November 1, 2013
The United States national debt is at roughly $17.2 trillion dollars and growing every day. A lot of us are asking how we got in this fiscal mess, and things are getting pretty heated. I’ll try to shed a little light on a very complicated issue.
First, we can address the primary causes for why we’ve been running deficits, and hence, running up our national debt. These are the main reasons given by a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report.
The Bush Tax Cuts (extended by Obama) (~2 trillion)
About 12 years ago, income taxes were cut across the board in pretty much every tax bracket by several percent. Next, capital gains taxes were cut in half, going from 39% to 15%. Capital gains refers to money made from having lots of money. Interest earned from bank accounts, real estate, stocks, bonds, and that sort of thing. This has led to a major loss in revenue, but spending was never cut to compensate.
Wars Overseas (~1.5 trillion)
It seems we’re always at war. There’s a generation growing up today that’s never lived in a time when we weren’t at war. Sad, but true. It’s been a massive economic drain. We’ve spent anywhere from 1.5 to 2 trillion dollars on our conquest of the Middle East, establishing bases all over the place, controlling sea lanes, oil, and other natural resources. It’s expensive.
Increased Defense Spending And Homeland Security (1.5 trillion)
We’ve been spending a lot of money on defense and homeland security. You know all those airport security scanners? Those massive data centers spying on everyone across the globe? How about those drones, stealth airplanes, and those massive aircraft carriers we’ve been building out of fancy composite materials? A giant black hole. We’re building a space shield of drones and missiles under the guise of fighting terrorism. In reality, it’s world conquest and domination.
Interest Payments On Our Debt (1.5-2 trillion)
When you borrow money, you have to pay it back with interest. We’ve borrowed our money from Japan, China, Russia, and other places. We’re taxed and send them interest payments each month. Good for them I guess. Not so much for us.
Varied Economic Stimulus Attempts (1 trillion)
Roughly 1 trillion has went into different economic stimulus programs. The government has tried to jump-start the economy by investing money in all sorts of things.
Subsidized Student Loans (700 billion)
There’s been $700 billion dollars given to students in federally subsidized loans.
Lost Revenues Due To The Economic Recession (4 trillion)
Because the economy hasn’t been great, revenues were down for a while but spending wasn’t decreased to compensate. There’s an important economic relationship which you have to understand. When the economy takes a downward swing, more and more people need assistance (unemployment benefits, etc), so safety net spending increases as revenues fall during a recession.
It’s quite clear that President Obama inherited an economic mess, as did President Bush. There were major recessions during both of their first terms. Less money was spent in stores, leading to less profits for businesses, more layoffs, and less federal revenues. The chart below makes that quite clear.
But there is some good news. Federal spending has leveled off while revenues continue to increase. It’s a nice change of pace, though it’s not enough. We need to increase taxes (get rid of the Bush tax cuts), cut defense spending, end the wars, and continue to reform healthcare and social security. But we have an uphill battle ahead.
Entitlement spending is a huge problem. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid spending is growing far faster than the economy. The CBO is telling us that if these programs continue on their current course, their expenditures will eat up all tax revenues sometime between 2030 and 2040. There won’t be any money for defense, education, the FDA, scientific research, or anything else. It will all go to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Look at that red bar in the entitlement spending chart. That’s debt interest payments. It balloons out of control, mainly because at that point we have to borrow money to even keep our government functioning. The more money you borrow, the higher the interest rate to further borrow. It’s a downward spiral. That chart is depressing. It’s obvious that our current course is unsustainable, and with an inept Congress stuck in ideological deadlock, do you think they’re going to be able to sort this out?
Our primary problem is the inflation in healthcare costs. We have short-term unemployment problems, and that gives us short-term deficit problems, but our long-term problem is healthcare costs. If we don’t fix that in the coming decades, we’re done. They have to fix healthcare. But, on the bright side, healthcare inflation is the lowest rate it’s been since the 1960s. We’ll have to see how the Affordable Care Act plays out.
