Showing posts with label neuroscience. Show all posts
Showing posts with label neuroscience. Show all posts

Friday, March 26, 2021

Keeping its secrets

Incognito: the secret lives of the brain

David M. Eagleman
Nonfiction 290 pages
Pantheon. 2011

You may think you know who you are, but according to David Eagleman it’s a case of mistaken identity. We consider the contents of our awareness as belonging to ourselves. Yet, that awareness, what we call consciousness, is only a small part of what goes on in our brains. Consciousness is like an iceberg’s tip – visible above the water’s surface. Much of what runs us is below the surface and well beneath our awareness.

Most of us realize this to some extent. After all, our hearts pump and our lungs breathe without our awareness most of the time. But most of us don’t realize the extent to which non-conscious mental activity controls our behavior.

Eagleman tells us that the brain is composed of interacting systems, running a myriad of mental routines, and very little of this activity makes it into our awareness. It’s as if our brains are run by a team of rivals with different viewpoints to match different circumstances. When teammates interact appropriately, we make good decisions most of the time.

It’s natural for us to prefer people like ourselves over those who look different. But, the dark side of this preference may be behind xenophobia and racism. Psychologists have used word association tests to tease subjects’ inner-racists into showing themselves. Most people keep their inner-racists well under control, but brain dysfunction or alcohol use can disturb the balance between the rivals in our brains. After visiting a Jewish friend, actor Mel Gibson, was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Later, a sober Gibson apologized for the anti-Semitic remarks he made while intoxicated. The question arises, which is the real Mel Gibson, the sober or the drunken one?

Eagleman’s answer is that both are real, because Gibson’s brain, like everyone’s, is composed of interacting rivals. Most of us behave in socially appropriate ways most of the time. But, there are exceptions. One of the symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome is coprolalia, that is, inappropriate vocal outbursts. While a normal person might experience an inappropriate thought, a Tourette’s sufferer might involuntarily vocalize it, much to his embarrassment.

People suffering from frontotemporal dementia act out socially inappropriate impulses that they formerly kept well controlled. For example, they may shoplift, make unwelcome sexual passes, act aggressively, and even publicly remove clothing. They lose the ability to know that this behavior is inappropriate.

Eagleman argues that legal systems need to be reformed to take into account criminals’ capacity to change their behavior. While society should be protected from criminal behavior, punishments having no effect on those unable to change, should be replaced with other interventions. Eagleman discusses the case of a man who committed murder while sleep walking. Although, this seems unlikely, electroencephalogram findings demonstrated an abnormality that caused the man’s brain to attempt rapid transition from sleep to wakefulness without passing through the intermediate stages that most people pass through. This occurred 10 to 20 times per night. The man was acquitted.

As neuroscience discovers more precise ways of uncovering brain abnormalities, the legal system will need to accommodate these new findings. Asking if a criminal is blameworthy will ultimately become an irrelevant question, Eagleman believes. Instead we should be asking how to prevent him from committing future crimes. An experimental technique, called the prefrontal workout, shows promise for eliminating undesired behaviors. The technique uses real-time biofeedback to reduce the strength of unwelcome urges.

In 1848, a premature explosion sent a tamping rod through Phineas Gage’s head. He survived, but his personality did not. After his accident, he was no longer capable of socially appropriate behavior and judgment. Those who knew him described him as, “no longer Gage.”

Who was he then? Did he lose his soul along with some of his brain? Do we even have souls to begin with or are we simply collections of parts? Eagleman tells us, “If there’s something like a soul, it is at minimum tangled irreversibly with the microscopic details. Whatever else may be going on with our mysterious existence, our connection to our biology is beyond doubt.”

Eagleman’s first book was “Sum: forty tales from the afterlives.” One might expect a man who constructed 40 possible afterlives to have more to say about the soul. Alas, he only writes a few words on the topic in “Incognito: the secret lives of the brain.” So let me offer up a theological question or two. If part of the brain is injured, does part of the soul vanish? If a good man turns evil after a brain injury, will he be eternally punished or spared through God’s mercy? Just which pieces of the brain house the soul, anyway?

Eagleman discusses a type of epileptic seizure in a “sweet spot” in the temporal lobe that causes religious conviction, writing on religious topics, voices from apparently divine sources, and a sense of divine presence. Is the sweet spot a gift from God that allows Him to communicate with his prophets or merely the reason the prophets invented Him?

