A recent study conducted by the University of Oslo asked ten participants to attend a week-long yoga retreat in Germany. For the first two days, participants spent two hours practicing a yoga, including yogic postures, yogic breathing exercises, and meditation. For the next two days, they spent that same time period going on an hour-long nature walk and then listening to either jazz or classical music. “The researchers found that the nature walk and music-driven relaxation changed the expression of 38 genes in these circulating immune cells. In comparison, the yoga produced changes in 111.”
Yoga really is a superpower.
Re blogged for Amanda who will be puzzled that I am reblogging something so obvious.
it is possible for core body temperature to be controlled by the brain. The scientists found that core body temperature increases can be achieved using certain meditation techniques (g-tummo) which could help in boosting immunity to fight infectious diseases or immunodeficiency.
The findings from the study showed that specific aspects of the meditation techniques can be used by non-meditators to regulate their body temperature through breathing and mental imagery. The techniques could potentially allow practitioners to adapt to and function in cold environments, improve resistance to infections, boost cognitive performance by speeding up response time and reduce performance problems associated with decreased body temperature.
The two aspects of g-tummo meditation that lead to temperature increases are “vase breath” and concentrative visualisation. “Vase breath” is a specific breathing technique which causes thermogenesis, which is a process of heat production. The other technique, concentrative visualisation, involves focusing on a mental imagery of flames along the spinal cord in order to prevent heat losses. Both techniques work in conjunction leading to elevated temperatures up to the moderate fever zone.
Assoc Prof Kozhevnikov explained, “Practicing vase breathing alone is a safe technique to regulate core body temperature in a normal range. The participants whom I taught this technique to were able to elevate their body temperature, within limits, and reported feeling more energised and focused. With further research, non-Tibetan meditators could use vase breathing to improve their health and regulate cognitive performance.”
“Playing video games before bedtime may give people an unusual level of awareness and control in their dreams […] “If you’re spending hours a day in a virtual reality, if nothing else it’s practice,” said Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist at Grant MacEwan University in Canada. “Gamers are used to controlling their game environments, so that can translate into dreams.””—Video Gamers Can Control Dreams, Study Suggests | LiveScience (via new-aesthetic)
Our world is full of cyclic phenomena: For example, many people experience their attention span changing over the course of a day. Maybe you yourself are more alert in the morning, others more in the afternoon. Bodily functions cyclically change or “oscillate” with environmental rhythms, like…
Human tendencies to imitate clothing styles and to pick up the nonverbal mannerisms of others are rooted in paleocircuits of the reptilian brain. Paleocircuits are subcortical nerve nets and pathways which link bodily arousal centers, emotion centers and motor areas of the forebrain and midbrain, with muscles for the body movements required by nonverbal signs. Imitation is a deep, reptilian principle of mimicry, i.e., of copying, emulating, or aping a behavior, gesture or accessories including impulsive tendencies to, e.g., clap as audience members nearby applaud. Researchers isolated specific “cute” features in the face, establishing the existence of an infantile cuteness schema and a set of features and proportions attractive both in male and female.
Isopraxis is behavior where people dress like their colleagues and adopt the beliefs, customs, and mannerisms of the people they admire or feel inferior too. Appearing, behaving, and acting the same way makes it easier to be accepted, looking alike suggests same views and feels safe. The highly ritualized and time-based practice of coded outfit and appearance is not only a social synchronization device but also a system of classification and identification of complex social strata and hierarchical uniformities. The element of choice appears to be mostly an illusion but as a dynamic instrument of control it is superior to passive cattle branding methods because patterns are internalized in the subjects. In contrast to its cheerful image, fashion is not only a very effective multilevel system of group cohesion but even more so an efficient tool of social disciplinary action.
Special Agents at USFBI report that they have found that getting people to breathe at the same rate, blink at the same rate, head nod, and do other gestures at the same time is very effective in establishing deep communication. This creates rapport by behavior feedback subtly matching non-verbal communication, especially voice patterns and eye contact patterns. Facial movements provide sufficient peripheral information to drive emotional experience. The facial feedback hypothesis proposes that facial expression (smiling, frowning etc.) affects emotional expression and behavior, smiling produces a weak feeling of happiness. EEG-research proved a resonance-like rapport of brain waves upon external optical or acoustic stimulation. The brain’s own frequencies tune in with the frequencies of the stimulus, an effect called “photic driving” or “frequency following response” (FFR). The frequency bands from 0.1 ? 40 Hz are associated with psycho-physical states (Gamma, Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta) although these categories cannot cover the complex spectrum of wave activities of the brain, and only offer a vague outline of psycho-physical effects.
In remote areas of south-east Asia, certain species of firefly flash rhythmically in unison. The emergent synchrony of these fireflies which can number in the thousands differs markedly from many other forms of apparent synchronization in nature where perceived synchrony in these cases highlights the tendency of human observers to impose rhythmic patterns. After all, human behaviors are often characterized by synchronization and rhythm.
Are spirit mediums really communicating with the dead? My Magic 8 Ball says “Outlook not so good.”
But a new brain study of Brazilian mediums shows that something decidedly strange is occurring during the famous “trance state,” and no one has a ready answer to explain exactly what’s going on.
Ten mediums—five less expert and five experienced—were injected with a radioactive tracer to capture their brain activity during normal writing and during the practice of psychography, which involves allegedly channeling written communication from the “other side” while in a trance-like state. The subjects were scanned using SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) to highlight the areas of the brain that are active and inactive during the practice.