Entitlement spending could easily span an entire post, but I need to get going, so hopefully this was at least a little informative.
October 22, 2013
I’d like to briefly tell all of you about an interesting medical disorder which I think sheds light on the problem of free will. If a person suffers brain damage in their anterior cingulate cortex, they will suffer from what’s called akinetic mutism. And what is that?
These people will simply lie in bed, not saying a word. They’re fully aware of everything going on around them, but they have absolutely no motivation to do anything. As far as I know, they exist in the deepest, purest form of apathy humans can experience. They’re even indifferent to pain. You could probably start cutting them up with a knife and they wouldn’t resist or make a fuss.
That particular area of our brain is heavily involved in reward anticipation, and without this area estimating how much pleasure we’ll get from different actions, we go into this deep state of, “What’s the use.” We’ve all had a depressed friend who didn’t want to get out of bed. This is like that, but way more intense.
In certain cases you can give these people drugs and they’ll temporarily snap out of it. They’ll then lean forward and respond to questions you ask them, but otherwise, they just lay there, indifferent to whether they live or die.
This is interesting and important to note in any discussion of free will. Without your brain’s reward anticipation system functioning, you go into a state of pure apathy. Your ability and desire to exercise “free will” vanishes.
Free will is a tricky, slippery idea. Even the quantum mechanical interpretations are hard to understand. How would that work when these reward anticipation processes are ultimately dictating what we do?
It’s almost as if damage to that area of the brain leaves a person in a state where they’re unable to have faith. Without a belief that there’s something good waiting for you in the future, you just shut down. Your whole brain is wired on that premise.
October 13, 2013
In a recent post, I claimed that problems arise in the world when there is a lack of love. This applies equally to personal relationships and nations as a whole. So the next question to ask ourselves is why there is any love at all, and second, why do our love relationships break down?
I’ll begin with a personal observation. As many of you know, the United States is currently in a bit of a budget crisis. I was visiting with my parents and my mother made a comment, “Why are we sending aid to foreign countries when we can’t even pay our own bills?” Now, I’m going to ask you all to shut off your “political” brain. Don’t think of the statement in terms of policy analysis, such whether or not we truly have funds to help poorer nations (for example, if we cut military spending, etc), but instead let’s analyze it as a psychological statement.
Why does my mom think an American life is more important than the life of a foreigner? Why aren’t all people loved equally? Why are there these invisible lines in the sand, making some groups of people more important to us than others?
This brings us to a talk I recently listened to on one of my favorite websites, edge.org. Dr. Joshua Greene of Harvard University was promoting a book he recently finished called, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. In the talk he discusses how “us” vs “them” dynamics are formed. He begins by noting that we evolved in small tribal groups. There was “our” group in which we hunted and lived with, and then there were “other” groups which were almost always the enemy. The emotional systems within our brain are pre-wired for “us” vs “them” behavior. Let’s take a few examples.
In an experiment done a while back, everyday people were asked whether or not they were obligated to help out after a natural disaster. People’s responses depended on where the disaster took place. If it happened in the area in which they lived, the vast majority of people felt it was appropriate for everyone to chip in and help out. If it didn’t happen in “their” area though, things were different. Say their friend was visiting a distant country and the same disaster has taken place. He sends them pictures of the rubble, the starving children, and all the homeless victims. He then asks for money. The number of people who say it’s a moral duty to send aid plummets.
Why is this? Well, we have hard-wired emotional systems that work in terms of “us” and “them”. In mom’s case, there’s America (us), and there’s other countries (them). When it comes down to it, our survival is more important than other people’s, just as it was in our hunter gatherer days. The problem with this is that nations grow and there’s only so much land here on Earth. As countries grow and expand, they naturally bump into each other and fight for resources. Both groups think in terms of “us” and exclude the “other” groups, and we get a nasty form of conflict. This is because we haven’t learned to love the “other”, and for that reason we have wars, violence, and greed.
