April 19, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Your Brain Comes Equipped with Techno-Apps

If you bought these capabilities in an app store, you would think they are way cool. Surprise: they’re already bundled in your brain’s operating system.

The Magic Rocks App

This app comes with hardware: real • hard • ware. In your inner ears, you have little stones called otoconia. They are surrounded by proteins and nerves that monitor the rocks’ positions. When you stoop over, the nerves pick up the movement. That’s how you know your body’s position in space. A new paper in PLoS One, “Structural features of otoconia and their response to linear acceleration,” explain how the otoconia, which detect linear movements, complement the semicircular canals, which detect angular movements. The little rocks reside in pouches called the utricle and saccule near the cochlea. Knowing that background, look how complex this system is:

Amazing FactsUtricle and saccule each contain thousands of otoconia embedded in an acellular organic matrix (otoconial complex). This complex provides inertial forces to stimulate the underlying vestibular hair cells for the detection of translational head stimuli caused by linear accelerations and head tilts in relation to the gravity vector. Mammalian otoconia with characteristic shape (Fig 1) are arranged to form various layers. Their mean size is about 10 μm [millionths of a meter], although there is a specific size distribution of otoconia over the otolithic membrane, which, however, is not in the focus of the present investigation. Mammalian otoconia are calcite-based nanocomposites containing a small amount (<5 wt. %) of protein molecules. These proteins, such as otoconin 90 and otolin are not only integrated into the composite structure of otoconia but also grow out of otoconial volume to form fibrils, which interconnect otoconia within a flexible network.

This ‘app’ is always running, keeping you from losing your balance when driving a car, galloping on a horse, riding a skateboard, or just standing upright.

The Maps App

Sometimes you need a wide-area map. Sometimes you need a detailed map. Your brain has both, and they switch automatically. Medical Xpress announces, “Human cognitive map scales according to surroundings.” Using experiments with virtual reality headsets, researchers refined “our understanding of a human skill—the ability to instantaneously assess a new environment and get oriented thanks to visual cues.” Like smartphone apps that access the phone’s camera, this brain app accesses the eyes to adjust itself. Researchers at the University of Texas-Austin found that the human system is an upgrade with additional features from the rat’s version:

  • Humans rescale their internal coordinate system according to the size of each new environment. This flexibility differs from rodents’ rigid map that has a constant grid scale and empowers humans to navigate diverse places.
  • When seeking navigational cues in any given location, humans automatically align their internal compass with the corners and shape of the space. In contrast, rodents do so relative to the walls of the environment through physical exploration.
  • The nature of the coordinate system differs between humans and rodents—Cartesian and hexagonal respectively.

The researchers seemed surprised and delighted to find out more about “what it means to be human,” the article indicates. “The data implies that humans can seamlessly switch between reality and virtual reality—a finding that can be applied in other studies of the brain.”

The GPS App

Our ability to orient and navigate may not be as specific as that of salmon or sea turtles (see Illustra’s film Living Waters for those stories), but it’s remarkable nonetheless and can be improved with training. A press release from King’s College London actually calls our bundled app “the brain’s GPS.” A certain type of “cortical interneurons” called “basket cells” had been previously implicated in this innate navigation app. Developmental defects can lead to serious diseases. Researchers at the college identified a specific protein that affects the functioning of the system. “Our work emphasises the high level of functional specialisation that exist among different classes of neurons in the cerebral cortex,” they say.

A separate article from Medical Xpress also dubs this app “the brain’s GPS.” This time, a Stanford team is amazed, concluding the “Brain’s navigation [is] more complex than previously thought.” Our innate navigational equipment, equipped with “grid cells” (specialized cells that help keep us informed where we are) calls to mind the challenge of designing self-driving cars:

Just like a driver in a car, the brain needs some basic navigational instruments to get around, and it is not an idle analogy. In fact, scientists have found brain cells that are similar to speedometers, compasses, GPS and even collision warning systems.

That simple analogy, however, may belie the more complex way our brains actually map out the world, Stanford researchers report April 6 in Neuron. While some of the neurons in our internal navigation systems look a lot like speedometers or compasses, many others operate flexibly, each one encoding a dynamic mix of navigational variables, like a compass that somehow transforms into a GPS when driving downtown.

The Handy App

Three neurobiologists, writing in PNAS, explore the amazing way our brains control our hands. We each have a “command apparatus” in the cerebral cortex that interfaces with our hand hardware. Neurons in a specific region of the brain have two-way connections with neurons in the hand that control the muscles, allowing us to reliably evoke hand movements. “These observations suggest that a region within lateral area 5 contains a unique command apparatus that could assist in generating dexterous finger movements required during haptic behavior,” they say. What’s not so handy is their hand-off to Darwin:

The primate hand has evolved into a specialized sensorimotor device that can grasp, explore, and manipulate objects with extraordinary skill.

The Memory Management App

Beautiful. Surprising. Convincing. That’s how scientists feel after looking into how the brain stores memory, according to the BBC News. James Gallagher’s headline makes a design judgment: “Rules of memory ‘beautifully’ rewritten.” What is so pleasantly surprising? Contrary to what neuroscientists have assumed for decades (that short-term memory was slowly converted into long-term memory), there’s a beautiful redundancy going on. “The US and Japanese team found that the brain “doubles up” by simultaneously making two memories of events,” Gallagher explains; “One is for the here-and-now and the other for a lifetime, they found.” This is a “big shift” and a “significant advancement” in the science of memory, he says. Nothing is said in the article about why evolution would produce such a beautiful system. Remember that.

