Archive for April, 2016

Wise Psychological Interventions

April 29, 2016

Wise Psychological Interventions (WPIs) were the subject of an article titled “A mind trick that can break down your brain’s barrier to success” by Dan Jones in the March 12 2016 edition of the New Scientist.  “Mental unblocking” is at the heart of WPIs.  Entering “Wilson” into the health memory blog search block will take you to many examples of WPIs.  Entering “REDIRECT” into the search block will take you to many more.

Wilson is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and here is an example of one of his WPIs.  His goal was to help new college students cope better with worries about their academic performance.  His solution was inspired by attribution theory, which describes how people accept for events.  For example whether they blame failures and setbacks on enduring facts about themselves, or on external factors.  His goal was to get students think about the external situation, rather than to facts about themselves.  He presented the students with statistics tat showed the majority of new students start with disappointing grades but do better over time.  He also showed them videos of older students talking about their improving academic performance.   Students he received these presentations grades got better more quickly that those of students who did not receive these messages.  They were also less likely to have dropped out by the end of the second year.

The concept of growth mindsets is central to the message of the healthy memory blog.  The distinctions  between fixed and growth mindsets were well articulated by Carol Dweck in her best selling book “MIndset.”  People with fixed mindsets believe that their intelligence is fixed as to whether they are smart, stupid, or average.  People with growth mindsets believe that it is up to themselves to grow and improve.  The notion of growth mindsets is central to the basic message of the healthy memory blog.  We need to continue to grown our mindsets throughout our entire lifespan.  Enter “Dweck” and “growth mindsets” to read more posts on this topic.  Deck has found that when students were told about how the brain changes and learns, and that intelligence can be boosted. showed increased motivation in class and better test scores as compared to a control group.

Stanford psychologist Geoffrey Cohen has developed WPIs aimed at reducing the achievement gap between white and black university students.  An effective strategy  against stereotype threat is to get people to write about values that are important to the, which is a process called self affirmation.  He found that even a short session improve the grades of black students relative to controls.  I closed the achievement gap by 40%.  Two years later, after a few top-up sessions, the intervention was still having a clear effect.  Cohen has applied this same approach to the achievement gap between men and women in university science courses.

New students frequently feel alienated  and out of place when they arrive in a University setting.  Cohen and a colleague got first-year students to read a report summarizing a survey of older students experience at a university.  They report described how they felt out of place, at first, but that these feelings passed as they settled in and made new friends.  Reading this report not only improved the grades of black students, but also increased their self-reported happiness and health.  These effects persisted three years on, and they have been replicated by much larger studies.

WPIs go way beyond academic performance.  Iran Halperin of the Interdisciplinary Center in e Herizliya, Israel have been developing WPIs to reduce tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He has demonstrated that nurturing a growth mindsets makes people on both sides more open to listening, more willing to compromise for peace, and more likely to forgive.

The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) in the United Kingdom is a partly government owned firm exploring the potential of WPIs.  President Obama launched the US Social and Behavioral Sciences Team to develop WPIs in the U.S.  Similar unites have been established in Germany, Australia, Singapore, Finland, and the Netherlands.

So it appears that WPIs are catching on.

Your Heart is In Your Brain

April 27, 2016

The brain and the heart are two organs that are typically thought of as opposites.  The brain is for logical thinking, and the heart is for feeling.  Although the heart is certainly important for the brain as it supplies oxygen and other important nutrients, it has nothing to do with feeling, emotion, or empathy.   This fact that your heart is in your brain became abundantly clear in the books “Switched On:  A Memoir of Brain Changes and Emotional Awakening,” by John Elder Robison.

The author lived with autism.  He could not read the emotions of other humans, nor could he understand sarcasm.  He could not understand many personal insults.  His shortcomings in interpersonal skills contributed to his dropping out of school.  But these shortcomings were in some sense compensated for with other extraordinary talents.  He had extraordinary ability with electronics.  He had perfect pitch and could tune a guitar with both perfection and ease.  These talents led to his working with rock groups in creating and setting up their sound systems and video effects.  He worked for the group Kiss and was one of the leaders in this area.

HIs specific type of autism, there is an autism spectrum, was Asperger’s syndrome.  He wrote a book about his condition, “Look at Me in the Eye,”  which was quite successful and led to his giving many talks at organizations interested in autism.  Nevertheless, he was aware of his deficiency and very much wanted to be able to cure or compensate for it.

So at the age of 50 he volunteered to participate in research using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).  This involved placing an apparatus that generated magnetic fields that were targeted for certain areas of the brain.  This procedure had had some success in treating depression.  However, this was a research project designed primarily to learn about the brain rather than as a cure or remedy for autism.  John was doubly excited about this procedure as it involved electronics, which he loved, and because he wanted to see if it would have any effect on his autism.

