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Archive for May 2010

Past, present and future

The blog Neurophilosophy has a review of the connection between space and time, and between direction and past or future. (here) It is worth reading in full as I am only talking about a very little part of the review.

We know that imagining a future event is dependent on memory, because patients with amnesia cannot imagine new experiences. It involves piecing together fragments of past experiences to generate a plausible simulation of what might happen.

It seems that memory and imagination/planning use the same basic mental processes. There is the same framework for consciousness of now, of memories and of ‘what if’ scenes. Consciousness is used to create memory, memory is used to produce future imaginings and short term projections are use to produce the consciousness of now. Only what is found in consciousness is stored in episodic memory. We know that stimulations of the future and imaginings are constructed from memory scrapes. And our conscious experience is a slight prediction. The difference between our current consciousness and recalled memories or imaginings seems to be in the amount of detail and the vividness of the experience. I presume that both the detail and the vividness is due to the availability of the actual sensory data in the sensory cortex areas that is only there for a few moments.

Important noise

ScienceDaily reports (here) on the work of B. He and group on the noise that is discarded from EEGs when the dominant waves such as gamma, theta etc. are recorded. They feel it must contain valuable information.

“These temporal connections reach outside of the domains of periodic brain waves that neuroscientists study and into the irregular, arrhythmic brain activity that we discard,” she explains. “This (research) suggests that there are patterns of temporal organization in those irregular signals. Those patterns may reflect important aspects of brain architecture and function.”…

“The noisy activity of the brain at rest and in the background when we perform tasks actually represents the majority of what the brain is really doing” Raichle says. “We know this to be the case when we measure the cost of running the brain and find that this background activity accounts for most of it. Biyu’s (He) pioneering research is a major step forward in helping us understand how this background activity is organized.”

Analysis of this noise shows that it has a pattern that is common in natural systems. Signals produce a regular pattern: a diagonal line on the results graph that goes from the upper left (high-power, low-frequency brain waves) to the lower right (low-power, high-frequency brain waves). This power spectrum changes with various activities of the brain, a source of potential information that has not been used to date.

Summary May 24 2010

This blog has reached its second birthday and it is time for a little summary. I have made a list of general ideas/questions that I am trying to investigate, and then, for each heading, I list the posts that apply to that idea.

Purpose of the blog

The aim of this blog is to prepare people for the revolution that is going to happen now in neuroscience. The very first post (1 Jun 08 aims ) outlined the scope of the blog. The aims are enlarged on later in (10 Aug 08 scientific shocks). To give an indication of the type of material that was intended in the blog an early post gave a list (12 Jun 08 what do we know about consciousness) and another gave probable functions (2 Jul 08 does consciousness have a function). Putting consciousness in context was the purpose of (9 Oct 08 one way to look at consciousness).


A different way to look at consciousness

Some posts have been specifically written to help people come to grips with a different way of viewing their mental life. These posts hardly contain any quotes or links to scientific material. I have used some descriptions of my own way of seeing myself: (6 Jun 08 living without a conscious mind) (10 Jul 08 decisions) (15 Aug 08 who is watching) (18 Oct 08 why make problems) (15 Nov 08 metaphors for consciousness) (30 Nov 08 metaphor) (15 Dec 08 a few definitions) (18 Mar 09 Little thought experiment) (22 Feb 09 A framework) (23 Apr 09 History of the quest) (29 Sep 2009 mind maintenance) (11 Feb 10 definitions of consciousness) (21 Apr 10 mind maintenance 2)

Some posts look at more specific problems in understanding consciousness

Old ideas that get in the way

There are ways of thinking that interfere with understanding the brain. (12 Dec 08 a different angle) (25 Dec 09 folk knowledge)

Some ‘how’ hypotheses

There are some hypotheses that seem very convincing. So far we have taken a quick look at the following:

Methods and instrumentation concerns

(19 Jul 09 EEG questions) (5 Sep 09 fMRI scans astorcytes) (2 Oct 09 dead fish and voodoo) (14 Oct 09 effects of brain waves) (2 Feb 10 a decade of neuroscience) (25 Mar 10 materialism) (18 May 10 discounting science)

Miscellaneous bits and pieces

(23 Jul smell is different), (30 Aug 08 do grandmother cells fly?), (12 Oct 08 metaphor to embodiment), (27 Nov 08 not inside us), (11 Jan 09 Epistemology changes), (20 Jan 09 Proprioception), (16 Feb 09 Other definitions) (20 Apr 09 A kluge?) (8 May 09 Top down processing) (25 Jun 09 consciousness takes a lot of energy) (31 Jul 09 revisiting grandmother cells) (3 Aug 09 reading brain patterns) (30 Aug 09 innate categories) (11 Sep 09 wisdom) (23 Oct 09 fruits of introspection) (19 Nov 09 astrocytes) (22 Nov 09 a radio metaphor) (2 Dec 09 where are the concepts?) (19 Dec 09 the missing hierarchical level) (22 Dec 09 working in the missing hierarchical level) (9 Jan 10 the content of consciousness) (18 Jan 10 the big C) (25 Mar 10 a possible reason for consciousness) (27 Apr 10 the connection is important)

Mirror neurons in autism

A ScienceDaily item (here) reports the work of I. Dinstein on mirror neurons. It seems that they may not be magical mindreaders after all.

