Robert L. Blum, MD, PhD




Sphere of Interest

WebBrain: AI
neurosci psych

Stanford Brain Lecture Notes

The RX Project:
Robotic Discovery

CV Biblio (1985)


Index of Essays

Psychology &
Neuroscience brain-icon

Computer Science,
Robotics, and AI

Health & Biotech

Earth Wisdom: Biosphere and Universe earth-icon

Be Saved by Bob!!!
(And Other Balms )

Optimal Nutrition:
Are Fats Killers
or Saviors?


Consciousness Video:
Who, What, When?

Near Death Experiences: In the Desert With Pim Van Lommel

Fine-Tuned for Life?

EUV 2013 - Future of Moore's Law

BAM: Brain Activity Map of Spikes

Beating Jeopardy!
What is Watson?
AI Overlord or Tool?

SETI: Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

KEPLER Seeks Earth-like Worlds

STEVE PINKER in the Amazon: photos

Billion Year Plan:
AI Formulation

AI Awakens

CONSCIOUSNESS as Global Resonance

SEAN's Accident

Coronary Artery CT
Scan: A Life Saver

Book Review: TRANSCEND

Book Review:
Create a Mind

Does Drug X


Total Recall:
Everything, Always

Ralph Triumphs:
Elbot Cheers

Scientists &
Evangelicals Unite

Thomas Berry,
Geologian: Obituary

Calorie Restriction
Works in Monkeys!

TheBrain &
WebBrain: Review


Psychology & Neuroscience

Checkerboard Illusion Square A and square B are exactly the same shade of gray.
So, scratch "objective reality" off the list of things you're personally in contact with.

BAM - Brain Activity Map
Every Spike from Every Neuron

A blue-ribbon panel of nanotechnologists and neuroscientists from the
Kavli Foundation has just proposed creating an incredible set of tools
to enable the visualization of every spike from every neuron in brain-wide regions.
Enthusiasts include NIH Director Francis Collins and President Barack Obama.
This scientific ten year moon shot made it into the 2013 State of the Union!

The Mystery of Consciousness: Introduction
Consciousness is the most fundamental unsolved problem in science.
This brief introduction reviews the mind/body problem.
(Also see the hi-def video of my introductory lecture on consciousness.)

Consciousness - What, Who, When, and Why
This is a hi-def video of a lecture I gave in 2010 at the Bay Area AI Meetup.
It discusses the importance of consciousness to ourselves
and our sense of the world. I introduce comparative neuroanatomy
and discuss when and why consciousness evolved.
Consciousness confers evolutionary advantage in a fiercely competitive
and changing world. (See my essay: The Mystery of Consciousness: Introduction.)

Near Death Experiences: In the Desert with Pim Van Lommel
Out in the desert foothills of Tucson in 2010, I interviewed NDE researcher
and cardiologist, Pim Van Lommel, who organized the largest study of NDEs so far.
My view is that the patients are genuinely conveying their experiences, but
their perceptions are hallucinatory. Dr. Van Lommel believes they are quite real,
and require a fundamental revision of neuroscience and physics. I doubt it.

My Stanford University Lecture Notes
I attend about 200 lectures per year at Stanford University and take detailed notes.
Some are listed here. Hundreds more are contained in my online WebBrain.
Most focus on cognitive neuroscience and on AI (my main interests).
AI will be immensely helped when principles of neurosci are finally elucidated.
Also look at talks by visiting superstars of molecular biology, cosmology, and energy.

Steve Pinker in the Amazon
In 2008 I went to the Amazon on a trip with the Center for Inquiry (CFI).
The world famous Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker was our guest lecturer.
This is a photo essay about the trip, Steve, Paul Kurtz
(CFI's Founder and leading luminary), and our traveling band of skeptics.

Why Red Doesn't Sound Like a Bell:
Understanding the Feel of Consciousness

This is my review of Kevin O'Regan's 2011 book, thus entitled.
This is a beautifully written book, which, unfortunately, Oxford Press has overpriced.
The ideas, however, are readily available online.
Sensorimotor theory (SMT), while generative, has essential flaws.
Nonetheless, the book itself is a clear, delightful introduction to
the problems posed by qualia, which "color" everything we know.

