Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Various insights from “The Age of Insight”

Continuing in my reading of Eric Kandel’s neuroscience tome “The Age of Insight,” I come across the following:

(Scientist) Ulf Dimberg… found that when a person is shown the facial expression of an emotion, even briefly, it elicits small contractions in the person’s facial muscles that simulate the expression he or she has just observed.

Fascinating – it seems Ulf Dimberg is not so dim after all! When we see a person’s expression, we ever so slightly mock it up on our face. I went through the book looking at the various faces in paintings presented and found myself doing this. In fact, I don’t think it really comes as a surprise – we are aware (at least I am) of our tendency to do this.

Another interesting tidbit in the book. We have a region in the brain that only responds to the motion of living things. For example, this region would activate when watching a person or cat moving, but not a bouncing ball. I’m curious how it would respond to the motions of a human looking robot?

Monkey see

Our ability to recognize faces is a fascinating and oft commented on topic. How is it that we can differentiate between the tens of thousands (if not more) of people we come into contact with over the course of our life? Also, why is it that we differentiate between the faces of our fellow humans, but cannot differentiate between animal faces? One giraffe looks pretty much like any other.

In “The Age of Insight” Eric Kandel address this. It turns out at one point, we CAN differentiate between animal faces.

The brain mechanisms underlying face recognition emerge early in infancy. From birth onward, infants are much more likely to look at faces than at other objects…. Three-month-old infants begin to see differences in faces and to distinguish between individual faces. At this point they are universal face recognizers: they can recognize different monkey faces as readily as different human faces. They begin to lose their ability to distinguish between nonhuman faces at six months of age, because during this critical period in development they have been exposed primarily to different human faces and not two different animal faces.

Presumably, were a child raised by wolves, he would be able to differentiate between various wolf faces. That’s good to know.

Art versus science

I’ve been reading an interesting book called “The Age of Insight” by Eric Kandel (a famous neuroscientist who co-hosts Charlie Rose’s Brain series.) In the book, Kandel looks at turn-of-the-century Vienna and the interaction between scientists and artists that took place there. Freud was operating in Vienna at the time and his observations about the unconscious had a big effect on painters and writers of the day who turned from merely representing the physical world to hinting at what was happening “underneath the surface” of their subjects. Artists also integrated the ideas of Darwin into their work.

What strikes me while reading this book is how different the relationship between artists and scientists was back then as compared to today. Now there seems to be this big dividing line between artists and scientists. Scientists are generally mistrusted by artists. (This was perhaps best expressed in the Insane Clown Posse song “Miracles” in which Shaggy 2 Dope rapped, “And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist. Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed.”) In general, I think artists tend to feel they work at unveiling a “greater truth” about the human condition, a truth that scientists – with their obsession with diagnostics and numbers – can never approach.

For the most part, I suspect modern artists are full of shit in their views. Much of modern music, whether it be pop or niche, seems largely self-obsessed – a bunch of losers bemoaning their shitty love affairs, or shitty jobs or shitty feces stained life. This stands in stark contrast to the Viennese artists who were attempting to explore themes of the human mind or birth of our species.

What is needed today is a great artist to arise and rejuvenate the connection between science and art. That artist could be me, but most people are too dumb to appreciate my genius.

Can we escape our body?

There’s a neuroscience parlor trick that goes like this: you stand in front of a mirror in such a way that one of your arms is hidden behind your back. You have a friend come up behind you and place their arm so that it looks like their arm is yours. Then you gently stroke your friend’s arm, creating the illusion that you are stroking your own arm. Many people will report feeling as if it is their arm (currently untouched behind their back) being stroked.

There are also variations of this trick using blindfolds and people petting your nose or you arranging mirrors in such a way that what appears in a mirror to be your figure is really one half of you combined with an inversion, but the gist is the same. I tried this sort of thing once and didn’t have much success though I also didn’t apply much gusto.

As I’ve mentioned before, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has utilized techniques like this to relieve amputees of phantom limb pain.

The point being that it seems like we can easily trick our body (or more accurately, our brain) into thinking it is feeling something that it is not.

This reminds me of an interesting experience I had. I was at a park and staring into the gently lapping water of a lake. I was in a pretentious spiritual mood and thought to myself that I should try and become the water. Water seems like a very zen state – devoid of boundaries, always moving, ever malleable. I was thinking this, watching the water and something happened. It hard to explain but all of a sudden I felt like I was the patch of water I was viewing. I felt… “floaty” and as if I had no obvious beginning or end (e.g. the edge of my body was gone.) It was not a really amazing or frightening sensation, more amusing. It lasted a few seconds and was over.

Now, I don’t think I had some sort of spiritual experience; I think this was probably related to the techniques described above. Just as people’s brains can be lured into thinking a foreign arm is not their own, my brain – fueled by a little willpower and fanciful thinking – came to believe that it was the water and so it adjusted its sensations accordingly. (I recognize this is weird and unusual, but I don’t think it’s impossible. It seems to be similar to what many people report during meditation.)

