E. Callaway has an article in the New Scientist on how people relate to their avatars or virtual selves compared to their real selves (here). Again, it seems that our sense of self is not exactly what we would expect.

Brain scans of avid players of the hugely popular online fantasy world World of Warcraft reveal that areas of the brain involved in self-reflection and judgement seem to behave similarly when someone is thinking about their virtual self as when they think about their real one. … Previously, researchers have observed that people easily adopt the persona of their virtual selves, for instance, by acting more aggressively when their avatars are tall than when they are short, irrespective of an individual’s height in the real world. … When K. Caudle looked for brain areas that were more active when volunteers thought about themselves and their avatars compared with real and virtual others, two regions stood out: the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. That makes sense as prior research has linked the medial prefrontal cortex to self-reflection and judgement. … They found activity differed in a region called the precuneus, implicated in imagination.

The precuneus is also interesting. It is tucked inside the central fold in the cortex alone the medial wall and therefore has not shown on EEG waves or many lesion studies and has been somewhat overlooked. It appears to be involved in a variety of high level cognitive functions, including episodic memory, self-related processing and aspects of consciousness. It is part of the default mode network and so may be important in daydreaming as well as real world activities.

Out-of-body 2

In August I posted an item on Blanke’s experiments with out-of-body experiences (here). Since then Anil Ananthaswamy has a article in the New Scientist on the subject. (here).

Out-of-body experiences are usually associated with epilepsy, migraines, strokes, brain tumours, drug use and even near-death experiences. .. (but) … about 5 per cent of healthy people have one at some point in their lives….So what exactly is an out-of-body experience? A definition has recently emerged that involves a set of increasingly bizarre perceptions. The least severe of these is a doppelgänger experience: you sense the presence of or see a person you know to be yourself, though you remain rooted in your own body. This often progresses to stage 2, where your sense of self moves back and forth between your real body and your doppelgänger. … Finally, your self leaves your body altogether and observes it from outside, often an elevated position such as the ceiling. “This split is the most striking feature of an out-of-body experience,” says Olaf Blanke. … Some out-of-body experiences involve just one of these stages; some all three, in progression. Bizarrely, many people who have one report it as a pleasant experience. So what could be going on in the brain to create such a seemingly impossible sensation?

From various experiments, the area of the brain responsible seems to be the temporoparietal junction (TPJ).

This makes some kind of neurological sense. The TPJ processes visual and touch signals, balance and spatial information from the inner ear, and the proprioceptive sensations from joints, tendons and muscles that tell us where our body parts are in relation to one another. Its job is to meld these together to create a feeling of embodiment: a sense of where your body is, and where it ends and the rest of the world begins. Blanke and colleagues hypothesised that out-of-body experiences arise when, for whatever reason, the TPJ fails to do this properly.

The TPJ is active when people imagine they are in a position different from their actual orientation.

This does not, however, explain the most striking feature of out-of-body experiences. “It’s a great puzzle why people, from their out-of-body locations, visualise not only their bodies but things around them, such as other people,” says Brugger. “Where does this information come from?”…(in) circumstances you are conscious of a sensation of movement, yet your brain is aware that your body cannot move. In an attempt to resolve this sensory conflict, the brain cuts the sense of self loose . “It resolves by splitting the self from its body,” says Cheyne. “The self seems to go with the movement and the body gets left behind.” Perhaps similar sensory conflicts cause classic out-of-body experiences.

Metzinger does have a suggestion. Imagine an episode from a recent holiday. Do you visualise it from a first-person perspective, or from a third-person perspective with yourself in the scene? Surprisingly, most of us do the latter. “In encoding visual memories, the brain already uses an external perspective,” says Metzinger. “We don’t know much about why and how, but if something is extracted from such a database [during an out-of-body experience], there may be material for seeing oneself from the outside.” … To address that question, Metzinger has teamed up with Blanke and his colleagues in an experiment that induces an out-of-body experience in healthy volunteers. They film each volunteer from behind and project the image into a head-mounted display worn by the volunteer so that they see an image of themselves standing about 2 metres in front. The experimenters then stroke the volunteer’s back – which the volunteers see being done to their virtual self. This creates sensory conflict, and many reported feeling their sense of self migrating out of their physical bodies and towards the virtual one.