A team of neuroscientists has found that the mirror neuron system, which is thought to play a central role in social communications, responds normally in individuals with autism. Their findings, reported in the journal Neuron, counter theories suggesting that a mirror system dysfunction causes the social difficulties exhibited by individuals with autism…

For the simulation process to work properly, it is imperative that we simulate the exact same movement we are observing. This means that neurons within our mirror system must recognize movements and respond with a unique, movement-selective, response to each (or else we’ll confuse different movements and attribute improper goals to the person we’re observing)…

Because individuals with autism have difficulty communicating socially and understanding the emotions and intentions of others, it has been hypothesized that they may have a dysfunction in their mirror neuron system. This hypothesis has received a tremendous amount of attention in both the popular and scientific literatures following a number of studies that reported weak mirror neuron system responses in individuals with autism. …

These results, they conclude, argue strongly against the “dysfunctional mirror system hypothesis of autism” because they show that mirror system areas respond normally in individuals with autism. The authors, therefore, suggest that it may be more productive to re-focus autism research in more promising directions.

Discounting science

Here is an interesting observation from the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, The Scientific Impotence Excuse by G. Munro. I would give the link but it no longer works for me and so I don’t feel comfortable giving it as a hyperlink.

The scientific impotence discounting hypothesis predicts that people resist belief-disconfirming scientific evidence by concluding that the topic of study is not amenable to scientific investigation. In 2 studies, participants read a series of brief abstracts that either confirmed or disconfirmed their existing beliefs about a stereotype associated with homosexuality. Relative to those reading belief-confirming evidence, participants reading belief-disconfirming evidence indicated more belief that the topic could not be studied scientifically and more belief that a series of other unrelated topics could not be studied scientifically. Thus, being presented with belief-disconfirming scientific evidence may lead to an erosion of belief in the efficacy of scientific methods.

This may explain the number of people who profess to wanting the nature of consciousness clarified but who do not believe that neuroscience is a method for getting understanding.

When there is no real evidence, theories can ‘free wheel’. A theory can become elaborate and generally accepted with negligible evidence; some devote their lives to teaching and improving the theory. Then some evidence comes along that does not fit with the theory. Small amounts of counter evidence may be ignored but when it comes thick and fast, many seem to close their minds, not just to individual pieces of evidence but to the whole idea that there is or should be evidence.


This blog has just passed the 100,000 visits mark today. That total is very pleasing for 2 years of existence. Thank you for your visits.

Embodied power

Simoleon Sense has a post with a link to an interesting paper (here), Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance , by D. Carney.

In research on embodied cognition, some evidence suggests bodily movements, such as facial displays, can affect emotional states. For example, unobtrusive contraction of the “smile muscle” (i.e., the zygomaticus major) increases enjoyment (Strack, Martin, Stepper, 1988); the head tilting upwards induces pride (Stepper & Strack, 1993); and hunched (vs. upright) physical postures elicit more depressed feelings (Riskind & Gotay, 1982). Approach-oriented behaviors, such as touching, pulling, or nodding “yes,” increase preference for objects, people, and persuasive messages (e.g., Briñol & Petty, 2003; Chen & Bargh, 1999; Wegner, Lane, & Dimitri, 1994); and fist clenching increases men’s self-ratings on power-related traits (Schubert & Koole, 2009). However, no research has tested whether expansive versus constrictive power poses cause mental, physiological, and behavioral change in a manner consistent with the effects of power. Specifically, we hypothesized that high- versus low-power poses would cause individuals to experience: (1) elevated testosterone, (2) decreased cortisol, (3) increased feelings of power, and (4) higher risk-tolerance. Such findings would suggest that embodiment goes beyond cognition and emotion and could have immediate and actionable impacts on behavior. ..

Results show that posing in high-power (versus low-power) displays causes physiological, psychological, and behavioral changes consistent with the literature on the effects of power on power-holders – elevation of the dominance hormone testosterone, reduction of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases in behaviorally demonstrated risk-tolerance and feelings of power.

These findings advance our understanding of embodied cognition in two important ways. First, they suggest that the effects of embodiment extend beyond emotion and cognition, to physiology and subsequent behavioral choice. For example, as described above, nodding one’s head “yes” leads to more persuasion, and smiling increases humor responses; we suggest that these simple behaviors, a head-nod or a smile, might also cause physiological changes that activate an entire trajectory of psychological, physiological, and behavioral shifts—essentially altering the course of that person’s day. Second, these results suggest that any psychological construct, such as power, with a signature pattern of nonverbal correlates may be embodied.

