Posts tagged ‘persistence’

correspondentA bit of a tribute to three people who have persisted in the face of scepticism.

How long has Doug Lenat has been working on the CYC project? I described it unkindly as a kind of dinosaur in 2005, when it was already more than twenty years old. What is it about? AI systems often lack the complex background of understanding needed to deal with real life situations. One strategy, back in the day, was to tackle the problem head-on and simply build a gigantic encyclopaedia of background facts. Once you had that, rules of inference would do the rest. That seems an impossibly optimistic and old-fashioned strategy now, but CYC has apparently been working away on its encyclopaedia ever since and – it’s said – is actually beginning to deliver.

Also in 2005 I described the remarkable findings of Maurits Van Den Noort apparently showing a reaction to stimuli before the stimuli actually occurred. (That post is one of the “lost” ones from when I moved over to WordPress. I’ve just brought it back, but alas the lively discussion in comments is gone.) I’ve heard no more about the research since, but Van Den Noort is still urging the case for a new relationship between neurophysics and quantum physics.

That post mentions Huping Hu, who with his long-time colleague (and wife) Maoxin Wu, also announced some remarkable findings relating consciousness and quantum physics. He went on to found his own journal – one way to ensure your papers are properly published – which continues to publish to this day.

We may feel (I do) that these people are in differing ways on the wrong track, but their persistence surely commands respect.

salienceI was interested to see reports here and there the other day that scientists had discovered the seat of the will in the anterior midcingulate cortex.

That’s not precisely the case, of course; there’s an article here which describes the research. The scientists in question had an unusual opportunity to use electrodes in the brains of two patients; although they did indeed operate in the anterior midcingulate cortex they believe they were stimulating the brain’s salience network, which is quite widely distributed. The effect was apparently to create feelings of needing to persist against challenging circumstances; the researchers themselves call it “the will to persevere”. The patients were fully conscious and able to describe their feelings, but alas no tests were carried out to see whether they were in fact more persistent when stimulated.

The correct interpretation of the results seems difficult to me. As I understand it, the theory of the salience network holds that brain activity is controlled by neural networks which stretch across several regions of the brain. The default mode network, or DMN, is the one that operates when we’re not focused on anything in particular, perhaps daydreaming. It has been suggested that loss of this function is what distinguishes people who have “locked-in” syndrome from those who are in a “persistent vegetative state” – if you lose your DMN you’re not really there any more, in other words.

When we concentrate on a task, another network takes over – the central executive network, or CEN. The role of the salience network, if I’ve got this right, is primarily to act as arbitrator between the two. It spots something that deserves attention – something salient, indeed – and switches control from DMN to CEN. That’s fine, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with persistence; it’s actually about changing the object of attention, not sticking with it. But perhaps strong or continuing stimulation of the salience network has that kind of effect. The salience network says “you need to look at this”, so perhaps when it operates emphatically we think “yes, I’m going to look the hell out of that alright; I’m going to look at that intensively; when I’ve finished looking at that, by golly it’s going to stay looked at”.

More plausibly it might all be to do with physiological effects; besides directing attention the salience network has a role in gearing up our “fight or flight” state, and it might just be that in that state we feel ready for a challenge ( in which case a readiness to persist comes into it, but surely isn’t the whole point); that would be a William James style emotion, originally a matter of the gut more than the mind.

Anyway, this really has nothing to do with an organ of the will. That is an interesting notion, though, isn’t it? My own assumption is that the will emerges from the operation of general cognition and that there couldn’t be a separate will module. If such a module determined the actions to be willed, it would surely have to encompass almost the whole of cognition, and so be far more than just a module; if it merely willed the actions selected for it by the rest of the brain it wouldn’t amount to much at all.

People do, of course, often hypothesise that there might be a special function for assigning value, or flagging up those things we ought to pursue as desirable. To me, though, that seems a bit different; the will, properly understood, is not a matter of basic motivation, but a faculty which might over-ride that motivation, either by operating at a meta level or simply by acting as a restraining and countervailing force.

Would that even be a distinct faculty of its own? Some would probably question whether talking about the will is a useful approach at all, rather than a relic from outmoded ideas about the soul controlling the body through acts of will. I must admit I find it hard to think of any subject that can’t be adequately discussed without mentioning  the will. Even free will doesn’t really lose anything if we talk about free action.  So is the will even worth persisting with? I can feel my DMN kicking in…