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Processing Levels Nonconscious Activity Free Will Flawed Gifts Erroneous Information Inaccurate Predictions Mental Illnesses Intelligent Machines Humans Versus Machines Information Theory Meaningful Information is defined as a detectable pattern of matter or energy that generates a response in a recipient. The response may be either a behavioral one, like fight or flight, a physiological one, like salivating or sweating, or a structural one, like reconfiguring the neural connections involved in learning and memory.

Meaningful information plays a central role in biological systems, from genes to cells and microorganisms, to multicellular plants and animals. Information is one of those words that are hard to define—at least in a way that everyone agrees. Even though most of us have a general idea of what the word means, we are not sure whether something we do not understand or already know is information; or something that is not true; or if the library in Beijing contains information for people who do not understand Chinese. It seems that no one meaning is correct, since all of these examples are included in some definitions, although not in others.

Despite the fact that information is such an inescapable part of modern life, most people have trouble explaining exactly what it is or what it does. Like the smile on the proverbial Cheshire cat, it is strangely elusive when we examine it closely. We know it is something that brains and computers process, yet there is no trace of it when we look inside them or take them apart. The reason is that information is not an object like the neurons and semiconductors that convey it, but is a function of the A. Information is an intangible concept that does not have anything to anchor it to material reality, so that different individuals and different disciplines are free to use it in ways that suit their particular purposes.

However, this diversity can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes when people with different ways of defining information want to communicate about it, which is why the way the word is used in scholarly endeavors needs to be clearly specified. Most of the current confusion about its meaning began in the middle of the twentieth century, when the term was applied to phenomena in cybernetics, computers, and data transmission. These new frontiers expanded its use to include aspects of the universe that did not communicate or affect anything.

The two most influential contributors to the new ways of thinking were Norbert Wiener — and Claude Shannon — , both of whom were giants of the modern Information Age. In , Wiener introduced the concept of information as a measure of the degree of organization in a system and, in , Shannon unveiled the concept of information as something that reduces uncertainty in a message.

Wiener, who was the founder of the field of cybernetics, saw information as an intrinsic property of all organized forms of matter and energy, something that reflected the degree to which the way their components were organized differed from randomness. The way the letters and words on this page are arranged, for instance, represents the information they convey, since there would not be any if they were set out randomly. Only a small fraction of the way the universe is organized is accessible to us, however, so that we have no meaningful way of detecting this type of information in most naturally occurring objects, like trees or ant colonies or brains.

Shannon introduced a mathematical concept of information as part of the Information Theory he developed and demonstrated how this could be measured by the amount of Conveying Meaning 3 uncertainty a transmitted message reduced Shannon and Weaver His theory deals, however, with the capacity of a system to transmit information, and not with the content or meaning of the information being transmitted.

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As a result, two completely different messages, one loaded with meaning and the other absolute nonsense, can contain exactly the same amount of Shannon-type information. The use of the word then increased exponentially as computers proliferated, the genetic code was broken, and the Internet grew and flourished. A variety of new disciplines were even created around it, including Information Science, Bioinformatics, and Information Technology, although none of them helped clarify its meaning Young Rather than clarify matters, these developments simply converted information into one of those multipurpose words that can refer to a number of things.


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As Schiller , p. As Edelman and Tononi , p. First, we must ask whether the term information can be used to describe a state of nature in the total absence of a human observer. Can information be solely an objective term? If, however, information is defined in a way that requires a historical process involving either memory or a heritable state, then information can only have arisen with the origin of life.

For information to convey meaning, however, it not only has to be detected but also has to have an effect on the entity that detects it. Every species is comprised of cells and molecules that are specifically designed to detect and respond to the types of information it needs to function and adapt in its particular environment. Information that has no detectable effect on anything is, for all practical purposes, devoid of any meaning Day A number of attempts have been made to recognize the way that certain aspects of information have an effect on the recipients that detect them i.

Although each of these captures some facet of the phenomenon, none does so entirely. Rather than offer another general way of defining information, this book focuses on the aspect of it that can elicit a response in the entities that detect it. The term Meaningful Information is thus used throughout the book to refer specifically to a detected pattern of matter or energy that generates a response in a recipient.

If a detected pattern of matter or energy has no effect on a recipient, it is considered to be meaningless as far as that individual is concerned. This way of thinking follows the pragmatic approach of Charles Saunders Peirce and William James, both of whom argued that things should be defined in terms of the effects they produce. It even may not be meaningful in the same way to a given individual at a different time or in a different context.

