Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

Inside knowledge: What’s Really Going On in the Minds of Animals

April 11, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a Feature article by Michael Brooks in the Features section of in the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist.   The article begins, “Bright animals from chimps to crows know what they know and what others are thinking.  But when it comes to abstract knowledge, the picture is more mixed.”  Some qualifications need to be placed on “what others are thinking.”  There are definite limits as we humans often have difficulty trying to know what our fellow humans are thinking.

The article also fails to note “The Cambridge Declaration of Scientists.”  It begins as follows:
“On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

and concludes:
“The absence of neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

The full statement can be found at http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

Fortunately, the scientists here are neuroscientists, which gives the statement more gravitas than had it been made by psychologists.  But psychologists are involved in designing experiments to assess how much and what kinds of abstract knowledge can be achieved by different species.  And there is a long row of research ahead of them.  HM was much encouraged by this declaration as he has long thought that dogs were man’s best friend, rather than men being man’s best friend, because dogs had the neurological substrates for love and loyalty, but were lacking in neocortex that allowed for rationalization and deviousness.

There is a tendency to evaluate what animals know with respect to what humans know.  Sometimes this research seems to reflect an inferiority complex in showing what these are things we can do that nonhuman species cannot. They also need to be evaluated with respect to the capabilities of the species and the environments in which they operate.

We need to consider species with respect to their sensory caoacities. Consider are best friend, dogs, for example.  The vision of most dogs is not that good, but their hearing is outstanding, and their sense of smell is extraordinary.  When we think of someone, we tend to see them in our mind’s eye.  However, when a dog thinks of a person it is likely in terms of how that person smells.

Recent research has indicated that non-human species are more human than has traditionally been thought.  This research is to be applauded.  We look forward to what we’ll learn from future research, but it should go beyond what they can do compared to what we can do.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

June 5, 2016

The title of this blog post is the title of a book by Sharon Begley.  Please ponder this title for a moment and consider its ramifications.

It overturns two longstanding dogmas.  One is that the brain is hardwired and fixed.  The second is that although we are conscious, this consciousness is epiphenomenal in that his consciousness cannot change the brain.

Healthy memory was pleased to learn that William James, the father of experimental psychology in the United States, first introduced the word “plasticity to the science of the brain.  In 1890 James posited that “organic matter,” especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”As Ms. Begley notes, “But James was ‘only’ a psychologist, not a neurologist (there was no such thing as a neuroscientist a century ago) and his speculation went nowhere.”Santiago Ramon y Cajal was a great Spanish neuroanatomist who won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906.  In 1913 near the conclusion of his treatise on the nervous system he declared, “In the adult center the nerve paths are somewhat fixed, ended and immutable, thus stating that the physiology of the brain itself could not be changed. Nevertheless, he did continue with the hope, “It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.”  Fortunately, empirical evidence that emerged in the 1990s and will be discussed in subsequent posts found that this statement is wrong.

The second dogma, that consciousness is epiphenomenal and that only the brain is made of solid stuff that science can study was never accepted by the Buddhists.  In Buddhism the mind is contra and can be used not only to influence but to change the brain.  The Dalai Lama ins very much interested in science and uses science to alter religious beliefs.  This will be discussed in the immediately following post.

As this is an important book, healthy memory shall devote many posts to it.  Even so, Healthymemory will not be able to do Sharon Begley’s book justices.  Thus, healthy memory encourages you to read the book, and Healthymemory is egotistical enough to think that there will be added value in also reading the posts.

The Self

May 18, 2016

The final cryptomind discussed in “The Mind Club” is “The Self.”  It does make the important point that we do not entirely know ourselves.  Our conscious mind represents an infinitesimal part of our selves.  Only a limited amount of our mind is even accessible.  Very often we do not understand what we do or why we did it (See the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  “Strangers to Ourselves:  Discovering  the Adaptive Unconscious” explains how we can use self-narratives and introspection to understand ourselves.  Note that Wilson is one of they key researchers documenting the errors of introspection.  Nevertheless he explains to us how we can learn to use our introspections to help ourselves.  I did not find any indication of his work in this chapter on “The Self.”

This entire chapter makes no reference to Kahneman, Tversky, or Stanovich.  These authors are discussed in healthy memory blog posts.  They, along with Wilson provide a meaningful conceptual structure for understanding the self.  This chapter rambles on and on to no good effect.

The worst part of this chapter is that it condemns free will.  Moreover, it uses Libet’s experiment (go to the Wikipedia to learn about this experiment) to condemn free will.  To quote, “Libet revealed that Free Will is an illusion.”  However, Libet himself did not conclude that Free Will is an illusion.  In fairness to the authors, many do cite Libet to support this conclusion. But this is a matter of sloppy scholarship.  The authors cherry pick the literature.

See the healhymemory blog post “Free Will.  This post reviews a book that provides an authoritative review of the issue.  Healthymemoy finds the philosophical arguments for Free Will compelling.  If one is not persuaded by the philosophical arguments consider the empirical data.  What is happening during meditation?  What is producing changes in the physical brain during meditation?  Placebo effects are based on the mind’s belief  can be seen in specific activities of the brain”

If philosophical arguments and empirical data are not sufficient, then do a cost/benefit analysis.
Who do you think will be healthier and more successful,
A believer in free will who believes the mind affects the brain and the body or
someone who believes that everything is determined and that they are only along for the ride.
The mind is going to be a central concept in all human endeavors.
QED

Please consider reading or rereading the healthy memory Post “The Relevance of Consciousness and the Brain to a Healthy Memory.”

© 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.

© 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.

Space-Time Theory of Consciousness

January 19, 2016

Back in March of last year in my blog post “The Future of the Mind:  The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind”  I promised a future post on Dr Kaku’s viewpoint on consciousness.   Somehow I became distracted and did not produce that post, so here it is.

Dr. Kaku’s definition of consciousness is as follows:  “Consciousness is the process of creating model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g., in temperature, space, time, and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal (e.g., find mates, food shelter).

The lowest level of consciousness is Level 0 where an organism is stationary or has limited  mobility and creates feedback loops in a few parameters (temperature, for example).  Each feedback loop registers “one unit of consciousness,” so an organism  with a single unit of Level 0 consciousness would be at Level 0:1.

Organisms that are mobile and have a central nervous system have Level 1 consciousness, which includes a new set of parameters to measure their changing location.  An example of Level I consciousness would be reptiles.  They have so many feedback loops that they have developed a central nervous system to handle them.  A reptilian brain would have perhaps one hundred or more feedback loops governing their sense of smell, balance, touch, sound, sight, blood pressure, and so forth.  Each of these contains yet more feedback loops.  Eyesight alone involves a large number of feedback loops as the eye can recognize color, movement, shapes, light intensity, and shadows.  Of course the reptile’s other senses, such as hearing and taste, require additional feedback loops.  The totality of these feedback loops creates a mental picture of where the reptile is located and where other animals are located as well.  Level I consciousness is governed mainly by the reptilian brains, which can also be found in the back and center of the human head.

Level II consciousness involves social animals with emotions.  These organisms must create a model not only of where they are in space but also with respect to others.  As  the number of feedback loops explodes exponentially it moves to the next numerical ranking.  Level II consciousness  coincides with the formation of new structures in the brain in the form of the limbic system.  .  The limbic system includes the hippocampus (for memories), amygdala (for emotions), and the thalamus (for sensory information), all of which provide new parameters for creating models in relation to others.  Consequently, the number and type of feedback loops change.

