Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Location: Rochester, United States

Chronically curious モ..

Friday, February 15, 2008

Justifying the faith

[continued from a previous post] Buddhism is certainly pretty. It is non-sectarian (in a deep sense), has tolerance built right into it, doesn't rely on a God, requires rational inquiry, and proponents and practitioners have used the findings of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas to develops techniques to calm and focus the unstable mind and energize the body. However, (my favorite word, ever!) there is one aspect that I must claim that I have not quite grasped. If, as the Buddhists claim (strong disclaimer:: my experience with this whole business is not more than a few months and a couple of books worth) that Buddhism is like Science, then where is the Technology? Why is this important? Well, because of the Strong Programme. Briefly, this is the notion some social theorists came up with, according to which science is just a social construct. And by this they do not mean that there are gender disparities in science or that the funding of scientific projects is often driven by what is the 'current fashion'. Instead, since human knowledge is born out of human cognition that operates inside a human society, all scientific theories are just social constructs. In response (the funniest being the Sokal Affair), what I thought was the clearest answer to such an attack was technology. Because, if theories about light, materials, semiconductors, electrons, drag coefficients, wind resistance and so on are false, there is no way to get something as complex as an aircraft off the ground (so to say ;). So, if Buddhism is to be like science, it should manifest some technology. It should be able to apply a theory of the world to create something material. I heard it said that the most enlightened ones are able to essentially transform matter at will. But this is far too close to an idea of 'miracles' for it to sit easy with me. What are the alternatives? One possibility is that Buddhism is solely a science of the mind; and for the rest it is purely 'theoretical'. This could be because of the heavy emphasis in Buddhism on improving the human condition. One of the things that I read early on (and heard several times over) was that in this tradition, unlike (unfortunately!) in science, ethics and morality necessarily go hand in hand with understanding the world. If this is the case, then understanding the human condition, and thus the human mind, becomes paramount. Looked at in another way, technology might not be expected to advance when it is not felt that having a thin-screen tv trumps the handpainted wall hanging of Tara. So, I was immensely pleased when I recently read an article by the Dalai Lama, "Science at the Crossroads", based on his talk at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2005. I think the article is best left to be read and experienced by the individual :) All I can say is, it justifies a faith in Buddhism as a possible better model for science than the current one. Nothing is left behind; all of the science done in the past is taken along, minus unclear thinking, bandwagonning, and the other negative effects of the human psyche being added into the science equation. I like to think that this has always been the ideal model of science, at least for me. What is added is a more ethical treatment of human understanding. In a previous post I ended with science:1, buddhism:0. I think it is still true for the material world alone. But, in a more holistic sense, it is the combination of the western-style empiricism and the Buddhist style of dealing with the world that promises the most satisfying condition of human understanding.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Memory as a developmental change

What's memory? (Here's the Wikipedia take). Last December, I had the chance to hear and interact with Eva Jablonka, famous for her work on epigenetics*. And from that, and reading about other stuff, it occurred that memory, in a sense, might be pretty much the same thing as a developmental change. Why? Because both are changes in cellular properties in response to the environment, and that code the environment in a meaningful way. For example, the training of immune T cells is encoded in the expression of surface markers (like the CDn family). This is a developmental change, and is involved in (immune) memory. One way to think about this is that developmental programs might occur over different timescales, and with respect to different developmental stages. So, some programs might turn on and be relevant at the blastula stage, and others at the adult stage. At each stage, the 'environment', in the inclusive sense (both biological and non), interacts with the various genes and gene products and all the related chemicals to get to the next stage. Why is this relevant? Well, while talking to Eva J, I wondered if longterm memory in the brain was actually a page out of an older and extremely important 'memory' system- the germline. Why 'memory'? You can think of an organism as reflecting in some way its natural history. The 'memory' of this natural history is simply the product of the NeoDarwinistic selection process: the current organism. One might think of the gamete Mother Cells as being the memory stores, which keep both long-term (genetic) and short-term (epigenetic?) memory marks. So here's the idea: perhaps, the epigenetic mechanisms for storing 'memory', which had been perfected in the germline cells, were recruited for storing memory of a different kind- that between sensory inputs and their optimal outputs (i.e., optimal given the environment & the rest of the geno/phenotype of the organism). Actually recent evidence from a unicellular slime mold suggests something slighty different. Japanese scientists showed that Physarum polyephalum amoebae show learning. The learning consists of altered movement patterns in response to external stimuli- these patterns are retained through a period when the stimulus is absent, and re-deployed when the stimulus comes back on. So, the single cell has both the capacity to deply a motor pattern in response to an external stimulus and to keep the memory trace for that. This suggests that germline cells (for the single-celled amoeba, the one cell is both the germline and the soma ;) and memory cells might just be two separate cellular programs generated from a single cell with both capacities. In either case, this implies that, perhaps, during development, (a) germline and neural tissue share some common origins and/or (b) germline and neural tissue share some interesting patterns of gene/protein network states. In fact, there are a bunch of proteins of the testis-brain protein family that seem to be present in both the germline and neural tissue. These proteins seem to be involved in chromatin remodeling and in RNA localizations. Still, why developmental? Possibly, neural tissue and germline tissue, relies heavily on epigenetic markers for retaining environmental memory from recent times. So, during development, precursors to these are put aside early so that the remaining cells can do all the chromatin remodeling they please. Neural and germline cells are put through only very few division cycles to maintain their status as faithfully as possible. Now, wouldn't it be cool if neural changes were able to be transmitted directly down to the germline in adults? :) *A recent article explores the concept in greater depth