You Are A Brain

post by Liron · 2009-05-09T21:53:26.771Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 79 comments

Here is a 2-hour slide presentation I made for college students and teens:

You Are A Brain

It's an introduction to realist thinking, a tour of all the good stuff people don't realize until they include a node for their brain's map in their brain's map. All the concepts come from Eliezer's posts on Overcoming Bias.

I presented this to my old youth group while staffing one of their events. In addition to the slide show, I had a browser with various optical illusions open in tabs, and I brought in a bunch of lemons and miracle fruit tablets. They had a good time and stayed engaged.

I hope the slides will be of use to others trying to promote the public understanding of rationality.

Note: When you view the presentation, make sure you can see the speaker notes. They capture the gist of what I was saying while I was showing each slide.

Added 6 years later: I finally made a video of myself presenting this, except this time it was an adult audience. See this discussion post.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by talisman · 2009-05-12T04:29:40.471Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  • Let me add to the chorus of "you rock!" This is a nice piece of work. I don't know how you got the chance to present to a group of young people about this stuff, but kudos also to whoever gave you that opportunity.
  • Some have pointed out potential improvements. This seems like a solid way for anyone interested to add a quantum of effort to the cause---improve the presentation a bit, and post your improved version somewhere. (Where?)
comment by Furcas · 2009-05-10T03:27:59.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


How did your audience react to your presentation?

Replies from: Liron
comment by Liron · 2009-05-10T21:05:02.865Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Talking to people afterwards, I could tell they thought it was a really fun program and a good addition to their event. They seemed to feel that the content was deep.

Unfortunately, many of them seemed to not grasp the central principles. When I asked them what they thought the main idea was, they said something like: "Your experience is what you make of it, like how you feel in social situations is under your control" -- apparently rounding to the nearest cached wisdom (although not a bad one).

I consider that a failure on my part to make the concepts clear and accessible enough. It was unreasonable to think that people would remember the definition of "heuristic", for example, the way I presented it in passing during the original presentation.

After I did the presentation, I spent a couple more hours tweaking and reorganizing the slides before posting to LW. Now that I've improved the slides, and now that I've had practice with presenting the material, I'm optimistic about being able to achieve more comprehension the next time I find an audience for this.

And even when the ideas are over some people's heads, I think that as long as they're entertained, it's good to expose them to an impressive display of realist philosophy at an early age.

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky, MichaelGR, MBlume, jsalvatier
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-05-12T06:54:33.750Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I asked them what they thought the main idea was, they said something like: "Your experience is what you make of it, like how you feel in social situations is under your control" -- apparently rounding to the nearest cached wisdom (although not a bad one).

Note to self: Start asking audience members what they thought was the main idea of my talk.

comment by MichaelGR · 2009-05-12T20:44:01.468Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would you consider making a video of yourself giving the presentation (on youtube, f.ex.) and posting it to LW?

comment by MBlume · 2009-05-10T22:19:17.514Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And even when the ideas are over some people's heads, I think that as long as they're entertained, it's good to expose them to an impressive display of realist philosophy at an early age.

Anything that says "come back later, there is wisdom here" is good. Star Trek got me started being interested in physics. Every bit helps.

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-06-27T18:47:20.164Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did you ever do this more? Has your success improved?

Replies from: Liron
comment by Liron · 2011-07-02T21:47:10.150Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I did it once more and it went about the same - unfortunately I have not presented YAAB for over a year now. Last year I did a game for the same group about the evolution of cooperation but I don't notes for it.

comment by evtujo · 2009-05-10T14:53:04.074Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

i have not viewed it yet (though i'm greatly looking forward to it) but my first reaction was: you got teenagers to sit still for 2 hours to listen to a talk on rationality. my mind is blown.

Replies from: Liron
comment by Liron · 2009-05-10T20:39:08.376Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the second half hour, when I was talking about the electromagnetic spectrum, I was a little nervous/excited and adopted a really college-lecture-level style and vocabulary and a lot of the audience (high school age) was obviously starting to tune out.

After I did the optical illusions and miracle fruit demo, which brought me about 2/3 into the presentation time-wise, I had a 5-minute intermission for people to just chat with each other, then continued. Their attention then seemed pretty steady for the last third.

I guess there are enough neat mind-pwns sprinkled throughout the presentation to keep people entertained, even the ones who self-reported that it went way over their heads.

comment by Z_M_Davis · 2009-05-10T02:52:13.201Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Re slide twenty-seven:

Here you see a bunch of reflected light from pixels on a 2-dimensional screen. You don’t actually think Jessica Alba is in the room with you, but you might feel aroused anyway. So your feeling of horniness is not connected to what’s in reality

In future presentations, please don't use the grammatical second person.