The mediums ranged from 15 to 47 years of automatic writing experience, performing up to 18 psychographies per month. All were right-handed, in good mental health, and not currently using any psychiatric drugs.
Like information in a book, unfolding events are stored in human memory in successive chapters or episodes. One consequence is that information in the current episode is easier to recall than information in a previous episode. An obvious question then is how the mind divides experience up into…
They found the smaller a person’s visual cortex was — the part of the brain linked with vision —the more likely he or she experienced the illusion.
"If we both look at the same thing, we would expect our perception to be identical," de Haas told LiveScience. "Our results demonstrate that this not quite true in every situation — sometimes what you perceive depends on your individual brain anatomy."
The researchers suggest this illusion could reveal a way the brain compensates for imperfect visual circuitry.
"The visual brain’s representation of what hits the eye is very efficient but not perfect — there is some uncertainty to visual representations, especially when things happen quickly, like the rapid succession of flashes in the illusion,” de Haas said. “We speculate that this kind of uncertainty is bigger in brains that dedicate a smaller proportion of neurons to visual areas, just like a camera with fewer megapixels will give you a lower image quality.”
"If this speculation holds, it would make perfect sense for smaller visual brains to make more use of the additional information provided by the ears," de Haas explained. "In the real world, sources of light and sound are often identical, and combining them will be advantageous. Imagine you take a twilight walk in a forest and scare up some animal in the undergrowth. The best strategy for finding out whether you are dealing with a hedgehog or a bear will involve combining visual information, like moving twigs and branches, with auditory information, like cracking wood."
Much remains unknown about the roots of this illusion. For instance, only about a quarter of the individual differences regarding the illusion could be explained by brain anatomy. “We still haven’t explained the rest,” de Haas said.
Future research can also explore “whether the relationship between visual cortex size and audiovisual perception is specific to this illusion or holds for other audiovisual illusions as well,” de Haas said.
Other such illusions include the so-called McGurk effect, when the visual component of one sound is paired with the auditory component of another sound, leading people to mysteriously perceive a third sound — for instance, when the syllables “ba-ba” are spoken over the lip movements for “ga-ga,” the perception is of “da-da.”
Recent research suggests fascinating connections between the effects of the psychedelic drug psilocybin and personality traits related to inner experience. Personality appears to influence response to psilocybin and psilocybin can promote changes in personality, suggesting a reciprocal…
The Office of Naval research wants to fund more research on intuition:
esearch in human pattern recognition and decision-making suggest that there is a “sixth sense” through which humans can detect and act on unique patterns without consciously and intentionally analyzing them….
“Could your unconscious mind be making you feel better or worse, based on cues you’re not even aware of? At first blush, this notion sounds hard to believe. How can a placebo response happen without conscious awareness being involved? But a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is suggesting a person can indeed have a placebo (or nocebo) response even when they’re unaware of any suggestion of improvement or anticipation of getting worse. (A nocebo response is an expectation that you’ll feel worse, not better.) A team led by Karin Jensen of the Department of Psychiatry and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) performed a two-phase experiment: Thermal pain stimuli In the first experiment, Jensen took 40 volunteers and administered heat stimulation to their forearms while simultaneously showing them images of human faces on the computer screen. For the first face, they were told to expect low pain stimulation, and for the second image, high pain stimulation. The volunteers were asked to to rate their experience of the pain on a scale from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most painful. But what the patients didn’t know was that all heat simulations were the same medium temperature. Not surprisingly, the participants applied a low average rating of 19 when they saw the first face, and a high average of 53 when they saw the second face (classic nocebo effect). So far so good, but so far nothing new. But for the second experiment, everything was kept the same except for one thing: the images were shown in such rapid succession that the volunteers couldn’t possibly register them at the conscious level — what the researchers referred to as “masked exposures.” Yet, the participants recorded pain responses of 25 for the first face, and 44 for the second face. An automatic response What does this mean? It means that placebo and nocebo responses are not always elicited by what a person consciously thinks will happen, but what the unconscious mind anticipates will happen. Essentially, the researchers verified that subliminal stimuli has an influence on the placebo/nocebo response. Consequently, placebos should be understood as a mechanism that is automatic, fast, and powerful — and one that does not require conscious contemplation or judgement.”—Placebo effect can be triggered by subliminal cues
“People tend to think of the conscious, reasoning mind as the unique, intangible essence of their own “selves”, but it is not – there is much more to a person than that. From a neuroscientific perspective, in the simplest terms the “mind” is really only a product of the neurons that collectively comprise the bulk of the brain, as well as the established neural pathways therein, constructed by learning. Moods, feelings, and attention can be observed within those structures as electro-chemical “clouds” of neurotransmitters which flow among the neurons and pathways. These physical aspects of neural structures and neurotransmitters are, of course, part of the body, and it can therefore be argued that much of the mind springs from the body. Arguably, because of its physical basis and the observable functioning structures, the mind is really a simple thing – a calculating device with which we deal with the elementary challenges that arise every day. The property of “consciousness” is actually misnamed – unless it is worked at, most people never become fully conscious – they get through life on auto-pilot, in a largely unconscious way, never needing to examine themselves in a philosophical sense. Even if some self-analysis is done, it will tend to be in terms of external bodies of knowledge, such as the social norms they’ve been taught, the behaviour of their friends, the law, and their religion. There is nothing wrong with thinking according to these established bodies of knowledge – in fact, it is necessary for society to function – but people are never told – and therefore they never discover – that there is a great deal more to life than such a conditioned existence. Those who have had a near-death experience know the difference between ordinary consciousness and real awareness. They have experienced something that was completely real and yet completely impossible to explain. Science can describe the process of brain death very eloquently, and in disarmingly simple biochemical terms, but philosophy comes to the rescue by reminding us that the objective observation of an event is not the same as the subjective experience of an event – my experience of my toothache is more urgently real to me than your description of yours!”—
British pro wrestling mystery man of the 70s, and now neural guru, Kendo Nagasaki.
