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Mind maintenance

Hindsight is too late and prediction is not very accurate – such is life. During my life (and I assume most everyone’s) there are times when I would just like to go back in time and do things differently. I have not seen obvious dangers; I have not seen clear advantages; I have misjudged people; I have been thoughtless; I have not lived up to my values and so on. We all know the feeling of regret, chagrin, disappointment in ourselves or even, more seriously, shame or guilt. We rue the day. This does not happen that often for me (and I hope for you), but it does happen.

Once events happen there are only limited things that can be done to correct mistakes. Once these are done, then what? Learning from those regretful events is the thing that most successfully relieves the guilt. After learning, I am after all, not the same person and will not make the same error, at least in the same way. I am an improved version of myself and can feel good about that.

The method I use, I call mind maintenance. It goes like this:

  • recognize that something has happened that I don’t want to happen again and figure out exactly what it is about the event that must be avoided,

  • go though the things that happened leading up to what needs to be avoided and figure out exactly how to recognize what is coming and when is the last/clearest/easiest point where I could have done something different and escaped ‘the inevitable’,

  • figure out how I would have to change my general views in order to make this change in behavior a natural thing rather than an isolated ’strict rule’ by dealing with my assumptions, prejudices, ignorances, and so on.

Today this sounds a bit like do-it-yourself life skills consulting or do-it-yourself cognitive therapy, but when I developed it for myself (in the ’50s before either was around), I thought of it as just being very honest with myself and using my intelligent to do mind maintenance.

I do not feel that I have ‘Free Will’ in the capital letter sense. But I certainly do not feel helpless or unable to make decisions or without any control over how I live my life. In fact, the helplessness is often found in people who do believe in capital letter ‘Free Will’.

So when I hear someone say something like, “I can’t help it, the anger just bubbles up in me when I see x”, I am disturbed. This is usually someone who believes they have Free Will. Because they did not consciously decide to be angry, they don’t feel any responsibility for the anger and they don’t see any way to avoid anger bubbling up – unless something is conscious, they do not feel any control. Good maintenance would be to examine whether they want to be angry when they see x and whether their attitude to x is what they want. They can either take responsibility for their anger and approve of it, or they can get rid of it because it is inappropriate. Furthermore, this does not have to be all done with conscious awareness, as the best revelations often come when asleep. Some conscious awareness is needed in order to remember and learn, but not in order to think about a way out of a problem and make decisions.

It is a fact, that whether they believe they are responsible or not, everyone else is judging them by their actions. Everyone else believes that their anger indicates how they think about x. If having people judge them by their anger is not what they want, then it is time to learn how to do a bit of mind maintenance.

What are mirror neurons doing?

G Hickok has a paper, Eight Problems for the Mirror Neuron Theory of Action Understanding in Monkeys and Humans, and a blog posting (here). He is saying that the conventional idea of mirror cells is wrong.

First he examines what other cells are doing.

Mirror neurons are cells in monkey frontal area F5 that respond both during the execution of action and during the perception of action. Explaining why these cells respond during action execution is easy and uncontroversial: they are motor cells in a motor area — they respond during action execution because they are involved in the coding of actions. The perceptual response is more difficult to explain. Think first about “canonical neurons”, neighbors of mirror neurons in F5. Like mirror neurons, these cells respond during action execution, e.g., grasping, and they also have sensory properties, e.g., responding to the presentation of graspable objects. The sensory responses of canonical neurons have a fairly intuitive and standard explanation: the grasping of objects needs to be informed by the shape of the object (you grasp a paperclip differently than a grapefruit) and so the sensory input is used to drive appropriate grasping gestures. Importantly, canonical neurons are not assumed to be responsible for visual recognition, they just receive relevant input from areas involved in the processing of visual features… the theory that was proposed early on and completely dominates (suffocates even) thought on mirror neuron function is that these cells support action understanding. According to this view, the sensory response of mirror neurons is not relevant to the monkey’s own actions, unlike canonical neurons. It is rather a mechanism for understanding what other animals are doing via motor simulation. The logic is, if I understand what I’m doing when I reach for a peanut, then if I can simulate another’s peanut-reaching action in my motor system, I can understand what s/he’s doing.

Then he proposes that mirror neurons are doing a similar thing but with actions rather than objects.

… at least consider the possibility that mirror neurons, like their canonical neighbors, take sensory input for a motor purpose… The point here is that it is not hard to imagine sensory-motor circuits that take observed actions as input and use these actions as triggers for any number of executed actions via regular old sensory-motor association. The cells underlying these circuits would probably behave like canonical neurons responding both to the execution and observation of the (non-mirror) actions.