Replies from: Liron, CannibalSmith
comment by Liron · 2009-05-10T20:33:53.542Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alright. I wasn't concerned with that kind of thing because the writing is intended to be used as speaker notes, not read off directly. And the youth group I presented to was all male (with one openly gay member in the audience).

comment by CannibalSmith · 2009-05-10T14:26:09.186Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why? What would be the better way?

Replies from: Z_M_Davis
comment by Z_M_Davis · 2009-05-10T15:00:57.413Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


The current wording implicitly suggests that the normative human is sexually attracted to women, whereas in fact this is only true of approximately half the population. I understand that this interpretation is not what was explicitly intended, but clear language is important, especially if one is going to hold forth on "unconscious map computation".

Replies from: Zack_M_Davis, MBlume, cabalamat
comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2019-07-07T18:01:49.518Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, I agree with this criticism, but you really should have led with the criticism, instead of starting out with the impudent demand (well, "request"—you did say "please") that Liron change his presentation, and then only explaining the rationale when questioned. A criticism that is stated can then be argued with (I bet you didn't anticipate that Liron was presenting to a boys' group! [LW(p) · GW(p)]), whereas a request backed by an unstated rationale (of which it is assumed that "everyone knows" [LW · GW]) is more likely to be functioning as a social threat: "Do as I say, or I'll attack your moral character in the ensuing interaction (rather than arguing in good faith)."

Understanding these dynamics may turn out to be surprisingly relevant to your interests—although you probably won't understand what I'm talking about for another ten years, two months.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2019-07-07T18:28:11.488Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reading this comment and figuring out what was going on was an interesting (and pleasant) rollercoaster

comment by MBlume · 2009-05-10T22:22:40.254Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems that this can all be dodged by simply showing Jessica alongside, I don't know, Brad Pitt or someone. Should take care of most viewers.

comment by cabalamat · 2009-05-10T15:48:47.013Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The current wording implicitly suggests that the normative human is sexually attracted to women

The wording "you might feel aroused anyway" suggests no such thing. "Might" carries no implication that P>0.5, merely that P>0.

The next sentence "So your feeling of horniness is not connected to what’s in reality", however does tend to imply the default is sexual attraction to women. It's also untrue: the pixels on the screen are real, they just happen not to be a different reality (Jessica Alba being in the room).

Replies from: Z_M_Davis
comment by Z_M_Davis · 2009-05-10T17:04:13.206Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The wording "you might feel aroused anyway" suggests no such thing.

I noticed this too, but in context I don't think it's the most natural reading. It seems as if the audience is assumed by default to be composed of heterosexual males, with the word might acknowledging that they might or might not be aroused by this particular picture at this particular time. See notes to slide twenty-nine: "You stealth-compute 'sexiness' as a property of Jessica alba by unconsciously evaluating signs of her health and fertility in her appearance."

It's also untrue: the pixels on the screen are real,

Here I'm inclined to defend the original phrasing. Criticism in the service of inclusiveness and clear language is one thing; literalist nitpicking is another. When we say "The picture isn't real," I think it's rather clear from context that we mean "the picture is not a veridical rendering of reality," not "the picture does not exist."

On the other hand---it is worth pointing out that men viewing pornography should not be said to be making a mistake (as is suggested by speaking of a "feeling of horniness {being} not connected to what’s in reality"). The men know perfectly well that it's only a photograph, they just don't care. Why would they or should they? Humans are adaptation-executers, not fitness-maximizers.

All this mess could be sidestepped entirely by using "sunset/beautiful" or "chocolate/tasty" rather than "Jessica Alba/sexy," although I imagine some would argue that this would damage the presentation by making it less entertaining.

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-05-10T20:54:05.975Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also note that using a photoshopped image (or playing the Dove natural beauty youtube thingy) would convey the point even more strongly.

comment by falenas108 · 2011-08-02T17:35:31.188Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm doing a similar presentation and will probably be stealing a lot of the ideas from here, thanks!

comment by Dustin · 2009-05-10T16:32:21.597Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this.

It's a nice high-level overview that I can point friends to.

