Bottlenose Dolphin Art PosterMany years ago, when I was a young’un, the list of criteria for being sentient was quite short and only humans qualified. Over the years, the criteria for sentience has subtly and quietly changed as more and more animals were found to qualify. For example, some animals were found to use tools, so tool using was dropped from the list.

Star Trek: The New Generation did an episode where Data was to be returned for disassembly by an AI researcher. Picard defended Data in court to prove his sentience and rescind the order. The full text of the scene is available online.

PICARD: What is required for sentience?
MADDOX: Intelligence, self awareness, consciousness.

Picard manages to create enough of a case and create enough doubt that the judge had to find for Data. It seems to me there was a similar episode during the original Star Trek series but I’m not sure. (If anyone knows for sure let me know which episode and basic case.)

From Ask The Van: in response to question on AI sentience:

When it comes to animals, there are a number of things which scientists try to measure – here are a few examples:

(1) The ability to observe and respond to one’s environment. This requires sensory perceptions and the ability to react to those perceptions. This is a pretty basic property of life, although the extent to which various creatures can do it varies widely. Most (all?) AIs already possess this ability.

(2) Intelligence. *”The ability to learn and understand, the ability to cope with a new situation” Many animals, including primates, pigs, and dolphins, have been shown to have very high intelligence. Some AI’s have also been shown to possess a high level of intelligence.

(3) Sentience / Consciousness. To be *”able to feel and think”. This is a tricky one. There is some very strong evidence out there indicating that certain species of animals are capable of both emotion and rational thought, but the argument hasn’t yet reached final resolution.

(4) Self-awareness. In the animal debate (and also the AI debate, I suspect), this is a big deal. Does the animal have awareness of itself? There are a zillion different experiments out there to test this, and they all seem to rely on a different idea of what proves self-awareness. For example, some definitions require that an animal understand how its own movements affect the image in a mirror. Some depend on an animal’s ability to lie. Some even rely on the fact that carnivorous animals don’t try to eat their own flesh. In the end, this is still a very nebulous issue, and the answers aren’t clear.

As you see from the above response, animals have been found to achieve many of these criteria. I’ve never managed to get over my feeling that we, humans, are so full of ourselves and our place at the center of the universe that we’ve ignored the possibility that we may share this world with a number of other intelligent/sentient species. In doing some research for this article, I ran across the following quote from Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) from Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

“Other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things. … The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated … upon the same footing as … animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?… The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes…”
Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832)
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)

The quote was used in an article on Ethics and discussed our anthropocentric view of sentience.

I believe that I’d got way beyond this author’s views. I believe we are still very anthropocentric. In fact, as strict as we tune the criteria for sentience to always keep mankind on the top of the stack as the only sentient species on Earth — we have many people, humans, who don’t feel that other humans, because of skin color, sexual preference, perceived intelligence or whatever, are really sentient or, in fact, human. Whenever humans from whatever government start a war the first thing that is done is the dehumanizing of the enemy. Evidently it is much easier to kill if you don’t believe the enemy is actually “one of us”.

So, the other day when I came across this article on, “Scientists say dolphins should be treated as non-human persons” (January 6, 2010 by Lin Edwards), my first reaction was, “it’s about time.” The article abstract states:

Scientists studying dolphin behavior have suggested they could be the most intelligent creatures on Earth after humans, saying the size of their brains in relation to body size is larger than that of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, and their behaviors suggest complex intelligence. One scientist said they should therefore be treated as “non-human persons” and granted rights as individuals.

More than about time, but since people don’t consider all people as having rights as individuals, I doubt that this will get very far. But it is a step in the right direction. As we move out into space, we need to recognize that if we were to find intelligent, sentient life out there somewhere, it won’t necessarily look like us. If we can’t accept the possibility of intelligent/sentient life other then homo sapiens on this planet, I don’t hold out much hope for a first contact situation going very well if we should find life on other planets. The odds of this happening are increasing as current research shows that the possibility that we’ve found that life once existed on Mars is increasing as more research is done on available samples.

So, while I think it’s time that we re-examine our relationship with the species that we share our planet with, I doubt very much that humanity is willing to accept the possibility of animal sentience, let alone plant intelligence, when so many can’t accept that all humans are sentient.

