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Saturday, 23 July 2016

An attempt to understand the human brain and the nervous system

From eating, breathing to thinking, analyzing various scenarios and feeling, everything is controlled by your brain. This jelly-like mass of tissue weighs around 3 pounds and is very susceptible to injury.  Thus it is protected by the bones of vertebrae and cranium and then by cerebrospinal fluid. As human evolved over generations, the mass of the brain increased tremendously but our skull didn't grow resulting in the wrinkles that one can observe in the human brain.

Image Courtesy: askabiologist.asu.edu

Anatomy of brain:

The brain can be basically classified into three region- the hindbrain, the midbrain, and the forebrain. All these parts work together but each part has its own specific function. The hindbrain is located on the upper part of the spinal cord and contains brain stem and cerebellum. The brain stem controls body's vital function such as breathing, heart rate whereas cerebellum is involved in the learned rote movement. The midbrain controls some reflex action and eye movement and other such voluntary movements. The forebrain is the most advanced part of the human brain. It consists of the cerebrum and the structure beneath it. The cerebrum sits at the top floor of the brain and is the intelligent center of the human brain. The cerebrum is divided into two equal halves called hemisphere by a deep fissure. These two halves communicate with each other through a thick tract of tissues that lie at the base of this fissure. Though the two halves seem to be the mirror image, they differ in their functions. The cerebrum is divided into four lobes, the frontal lobe is in action when you think or use a reasoned argument. When you are enjoying a delicious meal, your parietal lobe is in action and when you are enjoying the beauty of a landscape, it's because of your occipital lobe. Similarly, when you are enjoying a melodious music, it's because of your temporal lobe.

Deep within the brain, lie structure that acts as the gatekeeper between spinal cord and cerebrum. This region is responsible for feeling various emotions such as fear, safe etc. Like the lobes in the cerebrum, they also come in a pair with one on each side of the brain. The hypothalamus, about size of a pearl, is the emotional center of the brain and is responsible waking you up in the morning and getting your adrenalin

flowing in a stressed situation. It basically controls various bodily functions by the release of hormones from pituitary gland.Near the hypothalamus lies the thalamus which acts as an intermediary for the information flowing between spinal cord and cerebrum.

The other important part of the inner brain is the hippocampus, which is used to send information to appropriate part of the cerebrum for long term storage and retrieving them whenever needed.

How do the brain and the rest of body communicate:

Before we understand, how the communication takes place between various body parts and brain, let me allude to central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS). CNS comprises the brain and the spinal cord whereas PNS comprises all the nerves that come out of CNS. Now the prime function of CNS is to integrate various sensory input coming from PNS and then responding to it both consciously and unconsciously.

Image courtesy:  publi.cz

Also, all the communication takes place by relaying signals to and from the neurons. These neurons comprise of 3 parts namely cell body, dendrites and axon. Dendrites are called listeners which get the message from the neighboring neuron and pass it towards the axon. Axons are called talkers which in turn pass the coming message to the neighboring neuron. The place where the exchange of message occurs is called synapse. These messages are passed via the  release of chemicals called neurotransmitters, these neurotransmitters pass the synapse and attaches to receptors thereby creating a potential difference and hence the new neuron passes these signal further.

Now any communication can be broken into simple blocks. Input block will be the sensory input collected by the receptors (sensory neuron)  in the PNS and then it is forwarded to the spinal cord and then finally to  the brain. Now, upon reaching CNS , these information are then processed by the appropriate parts of  the brain. Finally, the output is motor output where there is some movement in one or more parts of your muscles, these responses are carried to the muscles through motor neurons.

Image Courtesy: urbanchildinstitute.org

Now I will try to illustrate all these points with an example. Suppose you are walking in the garden on bare feet. Suddenly a thorn pierces your skin and you feel a lot of pain. The mechanoreceptors in the skin of your leg are activated and an electric signal is passed via these neurons to CNS. Once it reaches the spinal cord, the spinal cord sends a response via the motor neuron which causes you to lift your leg at once. At the same time, this signal is passed to various parts of your brain like the hypothalamus which makes you emotional and you start to think why did this happen to me, is this the punishment from God for not doing my chores. Finally, the signal reaches to frontal cortex which starts to analyze the situation and then you start to think that you shouldn't have come bare feet to the garden and also start to think of the ways to stop the bleeding.