To further that goal, I published this to Google Docs so you can just view it on the web.

comment by Jack · 2009-05-10T08:51:05.264Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good presentation: just out of curiosity do people here consider the question of whether we are brains settled? Obviously no one here is going to hold that we're immaterial souls and I think the claim that we are brains is less wrong than the claim that we're souls. But I'm also pretty confident that persons aren't brains and I imagine the people who expect future persons to upload themselves to computers will agree with me. To give the usual computer analogy I think saying you are a brain is like saying an operating system is a couple computer chips- you've named the substrate but not the thing itself.

But I'm just curious since Liron said this came of Eliezer and I haven't read everything on OB... is this the popular opinion here that we are brains?

Replies from: SoullessAutomaton
comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-05-10T11:46:34.562Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

is this the popular opinion here that we are brains?

"You Are A Brain" is not strictly accurate, to my mind, but it's catchy and sufficiently less wrong to be useful as a hook for the concepts.

My preferred clarification is "I'm not my brain, I'm something my brain is doing."

Replies from: Liron, abigailgem, Dagon
comment by Liron · 2009-05-10T20:24:26.538Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's right. The more accurate, less catchy title would be "You Are Implemented On A Homo Sapien Brain".

Replies from: DanielLC
comment by DanielLC · 2012-03-10T20:46:57.151Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If there's nothing implemented on it, is it still a brain?

If you have a pattern of silicon that doesn't perform computations, is it still a chip?

Depending on how you answer that question, "You are an aspect of a homo sapiens brain" would work better.

In any case, we all seem to understand what we're talking about, and the difference in our definitions isn't something we're likely to come by, so they're both carving reality at it's joints.

comment by abigailgem · 2009-05-14T14:07:28.969Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, "you are an organism".

You are a mammal, and all that is within your skin is you. This includes the unconscious bits, as well as the conscious running dialogue in your head. This includes all your other organs, whose functioning affects the functioning of your brain.

Replies from: dlthomas, JGWeissman, MarkusRamikin
comment by dlthomas · 2011-11-03T22:11:22.490Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does this include the other organisms inside my skin?

Replies from: fubarobfusco
comment by fubarobfusco · 2011-11-04T08:12:41.121Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, why not? If there were no gas-producing bacteria living in our guts, we would not have such an appreciation of fart humor. Thus, the habits of some other organisms living inside us do have some effect on the contents of our experience.

Replies from: DanielLC, dlthomas
comment by DanielLC · 2012-03-10T20:43:26.550Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I was a brain in a vat, and had the same arrangement of neurons as I do now, I'd be just as appreciative of fart humor. I just wouldn't be able to fart. I might eventually lose interest because of that, but that's because my brain is changing.

Your body does influence you somewhat, especially the parts that secrete hormones, but then, everything that isn't your body does too.

It's not really obvious where "you" begins and ends, but we can at least say that it's mostly the brain.

Replies from: Viliam_Bur
comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-03-13T14:18:42.893Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your body does influence you somewhat, especially the parts that secrete hormones, but then, everything that isn't your body does too.

We are connected with the world. Most trivially, if we wouldn't have food, oxygen, and temperature in a given range, we would die. Less trivially, we are influenced by friends, television, amount of light during the day, etc. Similarly we are influenced by our internal organs: pain, digestion, ebriety, fatigue.

You remove any of this, and the person changes, more or less. Conventionally, very big change is usually fatal, we say the person has died. Small changes in environment (external or internal) often cause temporary changes, we call this mood -- a person with a different mood is considered the same person; their functions are a bit different, but with a high probability sooner or later their mood will change again. So it seems like a clear line between a "macrochange" (death) and a "microchange" (mood).

During longer time, microchanges can accumulate to something that no longer feels like a microchange, because we cannot expect it to change back. We say that people grow and their personality changes. This can sometimes feel discomforting, but it's considered normal.

In the right environment, the microchanges can accumulate faster; it can be called brainwashing (when intentionally caused by other people) or a sudden change of personality (when caused by drugs, illness, brain damage), and this idea is very discomforting for other people.

What does this all mean? The boundary between "me" and "not me" is not completely clear. There is a body, which under normal conditions cannot split or merge with other bodies, so this is a conventional base for identity (other base of identity is the memory). But the mind inside the body is changing. By uploading we are trying to preserve the mind and discard the body -- trying to discard the most obvious conventional source of identity, and preserve the more fluid ones (memory, personality).

Every part removed means change; generally, more removed parts mean greater change. With different inputs, your outputs will also become different. It starts with "I cannot fart" and continues with "I never feel happiness or sadness", unless you have a farting interface or a hormone-generating interface. If you cannot fart anymore, you have changed a bit. If you cannot feel happiness, desire, love, curiosity, you have changed more.

