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.

Which way is north?

I have just read an article on being lost (here) and I have to say that the people described were ‘not from Saskatchewan’. There are advantages and disadvantages to having been a prairie girl.

When we were first in Kenya, my husband used to look at a map, decide where he was going, and go out the door of the hotel and within a city block he was hopelessly lost. We couldn’t believe what had happened to him. The mystery was solved when we realized he navigated by the sun and had not corrected for being somewhere where the sun can be in the north half of the sky. I, being a prairie girl, did not get lost. I could go on with story after story (I won’t) but the weird ways in which other people navigate.

Of course, I always know which way is north. If I lose this knowledge of my bearing, I suffer from a deeply lost feeling, a type of panic. This is an abstract panic. I can know where I am well enough to manage to get where I am going, or can have a map, or can be with someone who knows where they are. I am not afraid in that sense. What causes the panic is a loss of contact with my mental map of the universe.

Well maybe one more story: my husband was in a fairly large store in Saskatchewan, in the basement. There was a sign that said, ‘Hardware has been moved to the west wall.’ He was amazed. After walking round on the ground floor, taking one of several escalators down to the basement, and walking around there, he was expected to find the west wall in a windowless basement. He was not amused when I suggested that he could have faced north and then turned to his left and walked in that direction.

The article reviews a number of ways that people find their way or get lost, whichever. I am interested in how navigation and the feeling of being lost registers in consciousness.

Every so often, Sharon Roseman rounds a bend in her suburban Colorado neighbourhood and drives into a new world. It’s a lot like the world she knows – same houses, same street names – but with one critical, maddening difference: everything in it has shifted 90 degrees. Familiar stores at well-known intersections are not where she feels they should be, and the Rocky mountains have migrated from the north to the east.

Roseman’s world has been turning like this since she was 5 years old, and the only sure-fire way to set things right is to close her eyes and spin until everything “clicks” back into place, a remedy she jokingly calls her “Wonder Woman cure”. Despite countless visits to a doctor, prescriptions and brain scans over more than 50 years, nobody has offered a diagnosis. Nobody, Roseman suspects, really believed her. Until now.

Giuseppe Iaria of the University of Calgary, Alberta, and Jason Barton at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, both in Canada, may have finally put a name to Roseman’s condition. They call it developmental topographical disorientation. While people with the disorder have no obvious brain injury or other cognitive problem, they are chronically unable to orient themselves, even in places they know well. The pair have found 400 or so people who may have the disorder, some of whom are so prone to getting lost they fear leaving the house alone.

Well just maybe one more story – When my Grandmother and her children came to Saskatchewan to join Grandfather, the children were mixed up in their directions. So Grandfather’s brother took them out in a horse and sled. He covered them with a blanket. He went round in circles and figure eights and zig-zags on the featureless prairie snow. He would stop the horse (facing north) and ask, ‘is anyone sure they are facing north?’. If anyone was, that child and only them could come out from under the blanket. This was done several times until all the children had emerged and had the correct orientation. And I believe they had it more or less for the rest of their lives.


A few months ago there was an item in ScienceDaily (here), Neuroscientists Glimpse How The Brain Decides What To Believe. This deals with that is probably the source of a fringe feeling in consciousness indicating how sure we are of some idea.

‘You’re driving to a restaurant for the very first time. At a crossroads, you make a turn. You drive for several minutes, and then several minutes more. Nothing in sight. The disturbing thought creeps into your mind: “I should be there by now. Did I make the wrong turn?” At what point will you make a u-turn and go back? It all depends on how confident you are of the decision you made at the crossroads. Having a sense of what we know — and don’t know — is a universal human experience, and has often been assumed to be the hallmark of self-consciousness. But new research by neuroscientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory suggests that the estimation of confidence that underlies decisions may be the product of a very basic kind of information processing in the brain, shared widely across species and not strictly confined to those, like us, that are self-aware.

…They found that neurons in a part of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex (an area of the brain found in both rats and humans) signal the uncertainty of the decisions,… “We tested several alternative explanations but the best explanation for the neural activity we observed was that these neurons were signaling the confidence of the animal about its decisions.”… This showed that they could not only calculate their level of confidence in a given decision, but also use that calculation in subsequent decisions to guide behavior… Taken together, these experiments reveal “that confidence estimation is not a complex function specific to humans but a core component of the process of decision-making probably found throughout the animal kingdom,”…’

Fringe consciousness

In this post I have the definition of fringe consciousness from Baars and McGovern in Cognitive views of consciousness: What are the facts? How can we explain them? (here)


“There is an interesting class of phenomena that are not quite conscious nor unconscious, but which are nevertheless very important for our normal mental functioning. William James thought the ‘fringe conscious’ events were at least as important as focally conscious experiences. Indeed, he thought that perhaps one-third of our conscious lives may be spent in subjectively active but vague states of mind. Fringe events include feeling of rightness, beauty, coherence, anomaly, familiarity, attraction, repulsion and the like. Most people are sure of their judgment when they experience something as beautiful. But is the experience by beauty specifiable in detail, like the sight of a red toothbrush? Surely not for most people, even when they are very sure about the experience. The combination of high certainly, high accuracy, and low experienced detail defines a ‘fringe conscious’ state.


Mangan has developed James’ ideas about fringe consciousness in modern terms, suggestion that fringe phenomena may not be subject to the classical capacity limitations of conscious experiences. The claim is that feelings of familiarity or coherence can be simultaneously present in consciousness along with perceptual contents, for example….The fringe may be, in Mangan’s terms, a ‘radical condensation’ of unconscious information in consciousness. Fringe states seem very useful. There is evidence that they are involved in accurate decision-making, predict resolution of tip-of-the-tongue states, and give a sense of availability of a memory even before it comes to mind….


Research on fringe consciousness is still in its early stages. We can however suggest a useful operational definition for fringe conscious events, as those experiences that: (a) can be reported by all normal subjects in similar tasks, (b) with verifiable accuracy and high confidence; and (c) which can be voluntarily acted upon, (d) but which are not claimed to have differentiated perceptual, imaginal or semantic content; even (e) under optimal reporting conditions.”


It seems a good definition. In the discussion leading to the definition, I have trouble with the continual use of ‘states’. I have never been comfortable with the implied static nature of a ‘state of mind’ and have always thought of mental processes as dynamic. But that is nit-picking as ‘event’ is used rather than ‘state’ in the definition.