Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

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.”)

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.