Posts Tagged ‘Neuroscience’

From Paradox to Awe

June 18, 2019

This is the eighth post based on a new book by Douglas Rushkoff titled “TEAM HUMAN.” The title of this post is identical to the title of the ninth section of this book.

Rushkoff writes, “Team human has the ability to tolerate and even embrace ambiguity. The stuff that makes our thinking and behavior messy, confusing or anomalous is both our greatest strength and our greatest defense agains the deadening certainty of machine logic.”

In our definitive age, definitive answers are readily at hand. All questions seem to be but a web search aware. Computers are definitive because they have to be. We are mistaken to emulate the certainty of our computers. With computers, there is no in-between state. Ambiguity is not permitted.

Rushkoff argues it is precisely this ambiguity, and our ability to embrace it, that characterizes the collectively felt human experience. Mobiles strips and Zen koans (what is the sound of one hand clapping?) can only be engaged from multiple perspectives and sensibilities. We have two brain hemispheres and it takes both to create the multidimensional conceptual picture we think of as reality.

The brain is not like a computer hard drive. There’s no one-to-one correspondence between things we’ve experienced and data points in the brain. Perception is active, not receptive. There are more neural circuits running down to predict what we perceive than neural circuits leading from our receptors. Our eyes take in 2D fragments and the brain renders them as 3D images. We take abstract concepts and assembly them into a perceived thing or situation. Rushkoff writes, “We don’t see ‘fire truck’ so much as gather details and then manufacture a fire truck.”

Rushkoff continues, “Our ability to be conscious—to have that sense of what-is-it-like-to-see-something—depends on our awareness and participation in interpreting them. Confusing moments provide us opportunities to experience our complicity in reality creation.”

Continuing further, “It’s also what allows us to do all those things that computers have been unable to learn: how to contend with paradox, engage with irony, or even interpret a joke. Doing any of this depends on what neuroscientists call relevance theory. We don’t think and communicate in whole pieces, but infer things based on context. We receive fragments of information from one another and then see what we know about the world to re-create the whole message ourselves. It’s how a joke arrives in your head: some assembly is required, That moment of ‘getting it’ putting together together oneself—is the pleasure of active reception. Ha! and Aha! are very close relatives.”

Rushkoff notes that art, at its best, mines the paradoxes that make humans human. Pro-human art produces open-ended stories, without clear victors or well-defined conflicts. The works don’t answer questions. They raise them. The “problem plays” of Shakespeare defied easy plot analysis, as characters take apparently unmotivated actions. They’re the abstract paintings of Kandinsky or Delaunay, which maintain distance from real-work visual references. These images only sort of represent figures. The observing human mind is the real subject of the work, as it tries and fails to identify objects that correspond perfectly with the images. This process itself mirrors the way our brains identify things in the “real” world by perceiving and assembling fragmented details. Rushkoff writes that this art stretches out the process of seeing and identifying, so we can revel in the strange phenomenon of human perception.

Rushkoff writes, “Loose ends distinguish art from commerce. The best, most humanizing art doesn’t depend on spoilers. What is the ‘spoiler’ in a painting by Picasso or a novel by James Joyce. The impact of a classically structured art film like ‘Citizen Kane’ isn’t compromised even if we know the surprise ending. These masterpieces don’t reward us with answers, but with new sorts of question. Any answers are constructed by the audience, provisionally and collaboratively, through the active interpretation of their work.”

Rushkoff writes that the state of awe may be the peak of human experience. He asks if humans’ unique job is to be conscious, what more human thing can we do than blow our observing minds? Beholding the panoramic view from a mountaintop, witnessing the birth of a child, staring into a starry sky, or standing with thousands of others in march or celebration, all dissolve our sense of self as separate and distinct. We experience ourselves as both the observing eye and the whole of which we are part. Although this is an impossible concept, it is still an undeniable experience of power and passivity, awareness and acceptance.

