Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Out of Our heads, Continued

I recently mentioned my thoughts and confusion while reading the book “Out of Our Heads” by Alva Noë. I was somewhat dismissive after reading it, but while I’m still not quite sure what it was saying, I find some of its ideas still percolating.

The book seemed to be about defining where the limits of a person are. Obviously our physical bodies can be said to extend to our skin (though one could quibble with even that point.) But if you refer to a person as a sum of their experiences, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions etc… where does a person begin or end in that view? Noë’s claim, and I think he’s probably correct, is that modern neuroscience would generally say that the borders of the nervous system (brain and nerves throughout the body) are this beginning and end point.

Let’s consider our conscious experience of life – by this I mean our sights, tastes, smells etc. as well as internal thoughts, feelings and so on. If we consider that sum of perceptions as “us” where do we begin or end?

Think of seeing a bird. What’s going on there? In short, light particles/waves reflect off the form of the bird and some of them make their way to your eyes and to certain retinal cells designed to respond to different wave lengths of light (what we see as different colors.) Those retinal cells connect to other cells, travel up your optic nerve and into you brain where the “information” is “processed” by the brain and this results in our internal perception of the bird. So where is the “us” in this process – who is seeing the bird? Conventional science would probably say, again, that it’s the nervous system (the eyes and brain etc.) And that not a bad view to take, especially for medical purposes. This view would say our perception arises out of the signals traveling through our eyes, optic nerve and brain. But let’s consider what’s happening before those signals fire from our eyes. Light particles bounce off the bird and go to out eyes. In a sense, those particles could be thought of as signals (at least as well as the electrochemical firings of your nerves can.) So could those particles and indeed even that bird be thought of as part of “us”? And where do those bounced light particles come from? If we’re outside, the sun is likely source. So is the sun not a part of “us”?

At this point one starts to sound rather new agey, essentially claiming that “we” are the universe—a complex system of signals of “information.” I’m not really willing to take it that far (though the case could be made.) But I do find it interesting to think of ourselves (if we define “ourselves” to include our conscious perception of the world) as more than just our brain but also our surrounding environment.

And this aligns with another meme you often see in psychology, Buddhism, new age thought etc… that your environment has a great effect on you and thus by placing yourself in the right environment you can flourish. (The opposite would also be true. And I might argue that the real trick is making whatever environment you are in “positive.” Like the prison lifer who nonetheless thrives.)

Out of Our Heads

Recently I read yet another brain related book. This one was more philosophical than medical and was titled “Out of Our Heads: Why You Are not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness.” The author the academic Alva Noë

What was the book about? Umm… hard to say… it was pretty vague reading. It seemed to be a rebuttal to the material neuroscience view that argues that every facet of consciousness can be explained as the result of (not yet understood) machinations in the brain. However, the book’s argument was not spiritual; it did not argue for the existence of the non-material soul (I think.) Instead it seemed to argue that a conscious experience involves many systems and is not limited to the brain. If you reach out and poke a bear with a stick then your arm, your stick and perhaps even the bear are part of this experience. The environment the brain is in (including the body surrounding it) are somehow part of the conscious experience.

Hard to understand? Yeah, I didn’t get it myself. However, I do get the sense that there maybe some kernels of truth in the book’s ideas. There is a popular view that we are totally self dependent entities and we “make our own fate.” In this view, environment is not really an issue. But Noë would probably argue that where we are is as important as who we are (and in fact the two aspects are intertwined.) I found myself thinking back to my days in LA. I was, before I moved there, not much of a fan of country music. But I stumbled onto the country scene at the Cinema Bar and fell into it. It was my environment that determined, in essence, who I became (e.g. an alt-country fan of sorts.) Now that I’ve moved away from that I really don’t listen to or associate with alt-country much – that self-definition has faded. The point being that without that environment, I would have been a different person.

