Monday, May 1, 2017

Beer Goggles

Why is beauty, as the saying goes, is in eye of the beer holder?

The term beer goggles sums up the idea that potential partners start to look more attractive after a few alcoholic drinks. It is widely reported and there is scientific evidence that it is a real phenomenon.

The effects of alcohol on the brain are mostly depressant, though it has some stimulant properties. So how can a depressant make people look more attractive? I have a theory that offers an answer. It also predicts late night eating, fighting and vomiting.

The idea that we have preconscious circuits in our brains, looking after things like finding food or a mate, has an explanation for beer goggles. Alcohol can suppress the circuits that look after other things than mating. Now all the mating circuit has to do is let us think the nearest potential mate is attractive.

Some scientists think that our vision works by activating modified stored icons. In other words to see a face in front of us our brain finds a standard face in memory and rotates and modifies it to match the signals from they eye.

The mating circuit in our beer sodden brain only has to modify our stored icon for a mate a bit less than necessary for accuracy to have us seeing a more attractive person in front of us. Normally the circuits that pre-consciously judge what would happen if we were to meet our friends, or our mothers, with this potential mate in tow would make sure the image in our minds eye was a bit more accurate.

So we get beer googles because parts of our brain are doing less work than they should.Incidentally less than accurate modification of stored icons, under the influence of alcohol, might also explain why we hear a voice like Michael Jackson’s when listening to bad karaoke.

If the theory that the beer goggles effect is caused by letting one task specific circuit get more control than it normally should, then there would be examples of the effect of letting other circuits take charge.

I believe we have preconscious circuits for; food, poison, mating, competition, danger, affiliation, homeostasis and circadian rhythms such as sleep.

That circuit that manages our circadian rhythms can have us falling asleep before we get home. The food circuit can prompt the late night curry. The affiliation circuit can have us declaring love for one and all. Competition or danger circuits might be what account for aggressive behavior.

If suppression of task specific circuits is responsible for some of the effects of alcohol then it is likely that our poison circuit will also be influenced. When our poison circuit is suppressed we may continue to drink alcohol past the point where our bodies should be rejecting it. If all but our poison circuit is suppressed we may react by vomiting well before we would for the same amount of a different toxin.

So not just beer goggles, but bad karaoke, late night binge eating, telling everyone we love them before fighting, being sick and then falling asleep. This is what our unmediated preconscious circuits are like.

Thankfully we usually have a sober conscious self to respond to the world in more nuanced ways.


Jones, B. T., Jones, B. C., Thomas, A. P. and Piper, J. (2003), Alcohol consumption increases attractiveness ratings of opposite-sex faces: a possible third route to risky sex. Addiction, 98: 1069–1075.

Egan, V. and Cordan, G. (2009), Barely legal: Is attraction and estimated age of young female faces disrupted by alcohol use, make up, and the sex of the observer? British Journal of Psychology, 100: 415–427.

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Visual Perception Theory. Retrieved from

Q&A on Consciousness

What is consciousness?

It is the view from inside of a running model of the world. The self that is aware of the view is a decision making part of the model. Everything that the self is consciously aware of is data presented to the self to either enable or prompt a current decision or give feedback on previous decisions.

Is it a Cartesian Theater?
In some ways consciousness is like a Cartesian puppet theater, where the conscious self is a puppet created by group of puppet masters. The puppet masters are constantly pulling the puppet in different directions in order to get the puppet to act in specific ways.

Who are the puppet masters?
The puppet masters are circuits looking after specific tasks. For example there is a circuit to monitor the need for various chemicals within the body, identify sources of those chemicals and prompt their acquisition. These circuits are preconscious and not accessible to conscious thought.

What are the main circuits?
Animals have circuits which deal with food, poison, mating, competition, physical danger, affiliation, homeostasis and sleep.

How do the circuits work together?
They feed data into a shared model of the animal and its surroundings so that, for example the location of a food source can be compared to the location of a threat such as a predator.

Why is there a self in the model?
An accurate representation of the body and capabilities of the animal in the model enables questions; such as can the food be reached and can the predator be outrun, to be answered.

So the self is like a puppet being pulled in various directions?
Sometimes yes. The task specific circuits try to move the puppet in the direction best suited to meeting their priorities, but often the circuits will prompt different actions.

Are there rules for which circuit wins in these conflicts?
There seem to be some rules, such as an immediate response to physical danger taking priority over other actions. However, certainly for mammals, long term gene survival depends on more subtly balanced decision being made in most situations.

How are balanced decisions made?
The circuits feed data to a circuit which can compare them and assess options for action in relation to the overall needs of the animal.

But these choices are not like for like?
Because the data processed by the task specific circuits is so different in kind it has to be shared in a common a language of simple choice based options. Each element fed to the model by the circuits has a value on a scale; either positive-neutral-negative, or too little-optimum-too much.

Why does that feel like anything?
The 'what it is like ness' of experience is data in the shared language. The part of us that is aware of the ‘what it is like’ is the circuit assessing options in relation to the overall needs of the animal.