Eagleman concludes his book with a discussion of the weaknesses of reductionism as a means of understanding the brain. It isn’t practical to break the brain down into a collection of parts. Regardless, he tells us, it’s the model that most neuroscientists bring with them into the lab. I wonder how a sense of personal identity can arise from a collection of parts.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

Lisa Feldman Barrett
Nonfiction, 180 pages, 2020

This is a book of essays. It could have been a textbook, but in that case, it would have been far lengthier. The essays make up two thirds of its length. Detailed footnotes fill the final third. Although brief, this book will change the worldview of many readers. This summary can’t do it justice.

The author begins with the half lesson:
  • Your Brain Is Not for Thinking
It was designed to aid in predicting and regulating bodily processes and ensuring survival.
  • You Have One Brain (not Three)
As I learned somewhere, we have a dinosaur brain, a cat brain, and a rational neocortical brain all piled on top of one another. This theory is bunk. Lisa Feldman Barrett shows us why.
  • Your Brain Is a Network
Have you heard that we’d be geniuses if we used our whole brains instead of a mere ten percent? That is also bunk. The parts of the brain’s network are always connected, and functioning a part of a whole. Neurons that don’t connect are pruned from the network.

Older, less accurate brain models point to locations where special functions occur. But the brain behaves holistically as well as locally.

“Your network is also dynamic in another way. As neurons change conversation partners, a single neuron can take on different roles. For example, your ability to see is so intimately tied to an area of the brain called the occipital cortex that the area is routinely called the visual cortex; however its neurons routinely carry information about hearing and touch.”

Neurons multitask and some are multitasking pros, “Some neurons in your brain are so xibly connected that their job is to have many jobs.”

Little Brains Wire Themselves to Their World
Many animals are able to walk shortly after birth. It takes baby humans about a year to start walking. Human brains aren’t fully wired until about age 25. Perhaps because our brains wire slowly we have unique intellectual advantages. Barrett describes in detail the ways baby’s wire themselves to their environments.
  • Your Brain Predicts (almost) Everything You Do
"Neuroscientists like to say that your day- to-day experience is a carefully controlled hallucination, constrained by the world and your body but ultimately constructed by your brain. It's not the kind of hallucination that sends you to the hospital. It's an everyday kind of hallucination that creates all your experiences and guides all your actions."
She continues,
"I realize that this description defies common sense, but wait: there's more. This whole constructive process happens predictively. Scientists are now fairly certain that your brain actually begins to sense moment-to-moment changes in the world around you before those light waves, chemicals, and other sense data hit your brain. The same is true for your body—your brain begins to sense them before the relevant data arrives from your organs, hormones, and various bodily systems. You don't experience your senses this way but it's how your brain navigates the world and controls your body."
Following further explanation, Barrett concludes:
"If your brain has predicted well, then your neurons are already firing in a pattern that matches the incoming sense data. That means the sense data itself has no further use beyond confirming your brain's predictions. What you see, hear, smell, and taste in the world and feel in your body in that moment are completely constructed in your head."

When a police officer mistakes a cell phone for a gun and fires, his brain has likely responded to its prediction and not to its incoming sense data. Sadly such mistakes get innocents killed. The triune brain theory originated with the ancient Greeks, as did our notions of human rationality. While rationality is a prized quality, people don't always behave rationally, especially in tense situations. Our culture and legal system are still influenced by ancient Greeks and Roman notions about rationality. We need to update our old ideas to reflect our new knowledge about the brain. Perhaps we can rethink and restructure our policing methods to prevent unnecessary deaths.

Three more chapters tell us what else is unique about the human brain.
  • Your Brain Secretly Works With Other Brains - It’s "A brain that regulates other brains so invisibly that we presume we’re independent of each other""
  • Brains Make More Than One Kind of Mind - Your brain is "A brain that creates so many kinds of minds that we assume there’s a single human nature to explain them all"
  • Our Brains Can Create Reality - Your brain is "A brain that’s so good at believing its own inventions that we mistake reality for the natural world."
The reality our brains create is largely a social one.
"The human brain misunderstands itself and mistakes social reality for physical reality, which can cause all sorts of problems. For example, humans vary tremendously, like every animal species does. But unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we organize some of this variation into little boxes with labels such as race, gender, and nationality. We treat the labeled boxes as if they're part of nature when in fact we built them."
It's useful to know how our brains work instead of just trusting how we think they do. Once you know how your brain works, you can tap its strengths and dodge its illusions. But you cannot look at your world in the same way ever again.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Of butterflies and dreaming sages

The Grand Biocentric Design : How Life Creates Reality
Robert Lanza, MD and Matej Pavšič with Bob Berman
Non-fiction, 289 pages

In this third book on biocentrism, Matej Pavšič joins the authors of the first two, but it is Lanza who speaks loudest. The book offers several new scientific findings and four additional principals of biocentrism to the original seven.