This all sounds rather obvious I suspect, but there seem to be a few ideas here contradictory to a lot of the philosophies at work in modern culture. One being: you are not entirely self determined, you are subject to the winds in your environment. (I personally doubt the existence of free will entirely but that’s another story.) But on a sort of flip side, you can determine you sense of self but aiming to place your self in certain environments. (Sort of like the scoundrel characters in much of fiction and real life who assume an identity and hobnob with the wealthy elite. But placing themselves in a different environment, they become a different person.)

Brain chemicals and loyalty cards

When I read Antonio Damasio’s neuroscience book “Decartes’ Error” several years ago I was struck with a certain revelation. Damasio made the point that the subtle fluctuations of our emotional life are tied to physiological processes. A sting a fear is correlated to the activation of the amygdala and corresponding hormone releases. Similar processes drive other emotions and sensations like serenity, sleepiness and ecstasy. They are fired off by the release of chemicals within our bodies.

It’s fascinating to think about this but you don’t see the concept mentioned much in non-science writing. Thus I was pleasantly surprised at this passage on author Hugh Howey’s blog. While discussing Barnes and Nobel’s use of “loyalty cards” (basically a tool to provide discounts to frequent buyers) he states

Loyalty cards are another issue. These cost a yearly subscription, and being asked if you have one right at the moment of transactional copulation is a buzz-kill. Dreading the pressure of signing up is a great way to block the dopamine release that might get me to come back.

Dopamin is the neurotransmitter related to anticipation.

I have to say I agree with Howey’s larger point about these kinds of membership programs. I’ve pretty given up on ever shopping at a Von’s Supermarket as every time I do they try and force membership into their stupid loyalty card program. I’m curious whether these programs ultimately drive away more customers than they keep. Albertsons, another store around here, has actually discontinued their program.

Nothingness

As astute readers are doubtless aware, I recently posted a post entitled “What is Real?” in which I posited that most everything we encounter does not exist. My point wasn’t that physical matter doesn’t exist (though maybe it doesn’t) but that the objects we group matter into are not objectively real but are formed from subjective, man-made categories. So the atoms and molecules* that make up a cup, or a cat, or a hat exist, but the objects—cups, cats, and hats—are dependent on humans for their existence.

*Of course, “atoms” and “molecules” are themselves man made categories.

Todays I stumbled unto an interesting rumination by someone named Alan Lightman. He’s titled his piece “My Own Personal Nothingness” and uses it to explore this “nothing is real” conceit. At one point he argues that institutions—churches, organizations, governmental bodies, political parties—are not real. They, as everything else, exist only in the minds of men.

Likewise, our human-made institutions. We endow our art and our cultures and our codes of ethics and our laws with a grand and everlasting existence. We give these institutions an authority that extends far beyond ourselves. But in fact, all of these are constructions of our minds. That is, these institutions and codes and their imputed meanings are all consequences of exchanges between neurons, which in turn are simply material atoms. They are all mental constructions. They have no reality other than that which we give them, individually and collectively.

This might seem an innocuous, even boring statement but, as I’ve argued elsewhere, this has huge ramifications for morality. In modern society, if you commit an evil act, you are (hopefully) caught and placed in prison. But if our institutions of law and morality are mere figments of our imagination, how do we know how to objectively separate right from wrong?

But there’s also something a bit freeing about the notion that institutions are meaningless. It means that we really don’t owe institutions any fealty, that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with them. I know a lot of people who defer greatly to their political party (and roundly condemn anyone who doesn’t support their party) and when a politician of that party is caught in a wrongdoing—say, fornicating with a goat—it pains these people. But these institutions only have the power we give them. I used to be much more deferential to academics or doctors and the institutions they represent, but I now see they’re taking guesses about how life works, just like the rest of us. (I don’t want to overplay this statement—I defer to doctors more than astrologers, but I recognize they aren’t perfect.)

Anyway, Lightman’s short piece is worth reading as are the comments it has generated.

Musical dissonance

I was thinking the other day about the topic of musical dissonance. Dissonance is a somewhat relative term—some people hear a piece of music and consider it sharply dissonant, others less so—but there’s some general agreement. Few would argue that there’s not a lot of dissonance in Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes soundtrack.