But that’s not to say we’re in a hopeless situation. Dr. Greene compares our moral instincts to a camera. Most new digital cameras these days have pre-set “point and shoot” settings that will give you a good picture in most common situations, but not always. When the pre-sets won’t do, you need to fine-tune the settings by hand, and then take your picture. Our brains are the same way. Our emotions are pre-sets which we’re born with and they work pretty good in a lot of situations, but they have their limits. There are times when emotion is limited, and that’s why we have reason. But reason is complicated and there are lots of settings. You have to spend a lot of time studying your “camera” to know how everything works. With time and patience, you can manually tune your “camera” and get better results than the pre-sets. That’s what moral and spiritual instruction does. You can go beyond your pre-sets.
Tribes form around religions, cultures, political ideologies, and many other things. If you can’t accept people who have a different culture, a different belief system, or different ways of life, you have to go into your head and change your brain’s settings to be more inclusive. More tolerant. More accepting. But that’s not easy, especially if you disagree with them, or feel that doing so would put your way of life in danger. It’s a tricky business. If you accept just anything, then you stand for nothing, but if you’re too rigid, there will be conflict. To get things going, it’s important to understand your brain’s “camera” and know that it has these settings. From there, we can debate what to do.
Now I’d like to discuss relationships among individuals within those tribes, particularly between men and women. There are also emotional pre-sets to that process as well, and it’s worth discussing them.
As I mentioned, we are creatures which have evolved here on planet Earth, struggling for survival. For most of our existence, we have lived short, difficult lives. Human romantic love is rooted in these ancient instincts.
Not to over-generalize, but men’s brains evolved to be polyamourous. You have to remember that we’re gene-replication machines. Think of what strategy would be best for a man’s genes to be passed on to the next generation? The more women he impregnates with his children, the more likely his genes will survive. So throughout all the animal kingdom, males fight for power and resources so that they can support large families of females and their offspring.
Women’s emotions are wired differently. They look for messages which signal commitment, fitness, and resources. They want healthy children who will be cared for and will have access to the food, clothing, and other resources which they will need while raising the child. Their best interests are to avoid men who will not commit or leave them with a child to support on their own.
So there are complicated mating rituals in human love ultimately rooted in that basis. It manifests itself in many ways. I’ll give you an example. Since we were discussing my mother earlier, let’s give another example with her. I was hanging out with Mom one time and she was watching television. The Wendy Williams show was on, which is basically a women’s daytime comedy program which gossips about celebrities. Maybe I can find a clip?
So what’s a typical show like? Well, she may begin with pictures of “man-candy”, attractive men, dressed nicely, showing off their sculpted muscles. What is this rooted in? In times past, men were hunters. A good hunter has to be strong and swift so that he can help provide. So women’s brains are attracted to muscular, fit men.
Next Wendy Williams begins to gossip, mostly about male celebrities and their relationships. The focus is on children, such whether or not these men take care of their children, custody battles, how well the men provide, etc., but they also gossip about how well these men treat their wives, etc. Why does this take place?
We evolved in a much smaller world. Women in the tribe evolved to gossip, primarily about the men in the tribe, but also other women in the tribe. If the men were not faithful to their wives, the women acted as little broadcasters to warn all the other women what kind of man he was. Considering they may end up pregnant and he’ll run off, it’s good for other women to know in advance. They also gossiped about other women so they could compare mothering strategies. As for women gossiping to men about other women, well, that’s mainly to convince the men that she’s a slut, and if he has sex with her, he can’t be sure that the child will be his. That’s the primary basis for why women are always “slut shaming” each other. It has to do with telling men, “Stay away from here! Get with me instead!”
Wendy Williams gossiping about a handful of celebrity men with whom these normal women will never meet is completely useless. But, if you look at the audience, it’s all women. There’s not a single man out there. This is a left-over vestige of our evolutionary past, sort of like our appendix is to our digestive track.
