General Public, General
Scientific audiences (it's mostly climate and oceanography with
Climate is like a drunk.
If left alone, it
Forced to move, it staggers
on stage now is a stunning example of how civilization must
rescue itself. It dwarfs the three big scientific alerts from
the 1970s about global warming, ozone loss, and acid rain. But
until the 1990s, no one knew much about abrupt climate
change, those past occasions when the whole world flipped out of
a warm-and-wet climate like today’s into the alternate mode,
which is like a worldwide version of the Oklahoma Dust
Bowl of the 1930s. There are big alterations in only 3-5
years. A few centuries later, the drought climate flips back
into worldwide warm-and-wet, even more quickly. Unlike
greenhouse warmings, the big flips have happened every few
thousand years on average, though the most recent one was back
before agriculture in 10,000 B.C. The next flip may arrive
sooner than otherwise, thanks to our current warming trend. The
northern extension of the Gulf Stream appears quite vulnerable
to global warming in four different ways. An early warning
might be a decline in this current. And according to two
oceanographic studies published this last year, this
vulnerable ocean current has been dramatically declining for the
last 40-50 years, paralleling our global warming and rising CO2.
The 2004 version of this talk, for the
Adamson Annual Lecture on International Studies, is
Public, General Scientific audiences (it's mostly anthropology,
evolution, and psychology)
of Human Minds:
The Ice Age Emergence of Higher Intellectual Functions
suite of higher intellectual functions includes syntax,
multi-stage planning, structured music, chains of logic, games
with arbitrary rules, and our fondness for discovering hidden
patterns (the search for coherence). It's likely that they
share some neural machinery for handling structure and judging
coherence. But the archeological record suggests that they are
late-comers -- that the three-fold enlargement of the ape brain
into the human brain was complete about 150,000 years ago, but
that they were intensely conservative, doing little that
Neanderthals didn’t do as well. The "behaviorally modern"
aspects were seldom seen before the Creative Explosion about
50,000 years ago. So the big brain is not all about intellect.
What happened to reorganize the brain after 100,000 years
at its present size, to make it more creative and versatile,
back during the middle of the most recent ice age?
version of this talk for UW Psychiatry Grand Rounds is available
to click the mouse to advance slides).
Scientific and Cognitive Psychology audiences (it's mostly
neurobiology and evolutionary theory)
Cerebral Circuits for Creativity:
Bootstrapping Coherence using a Darwin Machine
The problem with
creativity is not in putting together novel mixtures – a little
confusion may suffice – but in managing the incoherence. Things
often don’t hang together properly – as in our nighttime
dreams, full of people, places, and occasions that don’t fit
together very well. What sort of on-the-fly process does it take
to convert such an incoherent mix into a coherent compound,
whether it be an on-target movement program or a novel sentence
to speak aloud? The bootstrapping of new ideas works much like
the immune response or the evolution of a new animal species —
except that the neocortical brain circuitry can turn the
Darwinian crank a lot faster, on the time scale of thought and
action. Few proposals achieve a Perfect Ten when judged against
our memories, but we can subconsciously try out variations,
using this Darwin Machine for copying competitions among
cerebral codes. Eventually, as quality improves, we become
conscious of our new invention. It's probably the source
of our fascination with discovering hidden order, with imagining
how things hang together, seen in getting the joke or doing
The version of this for Stanford University
available as webbed slides.
Public and Cognitive Psychology audiences (it's mostly
anthropology and neurobiology)
as an evolutionary setup for syntax
For slow movements, progress reports can
update the plan and correct an approximate intention. But for
ballistic movements that are over-and-done in 1/8 sec, the
feedback is too slow to correct the movement; you have to make
the perfect plan during get set.
We know that our ancestors were eating a lot of meat by about
1.8 million years ago. They had probably figured out how to
bring down big grazing animals, and with regularity. But
accurate throwing (as opposed to, say, the chimp’s fling of a
branch) is a difficult task for the brain. During “get set” one
must improvise an appropriate-to-the-target orchestration of a
hundred muscles and then execute the plan without feedback.
While there are hundreds of ways to throw that would hit a
particular target, they are hidden amidst millions of wrong
answers, any one of which would cause dinner to run away.
Planning it right the first time, rather than trying over and
over, has real advantages. Just use the ballistic movement
planning circuits for other similar tasks in the spare time. And
what fits are the novel structured tasks of higher intellectual
function, such as syntax, contingent plans, polyphonic music,
getting the joke, and our search for how things all hang
together (seen in crossword puzzles and in doing science). Yes,
some of them “pay their own way” subsequently, but the
free lunch seems to be alive and well in the brain, where novel
secondary uses abound.
The slides for my
Cerebral Circuits talk will
give you the general idea.
Examples of 10-20 minute talks
interviewed in 20' segments on NPR's
talking about brains, climate,
talk for DARPA.
The San Francisco ten-minute
climate change talk.
general information for lecture organizers
(bio, CV, photos).
To browse a copy of one of my books, click on a cover
for the link to amazon.com.
A Brief History of the Mind,
A Brain for All Seasons
Lingua ex Machina
The Cerebral Code
How Brains Think
The River That
The Throwing Madonna