This may all tie in with mirror neurons; they are the somewhat controversial allegation that we have neurons in our brain that fire when we see other people doing things. For example, when you watch someone shoot a basketball there are neurons that fire that would also fire if you were shooting the basketball yourself. I’ve never heard of mirror neurons responding to actions by non living substances, such as water, but maybe mine, in fact, were at the moment described above.

UPDATE: There’s an additional element to consider here. Could this all tie in with people’s out of body experiences? Perhaps in those cases a person’s sense of their body shuts down all together and they get that “floating” sensation. It wouldn’t explain the visual aspects (e.g. people saying “I could see my body lying below”) but it’s worth noting that scientists have managed to trigger out of body experiences in people via a kind of brain stimulation.

Mind your p’s and q’s

I’ve been reading another neuroscience tome entitled “The Pleasure Center.” It’s not captivating reading but has an interesting nugget about our visual systems. It’s noted that children have difficulty in discerning the letters p, b, q and d from each other. Why is this? Because these letters are basically the same shape, just in different positions or invertions. We have the ability to recognize objects when they’re in various positions – it wouldn’t be very helpful if you could only recognize food when it was “right side up” – but that tendency works against us when identifying symbols that change meaning depending on their position.

Visual culture versus acoustic culture

I’ve become intrigued with the idea that the fundamental experience of being alive has been changing over the course of human history. I don’t mean basic changes like we’ve got more stuff or less hunger, but rather that the very nature of how we perceive and conceive of the world around us is shifting. You might recall my musing about a writer who argued that human beings were not even conscious 3000 years ago. Or my conception that as we’ve become more assaulted by distractions like phone calls and email alerts we’ve become less able to focus on the creation and enjoyment of ornamental art.

Today I came across a relevant section in David Byrne’s “How Music Works.” He notes…

Marshall McLuhan famously proposed that after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we shifted from an acoustic culture to a visual one. He said that in an acoustic culture, the world, like sound, is all around you and comes at you from all directions at once. It is multi-layered and non-hierarchical; it has no center or focal point. Visual culture has a perspective—a vanishing point.

I’m not sure I totally buy this. Sound isn’t exactly “everywhere” – we can tell if a sound came from our left or our right; we can tell if a sound is coming from far away or close. And I’d even say there’s a certain hierarchy to sounds. Loud or novel sounds demand our attention more so than softer or common ones. (Of course, maybe that’s just my visual culture trained brain imposing a hierarchy on acoustic culture.) Nonetheless, I agree with the gist – the acoustic world is much more ephemeral and ghostlike than the visual world of objects. The acoustic world is harder to define, which is Byrne’s next point.

McLuhan claims that our visual sense began to get increasingly bombarded by all the stuff we were producing. It began to take precedence over our auditory sense, and he said that the way we think and view the world changed as a result. In an acoustic universe one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies. He claims that in a visual universe one begins to think in a linear fashion, one thing following another along a timeline, rather than everything existing right now, everywhere, in the moment.

Again I have some small qualms with these statements but the point is made. Certainly we seem to live in a world obsessed with defining things. One need look only at genres of music; people don’t just listen to pop music, they listen to “West Coast post-modern indie pop.” (And they have no use for anyone who doesn’t!) The argument some would make is that we’ve gotten so obsessed with defining things that we no longer really experience them.

We’re so used to the hierarchy of the visual universe that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It seems like such an essential aspect of our life experience that we presume it must be innate – built into the brain. But I recall neurologist Oliver Sacks observations of a man who – after being blind his whole life – regained sight. It wasn’t really a gift; he could see but he struggled to comprehend what he saw. I discussed this in my old acid logic piece “Making Sense of the Senses.”

With the cataracts gone the outside visual world flowed into Virgil’s brain, but he could not map what he saw to objects he had only experienced with his other senses. During Virgil’s initial moment of sight…

… he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, “Well?” Then, and only then, [Virgil] said, did he finally realized that this chaos and light and shadow was a face — and, indeed, the face of the surgeon.

Sacks contemplated the dilemma of this moment.

… when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for 45 years — having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten — there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.

After regaining sight, Virgil struggled with seemingly basic components of seeing. He could see all the elements of a tree — the leaves, the roots, the branches — but had difficulty combining them into a single object. He struggled to understand shapes. Movement baffled him. He had to practice looking at household objects from different angles to gain the understanding that they were one single thing. And his eyes would fatigue much faster than a normal person. Eventually, Virgil lost his vision a second time, though the exact cause for this is unclear.

McLuhan might have argued that Virgil was at the center of a devastating collision between the visual and non-visual universes.

I’m taking pains here to not insinuate that one way of observing the world is better than the other. But I will say there’s a part of me that yearns to escape the endless defining and categorization that seems built into modern life (and often passes for some kind of intellectual activity when it’s more often mere mental masturbation.) I’d like to experience things more simply and fully. To better experience the essence of things.

