Saturday, July 13, 2013

Are Minds in Brains?

Take a look at this wild article (here). It discusses a recent macabre experiment that involves worm head decapitations. Worms are able to regenerate their heads, so this is not as dire as what happened to Marie Antoinette, but still it's no picnic I would think. Nonetheless, something really weird happened. When the head and brain grew back it grew back with all its former memories intact. Yes, cutting off the worm brain did NOT eliminate its prior knowledge. Not surprisingly, there are more guesses about how this might be the case than there are serious theories.  However, one seems quite interesting (at least to me) given prior (almost groundless, but not quite groundless) speculation about where computing happens in the brain (see here and here).  The idea gets mooted that the information might be stored "in cells that are outside the brain."  The exciting way of reading this is that memories are actually stored in cells/neurons rather than as in weighted networks of cells. I am sure that I am over-reading this, but it does seem interesting that cutting off something's brain seems to leave memories intact especially if memories are stored not in neurons but in the weighted connections between neurons. Of course, one weird fact does not a revolution make, but I think that this sort of thing serves to remind us how little we know about how mental phenomena are incarnated. Brains? Nervous Systems? Recall the ancients put in a plug for hearts and livers! Stay tuned.


  1. This is an OLD , OLD, OLD story about flatworms - I read about this many, many years ago in Scientific American when I was just a kid, and it even played a role in some of Robert Heinlein's science fiction. But here's the thing: I had thought this line of research had long ago been discredited - when I asked Randy Gallistel about it back in January, he assured me it was all rubbish. Now I wonder what the real story is.

    1. Well the old story involved grinding up the trained flatworm and feeding it to the untrained flatworm -- and the claim (indeed discredited) was that the untrained flatworm learned the relevant task more quickly for having eaten its trained comrade. Lots of academic jokes were made about students eating their professors so they would learn the material:

      The decapitation paradigm in this latest bunch of experiments is supposed to be a brand-new twist, and I'm not sure what the relevant jokes will be.

    2. Here is a potentially relevant "joke": I have a desk top computer with all kinds of files stored on it. and i have a back up of all my files stored on an external hard drive. Suppose someone steals my desk-top and i have to buy a new one. I then upload all the files from the external and lo and behold on my new computer are the same files as were on my old one. Does this tell us that the files were never 'really' stored on my old computer? Obviously not.

      So unless you can rule out that body cells in flatworms 'back up' some of the 'memories' the beast stores in its brain the decapitation experiment tells you nothing about what was stored in the brain. And it most certainly does not suggest that "the ancients ... plug for hearts and livers" should be taken seriously when it comes to where human language might be stored. I leave it to others to make up jokes about what the suggestion might tell them about Norbert.