The degree of Level II consciousness is defined as the number of distinct feedback loops required for an animal to interact socially with  members of its grouping.  For a crude approximation, Level II consciousness can be estimated by counting the number of fellow animals in its pack or tribe and then listing the total number of ways in which the animal interacts emotionally with each one.  This includes recognizing rivals and friends, forming bonds with others, reciprocating favors, building coalitions, understanding your status and the social ranking of others, plotting to rise on the social order, and so forth.  So if a wolf pack  consists of ten wolves, and each wolf interacts with all the others with fifteen different emotions and gestures, then a first approximation is given by the product of the two,. or 150, so it would have Level II consciousness.

Level III Consciousness, our level of consciousness, involves simulating the future.  Dr.Kaku contends that humans are alone in the animal kingdom in understanding the concept of tomorrow.  “Human consciousness is a specific form of consciousness that creates a model of the world and then simulates it in time, by evaluating the past to simulate the future.  This requires mediating, and evaluating, many feedback loops in order to make a decision to achieve a goal.”

As the healthy memory blog contends, memory is a machine for time travel where we can travel back in time to travel forward and predict possible future outcomes.  In terms of species, plants are at level 0, reptiles are at level I, Mammals are at Level II, and humans at level III.  With respect to relevant parameters, temperature and sunshine are key for Level 0, space for level I, social relations for level II, and time (especially the future for level III.  The primary brain structure is none for level 0, the Brain stem for level I, the Limbic System for level II, and the Prefrontal cortex, for level III.

Dr.Kaku states that self-awareness involves crewing a model of the world and simulating the future in which you appear.

© 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.

Brain, Mind, Memory

November 22, 2015

These are three terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, but each has distinctive meanings.  The term brain certainly has the most prestige,  Someone who is known as a researcher of the brain has more prestige that someone who is known for studying the mind or memory.  The study of the brain, neuroscience, is regarded as hard science, whereas the study of either the mind or memory is regarded as soft science.

The adult brain weighs about three pounds, has the consistency of firm jelly, and has a wrinkled performance (deep valleys carving a puffy landscape).  There are an average of 86 billion neurons in the adult male brain.  These neurons are connected by about fifty trillion synapses.  Research is underway to map the brain.  The complete mapping of the brain would be an enormous achievement for anatomy.  But apart from anatomy, what would it tell us?  If we had a detailed understanding of how the brain worked, we would have important information, but we would not understand what the brain does.

The primary accomplishment of the brain is that it provides the physiological substrate of the mind.  We are aware of the conscious component of the mind, consciousness.  But most of the mind lies below the level of consciousness.   It is constantly working, even when we are asleep, although we remain unaware of what it is doing.  It is the mind that is of primary interest.  David Eagleman titled his book, “The Brain:  The Story of You.”  Eagleman is an neuroscientist and can title the book how he likes.  I am a psychologist and I would prefer “The Mind:  The Story of You.”  Of course, the brain is important as it constitutes the physiological substrate for the mind.

I believe that memory is thought of by most people as a place where information is stored.  Usually the complaint is that their memory is poor because they forget things.  Memory is central to the mind and to cognitive processing.  Remember that in the visual system there are ten times as many neural pathways going down from the brain as their are pathways proceeding up from the eyes.  Memory is involved in the processing of all incoming information.  This provides for the rapid processing of information, but it also leaves us vulnerable to our many biases and preconceptions.

Memory is involved in more than retrieval of information from the past.  It is a device for time travel where possible futures, dangers, and opportunities can be imagined.  Perception is never immediate.  Incoming data is first stored in a very short term store (hundreds of milliseconds in the iconic storage of visual memory), then a selective portion of this information is processed into working memory where it becomes consciousness.  Whether the information is stored so that it can be remembered is largely a function of how much and how effectively attention has been applied to the information.  Once stored, there is a distinction between memory that is available in memory, and information that is accessible in memory.  Information that is accessible is readily recalled.  Information that cannot be recalled is likely available in memory but cannot be accessed at a particular time.  The healthy memory blog post “The Myth of Cognitive Decline”  explains that the slowness of recall and the apparent loss of memory is primarily due to the enormous amount of information stored in the elderly brain.  There is much more to search through than in younger brains, so it is often slower and can appear to be faulty.  However, often when you fail to recall an item, your non-conscious memory continues to search for it, and it might pop into your consciousness a day later or even more.

It is more accurate to say that the mind recreates rather than recall memories.  Memories are not exact copies of prior experiences.  Moreover the act of recall improves the likelihood that the memory will be accessible in the future.  This is why when studying it is important to try to recall information rather than simply reviewing.  Testing provides the basis for improving memory.

So we cannot underestimate the importance of memory, and the healthy memory blog is devoted to keeping memories healthy.

© 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.

A Review of The Brain

November 12, 2015

The Brain is a book by David Eagleman.  The subtitle is “The Story of You.”  I gave the book 5 stars in my review on Amazon.  I wrote, “Anyone with a brain should read this book.  (Knowing) how the brain works is essential for the individual.  It also provides the basis for more effective government.”

The brain is the most important organ of the body (even though Woody Allen said it was his second favorite organ).  It informs us who we are.  Growing the brain provides us with additional knowledge and know how.  This much should be obvious.  However, when I see the problems we have, many of them are due to a lack of knowledge as to how our brain works.  That is what I meant by writing, “provides the basis for more effective government.

Eagleman writes, “Your brain is a relentless shapeshifter, constantly rewriting its own circuitry—and because your experiences are unique, so are the vast detailed patterns in your neural networks.  Because they continue to change your whole life, your identity is a moving target;  it never reaches an endpoint.  Eagleman explains how the brain develops and why the teen brain is set up to take risks.  Moving from childhood into adolescence, the brain shows an increasing response to rewards in areas related to pleasure seeking such as the nucleus accumbens.  In deems this activity is as high as in adults but activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, which is important  for executive decision making, attention, and simulating future experiences, is still about the same in teens as it is in children.  In fact, the prefrontal cortex, which is important for executive decisions, dos not mature until the mide-twenties, which provides adequate time for ruining our lives.  The brain continues to change physically as we learn new skills and information and memories themselves change each time they are summoned.  Memories are highly fallible and can be easily changed, which are facts not generally recognized by courts of law.

Eagleman includes a study of nuns who are willing to provide their brains for study after they die.  The nuns are tested while they are living and then autopsies are provided after they die.  They have found brains that are wracked by the defining neurofibril tangles and amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s, but these  nuns never exhibited any of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and remained mentally sharp until they died.  The nuns are not unique, other autopsies on other populations have resulted in similar findings.  The nuns interacted with each other, they had growth mindsets, and the meditated with prayer, presumably continuing to develop a cognitive reserve.  Yet Alzheimer’s research is focused on finding drugs to destroy or inhibit the growth of these physical symptoms as well as tests to detect the early development of these symptoms.  There are no drugs that can cure Alzheimer’s, and there are knowledgeable scientists who believe that there never will be such drugs (See the healthy memory blog post “The Myth of Alzheimer’s).  All that drugs can do is to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s.  In my view all this does is to prolong the suffering.

People need to understand that reality is an illusion.  True there is a real physical world, but we learn of this world via our senses, which are used to build up mental models.  Moreover, each of us has different views of this world, one that changes, or should change with experience and learning.  People who fail to understand this are naive realists, and one of the reasons for the problems of the world is the existence of these naive realists.  Eagleman explains how this learning takes place.   He notes that the brain is like a city.  When one looks at a city one sees buildings, roads, structures and so forth, but to find out where businesses are and how the city actually functions, it is due to interactions of different parts of the city.  The same is true of the brain.  It is a complicated structure that operates by intercommunicates among the different elements.  Most of these intercommunicates are unconscious, but some raise to he level of consciousness.

It is interesting to note that the visual system has some connections that feed forward and others that feed backwards.  What makes this interesting is that the ratio of connections feeding backward are ten times those of feeding forward.  This provides a strong indication how much we know bears on what we actually see.  Expectations weigh heavily on what we see.

