Posts Tagged ‘Neuroscience’

A Painful Reminder for Donald Trump of Why Torture is Pointless

February 9, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a Comment piece in the 4 February 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  This article begins ,”PRESIDENT Donald Trump says his nation should ‘fight fire with fire’ by using torture on terror suspects, insisting it works.”  The article ends, “The lesson for Trump is simple:  fighting fire with fire burns down the neighborhood.”

The purpose of torture, is similar to the purpose of much of science, to get reliable, replicable and verifiable information.  Professional interrogators say torture is the worst possible method for this.  Torture fails utterly as a means of getting at the truth, even more so compared with non-coercive investigative methods.  To be sure, torture gets the victim to respond, but why should the response be related to the truth?  In fact, the victim might not have the desired information, but if tortured enough, there will be a response.

Neuroscience agrees with the professional interrogators.  Imposing extremes of pain, anxiety, hunger, sleep deprivation and the threat of drowning does not enhance interrogation.  It degrades it.  This should not be surprising.  Behind the wheel of a car, even mild states of sleep deprivation are as risky as being drunk.  Reactions are slowed, judgement is impaired, and recollection is damaged.  The torturer hopes that enough residual function is unaffected so that intelligence can be gathered. However, the result is that people say whatever is needed to make the torture stop.

The article asks, what’s the alternative?  It is to talk because humans like to talk.  It is estimated that 40% of what we say to other people consists of self-disclosure.  Brain imaging shows that during self-disclosure, the brain’s reward system is activated.  We like talking about ourselves.

The legendary German interrogator Hanns-Joachim Scarf debriefed more than 500 allied airmen during the second world war.  He never used coercion, but cross-checked information carefully.  He never asked a direct question and never indicated any interest in any answer he received.  He was adept at taking the pilots’ perspective and actively listening.  The article notes, “these skills can be learned and are not so different from the skills of a highly trained doctor.

Syndrome E

November 27, 2015

In the recent healthymemory blog post, “A Single Shifting Mega-Organism,” Syndrome E (E stands for evil) was briefly discussed.  Syndrome E was developed to describe the atrocities, mass-killings, genocides such as the holocaust and the killings by ISIS.  The neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried describes these atrocities as examples of Syndrome E.   He defined the following seven symptoms of Syndrome E:

Compulsive repetitive violence
Obsessive beliefs
Rapid desensitisation to violence
Flat emotional state
Separation of violence from everyday activities
Obedience to an authority
Perceiving group members as virtuous

Having decided that neuroscience has come a long way since his original paper in 1997 (Syndrome E in The Lancet, Volume 150, No. 9094, p1845-1847) Fried  organized a conference in Paris earlier this year to revisit the concept.  Highlights of this conference were published in the New Scientist, November 14-20, 2015 in a feature by Laura Spinney.

Fried’s theory starts with the assumption that people normally have an aversion to harming others.  If this is correct, the higher brain overrides this instinct in people with Syndrome E.  So how might this occur.

The lateral regions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) are sensitive to rules from the newer parts of the brain.  The medial region of the PFC receives information from the limbic system, a primitive part of the brain that processes emotional states and is sensitive to our innate to preferences.  An experiment using brain scanning was designed to put these two parts of the brain in conflict.  Both these parts of the PFC were observed to light up.  People followed the rule but still considered their personal preference showing that activity in the lateral PFC overrode the personal preference.  The idea here is in the normal brain the higher brain overrides signals coming from the primitive brain.  However, in the pathological brain with Syndrome E, the primitive brain prevails.

Fried suggests that people experience a visceral reaction when they kill for the first time, but some become rapidly desensitized.  And the primary instinct not to harm may become more easily overcome when people are “just following orders.”  Unpublished research using brain scans has shown that coercion makes us feel less responsible for our actions.  Although coercion can cause people to take extraordinarily actions (see the healthy memory blog post “Good vs. Evil”), there are individuals who are predisposed to violence who are just awaiting an opportunity.

Unfortunately, the question remains as to how to prevent people from joining such radicalized groups.  Research in this area is just beginning and much more needs to be done (See the healthy memory blog post,”Why DARPA is studying stories”). Being a neuroscientist, it is not surprising that Fried thinks  that we should use our growing neuroscientific knowledge to identify radicalization early, isolate those affected and help them change.  We wish him, and hopefully many others in this effort.

What is not mentioned in this article is that it can be advantageous for one group to adopt Syndrome E to take from or to take advantage of another group.  Consider North America.  Syndrome E was involved in vacating Native American lands for Europeans.  Moreover, up until the Civil War, blacks were enslaved and slavery was a key component of the economy of the United States.  I sometimes ponder how would North America been settled by Europeans had we the moral and ethical standards of today.

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 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.