As it turned out, it did.  In the past when he listened to music he understood the electronics producing the music, but the music had no emotional effects on him.  For the first time he actually cried from the lyrics of a piece.  Now he was able to have emotional feelings.  He was also about to read the expressions of others and to make inferences about how they were feeling and what their true intentions were.  In most cases he found this to be beneficial.  He owned a car repair shop, and was now able to have a better understanding of how customers felt.

In the past, he would miss most insults and any sarcasm from other people.  However, now he did not miss these comments.  And in reviewing past relationships, he realized that certain people had been routinely putting him down and insulting him without his noticing it.  He ended up ending most of these relationships.

So all the effects were not beneficial.  Sometimes ignorance can be bliss.  His wife had a serious problem dealing with depression.  In the past, although he was aware that his wife was depressed, he did not suffer any emotional effects.  After TMS he did suffer the emotional effects of his wife.  He felt her pain.  Unfortunately the end result was a divorce.

In addition to  John’s  talks on autism, he participates actively non only in research, but also in review panels deciding which proposal should be funded.  This is remarkable when you consider that John did not finish even rudimentary schooling.  Yet he is a good choice for reviewing these proposals and for helping decide the future of research.    After all, he is an author, and an author who writes quite well.  This book should be of wide interest not only for people interested in autism and TMS, but for the general reading public.

The research points to a bright future in brain science.  As for where TMS therapy stands today, as of early 2016 TMS is an FDA-accepted  therapy for depression at hundreds of hospitals in clinics across the United States.  It is also available in Canada, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia.

TMS is not yet an FDA-approved therapy for autism or ADHD, but it is believed that this will come in the next decade.

The Plague of Our Time: Naive Realism

April 24, 2016

Everyone, not just healthy memory blog readers, should have a basic understanding of how our cognitive processes function. Absent this understanding, people are unknowingly likely to be naive realists. Naive realism has a restricted view in social psychology with respect to the perception of other people, but the broader meaning of naive realism is that people have direct knowledge of the world.

If you are a regular reader of the healthy memory blog, or if you only have read the immediately preceding post, you should be disabused of this notion.  Our cognitive processes build models of the external world.  These models are used by our memories to help us deal with the future.  Through learning these models are refined, but they are never complete and always need to be subject to change.  Absent any other information, we have the tendency to believe.  So as the result of our upbringing, schooling, and social acquaintances, we have a vast store of unexamined beliefs.  Our brain responds whenever information discordant with stated beliefs is encountered.  Remember Kahneman’s System 1 System 2 distinction.  System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1.  System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly think of as conscious thought. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through. System 2 can be thought of as thinking.  Discordant information requires thinking.  The easiest route is to disregard the discordant information and go the cognitive miser route.

Our memories are highly fallible, and these shortcomings need always be taken into consideration.  Scientific reasoning provides methodologies for minimizing the fallibilities and shortcomings.  The scientific method provides the Gold Standard for accepting or rejecting beliefs.  Near the beginning of the eleventh century, al_Haytham, an Islamic scholar who lived in Basra and Cairo, wrote the Book of Optics,which included a theory of vision and a theory of sight.  According to one authority, “Ibn al-Haytham was the pioneer of the modern scientific method.  His book changed the meaning of the term “optics” and established experiments as the norm of proof in the field.  His investigations were not based on abstract theories, but on experimental evidence, and his experiments were systematic and repeatable.  Unlike the Greeks, in his theory of vision rays of light came from the objects seen rather than from the eyes that see them.  Some of the European contributors to the development of the scientific method are Robert Grosseteste (c. 1125-1253), Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294), Galileo (1564-1642), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and, of course, Isaac Newton(1643-1727).

The scientific method advances slowly, the speed of which has been accelerating.  It is primarily responsible for the development of our society today.  Actually, our society would have benefited from a greater application of the scientific method.  Unfortunately, too many do not believe scientific findings.  For example, in the United States, one of its major political parties refuses to accept the evidence for global warming.

Most of our problems stem from ideologies, and the True Believers (see Eric Hoffer) in these ideologies.  Ideologues do not need to think.  Their ideology informs them what the truth is and what to believe.  Any one or any organization demanding following ideological beliefs are to be avoided like the plague, because they are they plague incarnate.

Moreover, ideologues are the bane of democracy.  Democracy requires the consideration and evaluation of beliefs and evidence.  And they require compromise and negotiation, two requirements that are the bane of ideologues.