He uses descriptions of playing with a dog to illustrate the need for the motor areas to have information from the sensory areas on the actions of others in the same way that information of objects is needed from sensory areas.

In my view this is another illustration of a neuron/s in effect standing for a concept. Mirror neurons may be a type of ‘grandmother’ cell.

A pain metaphor

BrainBlogger has an posting by M. Meyer discussing research by the N. Eisenberger group on the connection between feeling physically hurt and socially hurt. (here)

…most languages rely on words that represent pain — hurt feelings, heartache, broken hearts — to communicate feelings of social distress. Recent findings in neuroscience suggest that sayings such as these may reflect more than poetic metaphor, and instead indicate an overlap in neural systems used to represent physical and social pain in humans.

… But how sweeping is it to say that social and physical pain share the same neuroanatomy? It is important to stress that the networks are not entirely overlapping. Physical pain researchers have already identified what they call, “the pain matrix,” or, the neuroanatomy that underpins the experience of physical pain. In addition to the dACC (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex), this matrix includes the thalamus, insula, the cerebellum, frontal cortex and primary and secondary somatosensory cortices. Nevertheless, pain researchers suggest that there are two physiological aspects of pain — the actual somatosensory experience and the perceived unpleasantness of that experience. Importantly, a great deal of research has identified the dACC to play a role in the felt unpleasantness of physical pain…Why might the human brain rely on one region, the dACC, to compute the felt unpleasantness associated with both physical injury and social distress? One explanation relies on the observation that humans, and other mammals, rely on social bonds for survival. The unpleasantness associated with physical injury acts like an alarm notifying the animal of ensuing threat to survival. Through the course of evolution, the same alarm system may have been hijacked to also notify the mammal of threat to their social bond, and hence survival.

This is another example of the way our experiences are ‘embodied’ in the very architecture of our brain.

Controller of alert status

ScienceDaily has an item on research into the control of consciousness by M Devor (here).

…discovery of an area of the brain that participates in the control of “alert status.”

Loss of response to painful stimuli and loss of consciousness are the most striking characteristics of surgical anesthesia and anesthesia-like states, such as concussion, reversible coma, and syncope (fainting). These states also exhibit behavioral suppression, loss of muscle tone, a shift to the sleep-like “delta-wave” EEG pattern, and depressed brain metabolism.

It has been widely presumed that this constellation of dramatic functional changes reflects widely distributed suppression of neuronal activity in the brain due to dispersed drug action, or to global oxygen or nutrient starvation.

However, new results revealed by the Hebrew University scientists suggest a radically different architecture — that a small group of neurons near the base of the brain, in the mesopontine tegmentum, has executive control over the alert status of the entire cerebrum and spinal cord, and can generate loss of pain sensation, postural collapse and loss of consciousness through specific neural circuitry.

…this knowledge could contribute to the ability of medical science to treat disorders of consciousness and its loss, such as insomnia, excessive sleepiness and even coma. …

the discovery of a specific cluster of neurons that control the brain’s state of consciousness can be expected to lead to the beginnings of an understanding of the actual wiring diagram that permits a biological machine, the brain, to be conscious.

This seems to imply that at least some aspects of consciousness are extremely ancient and at least shared with all vertibrates.

Awareness of the internal

There is obviously a difference between the access that I have to my own body and the access that I have to other people’s bodies. So, when I perform an action I get privileged access to the sensory consequences of this action from proprioception, from the nerves on the interior of the body. But I pay very little attention to these signals from my insides.

The brain clearly uses this information; it is very important for making our actions smooth, accurate, fast and so on, but it doesn’t seem to be very important for our consciousness. In essence, we do not need to be continually aware of our posture, muscle tone, stomach movements or the pressure of an arm against a table; and so, hours can go by without conscious awareness of any internal ‘feelings’ of our body. There is even a homeostatic system that registers things like blood sugar level, body temperature, blood oxygen levels and other important indications of our body’s biochemical health. We do not call this a ’sense’ because it simply does not enter our awareness at all, ever. It is important though as is felt in the extreme panic and all consuming drives that result from something like lack of air.