Perhaps we could try to estimate how much various factors contribute to our personality, so we could aim to preserve, say, 80% of the personality. We could decide to sacrifice farting, but preserve mood changes. Anyway, it would be just the first iteration. In the second iteration, the trans-human individual could decide to remove some unpleasant moods and add more pleasant ones, etc. If it happens in many iterations, slowly enough, we will feel that it is normal. If it happens faster, it will be discomforting for other people. After long enough time, there will be only a shared path (not even a single shared identity, if copying and merging ems becomes possible).

But this is not an argument against uploading. Even if my mind is destined to disappear -- either by quick change at the moment of death, or by accumulated slow changes after uploading -- I would prefer the slow way, if I had a choice, because that idea feels less painful. It's just a warning that any form of uploading will change the personality, or at least enable future changes, which may feel OK for the person changing, but may be shocking to outside observers.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-11-04T19:30:52.132Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by JGWeissman · 2009-05-14T20:08:12.909Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The statement "You are a brain" means that your brain is the part of you that is essential to your identity. This is not entirely accurate, and other threads in this discussion address some clarifications. But essentially, it makes the point that an injury that destroys part of your brain would cause you to be a different person in a way that the loss of a limb would not.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2012-03-11T19:11:36.568Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suppose I define myself otherwise, identifying only with my mind rather than body. Would there any reason to argue your definition is better?

And before anyone tries to remind me that the mind isn't separate from the body - consider that it's still useful to talk about computer programs as computer programs, separately from the hardware that runs them, even though these programs cannot run except on hardware.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2012-03-11T19:37:55.381Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most computer programs are not very platform specific, and so hardware is whatever approximation to a Turing machine you have handy. But if code is embedded in a platform- to the point that it will not run on any other platform- how meaningful is it to discuss the difference between software and hardware?

My mental experience is of being a body, and so it's not clear to me what it would be to exist purely mentally.

Replies from: MarkusRamikin
comment by MarkusRamikin · 2012-03-11T20:35:39.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But if code is embedded in a platform- to the point that it will not run on any other platform-

That's strikes me as a really big if. I'm not sure if this is even theoretically possible.

Replies from: Vaniver, wedrifid
comment by Vaniver · 2012-03-11T21:44:43.572Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I meant that in an engineering sense, not a theoretical one, and deliberately moved from "computer program" to "code." If I have Lisp code that I want to run, and all I can run it in is C, it's not going to work. To get it to work, it's often easier to write a Lisp interpreter in C and use the old code than rewrite the code myself. And that's two languages intended to be used by humans and operate on silicon substrates with binary logic.

And so, can you write a 'human interpreter' on silicon with binary logic? Theoretically, sure. Practically, there might not be enough silicon to faithfully emulate it in anything close to realtime. But even if you manage it, you've just moved the platform into the realm of software- you haven't divorced the code and the platform.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-03-12T00:01:45.377Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My informed but ultimately presumably inaccurate guess is: if I buy about a million or so high end GPUs, and a few hundred petabytes of hard drives, I am somewhere in the ballpark of a human brain.

Given Moores law, that number is going to diminish. Given more knowledge about neurology valuable reductions in simulation complexity will be possible; you probably won't need a chromodynamics simulation to accurately replicate personality, the thermal noise in our brainware is far too great to depend on that kind of accuracy.

But yes, a human interpreter is ultimately possible because human minds are neuron actvity and neuron activity is physics and physics are as far as we know, turing computable.

Replies from: MarkusRamikin
comment by MarkusRamikin · 2012-03-12T07:51:10.926Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's what I think, too.

Either way, what I'm trying to argue against is the "you are an organism" thing. Not "everything within my skin" is necessary to run the program, I mean surely not the colon or metatarsal bones? To me it makes little more sense to call the entire body "me" than my car. Either way it's a vehicle, even if at the present state of technology I'm kind of stuck with this one.

I suspect that when we, in a hurry to signal allegiance to reductionism and materialism, tell people things like "you are an organism" (or even "you are a brain", unless a proper explanation follows), many among those listeners who are actually interested in truth (rather than just in absorbing acceptable beliefs of the Tribe of Scientifically Literate) will reasonably feel there's something not quite right about this, that it dismisses something that's actually important. They might not say so, being ashamed of possibly being seen as believing in souls or some other silly nonphysicalism, but it will still not ring true to them.

So I think getting this right matters. Otherwise we're helping fuel the resistance to reductionism among the unconvinced.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-03-11T21:08:06.757Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's strikes me as a really big if. I'm not sure if this is even theoretically possible.

