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EP Today – Total revision on entry about Pantheism (and on my own approach to spirituality)

I struggled a bit over this one. The weekend was slow and I’m adapting to perhaps not attending Mass any more. I love the spirituality of the Catholic Eucharist but the same ol’, same ol’ homilies from boring, burnt out priests, along with lukewarm, sometimes conflicted and annoying parishioners are just too much for me right now.

Despite that, I think this came out nicely. It’s always a relief when I take an old piece that I’m not very happy with and juggle it around, rewrite, add new material and come up with something worthy of Earthpages. That’s how I feel about this:


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Melding mind and machine: How close are we?

Image 20170408 2918 1u1y3bz
A noninvasive brain-computer interface based on EEG recordings from the scalp.
Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), Photo by Mark Stone, CC BY-ND

James Wu, University of Washington and Rajesh P. N. Rao, University of Washington

Just as ancient Greeks fantasized about soaring flight, today’s imaginations dream of melding minds and machines as a remedy to the pesky problem of human mortality. Can the mind connect directly with artificial intelligence, robots and other minds through brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies to transcend our human limitations? The Conversation

Over the last 50 years, researchers at university labs and companies around the world have made impressive progress toward achieving such a vision. Recently, successful entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk (Neuralink) and Bryan Johnson (Kernel) have announced new startups that seek to enhance human capabilities through brain-computer interfacing.

How close are we really to successfully connecting our brains to our technologies? And what might the implications be when our minds are plugged in?

How do brain-computer interfaces work and what can they do?

Origins: Rehabilitation and restoration

Eb Fetz, a researcher here at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), is one of the earliest pioneers to connect machines to minds. In 1969, before there were even personal computers, he showed that monkeys can amplify their brain signals to control a needle that moved on a dial.

Much of the recent work on BCIs aims to improve the quality of life of people who are paralyzed or have severe motor disabilities. You may have seen some recent accomplishments in the news: University of Pittsburgh researchers use signals recorded inside the brain to control a robotic arm. Stanford researchers can extract the movement intentions of paralyzed patients from their brain signals, allowing them to use a tablet wirelessly.

Similarly, some limited virtual sensations can be sent back to the brain, by delivering electrical current inside the brain or to the brain surface.

What about our main senses of sight and sound? Very early versions of bionic eyes for people with severe vision impairment have been deployed commercially, and improved versions are undergoing human trials right now. Cochlear implants, on the other hand, have become one of the most successful and most prevalent bionic implants – over 300,000 users around the world use the implants to hear.

A bidirectional brain-computer interface (BBCI) can both record signals from the brain and send information back to the brain through stimulation.
Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), CC BY-ND

The most sophisticated BCIs are “bi-directional” BCIs (BBCIs), which can both record from and stimulate the nervous system. At our center, we’re exploring BBCIs as a radical new rehabilitation tool for stroke and spinal cord injury. We’ve shown that a BBCI can be used to strengthen connections between two brain regions or between the brain and the spinal cord, and reroute information around an area of injury to reanimate a paralyzed limb.

With all these successes to date, you might think a brain-computer interface is poised to be the next must-have consumer gadget.

Still early days

An electrocorticography grid, used for detecting electrical changes on the surface of the brain, is being tested for electrical characteristics.
Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, CC BY-ND

But a careful look at some of the current BCI demonstrations reveals we still have a way to go: When BCIs produce movements, they are much slower, less precise and less complex than what able-bodied people do easily every day with their limbs. Bionic eyes offer very low-resolution vision; cochlear implants can electronically carry limited speech information, but distort the experience of music. And to make all these technologies work, electrodes have to be surgically implanted – a prospect most people today wouldn’t consider.

Not all BCIs, however, are invasive. Noninvasive BCIs that don’t require surgery do exist; they are typically based on electrical (EEG) recordings from the scalp and have been used to demonstrate control of cursors, wheelchairs, robotic arms, drones, humanoid robots and even brain-to-brain communication.