Mind vs. Brain

March 27, 2013

The first issue of the new publication, Mindfulness, features a column by Sharon Begley having the same title as this blog post. Her article motivated this current post. Scientists seem to be reluctant to talk about mind in a scientific context. Cartesian dualism is no longer in vogue. Neuroscience is the new kid on the block capturing fascinating images of the brain in action. The brain constitutes solid science; the mind remains somewhat questionable. There is a consensus that the mind is an emergent phenomenon emerging from the brain. However, the status of the mind remains questionable.

What is overlooked is that the neuroscience would be meaningless absent the mind. Images could be collected of the brain in action, but there would be no way of knowing what they mean. The typical brain imaging paradigm involves instructing people to do something and see what images emerge. That something is resident in the minds of both the experimental participants and the scientists doing the experiment. Otherwise the entire exercise would be meaningless.

The law of parsimony plays an important role in science. All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best. So the simplest explanation is that the brain engenders activity which we interpret as the mind. This explanation assumes that the mind is epiphenomenal. In other words, it serves as a movie we passively observe and experience as mind. It is important to realize that parsimony can be overdone. The notion is that the explanation that should be chosen is the one that is simplest that still explains the most.

The first question to ask about the mind, is why is it there? Even if it is an epiphenomenon, why does it exist? Evolutionary explanations like to include reasons why things involved. So one should think that if the mind exists, there should be a reason for it. In my view the reason is for it to act on the brain. The entire notion of mindfulness is that the mind can act upon the brain, and there is ample evidence to accept this notion. Moreover, there is a pragmatic argument. Consider two individuals. One is a practitioner of mindfulness and engages in practices to control her emotions and to improve her cognitive function. The other believes that her mind is an epiphenomenon and that her brain will determine what happens. Which one do you think will be happier and more successful?

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Buddha’s Brain

February 13, 2011

Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom1 is not a book proselytizing Buddhism. Its authors are Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Richard Mendius, MD, who are a neuropsychologist and a neurologist, respectively. They address the intersection of three disciplines: Psychology, Neuroscience, and Contemplative Practice. In doing so, they avail us of wisdom from the East, wisdom that is not addressed by the West, in general, and by the Western educational system, in particular. Buddha’s Brain provides readers with a great deal of potential for cognitive growth and personal fulfillment.

Here are some basic facts from Buddha’s Brain. The brain consists of about 1.1 trillion cells, 100 billion of which are neurons. The average neuron receives about 5,000 connections, synapses, from other neurons. Chemicals called neurotransmitters carry signals across these synapses. A typical neuron fires from 5 to 50 times a second. The number possible neurons firing or not firing is about 10 to the millionth power (1 followed by a million zeroes). Now the number of atoms in the universe is estimated to be about 10 to the eightieth power. Conscious mental events, which represent a small percentage of brain activity, are based on temporary coalitions of synapses that form and disperse. Although the brain is only about 2 percent of the body’s weight, it consumes from 20 to 25 percent of the bodies oxygen and glucose. The brain is constantly working and uses about the same amount of energy whether you are sleeping or thinking hard. The brain interacts with the rest of your body and is shaped by the mind as well. Your mind is made by your brain, body, and natural culture as well as by the mind itself.

Buddha’s Brain covers the structures of the brain and neurotransmitters and explanations of what does what and how the different structures interact. More importantly, Buddha’s Brain explains how you can affect these structures and processes and mold your own brain and behavior. Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should know the importance of attention and selective attention to effective memory. Buddha’s Brain covers how to control and expand attention as well as how to control your emotions to lead to, as the title promises, happiness, love, and wisdom. People who are deeply into contemplative practices are able to control heart rate and blood pressure.

One prediction that I have read, and which I believe, is that within twenty years meditative practices will have become as frequent as aerobic exercising is today.

Some future blog posts will be based on excerpts from Buddha’s Brain, but they cannot do justice to the entire book. I strongly recommend its reading.

1Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Yet Another Justification for Writing This Blog

January 5, 2011

 Several blog posts back I wrote about an article in the Washington Post that contained errors and missed some important information (scroll down several posts and you’ll find it). I have found another example of misinformation contained in the popular press. This one is the cover article in Newsweek1. The article states “Blueberries and crossword puzzles aren’t going to do it. But as neuroscientists discover the mechanisms of intelligence, they are identifying what really works.” The author goes way beyond this and debunks other diets, drugs, and training regimens before getting to the big three that do work at the end of the article. The author uses an evaluation done by the National Institutes of Health. The citation for this study is not provided, however. The principal justification for this claim is that there are very few rigorous well-controlled studies. Now the gold standard for evaluations are randomized controlled trials. Unfortunately, randomized controlled trials frequently are neither feasible nor practical. For example, the studies documenting the health hazards of smoking are epidemiological. That is, they are correlational and subject to other interpretations. The famous statistician, Sir Ronald Fisher, who was also a heavy smoker, refused to accept the evidence against smoking because the data were correlational. So he refused to the accept the evidence. Now would not the health of our nation be in fine shape if data from randomized controlled trials had been required before taking actions to get people to stop smoking?