Lengthy look from Robert McLuhan, author of Randi’s Prize: Not just linked ‘cos I got a nice reply to my comment, honest!
A member of a Facebook forum pointed out this extended essay by Adam Lee, an atheist, and asked whether anyone had a response. I’ve been thinking about these things of late, so I thought I’d have a shot. Lee takes aim at the idea of the soul, arguing that recent discoveries in neuroscience make it untenable.
Growing evidence of the way the brain functions, as revealed by brain scans, demonstrates how closely it is implicated in the production of identity, personality and behaviour, he point out. He gives an overview of which bits of the brain do what. And where in all of this is the soul, he wants to know. ‘Which brain lobe does it inhabit? Where is it hiding in this tangle of neurons and synapses?’
Lee explains: As a practical matter, it should be easy to judge between dualism and materialism, because unlike most religious doctrines, the notion of the soul is an idea that would seem to have testable consequences. Specifically, if the human mind is the product of a “ghost in the machine” and not the result of electrochemical interactions among neurons, then the mind should not be dependent on the configuration of the brain that houses it. In short, there should be aspects of the mind that owe nothing to the physical functioning of the brain.
So where is the soul hiding? Area after area of the brain has yielded up its secrets to the probing of neuroscience, and not a trace of it has been found. The more our knowledge advances, the less reason we have to suppose that it exists, and the less sustainable the dualist position becomes. All the evidence we currently possess suggests that there is nothing inside our skulls that does not obey the ordinary laws of physics.
To add substance to this Lee goes on to describe in some detail the effects of different types of brain injuries. For instance there are patients with memory disorders who cannot remember, or cannot make new memories. He asks: ‘According to dualist beliefs, what has happened to these people? Where are their souls?’ Furthermore, with their memory shot, they no longer have the option of converting to Christianity. Any proselytizer who tries to convert them has, at most, a few minutes, before they forget everything he’s said. ‘Will God condemn them for this?
Assuming these people were not religious, are they now doomed to Hell because their souls are trapped in an endless loop of brain chemistry?’ This is before we consider more exotic cases of the type described by Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio, such as alien hand syndrome (where a hand seems to develop a mind of its own, viz. Dr Strangelove); paralysis and denial (the patient believes he can move his paralysed arm, and resists all arguments to the contrary); Capgras’ syndrome (the patient thinks a person she knows well is actually an imposter); and of course Phineas Gage, who survived but underwent a severe personality change after a steel rod passed through the front of his skull.
The article is quite long, but you get the idea. The essential point is that all this data poses an insuperable challenge for dualism and for the existence of an immortal soul. And the more of it that accumulates, the tougher the challenge gets.
“Psychopaths show areas of reduced gray matter volume in the temporal pole (credit: Gregory, S. et al./Archives of General Psychiatry) New research provides the strongest evidence to date that psychopathy is linked to specific structural abnormalities in the brain. The study, led by researchers at King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) is the first to confirm that psychopathy is a distinct neuro-developmental sub-group of anti-social personality disorder (ASPD). Most violent crimes are committed by a small group of persistent male offenders with ASPD. Approximately half of male prisoners in England and Wales will meet diagnostic criteria for ASPD, characterized by emotional instability, impulsivity and high levels of mood and anxiety disorders. However, about one third of such men will meet additional diagnostic criteria for psychopathy (ASPD P). They are characterised by a lack of empathy and remorse, and use aggression in a planned way to secure what they want (status, money etc.). Previous research has shown that psychopaths’ brains differ structurally from healthy brains, but until now, none have examined these differences within a population of violent offenders with ASPD.”—Psychopathy linked to brain abnormalities | KurzweilAI
“A team of psychologists at Ohio State has found that people reading fictional stories feel the emotions of the characters as if they were their own. You might be mentally filing that under “well, duh”, but the findings could be used to increase election turnout and even address homophobia and racism. Plus, it turns out that a person’s environment has a strong impact on the ability of a reader to “take” these fictional experiences as their own.”—Psychologists find that fiction seeps into real life (Wired UK)
First, picture a monkey. A monkey dressed like a little pirate, if that helps you. We’ll call him Slappy.
Imagine you have Slappy as a pet. Imagine a personality for him. Maybe you and he have little pirate monkey adventures and maybe even join up to fight crime. Think how sad you’d be if Slappy died.
Now, imagine you get four more monkeys. We’ll call them Tito, Bubbles, Marcel and ShitTosser. Imagine personalities for each of them now. Maybe one is aggressive, one is affectionate, one is quiet, the other just throws shit all the time. But they’re all your personal monkey friends.
Now imagine a hundred monkeys.
Not so easy now, is it? So how many monkeys would you have to own before you couldn’t remember their names? At what point, in your mind, do your beloved pets become just a faceless sea of monkey? Even though each one is every bit the monkey Slappy was, there’s a certain point where you will no longer really care if one of them dies.