It needs to be understood that in our lives we never encounter absolute truth.  Rather we try as best we can through learning and science what are the best models to believe.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Socrates)

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Healthy Memory Revisited

April 21, 2016

As the healthy memory blog is coming back from a hiatus, it might be a good time to review its themes.  The first theme is the importance of having a growth mindset.  There are many healthy memory posts on this topic.  Basically it is a matter of wanting to learn and in believing that you can learn.  So a positive attitude is essential along with a desire to learn.  Having a growth mindset is important not only to having a healthy memory,  but also to living a fulfilling life.

Currently there is much concern about the ravages and costs of Alzheimer’s Disease.  An enormous amount of research is going on to develop drugs that will prevent or cure the disease.  These drugs target the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles that provide the signatures for an accurate diagnosis of this disease.  To this point, the few drugs that have been approved only slow the progression of the disease.  And some knowledgeable people believe that drugs will never be developed that actually prevent or cure the disease (se the healthy memory blog, “The Myth of Alzheimer’s).

A common assertion is that Alzheimer’s cannot be  prevented.  This statement is true if it is referring to the amyloid plaque or neurofibrillary tangles that are needed for a definitive diagnosis.  What is not usually mentioned is that many autopsies have been done on deceased individuals whose brains are wreaked with these neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques, but who never had any of the behavioral or cognitive manifestations of Alzheimer’s.  Whether these people would have ever exhibited any of the behavioral of cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s if they had lived longer will never be known.  The explanation offered for these people is that they had built up a cognitive reserve that prevented the cognitive and behavioral symptoms.  So even though they had the defining neurological substrates of the disease, there were no behavioral of cognitive manifestations.

The healthy memory blog asserts that having and using a growth mindset is key to developing this cognitive reserve.  Of course, exercise and a healthy lifestyle is important.  I find it ironic that physical exercise is always cited as beneficial, but rarely, if ever, the exercise of the most relevant organ, the brain.  Using a growth mindset exercises the brain.  I believe that certain computer games can be useful, along with playing bridge or doing crossword puzzles.  But a healthy memory mindset involves continuing to learn as long as one lives.  Be aware that new neurons continue to be created throughout one’s lifespan. but these new neurons quickly die unless they are engaged.  Engaging with one’s fellow humans as well as with technology (this is transactive memory ) is also essential.

An important part of a growth mindset is understanding how cognition works.  This is the second theme of the healthy memory blog, Human Memory:  Theory and Data. It is important to understand that we have no direct knowledge of the external world, as naive realists believe.  Rather we develop mental models of the external world.  The role of memory is more that one of storing information.  Memory takes in information and constructs models.  The purpose of memory is actually one of time travel.  It is using information from the past and models constructed from that information to predict the future.  Sometimes mental simulations are run to decide among different courses of action.

Another important concept is that of Noble Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahenman.  He has identified two processing systems.  System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1.  System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly think of as conscious thought. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through. System 2 can be thought of as thinking.Kahneman

When new information is encountered, by default, it is believed.  Without this default, our learning would be dangerously slow.  However, whenever the brain encounters information that contradicts what we know, the brain responds and System 2 is activated.  System 2 requires attention and mental effort.  The easiest route is to discard or ignore discordant information.  This is the route chosen by the cognitive miser, who is not willing to expend the effort.  In the long run, the cognitive miser route leads to hardening of the categories, where we do not challenge and remain constant to our beliefs.  Of course, questioning everything would be maladaptive, so this must be done selectively.  But growth mindsets require heavy System 2 processing and the selective reexamination of prevailing beliefs.

Kahneman has identified biases that develop to help us better deal with processing limitations, but which are biases nevertheless.  Our memories also are highly fallible.  Unfortunately, the confidence we exhibit is usually unreliable.  We are flawed information processors and need to always be aware of these flaws and limitations

The mind is constrained by a limited attentional capacity.  The brain remains active 24 hours a day, even when we sleep.  The vast majority of the brain’s processing is unconscious.  Once we try fail to recall something or fail to solve a problem, our unconscious mind will keep working on it, and the solution can pop into our minds unsummoned at a later time.

We need to learn to focus and control this attentional capacity.  This is where mindfulness and meditation become important and they constitute the third theme of the healthy memory blog.  .  There are many posts on mindfulness and meditation, some of which can be found under the category of mnemonic techniques.  Mindfulness and meditation are essential not only to a healthy memory, but also to a heathy body.  Meditation has even be shown to have beneficial epigenetic effects (see the healthy memory blog, “The Genetic Breakthrough—Your Ultimate Mind Body Connection”).