Our brain is a storyteller.  It serves us narratives that bear on what we believe.  Ascertaining truth usually entails the critical thinking about different narratives.

We are unaware of the vast majority of the activity in our brains.  It remains below our level of consciousness, so one may well ask, who is in control.  A good way of thinking about this is to regard our consciousness as an executive office that makes important decisions.  There are some who believe that our conscious minds are only along for the ride, but I am not one of them (see the healthy memory blog post, “Free Will”).

The healthy memory blog argues that the memory is a device for time travel and Eagleman agrees.  It is a device that travels back to the past to plan for the future.  This involves generating scenarios for what might happen in the future.  The same parts of the brain that are involved in remembering are used in imaging alternative  futures.

Eagleman writes,”Although we typically feel independent, each of our brains operates in a rich web of interactions with one another—so much that we can plausibly look at the accomplishments of our species as the deeds of a single, shifting mega-organism.”  A subsequent healthy memory blog post will expound more on this topic.

The final chapter is titled “Who Will We Be?” and addresses the possibility of our transcending our biological selves.  This is an interesting chapter, but we might be constrained by our limited levels of attention.  We can only consciously attend to several items at once.  We become skilled or fluent via many hours of practice.  Can this bottleneck be transcended?  This question is key to the answer to the question of whether we can transcend our biological selves.

There is a PBS series based on this book, that I strongly recommend.  I recommend both reading the book at watching the series multiple times.  Understanding our brains is of paramount importance.

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

March 4, 2015

When I saw this title, I knew immediately that I had to read it.  Now that I have read it, I am certainly not disappointed.  This is one of the most interesting books I have read, and I have read many interesting books.  This book was written by Dr. Michio Kaku, a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York.  Dr. Kaku has a brilliant mind and has written a brilliant book.

In the lingo of the healthy memory blog, this book deals with transactive memory, how technology and other humans can enhance our minds.  I shall be basing some future posts on chapters from this book, but there is no way I can even begin to give it justice.  So I strongly recommend you reading the entire book on your own.  The book is divided into three books.  Book I is titled “The Mind and Consciousness,”  Book II, “Mind Over Matter,”  and Book  III  “Altered Consciousness.”

Consciousness is presented from a physicist’s viewpoint.  Even though I am a psychologist, I find much to like in this physicist’s viewpoint.  There definitely will be a future post on his viewpoint of consciousness.

Chapters in Book II are titled “Telepathy,”, “Telekinesis:  Mind Controlling Matter,” “Memories and Thoughts Made to Order,” and “Einstein’s Brain and Enhancing Our Intelligence.”  Do not be put off by some of these chapter titles.  They are not dealing with the supernatural.  Rather they are dealing with technology that achieves these ends.  Everything Dr. Kaku writes is based on and bounded by physics.

Chapter titles in Book III include “In Your Dreams,” “Can the Mind Be Controlled,” “Altered States of Consciousness,” “The Artificial Mind and Silicon Consciousness,” “Reverse Engineering the Brain,”  “ The Future:  Mind Beyond Matter,”  “The Mind is Pure Energy,” and “The Alien Mind.”  I’ve long been perplexed as to how Kurzweil plans to upload his mind to silicon to achieve the Singularity.  Dr. Kaku explains how this might be done, but it does not involve silicon.  Everything proposed in these chapters is based on sound theoretical physics.  As Dr. Kaku notes, the problems involve engineering, and the engineering tasks are quite formidable indeed.  I am especially appreciative of his ideas on the alien mind.  I’ve had my fill of unbelievable anthropomorphic aliens.

An appendix on Quantum Consciousness is also included.

My only complaint regards the failure of Dr. Kaku to note that there are corpses of individuals whose brains were filled with the tell tale amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles of Alzheimer’s, yet who never exhibited any of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s when they lived.  So it appears that, at best, the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for Alzheimer’s.

Memory, Attention, Consciousness

November 30, 2014

I’ve just begun reading The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin. I’ve already realized that I should have read this book some time ago, and it is already clear that I am going to recommend it. Usually I do not recommend books until I’ve completed reading them, but I am making an exception in this case. It is already clear that much of the advice will involve transactive memory. Before proceeding with advice providing posts, I feel compelled to write a post on memory, attention, and consciousness. These three topics are central to the healthymemory blog, and although Levitin does not necessarily provide new information, I think that his treatment of these topics deserve special consideration.

Here is how Levitin begins Chapter 2 on How Memory and Attention work, “We live in a world of illusions. We think we are aware of everything going around us. We look out and see an uninterrupted picture of the visual world, composed of thousands of little detailed images. We may know that each of us has a blind spot, but we go on blissfully unaware of where it actually is because our occipital cortex does such a good job of filling in the missing information and hence hiding it from us.

“We attend to objects in the environment partly based on our will (we choose to pay attention to some things), partly based on an alert system that monitors our world for danger, and partly based on our brain’s own vagaries. Our brains come preconfigured to create categories and classifications of things automatically and without our conscious intervention. When the systems we’re trying to set up are in collision with the way our brain automatically categorizes things, we end up losing things, missing appointments, or forgetting to do things we needed to do.”

Regular readers of the healthymemory blog should know that memory is not a passive storage system for data. Rather it is dynamic, guiding our perception, helping us to deal with the present and project into the future. Fundamentally it is a machine for time travel. It is not static, but constantly changing, with the sometimes unfortunate consequent in our being highly confident of faulty recollections. Memories are the product of assemblies of neurons firing. New information, learning, is the result of new cell assemblies being formed. Neurons are living cells that can connect to each other, and they can connect to each other in trillions of different ways. The number of possible brain states that each of us can have is so large that it exceeds the number of known particles in the universe. (I once asked a physicist how they computed this number of known particles and he told me. I would pass this on to you had I not forgotten his answer.)

Attention is critical as there is way too much information to process. So we need to select the information to which we want to attend. Sometimes this selection process itself demands.substantial attention. Moreover, switching attention requires attention, which only exacerbates attentional limitations when multitasking.

Consciousness has been explained as the conversation among these neurons. Levitin has offered the explanation that there are multiple different cell assemblies active at one time. Consciousness is the result of the selection of one of these cell assemblies. In other words, there are multiple trains of thought, and we must choose one of them to ride.

A critical question is how to employ our limited consciousness effectively. One way is the practice of mindfulness meditation to try to achieve a Zen-like focus of living in the moment. This can be accomplished through a regular meditation regimen. However, we should not neglect the short time application of this mindfulness. We need to apply this Zen-like focus when putting things down (your keys, important items), so you’ll remember where you put them. Also do not neglect uses of transactive memory and put notes in planners, on calendars, or in your electronic device so you’re sure you’ll be able to access them.

Did Our Capacity for Imaginative Thought Give Rise to Civilization?

November 19, 2014

 

An article in the New Scientist (20 September 2014), Daydream believers by Catherine Brahic motivated this blog post. This is not to say that I thought it is a good article as I strongly disagree with many of the arguments in the article. Nevertheless, it launched some thoughts that I feel compelled to express in this blog post.’

My first disagreement regards the concept of memory advanced by philosopher./psychologist Alison Gopnik. Certain researchers have a problem with the following, “If imagination is the ability to transcend our current circumstances and use our minds to travel through and space and beyond, then that includes everything from daydreaming of unicorns to visualizing an even last weekend and figuring out at two in the afternoon, how best to get to a social occasion across town that evening. The objection to this definition is that we are constantly using our imagination. Ms. Gopnik prefers to carve out a special niche for imagination and to regard memory as a storage space for data. Research has clearly indicated that memory is not a static storage space but is instead dynamic, constantly being recreated whenever we act upon it. The role of memory is to serve as a mechanism for time travel, to draw upon past experience and learning and to use that information to imagine different possibilities and the means of achieving those possibilities. Although we might typically think of imagination as allowing us to escape reality and to live in a fantasy world, it is basically the same mechanism that we use to plan for the future and to cope with reality. And, yes of course, this capacity provided the ability to build civilizations.

