into thinking it is human. But that's only because it was not designed to engage in conversation but to succeed at specific tasks, like winning at chess and Jeopardy. The most advanced AI machines are already using these same principles and processes. Indeed, AI was using them even before it was discovered that the human neocortex is doing the same thing, and now the traffic has been reversed, with neuroscience feedings its discoveries back to AI.

Where reasoning is concerned, Kurzweil sees quality as an outcome of quantity. Nature endowed us with a mere 300 million pattern processors, but once we start making synthetic brains why not give them a billion, or even a trillion? This, he claims, will not only increase the kind of intelligence we already see in humans, but also generate higher orders of abstract thought and complexity. The synthetic brains could have an in-built critical thinking module that stops them holding a bunch of inconsistent ideas, as humans do. While humans are limited by evolution in terms of what we can achieve, these super intelligent, super rational machines could pursue goals like curing disease and alleviating poverty with a realistic prospect of success.

Meanwhile humans can beef up their own brainpower by adding new modules as brain implants. Lest we worry this would change our identity, Kurzweil thinks that identity is an effect of our entire system, and would not be compromised by changing individual parts.

The next step in the journey will be to spread this new intelligence throughout the universe.

If we can transcend the speed of light - admittedly a big if - for example, by using wormholes through space (which are consistent with our current understanding of physics), it could be achieved within a few centuries. Otherwise, it will take much longer. In either scenario, waking up the universe, and then intelligently deciding its fate by infusing it with our human intelligence in its non-biological form, is our destiny.

OK, then!

The book has stirred the pot, and it's interesting to see what sceptical perspectives have emerged. One is to point out just how incredibly distant we really are from the goal that Kurzweil thinks is just around the corner. Take the humble earthworm, C. elegans. Where the brain has 100 billion neurons connected by 100 trillion synapses, the worm has only 302 neurons connected by roughly 5,000-7,000 synapses, and a lot is known about it. Scientists can tie its reflexes and behaviours to individual neural pathways or brain circuits. But . . .

Can we use this to model or predict the actions of the worm? No. We're not even close. In fact, it takes a computer with a billion transistors to make a weak, incorrect guess at what a worm with 302 brain cells will do.

If we can't simulate 302 neurons and 5,000 synapses, how can we hope to conquer 100,000,000,000 and 100,000,000,000,000? Let's not even get started on the 100,000,000,000,000,000 electrical signals per second that form the traffic on that neural road network.

Then again, are mental phenomena really the outcome of mere pattern recognition processes? Colin McGinn, a long-time critic of mainstream thinking about mind, points out that this is in fact a very partial view of what the brain does. There's no perceptual recognition going on at all in thinking about an absent object - 'for instance in thinking about London when I am in Miami, or in dreaming, or in remembering that I have to feed the cat'. Kurzweil talks as if everything in the mind involved perception. But there are also other mental phenomena, such as

emotion, imagination, reasoning, willing, intending, calculating, silently talking to oneself, feeling pain and pleasure, itches, and moods - the full panoply of the mind. In what useful sense do all these count as "pattern recognition"? Certainly they are nothing like the perceptual cases on which Kurzweil focuses. He makes no attempt to explain how these very various mental phenomena fit his supposedly general theory of mind - and they clearly do not. So he has not shown us how to "create a mind," or come anywhere near to doing so.

McGinn also makes the point - widely noted by other critics of dominant trends in neuroscience such as Raymond Tallis - that these sorts of accounts are saturated in anthropomorphic language. Kurzweil's pattern-recognisers 'receive and send messages', they 'manipulate information'. Listening to this, it's easy to forget these are lumps of tissue: in fact they have no awareness of doing any such thing. A retort is that such representational talk is merely intended to be metaphorical. But that's not altogether true. Its effect is to create in the reader's mind a sense of a coherent process, a masking pseudo-explanation that leaves the fundamental mystery entirely untouched.

Kurzweil does include a chapter on such key matters as free will and identity, which he concedes his model can't really explain. Like many people he asserts that they somehow 'emerge' from lower level activity, just as conscious awareness does. This is problematic enough, but there's also an absence - as far as I can tell, having only read a synopsis - of any serious consideration of emotional or moral intelligence. It's not widely observed that the cleverest people are also the most emotionally mature - that is to say the wisest, the best at cooperating with groups, and most fully committed to finding the most widely acceptable outcome to any given social or political problem.

In principle I suppose one could program the machines with some utilitarian-type algorithm. However to design such a thing, humans would first have to agree on an ideal, which would be like competing groups getting together to write a national constitution - always an extremely fraught process. Kurzweil seems to think such matters can safely be left to the machines themselves, since they will be vastly more intelligent than us. This implies that there exists out there some single outcome that is so obviously rational they can all agree on it. But that is emphatically not the human experience, and what happens if the machines too start to compete with each other? This is the stuff of Hollywood dystopian nightmares, a world given over to indestructible beings with unimaginable strength and inhuman cunning.

One might say it's pure fantasy, not least because no machine could ever pass the Turing Test, as long as that test includes a demonstration of ESP - as Turing himself intended. It is course argued that ESP doesn't exist and that Turing naively let himself be seduced into accepting spurious claims. Or that even if ESP does exist, it plays such a marginal role that by meeting all the other requirements a computer could achieve human status. But if we take ESP to be a property of minds, then clearly minds are something more than the effect of brain processes.

It follows, therefore, that if some Frankenstein character were to try to use How to Create a Mind as a manual, he wouldn't get very far. Without understanding the true basis of mind we will only ever be able to mimic it. But that's not necessarily the end of the story.

Science can't create minds from dead matter, but perhaps it can create the conditions for minds spontaneously to come into being. This would mean taking seriously the idea of panpsychism, that consciousness is inherent in matter, and will emerge in systems of sufficient complexity. In this way, something of Kurzweil's vision could come about by quite different means. Or imagine that these thinking robots he anticipates, although not properly human, are sufficiently sophisticated that they can be possessed by the dead as a means to revisit the world in mechanical bodies.

That's why I like this transhumanism stuff. We don't have to take it literally, but it can take us to some interesting places.