To get back on topic, when I said the world has problems when we don’t love each other, I mostly mean that we leave ourselves to these emotional systems which evolved in world in which we no longer live, and they’re not fully up to the task. A lot of the moral and emotional instincts we have within us don’t make much sense anymore. We have to fine-tune our settings through education and rational discourse to be more inclusive.
I’d like to end this post with a few thoughts on love. When I look at human love, and what it’s rooted in, I find it comes up short. I wish the attraction process between men and women was deeper than money, good looks, and access to society’s resources. Unfortunately, for the most part, it’s not. I also wish people’s in-groups were far more inclusive. If you want to leave out Neo-Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, and other hate groups, I can understand. Even so, the type of love I wish existed in the world is like that found in mystics and saints — an unfailing, pure love, like the type God is supposed to have for us.
Personal human love is rarely God-like. It normally has limits and is dependent on many factors. It’s more of a cost benefit analysis masked in rationalized emotion. You’ll attend a wedding and hear all sorts of vows, but they’re rarely meant. The real test comes as their relationship goes on and each partner weighs the benefits and costs of being in the relationship, day by day. Benefits include things like finances, does he or she make me laugh, how is the sex, affection, intellectual companionship, and so on. Downsides may include alcohol or drug use, embarrassing or humiliating experiences, private or public, lack of a sex life, lack of affection, bad relationships with children, avoiding domestic responsibilities, lies, deceit, arguments, threats, violence, jealousy, lack of intellect and education, heck, even bad driving habits. Once you’ve been weighed on random, rather arbitrary scales which change all the time and vary from person to person, you may or may not be loved. It all depends.
Most of what goes for “love” in our world is more or less rooted in survival. Does it benefit me? Is this person good for me? Does this person make me happy? Will a relationship with this person help me get where I want to go? Does being this person’s friend benefit causes I care about? And so on. But I personally like the type of love I grew up in church hearing about — the type of love Jesus gave. It didn’t ask for anything in return. I don’t see much of that in the world.
I actually had a discussion about love and relationships with a woman not too long ago. She found me rather strange. I told her that I would stay with a woman, even if I didn’t love her, as long as she needed me and was fine with me. She told me, “That’s kind of sad.” I’ll agree, it’s not ideal, but I grew up as a pastor’s son and I remember we would help troubled families get through hard times. Maybe I’ll tell the story?
There was a married couple in the church and things weren’t as romantic between them as they once were. Another woman in the church started messing around with the husband and they ran off together, leaving the former wife in abject poverty. She lost everything. She was a homemaker, older, and didn’t have any career. She mainly relied on her husband for income.
He traded her in for a better model, I suppose, and maybe he was happier with the new woman. Who knows. But I remember it was the middle of winter, and me and other people from the church had to help this poor women move her furniture (what she got from the divorce) into this tiny ratty trailer. It was so cold and that trailer wasn’t even insulated. It was more like a freezer. I could see my breathe indoors. She had no money. I turned on the water faucet to rinse off my hands and brown, disgusting water came out. I let it run for a while and it was brown and never cleared up.
I heard water running outside when the faucet was on so I looked under the trailer and sure enough, the pipe just ran a short ways to the hill outside. There was no sewage system. I went to the bathroom and my foot went through the rusted floor of the trailer and hit the mud underneath the trailer.
Quite an ordeal, huh? To top it off, human emotion is fickle and can come and go. They soon tired of one another and went their separate ways, but the damage was done. Look at what this process of seeking happiness does to people. When people can’t find peace and happiness from within, they search for it in the world outside of them, oftentimes leaving a path of destruction behind.
The same applies to ambitions, goals, and dreams. If you can’t be happy unless you achieve whatever it is you think needs to happen in your life, and if you think your personal happiness is all that matters in the world, you’ll step on everyone around you, chasing something that doesn’t even exist. If you can’t be happy now, you won’t be happy later either. If you can’t live and be happy in the present, you’re not going to be able to set goals to be happy in the future either. You have nothing to go off of.