The article also hit on another one of my pet peeves. It contained arguments that imagination is a uniquely human capacity. I’ve come to believe that homo sapiens has an inferiority complex expressed in a need to distinguish itself from other animal species. Well we do know that all primate species dream. I might make the argument that imaginative thought involves similar processes to dreaming except it occurs when we are awake. Moreover, prominent neuroscientists have argued for consciousness in a wide range of species (see the healthymemory blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-human Animals.”) The following is from the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

The declaration concludes:

The absence of neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

To reiterate the answer to the question in the title of this post, “Yes.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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.

A Key Component Generating Conscious Experience?

October 29, 2014

The November/December 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind included an article by Christof Koch, who is a former collaborator with Francis Crick, who with James Watson won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure and the function of DNA. The title of the article is “A Brain Structure Looking for a Function.” The brain structure in question is the claustrum. The claustrum is a thin, irregular sheet of cells, tucked below the neocortex, which is the gray matter that allows us to see, hear, reason, think, and remember. It is surrounded on all sides by white matter, the tracts, or wire bundles, that interconnect cortical regions with one another and with other brain regions. There are two claustra one for each side of the brain. They lie below the general region of the insular cortex, underneath the temples, just above the ears. They have a long, thin wisp of a shape that can be easily overlooked when inspecting the topography of the brain region.

Advanced brain-imaging techniques have revealed white matter fibers coursing to and from the two claustra that it is a neural Grand Central Station. Almost every region of the cortex sends fibers to the claustra. These connections are reciprocated by other fibers that extend back from the claustra to the originating cortical regions. Although each claustrum receives inputs from both cortical hemispheres, but only project back to the overlying cortex on the same side.

Crick looked at these facts and believed that a reliable guide to understanding function, is to study structure. And he, working with Koch formulated the idea that the claustra are a key component of the networks generating conscious experience. This work turned out to be Crick’s Swan Song to science as he was suffering from end-stage colon cancer. He finished his paper with Koch before passing away,

“What is the Function of the Claustrum?, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Vol. 360, No.1458, pages 1271-1279.

Additional research supporting this contention of Crick and Koch is cited in the Koch piece in Scientific American Mind. Nevertheless it is always fascinating to speculate about conscious. It is the only product of the brain with which we have direct experience. Yet the brain is raging with activity 24 hours a day. There are many reasons to believe that we can use our conscious experience to improve our focus and ability to attend. We can also use it to control our emotions and it lets us take a third person look at our own interactions with other. Fundamentally, meditation and mindfulness is a matter of learning to control our conscious experience to advantage.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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.

Attention

March 22, 2014

My views regarding attention have changed somewhat after reading Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. But my views regarding the importance of attention have been further strengthened. According to Siegel, “Attention is the process that shapes the direction of the flow of energy and information. Attention can be within consciousness, so that we are aware of the object of our attention. Attention can also be nonconscious, in that energy and information flow is being directed, but we are not aware of that flow. The formal terms for these are focal (conscious) and nonfocal (non-conscious) attention.”

In other words, little important happens absent attention. What is new for me is the notion of nonfocal attention. I have always thought of attention as being consciousness or focal attention. However, upon reflection, I found examples of non-conscious attention. In this blog I have spoken of being unable to recall some information. I try and try, yet remain unable to access it. Then, much later, hours, sometimes days, the information suddenly pops into consciousness. There are also cases of scientific ideas and problem solutions popping into mind, seemingly out of nowhere.
But they did not pop out of nowhere. Apparently they were the result of nonfocal attention continuing to search for the item or solution long after the conscious mind had given up.

Being able to focus our attention so that we bring mental energy where it is needed is critical to the functioning of a healthy memory. And we have the consolation of knowing that our nonfocal attention might keep on working and learning even after our conscious efforts have ceased.

I’ll conclude this post with an excerpt from Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. “From an interpersonal neurobiology perspective, attention is the “scalpel” that helps us remold neural pathways: Attention is to a clinician or teacher what a scalpel is to a surgeon. Individuals can be empowered with focal attention to move the neural proclivities of trauma into new states of integrative firing. Children whose teachers capture their imagination and inspire them to pay attemtion will be able to learn and build a scaffold of knowledge about the world and themselves. Attention is the driving force of change and growth.”1

1Siegel, D.J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobioloty: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Some Words from Einstein Worth Pondering

December 24, 2013

I found the following in Mindsight by Daniel J. Siegel (p.255): “In 1959 Albert Einstein received a letter from a rabbi who had lost one of his two daughters to an accidental death. What wisdom could he offered, the rabbi asked to help his remaining daughter as she mourned her sister? Here is what Einstein replied:

A human being is part of a whole. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and foundation for inner security.”

Using or Abstaining from Technologies in Ways That are Restorative

October 20, 2013

The eighth principle of contemplative computing1 is using or abstaining from technologies in ways that are restorative. With the possible exception of flow, using technologies requires mental effort. Even in the case of flow, eventually we all tire. In other words, our conscious mental resources deplete and need time to be restored.

So we need to know how to restore our mind’s ability to focus. We can arrange our environments to make it easier to concentrate for longer periods. It is also important to find activities that offer a respite, but not a complete break from steady concentration. Things that offer a sense of being away with a mix of fascination and boundlessness can help our minds recharge. Complete breaks are also essential. Take time off to meditate. A good walk can help the mind recharge. Then, too, it is also necessary to know when it’s time to quit for the day (or night). Be assured that even when we give our conscious minds a break, our subconscious minds keep working. It is possible that our conscious minds can get caught in a rut thinking about the same things, and a complete break can facilitate our subconscious minds breaking through with the answer.

So, there we have it. The eight principles of contemplative computing: be human, be calm, be mindful, make conscious choices, extend our abilities, seek flow, engage with the world, and use or abstain from technologies in ways that are restorative.

1(2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction.

Consciousness and the Association for Psychology Science (APS) Keynote Address

June 19, 2013

I need to preface this blog post with an overview of the status of the concept of consciousness in psychological science. Today the prevalent view seems to be that consciousness is an epiphenomenon. That is, it is unneeded, because all our actions are determined before they enter consciousness. This flies in the face of common sense, because our “folk psychology” believes that our consciousness, our minds, determine what we do. Although there might be factors of which we are unaware, nevertheless we are in charge.

Obviously psychologists who practice “talk” therapy do not subscribe to this, but many academics in the more scientific areas of psychology do. The reader should also understand that for a large portion of the twentieth century behaviorism was the dominant methodology of experimental psychology, and behaviorism focused on behavior and speculation about thinking and the mind was prohibited. Although cognitive psychology emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century, it was still wary of speaking of a homunculus in the head, and the role of consciousness, if any, remained ill-defined.

Gazzaniga‘s Keynote Address was titled “Unity in a Modular World.” He was speaking of the brain consisting of modules performing different functions, and interacting and reorganizing themselves. It reminded me of Minsky’s “The Society of Mind,” except that Minsky was not writing about modules and Gazzaniga was certainly not talking about the mind. He gave examples of how these modules cued each other. He had videos of some of his split brain subjects. When told to do something with the hand controlled by the hemisphere that understood the instruction, the hand was able to do it. However, the hand controlled by the other hemisphere was not able to execute the function without looking at how the hand that had performed the function and then mimicking it. He also showed video of an orchestra performing without a conductor, the message being there is no one in control of our minds. This demonstration would have been more compelling if it were followed by a series of orchestras firing their conductors.

