Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

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 when 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 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 a 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.”)

Do we force the real world into being a “just world”?

First of all, I’m back in the saddle again so to speak. Was out of town for several weeks and neglected blogging.

While away I read most of a book I’ve been meaning to tackle: “Brainwashed – The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.” It’s a book coming from the “neuroskeptic” school—a viewpoint arguing that many of the claims neuroscience makes are inflated. It’s hard to argue with that basic point; you do see seemingly unlikely predictions coming out of neuroscience (and science) all the time. But that said, I find the book rather mushy. I just read through the chapter on free will and found it hard to follow the arguments. Sam Harris’s eBook called “Free Will” seems more cogently argued. (He argues against the existence of free will, the opposite view of “Brainwashed.”)

The free will chapter did have an interesting anecdote about Martin Lerner, a sociologist who developed the idea that people like to believe in a “just world hypothesis” (e.g. that the good are rewarded and the bad punished.) It seems a harmless enough delusion, but what if we alter our perception of the world to map it to a just world. And in doing so, what if we presume people who suffer deserve to suffer? The book states…

In one of his seminal experiments, Lerner asked subjects to observe a ten-minute video of a fellow student as she underwent a learning experiment involving memory. The student was strapped into an apparatus sprouting electrode leads and allegedly received a painful shock whenever she answered a question incorrectly (she was not receiving real shocks, of course, but believably feigned distress as if she were). Next, the researchers split the observers into groups. One was to vote on whether to remove the victim from the apparatus and reward her with money for correct answers. All but one voted to rescue her. The experimenters told another group of observers that the victim would continue to receive painful shocks; there was no option for compensation. When asked to evaluate the victim at this point, subjects in the victim-compensated condition rated her more favorably (e.g. more “attractive,” more “admirable”) than did subjects in the victim-uncompensated condition, in which the victim’s suffering was greater.)

I think it’s possible to extrapolate too much from these kinds of experiments, but this does kind of jibe with my sense of the world. We see someone suffering for whom we can do nothing and as a result we lower our opinion of them, basically saying, “sucks to be you!”

Ha! Humans are scum!

Can I see your MRI?

Today I was reading through my new tome, “The Anatomy of Violence” and came across an interesting observation. The author noted that the septum pellucidum, a section of the brain that has fused tissue in normal people, is often found to be separated in psychopaths and antisocial types. I immediately went and examined an MRI of my brain done years back during my vestibular issues. And I was able to confirm that I am probably not a psychopath—my tissue is fused.

It struck me that this opens up an interesting situation. This unfused tissue seems to be a marker for psychopathy—it doesn’t confirm the person is a nut, but it increases the odds. As medical scanning gets cheaper will employers start checking applicants’ brains for such markers? Will potential romantic partners ask each other for MRI scans to rule out problem relationships? Only time will tell…

The anatomy of violence

I’ve just started reading a book called “The Anatomy of Violence.” It might have been better called “The Neuro-anatomy of Violence”; it’s basically about the differences in brain structure between violent criminals and lovable imps like the rest of us.

It refers a lot to the work of Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist I’ve mentioned often. Damasio has studied many patients who’ve had damage to their prefrontal cortex (essentially the parts of the brain near your eyeballs.) He’s observed that these people seem off—they have dulled emotional responses. Damasio has convincingly shown that damage to the prefrontal area of the brain inhibits emotional awareness.

Besides clinical patients, who else seems to lack emotion? Well, many criminals, especially psychopaths. The author of the book, Adrian Raine, did an extensive study of psychopaths and noted that their prefrontal cortex had an 11% reduction in brain matter. They lack the complexity of prefrontal wiring the rest of us have, which could certainly explain their anti-social behavior. Why this is so is unclear. It could be damage in the womb, it could be damage in early childhood, it could just be a fluke of genetics.

This opens up again an interesting conundrum philosopher Sam Harris has explored. We punish psychopathic criminals because they are bad people. But what if they are merely people lacking the necessary brain tools for moral reasoning? What if they are more like a person who has suffered a blow to the head, and less like an evil monster?

Eh, let’s kill them just to be safe.

Sense of space

As a kid I was big practitioner of comic book style drawing. Lately I’ve been taking it up again. I’m decades out of practice, but I’m reminded that much of drawing, particular drawing from life, requires a strong sense of space. Basically, you must take an image before you, say, two coffee cups a foot apart from each other, and preserve their relational distance while you draw the image on a piece of paper 6 inches wide.

For some reason today I was reminded of a high school friend of mine. When I knew him he was a top ranked tennis player in the state of Hawaii. We lost touch when I graduated but not long after that I heard he had become become a professional painter. When I knew him he had no interest in art. It seemed quite a switch—from tennis to art. But, as I think about it, tennis is also all about strong spatial awareness. You have to know where that ball is in space. I wonder of his (likely genetic) endowment for spatial awareness fueled both his tennis and art?