Although the type of information that cells, plants, and invertebrates can detect is primarily specified by their genes, learning and experience also shape much of what the other species are able to detect and respond to. In our own one, for instance, the different strata in rocks and the different images on X-rays only represent meaningful information to individuals who are trained in these particular fields. We infer that these signals represent meaningful information because of the obvious responses they elicit, rather than by understanding what the recipients actually experience.

Meaning, as defined here, is something that is embedded in the response of the receiver, rather than a property of the objects and events that elicit it. Meaningless information thus consists of patterns of matter and energy that either cannot be detected or, although detected, have no effect on the recipient. The reason that so much of the information in the universe appears to be meaningless is that only specific kinds of devices can detect it. These consist of the specialized sensory and molecular receptors with which living cells and organisms are endowed, as well as various fabricated devices people have invented.

Since the vast majority of the patterns of matter and energy in the universe are beyond the capacities of known detectors, their meaning remains unknowable. Many of the information patterns that are capable of having an effect on some kind of recipient are, however, not currently doing so, including most of the material stored in libraries, archives, and the Internet. These potentially meaningful forms of information are referred to here as data.

Data represent inactive forms of information that can be detected and have an effect on an entity, but are not currently doing so. Information can thus be classified in roughly the same way as energy: either as a fundamental property of organized matter that has no discernable effect intrinsic information and internal energy , an inactive subset of this that can have an effect, but is not currently doing so data and potential energy , or an active one that is currently having an effect meaningful information and free energy.

This is no coincidence, since energy and information are closely related constructs. Cause and Effect Information is taken here to be an expression of the way that matter and energy are organized in space and time, a property of their form rather than their substance. Informational patterns, however, only convey meaning to someone or something that can detect and respond to them, either by changing their behavior, physiology, or neural organization. The way that matter and energy are arranged in the universe is like a secret code, so that only the small fraction of it that can elicit a response in some kind of recipient is considered to be meaningful.

Although, as Wiener proposed, information is theoretically a property of all organized forms of matter and energy, only the small fraction of it can elicit a response in some kind of recipient is considered to be meaningful. This latter portion is the one that living entities use to regulate their growth, maintain their homeostasis, and adapt to their environment.

Meaningful information and free energy are both envisioned here as aspects of organized matter that are able to bring about change, although they do so through different mechanisms. Merely pushing a button, for instance, can transmit meaningful information that can either ring a doorbell or launch a rocket to the moon, based on how the entity that detects the signal is configured. Although energy and information both function as change agents in the animate world, information has no effect on the inanimate objects that exist in nature.

Descartes held that although the body functioned mechanically, the mind was a nonphysical entity that acted separately from it to produce conscious thought and self-awareness, but he was unable to explain how a nonmaterial entity could cause material effects. On the other hand, scholars who reject his supernatural ideas and believe the brain can be understood entirely in physical terms have not yet found a way of explaining the mental phenomena it produces. The concept of meaningful information offers a bridge between these two points of view, since it represents a nonmechanical form of causation that is not tainted by spiritual and metaphysical beliefs.

As Nadel , p. Form and substance are inseparable, however, since it is impossible to conceive of form that has no substance or substance that has no form. Thus, although information requires a material medium to portray and communicate it, the medium is not the message. Bioinformatics deals with the use of mathematical, statistical, and computing methods to study the role of biomolecules in cellular regulation.

These are based primarily on concepts derived from Shannon-type theories and computer technology—and do not deal with the more subjective aspects of the topic. None of the theories that envision information as an objective phenomenon can explain how it can cause something to happen, like how a red light can cause a car to stop, or how different individuals can respond in different ways to the same information.

James — , the great pioneer of American psychology, befriended Peirce and helped spread his philosophical ideas. Peirce also established the field of Semiotics, the first discipline to study information in a systematic way. He thought that the body was composed of material components that worked together like a machine, while the mind was a nonphysical entity that controlled the body.

This way of separating the mind and the body remained the dominant framework for understanding human behavior for almost years. The problem with offering yet another meaning to a word that already has several is not that people will not be able to understand it, but that they already think they do. The concept of meaningful information presented here represents a new way of looking at how cells and other living entities communicate with each other and how they detect, process, store, and respond to certain patterns of matter and energy.

Meaningful information is something that lights up the entire biosphere with a constant chatter of cellular signals that orchestrate how living organisms grow, adapt, and communicate with each other. It is the type of information that Oyama , p. Meaningful information consists of patterns of matter or energy that have an effect of some kind on the entities that detect them— with the effect being either a behavioral response, a physiological change, or an A.