We live in a world where external things are supposed to fulfill you. Achieving some goal (dreams), meeting some dream spouse (love), or owning some home (things), all of these things are what happiness supposedly is. But it’s a lie we’re told to fuel the economy which needs people in perpetual want. After all, the human race has to progress! We need new gadgets. Bigger homes. Faster cars. We need more!
Entertain me. Please me. Scratch my back. Did you guys hear about the Playstation 4 video game console? Chinese university students are forced to work in electronics factories putting together Playstations and iPhones or they cannot graduate. It’s part of their curriculum.
People can’t wait. Fast food, fast love, fast entertainment. I want it NOW! I don’t care what it does to Chinese workers or what their working conditions are. I want my new console NOW!
If American workers were the ones forced to make Playstations under those conditions, we’d be furious. But the Chinese are the “other”.
I spoke of how we need spiritual instruction more than anything else. Jesus once said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things will be added unto you.” And what does it mean to seek God? God is love. God’s kingdom is one in which we’re all brothers and sisters in a loving family. We don’t take advantage of family. Once we learn that lesson, and no longer think of outsiders as the “other”, a new form of prosperity and wealth will naturally come to us. Why? We’re not fighting one another, we’re cooperating. Peace brings prosperity.
This world that we live in is a product of all of our actions. If you’re able to find peace and love within yourself, if you can find that inner stillness deep inside you, coming to a place where you are no longer chasing or fearing things, finding a sense of contentment from within, then you’re able to give love, and that’s what the world needs more than anything. You can’t give from deficiency, from an emptiness. You have to give love from a well which springs within you. That’s the adjustment your inner camera needs.
October 4, 2013
There is a lot of confusion about Obamacare, so I’m going to take a short moment to explain what the bill actually contains. If you go to Wikipedia and type in “Obamacare”, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act comes right up. It has eight main provisions which I will explain one by one.
1. Guaranteed issue prohibits insurers from denying coverage to individuals due to pre-existing conditions, and a partial community rating requires insurers to offer the same premium price to all applicants of the same age and geographical location without regard to gender or most pre-existing conditions (excluding tobacco use).
So, for example, if you are a young person with diabetes and fall off your parent’s insurance plan, you cannot be denied health insurance coverage and you will pay the same rate as another young healthy adult. If you have any health problems, insurance companies have to take you in anyways, and you will have the same low rate as anybody else. The only exception to this is if you smoke.
2. Minimum standards for health insurance policies are established.
3. An individual mandate requires all individuals not covered by an employer sponsored health plan, Medicaid, Medicare or other public insurance programs (such as Tricare) to secure an approved private-insurance policy or pay a penalty, unless the applicable individual has a financial hardship or is a member of a recognized religious sect exempted by the Internal Revenue Service. The law includes subsidies to help people with low incomes comply with the mandate.
If you do not have health insurance, you will be required to purchase it. But what if you can’t afford it? After all, if you don’t have health insurance, chances are, that’s because you can’t afford it. So how will this work? Well, you go onto the new healthcare.gov website and sign up. You’ll be asked about your finances, and depending on your situation, if you cannot afford it, the federal government is going to help you pay for it.
As for those who can afford health insurance but are not on a health plan, you will be fined by the IRS on your tax returns. They’re going to make everyone get insured one way or the other.
4. Health insurance exchanges will commence operation in every state. Each exchange will serve as an online marketplace where individuals and small businesses can compare policies and buy insurance (with a government subsidy if eligible). In the first year of operation, open enrollment on the exchanges runs from October 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014, and insurance plans purchased by December 15, 2013 will begin coverage on January 1, 2014. In subsequent years, open enrollment will start on October 15 and end on December 7.