Artificial Consciousness
This is a letter I sent to MIT's Technology Review in 2007 responding to
an article by Yale computer scientist David Gelernter: AI is Lost in the Woods.
(In my era (1970s and 80s), AI was lost in the woods. Now, it's doing much better.

Consciousness as Global Cortical Resonance
I reviewed an important paper (2009) by Stan Dehaene's group
on the neural correlates of consciousness.
This research was conducted on ten human subjects with intracranial electrode arrays.
(Electrocorticography (ECOG) is a rare opportunity to track consciousness
in real time (milliseconds). MRI signal is too slow (seconds).)
It shows that consciousness is a global reverberatory state involving all cortical lobes.

(One page synopsis of my life-long interest in the mind/body problem.)
(Woody Allen would say, "which is it better to have?"

Mind and Brain: My Life Story
(a chapter length autobiography of my interest
in the mind/brain and software/computer relationship)

Knowledge and Intelligence
(another chapter length essay (an early draft) on the power of knowledge.
Yes, intelligence is multi-dimensional:
social, emotional, motoric, spiritual, etc., but that's later.)

Brains: Ray's, Jerry's, Bob's
This is an unsolicited, unpaid testimonial for TheBrain,
a software program that I use to keep track of everything -
so apparently do Ray Kurzweil and Jerry Michalski. See their brains, as well.

Cafe Wall Illusion

All lines are parallel (including the horizontal ones) in the Cafe Wall Illusion.
Objective reality is out there, but it cannot be experienced - ever.

Notable Links

Charlie Rose: The Brain Series
Charlie Rose is my favorite interviewer on TV:
no one else has his breadth of knowledge. Here he joins
Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel to interview some of the top
U.S. neuroscientists on childhood neural development, depression,
social interaction, perception, cognition, emotion, learning, memory, and other topics.
Charlie Rose and Eric Kandel are national treasures.)

Allen Brain Institute Symposia Video Archive
If you want to see the videos presented by the world's top neuroscientists,
to the world's top neuroscientists, go to the Allen Video Archive (above).
(Imagine Sir Isaac Newton giving a powerpoint pitch to Queen Ann.)
One of my faves from 2011 is Terry Sejnowski's talk. Start at minute 7 or 8.
Then watch as he narrates a spectacular reconstruction of a cube 6 microns
on a side of hippocampus. (You can see the video Waltz thru hippocampus
but you'll miss Terry's essential narration.)

QualiaSoup presents Critical Thinking
QualiaSoup is an anonymous YouTube video producer. His brief videos
are all outstanding examples of the potential of the internet to raise
our collective intelligence. Savor the above five minute video on critical thinking,
then go on to his others on Faith, Substance Dualism, Open-Mindedness,
Skewed Views of Science, Problems with Anecdotes, Coincidence and Evolution.

William James: Psychology of Consciousness
In 2010 we celebrated the centennial of one of America's greatest psychologists,
philosophers, and intellectuals: William James. At the closing of the 19th century,
James was the towering intellectual of America and certainly
our preeminent psychologist. He was a great champion of consciousness
as being the defining characteristic of our humanity.
With James' passing in 1910, psychology entered a Dark Age that cast out
consciousness as an object of study and even questioned its reality.
Fortunately, in the past few decades that insanity has lessened. Read the wiki entry
on William James
and another excellent biography in the Stanford Encyclopedia.
William James' most important work was his 1200 page The Principles of Psychology
published in 1890. Two years later in 1892, he published an abridged version
for the classroom called Psychology: The Briefer Course.
(The 1200 page work is known as JAMES; the briefer (480 page) summary
is known as JIMMY.) Bask in James' insights and erudition. (He turns a phrase
as pleasingly as does his younger brother, novelist Henry James.)
Principles of Psychology is here. Psychology: The Briefer Course is here
(first 32 pages) and completely here as a 38 MB download.
Here is James' brilliant chapter on Consciousness of the Self.