The first demonstration of a noninvasive brain-controlled humanoid robot “avatar” named Morpheus in the Neural Systems Laboratory at the University of Washington in 2006. This noninvasive BCI infers what object the robot should pick and where to bring it based on the brain’s reflexive response when an image of the desired object or location is flashed.

But all these demos have been in the laboratory – where the rooms are quiet, the test subjects aren’t distracted, the technical setup is long and methodical, and experiments last only long enough to show that a concept is possible. It’s proved very difficult to make these systems fast and robust enough to be of practical use in the real world.

Even with implanted electrodes, another problem with trying to read minds arises from how our brains are structured. We know that each neuron and their thousands of connected neighbors form an unimaginably large and ever-changing network. What might this mean for neuroengineers?

Imagine you’re trying to understand a conversation between a big group of friends about a complicated subject, but you’re allowed to listen to only a single person. You might be able to figure out the very rough topic of what the conversation is about, but definitely not all the details and nuances of the entire discussion. Because even our best implants only allow us to listen to a few small patches of the brain at a time, we can do some impressive things, but we’re nowhere near understanding the full conversation.

There is also what we think of as a language barrier. Neurons communicate with each other through a complex interaction of electrical signals and chemical reactions. This native electro-chemical language can be interpreted with electrical circuits, but it’s not easy. Similarly, when we speak back to the brain using electrical stimulation, it is with a heavy electrical “accent.” This makes it difficult for neurons to understand what the stimulation is trying to convey in the midst of all the other ongoing neural activity.

Finally, there is the problem of damage. Brain tissue is soft and flexible, while most of our electrically conductive materials – the wires that connect to brain tissue – tend to be very rigid. This means that implanted electronics often cause scarring and immune reactions that mean the implants lose effectiveness over time. Flexible biocompatible fibers and arrays may eventually help in this regard.

Co-adapting, cohabiting

Despite all these challenges, we’re optimistic about our bionic future. BCIs don’t have to be perfect. The brain is amazingly adaptive and capable of learning to use BCIs in a manner similar to how we learn new skills like driving a car or using a touchscreen interface. Similarly, the brain can learn to interpret new types of sensory information even when it’s delivered noninvasively using, for example, magnetic pulses.

Learning to interpret and use artificial sensory information delivered via noninvasive brain stimulation.

Ultimately, we believe a “co-adaptive” bidirectional BCI, where the electronics learns with the brain and talks back to the brain constantly during the process of learning, may prove to be a necessary step to build the neural bridge. Building such co-adaptive bidirectional BCIs is the goal of our center.

We are similarly excited about recent successes in targeted treatment of diseases like diabetes using “electroceuticals” – experimental small implants that treat a disease without drugs by communicating commands directly to internal organs.

And researchers have discovered new ways of overcoming the electrical-to-biochemical language barrier. Injectible “neural lace,” for example, may prove to be a promising way to gradually allow neurons to grow alongside implanted electrodes rather than rejecting them. Flexible nanowire-based probes, flexible neuron scaffolds and glassy carbon interfaces may also allow biological and technological computers to happily coexist in our bodies in the future.

From assistive to augmentative

Elon Musk’s new startup Neuralink has the stated ultimate goal of enhancing humans with BCIs to give our brains a leg up in the ongoing arms race between human and artificial intelligence. He hopes that with the ability to connect to our technologies, the human brain could enhance its own capabilities – possibly allowing us to avoid a potential dystopian future where AI has far surpassed natural human capabilities. Such a vision certainly may seem far-off or fanciful, but we shouldn’t dismiss an idea on strangeness alone. After all, self-driving cars were relegated to the realm of science fiction even a decade and a half ago – and now share our roads.

A BCI can vary along multiple dimensions: whether it interfaces with the peripheral nervous system (a nerve) or the central nervous system (the brain), whether it is invasive or noninvasive and whether it helps restore lost function or enhances capabilities.
James Wu; adapted from Sakurambo, CC BY-SA

In a closer future, as brain-computer interfaces move beyond restoring function in disabled people to augmenting able-bodied individuals beyond their human capacity, we need to be acutely aware of a host of issues related to consent, privacy, identity, agency and inequality. At our center, a team of philosophers, clinicians and engineers is working actively to address these ethical, moral and social justice issues and offer neuroethical guidelines before the field progresses too far ahead.