The first third of the book reiterates points made in the previous two: 1) on the atomic level everything remains in superposition until an observer collapses a wave-function and brings things into existence. More , 2) time and space are tools of the mind rather than qualities of reality.

At this point new evidence is introduced. Consider the eighth principle of biocentrism: 

“Biocentrism offers the only explanation of how the mind is unified with matter and the world by showing how modulation of ion dynamics in the brain at the quantum level allows all parts of the information system that we associate with consciousness to be simultaneously interconnected.” 

I don’t fully grasp why this is important; I hope a commentator will explain it to me.

Another piece of evidence supports the idea that reality is an invention of the mind. Speculating that it’s possible for “two observers to experience different, conflicting realities,” a group of physicists used six entangled particles to create separate realities for each observer. The study was published in Science Advances in 2019. “Realities can be made incompatible so that it is impossible to agree on objective facts about an experiment. These results suggest that objective reality does not exist.”

This begs the question, if objective reality is observer dependent, how can there be any sort of consensual reality? The authors answer:

“If you learn from somebody the outcomes of their measurements of a physical quantity, knowing those outcomes will also influence the outcomes of your own measurements, freezing the reality according to a consensus between your measurements and those of other observers. In this sense a consensus of different opinions regarding the structure of reality defines its very form.

Recall that time itself, as well as the direction of the arrow of time, becomes defined due to the process of wave function collapse (or decoherence). Once such temporal collapse happens, one can start asking questions about the dynamics of the process of decoherence for other physical quantities that we as observers can measure. These dynamics—how quickly the collapse of quantum blur toward a particular realization of measurable quantities happens, how long it stays collapsed, the detailed structure of the probability waves defining observed reality—strongly depend on how the measurements or observations by different observers are distributed within spacetime. If there are many observers and the number of observations made by them is very large, the probability waves of the measurement of a macroscopic quantity remain largely ‘localized,’ not spreading much, and reality is largely fixed, deviating slightly from the consensus only every once in a while.”

Another new idea in this book addresses an old problem. Quantum physics does a good job of explaining three of the four fundamental forces, while relativity theory does a fine job of explaining gravity. However the two theories of quantum physics and relativity can not be unified into one. The authors claim that when the role of observers is considered, gravity becomes compatible with quantum theory.

Despite new research and more in-depth explanation, this book leaves a lot out. In the second book on biocentrism, the authors wrote that death is an illusion. Here they take it further:

“In your awakened State, you experience your consensus reality. Then you go to bed, fall asleep, and start dreaming. And when you wake up, you find yourself again existing as a person in a consensus reality. Through dreams you enter alternate worlds and switch from one consensus reality to another, from experiencing the life of one organism to that of another. Once awake, you can find yourself as being any person, at any time without having memories about ever being another person or animal. You can even find yourself as a newborn, without any idea about the reality you are living. If so, gradually, piece by piece, you discover your reality, your world. By observing your world, you keep collapsing probability waves, and thus you effortlessly create an ever-more detailed world that includes comprehensive reinforcing memories. The observations also include what others tell you about the world and its history and still you build your consensus reality.”

How can this be? I didn’t wake up as someone else this morning, or did I? I remember Chuang Tzu wrote of something similar:

“Formerly, I, Kwang Kâu, dreamt that I was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Kâu. Suddenly I awoke, and was myself again, the veritable Kâu. I did not know whether it had formerly been Kâu dreaming that he was a butterfly, or it was now a butterfly dreaming that it was Kâu. But between Kâu and a butterfly there must be a difference.”

As Chuang Tzu said, “there must be a difference.” If there were no difference, “mind” could control any body at any time. And in that case would mind be a singular or plural entity? That question and others of similar nature are not addressed, yet require answers if biocentrism is to become a strong theory.

If mind is the thing that creates matter, what is mind?

“Biocentrism shows that the external world is actually within the mind—not ‘within’ the brain. The brain is an actual physical object that occupies a specific location. It exists as a spatiotemporal construction. … The mind is what generates the spatiotemporal construction in the first place. Thus, the mind refers to pre-spatiotemporal and the brain to post spatiotemporal. You experience your mind’s image of your body, including your brain, just as you experience trees and galaxies. The mind is everywhere. It is everything you see, hear and sense.”