I know some people who are really averse to musical dissonance. I know others, like myself, who don’t find dissonance particularly perturbing. It struck me that a lot of the people I know who dislike dissonance tend to be clean freaks – they’re unusually repulsed by bugs, filth and such. I wonder of there’s some correlation – is their distaste of dissonance (a kind of musical filth) related to their fear of general filth?

There’s some research into the neuroscience of all this. I found this essay online that synopsizes some of it.

A recent experiment dealt with this problem by attempting to minimize subjectivity, by measuring responses to dissonance. (1) Dissonance can consistently create feelings of unpleasantness in a subject, even if the subject has never heard the music before. Music of varying dissonance was played for the subjects, while their cerebral blood flow was measured. Increased blood flow in a specific area of the brain corresponded with increased activity. It was found that the varying degrees of dissonance caused increased activity in the paralimbic regions of the brain, which are associated with emotional processes.

Another recent experiment measured the activity in the brain while subjects were played previously-chosen musical pieces which created feelings of intense pleasure for them. (2) The musical pieces had an intrinsic emotional value for the subjects, and no memories or other associations attached to them. Activity was seen in the reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal areas of the brain. This result was interesting partly because these areas are associated with the pleasure induced by food, sex, and drugs of abuse, which would imply a connection between such pleasure and the pleasure induced by music.

BTW – here’s that Planet of the Apes. Brilliant stuff – I love the weird percussion bit around 6:35.

What is real?

Science writer Nicholas Wade recently wrote a book about the role of race in the development of human culture. According to his thesis, the different races possess more or less of certain collections of genes and some of these genes are responsible for human behavior therefore certain races are genetically predisposed towards certain behaviors*. This is controversial because it implies that in some sense, races can’t change and efforts to help them do so may be doomed to failure.

* Summarizing what Wade is saying is close to impossible and I’m sure people could niggle with what I’m saying here but I feel it’s close enough for this discussion.

Many people disagree with Wade’s theory and one frequent rebuttal is that race itself doesn’t exist—it is, they frequently say, a “social construct.” By this they mean, the division of race has no real meaning in nature. For example, the term species divides animal groups who can’t reproduce with each other. In that sense, species is a real term. But race is much harder to define. Different races (called sub-species by people who debate this stuff) can have sex with each. One might point out the differences of skin color and appearance between different races but that gets messy quickly. There are plenty of light skinned blacks or Asian looking Caucasians etc.

In this sense, I tend to agree that race is a social construct. But, as you think about it, so in pretty much everything. Words have meaning because enough of us got together and agreed they have meaning. If we didn’t all agree that a cup was a cup and that its purpose was to hold things to drink, it wouldn’t be a cup. If everyone on earth died then cups would no longer exist. They might exist in the sense that their matter would still exist (assuming the earth wasn’t destroyed or what have you) but as an object—a category—cups would be extinct. The definition of cups is a man made distinction which has no objective meaning.

(Of course, definitions are kind of blurry. Some people might look at a tall cup and claim it’s a flower vase. And we also hear about weird German words that have no translation in English.)

This reminds me of a few tidbits I’ve read in relation to Buddhist thought. There is a notion there that you can experience an object before you apply all the man-made definitions and correlations related to it. I suppose we all do this for a nanosecond before we mentally identify an object. For the briefest of moment, before you identify a cup, you experience it as some undefined thing. (This moment is so fast it’s questionable whether you can say we “experience it” but there you have it.)

Watching my dad and his wife, both in their 90s, I see a certain breakdown of this system of categories, this taxonomy, that we apply to everything around us. They might be baffled by what a fairly basic object is, or they might understand it but mislabel it; there’s a lot of calling things with words that rhyme with the real name—cup could become pup for example. I suppose this is what life was like when we were babies—everything was just a thing, and often we probably couldn’t even differentiate between things. A newspaper next to an apple next to a kitten was just a pile of “stuff” in our new minds.