Connecting our brains directly to technology may ultimately be a natural progression of how humans have augmented themselves with technology over the ages, from using wheels to overcome our bipedal limitations to making notations on clay tablets and paper to augment our memories. Much like the computers, smartphones and virtual reality headsets of today, augmentative BCIs, when they finally arrive on the consumer market, will be exhilarating, frustrating, risky and, at the same time, full of promise.

James Wu, Ph.D. Student in Bioengineering, Researcher at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, University of Washington and Rajesh P. N. Rao, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and Director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering , University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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EP Today – Fake News stories themselves are fake news

I’m glad that someone has, at least, partially addressed this. I haven’t been posting about “fake news” because I feel most of the stories, themselves, are superficial and misleading. That is… fake.

Why?

A little bit of history tells us that people have always been fibbing, omitting details and manipulating truth for personal gain and to avoid repercussions.

English: Portrait of Nero. Marble, Roman artwo...

Portrait of Nero. Marble, Roman artwork, 1st century CE. From the Augustan area on the Palatine Hill ( Wikipedia)

Remember when ancient Rome burnt down? The crazed and cruel Nero – whom many think was responsible for the blaze – blamed that on the early Christian community. Or how about when British PM Chamberlain signed a 1938 Munich peace treaty with Germany? Hitler clearly had no intention of honoring that.

More recently, have we forgotten Watergate or the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal?

“I am not a crook” – Richard. M. Nixon, 1973.

English: Former President Richard Nixon visits...

Former President Richard Nixon visits with President Bill Clinton in the family quarters of the White House, March 8, 1993. (Photo: Wikipedia) Birds of a feather?

“I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” – Bill Clinton, 1998.

Click for image source

For more examples, follow this link.

This notion that we’ve suddenly fallen into a postmodern age of false ideology and lies is a joke. It’s an insult to our intelligence. Lies are everywhere. They are in what is said and in what is not said. And it has always been that way.

What’s really alarming is that so many people buy into these fake news stories about “fake news.”

MC


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EP Today – Does Psychiatry reinforce people playing “good patient”?

Today’s Top Tweet (above) points to an issue that demands mature reflection. Instead of the often extreme views presented at web sites like Mad in America or, at the other end of the spectrum, the baffling ideological hegemony of the APA, there is a third stance positioned somewhere between those polarized perspectives.

With regard to today’s tweet, just because someone has a delusion or perception that a drug effectively blocks, it does not necessarily follow that the thing the person was deluded about or perceiving does not exist.

For example, say a person thinks that terrorists, the CIA or perhaps the mafia are after them. Then a drug calms the person down and, so it turns out, she or he is never murdered as previously feared.

Does it logically follow that terrorists, the CIA or the mafia do not exist? No, it means that these entities do exist but that they were probably not after that person.

Same thing with spiritual entities, good and bad, one could argue.

I applaud this man for writing about his experience but, with all due respect, it seems he is relieved to feel better and playing the role of “good patient”—and I’m sure many in the psychiatric community would approve of that.

Problem is, that kind of thing can lead to and reinforce superficial claims about the nature of reality. And THAT, in my opinion, can hurt people who actually do sense demons, angels and, who knows, maybe ETs.

Life is rarely as simple as either/or. Although some psychiatrists and members of the general public might like us to think so. I think the wisest thing the author of the tweeted story says is, “I don’t know for sure.”

MC

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EP Today – Are we all the same? Should we be?

Today’s Top Tweet gave me pause for reflection. In the past I’ve seen some charismatic Evangelicals as not too different from, say, Superbowl or Wresting fans.

The Indian guru Sri Aurobindo talked about different levels of consciousness. I’ve rejected a lot of what Aurobindo says but I recall that he’d probably see some charismatics as operating on what he called the “vitalistic” plane—that is, vital instead of higher spiritual energy. For Aurobindo, there wasn’t a single spirituality but, instead, several different mind levels.