So how many monkeys would it take before you stopped caring?
That’s not a rhetorical question. We actually know the number.
“Professor Robin Dunbar is best known for his work related to how many stable social relationships the human brain can manage. In earlier research, he argued that the optimal number of active relationships is 150 — now famously known as the “Dunbar Number.” Dunbar is once again delving into the brain’s social capacity, but this time he’s focused on the size of the orbital prefrontal cortex (aka, the frontal lobe), the part of the brain involved in high-level thinking that sits just above our eyes. Dunbar and collegues have found that the size of this brain area correlates with the number of friendships a person is capable of managing. The study suggests that we need to employ a set of cognitive skills to maintain a large number of friends, known in psychology circles as “mentalizing” or “mind-reading”– an ability to understand what another person is thinking, which is crucial to our ability to handle our complex social world, including the ability to hold conversations with one another. According to Professor Dunbar, as reported by Science Daily,’”Mentalizing” is where one individual is able to follow a natural hierarchy involving other individuals’ mind states. For example, in the play ‘Othello’, Shakespeare manages to keep track of five separate mental states: he intended that his audience believes that Iago wants Othello to suppose that Desdemona loves Cassio. Being able to maintain five separate individuals’ mental states is the natural upper limit for most adults.”—Study: The Bigger Your Brain, the More Friendships You Can Manage - Forbes
“When we dream, the body is out for the count, but the mind is still a stew of thoughts and interpretations. But in this seemingly random stew, some dreams bubble up to the top again and again. And science fiction and fantasy might be the reason why.
When I was a very young child I had a dream about running away from a boarding school, getting shrunk down, and adventuring with the cast of Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers. Boarding schools and talking rodents were never an important facet of my childhood, but I had this dream regularly, once a year for years during my youth. But why? Why do we have these exactly recurring dreams at all, and what singles them out from regular dreams? Since scientists are split on why we have dreams at all, with theories ranging from dreams being a screen-saver for our conscious brain to dreams helping us to work out problems in everyday life. Recurring dreams have never been entirely pinned down. There are strange little quirks. For example, people with narcolepsy seem to have recurring dreams more commonly than others. Recurring dreams however tend to be associated with unresolved problems or sources of stress in real life. This supports the idea that dreams are ways to sort through problems, or at least examine them, during sleep. But what kind of problems are they? A dream study in 2000 noted that out of 592 everyday home dreams (i.e. housecleaning dreams), about two-thirds of the dreams contained a threat to the dreamer or someone close to them. Only four percent of the threats were pure fantasy like evil dragons. Just under sixty percent of the threats were likely to happen in real life. And in most cases, the dreamer “fought” the threat and won. The person got to “test-drive” an emergency situation and came up with a way to act appropriately. So are recurrent dreams practice for dangerous real-life situations? A study in 2006 showed that recurrent dreams followed the patterns of regular dreams, with about 65.6 percent having a threat in them. As before, the subject generally fought back successfully against the threat, and the dream resolved itself. So far, recurrent dreams are exactly like regular dreams. The only thing that’s flipped is the content. While regular dreams in the 2000 survey involved real threats the majority of the time, the 2006 study showed that recurrent dreams dealt in fantasy. About eighty percent of the threats in recurrent dreams were stuff from “fairy tales, comics, or science fiction” — the remaining twenty percent were about real threats. In other words, my Rescue Rangers dream was very much the norm for recurring dreams.”—Do science fiction and fantasy cause recurring dreams?
“What is the relation between selective attention and consciousness? When you strain to listen to the distant baying of coyotes over the sound of a campsite conversation, you do so by attending to the sound and becoming conscious of their howls. When you attend to your sparring opponent out of the corner of your eye, you become hyperaware of his smallest gestures. Because of the seemingly intimate relation between attention and consciousness, most scholars conflate the two processes. Indeed, when I came out of the closet to give public talks on the mind-body problem in the early 1990s (at that time, it wouldn’t do for a young professor in biology or engineering who had not even yet attained the holy state of tenure to talk about consciousness: it was considered too fringy), some of my colleagues insisted that I replace the incendiary “consciousness” with the more neutral “attention” because the two concepts could not be distinguished and were probably the same thing anyway. Two decades later a number of experiments prove that the two are not the same. Stage magicians are superb at manipulating the audience’s attention. By misdirecting your gaze using their hands or a beautiful, bikini-clad assistant, you look but don’t see, inverting Yogi Berra’s famous witticism, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Scientists can do the same, sans the sexy woman. I described a psychophysical technique called continuous flash suppression in an earlier column [see “Rendering the Visible Invisible,” October/November 2008], in which a faint image in one eye—say, an angry face in the left eye—becomes invisible by flashing a series of colorful overlaid rectangles into the other eye. As long as you keep both eyes open, you see only the flashed pictures. Attention is drawn to the rapidly changing images, effectively camouflaging the angry face. As soon as you wink with the right eye, however, you see the face. This technique has been used to great effect both to hide things from consciousness—such as a naked man or woman—and to demonstrate that the brain will still attend to them. A Japanese-German collaboration has moved such an experiment into the confines of a magnetic scanner to record the brain’s response to unseen stimuli. Rather than using erotic pictures, they projected a low-contrast grating that was drifting horizontally into one eye. It was surrounded by a scintillating ring in the same or in the opposite eye. In the latter case, the central stimulus became perceptually invisible. It disappeared. This experiment used what is known in the lingo as a 2 × 2 design. The scientists manipulated the visibility of the moving grating (two conditions); they also manipulated whether or not subjects attended to the grating (two conditions). They achieved the latter two conditions by asking them to monitor a series of single letters that appeared on the ring and to report the presence of a particular letter. On the other half of the trials, subjects were told to ignore these letters. In total, four conditions were tested. Note that the layout on the monitor always contains the same elements with the ring being projected into the same eye as the moving grating or the opposite eye, et cetera. The key difference was in the minds of the volunteers whose brains were scanned—whether or not they consciously saw the grating (which they had to report) and whether or not they attended to it.”—Consciousness Does Not Reside Here: Scientific American