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Healthymemory Blog is Going on a Brief Hiatus

April 12, 2016

Nevertheless, there is plenty to read here.  To find posts of interest to you enter the subject or title into the healthy memory blog search block.  If you do not see the search block, then enter “healthymemory.wordpress.com” into your browser.

Here are some suggestion for topics to enter.

myth
mindset
The Relaxation Revolution
Kahneman
Davidson
Stanovich
Dehaene
mindfulness
meditation

Enjoy!  Grow your mindsets!  and be mindful.

Liberator of Knowledge from Tyranny of Profit

April 11, 2016

This post is motivated by an article by Michael S. Rosenwald  in the April 6, 2016 edition of the Washington Post titled,”Thief? Or Liberator of Knowledge from the Tyranny of Profit?”  The title of this healthy memory post should indicate my position on the title of the article.  The article is about a 27-year-old graduate student from Kazakhstan Alexandra Elbakyan who is operating a searchable online database of nearly 50 million stolen scholarly journal articles.

The basis for the posts I publish on this blog come from books I have purchased.  There are additional magazines and journals that I receive on the basis of professional organizations to which  I belong  and to which I pay dues.  Sometimes I find an interesting article from a source to which I do not have free access, but discover an unjustifiable fee to purchase the article.

It is a tad ironic that one of the purposes of these scientific organizations to which I belong is to disseminate scientific knowledge.  Yet they charge for the dissemination of this knowledge, and these publications constitute a significant part of the income for these organizations.

At one time this publication process might have been justifiable when it was based on paper.  However, in the digital age this publication process is no longer justifiable.  There are annoyingly long publication delays in the print medium, whereas the dissemination of information should be fast in this new digital age.

One substantial delay is the review process in refereed journals.  This is a matter of independent reviewers reviewing articles and providing input to the journal to determine if the article should be published.  I’ve participated in this process both as an article submitter and an article reviewer.  Often the agreement among the reviewers is not high.  I’ve reviewed articles that I think made a substantive contribution to the field, yet the articles were rejected on the basis of what I regarded to be minor issues.  I don’t believe that it is ever possible to write an article to which there are no objections.  The nature of research requires certain compromises and if these compromises are raised high enough, the article is rejected.

I am of  the strong opinion that this review process is unnecessary.  Usually I can quickly tell whether an article is worth my time.  And I am curious as to what articles I am not seeing due to an unjustified rejection of a good article.  I think the strongest advocates of article reviews are tenured faculty members who must make judgments as to whether junior faculty member should be granted tenure.  The review process allows them to count the numbers of articles published in refereed journals.  Otherwise, there would be the necessity to read an evaluate articles written by these junior faculty members.

Actually, there is a much larger problem that was documented in epidemiologist Ioannidis’s landmark article “Why Most Published Research Findings are False” (PLOS Medicine, 2, 3124. Doi:101371/journal pmed, 0020124, 2005). Subsequent research has confirmed his conclusion. Many articles followed (see the AAA Tranche of Subprime Science (Gelman and Laken, 2014). The problem hit the popular press with the October 19th cover of the Economist broadcasting HOW SCIENCE GOES GOES WRONG (see the healthy memory blog post “Most Published Research Findings are False.”)

I am amazed that this conclusion has received so little public attention.  It means that should your physician give you advice or recommend certain medications or procedures, he is most likely flying by the seat of his pants.  Even if is based on published research, there is a better than even chance that the research is in error.

Moreover, it is this insidious paper publication process that underlies most of this problem.  Journals pride themselves on high rejection rates, yet many of the rejected articles might have been failures to replicate.  The problem is further exacerbated by researchers who do not even bother to submit negative findings to journals because they know that these articles are likely to be rejected.  This is known as the “file drawer” problem which refers to important results that never see the light of day and end up in the file drawer.

So it is clear to me that this conventional publication process needs to be made electronic with all articles being available and all the data on which the articles are based need to be made available.  Most of this research is based on government funding.  So it is especially infuriating that I cannot get articles or data for which I have already paid.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Relevance of Consciousness and the Brain to a Healthy Memory

April 9, 2016

I hope it is already clear why the previous eight posts have been devoted to Stanislas Dehaene’s “Consciousness and the Brain:  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts,” but, nevertheless, I shall briefly elaborate here.  Simply put, using our conscious mind effectively is key to a healthy memory.  One of the primary goals of meditation (for example, the relaxation response), is to gain control of our attention rather than either ignoring our brains’s potential, or letting our brains run wild.