Classics of Psychology
Speaking of William James, this index compiles many links to must-read papers of his
as well as to papers by Gordon Allport on personality, Aristotle on memory,
Al Bandura on aggression, Binet on intelligence, Cattell on mental testing,
Darwin's Descent of Man, George Miller on memory, Plato on the psyche, and others.

The Illusion of Reality
This is a fabulous one hour BBC video on the nature of physical reality.
The perceived world is definitely just a high-level approximation
to whatever is out there. Note: do not mistake my enthusiasm for
this video as an endorsement for the view that quantum mechanics is
inextricably tied to consciousness. The consensus view
(albeit subject to revision) is that it is not. (I found What the Bleep Do We Know,
for example, to be so erroneous as to be unwatchable.)

Change Blindness
Change blindness is a fascinating window into the limits of conscious awareness.
Subjective and consensus reality are different, sometimes spectacularly so.
The above link shows a Londoner asking for directions.
Here's another in a psych lab office
And another with a basketball team. And the Wiki article on change blindness.

Optical Illusions
The above is an extensive collection of stunning optical illusions.
The curator, Prof. Michael Bach, is a vision scientist, and his explanations are accurate.
As he says, quoting Purkinje, "Illusions of the senses tell us the truth
about perception."
The brain constructs the visual world from fleeting images.
Occasionally, it gets it wrong.

In speech understanding, the brain combines what we hear with what we see.
The McGurk effect shows that the result of combining phonemes with lip-reading
may be delightfully ambiguous
. Our conscious world is our brain's unique solution,
as it combines sense data and filters it through our past experiences.

Here's another great set of illusions (Gizmodo, 2013).

Eye-Tracking: ISCAN
Most of our vision is done with a tiny (1 mm) portion of the retina called the fovea,
in which cone cells are packed tightly together. Although the fovea is less than
1% of the retina, it takes up over 50% of the visual cortex in the brain.
To create our visual world, then, we must continually shift our gaze
by changing our visual fixation about 3 to 4 times per second
in visual saccades or jumps. Neuroscientists use eye trackers to determine
where and at what the subject is looking from moment to moment. These videos from
ISCAN will show you the state of the art: looking close and far; indoors and outdoors.

The above is the Wiki entry for autostereogram.
Or, to see many more just search Google images for autostereograms.
The brain perceives the hidden image by making pixel by pixel comparisons of the
depth disparity detected by the right and the left eye. Our visual systems
are infinitely more complex than mere cameras.

Why I Have Given Up (Parapsychology)
Psychologist Susan Blackmore studied parapsychology as a wannabe
believer for decades. (Parapsychology embraces the likes of telepathy,
telekinesis, and remote viewing. Unfortunately, the study of consciousness
has been tainted by association with it.)
Consciousness is too important to be associated with pseudoscience and superstition.
Besides, nowadays we have cell phones - telepathy is obsolete.
In this lovely essay Sue explains Why I have given up (on parapsychology).
(The wonderful Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry, edited the volume.)
I joined Dr. Kurtz and CFI for a trip to the Amazon in 2008. See pix here.
Pseudoscience is an appropriate context to transition to a discussion of SPECT scans.

Daniel Amen: Vegetables, Yes; SPECT Scans, No!
My tv viewing is immeasurably elevated by PBS's airing of
wonderful shows like NOVA, Nature, and Charlie Rose, whose Brain Series,
hosted by Nobelist Eric Kandel
features world-class neuroscientists.
Occasionally though, during PBS pledge drives,
I watch some shows that are a bit more like cable tv infomercials. One such is
Daniel Amen's Change Your Brain, Change Your Age. Here's my opinion.

I appreciate and greatly approve of Amen's emphasis on brain health measures:
physical and mental exercise, nutrition, sleep, freedom from anxiety, depression, stress,
toxins, and toxic relationships. These topics deserve his polished and entertaining style.
However, the part of the program that makes me wince is his focus
on SPECT scanning
as a means of diagnosing a huge swath of the population.
They're expensive; they involve radiation; and they have limited diagnostic value.
Fortunately for me (it saves me work) and for you (it saves you money),
excellent critiques of his use of SPECT scans and supplements of
unproven efficacy
have already been published.