“Although auditory verbal hallucinations are often thought to denote mental illness, the majority of voice hearers do not satisfy the criteria for a psychiatric disorder. Here, we report the first functional imaging study of such nonclinical hallucinations in 7 healthy voice hearers comparing them with auditory imagery. The human voice area in the superior temporal sulcus was activated during both hallucinations and imagery. Other brain areas supporting both hallucinations and imagery included fronto temporal language areas in the left hemisphere and their contralateral homologues and the supplementary motor area (SMA). Hallucinations are critically distinguished from imagery by lack of voluntary control. We expected this difference to be reflected in the relative timing of prefrontal and sensory areas. Activity of the SMA indeed preceded that of auditory areas during imagery, whereas during hallucinations, the 2 processes occurred instantaneously. Voluntary control was thus represented in the relative timing of prefrontal and sensory activation, whereas the sense of reality of the sensory experience may be a product of the voice area activation. Our results reveal mechanisms of the generation of sensory experience in the absence of external stimulation and suggest new approaches to the investigation of the neurobiology of psychopathology.”—The Brain’s Voices: Comparing Nonclinical Auditory Hallucinations and Imagery
PROBLEM: Good intentions have a bad reputation. They’re often described as useless, and some even claim they pave the road to hell.
METHODOLOGY: To test the effect of kindness and benevolence on physical experiences, University of Maryland psychologist Kurt Gray conducted three experiments. In the first trial, which examined pain, the participants received identical electric shocks at the hand of a partner who supposedly did so accidentally, maliciously, or compassionately.
In the next test, which looked at pleasure, subjects sat on the same electric massage pad that was either turned on by a computer or a caring partner. Then, in the final trial, participants tasted similar sweet treats that came with either a pleasant note (“I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy”) or an apathetic message (“I just picked it randomly”).
RESULTS: Subjects who felt cared for in each experiment felt less pain from the shocks and enjoyed their massage and food more than those who were treated poorly or indifferently.
CONCLUSION: Good intentions can soothe pain, increase pleasure, and improve taste.
IMPLICATION: “The way we read another persons intentions changes our physical experience of the world,” said Gray in a statement. Those in relationships should let their loved ones know that they care for them when they interact, and doctors and nurses should brush up on their bedside manner to reduce pain.
First, dopamine. Increased dopamine in the human brain causes behaviour to be more aggressive, more active, more thrill-seeking and goal-seeking. There is a theory that human civilisation really started when our dopamine levels got raised because we switched to eating…
“A drastic procedure called a corpus callosotomy, first used as a treatment for severe epilepsy in the 1940s, disconnects the two sides of the neocortex, the home of language, conscious thought and movement control. There are fewer than a dozen “split-brain” surviving patients, and now their numbers are dwindling. Michael Gazzaniga, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the godfather of modern split-brain science, says that even after working with these patients for five decades, he still finds it thrilling to observe the disconnection effects first-hand. The surgery, already quite rare, has been replaced by drug treatments and less drastic surgical procedures. Meanwhile, imaging technologies have become the preferred way to look at brain function, as scientists can simply watch which areas of the brain are active during a task.”—The split brain: a tale of two halves | KurzweilAI
“For thousands of years, human beings have looked down on their emotions. We’ve seen them as primitive passions, the unfortunate legacy of our animal past. When we do stupid things – say, eating too much cake, or sleeping with the wrong person, or taking out a subprime mortgage – we usually blame our short-sighted feelings. People commit crimes of passion. There are no crimes of rationality. This bias against feeling has led people to assume that reason is always best. When faced with a difficult dilemma, most of us believe that it’s best to carefully assess our options and spend a few moments consciously deliberating the information. Then, we should choose the alternative that best fits our preferences. This is how we maximize utility; rationality is our Promethean gift. But what if this is all backwards? What if our emotions know more than we know? What if our feelings are smarter than us? While there is an extensive literature on the potential wisdom of human emotion – David Hume was a prescient guy – it’s only in the last few years that researchers have demonstrated that the emotional system (aka Type 1 thinking) might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables. If true, this would suggest that the unconscious is better suited for difficult cognitive tasks than the conscious brain, that the very thought process we’ve long disregarded as irrational and impulsive might actually be more intelligent, at least in some conditions. The latest demonstration of this effect comes from the lab of Michael Pham at Columbia Business School. The study involved asking undergraduates to make predictions about eight different outcomes, from the Democratic presidential primary of 2008 to the finalists of American Idol. They forecast the Dow Jones and picked the winner of the BCS championship game. They even made predictions about the weather. Here’s the strange part: although these predictions concerned a vast range of events, the results were consistent across every trial: people who were more likely to trust their feelings were also more likely to accurately predict the outcome. Pham’s catchy name for this phenomenon is the emotional oracle effect.”—Are Emotions Prophetic? | Wired Science | Wired.com
1. What are the critical brain regions for consciousness?
The brain contains about 90 billion neurons, and about a thousand times more connections between them.
