The Unbinding Problem

We human folk are pretty good at taking information from different sensory channels and combining it into unified impressions. When I watch a video recording of Richard Feynman, for example, my optic nerves carry a flood of data pulses, signals which somehow arrive in my brain and sync up with the voice which sounds like a Brooklyn gangster (but which actually came from Far Rockaway, of course). A unified whole then emerges, without my conscious effort.

Like they’ve done with all the other odd aspects of brain function, people have invoked quantum mechanics to “explain” this: the mind is mysterious, quantum physics is mysterious, and so the two must be related. Only your blind devotion to linear, Western, patriarchal science prevents you from seeing the Truth! (Oddly enough, the Oprah-Chopra-woo crowd never seem to remark on how the original developers of quantum physics were, almost all of them, White Males who are now Dead.) The “binding problem” is no exception.

However, as both Max Tegmark and Ray F. Streater have pointed out, the proponents of what we might call “quantum binding” — Henry Stapp in particular — fail to consider that correlations are perfectly possible in classical physics. The invocation of quantum physics is only a maladroit solution to a non-problem. In Tegmark’s words,

For instance, oscillations in a guitar string are local in Fourier space, not in real space, so in this case the “binding problem” can be solved by a simple change of variables. As Eddington remarked [77], when observing the ocean we perceive the moving waves as objects in their own right because they display a certain permanence, even though the water itself is only bobbing up and down. Similarly, thoughts are presumably highly non-local excitation patterns in the neural network of our brain, except of a non-linear and much more complex nature.

Now, a patient has turned up in whose brain binding does not occur. G. Lee and H. B. Coslett write of the patient “K.E.,”

He was unable to report more than one attribute of a single object. For example, he was unable to name the color of the ink in which words were written despite naming the word correctly. Several experiments demonstrated, however, that perceptual attributes that he was unable to report influenced his performance.

K.E. had suffered stroke damage to his parietal lobes on both sides of his brain, or in technical terms, “bilateral posterior parietal infarcts.” In addition to his binding difficulties, he experienced simultanagnosia, an inability to see more than one object out of several presented to his view at once.

It may be a “dog bites man” report by now, but I think it’s worth noting that finding patients with neural dysfunctions is still a more productive way of gaining new neuroscientific knowledge than woolly-headed speculation about quantum mechanics, speculation which incidentally ignores big facts about physics.

(Tip o’ the fedora to Mind Hacks, and to Warren Ellis, whose “4am” provides my current background score.)

10 thoughts on “The Unbinding Problem”

  1. That is pretty fascinating stuff, Blake. I always love finding out about not only the things about our neurological make-up that we take for granted, but the things we didn’t even realize we were CAPABLE of taking for granted.

    Reminds me of finding out about proprioception when reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and having that sort of “total mind-blow” moment…truly, there are some things we don’t know we’ve got going for us until we find someone who DOESN’T have them.

  2. The description of absence of brain binding presents a wierd perceptual state that is a bit scary when we consider that it could happen to anyone!
    “…. finding patients with neural dysfunctions is still a more productive way of gaining new neuroscientific knowledge than woolly-headed speculation about quantum mechanics ….” I’m sure that you are right in a practical sense and for therapeutic use: still speculations like this one:
    arXiv:quant-ph/0108039 v1 8 Aug 2001″MINDLESS SENSATIONALISM: A QUANTUM FRAMEWORK FOR CONSCIOUSNESS” do provide interesting ‘food for thought’

  3. I fixed the repeated text in your first comment — I’m not sure what happened there, either.

    As to the arXiv e-print you cite, BLAKE’S CAPSULE REVIEW is as follows:

    “Long on terminology, short on content; muddled descriptions of quantum theory, particularly with regard to Feynman path integrals; garbled references to natural selection; unwarranted analogies between precise concepts in mathematics and vague ones in philosophy and psychology; studied ignorance of decoherence, einselection and the emergence of classical physics from quantum phenomena; lack of attention paid to neuroscience and what empirical inquiry has uncovered about the way the brain actually operates.”

  4. By the way, I’ve found it’s rather interesting to read papers about “consciousness” (particularly the ones with quantum flavor added) but replacing the word “consciousness” with “photosynthesis.”

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