By Inside_my_head.jpg: Andrew Mason from London, UK derivative work: -- Jtneill - Talk (Inside_my_head.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 4 minutes By Inside_my_head.jpg: Andrew Mason from London, UK derivative work: -- Jtneill - Talk (Inside_my_head.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The other day, I wrote a piece about Mary’s Room and the Chinese Room experiments in the context of The Good Place. Let me tap into that again:

We often think that our minds are everything – they are what makes us “us”. But our minds are part of a very complex physiological system that includes our bodies – endocrine and digestive systems and all. These feedback loops are what give us our feelings. That said, in Descartes Evil Daemon/The Matrix terms, we might not need those systems if the right inputs could be fed directly into our brain systems. You can imagine the brain in vat/Matrix scenarios where memories and feelings are directly fed into our brains and minds like an IV drip to a vein.

To “know” something, like how to play the best tennis shot in a given situation, might arguably require us, in pragmatic reality, to have a body that is capable of doing and feeling such through actual practice. Could we conceivably get that knowledge just by learning things abstractly?

Well, it depends what you mean by “learning” and “abstractly”. We have been able to give certain organisms “fake” memories that have informed their behaviours. Fruit flies have traditionally been fair game for this, but in 2015, research of this being done to mice came to the fore:

Manipulating memories by tinkering with brain cells is becoming routine in neuroscience labs. Last year, one team of researchers used a technique called optogenetics to label the cells encoding fearful memories in the mouse brain and to switch the memories on and off, and another used it to identify the cells encoding positive and negative emotional memories, so that they could convert positive memories into negative ones, and vice versa.

The new work, published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, shows for the first time that artificial memories can be implanted into the brains of sleeping animals. It also provides more details about how populations of nerve cells encode spatial memories, and about the important role that sleep plays in making such memories stronger.

We’re getting, inch by inch, closer to Descartes Evil Daemon. In the same way, we are arguably getting closer to a form of Mary’s Room or the Chinese Room.

I would like to cite an article from The New York Times:

That may sound like an outtake from “The Matrix.” But now two neuroscientists at the University of Rochester say they have managed to introduce information directly into the premotor cortex of monkeys.

The researchers published the results of the experiment on Thursday in the journal Neuron. Although the research is preliminary, carried out in just two monkeys, the researchers speculated that further research might lead to brain implants for people with strokes.

“You could potentially bypass the damaged areas and deliver stimulation to the premotor cortex,” said Kevin A. Mazurek, a co-author of the study. “That could be a way to bridge parts of the brain that can no longer communicate.”

In order to study the premotor cortex, Dr. Mazurek and his co-author, Dr. Marc H. Schieber, trained two rhesus monkeys to play a game.

The monkeys sat in front of a panel equipped with a button, a sphere-shaped knob, a cylindrical knob, and a T-shaped handle. Each object was ringed by LED lights. If the lights around an object switched on, the monkeys had to reach out their hand to it to get a reward — in this case, a refreshing squirt of water.

Each object required a particular action. 

·        If the button glowed, the monkeys had to push it.

·        If the sphere glowed, they had to turn it.

·        If the T-shaped handle or cylinder lit up, they had to pull it.

After the monkeys learned how to play the game, Dr. Mazurek and Dr. Schieber had them play a wired version. The scientists placed 16 electrodes in each monkey’s brain, in the premotor cortex.

Each time a ring of lights switched on, the electrodes transmitted a short, faint burst of electricity. The patterns varied according to which object the researchers wanted the monkeys to manipulate.

As the monkeys played more rounds of the game, the rings of light dimmed. At first, the dimming caused the monkeys to make mistakes. But then their performance improved.

Eventually the lights went out completely, yet the monkeys were able to use only the signals from the electrodes in their brains to pick the right object and manipulate it for the reward. And they did just as well as with the lights.

This hints that the sensory regions of the brain, which process information from the environment, can be bypassed altogether.The brain can devise a response by receiving information directly, via electrodes.

Neurologists have long known that applying electric current to certain parts of the brain can make people involuntarily jerk certain parts of their bodies. But this is not what the monkeys were experiencing.

Dr. Mazurek and Dr. Schieber were able to rule out this possibility by seeing how short they could make the pulses. With a jolt as brief as a fifth of a second, the monkeys could still master the game without lights. Such a pulse was too short to cause the monkeys to jerk about.

“The stimulation must be producing some conscious perception,” said Paul Cheney, a neurophysiologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center, who was not involved in the new study.

But what exactly is that something? It’s hard to say. “After all, you can’t easily ask the monkey to tell you what they have experienced,” Dr. Cheney said.

Dr. Schieber speculated that the monkeys “might feel something on their skin. Or they might see something. Who knows what?”

What makes the finding particularly intriguing is that the signals the scientists delivered into the monkey brains had no underlying connection to the knob, the button, the handle or the cylinder.

Once the monkeys started using the signals to grab the right objects, the researchers shuffled them into new assignments. Now different electrodes fired for different objects — and the monkeys quickly learned the new rules.

“This is not a prewired part of the brain for built-in movements, but a learning engine,” said Michael A. Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University who was not involved in the study.

Again, it is a case of edging closer to a transhumanist world whereby we have less and less need of “real” experience and we could be approaching the time of The Matrix. Interesting times!

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...