Despite what you may have been hearing, President Obama’s healthcare policy is not a government take over of healthcare. Obamacare sets up a healthcare exchange where private insurance companies compete for your business. It’s a free market solution. If you read the history of bill, Republicans actually endorsed this plan and have proposed similar plans over the past twenty-five to thirty years. Why they’re being so obstinate now is beyond me. For example, in 1993 Senator John Chaffee (Republican) proposed the Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act, a similar sort of plan which had individual mandates, penalties for non-compliance, “universal coverage”, as well as subsidies for those who cannot afford it. In 1994 Senator Don Nickles (another Republican) proposed the Consumer Choice Health Security Act, which also had an individual mandate and penalties if you didn’t comply. Republicans proposed these sorts of plans under George H.W. Bush in the early to mid-nineties, so it’s strange that constitutional issues are being raised.
A nearly identical plan is currently being used in Massachusetts where Mitt Romney was governor. They implemented this policy in 2006 or something like that. He was the Republican Presidential candidate who ran against President Obama for crying out loud! To quote him directly, “I’m proud of what we’ve done. If Massachusetts succeeds in implementing it, then that will be the model for the nation.”
So where did Obamacare come from? They saw this plan working really well in Massachusetts, with a Republican governor, so they said, “Hey, this plan is getting bipartisan support in Massachusetts, and it’s working out really well. The poor are taken care of. Everybody’s insured. It’s not breaking the budget. Let’s roll this plan out on a larger scale.” And so, that’s what we’re trying to set up across the nation. If you read the history of Obamacare in the Wikipedia article, it was specifically modeled on the healthcare plan devised by Governor Romney, a Republican businessman. President Obama and most Democrats would prefer a single payer healthcare plan but they reached across the isle and said, “Ok, this plan ain’t bad either.”
5. Low-income individuals and families whose incomes are between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level will receive federal subsidies on a sliding scale if they purchase insurance via an exchange. Those from 133% to 150% of the poverty level will be subsidized such that their premium costs will be 3% to 4% of income. In 2013, the subsidy would apply for incomes up to $45,960 for an individual or $94,200 for a family of four; consumers can choose to receive their tax credits in advance, and the exchange will send the money directly to the insurer every month. Small businesses will also be eligible for subsidies.
As I mentioned, if you don’t have money, they’re going to to help you pay for your health insurance. Sign up on the website and depending on your income, you will receive the appropriate level of help.
6. Medicaid eligibility is expanded to include individuals and families with incomes up to 133% of the federal poverty level, including adults without disabilities and without dependent children. The law also provides for a 5% “income disregard”, making the effective income eligibility limit for Medicaid 138% of the poverty level. Furthermore, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) enrollment process is simplified. However, in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court ruled that states may opt out of the Medicaid expansion, and several have done so.
If you and your family are in poverty, Obamacare originally intended to pay for your healthcare in its entirety. If you fell below 133% of the federal poverty income levels, you would be put on Medicaid and all your healthcare expenses would be completely insured.
How is poverty defined? Well, it depends on the number of members in your household and your total household income. Here’s a small table to help you get an idea. If your family’s total income is less than 133% of these amounts, and your state is expanding Medicaid coverage, you will soon have full healthcare coverage under Medicaid.
However, things didn’t go as planned. There was a provision in the bill where states could opt out and not fund the program, and that’s what happened in the states with the largest number of poor citizens, unfortunately. I’ll include a map so you can see which states funded the program and which did not.
The dark green states have expanded Medicaid coverage and will take care of all poor people in their states. Light green states are still deciding what to do, and light gray states (uncolored) will not be expanding Medicaid coverage to the poor. My state of Missouri is being the most obstinate of all. Missouri will not even be involved in the health insurance marketplace nor will they expand Medicaid to these poor individuals. Our governor and politicians are actively running campaigns to discourage enrollment or any compliance with these programs. So, it’s a mess.