I'm actually sure it is not theoretically possible.

comment by Dagon · 2009-05-10T18:23:32.513Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Depending on what it meant by the question, either "I'm a pattern of information encoded in my brain" or "I'm a side-effect of processing that my brain does for it's own reasons" are the one-sentence descriptions I'd use.

I identify with the meat that currently contains/creates/executes me, but not perfectly - I don't expect that replacing the meat with a sufficiently-similar replacement would alter the experience of being me.

Identity, of course is a continuum, not a binary measure. A different brain with the same patterns and inputs would be so much like me that I'd call them the same. But really it might be no more similar than future me and past me in the "same" body.

Replies from: DanielLC
comment by DanielLC · 2012-03-10T20:48:44.537Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm a side-effect of processing that my brain does for it's own reasons

What do you mean "its own reasons"? Do you mean that you exist purely because of your circumstances, or something along the lines of your brain makes decisions, and you're just the qualia it makes when it does it.

comment by Cyan · 2009-05-10T05:02:26.048Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I hope the slides will be of use to others trying to promote the public understanding of rationality.

Just to clarify, does this mean you're releasing the slides in the public domain?

Replies from: Liron
comment by Liron · 2009-05-10T20:27:40.101Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by ektimo · 2009-05-10T03:01:36.316Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Loved the gut example.

Replies from: Liron
comment by Liron · 2009-05-10T21:15:02.427Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. I got the idea from Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. I think Hawking was saying that anthropic reasoning makes it unsurprising that we would observe three spatial dimensions. If there were only two spatial dimensions, complex organisms couldn't evolve, because e.g. two-ended digested tracks don't work. And if there were four or more spatial dimensions, the force of gravity would weaken too much with distance to hold stars together, or something like that.

comment by MichaelHoward · 2009-05-10T23:04:43.941Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When will you realize you're already here!

Please quit all the Singularity spamming so we can enjoy our ancestor sim. We don't want to have to reprogram you again.

comment by Drahflow · 2009-05-10T18:06:05.761Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Slide 24: "your the map" is probably a typo.

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-05-10T05:17:22.095Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I liked it.

It might be even more amusing to use a cartoon character instead of a photograph of Jessica Alba - it has even less connection to reality than a photograph.

Replies from: MBlume, MichaelHoward
comment by MBlume · 2009-05-10T22:17:12.059Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've had a crush on Kimiko Ross for some time now, if that helps.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2009-05-12T13:43:56.194Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

She's really hot.

comment by MichaelHoward · 2009-05-10T20:22:49.117Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jessica Rabbit?

Replies from: CronoDAS
comment by CronoDAS · 2009-05-10T22:05:38.320Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jessica Rabbit is more of a caricature of a sexy woman than actually sexy... her upper chest is too wide when compared to the rest of her body.

I was thinking of a character drawn in an anime style... something more like this:*lP-QBmNhQjjB01Wxjm2oiWUjCeXs8i*7C8_/morrigan.jpg

(That's Morrigan from Darkstalkers.)

comment by Alan · 2009-05-10T02:12:44.166Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nicely done! Thanks for sharing.

comment by TheatreAddict · 2011-11-03T22:05:04.165Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So... Does anyone know of any helpful presentations? My brain likes pictures. This was probably the most helpful thing I've come across on here. I'm 16, not the best at math and complex equations, so this sort of helped a lot of stuff click in my mind. :)

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2009-11-08T17:06:58.213Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I stole some of your slides for my own presentation to high schoolers.

(Will upload a copy in case I ever get the time to translate it from Finnish.)

comment by JamesAndrix · 2009-05-11T20:00:09.036Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Could you put this up on youtube at some point?

Replies from: Liron
comment by Liron · 2009-05-11T22:28:42.105Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't make a recording of the presentation I did. Next time I have an occasion to do it I will look into getting it taped.

comment by steven0461 · 2009-05-11T00:57:50.563Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Lojban, being obnoxious in advocating a cause is more likely to hurt than help that cause.

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2009-05-10T22:29:40.174Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is anyone else having trouble downloading this? I get .1MB, and then the download seems to stall.

Replies from: MBlume
comment by MBlume · 2009-05-11T00:01:48.119Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mirror, if it helps.

comment by Cyan · 2009-05-09T23:38:33.793Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The presentation is very good. Well done!

comment by mitechka · 2009-05-14T00:12:16.306Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It doesn't show correctly in either Google Docs or Open Office. Sadly, vote down.