Philosophy of Religion and God - Part 2

In my previous post, Philosophy of Religion and God - Part1, we discussed various arguments such as Ontological and Cosmological arguments to prove the existence of God and also their counter arguments. Today we will be looking at a few other arguments.

Teleological Arguments:
Image courtesy: www.britannica.com

In 1802, an English Clergyman,William Paley, presented his arguments for the existence of God. He used an analogy, where he took an example of a watch and told as the intelligent design of a watch and its purpose implied the existence of a watch-maker. Similarly, the intelligent design of this world and its purpose implied the existence of a world-maker. To understand the teleological arguments in detail, please refer to my previous post Understanding the Teleological Arguments. To refute this argument, many people used disanalogy, saying that a watch and world are two dissimilar things and hence same logic can't be used as we can clearly open a watch and see how the gears inside the watch fit to tick the hands of the clock, same is not possible with the whole world. These counter arguments were responded by saying just because you don't understand the design and working of something, doesn't imply it was not created by one. Let's take an example of a TV set, not many understand the interior design of a TV set, but that doesn't mean it was not created by one and it just happened to appear. One main problem with this argument is that as long as we see objects which are complex and seem to exhibit a purpose it works fine but for things which apparently has no purpose that's a flaw in his argument as the absence of any obvious purpose will lead people to create purpose.

Many people also argued that the complexities that body exhibit is a result of natural selection and random mutation. When there are a lot of objections to the arguments, you either need to reject your arguments or modify your arguments such that it answers all the objections. So the modern teleological argument presented by British philosopher changes the teleological arguments to make the existence of God more probable. He said though there is another explanation for the existence of the world we must go with the one which is highly probable and it is highly probable that god designed this world rather than it came into existence on the pure chance of natural selection and random mutations. These were again countered by claiming we can't make a probability claim when we have only 1 sample set.

Blaise Pascal's Arguments:

Image Courtesy: en.wikipedia.org

According to Blaise Pascal, a french philosopher,  believing in the existence of God is more rational. He derives his logic by employing decision theory. His logic can be represented using a two-by-two matrix, either God exists or does not and either you believe in the existence of God or you don't:

Table 1 God Exists God doesn't exist
You believe in God Infinite Rewards some finite reward
You don't believe in God Infinite Punishment somefinite reward

Now for the theist, if God exists they get infinite rewards and if God doesn't exist they get comfort with their faith in God. For an atheist, if God exists they will get infinite punishment and if God doesn't exist they get some finite rewards too. But in case the theist is a hedonist, then the rewards enjoyed by him will be greater than the theist who adheres to all moral beliefs strictly. However, if there is equal chance that God exists, then the infinite reward still make believing in God a more rational decision.

Hope these arguments provides you the reason for your belief in God and if you are a theist and think you have a better argument for the existence of God, please comment. If you are atheist and have a better counter-arguments to deny the existence of God, please do let me know your arguments through comment.




Saturday, 9 July 2016

Philosophy of Religion and God - Part 1

Today I will try to explain what philosopher over the years have said on the existence of God and how other philosophers have refuted that with counter arguments.

Image Courtesy: www.archbishopcranmer.com

Ontological Arguments:

St. Anslem, archbishop of Cantebury came up with ontological arguments to support the existence of God. The Ontological argument is as follows:

1. It is a conceptual truth that God is the greatest possible being and no one can be greater than God.
2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
3.Anything which has all the same properties as conceived and does exist in reality will be greater than what exists just as an idea.
4. Since there can't be anything greater than God, thus God must exist in reality.

These arguments sound convincing if we think of God as greatest possible being. But there were many who didn't agree with these arguments and when philosophers don't agree with an argument, they present counter arguments. Guanilo of Marmoutier, believed that one could use Anslem's arguments to prove all sorts of non-existent things.

He presented a counterexample to prove the existence of a non-existent island:

1.It is a conceptual truth that piland is the greatest island that can be conceived.
2. A piland exists as an idea in the mind.
3.Any island that exists both as an idea in the mind and reality will be greater than the piland.
4. but as we can't imagine anything greater than piland, thus piland must exist in reality.