And after that explanation, I still don’t know. If biocentrism is to become a useful theory, it will need to explain what is meant by mind. Replacing one mystery with another isn’t helpful. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Altered Traits

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson 
Non-fiction, 336 pages

I read many dull research papers in school. Since then I’ve concluded that research oriented psychologists can’t write, while therapy oriented psychologists don’t understand science. I’ve changed my view. Authors, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, are both able researchers and writers.

This is great. I’ve read far too much well done research that doesn’t say much and far too much self-help psychology that cherry picks science.

The authors spent decades studying meditation, and are honest enough to say where their research was poorly designed or flawed. They began their research in the 1970s before tools such as fMRI and SPECT became available and learned a lot over their years.

Books about science and fiction by Steig Larrson can be repetitive. That’s necessary sometimes. While reading this book, expect repetition. It’s worth it: this is the definitive book on meditation research.

The authors discuss research into three types of meditation, “focusing on breathing; generating loving kindness; and monitoring thoughts without getting swept away by them.” Each of the three meditations can cause mental changes, some brief and some lasting. While breath or mantra meditators requires multiple sessions before change can be noticed, loving kindness meditation brings results after only a single session.

Temporary changes, while interesting, are not the same as altered traits. These require years of meditation. Yogis who’ve spent decades practicing the third type of meditation have yielded astonishing findings. “Gamma, the very fastest brain wave occurs during moments when differing brain regions fire in harmony, like moments of insight when different elements of a mental puzzle ‘click’ together.” Gamma wave activity lasts only a fifth of a second for most people, but some yogis can generate gamma waves for minutes at a time, even in their sleep. I’d love to know what’s on their minds. Guess I should meditate more.

It's like the egg laying the chicken - or mixing metaphors - Ouroboros

Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death

Robert Lanza and Bob Berman

Non-fiction, 224 pages

In their first book, Lanza and Berman presented Biocentrism, a view that accounts for some of the anomalies of physics. This book takes the argument further. The science is solid, but I question the validity of the authors’ conclusions.


The scientific argument begins with with a hard nut that physicists have tried to crack for nearly one hundred years. Things are not as they seem. The model of an atom one first encountered in elementary school is not realistic. In reality, electrons don’t cross atomic nucleuses in neat orbits. In reality, they’re everywhere at once. Electrons exist in a superposition of all possible locations until interfered with. As soon as a measurement is taken, the electron’s “wave function” collapses and it shows itself. Since observation is required to determine an electron’s position, the role of consciousness plays a key part in how the universe operates. Hence, life itself, steers the universe’s unfolding.


While the authors’ argument is novel, the science is not. I don’t question that the authors are on to something. I only question that something’s implications. Let’s skip over the science and go directly to conclusions:


“What is not in doubt even in these early research stages is that the observer is correlative with the cosmos. That time does not exist. And perhaps the most cheerful takeaway from biocentrism: Since there’s no self-existing space-time matrix in which energy can dissipate, it’s impossible for you to ‘go’ anywhere.


In a nutshell, death is illusory. ... Consciousness and awareness never began, and will never end.”


And yet, when one sleeps can one be said to be conscious? For that matter, how can there be a “when” if time is illusory?


Backing up a bit, the authors note that logic and science are not the only methods of gaining knowledge. Intuitions arise from neither and are generally correct. Upon seeing a corpse, intuition tells us that the body’s former occupant has departed. But where did it go? Here’s the explanation:


“The feeling of “me,” of consciousness itself, could be considered a 23-watt energy cloud, which is the brain’s energy consumption in producing our sense of ‘being’ and its myriad sensory manifestations. Energy, as we learned in high school physics, is never lost. It can change form but it never dissipates or disappears. So what happens when those brain cells die?”


The answer is that death is an illusion. One can’t die because, “neither space nor time are real in any sense except as appearances or tools of the mind.”


In the first appendix we learn the difference between mind and brain. “The brain is a physical object occupying a specific location. It exists as a spatio-temporal construction ... .” Other objects like tables must also be constructions, yet you can’t crowd those constructions into brains. Paradoxical. Space isn’t real, but you still have to watch where you place things. Luckily we don’t have to worry about where one places one’s mind. “But the mind has no location. It is everywhere you observe, smell, or hear anything.”


I can’t quite wrap my own mind around this. Maybe with more explanation. The authors are releasing another book in November. I can barely wait.