Although their sensory systems can detect the patterns being conveyed, their brains cannot discern any meaningful information in them. This is because meaningful information, at least as envisioned here, is not a property of the patterns of matter or energy themselves, but something attributed to them by the recipient. The arrangement of the stars in the sky or the mating call of a Carolina Wren, for instance, represent meaningful information only to certain individuals, but not to others, since it has no effect on them.

Meaningful information does not even have to be true; it just has to have an effect on the recipients—although they usually have to believe it is true in order to respond. Even having a sender is not essential, since naturally occurring phenomena can convey meaningful information without one, like fossils in a rock or the position of the sun in the sky. Key Concepts This book is about a particular way of conceptualizing information, the key elements of which are described below. As Gatlin , p. This does not mean that we cannot define information operationally as we do energy and understand a great deal about its nature and how it expresses itself in the world about us.

The amount of intrinsic information an entity contains is a measure of its organizational complexity, an expression of the degree to which the elements that comprise it are arranged in a nonrandom fashion. Although the amount of intrinsic information can be quantified in man-made devices that store or transmit data, it cannot be measured directly in naturally occurring entities, since we have no way of accessing it in them.

As Goldstein and Goldstein , p. It is defined operationally as a spatial or temporal pattern of organized matter or energy that is detected by an animate or manufactured receptor, which then triggers a change in the behavior, functioning, or structure of the detecting entity. The detecting entity can either be a macromolecule, a cell, an organism, a plant, an animal, or a fabricated device.

Meaning is the key that enables information to have an effect, the attribute that transforms detected patterns of matter Biological Information 11 and energy into signs, signals, and messages that inform the recipient. Patterns of organized matter or energy that can have an effect on an animate or human-made receptor, but are not currently doing so, are referred to here as data. They include the material stored in computer memories and libraries, the initial results of experiments, and messages in codes and foreign languages. Arrangements of matter or energy that can be detected but are not capable of generating an effect or change in a recipient are referred to here as noise.

Biological Information Meaningful information is essentially a biological phenomenon, for there are no inanimate information detectors in nature.

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Although some fabricated devices can detect and transmit information, they are unable to do so on their own, since someone has to design them, someone has to encode them, and someone has to interpret their output. While both living and nonliving entities respond to the physical aspects of matter and energy, only living ones detect and respond to the form of the objects and events they constitute.

The ability to detect and respond to information is, in fact, one of the defining attributes of living things, something that is lost when they eventually die. Form plays a central role in all of biology, since it is also expressed in the shapes of organisms, the arrangement of their cells, and the folding pattern of the protein molecules these contain, all of which serve adaptive functions that have been shaped by natural selection over the millennia.

As Mayr , p. The phenomena of life have a much broader scope than the relatively simple phenomena dealt with by physics and chemistry. While cells and unicellular organisms respond automatically to information patterns that are meaningful to them, more complex creatures develop neuronal structures that enable them to store and interpret what they perceive, and to vary their responses accordingly. According to Gatlin , p. This is what enables them to coordinate their activities and function as an ensemble, rather than just a collection of parts. As Harold , p. The modern concept of energy was introduced in the eighteenth century in association with the emerging science of thermodynamics.

As Dear , p. Plants capture energy from it through photosynthesis and store it for later use. Animals obtain their supply of energy by metabolizing plant substances i. An entity with a repetitive pattern of structural elements, such as a crystal or a lattice, contains less information than a more intricately organized one, but not less energy.

A lb sack of potatoes, for instance, contains twice as much energy as a 5-lb one, but not twice as much information; nor do a dozen copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica contain more information than a single one, since the additional copies are just redundant. Because of the way redundancy reduces the amount of information in an entity, but not the amount of energy, the quantity of information a given object contains is not necessarily the same as the quantity of energy. Most of the physical entities that make up the universe, such as atoms, mountains, and stars, are relatively stable and cannot easily be broken down to reveal either the energy or the information they contain.

For energy to become available, an organized entity has to be transformed into a less-organized state, which is what Notes 13 happens when fossil fuel is burned or a nuclear reaction takes place. For information to become available, however, the object must interact with a receptor or a set of receptors that is capable of detecting the meaning it conveys. Thus, although the amount of energy in a source becomes depleted when some of it is released, the amount of information it contains is not changed by being detected.

The words on this page, for instance, do not become degraded as you read them, but remain intact for others to read later on. Because a given amount of matter can exist in a number of different forms, the information each of them contains is not the same. Thus, although the arrows below contain the same amount of matter, they do not convey the same information. On the other hand, the squares adjacent to them convey the same information, even though they consist of different amounts of matter.