Growth mindsets encourage us to use the global workspace of our brains, to think and to learn new information and skills.  This activates those neurons in the prefrontal cortex with the long axons reaching far into different parts of the brains.  I strongly believe that this activity strongly promotes brain health.  It is likely that it is largely responsible for the cognitive reserve that is cited as the reason that the autopsies of many individuals reveal the neurillary fibers and amyloid plaques that provide a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, yet these individuals never indicated any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

It is clear that there is enormous activity of the brain, but we can gain access to only a small percentage of this activity.  So how can we increase the probability that our unconscious minds are functioning productively?  A good way of thinking about this is that our conscious mind is, or should be, the chief executive of our brain.  Think of the brain as an enormous enterprise that we supervise.  The unconscious mind uses what we think about consciously as a guide to at least some of its unconscious activity.  A good example of this is when we try to remember a name  or a word, but successful retrieval fails (remember the distinction between available and accessible memories).  It is not unusual that many hours, sometimes even a day a more later, the desired item pops into consciousness.  So even though you gave up trying to remember, your unconscious brain kept working on this task.  My favorite problem solving technique is incubation.  This is done when you give your mind a rest and stop working on the problem.  Although your conscious mind has stopped working, your unconscious mind perseveres, and the solution seems to pop into your mind unsummoned.  There are documented cases of important discoveries that have been made in this manner.  Thee are probably many more that have not been discovered or articulated.

So meditate to achieve better control over your consciousness.  Also pursue a growth mindset.  Review previously acquired knowledge and continue to pursue new knowledge.  Also give your unconscious mind something to mull over, such as a problem to solve, or an apparently lost memory to recover.  As was mentioned in a previous healthy memory blog post, with the exception of the most trivial decisions, it is best to allow time for your conscious mind to run simulations and reveal unrecognized problems (see the healthy memory blog post, “Let Me Think it Over).

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Future of Consciousness

April 8, 2016

The Future of Consciousness is the seventh chapter of “Consciousness and the Brain:  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts” is an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  This is the eighth consecutive post on this outstanding book.  A more accurate title would have been “The Future of Consciousness Research.”  It is unlikely that consciousness is going to change in the near future, but consciousness research and theory should quickly advance.

In this chapter Dehaene discusses the consciousness of babies and animals.  Apparently he is unaware that on July 7, 2012 his fellow scientists declared that all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopi possess the neurological substrates for consciousness (See the healthy memory blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-human Animals”).  Dehaene goes on to discuss whether human consciousness is unique.  Sometimes I wonder whether humans have some sort of inferiority complex that causes them to look for distinctions between ourselves and other animal species.

Dehaene discusses diseases of consciousness under which one might include psychoses, neuroses, character disorders, and addictions.  It is almost a virtual certainty that unconscious processes also play a prominent role, but conscious processes can play a useful role in their treatment.

Finally, he discusses free will.  His position is similar to that found in the healthy memory blog post “Free Will.”  Our conscious minds control our will.  That does not mean that we always do what we intended, but our conscious minds (System 2 Processes in the terminology of Kahneman) monitor what we do and say and can make corrections.   Dr. Dehaene does not write this, but I would argue that his work on consciousness has identified the homunculus in our brains, and that homunculus is our consciousness.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Ultimate Test

April 7, 2016

The Ultimate Test is the sixth chapter of “Consciousness and the Brain:  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts” is an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  This is the seventh consecutive post on this outstanding book. According to Dr. Dehaene the ultimate test of any theory of consciousness is the clinic.  Every year thousands of patients fall into a coma.  Unfortunately, many of these patients will remain permanently unresponsive in a dreaded condition called the “vegetative state.”  Worse yet, is that in Intensive Care Units (ICUs) over all the world, half of the deaths result from a clinical decision to remove life support.  How many of these decisions are wrongly made?

Coma is defined  clinically as a prolonged  loss of the capacity to be aroused.  However, coma patients are not brain-dead.  Brain death is a distinct state,characterized by a total absence of brain stem reflexes.  In brain-dead patients, positron emission tomography (PET) and other measures such as Doppler ultrasonography show that cortical metabolism and the perfusion of blood to the brain are annihilated.  Most countries, the Vatican included, identity brain death with death, period.

What is of primary interest is the “locked-in syndrome.”  This state typically results from a well-delimited lesion, usually on the protuberance of the brain stem.  Such a lesion disconnects the cortex the cortex from its output pathways  in the spinal cord.  If the cortex and the thalamus are spared, it often leaves consciousness intact.  As you can well imagine, this is a terrible state in which to find oneself.

The book “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (there is also an outstanding movie by the same name) was written by Jean-Dominique Baby, who was the editor of the French fashion magazine, “Elle.”  He wrote this book one character at a time by blinking his left eyelid while an assistant recited the letters of the alphabet.  He eloquently told his story with two hundred thousand blinks telling the story of a beautiful mind shattered by a cerebral stroke.  Fortunately he lived to se the book published, but, unfortunately, he died three days later.

