On Mornings

Memories and Musings

Buffalo Bayou park, Houston — image credit
Ravel — Bolero, by London Symphony Orchestra

I recently found a new alarm clock. The iphone’s alarm just wasn’t cutting it anymore — unless i walked around all day with the ringer volume turned all the way up I would often forget to adjust before bed, and a phone without full volume well it just wasn’t sufficiently jarring to knock me out of zombie mode. I’ve found this new alarm mostly does the trick — at least after a few applications of the snooze button I suppose. The funny thing is though that if you asked me right now to point to which of the several buttons at the top of the clock radio activates the snooze function, well I honestly couldn’t tell you. The part of my brain that consistently selects the right button to push in these daily early mornings’ haze is completely inaccessible in waking hours. I affectionately refer to this alternate consciousness upon waking as the monkey brain.

via The Far Side by Gary Larson

I find the most interesting part about this morning state of affairs is that apparently the monkey brain has the ability to learn and act on memories that are completely inaccessible to my waking consciousness. I’m left to wonder what other memories it has retained that I can’t directly access, but perhaps still influence decisions and behaviors in the waking hours.

Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child Through a Sinful World — Circle of Hieronymus Bosch — Houston Museum of Fine Arts

In my last post I paid tribute to a stirring lecture from a NECSI program addressing questions of complexity and artificial intelligence. As has turned into a kind of recurring theme in this blog, some of the discussions in this program coincidentally turned to theories on the workings of human consciousness. One framing presented was novel to me, and I’ll attempt to quickly gloss it here:

The human brain contains instances of feedforward networks, in which an input is fed through a kind of biological directed neural network (with similarity to modern machine learning applications such as convolutional networks for instance). These feed-forward aspects make up our sensory-motor processes, and collectively form the basis of our subconscious. Other aspects of the brain are comprised of attractor networks, in which layers are replaced with a more collective (but in some dimensions sparse) interconnectedness (with similarity to a non-restricted Boltzmann machine for instance), whose evolution from input, instead of following a feedforward transformation of signal, produces a progression of global state as the interconnected neuron firings collectively reach their low point in a high-dimensional energy landscape. These progressions of attractor network aspects are how memories are accessed and enable what we experience in our consciousness. But the evolution of consciousness over time and resulting physically manifested actions arise from the interplay and feedback of both these feedforward / subconscious and attractor / conscious systems interacting.

via The Far Side by Gary Larson

I kind of embarrassed myself at this same seminar. On more than once, I literally fell asleep in my chair mid-morning and mid-lecture. My monkey brain has a sense of humor. Just as I think he’s down for the count, he has on occasion a tendency to claw his way back to the surface and act as a strong regularization, dampening the firings of the attractor network. I’ve heard some offer heuristics like “don’t eat breakfast” that I imagine are meant to call us to question the need for the three meal per day treadmill, devoid of peaks and valleys. Experimentation with diet has actually had some positive results as I wrestle the monkey — what started as a lifetime habit of bowls of cereal was at first traded in for instant oatmeal and eventually progressed to a glass of milk and a piece of fruit. While these tactics haven’t completely solved the monkey’s betrayal, it’s at least dampened the regularization effect. Instead of feeling like I am submerged under water, well instead you could say makes for a mild morning receding tide.

image credit Kate Bear

I once saw a humorous Far Side cartoon featuring Einstein at a chalk board, struggling to perfect his now infamous equation to relate the counterbalance of energy and mass. As all of the permutations of E = mc^x are trialed and subsequently crossed out, a friendly housekeeper has just finished straightening up the professor’s desk and offers with a satisfying exclamation “Now that desk looks better. Everything’s squared away, yessir, squaaaaaared away.” The spark of this cartoon is first found in the recognition of the prequel to a moment of inspiration — Newton attentively napping under the apple tree, about to discover gravity. But I think if you look deeper you can almost find a metaphor for the interplay between a conscious and subconscious network, the low point of an energy landscape discovered not through some structured back-propagation as Einstein works his way down the chalk-board, but instead through random annealing of a lucky coincidence. This Far Side Einstein working on his own wouldn’t have amounted to much — the creativity and spark came from the interactions between networks.

via The Far Side by Gary Larson

Not too long ago I found myself driving a car with my uncle Tim in the passenger seat. As I turned on my blinker to merge into the next lane of traffic, Tim asked incredulously “What are you doing? Why don’t you use the side mirror?” It took me a second to figure out what he was talking about. Apparently, at some point during the years of solitary early morning rush hour commutes I had grown so paranoid about the car’s blind spot that I had given up on the mirror all together, trading it in for awkwardly twisting my head around to inspect the next lane first hand, and in the process taking my eyes of the much more pertinent front windshield view — watching where I had been instead of where I was going. This self-defeating technique over time had wormed it’s way into my subconscious. I had literally developed a blind spot of my own, the spot where the time-saving side-view mirror is attached! I’ve since been working on the lane changes, trying to limit the process to brief glances.

I suppose I could just start saving up for a self-driving car so as to be done with it and enjoy the sunrise panoramic view, but the truth is I still enjoy driving.

image credit Gary Larson

*For further readings please check out my Table of Contents, Book Recommendations, and Music Recommendations.

Books that were referenced here or otherwise inspired this post:

The Far Side — Gary Larson

The Far Side

(Book purchase links from this essay are to the Amazon Smile program for charitable fundraising.)

For further readings please check out my Table of Contents, Book Recommendations, and Music Recommendations.



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Nicholas Teague

Nicholas Teague

Writing for fun and because it helps me organize my thoughts. I also write software to prepare data for machine learning at automunge.com. Consistently unique.