The meaning of art

I’m continuing my reading of David Byrne’s “How Music Works” and find myself in an interesting section discussing amateur art. He runs down a lot of theories past and present about what makes art “good” (always a lively debate.) At one point Byrne quotes the views of English author John Carey who said, “Meanings are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them.” Carey’s fundamental point is that high art was considered high because the elite class says so, not that these forms or art have some built in magic.

And I generally agree with that; I would have strongly agreed with that a few years ago (though I reject the sort of punk rock/populist counter argument that “street level” art is great merely because it’s not high art.) But are objects totally without meanings? I’m not sure I buy that. I’m reminded of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran who argues that the brain seems to associate reactions to certain types of objects. For example, a big spiky sculpture made of steel can’t help but seem fearsome. A painting of pillows can’t help but seem safe. If you want to call those reactions “meanings” (and when you think about it, the exact meaning of the word meaning is rather ethereal) then objects do have meanings in so much as these reactions seem built into the brain. We could revive the whole tabula rasa debate and question whether you’re born with a fear of spiky objects or rather it’s something that gets built in early on, but it probably doesn’t matter much.

The transparent brain

Scientist have created transparent brains, the NY Times reports. (There’s some cool animations at the link.)

Scientists at Stanford University reported on Wednesday that they have made a whole mouse brain, and part of a human brain, transparent, so that networks of neurons that receive and send information can be highlighted in stunning color and viewed in all their three-dimensional complexity without slicing up the organ.

One might ask, “why should I give a shit?” Personally, I suspect this new era of deep brain visualization and research is going to reveal that personality and activity of the mind is closely tied to brain structure. As a result, people choices are essentially limited to their brain components. As an example, un-empathic people may not be simply assholes, but people missing some degree of the empathy “toolset*” in their brain. This opens up a whole well of debate about free will, choice etc. – a debate that may end up affecting our legal system.

* I’m using this term to represent the neural area or network that might be integral to a certain function like empathy.

I do think various drugs an therapies can affect people’s mental “toolsets” (postively or negatively) but I doubt we can radically alter a person’s mental function. Unless we get into some sci-fi transplanting of brain tissue. Perhaps the rich empathy section of some namby-pamby liberal’s brain could be transplanted into that of a hardened psychopath making him a lover of puppies.

Oxytocin: Can we be forced to feel?

Lately I’ve been reading a book titled “The Science of Evil,” written by neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (the cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, the actor who plays “Borat.”) The book is a look at what’s known about the brains of people who lack empathy – psychopaths, narcissists, autistics etc.

At one point in the book, Baron-Cohen mentions the recent development of an oxytocin nasal spray. Oxytocin, my erudite readers might recall, is a hormone produced by the human body and is associated with calm, loving feelings. We get a dose of oxytocin after sex or close contact; mothers get a dose during birth and while breast feeding their children (presumably this increases the mother/child bond.) It’s been termed “the cuddle drug” and there is now a nasal spray version. This article looks at the idea of troubled couples using it too smooth out their relationships.

Baron-Cohen discusses the possibility of the spray being used by people with low empathy – people who might commit some kind of hurtful crime. In essence, he’s proposing that low empathy individuals be encouraged to feel. I have to wonder whether we will see this scenario: a violent offender, perhaps a psychopath, is ordered by the court to use the oxytocin spray. Will civil rights groups then argue that, by forcing this person to feel, the law is mandating that the person change something essential about themselves, to become someone they are not? Do we have a right to maintain our essential character?

Of course how essential can our character be if it can be altered via the ingestion of a chemical? Must we confront a more disturbing possibility, that we have no essential character at all and our “selves” are merely the fluctuating interactions of the various hormones and neurotransmitters that travel throughout our body and brain?

Merry Christmas!

Tracking politics in the brain

I find this overview of a study observing that the brains of Democrats and Republicans function differently somewhat confusing. It states:

Comparing the Democrat and Republican participants turned up differences in two brain regions: the right amygdala and the left posterior insula. Republicans showed more activity than Democrats in the right amygdala when making a risky decision. This brain region is important for processing fear, risk and reward.

Meanwhile, Democrats showed more activity in the left posterior insula, a portion of the brain responsible for processing emotions, particularly visceral emotional cues from the body. The particular region of the insula that showed the heightened activity has also been linked with “theory of mind,” or the ability to understand what others might be thinking.

So Republicans process fear better while Democrats process emotions better. Except, isn’t fear an emotion? What is this really telling me?

Frankly, both Republicans and Democrats seemed pretty fear based to me; they just obsess over different fears. They should learn to chillax.

I wonder how long before people start alleging that candidates are stealing elections by broadcasting beams into people’s heads that inhibit or free up the appropriate brain region? 3… 2… 1…