The amount of energy used to transmit information is unrelated to the amount of information being transmitted, which is why different energy substrates can be used to convey the same information—as long as they have comparable spatial and temporal patterns. This is the basis of the process of transduction, in which an information pattern in one energy medium is converted into an equivalent pattern in another. Transduction is the mechanism that enables electronic signals to be converted into radio and television shows, and sensory information to be represented in the brain as neuronal configurations.

The key distinctions between energy and information are captured by Von Bayer , p. Information, on the other hand, resides partly in the mind. A coded message may represent gibberish to one person, and valuable information to another. The smell of subjectivity, of dependence on a state of mind is the source of both the elusiveness and the power of the concept of information.

But first we need to be clear which sort of information we are talking about. It was something that gave form to the mind. The two of them thus entail somewhat different concepts of entropy, since this is an inverse measure of the amount of order and organization. Entropy refers to both the amount of disorder in a thermodynamic system as well as the process by which disorder occurs.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, the total entropy of an isolated thermodynamic system tends to increase over time, so that organized systems tend to run down and become less organized unless external energy is supplied to them. This is why hot objects become cold, physical structures decay, and living things need to import energy to stay alive. However, the concept of information has become just as fundamental and far-reaching, justifying its categorization as the third fundamental quantity.

Oxford University Press, New York References 15 La Cerra P The first law of Psychology is the second law of Thermodynamics: The energetic evolutionary model of the mind and the generation of human psychological phenomena. They are the two fundamental agents of change in the natural world, the two basic mechanisms that link cause and effect together. There is, however, a critical difference in how they function: while the energy involved in physical causation is supplied by the originating entity, the energy involved in informational causes is supplied by the receiving one.

This is one of the reasons that cells and organisms and informational devices have to have an independent supply of energy, and why entities that do not are unable to detect and respond to information. This is why the outcomes brought about by the detection of information cannot be explained in purely mechanical terms, for there is no direct relationship between the properties of the stimulus and the response it engenders.

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The response to information depends on the recipient having specialized receptors that are able to recognize and respond to certain configurations of energy and matter in its surroundings. The reaction this sets off in the recipient is determined, however, by the way its receptors and effectors are connected, rather than by the detected information itself. The holes in the paper role of a player piano, for instance, are just signals that activate preprogrammed responses, not the physical cause of the music they generate. Because the effects caused by the detection of information are determined by the recipients, rather than the initiators, they cannot be predicted by the usual laws of physics.

However, while information can be a necessary cause, it is never a sufficient one, since it cannot produce an effect on its own. Information and energy nevertheless work hand-in-hand in the biological world to mold the behavior and functioning of every living cell and organism. Since informational causes do not involve mechanical processes, their interactions cannot be expressed quantitatively or represented in mathematical terms. This enables growing children to develop models of how things around them work and to use these to gain a degree of mastery over what they encounter.

Our ancestors gradually came to understand a great deal about the universe by developing such cause and effect explanations of how things changed and functioned. The process was not foolproof, however, since it can also lead to false beliefs and superstitions, like those in rain-making dances and astrology. Science itself evolved as a more systematic way of understanding causal interactions, both under natural and experimental conditions Changeux As scientific knowledge grew, physical explanations about the universe came to replace magical ones, generally because they proved better at predicting important events and occurrences.

Mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena have, however, come to dominate much of modern-day science, as if they were the only alternative to supernatural and mystical beliefs. As Rosen , p. We no longer have to see ourselves as comprised of a material body that obeys the laws of physics and a nonmaterial spirit that is too elusive to study.

Meaningful information can generate physical changes in biological and behavioral systems that do not rely on magical or superstitious explanations. The vital spirit that animates living things is not some ethereal force beyond our comprehension but is simply the ability of cells and organisms to detect and respond to meaningful information. Our genetic and experiential heritages are basically informational sets that tell our cells what to do, our organs how to function, and our selves how to act.

Causal relationships have three basic elements: a the cause must precede the effect, b the cause and the effect must be linked by a chain of contiguous events, and c the event would not occur without the cause Dowe Physical and informational causes satisfy these criteria in different ways. While the links connecting physical causes and effects involve physical chains of events, the links connecting informational ones entail the perception of patterns in the environment, the nervous system, or the genome.

Historical processes, like natural selection and memory, etch events into organisms as particular patterns of DNA or neuronal connectivity that can be activated as causal agents at a future time. Informational causes can thus have delayed effects, since the patterns they generate in a cell or organism can continue to exist long after they have been laid down. Soldiers in combat, for instance, can receive both physical and psychological injuries, with the former causing immediate effects and the latter delayed ones that are triggered by persisting memories of the trauma.