It is not generally understood that a failure to find that something does work is not proof that it does not work. This is a subtle, but important, distinction that is understood by people who know inferential statistics. There could be many reasons why an effect was not found to be statistically significant. It could be the result of insufficient statistical power, too small a sample, or a biased sample. It should also be realized that the conclusions apply to the group. It is quite possible that although the group as a whole did not benefit, that there were individuals in the group who did. This notion has increased acceptance due to the emergence of epigenetics. Moreover, the primary interest is in whether these benefits will extend well into old age. Conclusions here await longitudinal studies that have yet to be completed. And for we baby boomers, by the time these studies have been completed, it will be too late.

It is true that there is much hucksterism and that claims should be regarded skeptically. But there are also many legitimate researchers doing the best they can with the resources available. This Healthymemory Blog reviews such research. So if you are eating blueberries, doing puzzles, or doing something else you enjoy, keep doing it. If something is costing you money, you might want to be more cautious and perhaps switch to less costly activities.

Also, use your common sense in evaluating activities. The Healthymemory Blog recommends mnemonic techniques, and evidence is presented in this blog regarding the effectiveness of these techniques. But it is also known that mnemonic techniques require the learning of new information, creativity, and involve both hemispheres of the brain as well as information transfer across the corpus callosum. So there are good reasons to believe that they should foster a healthy memory.

The Newsweek article presents neuroscience as a new science that will tell us what really works. It appears that the NIH Study that the article was based on was written by neuroscientists with a pronounced disciplinary bias. Well neuroscience, like any vibrant science, is in a constant state of flux. When I was a graduate student, the notion of plasticity in the human nervous system was anathema. Had I been an advocate of plasticity in the human nervous system it is unlikely that would have been able to earn a Ph.D.

There are three items that do work according to the article. They are physical exercise, meditation, and some video games. This Healthymemory Blog has no argument with these conclusions. However, it is ironic that these conclusions are attributed to neuroscience. Now it is my turn to demonstrate my disciplinary bias. These conclusions could be based entirely on psychological research. Indeed, the data justifying these conclusions are necessarily performance data based on psychological studies. To be sure, neuroscience is helpful. It can provide theoretical ideas that are helpful. Imaging studies of the brain along with other physiological data can provide a warm fuzzy feeling to us psychologists. But the critical data are psychological and involve behavioral performance.

1Begley, S. (2011) Grow Your Mind: The Truth About How to Boost Your Brain’s Performance. Newsweek, January 10 & 17, 40-45. 

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Trying to Recall Benefits a Healthy Memory

June 20, 2010

The May 1020 issue of the Smithsonian has an interesting article of memory1. It’s about the research of a neuroscientist, Karim Nader. According to the article his research is unconventional and has caused researchers in neuroscience to reconsider some of their most basis assumptions about how memory works. Nader believes that the very act of remembering can change our memories.

Although this might be a new or unconventional idea within neuroscience, it has been understood and adopted within psychology for some time now (See the blog post, “The Seven Sins of Memory). The article goes on to say, “For those of us who cherish our memories and like to think that an accurate record of our history, the idea that memory is fundamentally malleable is more than a little disturbing.” Well be disturbed, the malleability of memory has been long established within psychology, and the notion that our memories are an accurate record of our history has been long debunked. The article does mention the research of the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who has been one of the foremost debunkers.

This is not to say that Nader has not made a genuine contribution to the scientific study of memory. Essentially, he is demonstrating the neurological basis for this malleability. Consider what happens when you are thinking about a topic. You recall information that reminds you of other information. Further thought can form links to new information, new ideas. This basic activity underlies our intellectual and creative processes.

The Healthymemory blog has long advocated trying to recall in a variety of contexts. Trying to recall various facts reactivates old memory circuits and establishes new memory connections. Moreover, the research of Roediger has indicated that it is beneficial to to answer questions about a topic before even seeing or hearing about the topic (see Healthymemory blog posts, “The Benefits of Testing,” and “To Get it Right, Get it Wrong, First”). My wife and I have a game we play trying to remember different things such as the names of actors and actresses, or the names of movies. Very often the names seem to be irretrievable, but we continue. What is interesting is your unconscious brain will keep working on the problem long after your conscious brain has given up. These supposedly forgotten names pop up, apparently from nowhere as the strangest times. So. we can assume brain activity is taking place even when we are not aware of it. But you need to put it to work on the task in the first place.

The blog post, “A Life that Leads to a Healthy Memory” describes some additional beneficial activites that place a heavy burden on recalling information. These activities should be enjoyable and lead to additional benefits.

1Miller, G. (2010). Making Memories. Smithsonian, May, 38-43.

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.