Never the less, I’m leaving you with the introductory song to the motion picture, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Besides being a great riff on humanities blindness to other intelligences, it’s a wonderful piece. Enjoy.

Feedback on this article is welcome but unless it is more than — great article or nice blog — it won’t be approved in the comments.

Tags: , , , , ,

0 comments   Comments


Classical Music Montage Art Giclee Poster Print by Dynamic GraphicsI’ve noticed that music can lighten my mood if I’m unhappy. Depress me if I’m sad. Give me that extra energy to go just a bit more on some task or other when I’m tired. Music, even when it’s the music of wind in the leaves and birds at the feeder, makes life just more “there”.

For many years, I’ve noticed that when the music fits a movie it adds to the viewing and the story. When the sounds are right and the music is right you don’t even notice it it just stays in the background — but it can make you cry more at the sad parts, shudder at the scary parts, and thrill to the adventure — it adds to the story but in a way you don’t even notice.

Today, this article in ScienceDaily caught my eye, or rather the title did, “Scary Music Is Scarier With Your Eyes Shut“. Prof. Talma Hendler and Dr. Yulia Lerner at Tel Aviv Universities Functional Brain Center studied people listening to scary music with their eyes open and closed and found some interesting results:

15 healthy volunteers listen to spooky Hitchcock-style music, and then neutral sounds with no musical melody. They listened to these twice, once with their eyes open and a second time with their eyes shut, as she monitored their brain activity with an fMRI. While volunteers were listening to the scary music, Dr. Lerner found that brain activity peaked when the subjects’ eyes were closed. This medical finding corresponded to volunteer feedback that the subjects felt more emotionally charged by the scary music.

The amygdala, the region of the brain in which emotions are located, was significantly more active when the subjects’ eyes were closed. “It’s possible that closing one’s eyes during an emotional stimulation, like in our research, may help people through a variety of mental states. It synchs connectivity in the brain,” Dr. Hendler says.

They’re hoping that this research can be used to design future studies that could help people with dementia and systemic brain disorders.

Music brings balance to the brain and more readily integrates the affective and cognitive centers of our mind. Music may help us think better and even improve our learning abilities.

I don’t know about people with actual physical neurological problems but for many years Hollywood has been experimenting on hundreds of thousands of people by using music to play with their emotions. Just as many students use music to help them concentrate on their studies. Workers the world over use music to mask annoying background chatter so that they can work effectively. Many people have used music to regulate their movements so that everyone is in sync when group efforts are required (rowing, lifting heavy objects, etc.). Guess now science has caught up.

Tags: , , ,

0 comments   Comments


Waking Life DVDIt was the blurb for Waking Life that got me interested:

Product Description
From Richard Linklater comes one of the most imaginative animated features ever made. This funny, ingenious film, which Rolling Stone Magazine calls “nothing short of amazing,” explores the fascinating question: “Are we sleep-walking through our waking state or wake- walking through our dreams”? Join Wiley Wiggins as he searches for answers to life’s most important questions in a world that may or may not be reality in the “most visually alive movie of the year.” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times)

It came from Netflix the other day and we just watched it this afternoon. This is one of those films that does take the term “weird” to new heights — but in a good way. Animated, the film has more options and scope for weirdness since so much can be done with animation at lower cost than with special effects and the directors used the media splendidly to highlight the thoughts being expressed by the characters.

A young man is returning home and gets a ride from a man in a boat-car that already has one passenger. From there things just get stranger. As we follow the young man around it seems like he’s working on a research project to gather various people’s viewpoints on consciousness, the meaning of life, religion, perceptions, and good vs evil, heaven vs hell. Then as things continue it seems that maybe he’s day dreaming or dreaming. The conversations and monologues give you the clues you need to determine what’s going on but they are buried in the discussions of various philosophies, psychological theories, and biological theories of consciousness and perception.

It may take a while to figure out what’s happening and even if you do there’s no way to be sure that what you believe is happening is in fact what is happening. I believe that’s the point of the film — to make the audience think. Think not just about what the movie is about but about the ideas that are expressed as our main character moves about the landscape listening to the people he meets.