However, unlike supernatural causes, historical ones are connected to the effects they produce by a chain of informational linkages that can be studied and understood. Anything and everything that happens in the physical world is exclusively controlled by the natural laws, and even living organisms and their parts are, as matter, as subject as inanimate matter to these laws.

However, organisms are subject to a second set of causal factors, the information provided by their genetic program. The structural laws and the messages from the genetic program function simultaneously and in harmony, but genetic programs occur only in living organisms. They provide an absolute borderline between the inanimate and the living world. How can a diverse assortment of sensory impulses end up as a set of abstract concepts and memories? How can thoughts and desires that have no physical mass or energy cause tangible, real-world effects?

How can subjective entities, like feelings and beliefs, cause a collection of physical neurons to govern how we behave? The fact that living entities are able to respond to information, rather than just to matter and energy, provides a way of resolving the dilemma. Although we do not know how our thoughts and expectations are represented in the brain, or how they actually cause events to happen, the fact that information-based patterns are capable of activating brain responses provides a nonmystical way of explaining them. As Haught , p.

A symbol is something that arbitrarily signifies something else, represents it uniquely, and can generate a response that closely resembles the one generated by the thing it represents. Words and numbers are symbols, as also are wedding rings and national anthems. Even though they are physically unlike the entities they represent, symbols can be just as powerful as them in causing change, since they convey the same information.

As Dretske points out, even a small scrap of verbal information can cause a major change in the course of events, as when it indicates that a spouse is being unfaithful or a hostile country has weapons of mass destruction—even if the allegations are untrue. As will be discussed further in Chap. However, although intangible ideas and beliefs can cause tangible events that seem to defy the laws of physics, they do not operate entirely separate from them— since information cannot exist without a physical vehicle to convey it.

Feedback Cybernetics is the study of the communication and control of feedback in living beings and machines Wiener The signals are generated by a discrepancy between a current sensory input and an internally programmed goal, and these are then fed back to turn on or turn off various mechanisms within the entity. As Furman and Gallo , p. A thermostat, for instance, can keep a room at a constant temperature by switching heating or cooling devices on as needed, pressure receptors in the walls of the major arteries send signals to the brain that regulate blood pressure, and guided missiles alter their course to compensate for sensed deviations from their intended target.

Although the transmission of cybernetic signals requires a small amount of energy, the energy that produces the effects they cause is supplied by the recipients, not the signals. Mammalian blood sugar levels, for instance, are controlled by two types of cells in the pancreas, alpha cells that become active when the glucose level gets too low, and beta cells that are activated when it gets too high.

The former respond by producing an enzyme that stimulates the liver to release stored glucose and the latter by producing insulin, which helps remove glucose from the circulation. As Jeannerod , p. Our breathing, heart rate, temperature, muscle action, and metabolism are all closely self-regulated through feedback processes—as also are our interactions with the world around us as we respond to the impact our actions have on it. We are, in fact, caught up in an endless feedback loop in which our behavior is not only shaped by the information we detect, but also helps shape it.

We are not merely passive recipients of information, but are also initiators that act on the world to obtain new information about matters of consequence to us. We ask questions, experiment, and try things out in order to shape the informational feedback we receive from the objects and events we encounter. While we set the goals for the devices we design, the goals that shape the behavior of the various species and the individuals within them are established through natural selection and individual experience.

The process generally just sets the designated target, not the steps needed to achieve it, especially in animals with complex nervous systems. Our species is unique, however, in that, as well as having instinctive goals that have been shaped by natural selection, we are also able to set a variety of personal ones, like losing weight, saving for retirement, or stopping at the cleaners on the way home Gazzaniga Although the processes of growth and adaptation in animals and plants also appear to be directed at achieving future goals, rather than determined by antecedent states, this is largely an illusion.

Biologists have coined the word teleonomy to refer to apparently goal-directed, self-regulatory processes in living entities, but the concept is not yet widely accepted—presumably because the idea that effects can precede their causes seems to violate our intuitive understanding of how the world works. However, even though the goals and purposes that characterize teleonomic processes are set in the future, they are represented in the brains and genomes of the involved individuals in the present. Teleonomic effects are thus caused by antecedent informational states, not antecedent physical ones.

In the same way that information that accumulates in their genomes over the millennia shapes species-specific goals; information that accumulates in individual brains over a lifetime shapes personal ones. Shapin maintains that the mechanical clock became the modern model for understanding the workings of the universe. The way it worked represented a sharp contrast with the animistic view of the world that had been passed down from Aristotle, in which both animate and inanimate objects were endowed with inherent purposes and intentions in order to explain their behavior.

Proximate causes are the immediately preceding events that trigger a change, while ultimate causes are remote elements in a chain of causality without which the proximate causes would not occur. Physics and chemistry look askance at ultimate causes, because they do not fit into their mechanistic views of causation.