Interestingly people claim to have seen themselves and others around them in the area while they had their eyes closed through the whole experience. So it is likely that the experience is created from bits of memories.

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’.

Out of body experience

ScienceDaily has an item on the research of O. Blanke’s lab at the EPFL Switzerland (here). The sense of self-identification and self-location can be altered in healthy people under certain experimental conditions, yielding similar sensations to those felt in out-of-body experiences.

“research to see whether there are changes in touch perception when humans experience ownership of a whole virtual body. They designed a novel behavioural task in which the experimental participants had to try to detect where on their body vibrations were occurring. At the same time, they viewed their own body via a head-mounted display connected to a camera filming the participant’s back from two metres away. The participants had to ignore light flashes that appeared on their body near the vibrators. To induce the feeling that they were located in the position where they viewed their body (i.e. two metres in front of them), participants were stroked on their backs with a stick. This induced a “full body illusion” in which a person perceives herself as being located outside the confines of her own body.

By measuring how strongly the light flashes interfered with the perception of the vibrations, the researchers were able to show that the mapping of touch sensations was altered during the full body illusion. The mapping of touch in space was shifted towards the virtual body when subjects felt themselves to be located where the virtual body was seen.

This study demonstrates that changes in self-consciousness (‘where am I located?’ and ‘what is my body?’) are accompanied by changes in where touch sensations are experienced in space. Importantly, these data reveal that brain mechanisms of multisensory processing are crucial for the “I” of conscious experience and can be scientifically manipulated in order to animate and incarnate virtual humans, robots, and machines.”

Our bodies seem to be inferred in our consciousness as are other sensory perceptions.

Eco cells

An article on the Smithsonian website, Brain Cells for Socializing, discusses Eco cells. (here)

“The von Economo neurons are the most striking finding of recent years in comparative brain research, in which scientists tease out fine differences among species. Neuroanatomist Patrick Hof and his colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan first stumbled across the neurons in human brain specimens in 1995… Most neurons have cone- or star-shaped bodies with several branching projections, called dendrites, that receive signals from neighboring cells. But von Economo neurons are thin and elongated, with just one dendrite at each end. They are four times bigger than most other brain cells, and even in species that have the cells, they are rare…

The spinal shaped cells occur only in the anterior cingulate cortex and the frontal insula. About 100 mammals have been examined of the unusual cells but they are found only in great apes , elephants, humpback whales, sperm whales, fin whales, orcas and bottle-nosed dolphins. The common thread here is that these animals are (1) very social (2) with large brains. Whales and elephants, like people and great apes, have extremely large brains and a prolonged juvenile stage during which they learn from their elders.

In 1999, the scientists reported that all great ape species had von Economo cells, but lesser primates, such as macaques, lemurs and tarsiers, did not. That meant the neurons evolved in a common ancestor of all the great apes about 13 million years ago, after they diverged from other primates but well before the human and chimp lineages diverged about six million years ago…”

William Seeley, a neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco, studies a poorly understood neurodegenerative disease called frontotemporal dementia. Patients suffer a breakdown in their character, losing social graces and empathy, turning insensitive, erratic and irresponsible. Marriages and careers implode. Many patients seem to lack physical self-awareness: when diagnosed with other illnesses, they deny having any problems. Brain imaging studies of patients with the dementia have uncovered damage to frontal areas of the brain….Analyzing brains from deceased patients, the scientists discovered that, in fact, about 70 percent of von Economo neurons in the ACC had been destroyed, whereas neighboring brain cells were largely unaffected. “It is very clear that the original target of the disease is these cells, and when you destroy these cells you get the whole breakdown of social functioning,” says Allman. “That’s a really astounding result that speaks to the function of the cells about as clearly as anything can.”

It is possible that similar cells with a similar function occur in many social animals but that it is only in large brains where extra speed is required that they take on the distinctive spinal shape and large size.

Unwilling to see ourselves

We do not see yourselves as others see us at least as far as body language is concerned. The British Psychological Society Research Digest reported on the work led by W. Hofmann (here). People were video taped and the recording shown to the subject and to others.

…The premise of the new study is the tip-of-the-iceberg idea that what we know about ourselves is fairly limited, with many of our impulses, traits and beliefs residing below the level of conscious access. The researchers wondered whether people would be able to form a truer picture of themselves when presented with a video of their own body language… they weren’t able to.