This leads to an interesting point. What babies and demented people have in common are essentially brains that don’t categorize well. The neurons of their brains have limited connections (either because the connections haven’t formed yet as in the case of babies, or because they have deteriorated as in the case of older adults.) This would imply that the meaning we apply to the objects we encounter is literally wired into our brains. It’s the structure of our brains that applies meaning. From this one can presume that a brain structured differently would find different meanings in the world. (Say the brain of an autistic child. Or an alien. Or a sentient computer.)

It really leads to the question of “what is real.” Our words are not real. Our categories are not real. The only thing really real that I can see is the physical matter of the universe. Even the distinctions between these bits of matter (e.g. molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks etc.) are not really real.

This is heavy shit to think about. It’s giving me a headache.

Does the experience of being blackout drunk inform our understanding of consciousness?

Many years ago—decades really—I was at a party in Waikiki. I got completely smashed on booze (maybe pot too, I don’t recall). The next day I woke up and worriedly ran a mental rundown of the previous night. I realized I couldn’t recall leaving the party and getting home. A friend of mine had driven us to the party and presumably driven me home, but I couldn’t recall walking to her car or the ride back. The was concerning as the car had been parked many blocks from the party which meant I had no memory of walking through the populated street scene that is Waikiki on a Saturday night.

As I think back on this, it occurs to me that this kind of event is very interesting from the point of view of analyzing consciousness and it prompts some interesting questions. Was I conscious during that walk back to the car but not forming any memories? (By this I mean, was there some cohesive entity in my body experiencing the walk but not recording the experiences in memory?) Or was I not conscious at all? (Was there no entity experiencing anything to be recorded in memory?)

I admit it’s a little hard to wrap one’s head around these questions. But it makes me wonder whether what we call memory and what we call consciousness are actually the same thing. Or at least tightly integrated.

It might seem a little odd to even question whether some entity was conscious while I was walking back through Waikiki. After all I was walking, and likely babbling drunkenly at my friend. But a lot of research of the past 100 years does seem to point to the idea of a kind of unconscious or subconscious—a part of the brain that can perform actions and movements without us being aware of it. And frankly, we are unaware of some of our actions all the time in life—does you monitor each step as you walk? Are you explicitly aware when you turn the key in your car ignition while daydreaming about the weekend and chugging some coffee? Human beings can, it seems, run on automatic for at least short periods.

Let’s say you had no way of forming memories, even for a few seconds. (There are, of course, people with very limited short term memory (like the guy in “Memento”) but usually they can remember at least a few minutes.) Could you be conscious? I’m guessing this is what babies in the womb experience. My gut guess here is that they are conscious in a sense (e.g. there is an entity experiencing their perceptions and whatnot) but it’s a very different kind of consciousness that what we experience as defined, ego aware humans.

I dunno… it’s a mystery. But I’m intrigued with the idea that memory and consciousness are united in some way.

The latest head transplant news

Wrap your head around this!

Italian doc: I’ve found the key to head transplants

An Italian scientist has claimed that head transplants could be possible, after what he says is a major breakthrough in the technique. But another expert told The Local said the whole idea was potentially unethical.

Er, gee, you think?

This stuff isn’t as crazy as it sounds. A Russian scientist active in the 20th century did achieve some success with dog head transplants.

Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov was a real Soviet scientist. And he did the weirdest experiments with dog heads, keeping them alive separated from their bodies and transplanting them to other dog bodies.

He also attached heads and other parts to different dogs, resulting in weird hybrids that only survived for a few months. This research inspired the american doctor Robert White, another WW2 surgeon who followed the Soviet lead, performing the same experiments with rhesus monkeys.

Truth is, the science still seems to be in its infancy. Don’t expect human head transplants walking among us anytime soon.

However, the fact that it’s even considered as feasible is pretty astounding. And it raises all sorts of potential dramas. Will dying, mega-wealthy tycoons attempt to transplant their heads onto the bodies of teenage runaways? Will people be able to extend their life a few decades by living as mechanically supported human heads in a jar?