Image Courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org

Cosmological Arguments:

St. Thomas Aquinas tried to prove the existence of the God through what he observed in the cosmos(universe). Cosmological arguments can be divided into 3 parts:
1. Arguments from motion
2.Arguments from causation
3.Arguments from contingency
His logic is based on the idea that an infinite regress is absurd and logically impossible as infinite regress would suggest that any series of events began with nothing or it never really began but was there always.

A. Arguments of motion:

1. We see the world around us is in motion .
2. This movement is caused by movers.
3. Everything that's moving must have been set into motion by something else that was moving.
4. Something must have started this motion and there can't be an infinite regress of movers
5. So there must be a first mover, itself unmoved,and that is God.

B. Arguments from Causation:

Here he explores the relationship between cause and event. Everything you are doing now, even reading this article can be traced back to some cause which led you to study this article. There must be a beginning.

1. Some things are caused.
2.Anything that is caused has to be caused by something else as nothing causes itself.
3. There can't be an infinite regress of causes.
4. So there must be something which started this cause and effect and that is God.

C. Arguments from contingency:

Everyone's existence is contingent upon other's existence. We wouldn't have existed if a certain sperm wouldn't have met an egg and exchanged DNA information and still the world would have existed without us. Aquinas believed that there must be something that prevented infinite regress of contingency. So argument of contingency is as follows:

1. There are contingent things.
2. Contingent things cause other contingent things.
3. There can't be only contingent things because that would mean there is infinite regress of contingency and a  possibility that nothing might have existed 
4. So there must be at least one necessary thing and that thing is God.

But many of his contemporary philosophers were unimpressed by his arguments and the most significant charge made against Aquinas was that his arguments were self-defeating. Accepting the premise that everything must have been put in motion by something else and everything must have been caused by something else, shouldn't God also adhere to the same stipulation and if God is somehow exempt from these rules. Why can't other things be exempt from those rules too? And if these things could have been established without God, we wouldn't need God to establish these things in the first place.



Saturday, 2 July 2016

Behavioral Economics

Behavioral economics is relatively new and was found to explain the abnormalities in the decisions made by a person. The success of lottery practice where the probability of losing is much higher than gaining, people exacting revenge even though it inflicted more pain to the person exacting revenge all this were the discrepancies which the classical economic theory couldn't explain. In classical economic theory, a man is considered to be rational and self-interested who make decisions after evaluating the costs and benefits and make a decision by maximizing the profit for themselves.
Image Credit: bringyourchallenges.con

Behavioral economics is a fusion of psychology and economics, it draws on the insight of the psychology to understand the decision-making process of people in a better ways. Behavioral economics focuses on psychological,social and emotional factors that influence a person decision-making process. Our decisions depend on the way the alternatives are framed even if these alternatives have the same value. Framing the alternatives differently can change people perception towards risk. People feel more pain of loss as compared to the joy of gain. To test this theory, an experiment was conducted where the employees of a company were divided into 3 groups. For the first group, things were left as usual. For the second group, a bonus was promised provided they meet the specific goals and for the third group, a bonus was given but with a caveat that they had to return this bonus if they didn't meet the goals. At the end of the year, the productivity of the first and the second group was on the similar lines but the productivity of the third group increased drastically. This result was is consonance with the theory.

Today behavioral economics has applicability in various fields such as finance, health, workplace productivity etc. So how does behavioral economics operate? As we know that humans can be quite irrational at times and it's very costly and time-consuming process to teach them to make a good decision. So behavioral economist try to identify the psychological issue underneath a problem and then they design a change in order to manipulate the social and emotional factors thereby increasing the probability of making better decisions. Once the change is designed they form a control group where for some people things are left as usual and for others these changes are implemented.  Finally, after some time the results of the implemented change on these control group are compared to understand if the designed change was successful or if it made no difference.


Saturday, 25 June 2016

Does Solitude Foster Creativity

We are now living in an era where many think that the creativity arises out of the gregarious place. So are they right, does solitude even matters when it comes to creativity and if it does how can it be helpful?  Before I try to answer these questions let's understand what creativity means. Many people will tell you creativity is thinking out of the box, so what is this box. Can this box be our mind? The answer is no, we can't think out of our mind. This box represents the boundaries that we have created inside our mind as a result of our social environment and where we feel safe and abide by the 
accepted beliefs. So thinking out of the box would be to take risks and challenge the accepted belief. Creativity also arises when you weave together different sorts of ideas from diverse fields. Steve Jobs said:

"Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things."

