Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

The anti-guilt pill

For a while now I’ve heard of a particular drug that purports to dull the formation of painful memories. I’ve always been a little unclear on how it works but I believe it takes away the emotional sting of the memory while leaving the recollection of the events. Ideally it could aid people who have suffered horrible crimes or soldiers suffering from PSTD. I had not heard of a more controversial use: the pill as a way of ducking emotional damage caused by committing heinous acts, especially in war time. This article, from 2003, describes a scenario.

The artillery this soldier can unleash with a single command to his mobile computer will bring flames and screaming, deafening blasts and unforgettably acrid air. The ground around him will be littered with the broken bodies of women and children, and he’ll have to walk right through. Every value he learned as a boy tells him to back down, to return to base and find another way of routing the enemy. Or, he reasons, he could complete the task and rush back to start popping pills that can, over the course of two weeks, immunize him against a lifetime of crushing remorse. He draws one last clean breath and fires.

That sounds a little overdramatic but makes the point. The rest of the article is a very even handed look at the whole issue. Some might say we can never use the pill in this way as it will destroy our humanity. But the response is that, look, if a killer is wounded during his crime, he still gets medical treatment for his physical wounds. Why would we deny him treatment for his psychological wounds? And if the person is a soldier why should he be doomed to a lifetime of guilt why the politicians who put him in the position get off scot-free*? It’s quite an interesting ethical debate.

* Writing this sentence made me consider how the term “scot-free” came to be. You’d think it was based on some story about a guy named Scot, but not so. it’s derived from an old english term that means exempt from royal tax.

Can you be an atheist and a believer?

Occasionally I mention people known as split brain patients. These are folks, usually epileptics, who’ve had their left and right brain hemispheres separated for therapeutic reasons. Numerous experiments have been done showing that these patients are, eerily, kind of like two people in one body. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran took things in an interesting direction when he asked a split brain patient whether he (they?) believed in God.

The curious case of Thad Roberts

I was just over at youtube watching an interesting video titled “Visualizing 11 Dimensions.” The video attempts to demonstrate how to think about a concept popular in physics, that the world is made up of more dimensions than the three spatial dimension (and one of time) that we see around us. Frankly, I still struggle with the idea after watching the video.

The video lecturer, Thad Roberts, turns out to have a personal history almost as interesting as his ideas. Intellectually gifted he went to work as an astrophysicist as Nasa. Then…

At age 25 Thad fell in love with a bril­liant and beau­tiful Biology intern at NASA. Wanting to give her­ the moon (lit­er­ally), Thad mas­ter­minded the infa­mous moon rock caper and made off with lunar sam­ples. 33 years to the day after Neil Armstrong first picked up a piece of the moon, Thad sold some of those pieces and landed in the middle of a gov­ern­ment sting.

Thad was sen­tenced to 100 months in fed­eral prison for his actions. Though he would never repeat those acts, Thad doesn’t regret how things turned out. Despite the iso­la­tion, lone­li­ness, and hard lessons that defined those years, he notes that without that time of intense ded­i­ca­tion and con­stant focus he may have never dived so deeply into ques­tions about the con­struc­tion of our Universe. After coming face to face with his own inse­cu­ri­ties, Thad decided to over­come the odds of his past mis­takes and to once again strive for his dreams. His days in prison were spent teaching, exer­cising, wrestling with the mys­teries of modern physics, and exploring new axiomatic assump­tions that might explain them.

Thad left prison with some­thing more valu­able to him than a safe full of moon rocks – a man­u­script over 700 pages long that lucidly describes how he was led to a new geo­metric axioms for the struc­ture of space­time. The result was quantum space theory (qst), a spe­cific form of super­fluid vacuum theory (SVT), which now stands as a can­di­date for the theory of quantum gravity.

As a side note, I’ll point out one aspect of Robert’s ideas that interests me. I generally tout the belief people are deterministic, that free will does not exist. My general reason, summarized in a sentence, is that our thoughts and actions arise from the firing of our neurons and those neurons are subject to the deterministic laws of classical physics. Critics of this idea often point to the seemingly indeterminate nature of quantum physics as a way out of this challenge. Robert’s view, as I understand it, is that quantum behaviors that appear to be random to our eyes, are in fact determinist when understood as part of a world with more than four dimensions.

The dangers of uploading your mind to a computer

I pause to ask my readers a question. Are any of you considering uploading your mind into a computer? I think you should be aware of some potential problems.

The idea might sound crazy, but the possibility of such a thing is oft-discussed by scientists and psychologists who think it may be a real possibility in coming decades. How would such a thing work? First let’s consider what is probably the now mainstream view of the mind. The mind, this view advocates, essentially arises out of the complex, dense circuitry that is the human brain. (Each “circuit” could be thought of as an individual neuron of perhaps group of neurons that perform the same basic function like moving your index finger.) According to this view (which I basically subscribe to) your mind is your brain.

Now, if we could map out a person’s brain network down to very small details—and we seem to be getting closer and closer to this—we could then program that network into a computer and thus recreate that person—their personality, their essence—on a computer. And that person could conceivably live forever.

There are a couple problems so far. One being is that you aren’t really uploading your consciousness to a computer as much as you are simply cloning your mind. That consciousness—the uploaded mind—will live forever. The flesh and blood you will still eventually die as flesh and blood does. Also, it’s still unclear how our subjective consciousness arises our of our complex neural machinery. I could program a robot to respond to the wavelength of light we call red, but would it “see” red in any way comparable to the way we see red? It’s that perception that is really the magic of living. Would an uploaded mind possess this subjective magic or would it merely be a very complex robot? I don’t think anyone can authoritatively say.