Comparatively speaking, Jean-Domonique Baby was well-off. Many locked-in patients have no motor responses, no means of communicating with the world.  Fortunately fMRIs can identify these individuals, given enough time.  Unfortunately, fMRIs are extremely expensive and are beyond the budgets of too many medical facilities.  But, fortunately, Dr. Dehaene has developed an inexpensive test using EEG recordings using 256 electrodes.  Information exchanged over long cortical distances is an excellent index of consciousness in patients with brain lesions.  Computations are done for each pair of electrodes for a mathematical index of the amount of information shared by the underlying brain areas.  Vegetative-state patients showed a much smaller  amount of shared information than conscious patients and control patients.  This finding fits with  with a central tenet of global workspace theory, that information exchange is an essential function of consciousness.  A follow-up study showed that the few vegetative patients who showed high information sharing had a better chance of regaining consciousness within the next days or  months.

So technology and the global workspace theory provide good diagnostic techniques.  It is hoped that interventions will be developed in the future to unlock those in a locked-in state.  Dr. Dehaene has described some promising work being done in this area.

Theorizing Consciousness

April 6, 2016

“Theorizing Consciousness” is the fifth chapter of “Consciousness and the Brain:  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts” an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  This is the sixth consecutive post on this outstanding book.   At this point a theory is needed to explain how subjective introspection relates to objective measurements.  Dr. Dehaene does this  by introducing the notion of a global neuronal workspace.  This global workspace theory was developed along with the psychologist Bernard Baars.

The notion is simple.  Consciousness is brain-wide information sharing.  The human brain has developed efficient long-distance networks, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, to select relevant information and disseminate it throughout the brain.  Consciousness has evolved  to allow us to attend to a piece of information and disseminate it throughout the brain.  Once the information is conscious, it can be flexibly be routed  to other areas according to our current goals.  We can name this information, evaluate it, memorize it, and use it to plan for the future.  We can use it to simulate the prospects of different courses of action.  Computer simulations of neural networks have been run and shown that the global neuronal workspace hypothesis generates precisely the signatures we see in experimental brain recordings.

Many neurons  in the brain differ substantially from other cells in the body.  These are the neurons with exceptionally long axons.   These neurons are most abundant in the prefrontal cortex.   Moreover, each human prefrontal neuron  may host fifteen thousand spines or more. This allows these neurons to transmit information to distant parts of the brain, making the global neuronal workspace truly global.   The prefrontal cortex is the area responsible for decision making and executive control.

The global neuronal workspace hypothesis also explains why vast amounts of knowledge remain inaccessible to our consciousness, namely, there is too much of it. Global workspace theory helps bring order to this jungle of information.  It leads us to pigeonhole our unconscious feats in distinct bins whose brain mechanisms differ radically. There is only a limited amount of attentional resources that can be devoted to conscious processing.  One can argue that the judicious selection of what information to attend to and to devote conscious thought is one of the primary determinant of a happy and successful life.  This is a primary reason why meditation is important.  Contemplation and meditative exercises provide practice in training our attention.

The Signatures of Conscious Thought

April 5, 2016

“The Signatures of Conscious Thought” is the fourth chapter of “Consciousness and the Brain:  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts” is an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  This is the fifth consecutive post on this outstanding book.  In this chapter Dr. Dehaene discusses four reliable signatures of consciousness—physiological  markers that index whether the participant experienced a conscious percept.

The first signature is a sudden ignition of parietal and prefrontal circuits that is caused by a conscious stimulus (remember that the participant indicates whether the stimulus is conscious).

The second signature is found in the EEG in which conscious access is accompanied by a slow wave called the P3 wave, which emerges as late as one-third of a second after the stimulus.

The third signature is the result of conscious ignition that also triggers a late and sudden burst of high frequency oscillations.

The fourth signature  consists of many regions exchanging bidirectional messages over long distances in the cortes, which form a global brain web.

The conscious brain can perceive only a single chunk at a time.  Working memory rehearses these chunks to keep the active so they can be further processed.  The processing of a second chunk can be delayed if it occurs prior to the processing of the first chunk.  This is known as the psychological refractory period.

We can process a stimulus before we become consciously aware of the stimulus.  For example, if we place a hand on a hot stove, we’ll take it off the stove before we consciously perceive the pain caused by the hot stove.

Consciousness lives in  loops of reverberating neuronal activity, circulating in the web of our cortical connections, causing our conscious experience.

fMRI and scalp recording of brain potentials catch just a glimpse of the underlying brain activity.  Explorations of the third and fourth signatures require electrodes being placed directly inside the brain.  Such implantations of electrodes are indicated for certain epileptic patients, so science can capitalize on victims of this unfortunate malady.  I hope it provides some satisfaction to these patients that the data that is derived from these electrodes is greatly advancing science.