I found Gazzaniga’s address disappointing because someone of his stature could make a strong statement about consciousness, but he didn’t. I think scientific psychology is falling behind the times. Just last year the neurosciences made a statement that on the basis of the necessary brain structures, all mammals, birds, and octupi were conscious (See the healthymemory blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-Human Animals). A reasonable view is that consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges when the nervous system reaches a certain degree of complexity. That is, consciousness is an emergent phenomenon that has emerged with a purpose, to manage a highly complex nervous system.

Fortunately, there was a later presentation by Edwin Locke of the University of Maryland, “Whatever Happened to the Consciousness Mind.” For Locke, the existence and function of consciousness is an axiom that needs no proof. This is similar to Descarte‘s “I think, therefore I am.” But this implies Cartesian Dualism, which is out of favor in philosophy and psychology. This is unfortunate as it ignores both common sense and contradictory evidence. Meditation can have profound effects on the body. It can allow the regulation of the autonomic nervous system, a capability that I was taught didn’t exist as a graduate student in spite of the existence of meditators who were able to do control their autonomic nervous systems,

I think this shows the immaturity of academic psychology. This period is analogous to the imperious reign of behaviorism. But for cognitive psychology to advance it must embrace the concept of mind and how the mind can affect behavior.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

How Our Brain and Mind Work

May 5, 2013

Aristotle and his contemporaries believed that the mind resided in the heart. It was Hippocrates who argued that the brain is responsible for thought, sensation, emotion, and cognition. However, it took almost 2500 years for the next major advance. At the beginning of the 20th century the Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal identified the neuron as the building block of the brain. He identified different types of neurons and advanced the “connectionist” view that it was the connections and communications among the neurons that characterized the activities of the brain.

There are four basic types of neurons. Sensory neurons transmit signals from the brain to the rest of the body. Motor neurons send signals to parts of the body to direct movement, such as muscles. Interneurons provide connections between other neurons, Pyramidal neurons are involved in many areas of cognition.

The connectionist network is amazing. There are about 100 billion neurons in our brains. Each has about 1000 synapses connecting with other neurons. So there are about 100 trillion interconnections in our brain. Our brains are remarkably flexible. This plasticity is due to a special class of neurotransmitter that serve as “neuromodulators.” These neuromodulators “…alter the amount of other neurotransmitters released at the synapse and the degree to which the neurons respond to incoming signals. Some of these changes help to fine tune brain activity in response to immediate events, while others rewire the brain in the long term, which is thought to explain how memories are stored.

Many neuromodulators act on just a few neurons, but some can penetrate through large swathes of brain tissue creating sweeping changes. Nitric oxide, for example, is so small (the 10th smallest molecule in the known universe, in fact) that it can easily spread away from the neuron at its source. It alters receptive neurons by changing the amount of neurotransmitter released by each nerve impulse, kicking off the changes that are necessary for memory formulation in the hippocampus.”1

Much of this brain activity takes place outside our conscious awareness. According to Kahneman’s Two Process View of Human Cognition, there are two basic systems for processing information. information in a dynamic environment. 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. Learning is associative and slow. For something to become a System 1 process requires much repetition and practice. Activities such as walking, driving, and conversation are primarily System 1 processes. They occur rapidly and with little apparent effort. We would not have survived if we could not do these types of processes rapidly. But this speed of processing is purchased at a cost, the possibility of errors, biases, and illusions. Without System 1, we would not have survived as a species. But this fast processing speed has its costs, which sometimes lead to errors.

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. If you know your multiplication tables, if I ask you what is 6 time 7, you’ll respond 42 without really thinking about it. But if I ask you to multiply 67 times 42 you would find it difficult to compute in your head, and would most likely use a calculator or use paper and pencil (which are examples of transactive memory). This multiplication requires System 2 processing without, or most likely with, technological aids.

System 1 requires little or no effort. System 2 requires effort. It is not only faster, but also less demanding to rely on System 1 processes. Consider the following question.

A bat and a ball cost $1.10

The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

The number that quickly comes to mind is 10 cents. But if you take the time and exert the mental effort you will note that the cost would be $1.20 (10 cents for the ball and $1.10 for the bat). If you do the math, which takes a little algebra, you will find that the ball costs 5 cents (the bat costing a $1.00 more than the ball would be $1.05 and $1.05 and $0.05 is $1.10). System 2 must be engaged to get the correct answer. This question has been asked of several thousand college students. More that 50% of the students at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the wrong, System 1, answer. At less selective universities more than 80% of the students gave the wrong answer. Good students tend to be suspicious of a question that is too easy!

So what happens to the brain as we age? The psychologist Dr. Stine-Morrow has an interesting hypothesis about cognitive aging.2 She argues that choice in how cognitive effort, attention, is allocated may be an essential determinant of cognitive change over the life span.  So relying too much on our System 1 processes could increase our risk of suffering dementia. New experiences and new learning call upon our System 2 processes as do any problems that require active thinking. The neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques that define Alzheimer’s Disease have been found in both living and dead individuals who never showed any symptoms of the disease. They evidenced no cognitive impairment. The notion is that they had built a cognitive reserve that protected them from the disease.

So what might this cognitive reserve be? It is reasonable to believe that it consisted of rich interconnections in the brains of these individuals. The brain is remarkably plastic, so even when the plaques and tangles were present, apparently the interconnections were rerouted around them.

So how can someone build up this cognitive reserve? Lifelong learning, continuing to learn throughout one’s lifetime is key. Challenging the mind with tasks that require attention is important. It is also important to revisit those old memory circuits laid down years ago. Trying to remember all acquaintances and events can reactivate those circuits. Sometimes it will be difficult to recall these memories. Nevertheless, your unconscious mind will continue searching after your conscious mind has given up. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere it will just pop into your mind. Trivia games and games such as Jeopardy can be fun and potentially beneficial to a healthy memory. Reminiscing can also be beneficial provided the reminiscing is not always about the same old memories.

The healthymemory blog is devoted to building a cognitive reserve. The Mnemonic Techniques Category provides blog on mnemonic techniques that not only improve memory, but also provide cognitive exercise. Blog posts on meditation and mindfulness can also be found here. The Transactive Memory Category provided information on how technology and your fellow humans can foster memory health. The Human Memory: Theory and Data includes posts on memory and related topics bearing on a healthy memory.

1O’Shea, M. (2013). The Human Brain. New Scientist Instant Expert 31.

2Stine-Morrow, A. L. (2008).  The Dumbledore Hypothesis of Cognitive Aging.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 295-299.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Consciousness in Both Human and Non-Human Animals

September 5, 2012

When I was a graduate student being accused of anthropomorphism was a condemning indictment. If I said that it was clear to me that my dog clearly had consciousness I would have been accused of projecting my human attributes on the dog, something that an objective scientist would never do. It struck me that if I imposed the same standards for consciousness on my fellow humans as I was supposed to impose on non-humans, I would not have been able to conclude that my fellow humans were conscious! Fortunately, as a result of advances in neuroscience and imaging techniques that view has changed. The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness has been published

http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

It begins as follows:

On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

The declaration concludes:

The absence of neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

I have long thought that dogs were man’s best friend, rather than men being man’s best friend, because dogs had the neurological substrates for love and loyalty, but were lacking a neocortex that allowed for rationalization and deviousness. So I find the conclusions of these distinguished scientists reassuring. I also feel good about my friends who had parrots, who had similar convictions. And I was glad to see that octupuses were included as what I have read about their behaviors indicates that they are highly intelligent and have consciousness.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. 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 Need for Consciousness

August 1, 2012

The preceding blog post, “VENs: The Key to Consciousness” ended with a promise to provide evidence that consciousness is not epiphenomenal, that it serves a real purpose. Unfortunately, reductionists like to conclude that whenever a neural basis is found the phenomenon is understood. This post is timely as the Olympics provide a good justification for the reality of consciousness. The theme of the importance of the mind will emerge as being essential to success. Athletes need to remain cool, calm, collected, and focused. Focus is very important. Getting into the right state of mind, “the zone,” is regarded to be of utmost importance.

