Usually I present them, more-or-less, in order of their interest to me… and apparently to my readers, since the comments seem to always involve the first article. So this time I’m going to save the meatier one (in my eyes) for last hoping the others get some interest.
So the lineup is: Dog brains, static electricity, quantum DNA, and free will.
There’s a common belief that different dog breeds are hardwired for different temperaments and behaviors. Yet many people experienced with dogs believe environment and training are more significant.
It’s a classic nature versus nurture question.
A recent study seems to indicate the common belief is correct, that we have molded different breeds into dogs with different brains. Their brains actually vary between breeds.
Recently she obtained “a treasure trove of brain scans taken from good boys and girls who had gotten an MRI but turned out to have no neurological problems. With these scans, Hecht’s team was able to closely compare the brains of 62 purebred dogs from 33 different breeds.”
When you consider the variety of dog bodies, it seems obvious their brains must differ as well. And, for once, something “obvious” turns out to be correct.
It certainly confirms what most dog owners (including myself) have always believed. And it highlights just how unique our relationship with dogs really is.
The interesting thing scientifically is how we have shaped the evolution of dog brains through selective breeding pressure. As a result, we have dogs that are good at hunting, good at guarding, good as companions, or good at hauling.
It does seem most of the acquired talents are just that: talents. As far as temperament (as with humans, too), environment and training still play a huge role. The question never was “nature or nurture” — both matter.
We’ve known about static electricity for more than 2,500 years. We know a variety of ways to create it, but knowing exactly what was going on has eluded scientists.
But maybe now we’ve finally solved it:
A Northwestern University team has a model involving “the bending the tiny protrusions on the surface of materials.”
By “tiny” they mean nano-scale, and nearly all materials have protrusions at that scale. When these protrusions are bent, they produce tiny amounts of electricity due to the flexoelectric effect.
As there are many, many nano-scale protrusions, the tiny amounts of electricity add up to a noticeable voltage — often capable of giving you a good strong jolt.
So science has apparently solved one more mystery!
Entirely coincidentally (I’m sure), scientists have discovered a new species of electric eel. It’s new because it can deliver a shock of 860 volts — the highest of any known animal.
The previous record, by another species of eel, was 650 volts.
What’s interesting is that this is the first time a species has been differentiated by the voltage it produces.
The good news (for us) is that they don’t produce much current, so a shock from one is likely to be just that — shocking, but not fatal. (Unless you’re a small fish.)
One of the keys to quantum computers is quantum computer algorithms.
This isn’t an area I’ve explored much, but my understanding is that quantum algorithms work by superposing all possible answers such that the correct answer tends to interfere constructively while all the others tend to interfere destructively.
Getting a solution requires multiple runs to get multiple answers with the idea of the results converging on the correct answer.
Most who’ve looked into quantum computing at all are familiar with Shor’s quantum algorithm for factoring large (integer) numbers. This was the first quantum algorithm.
The second quantum algorithm (news to me) is Grover’s search algorithm.
Which brings us to:
Today Stéphane Guillet and colleagues at the University of Toulon in France say this may be easier than anybody expected. They say they have evidence that Grover’s search algorithm is a naturally occurring phenomenon. “We provide the first evidence that under certain conditions, electrons may naturally behave like a Grover search, looking for defects in a material,” they say.
Which has implications for quantum computing, of course, but it also presents another example of real-world quantum behavior that may be connected with human biology:
The work also has implications for our thinking about the genetic code and the origin of life. Every living creature on Earth uses the same code, in which DNA stores information using four nucleotide bases. The sequences of nucleotides encode information for constructing proteins from an alphabet of 20 amino acids.
Which raises the question: Why four bases? Why 20 amino acids?
It might be related to our cells using a natural Grover search (that electrons seem to implement one in searching for surface defects indicates there is such a thing as a naturally occurring Grover search):
But a quantum search using Grover’s algorithm is much quicker: Patel showed that when there are four choices, a quantum search can distinguish between four alternatives in a single step. Indeed, four is optimal number.
This thinking also explains why there are 20 amino acids. In DNA, each set of three nucleotides defines a single amino acid. So the sequence of triplets in DNA defines the sequence of amino acids in a protein.
Biologists (and many other scientists) have disdained the idea of quantum effects working in living things because they are hot, wet, messy environments. Engineers trying to design working quantum computers usually need cold, dry, clean environments.
But, “Photosynthesis, for example, is now thought to be an essentially quantum process.”
And why wouldn’t nature make use of everything at Her disposal?
The paper is available here.
Of course, what interests me is the possibility of quantum effects in the brain having something to do with consciousness. As examples of possible quantum biology grow, the idea becomes a lot less fringe.
Which brings us to a possible indication that our wills might, in some sense, actually be free:
The story starts in 1964, when two German scientists monitored the electrical activity of test subjects tapping their fingers. The subjects were told to tap at whatever irregular intervals they chose.
What they found (in a way that turns out to be a bit questionable) is that there appears to be a rise in brain electrical activity prior to the tap. It appeared to be the first evidence of the brain preparing to perform a voluntary action.
They gave this activity a name: Bereitschaftspotential (readiness potential)
And it turned out to be an argument against free will:
Twenty years later, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet used the Bereitschaftspotential to make the case not only that the brain shows signs of a decision before a person acts, but that, incredibly, the brain’s wheels start turning before the person even consciously intends to do something.
As with the Eskimos having 50 words for snow, this “fact” became widely accepted as truth. It has become cultural lore that humans are not the authors of their actions.
I’ve always thought that was bullshit. I’ve always thought it simply means our consciousness is deeper than our surface thoughts indicate. (Various masking experiments seem to me to confirm this.)
The original German scientists who discovered Bereitschaftspotential both believe in free will, and their experiment was intended to demonstrate that the brain has a will of sorts. They had “grown frustrated with their era’s scientific approach to the brain as a passive machine that merely produces thoughts and actions in response to the outside world.”
Then, in 2010, researcher Aaron Schurger took a whole new view of things.
For one, he considered the patterns of any noisy system with lots of parts, the stock market, for instance (or waves in the ocean). His analysis showed similar apparent rising potential, but demonstrated there was no purpose behind it. The patterns simply “reflect how various factors had happened to coincide.”
Two years later, Schurger, along with two colleagues, proposed an explanation:
Neuroscientists know that for people to make any type of decision, our neurons need to gather evidence for each option. The decision is reached when one group of neurons accumulates evidence past a certain threshold.
The finger taps, “Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity.” Importantly:
This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task.
(I do love that “hardly” in there. 😀 )
This coincides with what I’ve always thought. Our brains are noisy at all levels, and given our ability to visualize the future, I’ve always believed free will comes from some thought rising above the noise — perhaps due to attention.
I take it a step further: I think brains, certainly human brains, may be the one thing the universe has produced that are not fully physically determined.
And that’s the news!
Stay free willed, my friends!