Psychologists inform us that the experience of awe can counteract self-focus, stress, apathy, and detachment, Awe helps people act with an increased sense of meaning and purpose, turning our attention away from the self and toward our collective self-interest. Awe even regulates the cytokine response and reduces inflammation. New research has shown that after just a few moments of awe, people behave with increased altruism, cooperation, and self-sacrifice. This efficiency suggests that awe makes people feel like part of something larger than themselves, which in turn makes then less narcissistic and more attuned to the needs of those around them.

Rushkoff concludes this section by stating, “True awe is timeless, limitless, and without division. It suggest there is a unifying whole to which we all belong—if only we could hold onto that awareness.”

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There’s a Deep Neural Connection Between Gratitude, Giving and Values

January 2, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the titled of an article by Christina Karns in the Health & Science Section in the 25 December 2018 issue of the Washington Post.

Psychological research has found that taking time to be thankful has benefits for well-being. Not only does gratitude go along with more optimism, less anxiety and depression, and create goal attainment, but also is associated with fewer symptoms of illness and other physical benefits. Researchers have also found that making connections between the internal experience of gratitude and the external practice of altruism.

The author is a neuroscientist particularly interested in the brain regions and connections that support gratitude and altruism. To study the relationship between gratitude and altruism in the brain, the author and his colleagues first ask volunteers questions meant to test how frequently they feel thankful, and the degree to which they tend to care about the well-being of others. They used statistical analyses to assess the extent to which someone’s gratitude could predict their altruism. As has been previously found, the more grateful people tended to be more altruistic.

Being neuroscientists the next step was to explore about how these tendencies are reflected in the brain. Study participants performed a giving activity in an MRI scanner. They watched as the computer transferred real money to their own account or to the account of a local food bank. Sometimes they could choose whether to give or receive, but other times the transfers were like a mandatory tax, outside their control. They especially wanted to compare what happened in the brain when a participant received money as opposed to seeing money given to the charity instead.

The result was that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very deep, both literally and figuratively. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region deep in the frontal love of the brain, is key to supporting both. This regions is wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a kick of pleasurable neurochemicals in the right circumstances. It does abstract representations of the inner and outer world that help with complex reasoning, one’s representation of oneself and social processing. They also saw how differences in just how active this region was in various individuals.

They calculated a “pure altruism response” by comparing how active the reward regions of the brain were during “charity-gain” vs. “self-gain” situations. The participants identified as more grateful and more altruistic via the questionnaire had higher “pure altruism” scores. That is a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity gaining money. It felt good for them to see the food bank do well.

Other studies have zeroed in on this same brain region and found that individual differences in self-reported “benevolence” were mirrored by participants’ brains’ response to charitable donations, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. So is this brain reward region the key to kindness?

To address this question the author randomly assigned study participants to one of two groups. For three weeks, one group wrote in their journals about gratitude, keeping track of the things they were thankful for The other group wrote about engaging topics from their lives that weren’t specific to gratitude.

Gratitude journaling seemed to work. Keeping a written account about gratitude led people to report experiencing more of the emotion. Other research also indicates that gratitude practice make people more supportive of others and improves relationships.

Study participants also exhibited a change in how their brains responded to giving. In the MRI scanner the group that practiced gratitude by journaling increased the “pure altruism” measure in the reward regions of the brain. Response to charity-gain increase more than those to self-gain.

Practicing gratitude shifted the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity become more valuable than receiving money oneself. After the brain calculated the exchange rate, you get paid in the neural currency of the reward, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal attainment.

So, in terms of the brain’s reward response, it really can be true that giving is better than receiving.

Meditation is another technique to enhance altruism. In particular, loving kindness meditation done by experienced Buddhist monks revealed impressive brain activity.
To learn more about loving kindness meditation enter “loving kindness meditation” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

So, What Makes a Brain Smart?