Neurofeedback is employed by some athletes.1 This involves placing electrodes on a person’s head to measure their brain’s electrical activity. The information is displayed on a computer screen while the individual watches it in real time and learns through practice how to control it. The objective is to get the brain into a state associated with improved attention, focus and aim. Surgeons who have used neurofeedback had improved control over their movement and performed more efficiently in the operating theater.

Meditation is another technique where consciousness is used to improve behavior. There are many healthymemory blog posts on meditation (simply use the search box to find them). You will find different meditation techniques to achieve different aims. Improving focus is the objective of many techniques. Through meditation, the autonomic nervous system can be controlled. At one time this was thought to be impossible by some psychologists and neuroscientists.

Even dreaming can be done to achieve desirable benefits. Victor Spoormaker of the Max Plank Instutute of Psychiatry has developed techniques to eliminate nightmares through lucid dreaming (See the healthymemory blog post, “Lucid Dreams). Lucid dreaming refers to a state between wake and sleep where becomes aware that they are dreaming while they are still in the dreaming. Spoormaker says that you can become lucid in a nightmare and and change it any way you wish. He cured himself of recurring nightmares using this technique.

In a study conducted in the 1970s, 12 American gymnasts who hoped to make the Olympic team were asked how frequently they dreamed about gymnastics and about the nature of their dreams. The six who qualified said that they had had more dreams about success beforehand.

Another study found that lucid dreamers who were able to dream about tossing a coin into a cup had better aim the following day compared against those who don’t train in their dreams.
800 German athletes were asked about their dreaming habits. Twenty percent said that they were frequent lucid dreamers, and those who used it to practice said it helped their performance.

So consciousness is not epiphenomenal. It is very real. Use it and make it work for you.

1Hamzelou, J. (2012). Olympic Extremes. New Scientist, 21 July, 44-49.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. 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.

VENs: the Key to Consciousness?

July 28, 2012

VENs stands for Von Economo Neurons. Constantin von Economo was the neuroscientist who discovered these neurons.1 VENs are quite distinctive in appearance. They are at least 50 per cent and sometimes up to 200 percent larger that typical neurons. They have a long spindly cell body with a single projection at each end and very few branches. They are quite rare. They make up just about one per cent of the neurons in two small areas of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex. The ACC and FI are heavily involved in many of the more advanced aspects of cognition and feeling. They make up a social monitoring network that keeps track of social cues so that we can react appropriately.

The ACC and FI keep a subconscious tally of what is going on around us and direct attention to the most important events as well as monitoring sensations from the body to detect any changes. Both these brain regions are active when we recognize our reflection in a mirror. This suggests that these parts of the brain underlie our sense of self. It is a key component of consciousness providing a sense of self identify and a sense of the identity of others. They provide the sense of how we feel.

The notion is that VENs provide a fast relay system, a kind of social superhighway that allows the gist of a situation to move quickly through the brain, enabling us to react intuitively. This is a crucial survival skill in social species such as our own. VENs are also found in social mammals.

People with fronto-temporal dementia lose large numbers of VENs in the ACC and FI early in the disease. The main symptom of the diseases is a complete loss of social awareness, empathy, and self-control.

According to one study2 people with autism fall into two groups. One group consists of those who have too few VENs, so they might not have the necessary wiring to process social cues. The other group consists of those who have far too many VENs. Having too many VENS might make emotional systems fire intensely, causing people with autism to feel overwhelmed.

Another study3 found that people with schizophrenia who committed suicide had significantly more VENs in their ACC than schizophrenics who died of other causes, The notion is that the over-abundance of VENs might create an overactive emotional system that leaves them prone to negative self-assessment and feelings of guilt and hopelessness.

Bud Craig, a neuroanatomist at Barrow Neurological Institute has pointed out that the bigger the brain, the more energy it takes to run, so it is crucial that it operates as efficiently as possible. He said, “Evolution produced an energy calculation system that incorporated not just the sensory inputs from the brain. And the fact that we are constantly updating this picture of “how I feel now” has an interesting and very useful by-product: we have a concept that there is an “I” to do the feeling. Evolution produced a very efficient moment-by-moment calculation of energy utilization that had an epiphenomenon, a by-product that provided a subjective representation of my feelings.”4

The author of the New Scientist article concludes “If he’s right—and there is a long way to go before we can be sure—it raises a very humbling possibility: that far from being the pinnacle of brain evolution, consciousness might been a big, and very successful accident.”5

Although I am excited by the possibility that the neurological basis of consciousness has been found, I am disturbed by their reductionist conclusions. Most of us assume that there is a neural basis for consciousness. But the finding of this neural basis does not prove that consciousness is an epiphenomenon (not real). The next post will provide evidence regard the reality and purpose of consciousness.

1Williams, C. (2012). The Conscious Connection. New Scientist, 21 July, 33-35.

3PloS One, vol 6, pe20936).

4Op cit.p. 35

5Ibid.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. 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.

Brain Conversations

November 6, 2011

For most lay people, consciousness is psychology. It is how we deal with the world. These people would be surprised to learn that for many psychologists and philosophers, consciousness is an epiphenomenon, meaning that it is not real. They would argue that we do experience consciousness but that it is a byproduct of cognitive processes that have already occurred at an unconscious level. In other words, consciousness is just along for the ride. Articles1 in a recent Scientific American Mind present this view.

Although it is true that the vast majority of cognitive processing does occur below the level of consciousness, does that mean that consciousness is irrelevant? The purpose of consciousness has been and continues to be a hotly discussed topic. Baumeister has provided perhaps the most compelling explanations of the purpose of consciousness. He argues that conscious thought is for internal processing that facilitates downstream interaction with the social and cultural environment. Consciousness enables the construction of meaningful, sequential thought. These constructions are found in sentences and narratives, logical reasoning, quantification, causal understanding, and narratives. In short, it accounts for intellectual and social life. It is used for the simulation of events. (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Conscious Thought”)

An article2 written for a different purpose provides support for Baumeister’s ideas. This article dealt with awareness. This topic is important in the context of trying to diagnose patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state. Misdiagnosis rates here can be as high as 40 percent. A neural correlate for consciousness is much needed. For many years theorists thought that the prefrontal cortex was key and that neural thoughts that reached this area emerged from unconscious obscurity into awareness. However, new research supports the notion that consciousness is a conversation rather than a revelation, and that no single brain structure leads the dialogue.

The neuroscientist Simon van Gaal conducts experiments in which he asks participants to push a button every time they see a certain symbol flash on a screen, except when they see a different symbol that means “stop.” On some trials the stop signal is presented below the level of conscious awareness. Although participants do not see the stop signal, they do hesitate to push the button as though some part of the brain perceived the information. Brain activity is recorded during the experiment via functional MRI and electroencephalography (EEG). The unconsciousness inhibitory signal seems to make it all the way up to parts of the prefrontal cortex despite the participants not being consciously aware of the signal.

Another study supports the claim that awareness emerges when information travels back and forth between brain areas rather than from an ascending linear chain. EEG signals were recorded in patients with brain damage as they listened to stimulating tones. All the patients were awake and alert but exhibited different levels of responsiveness. Mathematical models derived from the data suggest that feedback between the frontal cortex and lower-level sensory areas are crucial to producing conscious awareness. Similar results have been obtained with monkeys and healthy human participants.

Although these studies do not prove Baumeister’s notions regarding the role of consciousness, they do seem to provide supportive evidence.