Electromagnetic Consciousness

In the realm of brain studies there’s a fairly reductionist view that argues that our consciousness and subjective experience is firmly rooted in our physical brains. The idea goes that we have these incredibly complex interactions between tens of billions of neurons and out of that arises our experience of being alive. Most authors I’ve read on the topic freely concede the exact nature of how consciousness arises from this is a mystery but it seems pretty clear that our self corresponds to our neural tissue. Simply consider that someone can have a brain stroke and they become a different person — they can no longer speak or form memories or control their anger. The soul seems to exist in physical form (or more accurately, it doesn’t exist at all.)

I’m pretty sympathetic to this view. But the book “The Mind’s I” has a thought experiment that does challenge this view. First let’s consider a brain in its ideal form. It’s sitting there, neurons firing, creating thoughts. Now let’s imagine an incredible surgery where you go in and separate apart every single neuron and place each one in its own chemical bath to keep it alive. (This is, or course, impossible.) You then attach electronic signaling/receiving devices so each neuron can communicate with whatever neurons to which it was “attached” (e.g. shared a synapse with) before. So, basically, even though the neurons are now separate, their signaling is exactly the same as it was in the whole brain. Can we still envision a mind rising out of all this?

Well, I dunno… maybe…

But it gets worse. Instead of putting little signaling/receiving devices on each neuron, attach little zappers that that simply fire different amounts of electricity. Now separate these neurons by hundreds of miles. Then fire of each of the zappers so that the neurons fire the exact way the would if the brain’s owner was thinking of a cat. (There’s no signaling going on, just neurons firing in the same order as if they were receiving signals.) Would some entity somewhere suddenly think of a cat?

It seems unlikely doesn’t it? But the individual neurons in all these cases are behaving exactly the same. So this would seem to dispel the possibility of a purely reductionist (e.g. it’s all in the tissue) model of consciousness.

I just stumbled on some general theories that address this issue. They are “Electromagnetic theories of consciousness.” (Link goes to wiki page about it.) The idea is that when you have a bunch of neurons in a brain they are, because of their electrical activity, creating an electromagnetic field. And somehow this field is consciousness. The field is not only created by the brain’s neurons, it affects them as well, so the field and brain effectively pass signals back and forth. The wiki page has details.

The starting point for McFadden and Pockett’s theory is the fact that every time a neuron fires to generate an action potential, and a postsynaptic potential in the next neuron down the line, it also generates a disturbance in the surrounding electromagnetic field. McFadden has proposed that the brain’s electromagnetic field creates a representation of the information in the neurons. Studies undertaken towards the end of the 20th century are argued to have shown that conscious experience correlates not with the number of neurons firing, but with the synchrony of that firing.[9] McFadden views the brain’s electromagnetic field as arising from the induced EM field of neurons. The synchronous firing of neurons is, in this theory, argued to amplify the influence of the brain’s EM field fluctuations to a much greater extent than would be possible with the unsynchronized firing of neurons.
McFadden thinks that the EM field could influence the brain in a number of ways. Redistribution of ions could modulate neuronal activity, given that voltage-gated ion channels are a key element in the progress of axon spikes. Neuronal firing is argued to be sensitive to the variation of as little as one millivolt across the cell membrane, or the involvement of a single extra ion channel. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is similarly argued to have demonstrated that weak EM fields can influence brain activity.[citation needed]
McFadden proposes that the digital information from neurons is integrated to form a conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field in the brain. Consciousness is suggested to be the component of this field that is transmitted back to neurons, and communicates its state externally. Thoughts are viewed as electromagnetic representations of neuronal information, and the experience of free will in our choice of actions is argued to be our subjective experience of the cemi field acting on our neurons.

I’m not agreeing with this (frankly, I still don’t really understand what electromagnetic fields are) but it does address the problems with the reductionist view.

Can metal remember?

I’ve mentioned in the past an idea that I freely concede may be crazy but it’s interesting enough to keep afloat: the possibility that consciousness is a basic property of all things and when matter interacts in complex and networked ways (like it does in a human brain or an advanced computer) higher, self-aware consciousness develops.

This L.A Times article offers more food for thought. It’s about a UCLA scientist who has developed a microchip that he claims can remember. How does it do it? Well, the science writing in this article is so vague that I’m pretty sure the reporter doesn’t understand and I sure don’t. It basically sounds like the scientist is creating neuron-like connections with metal strands and passing electricity through them.

In a lab, they placed a series of copper wire posts, mounted on a silicon wafer, into a solution of silver. As the copper dissolved, the silver formed intricate hair-like strands, as complex as the human cortex. It was the birth of the dust ball.

Building the chip is “extraordinarily simple,” Stieg says. Once the strands are created, they are exposed to sulfur, which provides electrical and ionic conductivity, and when electrical signals are sent through them, atoms migrate through each intersection of silver, each strand over strand.

Much as stimulus changes the brain by building over time synaptic patterns that can be associated to memory, the signals over time change the structure of the chip. Bridges form between the strands, further altering the chip.

What I find interesting here is the default behavior of the components of this chip seems to be to seek out “connections”, to create bridges. Much like neurons in the human brain branching and creating new synapses.

What causes neurons and silver strands to seek connections? I believe it is the fundamental need of all things to seek love!

No, seriously, I dunno. But if there’s a basic property of matter to, in some way, attract other matter, then it’s not that amazing that connections of the sort that could engender consciousness would arise.