Take a look at this map of poverty within the United States. The states with the poorest citizens are also those most obstinate against getting coverage. I find it strange to see people in need, crossing their arms, telling you that if you help them get coverage, somehow you’re contributing to the ruin of our nation. What can you do?
The Republican party is so against this idea of helping the poor, they have literally forced a government shutdown because they absolutely and resolutely refuse to help poor people pay for healthcare. They won’t do it. As for the rest of Obamacare, it’s a free market solution, created by a Republican businessman, so they really have no excuse to fight against it.
7. Reforms to the Medicare payment system are meant to promote greater efficiency in the healthcare delivery system by restructuring Medicare reimbursements from fee-for-service to bundled payments. Under the new payment system, a single payment is paid to a hospital and a physician group for a defined episode of care (such as a hip replacement) rather than individual payments to individual service providers. In addition, the Medicare Part D coverage gap (commonly called the “donut hole”) will shrink and be completely closed by January 1, 2020.
8. Businesses who employ 50 or more people but do not offer health insurance to their full-time employees will pay a tax penalty if the government has subsidized a full-time employee’s healthcare through tax deductions or other means. This is commonly known as the employer mandate.
Bigger, more successful companies have to offer healthcare coverage to all their full-time employees. Unfortunately, I think this is going to lead a lot of companies to cut people’s hours so they don’t have to provide benefits, but it’s nice to see the government trying to force these big corporations to take care of their employees. They’re all earning record profits. Big companies like Wal-Mart used to give their employees benefits. We’re just dealing with an unprecedented level of greed.
October 3, 2013
If I wasn’t doing research as a physicist, the next best thing would be to build machines able perceive space and time. Few of us think about what our brains are actually doing moment by moment, but if you inspect the activity carefully, you’ll find that over 50% of our cortex is dedicated to visual processing alone. This includes creating a sense of space, identifying objects, seeing faces, analyzing emotional expressions, creating a sense of motion from moving objects, and many other things. It’s very involved. To quote from a book of mine,
“… the parts of the brain that we know have something to do with vision are shown in colour. Two points can be noted. First, someone had to do a lot of colouring — over 50% of the cortex is involved in visual processing. Recently we have begun to be able to chart what areas of the human brain might be involved in visual processing. You might imagine that it would be far less — after all, we humans presumably need lots of brain for doing the things we think we do so well: reasoning, playing chess, doing hard sums, and so on. However, it appears that the amount of cortex we devote to vision is just as large as in this monkey — over half of your cortex is devoted to merely seeing. If we do some very rough sums and generously give hearing 10% of the cortex, all your other senses another 10%, and probably should allow 10-20% for moving all the bits of your body, you can see that there is hardly anything left over for doing the hard bits like chess, cross-words, and perception assignments. But that is exactly the point. Vision is easy because we have lots of brain devoted to it; chess is hard because we don’t have lots of brain devoted to it. If the situation were reversed and over 50% of your cortex were devoted to chess you would, no doubt, be able to take on the most sophisticated computer in the world and beat it. However, computers can now beat the most brilliant of humans when it comes to chess, but no computer in the world can put up the slightest of challenges when it comes to vision. Indeed, we would happily back a humble housefly against the most sophisticated computer in ‘vision Olympics’.”
I oftentimes reflect on this fact when I’m doing theoretical physics and find the calculations difficult. Most of my brain is sitting there idle while a small portion of my cortex deals with symbol manipulation and logic, working tirelessly to follow all these tedious rules I’ve learned over years of schooling. If I deeply understand what the equations mean (which is difficult), I can try to visualize situations with my visual system and that gives me a much deeper understanding of what’s going on. However, you have to realize that these visual areas have evolved here on Earth to avoid predators and find food, so they have a certain way of processing visual information and a very primitive model of space and time. These systems are only accurate for medium sized systems moving at moderate speeds. Matter at the atomic level does not behave in a way our brains easily understand, nor does the cosmos at large. The thought of space and time bending around a black hole or subatomic particles being in two positions at once is almost nonsensical.