The fact that historical causes have no place in the physical sciences is, however, no reason for excluding them from the biologic ones—especially since remote evolutionary and experiential events play a crucial role in determining how living entities function. While both the animate and inanimate worlds obey the laws of physical causation, living organisms are also subject to informational causes that help explain why they act the way they do—why, for example, turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, male deer have large antlers, and bowerbirds build such elaborate nuptial structures.

This type of explanation has no counterpart in the more mechanistic approaches of the physical sciences. Determinism holds that every state of affairs is entirely determined by the state of affairs that immediately precedes it. In theory at least, if we knew everything there was to be known about something, we could predict its future with absolute accuracy, since deterministic systems are entirely predictable once all of the initial conditions and operating rules are specified Trefil Some things are usually considered to be unpredictable, however, because their complexity or their inaccessibility makes it impossible to identify enough of their determining factors.

The effects caused by information are also unpredictable, at least initially, since there is no direct connection between the information that is detected and the response it generates—for the latter is determined by the recipient, not the initiator. Because the information stored in our brains seems to be too unreachable to ever be completely specified, the causal functions of information may end up being more useful in explaining how our brains work than in predicting how they will function in the future, in much the same way that natural selection explains how living things have evolved, but cannot predict how they will do so in the future.

Many of the complex processes involved in biological informational systems are thus more accessible in simpler organisms—and studies of such creatures have already begun to shed light on the processes involved in more complex ones, including our own. Kandel , for instance, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for for his work on the molecular causes of learning and memory in the giant sea snail Aplysia, which only has about 40, neurons while the human brain has billion of them.

Although the focus of this work has so far been on understanding responses to physical stimuli see Chap. Notes 1 Salmon , Pearl , and Woodward review philosophical issues involved in the concept of causation, although they do not address informational causes. Sloman points out how the notion of cause is used to understand how and why things change. If x is a necessary cause of y, then y will only occur if preceded by x — but the presence of x does not ensure that y will occur, although the presence of y ensures that x must have occurred.

Sufficient causes, on the other hand, guarantee the effect, so that if x is a sufficient cause of y, the presence of x guarantees y — but the presence of y does not necessarily mean that x has occurred, since other events may also be able to cause it. The eminent biologist E. Wilson , p. The way things worked seldom required an understanding of their history. Mechanical function was understood directly on the basis of present measures. Gray , p. Pittendrigh modified it to teleonomy to emphasize that, unlike a number of teleologic goals, these ones are not the result of supernatural processes.

Monod , p. We shall maintain that the latter are distinct from all other structures or systems present in the universe through this characteristic property, which we shall call teleonomy. Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford Kandel ER The molecular biology of memory storage: a dialog between genes and synapses. In The Nobel Prizes Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline. Alfred P. D Miles, M Miles.

Alfred A. Each species and cell type has evolved a distinctive set of such receptors that enable it to function successfully within its particular ecological niche. Chemical receptors, like those involved in smell and taste, respond to the molecular patterns of certain substances and are present in virtually every cell and organism in the universe.

Physical receptors, like those involved in vision, hearing, and touch, are activated by energy rather than directly by form. Sensory receptors are able to detect and respond to discrete objects, as well as detect the difference between current patterns of sensory input and internal reference ones. Sensation refers to the detection of energy or matter by sensory receptors, perception to the detection of meaningful information in these sensations.

Meaningful information involves the detection of form rather than substance Jablonka , p. These two attributes of nature are inseparable, however, since we cannot perceive form that has no substance, or substance that has no form. Form refers to the way the components of an object or event are arranged, either in space or in time, like the shape of a violin or the sound of a waterfall.

It is a function of how the matter and energy that comprise an entity are organized, not a property of the matter and energy themselves. Form is an amorphous quality that has no physical effects of its own, since the only way it can have an impact is by being detected by an animate or human-made receptor. This is why physics and chemistry have had a hard time dealing with it—and have relegated it for others to pursue. However, even though philosophers have debated about it since Plato and Aristotle, none of them has recognized its central role in conveying information.

These include surface receptors that detect tactile and chemical information, distance receptors that detect visual and auditory information, and molecular receptors that detect cellular and genetic information. The ability to detect and respond to the form that matter and energy assume is one of the defining characteristics of living entities, something that none of the inanimate ones in nature is able to do. It is the primary means by which animals and plants decode the messages in their genes, coordinate their cellular activities, and adapt to changes in their environment Gell-Mann , p.

