Posts Tagged ‘Anil Ananthaswamy’

Inside Knowledge: Why Knowing Thyself is the Hardest Thing

April 10, 2017

The title of this post is identical to a Feature article by Anil Ananthaswamy in the 1 April 2016 issue of the New Scientist.  As Anil writes, We are within ourselves, so any attempt to build a full picture is fraught with our own cognitive biases and problems of self-reference.  Moreover a big part of our self perception is tied up with how others see us, yet we can never now the biases that cloud their perception.

Philosophical investigation and scientific observation of human behavior allow us to delineate the question of what the self is a little more sharply.  There are several ways of doing this.

There is the phenomenal self.  This corresponds to our signs of existing, and that there is a distinct entity in our mind that experiences this existence.  The self is very real to each of us:  it’s a sense of being a body situated in the here and now, and also of being a person existing over time.  Unfortunately, this is not always a reliable source of true knowledge.  There is a rate neurological disorder Cotard’s syndrome in which the individual has the distinct and disturbing experience of non existence—a  subjective self-knowledge clearly at odds with the truth.  There are also people who do not feel that parts of their bodies, say particular limbs, are not theirs.  And when we dream we have a robust sense of self while being completely deluded about who and where we are.

The epistemic self is a more sophisticated type of self-knowledge.  The epistemic self is a sense of self that knows it knows.  The epistemic self is aware of the working of the phenomenal self, and can make us more aware of our motivations.  It is a new way of relating to oneself.

Imagine you are sitting in a mind-numbing meeting and start fantasying about an exotic vacation.  Your phenomenal self wanders with you into this dream world, but as you snap back to the reality of your meeting and become aware you’ve been daydreaming, your epistemic self flashes into action, only to disappear again as you mind focuses (or wanders) once more.

The aim of mindfulness and meditation is to enhance the epistemic self.  Doing so gives us greater mental autonomy, “the capacity to stop or better control what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing.”  There are many healthy memory posts on mindfulness and meditation.

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Keep Track of Your Body in Space

January 15, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Anil Ananthaswamy in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This and the previous blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.

Proprioception is a much under-rated ability.  It is the result of unconscious processing and results from a constant conversation between the body and the brain, allowing us to know where our limbs are and what they are doing, and adds up to an unerring sense of a unified, physical “me.”

Proprioception predicts the cases of the various sensory inputs it receives — from nerves and muscles inside the body, and from the senses detecting what’s going on outside the body.  What we are aware of is the brain’s best guess of were the body ends and where the external environment begins.

In the famous rubber-hand illusions a volunteer puts one hand on the table in front of him, and a rubber hand is put in front of him.  A second person they strokes the real and rubber hands simultaneously with a paintbrush.  Within minutes many people start to feel the touches on the rubber hand and even claim it as part of their body.  The brain makes its best guess as to where the sensation is coming from and the most obvious option is the rubber hand.

Newer research suggests that this sixth sense extends to the space immediately surrounding the body.  Arvid Gutersam of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and his colleagues repeated the rubber-hand experiment, stroking the real hand but keeping the brush 30 centimeters above the rubber hand.  Participants still sensed the brush stokes above the rubber hand, implying that as well as unconsciously monitoring our body we keep track of an invisible “force field” around us.  Gutersam suggests this might have evolved to help us pick up objects and move through the environment without injury.

Run Your Life on Autopilot

January 11, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Anil Ananthaswamy in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This and the following blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.

An enormous part of our day-to-day lives, driving, making coffee, or touch typing, happens without conscious thoughts.  Unlike many of the brain’s other unconscious habits, these skills had to be learned before the brain can automate them.  How it does this could potentially provide a method for us to think our way out of bad habits.

Ann Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her colleagues  have shown that a region deep inside the brain called the striatum is key to habit formation.  When we undertake an action, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning complex tasks, communicates with the striatum, which sends the necessary signals to enact the movement,  Over time, input from the prefrontal cortex fades, to be replaced by loops linking the striatum to the sensorimotor cortex.  The loops, together with the memory circuits, allow us to carry out the behavior without having to think about it.  Practice makes perfect and no thinking is required.  The obvious upside is that we no longer  need to focus our attention on a frequent task, the spare processing power can be used for other things.  Unfortunately, similar circuitry is involved in turning all kinds of behavior into habits, including thought patterns, and once any kind of behavior becomes a habit, it become less flexible and harder to interrupt.  This is fine for good habits, but when bad habits are ingrained, its equally hard to get rid of it.  You lose the moment of choice when we can decide not to do something.

Fortunately, even with the most ingrained habits, a small area of the prefrontal is kept online, in case we need to take alternative action.  This offers hope to any of us looking to break a bad habit and to those suffering from habit-related problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome  — both of which are associated with abnormal activity in the striatum and its connections to other parts of the brain.  These circuits are potential targets for future drug treatments.  However, for now the best way to get a handle on bad habits is to become aware of them.  Then, focus all your attention on them and hope that it’s enough  to help the frontal regions resist the call of the autopilot.  An alternative approach is to teach ourselves a new habit that counters the bad one.