Is this not simply a way of saying it is a Cartesian theatre with a homunculus watching the world and making decisions?
No. The self's experience of the world, made of flavors, textures, colors and sounds is an entirely internal representation. Sensations such as flavor or color are not the way the animal gathers data about its surroundings, nor are they reliably consistent with the input data. They only make sense as the input to a decision making system. Experience is not a hard problem of consciousness it is the key to understanding what consciousness is for and how it operates.

How we think

How we think Human brains are not like computers, though it is easy to see why some believe they are. Both computers and brains can calculate using numbers or find the odd one out in a list and even recognize a face in a picture.

A computer is a machine that can calculate using 1’s and 0’s. Using 1’s and 0’s is ideal for a machine because you can choose between 1 and 0 with an on-off switch. Join more switches in a circuit and you can make many more choices. If you store the image of a face as a pattern of 1’s and 0’s you can program the computer to check if a picture has the same pattern of 1’s and 0’s. The computer is not literally recognizing a face it is a complicated circuit that signals match when two patterns of 1’s and 0’s are alike.

I describe the parts of our mind that look after food, poison, mating, competition, danger, affiliation, homeostasis and sleep as circuits. The main reason I do so is they do not think the way we consciously do, they detect and signal.

How our circuits work

Take our food circuit for example. The cells in our bodies need a constant supply of chemicals. A fall in the level of one of these chemicals can trigger a signal. In a worm the signal might prompt a move to a direction that increases the traces of the chemical in the soil. In humans it might prompt us with a thought to get an apple.

In the worm the food circuit has to work with the sensory system to get information on where the chemical it needs can be found. It has to work with the narrative system to get information on when the chemical is needed, and it has to work with the motor control system to move the worm’s body in the direction of food. The same interaction of circuits and systems happens in us.

Sensory information is more important for animals like us who need to use associations to find food at a distance. Our food circuit has to store an association between sugar and the pattern of a red sphere shape in order to prompt us to get an apple.

While computers input, process and store data as 1’s and 0’s the same is not true for our brains. We store information by growing connections between neurons. The same connections are used when we have the same experience again or when we remember it. Patterns like the apple shape, stored as connections in our brain, help us to search for apples again. When we find another apple the apple part of our brain becomes active. This is how seeing the apple is the same as knowing it is an apple. The apple part of our brain can be connected to other parts of the brain. This is how we can think about apples whether we see them or not.

All of our cells, not just those in the brain and nervous system which work in detecting and signalling, can communicate with the cells around them. The thought that you want a drink of water can begin with cells signalling a need.

Ambiguous Images

Mostly when we look at the world, or a picture of part of it, we see just one version of what is there. Though not always. There are pictures which are ambiguous, that is they can be seen in two ways. For example this picture can be seen as either a rabbit or a duck. Our perception of this is usually described as bistable. That is we can see a stable version of either a duck or a rabbit, not both at the same time.

I believe our conscious experience of vision is based on the firing of top-down visual icons, as proposed by RL Gregory . In other words when we think about a duck, our brain searches signals coming from our eyes for a pattern that matches a duck shape stored in memory. This means that miss-perceptions, occasionally including bistable illusions, can also happen to us in everyday life.

Our sensory views of the world are far from complete. They often exclude large objects, even when we are looking for them. I have often heard people say things like “I was looking for that for ages, and there it was in front of me all the time.”

This ability to suddenly see something that was previously missed has an evolutionary value if the thing missed is a potential threat, food or mate. So the perception of one of these will likely be popped in with a surprise. ‘Gosh, that branch is actually a snake!’

Something which is none of these things can be added to our sensory picture with no alerting of conscious self. This is perhaps one of the reasons we experience change blindness. If it does not matter that the person behind the counter is now male instead of female then why should our preconscious brain worry the conscious self about that.

This Ted talk by Dan Dennett includes a section towards the end showing how we can miss quite major changes in our field of vision for quite a while. As you watch that section take note of how he uses verbal prompts to get the audience to notice the changes.

For me this shows how our conscious experience has both a sensory and narrative part, and the narrative can literally tell the sensory what to see.

This image can be seen as either a young or an old woman. If we are thinking of the young woman, in other words our narrative focus is on the young woman, then we see the young woman.

My asking you to now see an old woman and you seeing her is, I believe, evidence of our brain using different systems to process narrative and sensory data. So the change in your narrative about the picture changes what you see. The same holds for directing a viewer’s attention to a change that has been missed in a change blindness experiment.

Earlier in the Ted Talk there is an example of a sudden change in perception being popped into consciousness. When Dan Dennett describes his moment of shock in an art gallery it was because his narrative state was of approaching a Canaletto, not just any painting. For the painting to suddenly change to one by a different artist required a sudden change in his narrative, and this is why he yelled.

Our conscious experience includes both sensory and narrative elements to get our conscious self to act. If no change in action is needed our preconscious brain will change the detail without alerting the conscious self. But if the change means there is a snake, or we are walking to the wrong painting, then the self needs to know. A conscious decision to change direction is prompted.

Gregory, R. L. (Richard Langton). Eye And Brain; the Psychology of Seeing. New York,McGraw-Hill, 1973.
Image Source:
Jastrow, J. The mind's eye. Popular Science Monthly (1899).
William Ely Hill (1887–1962) - „Puck“, 6. Nov 1915, Public Domain,