Now let’s consider another view of the mind, this one advocated by philosopher David Chalmers among others. This view advocates that the mind extends beyond the realm of the brain into the rest of the physical world. To grasp this notion, take stock of your experience right now. You are seeing things, probably hearing things, maybe tasting and smelling things if you’re reading this over lunch. Your experience, your mindstate, would be very different without this particular outside stimuli. So, in a sense, this stimuli is part of your mind.

Here’s another way to think about it. The more popular “your-brain-is-all-you-are” theory I first mentioned says that your brain arises based on various electrical signals zipping through the circuitry of your brain. But what happens when I look at an apple. Photons bounce off the apple into my brain which results in the firing of neurons that somehow result in the subjective experience of seeing the apple. Is not this pathway of photons going from the apple to my eye similar to the pathway of a firing neuron. So is not every outside component (the apple, photons bouncing off it, etc.) part of my mind?

If Chalmers is on to something then we have a problem with mind uploading. If we upload only the brain part of your mind, not the external environment, we are only uploading part of the mind.

Now, maybe this could be solved. Maybe sensors could be created that would duplicate our senses, even augment them. For example, you could have some chemical sensor that, when provided cheese, fired the neural circuits in the uploaded mind that correlate to the neurons that fired when tasting cheese. But this idea seems a lot more complex than the already vastly complex task of uploading a mind to a computer.

The demon in your right hemisphere

As one might expect, I’m still reading through Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness.” In today’s reading he made a point relevant to the topic of demonic possession. And I think his observations line up with those of others.

Let’s sidetrack a second and consider the research that Mike Gazzaniga did with split brain patients. Gazziniga ran a series of tests on patients who had had their left and right hemispheres separated (for medical reasons.) The details are described here, but, basically, he concluded that each hemisphere was, in a sense, its own person, unaware of what the other hemisphere was doing. Since most of a person’s talking ability is housed in the left hemisphere only that hemisphere could speak, but the right had other ways of making its thoughts known.

Now let’s consider Jaynes’ thoughts on demonic possession. Demonic possession, as anyone who’s ever seen The Exorcist can tell you, seems to involve a person’s body and speech being taking over by another entity, usually one that talks quite differently (in both voice and use of words) than the “real” person. In “The Origin of Consciousness” Jaynes essentially asks, “What if possession is really the silent right hemisphere taking control of a person’s speaking apparatus?”

It’s an interesting theory and seems plausible. And it opens up a thought-provoking question: does everyone’s right hemisphere sound like an evil demon when given voice? Do we all have these dark sides festering without language in one half of our brain? The observation that Jaynes notes is that usually people who become possessed are not great intellects. But is it possible their right hemisphere persona is smarter than the left (vocal) hemisphere, but deprived, most of the time, of speech?

Crazy stuff, y’all.

Of course, I’ve hinted at this stuff before: Do we have multiple consciousness(es)?

The mind of conspiracy theorists

I’ve started reading a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time: Julian Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” (There’s a title that would not make it in today’s popular science writing market!) I’ve seen the book mentioned in various places for years, mainly for its stunning assertion that humans only became conscious fairly recently, like 3000 years ago. (I think that’s the number; I’m sure I’ll find out soon.)

I’ve read the first couple chapters and see that part of how Jaynes supports his argument is as one might suspect: by defining down what consciousness is, thus making the idea that we could live without it more palatable. That said, I think his definition of consciousness is perfectly valid. He points out something I think we’ve all noticed: the process of reasoning, often touted to be about extensive rumination and consideration (all done consciously of course), is really a sudden gut feeling that is then justified via logic. In chapter one, he states… (BTW, this chapter is online.)

But more complex reasoning without consciousness is continually going on. Our minds work much faster than consciousness can keep up with. We commonly make general assertions based on our past experiences in an automatic way, and only as an afterthought are we sometimes able to retrieve any of the past experiences on which an assertion is based. How often we reach sound conclusions and are quite unable to justify them! Because reasoning is not conscious.

He then adds an interesting point.

And consider the kind of reasoning that we do about others’ feelings and character, or in reasoning out the motives of others from their actions. These are clearly the result of automatic inferences by our nervous systems in which consciousness is not only unnecessary, but, as we have seen in the performance of motor skills, would probably hinder the process.

This ties in with a lot of my thoughts about various conspiracy theories. I’m always amazed by people who believe that George Bush planned 9/11 or that various people are covering up Obama’s secret Kenyan and Muslim roots, or that thousands of medical professionals are keeping quiet about how vaccines cause autism. I’m amazed because these conspiracies would involve organized evil on the part of so many, with not much payoff. I guess I could understand why George Bush might have determined it was in his favor to affect a false flag operation, but why would the various minions who would be needed to enact it decide to go along? Perhaps the head of some pharmaceutical company would keep quiet about his poisonous vaccine, but why would the entry-level chemists who would certainly figure it out? What would their motivation be? I’ve discussed this with people who believe such theories and they don’t seem to see the issue. They freely accept evil as a payoff unto itself. As Jaynes says above, neither I nor the conspiracy theorists are using consciousness in our assessment of people’s character and motivations, we are using automatic inferences. (These inferences play a big part in the ideas of neuroscientist Antonio Damassio who I’m a big fan of.) These are not arguments of reason, but of differing instincts.

Having said that, I believe my automatic inferences are correct and those of people who disagree with me are wrong.

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 materialistic 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.


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.