Touch is different and any little change in touch that is at all, in the tiniest way, unexpected comes into conscious awareness. It resembles sight and hearing. The result of this difference between external and internal senses is that the spotlight of consciousness is much more likely to fall on the world outside our skins than on the events inside the skin. Touch is usually about the outside not the inside. We have a model of the world and ourselves in it. But as far as consciousness is concerned, our own bodies are just sketched in with far less detail than is available.

What is the exception to this ignoring of the internal – why, pain of course, the body’s alarm bell to ‘pay attention to me’. If I want to get pain out of my consciousness without drugs, it takes real skill and effort, a sort of self hypnosis. And with pain comes all the little internal ‘feelings’ from places near the source of the pain.

Although the brain has a good deal of information about the rest of the body and presumably uses this information in predictive modeling of the body in the world, this internal part of the predictive model is not often an important part of the our conscious awareness. It can be otherwise of course, an athlete or a dancer or a tight-rope walker probably has a lot more awareness of their internal workings than the rest of us – because it has become important.

Criticizing a critic of Pinker

I have encountered the notion of dualism again in an odd way. Someone was trying to maintain that Steven Pinker is a Platonist Dualist. Well really, how bizarre. See link to ‘Do we need a biological theory of human nature?’ by David Large here .

On the surface the article seems to be another philosopher complaining that a scientist on encroaching on his patch.

(Pinker) walks straight into a whole set of long-discussed philosophical arguments which he appears woefully equipped to deal with. True, he’s not a philosopher, and The Blank Slate is not a philosophy book, but ignorance is no excuse for engaging in areas where these arguments apply and for coming up with positions that miss the point.

It seems to me that it is usually Large that is missing the point.

Large puts that he thinks is Pinker’s position in this little paragraph.

If you say, as Pinker does, the mind is what the brain does, you are advancing cartesian dualism. If you say, as Pinker does, the proper theory of human nature is a biological theory of human nature, you are advancing biological monism,… So Pinker appears to be both a cartesian dualist and a biological monist. This is a philosophically tricky place to be.” Or in this one, “Here we see Pinker at his most incisive and at his most philosophically naive. Having analysed the problem, summarised the research and given a critique of the outcome he refers to human dispositions and behaviours, in terms of ‘wiring’ in the brain and brain development. This is mind/brain dualism of the standard cartesian kind. It is commonly found among psychologists and other scientists commenting on the mind. This sits alongside his platonic commitment to a biological theory of human nature.”

How does the idea that mind is what the brain does, become dualism? How is any scientific theory Platonic as opposed to empirical? Why is an Alice in Wonderland world being created here?

If we state some clearer examples:

  • circulation is what the heart does

  • digestion is what the gut does

  • movement is what muscle does

  • mind is what brain does

What is dualist about any of these statements?

Let us put one of these functions in this statement:

On this view, human nature and dispositions do not reduce below the level of the person. The most we can say for the biological approach is that while human nature is connected to human biology and to Pinker’s new sciences, human nature is not constituted by human biology, and human nature is not explained by a biological approach alone.”

What we would get is:

On this view, circulation and blood flow do not reduce below the level of the person. The most we can say for the biological approach is that while circulation is connected to human biology and to Pinker’s new sciences, circulation is not constituted by human biology, and circulation is not explained by a biological approach alone.”

Where would you look for an explanation of a bodily function then in the biology of the body? And in the case of the mind the explanation will be found in the anatomy, physiology, chemistry, development and genetics of the brain in particular and the body in general. Of course the investigations need to go below the level of the person – that is the whole point of the investigations.


It seems that neurobiology has turned its attentions on ideas such as wisdom. What are the neural correlates of wisdom? Can we define it? Are these reasonable questions?

Wisdom is a very old concept compared to ideas like intelligence, intention, altruism etc. Philosophy, psychology or neuroscience had not worked and polished wisdom into a clearly defined concept. We do not attempt to measure it or teach it or have methods to encourage its use. But we know it when we see it (or the lack of it as in, ‘how can someone so smart be so dumb’). We know it has to do with: intelligence, knowledge, experience, perspective, emotional stability, fondness and tolerance of others, far-sightedness, practicality, good intuition, caution, self-knowledge, courage, lateral thinking, adaptability and more. But do we know any aspect of thought that should not be included in either its positive or negative form? I think not. We give the ‘wise’ adjective to those whose actions we admire and whose advice we heed. I have thought of wisdom as a well-balanced thought process rather than any particular trait. And that is why we tend to find it associated with age. It takes a lot of hard knocks to get the balance right.