But consciousness isn’t just about having a large number of neurons. For instance, the cerebellum, which contains over half the neurons in the brain, doesn’t seem much involved. We now think that consciousness depends primarily on a specific network of regions in the cortex (the wrinkled surface of the brain) and the thalamus (a walnut-sized structure buried deep in the interior). Some of these regions are important for determining the level of consciousness (the difference between waking and dreamless sleep) while others are involved in shaping conscious content (the specific qualities of any given experience).
Current hot topics include the role of the brain’s densely connected frontal lobes, and the importance of information flow between regions rather than their activity per se.
2. What are the mechanisms of general anaesthesia?
A good way to study a phenomenon is to see what happens when it disappears. General anaesthesia can be induced by many different substances (including propofol, one of the drugs that contributed to Michael Jackson’s death) but the outcome is the same: total loss of consciousness.
There is now increasing evidence that anaesthesia involves a disintegration of how different parts of the brain work together, a sort of “cognitive unbinding” rather than a general shutting-down.
A key question now is how similar general anaesthesia is to other states of unconsciousness, such as dreamless sleep.
3. What is the self?
All our experiences seem tied to an experiencing self, the ‘I’ behind our eyes. But selfhood is a complex phenomenon, encompassing a first-person perspective on the world, a sense of ownership of our body, actions, and thoughts, perceptions of our internal physiological condition, and of course the narrative we tell ourselves about our past experiences and imagined futures.
We now know that these different features depend on different brain mechanisms, and can even be manipulated experimentally (for example,it’s possible to generate “out of body” experiences in the lab). Understanding how the brain constructs the conscious self will help us better understand and treat psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, which involve a disintegration of selfhood.
4. What determines experiences of volition and ‘will’?
The question of whether “free will” exists is guaranteed to raise philosophical hackles. But what’s not in doubt is that the experience of intending and causing our actions exists and is very common. Neuroscientists have studied this issue since the 1980s by looking for neural signatures of volition (the experience of intending to do something) and agency (the experience of causing an action). A growing consensus now rejects the idea of volition as explicitly causing actions, instead seeing it as involving a particular brain network mediating complex, open decisions between different actions.
5. What is the function of consciousness? What are experiences for?
Researchers have now discovered that many cognitive functions can take place in the absence of consciousness. We can perceive objects, make decisions, and even perform apparently voluntary actions without consciousness intervening. One possibility stands out: consciousnessintegrates information. According to this view, each of our experiences rules out an enormous number of alternative possibilities, and in doing so generates an incredibly large amount of information.
6. How rich is consciousness?
The vast majority of evidence about consciousness depends on subjective reports, for example when we say what we (consciously) see.A long-running debate has asked whether we are missing something by this method, if what we experience can outstrip our ability to report on it. Intriguingly, evidence is emerging that this may indeed be the case. This evidence may provide a basis for tackling one of the thorniest problems in consciousness science: distinguishing the brain mechanisms of consciousness itself from those involved in being able to relate what we experience.
7. Are other animals conscious?
Mammals share much of the neural machinery important for human consciousness, so it seems a safe bet to assume they are conscious as well, even if they can’t tell us that they are. Despite this similarity, animal consciousness is unlikely to involve conscious selfhood in the same sense that humans enjoy. Beyond mammals the case is much harder to decide. However, birds and cephalopods (such as the octopus) are particularly intriguing, being extremely smart and having surprisingly complex brains.
8. Are vegetative patients conscious?
In the US alone, about 15,000 patients are in a “vegetative state”, having suffered massive brain injury. The key feature of this state is that patients’ behaviour suggests that they are awake but not aware. Brain imaging has revealed, however, that at least some of these patients are conscious, and has even facilitated communication between these patients and their families and doctors.
We now need to improve the sensitivity of these methods and use them to guide not only diagnosis but also treatment.
If you attended the recent Society for Neuroscience conference, you had the chance to see some unprecedented 3D imaging of the brain — images that showed the exact order in which women’s brain regions (80 in total) are activated in the sequence leading to an orgasm. For Barry Komisaruk(professor of psychology at Rutgers University), this imaging isn’t gratuitous. The whole point is to demystify how the brain experiences pleasure, something that could eventually inform our understanding of addiction and depression. Komisaruk said:
It’s a beautiful system in which to study the brain’s connectivity. We expect that this movie [above], a dynamic representation of the gradual buildup of brain activity to a climax, followed by resolution, will facilitate our understanding of pathological conditions such as anorgasmia by emphasizing where in the brain the sequential process breaks down.
Meanwhile, back at the neuroscience ranch, researchers are also using imaging technology to observe the human brain in another state, the state where people experience mystical awakenings during prayer and meditation or other spiritual epiphanies. Scientific American took a fairly deep look at this cutting-edge field several years ago (read the full piece here), and now NPR has produced a multimedia glimpse into the evolving science of spirituality. The presentation (click here or the image above) combines audio, video, articles, book excerpts, etc. and delves into the fundamental question: Is God a delusion created by brain chemistry, or is brain chemistry a necessary conduit for people to reach God?