Subliminal stimuli can propagate  deeply into the cortex, but this brain activity is strongly amplified when the threshold for awareness is crossed, thus yielding reliable and valid signatures of consciousness.

What is Consciousness Good For?

April 4, 2016

“What is Consciousness Good For?” is the third chapter in “Consciousness and the Brain Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts’” an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.   This is the fourth consecutive post on this important work.

After reading the immediately preceding post, one might well conclude that the answer is “good for nothing,” and you could find many psychologists and philosophers who would agree with this statement.  However, William James in his “Principles of Psychology” (1890) came to the following conclusion, “The particulars of the distribution of consciousness, so far as we known them, point to its being  efficacious.”  Dr. Dehaene has conducted the research on consciousness and the extension of this knowledge has led to a fairly conclusive statement that consciousness is essential to effective cognitive functioning.

Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for the importance of consciousness can be found during anesthesia.  “The loss of consciousness is accompanied by a sudden dysfunction of the neuronal circuits that integrate our senses into a single coherent whole.  Consciousness is needed for neurons to exchange signals in both bottom-up and top-down directions until they agree with one another.  In its absence, the perceptual process stops short of generating a single coherent interpretation of the outside world.”

Here are additional thoughts on the role of consciousness.

“The improvements we install in our brain when we learn our languages permit us to review, recall, rehearse, redesign our own activities, turning our brains into echo chambers of sorts, in which otherwise evanescent processes can hang around and become objects in their own right.   Those that permits the longest, acquiring influence as they persist, we call our conscious thoughts.”  Daniel Dennet, “Kinds of Minds” (1996).

“Consciousness is, then, as it were, the hyphen which joins what has been to what will be, the bridge which spans the past and the future.”  Henri Bergson, “Huxley Memorial Lecture” (1911).

Now from Dehaene, “The component of the mind that psychologists call “working memory” is one of the dominant functions of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the areas that it connects with, thus making these areas strong candidates for the depositories of our conscious knowledge.  These regions pop up in brain imaging experiments whenever we briefly hold on to a piece of information: a phone number, a color, or the shape of a flashed picture.  Prefrontal neurons implement an active memory:  long after the picture is gone, they continue to fire throughout the short-term memory task—sometimes as long as dozens of seconds later.  And when the prefrontal cortex is impaired or distracted, this memory is lost—it falls into unconscious oblivion.”
Consciousness also serves as a social sharing device, what is termed in the lingo of the healthymemory blog as transactive memory.  The following sentence is by Friedrich Nietzsche in “The Gay Science” (1862).  “Consciousness is properly only a connecting network between man and man.; it is only as such that it has had to develop:  the recluse and wild0beast species of men would not have needed it.”

Finally consciousness is the mind’s virtual reality simulator that we use to deal with the future.

Fathoming Unconscious Depths

April 3, 2016

“Fathoming Unconscious Depths” is the second chapter in “Consciousness and the Brain Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts’” an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  This is the third consecutive post on this important book.

Sigmund Freud is generally credited for the discovery of the dramatic amount of mental processing occurs outside our awareness.  Dr. Dehaene has disabused me of this notion.  Hippocrates (ca. 129-200) wrote a treatise on epilepsy, “The Sacred Disease,” in which he noted that the brain constantly controls us and covertly weaves the fabric of our mental life.  Indian and Arab Scholars not only preserved some of antiquity’s medical wisdom, but made advancement’s of their own.  The Arab scientist, Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham, 965-1040) whom we have met in a previous healthymemory post (Understanding Beliefs) discovered the main principles of visual perception.  Centuries before Descartes, he understood that the eye operates as a camera, a receiver rather than an emitter of light, and he foresaw that various illusions could fool our conscious perception.  Consciousness was not always in control, Alhazen concluded.  He was the first to postulate an automatic process of unconscious inference; unknown to us, the brain jumps to conclusions beyond the available sense data, sometimes causing us to see things that are not there.

Questions crucial to delineating the  unique contributions of conscious thought are how deep can an invisible image travel into the brain?  Does it reach our higher cortical centers and influence the decisions we make?  Recent research in psychology and brain imaging have tracked the fate of unconscious pictures in the brain.  Masked images, images that have been experimentally obscured are recognized and categorized unconsciously.  We even cipher and interpret unseen words.  Subliminal pictures  trigger motivations and rewards in us, all below our level of awareness.  Complex operations linking perception to action can unfold covertly, demonstrating how frequently we rely on an unconscious automatic pilot.  Being oblivious of these unconscious processes, we constantly overestimate the power of our consciousness in making decisions.  The truth is that our capacity for conscious control is limited.