One can only hope.

The Slenderman hallucination

I have, lately, been reading Oliver Sacks’ “Hallucinations,” a neurology focused tome about the titled subject. I’ve come away with the sense that many people, especially people with various ailments of the brain such as epilepsy, have remarkably real hallucinations—not shadows moving out of the corner of their eye, but realistic, moving apparitions. An obvious conclusion is that much of what humans have reported throughout history as ghosts or demons are, in fact, these hallucinations.

At one point in the book a person described seeing a hallucinated image of a threatening tall, thin man. I thought, gee, this sounds a bit like that “Slenderman” character from creepy pasta stories. Slenderman was in the news recently when two girls reported that they stabbed a classmate to appease this imagined dark demon. Lo and behold a day or two I stumble across an update to that story.

Doctors: Stabbing suspect sees fictional beings

One of two preteens accused of stabbing a classmate 19 times to please a fictional horror character was ordered Friday to receive treatment rather than stand trial, based on doctors’ testimony that she claims to see and have conversations with things others cannot — including unicorns and a Harry Potter villain.

Dr. Kenneth Robbins, a psychiatrist hired by the girl’s defense attorney, testified that the girl believes she can communicate telepathically with Slender Man and was more worried about offending the specter than going to prison.
“If she says the wrong thing, if she somehow upsets Slender Man, not only hers, but her family’s lives, could be in danger,” Robbins explained.
Dr. Brooke Lundbohm, a court-appointed psychologist, said the girl described Slender Man as “a person she has a strong bond with, she idolizes and believes to be real.”

The girl sounds a lot like some of the people described in Sacks’ book.

I’ve read a bit about similar neurological ailments and related states of odd consciousness like hypnosis. I get the sense that some people are more susceptible to these states than others; some people are more able fall into alternate realities. I find myself far removed from that phenomenon; a doctor once tried to hypnotize me and failed and I have never had any hallucination I took to be real. (I do occasionally hear sounds while asleep that I think are real and wake up, but I don’t think that’s uncommon.) As I read about people who can more easily slip into hallucinated realities, I find myself a bit jealous. I imagine there’s an element of “magic” in such people’s live that I would like to experience.

The Immortalist

I recently stumbled across a rather interesting looking book: The Immortalist, written by Alan Harrington in 1969. I’ve just started reading it and it seems to be a treatise on the idea that man should be making a furtive effort to live forever (or at least a really long time.) By googling the book, I’ve gathered that The Immortalist is considered essential reading by the movement known as trans-humanism, which is dedicated to the effort of transcending the limits of our biological state.

But this is not some dreary science tome full of calculations and chemical compounds. In the first chapter, Harrington lists what he believes are the various psychological strategies man has employed to avoid confronting the finality of death. (Religion is an obvious one, but also hedonism, fame and destruction of the ego.) I don’t quite know what to think about the content but the writing crackles. Check out this passage in which he argues that the modern* youth culture—rock clubs and discotheques, LSD etc.—is all about overwhelming the senses to create an “eternal now” (and thus obliviate an awareness of our impending doom.)

* Modern at the time I mean; late sixties.

…all this too amounts to one more attempt to hide from the end—by substituting Dionysian togetherness for romance, and a bombardment of the senses, lightworks of the soul, a sort of electronic Buddhism in place of sequential perception. The use of kinetic environment as an art form removes death, creating the illusion of an Eternal Now—an illusion in that it seems to guarantee eternal youth, which, of course, is what this generation is really after.

This actually ties in with something I’ve been thinking about. I’ve always felt something of prisoner of time. I hate deadlines and I get anxious when I have only limited time to get somewhere. But I know many people who seem to have the opposite problem; they seem oblivious to how long things take and are thus often late or have to skip activities altogether. There does seems to be a brain component to our ability to understand time. (Neuroscientist David Eagleman has done a lot of work on this subject.) And, as Harrington argues, overwhelming our senses (with drugs, loud music and bright lights) seems to knock out that component, thereby creating a kind of “eternal now.”)