Now solitude has a positive role in both the definition of creativity. When you are alone, away from the influence of group dynamics and in a peaceful environment. In solitude, one has freedom of thoughts and the constraints of others is not there. This provides a conducive environment for one to connect with one's soul. In most of the world religion, there were seekers who went into the wilderness and experienced an epiphany. Then they brought these ideas with them and helped their community.

Solitude also provides one with a peaceful environment where they can stitch together diverse thoughts and imagery and can come up with unique ideas.

Negative effect of being in a group on one's thought process:

In a group, there are high chances of one mimicking the opinions of some famous or dominant person. You tend to agree with influencing person for a variety of reasons.

Does that mean creative ideas can't be born in a group? No, different people flourish in different types of environment. For some, a group seems to provide more stimulating environment while for others spaces of silence works wonder. Also, the kind of problems such as global warming, unemployment, poverty that exists today requires constant collaboration and information sharing to be resolved. At the same time, we shouldn't forget the power of fertile solitude as there are many who wants quiet spaces to connect their eclectic thoughts and the world needs these people ideas if the strenuous problems of this world need to be minimized.



Saturday, 18 June 2016

Artificial Intelligence

Most of you are aware that artificial intelligence (AI) is the intelligence of machine in performing a task that was once conceived to be only within the reach of a human brain. But this definition of AI evolves over time as technology spreads and some tasks become common. So to put it concisely, AI is whatever haven't been completely achieved yet. Human started building machines initially to help them in their physical tasks but in the past 100 years, humans have embarked on a journey to create technology to enhance their brain and this led to an artificial intelligence race among many top companies. Companies like IBM, Google are pouring hundreds of million dollars in AI technology. Before discussing the role of AI and what it means for the future of human race, let's briefly allude to the history of AI.

Brief History of AI:

In the 1940s, Turing's theory of computation suggested that the machine by just shuffling 0 and 1 can represent any conceivable physical laws of  this universe. In 1956, John McCarthy and others started writing programs that helped the machines to solve problems in algebra, playing games with human and speaking English. This led to heavy funding of AI related research by US Department of Defense. But they had overestimated the capabilities of AI and hadn't factored the issues such as lack of computing power and lack of sufficient data. This led to a fall in the AI related research. But as the computing power grew exponentially as forestalled by Moore and the advent of big data and the internet and cloud meant that there were a lot of data to be processed and also the computing efficiency was now faster and cheaper and also these data were easily available to any internet connected system.This was pristine milieu for the rise of AI.

Image Courtesy: map.norsecorp.com

Significance of AI:

So how is AI useful, in this ever changing world one needs to keep track of all the changes in this world to be considered as an expert in a field. Say 200 years back, one could have specialized in 10 fields due to limited availability of data. But with the big data technology, there are huge data being generated per day which is beyond the capabilities of any human to process. Thus nowadays, we see people specialize in a sub-section of any field. AI, thus, help people in being abreast of latest trends and information about the desired field. An example of such AI would be an expert system which can help a doctor treat its patient by recognizing the symptoms. Another example would be when an AI help an e-commerce company to market its product to a specific target group or even individual  by identifying the specific target group or individual. These AIs is becoming more and more intelligent at their assigned tasks.  In 1997, Deep Blue,an AI developed by IBM, defeated Garry Kasparov ,who is considered to be greatest chess player of all time, by 3.5-2.5 . Google's AI AlphaGo and Deepmind have defeated many legendary Go players. Expert systems are helping many companies to increase the sales of their product drastically. So what does the future holds in store with the growth of computing power and amount of data for the machines to learn?

Is future with AI a dream or a nightmare for human race:

What will happen once we develop a real AI, in the sense that it can learn and grow itself,whenever there is a change in the situation, it can change itself to better fit. Also, when all the different AIs can collaborate together to achieve certain tasks.What will happen when these super intelligent machines start competing with 7 billion people for resources to achieve a certain goal. Let me present a hypothesis:

Suppose an artificial intelligent system is created with a task to maximize the production of diesel cars, now to produce these cars it will need all the raw materials. Now there are a lot of practical issues like trade barrier and environmental concerns that need to be accounted for. In an ideal scenario, it would want to take control of the entire world to have indefinite resources available to produce these cars and it can turn against humans whose values doesn't align with its values.