I’m a child of the 60s and much of the intellectual theories and topics expressed are those that were bandied about during that era in the hallways of colleges, coffee houses, friends apartments, political meetings, and late night gab sessions where-ever. There were no answers then and I don’t believe there are or will ever really be definitive answers to the questions of whether we are the dream or the dreamer of the nature of consciousness and life.

This movie woke those memories of my past, those philosophy classes in college, and the late night talks with friends. So, whether I enjoyed the movie because of my background, or because I hope that these discussions are still occurring among today’s young adults — I do hope that many people are thinking about these issues and examining the life they are leading, not just to measure their success with yardsticks that have multiple scales that include personal growth, love, joy, friendship, connectedness to others, as well as financial success, control of others, and power. We should always live every moment as if it was special and never to be repeated because in fact each moment of our lives is special.

If you’ve seen this movie, I’d love to hear your opinion on it. If you haven’t seen it and enjoy movies that play with your head, check it out and get back to me and leave a comment.

Tags: , , , , , ,

3 comments   Comments


Broken Heart in Red LightRemember people telling you to just get over it when you got picked last for games, when you never got invited to the cool parties, when you were a wall-flower at dances, or when your best-friend canceled because he/she found something better to do at the last minute. Well, those rejections hurt. The problem though was that everyone said it was in your head that it didn’t really hurt — you were just pretending.

Well, according to this article in, that pain was real.

Psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles say the human body has a gene which connects physical pain sensitivity with social pain sensitivity…

Their study indicates that a variation in the mu-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1), often associated with physical pain, is related to how much social pain a person feels in response to social rejection.

I’ve often wondered why people think that psychological pain is somehow less painful than physical pain when the pain receptors are basically the same. Pain is pain no matter where it comes from — whether you fall down a flight of stairs or have your significant other walk out on you because s/he need to find him/herself (as if they got lost and can’t get dressed until they find their body — where ever it went off to) is painful. Some people react to social rejection as if it was physical.

I’d hope that this finding will get educators and other to be a bit more proactive in stopping bullies and intimidation in the schools. But, since not even having children go postal or committing suicide because of the painful torment they suffer every day seems to be helpful, I doubt that research that shows these children and adults (faced with the same bullying and intimidation) do suffer pain will cause anyone to actually change their behavior.

Those who have suffered the pain for social rejection however, should feel a bit of vindication to know that the pain they felt or feel was not imaginary, it was real. And while from social rather than physical stimulus it still takes a toll on a person’s immune system and stamina.

Now if only someone could come up with a cure for a broken heart. Any ideas? Personally, I like to spend time with Ben & Jerry when I’m feeling the pain of social rejection.

Tags: , , , ,

0 comments   Comments


Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the bodyHave you ever sat down to read a new novel and found hours later that it’s after midnight and you need to work tomorrow but what the heck, you need to finish this story? Well, that’s getting lost in a good book. Some people get so wrapped up in the story and the world between the covers of the book that the world in which they live just disappears for a while.

I remember when I was around 11 or so, my mother had to go out and left the pot roast cooking, and I was to check it every now and then and, if I could see the roast, add a bit of water. I’d done that before lots of time with her there and she was only going next door. But I was reading a book about a jungle and the main character was hiding from the bad guys in the fog in the jungle. Mom came home to a house full of smoke and a burnt pot roast. I realized that there was smoke or fog, but it was part of the story, so I just thought it was really real, I could even smell the burning campfire. Mom never let me forget that and I could never make her understand that I didn’t know the pot roast was burning because I was in the jungle a gazillion miles away.

Well, evidently, some scientists wondered if people who read text actually had physical reactions as they read as if they were doing what they were reading about. An article in New Science written by Andrea Thompson called “Why We Get Lost in a Book” explains the research study and some of their results. Evidently, if you read about throwing a ball or moving to a new area, the parts of the brain that would be activated if you were doing it for real also get activated, but to a lesser degree, if you’re reading about it.

Of course the study group was fairly small (28 people) and the reading material as described was bland and boring. I’m surprised they got any results at all, especially since there were 20 women and 8 men and the reading material was from a book called One Boy’s Day. Just the title makes me think of the fascinating activity of watching paint dry — wonder why?

But, at least it’s a beginning. They also found that some people have stronger reactions to reading than others — no surprise there. I might suggest that those with stronger MRI reactions found the material more interesting than those who didn’t, but that’s just me.

