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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Cryptology, neurophysiology, language and cognition

This admittedly ambitious essay is going to focus upon a series of core concepts in the philosophy of mind (in particular the mind-body problem),, the philosophy of language, psychology, neurology, clinical, psychiatry, the rise of computational artificial intelligence algorithms and the challenges facing anyone seeking to encrypt messages, a key obsession of members of the global intelligence communities who spend much of their careers trying to convey messages about sensitive subjects without other people knowing it is what they are talking about or who they are talking to. What these subjects each have to do with one another may initially be far from clear. But this author has been engaged in a series of essays about a number of subjects in these apparently disparate areas over several years; and he now wishes to draw together some of his insights and to explain in what way these broad and distinct fields turn out to be intimately related.

This article begins with an anecdote, as these things often do. This author had an insight motivated by a routine life experience deriving from an experience that we all have at certain times: being tired. Study the following image, which is ostensibly of a traditional English table lamp:

This author, at the time of preparing the first draft of this essay, found himself staying in a baroque era hotel in a somewhat seedy and unpleasant tourist town with nothing much to do, and hence for a substantial period confining himself to his spaciously appointed hotel room designed in an old-fashioned way and with a table lamp on the occasional table adjacent to the bed. And when he woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, he found himself looking at this lamp in the bleary haze of the morning twilight and wondering whether it might be some other object instead. For example, could it be a bronze figurine representing a human being with a hat on. Or it could be a representation of some sort of tropical plant. And so on and so forth.

It is not of course these things. It is a traditional lamp for an occasional table. But the point is that items are capable of looking different, and corresponding to different words or concepts, depending upon the state of the brain. And this is nothing to do with the perspective from which one might study the object, such as Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit, which variously looks like a rabbit or a duck depending on the angle of the page from which one stares at the image:

Instead it depends upon the state of mind of the observer. For want of better terms immediately coming to mind, it depends upon whether the mind's attention is more conservative or more creative. A conservative focus of attention will see the table lamp as a table lamp; a creative focus of attention might see it as something else, and this is a different distinction from the duck-rabbit. Whether one sees Wittgenstein's image as a rabbit or as a duck does not really depending on one's state of mind (although we suppose it is conceivable that if you wanted duck for dinner that night then you might be more inclined to see it as a duck, whereas if you wanted rabbit for dinner then you might be more inclined to see it as a rabbit). Instead it depends on the extent to which your mind is inclined to make logical leaps from one idea, more readily presented by an image or collection of words, to another one. And that can depend upon one's mental states.

Examples of mental states that might affect the mind's position upon the the spectrum between the conservative and the creative at any different moment might include the following:

  • The level of one's fatigue versus alertness

  • The state of stimulation of the mind

  • Any state of depression, unhappiness or sadness

  • Intoxication with alcohol, or the consumption of other recreational narcotics

  • The use of medication, in particular psychoactive medication

  • Any condition of mental illness or unwellness from which one is suffering

  • How much food one has had to eat

  • Perceptual conditions (lighting, temperature, etcetera)

Then this author recalled a less fortunate period in his life when he was undergoing psychotic experiences from time to time as a result of psychiatric illness. Due to some very grave events in his life that had taken place over an extended period, the author had come to suffer from a total nervous breakdown or what is occasionally known as Generalised Anxiety Disorder - a sort of psychiatric condition that can potentially result in psychotic episodes, in which one suffers from irrational anxiety about risks that are far less serious in reality than one imagines them to be. This reduces the patient to the proverbial gibbering wreck, often leading them to be unable to leave the house by reason of some imagined irrational fear. These conditions are now subsumed under a more modern psychiatric label "Bipolar II Disorder", the neurochemical analysis being that these conditions are caused by anomalous and harmful extension of the "fight-or-flight" strategy that creates adrenalin rushes in the event of danger. When in a dangerous situation the body releases neurological chemicals that cause crisis-based reactions to protect life. These powerful chemicals, such as adrenalin, override the other neurological chemicals that keep the interactions between the mind and the body calm and stable over ordinary periods.

The problems arise where the circumstances of stress causing the neurochemical fight-or-flight reaction are sustained over an extensive period of time and/or are particularly acute. This may cause an indefinite imbalance in an individual's neurochemical makeup and the neurological balance of the individual may suffer from periodic swings as a result as the usual balancing effect of neurophysiological processes is undermined. This syndrome has been known as Bipolar II Disorder and one of its consequences is to generate extreme reactions in the imagination pursuant to a pervasive irrational sense of anxiety. So the Bipolar II Disorder sufferer might wake up in the middle of the night to see the table lamp and potentially perceive it as a firearm or a stick of dynamite, for example. This is where Bipolar II Disorder sufferers can descend into psychosis, as they start to believe things in respect of which there is no rational basis for doing so.

The purpose of this short digression into mental health disorders is to illustrate that the act of perceptual cognition is in substantial part a neurochemical one and depends upon the neurophysiological status of the brain at the time of perception. Hence the understanding of the meaning of images, other perceptions, concepts and words (because there is at least some connection between words and the concepts and objects that words appear to represent, as Wittgenstein's earlier philosophy posited even if his later philosophy substantially qualified). That is why acts of speculative inferencing from one idea to another, being movements of intellectual thought incapable of replication by a computational algorithm and that are essential to what we have come to call asynchronous cryptology, depend in the nature, direction and extent upon neurobiological and in particular neurochemical factors.

The interpretation of language and the construction of words depends upon context and inferencing of an imaginative kind from the words used, which is why computers are limited in their capacity to copy exactly natural language patterns and why a sufficiently astute human fluent in the use of a natural language should always, with due care, be able to outwit a computational algorithm, even one with a learning capacity in the nature of artificial intelligence, by use of imaginative inferences from words, images and other conceptual representations that a computer cannot replicate. That in turn is because the operation of the human mind, and in particular its speculative or inferential function, is determined in part at least by neurochemicals and their distinctive and barely understood interactions with the brain, the mind and the body. Computers cannot replicate something that human beings themselves cannot understand, because humans cannot write the algorithms investing in the computers the capacity to copy something that is not understood by the programmers. Or to put things another way, computers cannot have nervous breakdowns (at least in the conventional sense in which we understand them as being neurochemical imbalances), and therefore computers are not capable of the full variety of asynchronous speculative inferencing that humans are capable of.

This represents both an advantage and a disadvantage for those who find cryptology a useful science. The advantage is that there are indeed, or that there should be, tools for conveying encrypted messages that a computer cannot transgress. The disadvantage is that all such inferencing depends upon context, mood and other subjective features of the communicants because with those subjective features, that may boil down to distinctive levels of neurochemicals associated with the neurotransmitters, and/or specific internal psychological moods associated with those chemical balances, the direction of an asynchronous (or imaginative) inference may change. Therefore a cipherer will need always to be acutely aware that the interpretation of his or her cipher by the recipient will depend upon that person's mood and a variety of other factors that it may be very difficult to know at the time when the ciphered communication is transmitted.

A lot of shared information about moods, personality, background experiences and likely inferences to be drawn from specific representations, ambiguous words and contexts, if asynchronous cryptology is to be successful and to incur more hits than misses. Or, to put things another way, it's a bit like sharing a joke with a friend. The friend is more likely to "get" the joke if you know each other well, you know what sorts of moods each other has and what sorts of reactions each other typically has to certain types of stimuli, and you are aware of the person's mood at the time you tell the joke. Timing is everything in telling jokes, and it is much easier to make a joke funny when you tell it in person than if you tell it over the 'phone; much easier if you tell it over the 'phone than in an email; and so on and so forth. So it is likewise with asynchronous cryptology.


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