…What was going on? Why can’t we use a video of ourselves to improve the accuracy of our self-perception? One answer could lie in cognitive dissonance – the need for us to hold consistent beliefs about ourselves. People may well be extremely reluctant to revise their self-perceptions, even in the face of powerful objective evidence.

…”When applied to the question of how people may gain knowledge about their unconscious self, the present set of studies demonstrates that self-perceivers do not appear to pay as much attention to and make as much use of available behavioural information as neutral observers,” the researchers said.

This seems a fairly general situation. We are often very surprised at how we sound on recording as well as how we look. And we are often surprised at how others assess our attitudes and motivations.


Mind Hack blog (here) led me to a review of the video game Mirror’s Edge by Clive Thompson (here). What he discusses is what he calls a proprioception hack. Proprioception is the sense of where your body is in space and this game appears to pull consciousness into the action.


Clive Thompson’s description of playing the game:

“The hot new videogame is a sort of “first-person runner”: You’re a courier who travels across the rooftops of a locked-down, police-state city, delivering black-market messages by using acrobatic feats of parkour. You’re constantly leaping over gaps 40 stories in the air, tightrope-walking along suspended pipes and vaulting up walls like a ninja….

The upshot is that these small, subtle visual cues have one big and potent side effect: They trigger your sense of proprioception. It’s why you feel so much more “inside” the avatar here than in any other first-person game. And it explains, I think, why Mirror’s Edge is so curiously likely to produce motion sickness. The game is not merely graphically realistic; it’s neurologically realistic….

Indeed, the sense of physicality is so vivid that, for me anyway, the most exhilarating part of the game wasn’t the obvious stuff, like leaping from rooftop to rooftop. No, I mostly got a blast from the mere act of running around. I’ve never played a game that conveyed so beautifully the athletically kinetic joys of sprinting — of jetting down alleyways, racing along rooftops and taking corners like an Olympian. It’s an interesting lesson of game physics: When you feel like you’re truly inside your character, speed suddenly means something.”


Vaughan gives some explanation:

“In other words, it remaps your body schema so that you feel more fully that you are the character in the game. When your character runs fast, you feel it is you running fast. When your character jumps across between two buildings and looks down, you feel a moment of sickening vertigo… Perhaps what this is because when we automatise an action such as a run, a jump or a roll part of the process of making it automatic is losing the experience of the component parts. So, when a computer game feels like real, it is because real feels like nothing — we just ask our brains ‘jump’ and the motor system sorts out the details without our any deep experience of how the jump is performed.”


This game shows that our conscious experience of action amounts to the elaboration of the combination of an intent and sensory feedback with the correct timing.

Self is not simple

This post is more of V.S. Ramachandran’s reply to this year’s Edge question (here), this time on the notion of ‘self’.


“Neurological conditions have shown that the self is not the monolithic entity it believes itself to be. It seems to consist of many components each of which can be studied individually, and the notion of one unitary self may well be an illusion … Consider the following disorders which illustrate different aspects of self.”


He lists a number of disorders:

1.      out of body experiences as a result of some right hemisphere strokes.

2.      the intense desire to have a limb amputated (apotemnophilia) as a result of being born with an incomplete internal image of the body.

3.      trans-sexuality – lack of harmony between the different sources of sexual identity (external anatomy, internal body image, sexual orientation and sexual identity to others).

4.      patient with phantom arm feeling another’s touch sensations.

5.      patient claims to be dead and rejects evidence he is alive (Cotard’s syndrome).

6.      Sufferers from Capgras delusion feel that some people, like a mother, are imposters because they do not feel the familiarity and recognition that they should. Some can also duplicate themselves.

7.      Some people cannot move or interact although they appear to be awake (kinetic muftis). They later say that they were conscious but had no desire to de anything, or had lost their will.

8.      Consciousness can be split into a separate visual and auditory self (akinetic mutism)


“We will now consider two aspects of self that are considered almost axiomatic. First its essentially private nature. You can empathise with someone but never to the point of experiencing her sensations or dissolving into her (except in pathological states like folie a duex and romantic love). Second, it is aware of its own existence. A self that negates itself is an oxymoron. Yet both these axioms can fall apart in disease; without affecting other aspects of self. An amputee can literally feel his phantom limb being touched when he merely watches a normal person being touched. A person with Cotard’s syndrome will deny that he exists; claiming that his body is a mere empty shell. Explaining these disorders in neural terms can help illuminate how the normal self is constructed.”