December 18, 2018

This post is based on “The Genius Within: Unlocking Your Brain’s Potential” by David Allen. He writes, “Rather than being product of a specific brain region, general intelligence seems to come from how effectively various brain regions can work together. To solve a problem, parts of the temporal and occipital lobes, at the base and back of the brain, first take the raw signals that flood in from the eyes and ears and process them. This information is fed into the parietal cortex, a broad arch of brain tissue just under the crown, where it is annotated and labelled with meaning. It then goes forward to regions of the prefrontal cortex, sitting behind the forehead, which manipulates it, packages it into possible ideas or solutions, and tests them. As one solution emerges as preferred, another part of this prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, is recruited to block the other, incorrect, responses. This model of intelligence is called the Pareto-Frontal Integration Theory (P-FIT). The better this P-FIT circuit works, then the more general intelligence a person will have.

A visible difference is in the way clever people fuel their brain activity. Brain scans of the way glucose is used to release energy, another proxy of mental activity, show that energy demand increases when the brain is put to work. In people who score high on intelligence tests the required increase is smaller. High intelligence is linked to efficient glucose consumption. Those with less effective brains need to burn more glucose to fire more neurons to solve the same problem. This could indicate more intelligent people need to recruit fewer neurons and set into action a smaller number of brain circuits. Understand, that this is not biologically or genetically determined. When we learn, these circuits become more efficient. One way of looking at learning is that it exercises these brain circuits making them more efficient.

Analysis of brain circuitry is a new focus for neuroscience. Intelligence circuits, like all those in the brain, rely on two types of communication: chemical and electrical.

Neuroscientists have shown the way these brain circuits activate is highly personal. Although we all use the brain’s P—FIT system to reason and problem-solve, we each do it in a slightly different way, recruiting a different number of neurons in a different order. Neuroscientists from Yale University found patterns of brain activity so personal that they served as a kind of neuronal fingerprint. The scientists could pick out and identify people from a large group of volunteers by mapping and then looking for their tell-tale patterns of brain connections as they performed cognitive exercises.

Is Deep Reading Endangered by Technology?

October 21, 2018

This post is based on “READER COME HOME: The Reading Brain in the Digital World” by Maryanne Wolf. MIT scholar Sherry Turkle described a study by Sara Konrath and her research group at Stanford University that showed a 40% decline in empathy in young people over the last two decades. The most precipitous decline occurred in the last ten years. Turkle attributes the loss of empathy largely to their inability to navigate the online world without losing track of their real-time, face-to-face relationships. Turkle thinks that our technologies place us at a remove, which changes not only who we are as individuals but also who we are with one another. Wolf writes, “The act of taking on the perspective and feelings of others is one of the most profound, insufficiently heralded contributions of the deep-reading process.”

Barack Obama described novelist Marilynne Robinson as a “specialist in empathy.” Obama visited Robinson during his presidency. During their wide-ranging discussion, Robinson lamented what she saw as a political drift among many people in the United States toward seeing those different from themselves as the “sinister other.” She characterized this as “dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.” Whether writing about humanism’s decline or fear’s capacity to diminish the very values its proponents purport to defend, Ms Robinson conceptualized the power of books to help us understand the perspective of others as an antidote to the fears and prejudices many people harbor, often unknowingly. Within this context Obama told Robinson that the most important things he had learned about being a citizen came from novels. “It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And that it’s possible to connect with someone else even thought they’re very different from you.”

It is most insightful that the polarization that is being experienced, is due in large part to missing empathy, which to some degree, perhaps large is due to digital screen technology. Although technology has been blamed for much, part of the problem here is not just the display mode of information, but also the type of content of the information. Quality fiction builds empathy. Even technical reading can build empathy provided the content can be related to the feelings and thinking of others. And some social research does summarize the feelings and thinking of others.

Wolf writes, “There are many things that would be lost if we slowly lose the cognitive patience to immerse ourselves in the worlds created by books and the lives and feelings of the “friends” who inhabit them. And although it is a wonderful thing that movies and film can do some of this, too, there is a difference in the quality of immersion that is made possible by entering the articulated thoughts of others. What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thought and feelings of someone totally different? What will happen to older readers who begin to lose touch with that feeling of empathy for people outside their ken or kin? It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.”

Deep reading involves more than empathy. Wolf writes, “The consistent strengthening of the connections among our analogical, inferential, empathic, and background knowledge processes generalize well beyond reading. When we learn to connect these processes over and over in our reading, it becomes easier to apply them to our own lives, teasing apart our motives and intentions and understanding with ever perspicacity and, perhaps, wisdom, why others think and feel the way they do. Not only is it the basis for the compassionate side of empathy, but it also contributes to strategic thinking.