Looking for neural correlates of wisdom seems a bit premature. If wisdom is a question of balance then one would expect the neural correlates to be most of the brain – certainly much of the cortex, the thalamus and the basal ganglia. One would expect the correlates to depend on the nitty-gritty of the definition of wisdom and the exact specifics of the tasks used to illustrate it. I suspect that what we think of as wisdom has more to do with how well we maintain/repair/update our minds then how we use them. It might be better to study possible components of wisdom and understand them first before tackling such a fuzzy concept.

Or we could just leave it as an old fashioned vague word whose definition remains too indistinct for either philosophy or science, but is a perfect definition in ordinary conversation for some extraordinary people.

Kreativ Bloggers

Well, here is a problem and it is off the subject of consciousness. Tuesday I was given an award, but the award reminds me of a pyramid scheme, which I have learnt from an early age to spot a mile off. So what I am going to do is follow the rules as closely as I can without adding to the pyramid.

Here are the rules:

1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award. - I am sincerely honoured to have Mariana include me in her list of ‘Kreativ Bloggers’ and I thank her. I read her blog, singyourownlullaby regularly because it is always interesting but especially because it is a cultural link with the thoughts of people who are not (like me and most of the other bloggers I read) fixed in a British/North American monolingual culture. It is a little breath of fresh air from another sort of garden.
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog. - I’ll miss out this bit.
3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award. - the link is above and has been on the my blog list for a little while now. Why not visit it?
4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting. - I have another site, all about me me me. The views section has more than enough material on me, my memories and my options on many subjects. janetsplace
5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers. - I am not going to nominate 7 bloggers. The blogs that I have visited who have received the award, the ones on Mariana’s list, appear to be actual creative people, poets in fact. I have a great respect for poets but I do not consider myself part of that creative circle. Even my prose is a bit embarrassing to me. My thing is not creative in the arts sense but I try to solve puzzles. The blogs I read are by and large those that break scientific news and put it in some context. My purpose in this blog is to help people deal with the coming revolution in neurobiology. This purpose is dear to me but I do not confuse it with creativity. Also (a completely different reason), I don’t feel right with pyramid schemes even when they are not doing any harm.
6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate. - not applicable
7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated – not applicable.


Regular posting tomorrow

Two selves

There is a good description of experiments about the awareness of will by Dave Munger (here). It is worth a read. But I want to look at something in the comments. Here is part of the third post, posted by tmaxPA.

As soon as I started this article, this caught my eye:

So did you “decide” to read this post after your brain had already committed to clicking on the link? It’s possible, but it’s also possible that there’s simply a lag between when you were aware of having made a decision and when you actually decided.

Right out of the gate we can see the difficulties inherent in the topic, and the tendency of our thinking to assume its conclusions. When you say it is possible there is a lag between when you are aware of having made a decision and when you ‘actually decide’, it is the thing that you are identifying as “you” which changes between the two alternatives, not the thing you are identifying as “the decision”. The ‘you’ in the first case is your consciousness, your awareness, your sentience; you WILL. The ‘you’ in the second case isn’t; it is your brain, which you do not control, and while it is YOUR BRAIN, as much as your hand is YOUR hand, meaning it is not someone else’s, that doesn’t make it YOU. YOU is a thing we know is caused by the activity of the brain, but that doesn’t mean any activity of the brain is you.

So essentially this “out” isn’t really at all available to us. If I don’t become aware of the decision until after it is made, it is unsupportable to claim that I made it. It has been common since Freud to hand-wave the matter by saying “you made the decision sub-consciously”, but I think the very point of the research is that there is no such thing. There are things our brains do that we are not aware of (and so “we” are not the ones doing them) and there are things our brains do that we are aware of (and this we call “thinking” and have always, apparently mistakenly, presumed causes and results in decisions.) The latter is “you”; the former is “your brain”.

It is a question of how words are defined. The comment is right to point of the two meaning of ‘you’ and is consistent in the use of words. But to me it is a very awkward and backward way to approach the idea of what the ’self’ is.

Let’s call the two entities I(sub) and I(obj) or you(sub) and you(obj). In the comment ‘you’ would be you(sub) and ‘your brain’ would be you(obj). Consciousness is awareness of a predictive model of the next ‘instant’ in time, including a constructed self as part of the model. Thus if I (obj) am moving my arm, I(obj) predicts where the arm is going to be. By the time this prediction becomes part of conscious awareness, the arm(obj) should be in the same place as it was predicted to be. In that case arm(obj) and arm(sub) are in the same place. But the prediction may be wrong in which case, the two arms will not be in the same place. If we are going to call one of these arms real and one virtual then it is obvious that the arm(obj) is real and the arm(sub) is virtual.

