Re: Memory (was Review of "The Spike")

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Fri, 15 Aug 1997 07:20:56 -0500

Anders Sandberg wrote:
> On Thu, 14 Aug 1997, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky wrote:
> > Anders Sandberg wrote:
> > >
> > > One thing I found in my neurochemistry reading is that choline
> > > supplementation to pregnant rats makes their children better at
> > > soliving spatial-memory tasks, apparently the choline has beneficial
> > > effects on the development of their memory system. Should human
> > > mothers supplement themselves with choline during pregnancy, even if
> > > we don't know the full effects of this on the children?
> >
> > I'd be nervous. Algernon's Law - is choline hard to synthesize during
> > pregnancy? Why wouldn't it be supplied naturally? Are we sure that
> > choline isn't just activating one kind of memory which grows at the
> > expense of others?
> Good questions. The papers I have read (see below) are a bit unclear
> on this. My impression is that a high choline level biases some
> reactions in favor for developing more receptors of certain kinds and
> likely more growth of cholinergic neurons. A wild guess would be that
> some kinds of memory are improved at the expense of others, but it is
> hard to tell what would happen in humans.

That being the case - I think that giving choline supplements to pregnant
women is fine(*), but bearing in mind that the children will be Algernons. In
other words, you create a limited number instead of putting choline in the
water supply. As I said elsewhere, comparing humans to Algernons is futile,
so the children won't be "worse" or "better" in any absolute terms. But
they'll be better off, having a better position in the supply-demand equation.
And from a wider perspective, it's best to have as many different types of
human as possible. The more types, the better the chance that any given
problem will have a person capable of solving it.

(Note that the issue of "informed consent" doesn't arise; you'd need that only
if you were acting on preexisting persons. Creating new people entirely falls
under a totally different set of ethical laws.)

> > Human memory is so mucky and fragile that we Information-Age types
> > use computers as "ontological stabilizers".
> Shouldn't that be "epistemic stabilizers"?

In the context of the conversation, I was claiming that human memory had a
fuzzy ontological basis - wetware - while computers were founded on clear,
unambiguous ones and zeroes. In other words, it was an issue of substrate
rather than distortion... hence the phrase; the implication was that the
existence of information in clear and unchanging terms would stabilize the
high-level wavering of the wetware through the Laws of Similarity and Contagion.

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.