All very interesting. Sometimes I think a bit like this when comparing different people and different religions (or even differences within one person). To say all religions and spiritual states of mind are the same is, to me, like saying all cities of the world are the same.

Cities may exhibit some common features but obviously they differ in important ways.

Because religion is such a personal, sensitive issue for many, we run the risk in this politically correct world of getting into real trouble if we even dare suggest that religions and spiritual states might differ. And this is oppressive to free thought and, perhaps, to genuine development—in both theory and practice.

To focus a little more precisely on just one religion – Christianity – I think it’s also relevant to suggest that there could be real differences among individuals and their Christian beliefs and practices.

At the same time, we can’t know for certain what another person inwardly experiences. We may think we do. Through subtle transpersonal connections we may get glimmers. But we can’t fully know what it’s like to be them.

Image via Pixabay | Tumblr

Only God can have the final say. Although sometimes, I admit, I have wondered if God really knows what it’s like to NOT be omniscient. This opens the door for all kinds of theological reflection that I don’t have time to explore here.

Another point to consider: How do we define spirituality?

For some, spirituality is an intense nature trip. Others say watching sci-fi or fantasy shows are spiritual activities. Again, only God can say who is “spiritual” and who is not. And even if there are fundamental differences, who’s to say we should all be the same?

If the world were mostly contemplative mystics, I think we’d run into trouble pretty fast. By the same token, if the world were mostly movers and shakers, I think we’d have similar difficulties.

Bottom line?

Respect the mix.

MC

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Rigid, fundamentalist thinking goes in all directions

This is a good article (tweeted) but it overlooks the oft unspoken corollary: Too much faith in a mechanistic psychological worldview might keep some people unhappy. So many of us are impressed by the achievements of science and especially technology. And rightly so. No wonder many believe that feeling good is largely dependent on a healthy brain. Obviously brain functioning plays a huge role in our sense of well being.

But there’s more. A lot more.

Some people might be chronically unhappy because they’re stuck in a mechanistic worldview that ignores the primacy of the spiritual life. It’s almost as if we have everything upside down in the modern world. Spirituality is often seen as the icing on the cake. You can get by without it, but it’s a nice, tasty add-on.

Image via Tumblr

For me, it’s the opposite. Spirituality is top shelf and therefore my master command. Everything else is necessary and enjoyable but secondary.

By way of analogy, a society exists in its own right but needs an executive assembly and usually a national leader. Without a leader, society would become a confused, mass jumble. And so it is with spirituality and all the other aspects of life.

It’s hard for some people to appreciate this view. But I’m glad it’s mine.

The way I see it, fundamentalism is not just about religion. Fundamentalism can go in any direction. Ironically, sometimes we encounter people who are both religious and scientific fundamentalists. Instead of integrating their outlook into a mature, comprehensive whole, they compartmentalize their thinking according to religious teachings and the latest psychology studies to hit the news.

If people want to fashion their lives under the dictates of a high profile religious leader, on the one hand, and someone like John Tesh, on the other hand, that’s fine by me. But it’s certainly not my style! — MC

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EP Today – Bad science, bad reporting or both?

Today’s Top Tweet points to a story that either represents bad science, bad reporting or, as often happens, an unfortunate mix of the two. Here’s a quote that stood out for me:

The man then removed the wires from his head before taking off and marching around the hospital trying to recruit followers, saying ‘God has sent me to you’, convinced his creator had singled him out to bring redemption to fellow patients and medical staff.¹

Image – Twitter

So one man who believes he’s on a “mission” represents all the spiritual people who have ever lived? Cummon. Give me a break. This is so idiotic and overly-generalized that I can’t believe it would make any kind of news story.

For centuries sincere seekers and spiritual directors have been making distinctions between insanity, spiritual deception and bona fide sainthood. It’s a fine line for sure. And sometimes potential saints may go through an initial, confused period where they appear borderline, insane or neurologically impaired. But to lump all forms of spiritual phenomena into one category – or even to suggest that they are all the same – is ludicrous.

¹ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4301306/Epilepsy-cause-religious-experiences.html#ixzz4bCyZK8up

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