We’re just now coming to a level of technology where we can emulate the brain’s ability to perceive 3D space from a stream of images. I doubt the brain creates our sense of space in the exact same way, but I don’t know for sure. As for artificial intelligence, the algorithm is called structure from motion and it’s one of the most amazing things we’ve ever done.
We have two eyeballs which are constantly zig-zagging this way and that way, sending our brain a stream of images from different perspectives. Then nearly three fourths of your brain fires up, over thirty different processing centers, each doing their own task, analyzing corners, finding statistical patterns within the images, finding human faces, identifying objects, sorting them into positions within a spatial environment, calculating your bodily motions to move you across the kitchen, and all that good stuff.
Take motion for instance. We have cells in our brain (the MT area of visual cortex) which are all tuned to motion in different directions. They analyze that stream of images and compare the before and after. If a certain pattern moves from here to there, they fire. If a pattern moves up, another set of cells fire. If it moves to the right, a different set of cells fire. All of these little motion detectors combined give us a sense of moving objects in space. But this system isn’t perfect and you can create weird visual illusions in yourself. Take this Youtube video. Just watch the swirls for around a minute. This will highly stimulate your motion sensors in all different directions. Then the movie cuts to a still image of a cloudy sky yet it will be swirling back and forth for a bit. That’s because your motion sensors are still firing and haven’t settled down yet.
I keep a small library of medical neuroscience textbooks here in my study mainly for my studies in consciousness, space, and time. All of these different processing centers we’ve mentioned can be damaged or injured in a stroke. There are people unable to perceive motion. The medical term is akinetopsia. The world appears as a frozen, unmoving unity. Even stranger, these people can still perceive the world. They have a sense of being in space, there are objects in the room, and they can identify them. It’s just nothing moves. Those motion sensors aren’t working. I’m interested in this phenomenon because I entertain the idea that our experience of time is an illusion.
Other people have brain damage in the areas which are doing things like structure from motion and they don’t have any sense of space. Up, down, forward, backward, left, right, they don’t understand. Some have a sense of space from other senses, such as that of touch, but some don’t even have that. They often can’t grasp objects well either. Their mind can’t do the calculations to orient their hands, arms, and other limbs in the right positions to make certain outcomes happen.
Even still, they can identify things. You can hold a gallon of milk in front of them and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s a gallon of milk.” They just don’t know where that object is in space.
Our brains create a model of the world but this model is very rough and limited. A lot of what we perceive about the world is what we expect to perceive. We focus on what’s most relevant to the task at hand and ignore most sensory data unless we have a good reason to pay attention to it. Take this experiment. If there’s even a momentary distraction, you can switch out entire people, change their gender, their looks, basically everything, and roughly half of people won’t even notice.
And even if you’re paying close attention, there has to be a certain intensity to the change for us to notice it. If change happens very slowly and gradually, we don’t notice it. This is interesting to me because it has to do with our sense of time and the experience of change. It’s weird that in this next video things will be changing, but so slowly your brain won’t notice it. It’ll appear to be a static image, but it’s not.
There is a sharp disconnect between the real world and how we actually experience things in our head. We don’t perceive the real world. We perceive a representation of it, a re-presentation, a second presentation of it, based on a rough inaccurate model with extremely limited information.
You may think the solution to this dilemma is to create better and better brains which can perceive the world with ever greater accuracy, but there’s a problem. If we do that, more and more of the world’s atoms have to be allocated to your brain and its processes. You have to ignore less and less sensory information and need more and more hardware to process and store it all. In the extreme limit, all of the atoms of the universe would go into making your brain and nothing would be left over for the external universe or other people. You and the universe would become one and the same thing, with no external world to be a part of.
If we’re to have an external world where conscious, sentient beings interact and communicate with one another, our awareness of the external reality in which we’re all a part must be limited. There’s no way around it.