Speaking of memory, we seem to have a search engine that can quickly scan countless terabytes of stored information we have accumulated in life. Recently I was trying to remember a specific term, but it escaped me. Moments later, as I was thinking about something else, the word came to my attention like a pop-up on the computer screen. Subconsciously, my brain must have been searching for it during those moments. That happens to me often, and probably to you, too. That ability can’t be an accident. There must be an ‘app’ for that bundled with the brain.  —Ed.

The Computation App and Philosophy App

Luciano Floridi has written a thought-provoking article about thought at The New Atlantis. In “Why information matters,” he explores ways to “reboot” the sluggish field of philosophy. He thinks our information age is a perfect time to give philosophers something worthwhile to do that actually helps the world: taking leadership of the conceptual foundations of information technology. “We need a philosophy of information,” he says.* Delving into the nature of information, the Turing Test, and other related subjects, what Floridi is really doing is pointing another unique human ‘app’ in human consciousness: the ability to analyze, deal with abstract concepts, and compute. We can learn from our computers, but we are not computers, he intimates. The following quote from article is filled with very purpose-driven, non-Darwinian ideas, suggesting that we humans have the free will to control not only this app, but all the other apps as well.

What philosophy can offer to contemporary debates that involve the concept of information, whether we discuss the intelligence of computers or the makeup of the universe, is clarity about how to ask the right questions so that answers are possible and useful. Failing to ask the right questions can only lead to confusions and misunderstandings.

*Suggested reading: Being as Communion by William Dembski explores the philosophical position that the most fundamental aspect of the universe is information.

The Fine Art App

Why do we like beauty? Richard Taylor, at The Conversation, is seeking to understand what about humans allows them to feel pleasure at beautiful things, a subject known as aesthetics. Aware that natural beauty can relieve stress; he explores what it is about natural patterns that we find so satisfying. The answer, he thinks, is fractals. A tree, for instance, branches into branches that branch even further. Most people find a conch shell that shows the same pattern reducing down to seeming infinity as a beautiful thing.

Through exposure to nature’s fractal scenery, people’s visual systems have adapted to efficiently process fractals with ease. We found that this adaptation occurs at many stages of the visual system, from the way our eyes move to which regions of the brain get activated. This fluency puts us in a comfort zone and so we enjoy looking at fractals.

To the extent artists employ this built-in pleasure with fractal patterns, he says, they gain admirers. That’s why he thinks Jackson Pollock was successful despite the apparent complexity and disorder of his paintings. “Fractals can be found, for example, in Roman, Egyptian, Aztec, Incan and Mayan works,” and in some more modern pieces he mentions in passing, particularly those of Escher. We humans also have a tendency to find patterns in randomness, a trait called pareidolia.

At one point, Taylor asks an interesting question: “To what extent is aesthetics determined by automatic unconscious mechanisms inherent in the artist’s biology, as opposed to their intellectual and cultural concerns?” Indeed, why would biology generate either?

The Truth App

In a piece on New Scientist, Tiffany O’Callaghan thinks she’s going to smear Donald Trump and his supporters in the post-truth culture with her article, “Inside knowledge: How to tell truth from lies.” Readers may or may not agree with her political positions, but actually, she brings to light a uniquely human trait: the ability to evaluate evidence, and to reason logically to a conclusion. We don’t always operate those apps correctly, but we are aware we have that ability, and we “should” reason correctly (a hint of our ‘morality app’, too).

We hope you enjoyed this tour of your brain’s bundled apps. Pretty amazing, aren’t they? When you think of how utterly astonishingly amazing the human body and brain are, exhibiting such fantastic designs (and this short article can’t begin to tell it all), life looks all the more precious, more worthy of respect and care. Correspondingly, the horrors of terrorism, abortion, and all other forms of degrading the sanctity of human life become uglier, calling for greater efforts to stop.

The most important capability, however, was lost long ago from the human lineage. That was the ability to please God. Our apps are running on machinery that is already on the scrap heap, destined for destruction. But the designer didn’t forget us. That’s why we just celebrated Easter. He took the destruction we deserve on himself, paying the complete cost of repairs (too enormous for us to even consider), then was gloriously ‘rebooted’ as a demonstration of the upgrade to come. By repenting (agreeing with God about our condition) and accepting his free license agreement, you can download a preview of the ultimate upgrade. It comes with anti-virus software that fixes the conscience app, pointing out flaws needing eradication. And it comes with wireless software for communication (called prayer), and ongoing education(found in the Bible), with trailers of coming glories. All paid in full!

No analogy can fully describe the actual beauty of reconciliation with one’s Maker. We are eternal souls, not computers with apps. We need reconciliation. We need forgiveness. We need fellowship with the one who made us. Choosing is not optional; we will be held accountable for what we do with his offer of salvation. Look at the design of the capabilities he already gave us, even in this corrupted state. Don’t you think he can be trusted to fully heal our broken systems? Don’t you see how the ‘upgrade’ he has waiting for us will be glorious beyond compare? In a sense, we wait at the EULA screen. We must accept all of its terms to to gain the promises, and to avoid the ultimate blue screen of death. Don’t take our word for it in this simple metaphor. Read the terms from his word. A good synopsis can be found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, a lengthier presentation in his letter to the Romans, but no need to stop there. The more you read from his word—the Bible—the more you can see this is an offer too good—and too important—to ignore.

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