1Nichols, S. (2011). Is Free Will an Illusion? Scientific American Mind, November/December, 18-19.

and

Koch, C. (2011). Probing the Unconscious Mind, Scientific American Mind, November/December,, 20-21.

2Peck, M.E. (2011). A Conversation in the Brain. Scientific American Mind, November/December, 12.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. 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.

Explicit and Implicit Memory

October 5, 2011

When we normally think of memory, we are thinking of explicit memory. Memory techniques and most of the posts on memory in this blog are concerned with explicit memory. Implicit memory refers to memory that occurs without your consciousness awareness. Implicit memory covers a wide range of activities. Classical conditioning, habit learning, emotional memory, procedural and motor memory typically are implicit. So implicit memory involves both maladaptive behaviors, such as bad habits and addiction, but it is also involved in the development of optimal strategies in skill acquisition. Implicit learning could also be helpful for amnesiacs and Alzheimer’s patients.1

Theorists have wondered why we have two types of memory. Although theorists wonder about this, it is nice to have a type of memory that requires little or no consciousness. Although consciousness might not be required, trials or repetitions are required. For example, classical conditioning in which a conditioned stimulus, say a bell, is paired with an unconditioned stimulus, say food, before the sound of the bell alone will cause you, or a dog, to salivate. Similarly habits take repetitions to develop, and procedural and motor skills can take a great deal of practice to perfect. On the other hand, emotions, depending on the strength of the emotion, can be learned quite rapidly.

I think it is obvious why we have explicit memory. Explicit memory involves consciousness. Had we only implicit memory we would be acting like Zombies, behaving and learning with little or no understanding as to why. So it is understandable that most educational practices and most of the Healthymemory Blog posts involve explicit memory. But we should be thankful for these implicit memory processes. Consider how burdensome it would be if all memories were explicit.

We do need to learn more about implicit memory. Much athletic and artistic performance is a matter of practicing to the point where skills become automatic. Usually performance falters when the performer or athlete starts to think about what they are doing. Implicit memory also offers a path into the memories of those for whom explicit memory has been lost such as Alzheimer’s patients and other suffering from traumas to the medial temporal lobes.

1Much of this blog post is taken from an article by David W.L. Wu. Implicit Memory: How It Works and Why We Need It. The Joournal of Young Investigators, Vol. 22, Issue, 1, July 2011.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. 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.

Conscious Thought

August 14, 2011

The topic of consciousness has been addressed in a number of Healthymemory Blog Posts (“Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind,” “We Are the Law: Free Will, The Human Mind, and the Limits of Determinism,” “Consciousness and the Grandmother Cell,” “Fluid Intelligence and Working Memory,” “What is Incubation,” “How Do We See,” “Brain, Mind, and Body,” “What is Consciousness,”, and “Attention”) because it is an important topic. For most lay people, consciousness is psychology. It is how we deal with the world on a daily, and nightly, basis. It is a tad ironic, that for many academic psychologists consciousness is an epiphenomenon that we view in our minds, and that most, if not all, behavior and thought occur below the level of consciousness. So consciousness is viewed by some as a movie we see in our head as we proceed through our life. The believe it has no real function.

Consequently, it was refreshing to hear the presentation by Ray F. Baumeister at this year’s annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) titled the “What, Why, and How of Consciousness.”1 Most theories that contend that consciousness is epiphenomenal focus on input and or output processes. Baumgartner does not address these theories as for him the role of consciousness is central to what occurs between input and output processes. He argues that conscious thought is for internal processing that facilitates downstream interaction with the social and cultural environment. Consciousness enables the construction of meaningful, sequential thought. These constructions are found in sentences and narratives, logical reasoning, quantification, causal understanding, and narratives. In short, it accounts for intellectual and social life. It is used for the simulation of events.

It is estimated that people focus an average of 30% to 40% of their thoughts on concerns that are unrelated to their present behavior. Some people’s minds wander from the here and now more than 90% of the time. Even when tied to present behavior, conscious thoughts are often used for to recall similar behaviors from the past, anticipating the consequences of present behaviors, or considering alternative courses of action.

Baumeister contends that thought sequences resemble film clips that the brain makes for itself, allowing different parts of the brain and mind to share information. The production of conscious thought is linked to the production of speech, because the human mind evolved to facilitate social communication and information sharing. This led to culture and the adaptive success of humankind as the social species.

1Although it might be difficult obtaining this address, much of its content and the citations found in this blog post can be found in “Conscious Thought Is For Faciliting Social and ‘Cultural Interactions: How Mental Simulations Serve the Animal-Cultural Interface” by Roy F. Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo in the Psychological Review, (2010), 117. 945-971.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. 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.

Consciousness and the Grandmother Cell

February 27, 2011

The notion of a grandmother cell is that there are specific neurons that represent a specific concept of object, such as your grandmother. Initially this concept was not generally accepted. The primary criticism was that too many cells would be needed to identify each individual face because each orientation, expression, and lighting on the face would be different. Moreover, the appearance of the face would change over time.

However, recent research summarized in a Scientific American Mind article1, not only resurrects the notion of the grandmother cell, but also relates it to the phenomenon of consciousness. This research involves placing electrodes in the brain to measure electrical activity. This procedure is so invasive that it is only justified for medical diagnosis and treatment. Neurons in the medial temporal lobe are the source of many epileptic seizures. This region includes the hippocampus and turns visual and other sensory percepts into memories. Although most neurons respond to categories of objects, a few of the neurons were much more discriminating. One hippocampal neuron responded only to photos of Jennifer Aniston, and not to pictures of other actresses. Moreover, the cell responded to seven different pictures of Jennifer Aniston. They also found cells that responded to images of Mother Theresa, to cute little animals, and to the Pythagorean theorem.

Further research, by a highly creative and painstaking research team, developed a technique for making concepts visible. They took a volunteer patient and recorded from a neuron that responded to images of the actor Josh Brolin (who was in her favorite movie) and to another neuron that fired in response to the scene of Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grill. The patient looked at a monitor where these two images were superimposed. The activity of the two cells controlled the extent to which she saw Brolin or Monroe in the hybrid image. When the patient focused her thoughts on Brolin, the neuron associated with Brolin fired more strongly. Similarly when the patient focused her thoughts on Monroe, the neuron associated with Monroe fired more strongly. Feedback was arranged such that the more one cell fired relative to the other, the more visible that image became as the competing image faded. The image on the screen kept changing until only Brolin or only Monroe remained on the screen. The patient loved it and felt that she was controlling what she saw, which she was.

We know that we can control what we are thinking about and that corresponding neurons and neural circuits respond. But this is, as far as I know, the first demonstration of this phenomenon. By using and controlling the appropriate memory circuits we are able to build and maintain our minds.

1Koch, C. (2011). Being John Malkovich. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 18-19. 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. 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.

How Do We See?

October 3, 2010

The study of visual perception is difficult because it happens so fast. Somehow light comes into our eyes, makes contact with our memory and, lo and behold, we see a meaningful scene. A recent article1 in the New Scientist provides an overview of how this occurs, or, at least,with out current state of knowledge how we think this occurs.

Since perception happens so quickly, agnosias, specific disorders, can be quite informative. The previous blog post explored Propagnosia. Other types of agnosias include:

Simultanagnosia – seeing one object at a time when viewing a scene comprised of many items.

Integrative agnosia – Inability to recognize whole objects, tending instead to focus on individual features of an object.

Visual form agnosia – Inability to describe the shape, size, or orientation of objects, but still being able to manipulate them.

Optic ataxia – Ability to report the shape and size of an object, though manipulating the object clumsily.

Pure alexia (aka agnosia for words) – inability to identify individual characters or even text, although sometimes being able to write.

Topographical agnosia – Inability to recognize known landmarks or scenes.

Color agnosia – Ability to perceive colors without being able to identify, name, or group them according to similarity.

