Talking Machines (part 2: The Animals – Invisibilia)

Invisibilia is the other great new podcast that may interest people. It’s been pushed pretty heavily by NPR and the first two episodes are generally pretty good.

The first focused on thoughts – in particular, thoughts about thoughts. They told the story of Martin Pistorius, a man who, through sickness, went into a coma only to wake up four years later – but locked in. He couldn’t move. Slowly he gained control of his body but it took years before he could communicate. All he could do was sit there – and think. Now that he’s out, dude is about as smart and funny and all I want to do is read his book. But his case has got to be about as close to a “brain in a vat” experiment as you can get, right?

I don’t know anything about the cognitive science of thinking, but here are two places that might get you started.

The second episode interviewed a patient of Damasio’s who cannot feel fear because of Urbach-Wiethe disease. The disease slowly calcifies, and hence lesions, the amygdala. So this woman could feel fear at one point – but now can’t. My biggest thought: how does she remember fear? What does it ‘feel’ like if you don’t have the circuitry to generate it?

Here’s a great set of experiments that they performed on her:

SPIEGEL: Somewhere in her teens, somewhere between the catfish and walking into Damasio’s office, SM’s ability to experience fear just slowly faded out and the world around her became benign, a place populated by people and things that only seemed to wish her well. Damasio and the other scientists who have studied SM know this because they’ve done all kinds of tests that prove it’s true. They’ve exposed her to the most terrifying animals that they could find, snakes.

DAMASIO: She had to be restrained from playing with the ones that would actually be quite dangerous to her.

SPIEGEL: They’ve tried to condition a fear response into her by randomly assaulting her with the sound of a loud, jarring horn – nothing. She just seems emotionally blind to the experience of fear.

And here’s the story of her life:

SM: OK. I was walking to the store, and I saw this man on a park bench. He said, come here please. So I went over to him. I said, what do you need? He grabbed me by the shirt, and he held a knife to my throat and told me he was going to cut me. I told him – I said, go ahead and cut me. And I said, I’ll be coming back, and I’ll hunt your ass. Oops. Am I supposed to say that? I’m sorry.

TRANEL: That’s OK. It’s an intense situation. How did you feel when that happened?

SM: I wasn’t afraid. And for some reason, he let me go. And I went home.

Anyway, the podcast is worth a lesson and may have some ideas that I’ll come back to and post about.

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