Just as Obama noted, however, these strengthened processes do not come without work and practice, nor do they remain static if unused. From start to finish, the basic neurological principle—“Use it or lost it”— is true for each deep-reading process. More important still, this principle holds for the whole plastic reading-brain circuit. Only if we continuously work to develop and use our complex analogical and inferential skills will the neural networks underlying them sustain our capacity to be thoughtful, critical analysts of knowledge, rather than passive consumers of information.”

Mark Edmunson asks in his book “Why Read,” “What exactly is critical thinking?” He explains that it includes the power to examine and potentially debunk personal beliefs and convictions. Then he asks, “What good is this power of critical thought if you do not yourself believe something and are not open to having this belief modified? What’s called critical thought generally takes place from no set position at all.”

Edmonson articulates two connected, insufficiently discussed threats to critical thinking. The first threat comes when any powerful framework for understanding our world (such as a political or religious view) becomes so impenetrable to change and so rigidly adhered to that it obfuscates any divergent type of thought, even when the latter is evidence-based or morally based.

The second effect that Edmunson observes is the total absence of any developed personal belief system in many of our young people, who either do not know enough about past systems of thought (for example, Freud, Darwin, or Chomsky) or who are too impatient to examine and learn from them. As a result, their ability to learn the kind of critical thinking necessary for deeper understanding can become stunted, Intellectual rudderlessness and adherence to a way of thought that allows no question are threats to critical thinking in us all.

It is also important to be aware that Deep Reading has a generative process. Here is a quote from Jonah Lehrer—“An insight is a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge. The cortex is sharing one of its secrets.”

Wolf writes, “Insight is the culmination of the multiple modes of exploration we have brought to bear on what we have read thus far: the information harvested from the text; the connections to our best thoughts and feelings; the critical conclusions gained; and then the uncharted leap into a cognitive space where we may upon occasion glimpse whole new thoughts. The formation of the reading-brain circuit is a unique epigenetic achievement in the intellectual history of our species. Within this circuit, deep reading significantly changes what we perceive, what we feel, and what we know and in so doing alters, informs, and elaborates the circuit itself.”

Neuroscience informs us that creativity is everywhere based on brain imaging and recording. There is no neat map of what occurs when we have our most creative bursts of thinking. Instead, it appears that we activate multiple regions of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus.

What is Thought?

August 7, 2018

The question in the title is motivated by a book by British psychologist Charles Fernyhough titled “The Voices Within.” There have been psychologists who have argued that thought, solely or largely, consists of these voices within. This cannot be true because the frequencies of these voices varies largely amount individuals. We cannot readily argue that these people are not thinking. It can be argued that these voices within are tools for thinking as are images and symbols we mentally imagine. However, thought is something deeper, something that emerges from our unconscious minds.

HM has had the experience of being unable to recall the name of a friend, although he can recall related reams of information about this friend. How can this be? Later, the friend’s name pops into mind. How did this happen? And how did he know that what popped into his mind was the friend’s name? Psychology has very little to say about this, but knowledge ultimately resides in neural codes in our unconscious minds. When the name matched this neural code, it was recognized. But all this knowledge, all this information is stored in neural codes. When they are retrieved into consciousness is when the words become available and can be used for thinking.

When HM is writing a blog post, he has something he wants to say, but he is not yet able to articulate it. Gradually he retrieves information from memory, thinks about it, puts it into his computer, examines it, and massages it. He evaluates it, elaborates it, and makes changes. At some point he gets to the point where he either likes it or decides it is good enough given the time and the resources available. Essentially what he is evaluating is the correspondence between these external words and the neural codes in his unconscious mind.

Cognitive psychologists have increasingly realized the importance of the unconscious mind, and have developed sophisticated techniques for understanding the unconscious mind. But the major body of work needs to be done by neuroscientists, and that body of work is truly enormous.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. 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 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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.