Reading is an activity that we all hope people will participate in. In this day and age, everyone needs a basic reading skill level in order to function. For some that’s enough but others spend their free time reading. There are non-readers, people who read for work and necessity and those that also read for pleasure. I often think that reading for pleasure is a nerd activity in a lot of ways, or at least I was always told it was because I preferred a book to sports or watching TV or just hanging out.

Now that we have the first “proof” that reading effect the various centers of the brain as if the activity we’re reading about was happening — what makes some people react more than others. Why do some people go on and become readers and some become extreme-readers and some just give it up and become non-readers (meaning they can read but don’t).

And will definitions of reading change as more and more of our material goes online. I know many people (including teens/students) who read constantly online but seldom crack a book — instead reading books online or on their cell phones or Kindles. For some reason, some researchers don’t consider that reading because it’s not on paper.

To me, reading is reading no matter whether the words are on paper, cereal box, sides of buses and building, street signs, ipods, Kindles, laptop or desktops. However, it’s nice to know that some of us really do get lost in good books — but we usually find our way out with new ideas, new experiences, and new knowledge.

Tags: , , ,

0 comments   Comments


Cafe Chocolats Art PosterScience Daily for April 7th had an article on how Caffeine Reduces Pain During Exercise. Professor of kenesiology and community health, Robert Motl has been studying the effects of caffeine on pain during exercise. He began by noticing that he always had a cup of coffee before going out to train and felt it helped him workout longer and perform better when he was a competitive cyclist.

Early in his research, Motl noticed:

“caffeine works on the adenosine neuromodulatory system in the brain and spinal cord, and this system is heavily involved in nociception and pain processing.” Since Motl knew caffeine blocks adenosine from working, he speculated that it could reduce pain.

Even more interesting to me is that the results were pretty much the same whether the test subject was a caffeine junkie or someone who barely ate or drank anything with caffeine in it. (Remember caffeine is in more than just coffee, it’s also in chocolate, soft drinks, and many other foods and beverages.) This particular study was only interested in pain and exercise and did coffee make a difference. For other activities or pain related problems caffeine might not work.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll notice that the research about coffee/caffeine and its impact on people’s heath is very much dependent on what research you’re reading. It’s good for you. It’s bad for you. It’s okay in moderation. You should never touch the stuff. It might help reduce the pain during exercise.

What to believe?  I don’t know. I’ve never really paid attention to whether or not having coffee before I do my exercise routine helps me do more exercises or push on harder on the ones I do. I guess now I’ll have to keep that in the back of my mind.

Personally, as I’ve said before, I have a liking for a good cup of coffee but I reduce my intake for health reasons and so that when I have a migraine, drinking coffee will have more of an effect on alleviating the pain. Could it be that this pain blocking effect also works a bit with migraines or is it only the blood vessel dilation/contraction effects that are at work?  I don’t know but I will keep my eye out for more research on the effects of coffee/caffeine on health.

And I’ll also ponder whether the quality of that cup of coffee has any effect on the results of the research. After all if it’s a truly gross cup of coffee I might prefer the pain of the exercise. Would you?

Tags: , , , ,

0 comments   Comments


Coffee posterI was surprised to see an article on caffeine withdrawal the other day, “Beware the perils of caffeine withdrawal” on CNN.Health. I mean, I thought everyone already knew that coffee, or rather caffeine was addicting. But then I remembered that in this Just Say No society many people won’t admit they have a problem with drugs.

Yes, caffeine is a drug. And, yes, many people are addicted, including children. Caffeine is in many of the products that you ingest each day: coffee, tea, chocolate, some sodas/soft drinks, and many other food items. When you cut out all caffeine it can cause your body to react and fight to get its next fix. Not as bad a withdrawal from some of the hardcore drugs or cigarettes but painful nonetheless.

Personally, I love coffee. Those of you who read my blog know that I have often sung the praises of coffee; one of my favorite beverages. But, alas, I keep the intake down to one large mug a day and when I can (usually in summer when I prefer iced tea (decaf)) to one every other day.