The answer to the question  as to which regions of the brain participate in conscious and unconscious processes, the answer is both simple and surprising.  Virtually all the brains regions can participate in both conscious and unconscious processing.

Consciousness Enters the Lab

April 2, 2016

Consciousness Enters the Lab is the First chapter discussed in “Consciousness and the Brain”  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts,” which is an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  As was discussed in the previous post, although consciousness is an extremely important concept, it has been difficult to bring it into the lab and conduct meaningful experiments regarding it.  This first chapter discusses the new methodology.

This first chapter focuses on the issue of conscious access, the question being why some of our sensations turn into concept perceptions, while others remain unconscious.  The methodology builds upon one of the oldest in psychophysics, the identification of thresholds.  This involved presenting a stimulus and asking the respondent if it can be perceived.  Brain imaging is then added to this technology to see what parts of the brain are responding.  The signature of consciousness is found in those parts of the brain that respond when the individual indicates the presence of the stimulus.  Parts of the brain will also be responding when the individual does not indicate the presence of the stimulus.  These are the parts of the brain that, although they are activated, do not result in conscious perception.  Remember that most of the brain’s activity is unconscious.  Conscious activity represents only a very small percentage of the brain’s activity, but the parts of the brain that do respond with the individual’s indication that the stimulus is perceived, are those parts that are conscious.  This procedure was invented/discovered  by the late Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick and the neurobiologist Christof Koch.

The procedure is not as simple as it appears.  The identification of a reliable threshold requires multiple trials.  This procedure is also done with multiple participants.  So there are many brain images over many participants.  But when done properly, reliable signatures of conscious activity are identified for the relevant parts of the brain.  Thus, consciousness becomes  a meaningful measure for scientific study.

Scientists have often referred to consciousness as “wakefulness” or “vigilance..”  But wakefulness refers primarily to the sleep-wake cycle. And vigilance refers to the level of excitement in the cortical and thalamic networks that support conscious states.  However, both concepts differ sharply from conscious access.  Wakefulness, vigilance, and attention are enabling conditions for conscious access.  Selective attention and conscious access are also distinct processes.  In many cases attention operates sub rosa, covertly amplifying or squashing incoming information even though the final outcome never makes it into our awareness.

Of course, scientists are creative and there are variants on the above technique.  But the primary point has been made.  We are remain unaware of the vast majority of the activity in the brain.  However, signatures can be developed to identify parts of the brain that reflect conscious activity.

Consciousness and the Brain

April 1, 2016

“Consciousness and the Brain”  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts” is an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  It is only a matter of time before this book becomes as classic.  The novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote in “Bend Sinister,” “Consciousness is the only real thing in the world and the greatest mystery of all.”  We all personally experience consciousness and we think we know what consciousness is.  Consequently many people would be surprised to learn that many psychologists and philosophers think that consciousness is epiphenomenal.  That is, we are just along for the ride.  The real action is in the brain and the brain exhibits consciousness to keep us entertained.

Perhaps the primary reason the study of consciousness is avoided by scientists is that it is difficult to study.  The founding father of cognitive psychology, George Miller, wrote in his textbook “Psychology, the Science of Mental Life” in 1962, “Consciousness is a word worn smooth by a million tongues…Maybe we should ban the word for a decade or two until we can develop more precise terms for the several uses which ‘consciousness’ now obscures.”  Well time has passed and a better definition of consciousness has been articulated, and the development of methods for experimentally manipulating consciousness. along with a new respect for subjective phenomena has resulted in important findings about consciousness and the brain.  Dehaene’s book eloquently describes the research methodology and the research findings.

Signatures of conscious thoughts have been identified.  Three ingredients—focusing on conscious access, manipulating conscious perception, and carefully recording introspection—have transformed the study of consciousness into a normal experimental science.  Brain imaging techniques have provided a key methodology for performing this research.

The research in this book is overwhelming.  I could devote a blog exclusively to this book.  I want to convey the important points of the outstanding work, without bogging you down in details that might be demanding to read.  My plan is to post blogs on a chapter by chapter basis.  There are seven chapters, so I anticipate seven more posts plus, perhaps, a couple  of additional posts.

This work is certainly relevant for the healthy memory blog.  Memory health is critically important and involves understanding and using our brains to optimal advantage, which includes consciously making best use of our attentional resources.

These posts will address growth mindsets and attentional resources, but the reading of the book itself should significantly enhance growth mindsets.

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