Research using brain scans can be quite useful in identifying the specific areas in the brain that accomplish these functions. Brain scans have revealed that people with visual form agnosia tend to have damage to the ventral (lower) part of the brain’s visual area. However, people with optic ataxia tend to have damage to the dorsal (upper part) of the brain’s visual area. So it appears that we have two streams of visual processing. The ventral pathway recognizes the object, while the dorsal pathway determines where that object is located in the visual field.

Some neuroscientists think that the brain binds all the different features of the ventral stream to a “master map of location”, which is held in the dorsal stream. They believe that this binding process is so fundamental that this link needs to be formed before an image can pop into consciousness.

So our perceptual system seems to be highly modular with many different modules contributing to conscious experience. All this activity occurs below the level of consciousness to yield the conscious world we do experience.

1Robeson, D. (2010). Seeing Isn’t Believing. New Scientist, 28 August, 30-33.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. 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.

Consciousness

September 1, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain in the past, consciousness was regarded as a mystery. Today, consciousness is regarded as a mystery. And in the future, consciousness will still be regarded as a mystery. I strongly agree with the assessment and with the prediction. The most that can be said about consciousness is that it is an emergent phenomenon. That is, it is a byproduct that emerges from the complex operations of our brain. But this is not an explanation. All it says it that it just happens.

There is also the question as to what is the role of consciousness. Some would argue that consciousness is epiphenomenal, that it does not play a causal role, that causation occurs below the level of consciousness, and that we are just along for the ride. Although one can make this argument, it does not provide a pragmatic view. If you live your life simply taking what comes along and not playing an active role, the results will likely be disappointing. To the extent possible, you want to use your consciousness to some end, to achieve outcomes that are desirable.

We know that effective learning requires conscious attention. Although there are accounts of scientific discoveries apparently occurring out of thin air when the individual was sleeping or musing about something else, it has always been the case that the scientist had spent countless hours working on the problem previously. I’m sure there are similar accounts in other cognitive endeavors. I frequently have the experience of after having failed to remember an item, that I will recall it at some later time when I was not thinking of it. However, in all cases I had spent considerable conscious effort trying to recall the item earlier. Presumably my unconscious mind continued to try to recall the information after I abandoned my consciousness effort. Nevertheless, it was the previous conscious activity that apparently initiated this unconscious effort.

Predictions have been made that in the future we shall be able to download information directly from computers and the internet into our brains. First of all, before this information could be transformed into a format usable by our brains, enormous advances would need to be made in brain science. But suppose this problem is solved, what would that mean? Unfortunately I purchase many publications that I never get around to reading. In the lingo of the Healthymemory Blog, this is information in potential transactive memory that I have made available. What is the difference between this and information that might be downloaded directly into my brain. I need to read the material consciously before I can understand the information and relate it to other information I have processed.

So the big question for the future is whether consciousness can be expanded. Can we learn how to expand our short term and working memory capacity? To do so, we need to have a thorough understanding of consciousness. And the prospects for such an understanding developing are dim.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.

 © Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. 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.

Brain, Mind, and Body

August 7, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. This blog also draws upon a recent book published by National Geographic,2 which will be reviewed in a subsequent post.

According to The Scientific American Brave New Brain, brain, mind, and body are separate. Now this was true quite some time ago. According to the National Geographic book, the ancient Egyptians thought the brain to be worthless, thinking that the heart contained the soul and the mind. Although there seemed to be some dispute regarding this among the ancient Greeks, Hippocrates wrote that “The eyes and ears and tongue and hands and feet do whatsoever the brain determines. It is the brain that is the messenger to the understanding [and] the brain that interprets the understanding.” So it was fairly long ago that it was believed that the brain and the body were linked.

Apparently, it was not until Descartes came along that the mind was addressed. His famous cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, made the mind central. External reality was not known directly but rather was interpreted in the mind. Good science, as well as successful negotiations with and in the environment are dependent upon our internal reality being in some correspondence with external reality. There still is some question as to what is meant by mind. Is it consciousness? What role does it play. Some might contend that consciousness is epiphenomenal, that it is like a movie playing in our head for our own entertainment. They would argue that the brain determines our decisions and behavior and that consciousness has no role. This is a rather extreme view that will be addressed in later posts. Brave New Brain contends that the current belief that brain, mind and body are intertwined and inseparable. That, indeed, is the current consensus.

Brave New Brain offers the conjecture that tomorrow brain, mind, and body are enhanced by machines and computers. Here a little thought might give rise to the question, “are not our brains and bodies already enhanced by machines and computers?” There are already seemingly countless machines aiding our bodies, and computers aiding our minds seem to be omnipresent. I believe that Brave New Brain is offering the conjecture of sci-fi type interventions of machines and computers along the lines of Kurzweil’s singularity.3 Kurzweil believes that in the near future technology will advance to the point where silicon chips will replace neurons, that we shall transcend biology and become effectively immortal. Kurzweil himself has change his lifestyle and diet to extend his life to the point where technology will be ready to take over before he dies.

It should be noted that an enormous leap is involved here. We have the conscious experience of our own senses and minds. And we can look at electronic recordings of our minds and senses and view brain images of our mind and senses. Nevertheless, we have no understanding of how this occurs other than to say our consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Whether consciousness will emerge from silicon is a very large question indeed.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.

2Sweeney, M.S. (2010). Brain The Complete Mind: How It Develops, How It Works, and How to Keep It Sharp.

3Kurzweil, R. (2006). The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. 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.

What is Consciousness?

April 24, 2010

On one level this might seem like a stupid question1. Of course, you might say, we experience consciousness most of the time when we are awake and even some of the time when we are asleep. Although this is true, the nature and role of consciousness are matters of intense debate within psychology and philosophy with little prospect of being resolved soon. That is why it is so refreshing that recent theory and data in neuroscience are offering some insight into how consciousness is manifest in the brain.

It is called the global workspace theory and was first presented by Bernard Baars of the Neuroscience Institute in San Diego, California. According to this theory, non-conscious experiences are processed locally within separate regions of the brain. We only become conscious of this information if these signals are broadcast to assembly of neurons distributed across many different regions of the brain—the global workspace, which then reverberates in a flash of coordinated activity. This coordinated activity produces a mental interpretation of the world that has integrated all the senses into a single picture. This is obviously related to the previous blog post “The Two System View of Cognition.” The two systems are System 1, Intuition, and System 2, Reasoning. System 1 processes information every quickly below the level of consciousness. When a visual event occurs it would be processed locally in the visual cortex. For the even to become conscious it would need to be broadcast to an assembly of neurons distributed across many regions of the brain. This produces consciousness and is a limited System 2 Process. We are extremely limited in the amount of information to which we can attend. Apparently this is due to this activation of large areas of the brain. When we driving most of the activation is local and occurs below the level of awareness. A slowing or stopping vehicle ahead of us can lead to this wider broadcast to many regions of the brain. We then become conscious of the need to slow down or stop and act accordingly.

This neural activity has been documented in brain imaging studies (See the blog post, “How Can the Brain Be Imaged?”).

Conflicting pieces of information are filtered out. This is an important feature as our attentional resources are quite limited. We cannot perceive two perceptions at once. This is evident in such ambiguous visual illusions as the Necker Cube, which changes in depth, the profile/vase illusions, in which you see either two human profiles or a vase, and the My Wife and My Mother-in-Law illusion, in which the two perceptions are of a beautiful young lady with her head turned away, or the profile of a very old woman. Although we can rapidly alternate between the two percepts, they cannot be perceived simultaneously. They also do experiments in which different images are projected to each eye. Rather than merge the two percepts, only one percept can be perceived at a time.

1This post is based largely on an article by Anil Ananthaswamy. (2010). Brain Chat. New Scientist, 20 March, 38-41.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. 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.