Woo Woo

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Not too long ago I heard on the radio an interview with a neuroscientist about the significance of dreams. His explanation used a computer analogy - he stated that the mind has a trash bin like the one on your home computer desktop, and that dreams were the excess information that was being tossed into the trash bin to make room in storage for future information. According to this eminent scientist dreams were simply random flotsam and jetsam that, other than being part of the house cleaning process, had absolutely no significance. Beyond betraying that this is a man who pays very little attention to his dreams (and one who probably has little or no interest in woo woo), his assertion brought up a very interesting point about analogies and the assumptions they imply.The analogy of the brain as a computer, albeit a very complicated computer, is one that most of us tacitly accept. We've all heard, and probably used, the analogy that our bodily functions and instinctual drives are governed in our brains by its hardware, while our cultural learning is a function of its software. Brain-as-computer is really just a rewording of the analogy that rose out of Newtonian physics, the universe-as-clockwork analogy. With the scientific revolution of Newtonian physics (actually, Newton built on Descartes, who built on Galileo, but we'll call it Newtonian physics to be brief) it was realized that everything works according to Universal Laws of Physics like force, momentum, and gravity. And, since these universal laws always hold, you can predict what is going to happen at any given time by having enough information to plug into the calculations derived from the laws. Like clockwork! If you have enough information you can predict the future, such as the exact time of a lunar eclipse 10,000 years from now, or what you're going to have for breakfast tomorrow. It's really amazing how well this works. The brain-as-computer analogy just says that a computer is a very complicated machine compared to a clock, and the brain is a very, very complicated gizmo...I mean clock...no, I mean computer....So here's a guy in the 21st century, very smart, very educated, maybe a potential Nobel Prize Laureate, calling the brain a gizmo! With a desktop trash bin, no less! Very common sense actually, given the successes of neuroscience in probing the code of the brain/computer. However, this conclusion is based on the universe-as-clockwork assumption, which is tres, tres old school; I mean, the Age of Enlightenment was what, 400 years ago?This is where woo woo comes in, namely the woo woo of relativity theory and quantum physics. We have the Newtonian Universal Laws, but those laws don't work on the subatomic level. Therefore, THEY AREN'T UNIVERSAL! On the subatomic level, the universe is not a clock, or a computer, or a gizmo needing a good mechanic. It is loaded with woo woo, and woo woo has the wonderful effect of making us examine our assumptions, because it shows us that they don't always work. And if they don't always work, we have to think, expand, and grow to absorb the woo woo into a coherent reality.... heaven forbid, we have to create new assumptions!So let's get back to the neuroscientist playing with the brain gizmo, kinda like taking apart a TV set. Let's say he doesn't know anything about TV sets, but sees this image on the screen and hears sound coming out of the speakers. He's a curious guy, a tinkerer with a great mechanical mind, so he starts taking the TV apart. He discovers that turning one knob changes the image, another changes the loudness of the sound. Now he takes the knobs apart, and discovers all the wiring which goes to the screen and the speakers, and he concludes that the source of the images and sound must be inside these mechanisms. Then he pulls the power plug and everything stops because the TV is, well...dead. This re-enforces his view that the source of the images and sound are somewhere inside, since their existence is dependent on the TV being alive, so he keeps probing deeper, and deeper, and deeper, until the poor TV set is nothing but a chaotic pile of wires and glass and plastic strewn over the floor. He's charted diagrams, measured voltages and currents. He's figured out exactly how everything works, but he can't find the source of the images and sounds. He stands there scratching his head, figuring he must need better equipment or something (like a bigger computer). Poor guy. If he wasn't assuming that the source was inside the machine, if he realized that he was actually confronting woo woo, he might at some point intuit that the source came from a remote location.In other words, is it possible that dreams aren't completely a function of the brain, but at least in part are remotely broadcast and the brain is simply a very sophisticated receiver? Is it possible the mind itself is not completely a function of the brain? Is it possible when we dream we are living in the land of woo woo? These are just some of the questions the woo woo of dreams begs.That's the why why of woo woo.Addendum: In my feeble attempt at explaining physics in this series of blogs I shamelessly ripped off Gary Zukov from his "The Dancing Wu Li Masters". If you have any interest in the new physics, this is an incredibly clear and engaging examination written for the non-scientist. Highly recommended.