The response may either be a behavioral one, like fight or flight, a physiological one, like salivating or sweating, or a structural one, like reconfiguring the neural connections involved in learning and memory. Every species and cell type has evolved a distinctive set of sensory abilities that enables it to function successfully within its particular ecological niche. Natural selection is extremely efficient in the way it makes sure that living things are not burdened by being able to detect information that is not relevant to their needs.

Bats and dolphins, for instance, echolocate, dogs hear ultrasound, bees detect ultraviolet light, fish discern electric fields, and snakes sense infrared radiation, even though most other species lack these abilities. All of the other stimuli they detect represent meaningless noise as far as they are concerned. We are only able to detect the existence of matter and energy, for instance, by perceiving the alterations they cause in the form of the objects with which they interact.

We experience their impact either by the way they deform the sensory receptors in our body or by the way they transform objects in the world around us. We appreciate their physical properties, like weight, size, and color by the way they conform to specified reference standards—and detect motion, growth, and decay by characteristic changes in the form and arrangement of the objects involved. Although all of our physical receptors are able to sense physical stimuli directly, it is the interpretation of the pattern of their sensory input that provides us with meaningful information.

We can, for instance, see a flash of light, hear a loud noise, or sense the effects of gravity on a purely physical basis, but have to detect a pattern in the effects they generate to determine whether they contain any meaningful information. Chemical receptors, which are present in every cell and organism in the universe, are by far the most common information detectors in nature—and probably the most ancient.

Proteins are extremely large molecules that fold on themselves in highly specific, three-dimensional patterns that change when they encounter a small molecule whose complimentary shape fits into their structure. There are several thousand different protein receptors in a typical cell, each of which is highly selective in that it responds only to a specific chemical substance called a ligand and activates only a specific cellular response see Chap. The proteins and their corresponding ligands are like a vast collection of locks and keys that regulate cellular functioning by turning on the physiological activities that are currently needed and turning off those that are not.

Physical receptors differ from chemical ones in that they are initially activated by energy, rather than form. However, it is the pattern i. It is, for example, the pattern of retinal receptors that it activates that enables us to recognize the Mona Lisa, and the pattern of auditory ones that allows us to identify a Beethoven symphony. Physical receptors include external ones that respond to touch mechanical energy , heat thermal energy , vision electromagnetic energy , and sound pressure wave energy , as well as internal ones that regulate homeostatic functions, such as blood pressure, movement, and body temperature.

Physical receptors are not as selective as chemical ones, since they can also be activated by stimuli that do not contain meaningful information—which is the case with a great deal of the sensory input we experience during a typical day. Although nonmeaningful stimuli cannot trigger an informational response, they can elicit a physical one, like an eye-blink reflex or a reaction to pain. Animals derive meaningful information from physical stimuli in two different ways: either by detecting a particular pattern of activated receptors object detection or by perceiving similarities or differences between a current activation pattern and a reference one discrepancy detection.

Object Detection Object detection depends on recognizing particular patterns of sensory stimulation. The different types of physical receptors employ different strategies for detecting salient objects in their surroundings. For instance, the pattern of tactile receptors that is generated when we touch an object, or are touched by one, provides information about its size, shape, weight, and texture—which enables us to identify and respond to it. The pattern of cochlear receptors in the inner ear that different sound frequencies activate provides similar information about the nature and location of the objects emitting them, just as the pattern of retinal receptors at the back of the eyes enables us to identify visual objects by the contrast between the visible light they emit and the light emitted by their immediate surroundings.

The same principles apply to the recognition of learned information patterns, like the way that certain perceptual cues are all we need to detect to be able to identify and respond to familiar people or objects. Discrepancy Detection Discrepancy detection is the other way that meaningful information can be detected. They generate a qualitative type of information, which simply indicates how much a detected feature is like or unlike a given appraisal standard.

We usually define objects and events by the way in which they are like and unlike objects and events we already know and endeavor to understand new ones in terms of ones with which we are already familiar, like when we compare the brain to a computer or call gambling an addiction. We identify particular objects and events, however, by the way they differ from the ones that are most like them—that is, by the distinguishing characteristics we overlook when we place them in a category Model , p.

Perceiving conformity can provide a reassuring sense of familiarity with the world, as well as a stable background against which change can be registered. Our sensory systems are tuned to detect the unexpected, so that constant sources of stimulation have diminishing effects as we gradually become habituated to them. What is actually perceived, however, depends on the frame of reference being used. Motion, for instance, is always relative, so that an object can only be perceived to be moving in relation to one that appears stationary.

Categories Detecting conformity between the key aspects of a current stimulus pattern and a reference standard enables us to perceive objects and events as members of a class or category, such as a house, an automobile, or a cocktail party. This enables us to respond in a standardized way to objects and events that have similar features, rather than having to treat each of them as separate entities.