The idea that we have, first, a conscious feeling of power, then take a powerful pose is not shown in experiment. Instead we have, first, the unconscious signal to take a powerful pose, then the conscious feeling of power. Embodiment appears to be attitude-bodily response-conscious feeling, in that order.

Method acting

Yet again an observation from the Seed article - Genevieve Wanucha’s “Emotion’s Alchemy”. (here)

Psychologist Paul Ekman found that voluntary smiles and grimaces produce changes in the autonomic nervous system. His study participants actually began to feel happy or sad or angry after following instructions to set their facial muscles in certain positions. “Psychologically unmotivated and ‘acted’ emotional expressions have the power to cause feeling,” Damasio writes. Enter the actress.

Sheila Donio first attempted to cry onstage as the character “Rizzo” in a stage production of Grease in 2001. She has acted since childhood and settled into professional acting career as a teenager in São Paulo, Brazil. “As I knew I wanted to cry on a specific scene,” she explained, “I started to work on Rizzo’s emotions at home, listening to the song used right before my crying scene. Studying Rizzo’s emotions with that specific soundtrack made my brain connect one thing with the other.” Method acting, techniques devised in the 1930s by Constantin Stanislavski, and later adapted by director Lee Strasberg, emphasize this use of sense memory. Students of this method learn to use personal memories of sensory details to trigger authentic physiological reactions.

Teaching herself, Sheila used this process to tap into the pathways of her brain responsible for the generation of crying. Crying on command became second nature. “Every time I heard that song, I would start to feel her anxieties and frustrations and the buttons for crying would show up in my body, ready to be pressed.” In fact, Sheila’s method of manipulating her body’s physiology is a living demonstration of Damasio’s theory of emotion.

…. “I study how my body reacts when I am crying for real, in real life. It’s all about breathing, for me. I get myself on the highway that leads me to cry. When I do improv theatre, this is how I find my emotions in 30 seconds,” she said. As Sheila adjusts her inhalations and exhalations, her somatosensory cortex detects the body map for crying. Genuine sadness follows the tears. The tears amplify the feelings, triggering sharper emotion, creating a positive feedback loop. What Sheila describes as a “highway,” Damasio thinks of more as a two-way traffic rotary.

Emotional feeling

Genevieve Wanucha wrote a very interesting article in Seed magazine, “Emotion’s Alchemy”. (here) Following on from the last post, more from this article.

…Damasio’s team found that people reported feeling emotional only after the eruption of a physical emotion. “It’s very important for you to think of emotion as an action, so crying is a component of emotion, never as a part of feeling. Feeling is a perception of the action we have,” he told me….

In that same study, Damasio found that the body-sensing region of the brain, the somatosensory cortex, came online as the feelings arose. Later, in 2006, he reported that for each basic emotion (e.g., happiness, sadness, anger, and fear) there is a distinct cardio-respiratory pattern. Linking these data sets together, in a technology-age tweaking of the James-Lange theory, Damasio suggests that feelings arise from “maps” continually forming in brain regions such as the somatosensory cortex. The brain doesn’t have simple “on” and “off “emotional switches. It is always in flux. Feelings are more than the brain’s perception of emotion; they are a constant process of mapping shifting body states.

What appears to be happening is that consciousness registers a perception of emotional states as a fringe feeling. Consciousness does not contain emotion – it contains a model of emotion existing in the body using the form of a feeling.

Control of emotion

Genevieve Wanucha wrote a very interesting article in Seed magazine, “Emotion’s Alchemy”. (here)

Parvizi’s PLC (pathological laughing and crying) research has led him to believe that emotions, instead of being consciously controlled, are spontaneous reactions that rely on an intact involuntary brain system to be appropriately projected into the world. This distinction has major implications for our belief in self-control. Through cognitive neuroscience’s history, it’s been assumed that the brain’s evolutionarily newer frontal lobe regulates the more primitive regions of emotion, desire, and instinct, “as if there are beasts living in the basement, and the tower controls those beasts,” Parvizi says. He calls this an outdated Victorian-era bias that insists our free will should be able to conquer instinct. In fact, the brain’s structures are more interdependent. And those beasts of emotion are much, much more complex.

He says that we certainly can consciously control our expressions… We have both voluntary and involuntary systems, but it seems like the brain uses autopilot settings much more than conscious direction. “It’s an old notion that we regulate our behavior through a very conscious process, through a hierarchical top down process,” he says. “My idea is that we respond automatically in a context and that automatism is built partly from our culture.” In other words, early childhood socialization and lifetime experiences, coded into memories, factor into our automatic emotional responses. For example, in Japan, where emotional suppression is valued, people tend to avoid overt emotional displays. Parvizi acknowledges that this is an area wide open for debate. It is not yet clear, for instance, if those cultural pre-sets are stored in the cerebellum, or sent there from other brain areas.

More from this article in future posts.