I have had two operations under general anaesthetic this year. On both occasions I awoke with no memory of what had passed between the feeling of mild wooziness and waking up in a different room. Both times I was told that the anaesthetic would make me feel drowsy, I would go to sleep, and when I woke up it would all be over.
What they didn’t tell me was how the drugs would send me into the realms of oblivion. They couldn’t. The truth is, no one knows.
The development of general anaesthesia has transformed surgery from a horrific ordeal into a gentle slumber. It is one of the commonest medical procedures in the world, yet we still don’t know how the drugs work. Perhaps this isn’t surprising: we still don’t understand consciousness, so how can we comprehend its disappearance?
That is starting to change, however, with the development of new techniques for imaging the brain or recording its electrical activity during anaesthesia. “In the past five years there has been an explosion of studies, both in terms of consciousness, but also how anaesthetics might interrupt consciousness and what they teach us about it,” says George Mashour, an anaesthetist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor…
Skilled readers can recognize words at lightning fast speed when they read because the word has been placed in a visual dictionary of sorts, say Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) neuroscientists. Via medicalxpress.com
Among the beneficiaries of the various shifts in human consciousness now underway are a little-known group of outliers known as synesthetes. Synesthesia is defined as a blending of senses or a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Those definitions are only a hint of what synesthetes experience in terms of form and color and other add-on impressions in their sensory lives. And “synnies” reject the word “condition,” as there are few deficits associated with what they prefer to call a “gift” or a “trait.” A synesthete may hear a symphony but also see amorphous, multi-colored shapes go by. She may say the word “table” and taste cake, just like Academy Award-winner Tilda Swinton. He may be able to compute pi to 22,500 places, like the British writer Daniel Tammet (who has Asperger syndrome and savantism), or be able to equate celestial imagery to communion with the Creator, like three-time Grammy Award-winner Pharrell Williams.
Just over 100 years ago, synesthesia was a blip on the radar of modern science for one shimmering moment. Ironically, the same man most credited for drawing attention to this trait would unwittingly help show it the door. Sir Francis Galton recognized synesthesia but then went on to be an early pioneer of behaviorism, which stamped out any shred of respect for or inquiry into inner experience.
Galton named the joining of senses synesthesia – from the Greek syn, meaning “union,” and aesthesia, meaning “sensation.” As he wrote in “The Visions of Sane Persons” for The Fortnightly Review in June 1881: “These strange ‘visions,’ for such they must be called, are extremely vivid in some cases but are almost incredible to the vast majority of mankind who would set them down as fantastic nonsense. Nevertheless, they are familiar parts of the mental furniture of the rest, whose imaginations they have unconsciously formed and where they remain unmodified and unmodifiable by teaching.” Galton had great sympathy for the synesthetes he encountered throughout his career, particularly when they would relate to him how strange they felt as children.
Not long after synesthesia made its modest, respectable appearance on the world’s scientific stage, a radical shift occurred in the field of psychology, foreshadowed by Galton’s interest in the psychology of the behavior of twins: the school of behaviorism emerged. Led by American psychologist John B. Watson, this new school of thought banished personal experience in favor of people’s observed interactions with one another. A paper Watson wrote in 1913 started the wave, and in his 1924 book, Behaviorism, he explained it further: “Behaviorism … holds that the subject matter of human psychology is the behavior of the human being. Behaviorism claims that consciousness is neither a definite nor a usable concept. The behaviorist, who has been trained always as an experimentalist, holds, further, that belief in the existence of consciousness goes back to the ancient days of superstition and magic.” [Italics appear in the original.]
The impact of behaviorism was enormous. Synesthesia, perhaps one of the innermost of innermost experiences, became a forgotten curiosity. Not until the 1980s, when the cognitive revolution in psychiatry peaked, was it respectable to look once again into internal states. While behaviorists believed that since mental events could not be observed, psychiatrists should not focus on descriptions of the mind in their theories, cognitive proponents believed that investigating the mind helped scientists more reliably predict behavior.
The cognitive movement, which had its beginnings in the 1950s, was actually a backlash against behaviorism. It grew from new ideas in psychology, anthropology, and linguistics, and even the new fields of computer science, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence (AI). Psychologist Donald Broadbent, who was among the movement’s early figures, wrote the book Perception and Communication in 1958, in which he compared thought to information processing and used computer terms such as input and output. His model is still in use today. Psychologist Ulric Neisser, who wrote Cognitive Psychology in 1967, said that the mind has a perceptual structure. In the 1980s, philosopher Daniel Dennett added to the discipline with his thesis that in order to explain the mind, one needs a theory of content (how humans make meanings of things) and a theory of consciousness (what it is and how it works). And finally, AI expert Douglas Hofstadter shaped the conversation with his wide-ranging interests, including his beliefs that mental errors are a window to the mind and that analogy-making is at the root of cognition.
Metaphors We Live By [by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson] was a game changer. Not only did it illustrate how prevalent metaphors are in everyday language, it also suggested that a lot of the major tenets of western thought, including the idea that reason is conscious and passionless and that language is separate from the body aside from the organs of speech and hearing, were incorrect. In brief, it demonstrated that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”
After Metaphors We Live By was published, embodiment slowly gained momentum in academia. In the 1990s dissertations by Christopher Johnson, Joseph Grady and Srini Narayanan led to a neural theory of primary metaphors. They argued that much of our language comes from physical interactions during the first several years of life, as the Affection is Warmth metaphor illustrated. There are many other examples; we equate up with control and down with being controlled because stronger people and objects tend to control us, and we understand anger metaphorically in terms of heat pressure and loss of physical control because when we are angry our physiology changes e.g., skin temperature increases, heart beat rises and physical control becomes more difficult.