If I have a goal, it is I(obj) that has a goal – I(sub) may or may not be aware it that goal. If I make a decision to do a particular thing, it is I(obj) that made that decision – I(sub) may to may not be aware it that decision. If I do something, it is I(obj) that is responsible for the action – I(sub) may or may not be aware it the action or the ownership of it. It is I(obj) that will feel pride or guilt - I(sub) may or may not be aware of such judgments. And so on: I(obj) can choose to change behavior, I(sub) may or may not be aware of this new goal.

The idea that someone can escape responsibility for their actions because they(obj) choose not to include the actions in they(sub)’s awareness, is ridiculous. What we do about responsibility is another matter. We will take into consideration the luck and health and capabilities of the responsible self(obj). After all, a falling stone may be responsible for a person’s death but we are not going to jail the stone.

I am not suggesting that consciousness is without any function, only that the function does not involve some sort of disembodied source of ‘will’.

fMRI scans astrocytes

In a ScienceDaily item (here) there is a report on the nature of the fMRI signal by Finnish and Canadian researchers led be K. Kaila. They show that the signal depends on astrocytes rather than neurons.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a technique widely used in studying the human brain. However, it has long been unclear exactly how fMRI signals are generated at brain cell level. This information is crucially important to interpreting these imaging signals. … fMRI imaging does not directly measure the activity of nerve cells or neural networks, but local changes in cerebrovascular circulation during the execution of certain functions. … astrocytes in brain tissue play a key role in generating the fMRI signal. Astrocytes are not nerve cells, but neuronal support or glial cells that are present in the brain in greater abundance than nerve cells. Their signals change with changes in nerve cell activity in a manner that depends on the brain’s metabolic state, and the astrocyte signals thus created regulate the diameter of blood vessels in the brain thereby affecting local circulation…

“For example, it is generally believed that changes in fMRI signals associated with different brain diseases reflect changes in the function of nerve cells and neural networks, even though the explanation might lie in a pathological change in the characteristics and function of astrocytes. Likewise, the distinctive characteristics seen in fMRI signals measured from premature newborns is probably in large part based on the immaturity of astrocyte and blood vessel function,” Kaila explains.

Looking at astrocytes just shows how little we know about how the brain works. Recently Discover Magazine had an article by C. Zimmer on astrocytes (here).

All neurons have certain characteristic attributes: axons, synapses, and the ability to produce electric signals. As scientists peered at bits of brain under their microscopes, though, they encountered other cells that did not fit the profile. When impaled with electrodes, these cells did not produce a crackle of electric pulses. If electricity was the language of thought, then these cells were mute. … Astrocytes—named for their starlike rays, which reach out in all directions—are the most abundant of all glial cells and therefore the most abundant of all the cells in the brain. They are also the most mysterious. A single astrocyte can wrap its rays around more than a million synapses. Astrocytes also fuse to each other, building channels through which molecules can shuttle from cell to cell… All those connections put astrocytes in a great position to influence the goings-on in the brain. They also have receptors that can snag a variety of neurotransmitters, which means that they may be able to eavesdrop on the biochemical chatter going on around them. Yet for a long time, neuroscientists could not find any sign that astrocytes actually responded to signals from the outside. …It turned out that astrocytes, like neurons, can react to neurotransmitters—but instead of electricity, the cells produce waves of charged calcium atoms… wave of such activity that started in one astrocyte could spread to other astrocytes. Several research teams also discovered that astrocytes themselves release powerful neurotransmitters. They can produce glutamate (which excites neurons so that they are more likely to respond to a signal from another neuron) and adenosine (which can blunt a neuron’s sensitivity).

For some brain scientists, these discoveries are puzzle pieces that are slowly fitting together into an exciting new picture of the brain. Piece one: Astrocytes can sense incoming signals. Piece two: They can respond with calcium waves. Piece three: They can produce outputs—neurotransmitters and perhaps even calcium waves that spread to other astrocytes. In other words, they have at least some of the requirements for processing information the way neurons do. …a fourth piece. They find that two different stimulus signals can produce two different patterns of calcium waves (that is, two different responses) in an astrocyte. When they gave astrocytes both signals at once, the waves they produced in the cells was not just the sum of the two patterns. Instead, the astrocytes produced an entirely new pattern in response. That’s what neurons—and computers, for that matter—do.