Ramachandran makes a good case for ‘self’ not being a simple, single, obvious  entity.

Why make problems?

One of the problems that people have with unconscious thought is that they do not completely identify with it. This seems a bit odd to me.


I hear people say things like, “I didn’t decide to do that, it was just my brain that was responsible”, or, “How can I have free will if I don’t make decision with a conscious mind?”, or, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t do it consciously.”  It is as if people have divided themselves into two beings.


There is their ‘real self’ and it controls, or in some cases does not control, their ‘other part’. They have some level of non-identification with this second, other self. I find it difficult to put myself in this frame of mind. I find it awkward to disown anything within my skin or any of my actions. I have never been a sleep-walker but if I were, I am sure I would feel that it was me that was sleep-walking. I would be told that I had been sleep-walking and if I believed that account then I would believe that I was sleep-walking. Who else?


I know the boundaries of ‘self’ are not that simple and can shift depending on circumstances. I can loss and gain bits – small bits. But really, to shift to such an extent as to lose a brain is hardly credible.


I also find it unbelievable that people can live their lives assuming that there are two people sharing their bodies. How awkward would that be! It would be easier to suffer from split-personality – where at least you are only one person at a time.


Now, I know that we can be convinced to believe a difficult or awkward concept. It is not easy to think in terms of curved space-time and all those details of post Newtonian physics. It would have been difficult to accept, when it was originally proposed, that the earth goes around the sun rather than vice versa. But this is different, here science and good sense is nudging us to accept a view that is easy and uncomplicated yet there are a great many that resist the idea and cling to an idea of selves that appears to be silly. They tie themselves, their philosophies and their psychologies in knots just to protect a self-image that is ridiculous – that they are two rather than one being. This has always, and continues, to amaze me.

Who is watching?

The point of this blog is to prepare for the revolution in brain sciences that is happening now. One of the greatest wrenches will be how we will have to look at ourselves. What about our conscious sense of self – the little homunculus, the ghost in the machine? This sense of self comes from many sources.


Most of the time, we are not aware of our consciousness – or of our sense of self. Only when we engage in introspection do we seem to be able to look at our consciousness and our ‘selves’. When we introspect, we set up the internal movie screen, so to speak, or the ‘Cartesian theatre’. We withdraw from consciousness in order to examine it. We now watch our consciousness as a spectator. Some little voice tells us that we are now watching us watching our consciousness and that this is a slippery slope of endless watchers of watchers. There is no reason to believe that the introspective self is anything but an illusion. That particular sense of self is a creation of introspection, for introspection, by introspection (to steal a bit of the Gettysburg Address). How can something be examined except to make it the object of something that does the examination?


There are other ‘selves’. There are our bodies with their vague feelings and their aches and pains. We are usually aware of very little, if any, of the body’s processes. Consciousness is more about our environment then our own bodies. We are aware of our emotions and there is a sense in which that contributes to a sense of self. We are aware of our intentions, at least some of them, and this seems definitely to give us a sense of self through a sense of will. We have a memory of personal history and continuity that is a sense of self. Some of these aspects of these other selves may be illusionary and but not entirely so.


It may even be that we need something to attach our vague fringe feelings to so that they can enter the theatre of consciousness. What is it that is familiar with this place when we have a feeling of deja vu?


When awareness of all these aspects of self are put together with the introspective watcher, we have the perception of a self or an inferred conception of a self that is more elaborate then just the watcher. It is also stronger because of its diverse sources. The nature of this perception of self has been affected for many years by dualistic philosophy. If we are going to understand consciousness we have to lose the notion that there are two realms, the physical and the mental. We have to lose the idea that introspection has some absolute truth about it. ‘I think therefore I am’, has to be seen as a circular argument for a fictional type of self, the introspective self. The statement actually says nothing and proves nothing.


I am not suggesting that any of us do not exist. Of course we exist. I suggest only that we start to consider that our particular experience of ‘self’ may, and probably is, an illusion of consciousness.