This and other work prompted Lakoff and Johnson to publish Philosophy in the Flesh, a six hundred-page giant that challenges the foundations of western philosophy by discussing whole systems of embodied metaphors in great detail and furthermore arguing that philosophical theories themselves are constructed metaphorically. Specifically, they argued that the mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious and abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. What’s left is the idea that reason is not based on abstract laws because cognition is grounded in bodily experience (A few years later Lakoff teamed with Rafael Núñez to publish Where Mathematics Comes From to argue at great length that higher mathematics is also grounded in the body and embodied metaphorical thought).
As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.
The last few years have seen many complementary studies, all of which are grounded in primary experiences:
• Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward while thinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead
• Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as male. Female is Soft
• Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. Important is Heavy.
• Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity
Studies like these confirm Lakoff’s initial hunch – that our rationality is greatly influenced by our bodies in large part via an extensive system of metaphorical thought.
It would be bizarre to suppose that the United States has a stream of conscious experience distinct from the streams of conscious experience of the people who compose it. I hope you’ll agree. (By “the United States” here, I mean the large, vague-boundaried group of compatriots who sometimes act in a coordinated manner.) Yet it’s unclear by what materialist standard the U.S. lacks consciousness. Nations, it would seem, represent and self-represent. They respond (semi-)intelligently and self-protectively, in a coordinated way, to opportunities and threats. They gather, store, and manipulate information. They show skillful attunement to environmental inputs in warring and spying on each other. Their subparts (people and larger subgroups of people) are massively informationally connected and mutually dependent, including in incredibly fancy self-regulating feedback loops. These are the kinds of capacities and structures that materialists typically regard as the heart of mentality. Nations do all these things via the behavior of their subparts, of course; but on materialist views individual people also do what they do via the behavior of their subparts. A planet-sized alien who squints might see individual Americans as so many buzzing pieces of a diffuse body consuming bananas and automobiles, invading Iraq, exuding waste.
Even if the U.S. still lacks a little something needed for consciousness, it seems we ought at least hypothetically to be able to change that thing, and so generate a stream of experience. We presumably needn’t go nearly as far as Ned Block does in his famous “Chinese nation” example — an example in which the country of China implements the exact functional structure of someone’s mind for an hour — unless we suppose, bizarrely, that consciousness is only possible among beings with almost exactly our psychology at the finest level of functional detail. If we are willing to attribute conscious experience to relatively unsophisticated beings (frogs? fish?), well, it seems that the United States can, and does sometimes, act with as much coordination and intelligence, if on a larger scale.
Researchers have found evidence for the existence of a hypnotic state -- the key was in the glazed staring eyes.
A multidisciplinary group of researchers from Finland (University of Turku and Aalto University) and Sweden (University of Skövde) has found that strange stare may be a key that can eventually lead to a solution to this long debate about the existence of a hypnotic state. One of the most widely known features of a hypnotized person in the popular culture is a glazed, wide-open look in the eyes. Paradoxically, this sign has not been considered to have any major importance among researchers and has never been studied in any detail, probably due to the fact that it can be seen in only some hypnotized people. This study was done with a very highly hypnotizable participant who can be hypnotized and dehypnotized by just using a one-word cue. The change between hypnotic state and normal state can thus be varied in seconds.
The researchers used high-resolution eye-tracking methodology and presented a set of well-established oculomotor tasks that trigger automatic eye behavior. They found the glazed stare was accompanied by objectively measurable changes in automatic, reflexive eye behavior that could not be imitated by non-hypnotized participants.
In the field of hypnosis research this result means that hypnosis can no longer be regarded as mental imagery that takes place during a totally normal waking state of consciousness. On the other hand, the result may have wider consequences for psychology and cognitive neuroscience, since it provides the first evidence of the existence of a conscious state in humans that has previously not been scientifically confirmed.
Could the brain be using electromagnetic fields to communicate between hemispheres — theelectromagnetic field theory of consciousness proposed by Johnjoe McFadden (School of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Surrey)?
Neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology(Caltech) have made a puzzling finding: people born without a corpus callosum (which links the two hemispheres of the brain) — a condition called agenesis of the corpus callosum, or AgCC — still show remarkably normal communication across the gap between the two halves of their brains.
According to J. Michael Tyszka, associate director of the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, many areas of the brain display slowly varying patterns of activity that are similar to one another. The fact that these areas are synchronized has led many scientists to presume that they are all part of an interconnected network called a resting-state network.
Much to their surprise, Tyszka and his team found that these resting-state networks look essentially normal in people with AgCC, despite the lack of connectivity.
“This was a real surprise,” says Tyszka. “We expected to see a lot less coupling between the left and right brain in this group — after all, they are missing about 200 million connections that would normally be there. How do they manage to have normal communication between the left and right sides of the brain without the corpus callosum?”
AgCC occurs in approximately one of every 4000 live births. The typical corpus callosum comprises almost 200 million axons — the connections between brain cells — and is the largest fiber bundle in the human brain. In AgCC, those fibers fail to cross the gap between the hemispheres during fetal development, forcing the two halves of the brain to communicate using more indirect — and currently unknown — means.
According to the team, the findings are especially valuable in light of current theories that link impaired brain connections with clinical conditions including autism and schizophrenia.