Also, with these AI  residing on clouds and distributed across various systems around the world, it wouldn't be easy to shut them down. Also, if we are able to build a single kill switch, these machines being super-intelligent would find a way to protect it.

Recognizing these potential threats, many AI researchers have started building machine ethics which teach these AIs about human ethics and values so that the control remains with humans.






Saturday, 11 June 2016

Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment

As we know that psychology is the science of both behaviors and internal mental process. This article deals with behavioral part of it and involves associating our own behavior with consequences. Like when you see an animal performing circus trick or a child cleaning his room due to the rewards he/she receives for it. In both these above cases, operant conditioning is involved. So let's understand what does this operant conditioning mean.

Image Courtesy:ed.ted.com

Operant Conditioning:

Operant Conditioning is a type of learning in which the strength of a behavior of the operant (object under consideration) is modified by its consequences.  To comprehend this in a better way, let's return to the example of an animal playing a circus trick. Suppose we desire for a monkey to stand on 2 legs and balance a ball on its head. Now to increase the likelihood of this behavior in future, whenever a monkey does balance a ball on its head, he is given a reward ( say some cookies). Now as we know a monkey is not going to stand on its two legs and balance the ball, so we need to shape this behavior. Operant conditioning often involves shaping a behavior, which involves not only rewarding the desired or target behavior but also rewarding successive approximation of the target behavior. So for every time a monkey touches the ball or lifts the ball and/or stands on two legs, he is awarded as the trainer thinks it to be closer to his desired behavior. Finally, Once the monkey exhibit the desired behavior, henceforth he is awarded only when he exhibit the desired behavior.

In our everyday life also, we are continually shaping and refining each other behavior both intentionally and inadvertently. We do this through reinforcement as well as punishment.


Reinforcement procedures are adopted when we try to increase the future frequency of the desired behavior by delivering a stimulus immediately after response behavior is exhibited. Reinforcement is further categorized into positive and negative reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement:

Positive can be associated with addition and negative with subtraction. So positive reinforcement is adding something (Favorable Stimulus) that will motivate the individual to increase the likelihood of repeating that behavior in future.

Examples of positive reinforcement:

1. When a child finishes his/her homework on time(desired behavior), his mother gives him ice-cream( positive stimulus).
2. When you complete a project on time (desired behavior), your manager gives you a compliment(Positive stimulus).

Negative Reinforcement:

Negative reinforcement is when an averse stimulus is removed once we exhibit a particular behavior. Here avoiding or escaping from this negative stimulus acts as a motivating factor which increases the future frequency of the desired behavior.

Example of negative reinforcement:

1.When a child cleans his room in order to avoid his/her mother nagging. Here mother nagging acts as a negative stimulus which is avoided by the child by cleaning his room on time.

2. When a car alarm stops beeping(negative stimulus) once you put on the seat belt(desired behavior).

Negative reinforcement should not be confused with punishment as reinforcement is to increase the frequency of the desired behavior whereas punishment is to decrease the frequency of an undesired behavior.


In punishment, the stimulus which follows the undesired behavior decreases the likelihood of repetition that behavior in future. Like reinforcement, it can be either negative or positive.

Positive Punishment:

It works by delivering an averse stimulus when an undesired behavior is exhibited, which decreases the probability of repetition of that behavior.

Example of positive punishment:

When a child doesn't do his homework, his/her teacher reprimands him/her. Now the reprimand of a teacher acts as averse stimulus here and this makes children not doing their homework less likely to happen in future.

Negative Punishment:

Negative punishment happens when a favorable stimulus is removed when a certain undesired behavior is exhibited, which makes such behavior less likely to occur in future.

Example of negative punishment:

When a boy/girl arrive late at night, his/her cell phone privilege is taken away by their parent. Here cell phone privilege is a favorable stimulus which is removed in order to decrease the probability of their child coming late at night again.

A simple diagram to explain the above concept:

                      Image Courtesy:  twogunkennels.com

Now watch a small video from  Big Bang Theory on the execution of a few of these procedures.

If you have your own experience with reinforcement and punishment, feel free to share using the comment section.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning
2. http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

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An attempt to understand the human brain and the nervous system

From eating, breathing to thinking, analyzing various scenarios and feeling, everything is controlled by your brain. This jelly-like mass ...


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