Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Dennet’

Suggestible You

March 17, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.  One of HM’s pet peeves is the expression,”It’s just a placebo response.”  For HM, the placebo response is the most interesting effect in medicine.

Artificial intelligence pioneer Daniel Dennet has written.  “A mind is fundamentally an anticipator, an expectation-generator.”  Expectation is a system of shortcuts our brains have developed to get through the day.  Otherwise we would be stopping every few seconds to figure things out.  Consequently if what you anticipate is negative your mind will make things look (or feel) worse than they actually are.  However, if you expect the best some amazing things can happen in your body.  Somewhere between this expectation and reality lies the mind’s power to heal itself.  Erik Vance writes, “Our uncanny ability to deceive ourselves has startling implications for our health and well-being… Everyone’s door to expectation has a different key, and everyone is susceptible in a slightly different way.  But once that door is unlocked we have access to an amazing power to heal ourselves.”

Placebo comes from the Latin for “I shall please,” and traditionally refers to anything inert that has an effect on a patient.  Vance writes, “…usually lasting less than a day but sometimes longer:  a sugar pill, a saline injection, or sham surgery, often mixed with a little smoke and mirrors.  In other words, nothing.  But in the world of expectation, sometimes nothing is more powerful than something—if it’s wrapped in the right packaging.”

Vance writes that this packaging is different for everybody.  What allows a placebo to work is a topic of continuing research, the most recent of which is presented in his book.    It involves psychology, chemistry, and genetics, aided by the power of storytelling.  The manner in which the placebo is presented is important, which does not necessarily involve deception.  Placebos can be effective even when the recipient knows that it is a placebo.

Vance writes of the importance of theater or how the placebo is presented and to individual differences.  For example, depression patients respond better to yellow placebo pills than to blue ones.  Bigger ones work better than smaller ones, but only to a certain point.  Bear this in mind should you purchase placebo pills on Amazon, and there is a wide variety of placebos available on Amazon.  Fake injections work better than fake pills.  Vance goes on to note that “if you’re French, suppositories work better than either.  Take a quiet moment to ponder the significance of that.”

Placebos are a very complex topic, so a series of posts will be required, which shall follow immediately.

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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.