First is this detailed critique called Brain Scam by Dr. Robert Burton,
former Chief of Neurology at Mt. Zion/UCSF. Second, is this critique
by Dr. Harriet Hall, writing for QuackWatch
. Allegedly, Amen
sicced his lawyers onto QuackWatch
- not exactly the way
we like to see truth emerge in the academic world
of peer-review and falsifiability. (But, Amen's zeal for SPECT Scans is
understandable from a self-enrichment standpoint. One also assumes that skepticism
and falsifiability were not emphasized at Oral Roberts Medical School, where
he got his degree.)I agree with his commonsense advice on brain health, but
skip the SPECT Scans, unless you have money to burn.

(Note to older readers: a carotid ultrasound was life-changing for me).

And a note to PBS. Every night on NewsHour, you have opponents that debate
controversial issues. Viewers expect that level of intellectual honesty from PBS.
It would be easy to include dissenting opinions when running shows like Amen's.

Crows are Intelligent!
I love this TED video by Josh Klein, who built a vending machine for crows.
They are incredibly intelligent tool users. When I backpack, I observe the
Clark's Nutcrackers, another of the Corvidae. They can remember thousands of seed caches. Never call someone a bird-brain, unless you mean it as a compliment.
Are birds nonconscious robots driven by instinct? Forget it!
Check out this snow-boarding crow! Or, this crow using cars to crack nuts.

Eidetic Memory in Chimps is Better than Humans'
Check out Ayumu, a young lab chimp, who outperforms college students
at a brief numerical video game. Ayumu and the other young chimps
all outperform the students at this test of visual memory. Here is a
link to the publication. The video is above.

Text Twist
Text Twist is a free, online anagram game to limber your cortex.
Crossword puzzles have long been used to keep old brains young.
In two minutes spell out as many words as possible. Click the letters in order,
then hit ENTER. If you're mind is blank, hit TWIST to scramble them. Try It!

Severed Corpus Callosum
With 200 million fibers, the corpus callosum is a huge cable connecting
the two hemispheres of the brain. In this wonderful clip from
Scientific American Frontiers, Alan Alda (of MASH fame) interviews
famed neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga as he tests one of his split-brain patients.
The results are amazing and informative.

Girl Living With Half Her Brain
This little girl was developing normally when at age 3 she began to have uncontrollable
grand mal seizures. To cure her, neurosurgeons removed her entire right hemisphere!
In this 5 min YouTube, she and her parents are interviewed on Today at NBC
by Ann Curry and Nancy Snyderman.

The Secret Power of Time
In this masterfully concise and amusing video, Stanford's Prof. Phil Zimbardo shows
how our individual perspectives on time affect our work, health, and well-being.
Time influences our personal identities, our relationships, and our world views.

Why We Procrastinate
An accurate, charmingly illustrated essay on why we procrastinate and
what to do about it. I also recommend Oliver Emberton's other essays.

Antidepressants Don't; Ketamine Does
The title links to my brief essay on antidepressants as placebos, featuring an interview
of Harvard's Irving Kirsch by Lesley Stahl on the TV show 60 Minutes.
If you're a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist (or a patient) this is must-viewing.
Preventing overmedication has been one of my lifetime professional crusades.

Where is Intelligence in the Brain?
This video is a great 2 minute summary of where intelligence is in the brain.
Prof. Aron Barbey of Univ. of Illinois at U-C, who led the research, narrates it.
His team correlated fMRI voxels in men with focal brain damage with their
Wechsler Intelligence scores and with their Delis-Kaplan Executive scores.
This 2012 study appeared in Brain and used 182 Vietnam veterans with
highly localized brain lesions from penetrating trauma. As expected, regions of the left
frontal , temporal, and parietal cortices predominate and connecting myelinated tracts.

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