The key features that members of a category share function as the meaningful information that generates the response they elicit. We treat them initially like ones we have previously known—for we have no other way of dealing with them. Identifying people as members of a category, like a sales clerk or a police officer, allows us to interact with them without having to know anything more about them—which is, of course, what we have to do if we want to get to know them personally. We form categories either on a perceptual or a conceptual basis, with the former being based on similarities in appearance and the latter on similarities in function or properties Sloman and Rips This may not be correct, however, at least not in all cases, since perceptual categories are initially formed when a number of similar looking objects are perceived to be identical by the developing brain i.

Their perceptions gradually become more discriminating as various objects attain specific meanings to them, and thus generate specific responses. Increasingly fine discriminations are then made as they grow into adults, depending on the needs and interests of the particular individual. Conceptual categories differ from perceptual ones in that they are based on inferred qualities, rather than perceived ones. They are formed by grouping together items that possess similar properties or functions. Thus, while perceptual categories entail overlooking differences among objects that look alike, conceptual ones involve finding similarities among ones that do not look like each other.

A growing child may, for instance, initially refer to a dolphin as a fish, based on its appearance, but later learns that it really is a mammal, based on its properties and functions. Growing children gradually learn to discriminate between objects that initially seem similar to them— and then respond to each of them differently Kagan , p. Sensation is used here, however, to refer to the sensory experience generated by a physical stimulus, and perception to the information being conveyed by the pattern of the receptors that get activated.


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Hearing a siren or an alarm clock go off is a sensation; understanding their meaning is a perception. The meaning of perceived information, in this way of thinking, is indicated simply by the change it produces in the behavior, functioning or neural structure of the perceiver. We do not know how or where sensations are actually turned into perceptions, nor do we have any idea where meaning is detected in the neural pathways that link the various sensory receptors to specific parts of the brain.

While sensations are caused by physical stimuli that can be assessed objectively, perceptions are subjective experiences that depend on how individuals interpret the patterns of matter and energy they detect. Perceptions can thus vary from one individual to another, based on their past experiences and beliefs—for how we see the world depends on what our brains make of the patterns our senses detect. The meaning we ascribe to events can thus say more about us at times than it does about the events themselves. The distinction between sensation and perception is also demonstrated in the neurological conditions of agnosia, in which affected individuals are able to detect certain sensory stimuli but unable to perceive what they represent.

Notes Aristotle — BC was among the first to distinguish between matter and form. For him, matter was the undifferentiated primal element, the germinal substance from which all things develop by acquiring a particular form. Pure forms were ideals, essences that existed entirely separate from matter.

Medieval scholars saw everything as consisting of both form and matter, with form informing the matter, and matter materializing the form Borgmann , p. The idea that form can exist separate from matter is still present in our concepts of ethereal spirits and ghosts. Hughes outlines some of the special sensory abilities other species possess and explains why studying them is so difficult.

Recipients tend to make mistakes in doing this when the signal-to-noise ratio is low, either by identifying an information pattern that is not really there or by failing to detect one that is there Shettleworth , p. After mating, the female climbs up a tree or bush, where she waits for months or years with sperm and eggs kept in separate storage.

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An Introduction To Brain and Behavior Fourth Edition

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Meaningful Information: The Bridge Between Biology, Brain, and Behavior

Shop Books. Add to Wishlist. USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Overview The book introduces a radically new way of thinking about information and the important role it plays in living systems. It opens up new avenues for exploring how cells and organisms change and adapt, since the ability to detect and respond to meaningful information is the key that enables them to receive their genetic heritage, regulate their internal milieu, and respond to changes in their environment.

The types of meaningful information that different species and different cell types are able to detect are finely matched to the ecosystem in which they live, for natural selection has shaped what they need to know to function effectively in those circumstances.

Biological detection and response systems range from the chemical configurations that govern genes and cell life to the relatively simple tropisms that guide single-cell organisms, the rudimentary nervous systems of invertebrates, and the complex neuronal structures of mammals and primates. The scope of meaningful information that can be detected and responded to reaches its peak in our own species, as exemplified by our special abilities in language, cognition, emotion, and consciousness, all of which are explored within this new framework.

Product Details Table of Contents. Table of Contents 1. Meaningful Information. Cause and Effect. The Doorways of Perception. Response Systems. Cognitive Processing. Storage and Retrieval. Knowledge and Understanding. Cellular Signals. Genetic Messages. Feelings as Information. Maladaptive Behavior. Fabricated Devices. Average Review. Write a Review.