We all have reason why we cut down on caffeine. Some people can’t have it because of health reasons. Me, I cut down because I have migraines. I find that if I keep my daily caffeine intact at a low level then when I have a real big whopper of a migraine upping the caffeine along with a smaller dose of pain meds, I can survive it without resorting to sitting in the dark closet with a pillow wrapped round my head, crying myself to sleep.

I picked up the caffeine trick when pain meds for migraines became difficult to get because, as I’ve been told so often by my health insurance, “It’s only a headache — take aspirin.” (I’m hoping all health insurance workers develop killer migraines and have to resort to aspirin for the pain.) Most of the heavy duty pills for migraines have caffeine in them so I thought why not experiment and see if I can find a balance that will work for me (other migraine sufferers will probably have their own strategies — but if I hear “go to your happy place” one more time, I may do damage…).

Anyway, I thought that just in case you found yourself shaky and unable to concentrate, maybe achy and tired — you might want to think about what you’ve cut out of your diet lately. It could be you’ve cut down on caffeine too quickly and need to rethink just how quickly you cut it out of your life. Slowly reducing intake is the best way to avoid the withdrawal symptoms. Check your food labels because you may have cut out caffeine you didn’t know you were getting.

Me. I’ll stick to my one cup a day or less until I really, really need this drug of choice. What about you?

Tags: , , ,

1 comment   Comments


The Little Sleep by Paul TremblayA
Mark Genevich is a private investigator in South Boston. He’s just gotten another case, or he thinks he has a case…he’s not sure actually. You see, Genevich is a narcoleptic as a result of the car accident that killed his best friend and rearranged his face. As far as he can remember, Jennifer Times walked into his office — refused to take no for an answer — and hired him to find her fingers. The problem is that while she was there Genevich had actually fallen into a hypnogogic state and when he awoke he was alone, there was no check, but there were some cryptic notes on his pad and a manila envelope with two black and white photos of a young girl that looked a lot like Jennifer.

Genevich tends not to take jobs that require him to leave his office. He never knows when he’ll drop into sleep or worse, cataplexy, when he’s awake and aware but can’t move. The little sleeps or hypnogogic states are similar to what happens to most of us with a high fever and tiredness. We fall asleep on the couch with the DVD player or TV on and whatever is playing gets incorporated into our dreams along with whatever our brain’s unconscious serves up. Awoken we don’t know at first what was dream and what reality. For Mark Genevich most of his life is like that. Part of any investigation he does involves figuring out what exactly is the job and what he’s supposed to do, which is why he prefers email, written instructions, and internet searches.

His first step is to figure out what the real job is since he couldn’t have possibly been hired to search for her fingers. It must have something to do with the pictures. However, contacting Jennifer reveals that she doesn’t know who he is or what he’s talking about. So, now it’s necessary to step back and figure out who hired him and why?

The entire story is told from Mark Genevich’s point of view, which means most of the information is disjointed and we, as readers, don’t know anymore than he does. Some authors hide information in mysteries by keeping us out of the detectives head but Tremblay lets us into Genevich’s head because it doesn’t matter what he knows because we don’t know if what he knows is real or dream or a combination of the two.

A gritty, noir mystery with a very different private investigator, Tremblay manages to tell a story that keeps the reader engaged from the first page. It’s not just can you figure it out before the sleuth, but will he figure it out because you both have the same confusing information and little to guide you.

I haven’t read anything this different in a while and it was not only interesting as a mystery, but contained a lot of information about a neurological problem that doesn’t get dealt with much in any fiction. Tremblay does a great job bringing Mark Genevich to life. He may not be someone you like very much, but you will respect his determination.

Since the entire novel is told form Mark Genevich’s point of view, the reader is left as much in the dark as Mark, we can’t know more than he does about anything. The reader and Genevich must decide what memories are are of real events and which are a result of hypnogogic hallucinations. Kept off balance throughout, Genevich is fighting a battle to control his neurological symptoms, retain his memories as well as shift through them to figure out which are real and which are a result of his little sleeps, and solve a crime.

Gritty, noir at its best, The Little Sleep manages to allow the reader to be an active participant in the case as there’s little chance the reader will spot clues before the PI since the reader also has to figure out what to believe. Imaginative and entertaining, it’s a story you just can’t put down.

Tags: , , , , ,

1 comment   Comments