Category Archives: brain functions

Towards a cognitive neuroscience of self-awareness

Recall the anterior cingulate cortex’s (ACC) role in meditative states from the last post. This neuroscience article by the above name claims that “self-awareness is a pivotal component of conscious experience. It is correlated with a paralimbic network of medial prefrontal/anterior cingulate and medial parietal/posterior cingulate cortical ‘hubs’ and associated regions. Electromagnetic and transmitter manipulation have demonstrated that the network is not an epiphenomenon but instrumental in generation of self-awareness.”

Concerning meditation and this brain network: “The new understanding of the physiology and pathophysiology of self-awareness outlined in Section 4 may lead to the application of unconventional therapeutical strategies to increase dopaminergic activity and to improve paralimbic interaction. These strategies include relaxation meditation like yoga nidra or mindfulness meditation, which in independent studies have been shown to increase dopaminergic tone and induce growth in paralimbic structures.”

The neurocircuitry of awakening

See Dan Brown talking about it in this video. He is also co-author in the paper “Mapping complex mind states.” Some excerpts from the latter follow. Note that it does not differentiate the different aspect of ‘self’ as discussed by Damasio. It appears that what it means by ‘self’ is the autobiographical self-reference system. However Damasio would see some of these results as examples of the proto-self and core self. This neuroscience article compares Damasio’s different types of self to meditative states.

“Modulation within the anterior cingulate (ACC) executive hub was observed in the gamma band range. […] The ACC represents a core brain structure in terms of centralized executive functioning. […] An overarching theory proposes the key interplay of the ACC in ‘self-regulatory’ processes, broadly defined. […] These findings suggest enhanced executive control extending to challenging cognitive, emotional, and physical processing demands, largely observed during periods of sustained attention. Furthermore, enhanced current density within the ACC, d[orsal]ACC, and v[entral]ACC, was exclusive to the gamma-band frequency range, whereby modulation of gamma activity has been associated with increasing complexity of experimental tasks, task difficulty, and mental effort” (49).

“Within this shifted tonic brain meditative state (S1 onwards), collectively, enhanced ACC and parietal cortex current density vector magnitudes in concert with increased activation within the insula, suggest the onset of executive brain networks involved in saliency, conflict monitoring, emotion control and shifts in perspective-taking. We may infer that such neural activity contributed to the cultivation and sustainment of intricate internal states encompassing experiences of non-duality, and having no reference point (thus non-preference). Furthermore, decreases in cortical networks involved with self-referential processing, such as the PCC [posterior cingulate cortex], support the down-regulation of self-orientation, while the continued attenuation of these regions with a simultaneous increase in executive network activity between meditative states provides initial evidence of a dissociability of these networks within an active, ongoing movement towards non-dual states. Such complex functioning is consistent with selfless (and thus effortless), yet active meditation in line with the construct of non-localized awakened awareness and its expression as ‘unified compassion'” (51).

A dive into the black waters under the surface of persuasive design

A Guardian article last October brings the darker aspects of the attention economy, particularly the techniques and tools of neural hijacking, into sharp focus. The piece summarizes some interaction design principles and trends that signal a fundamental shift in means, deployment, and startling effectiveness of mass persuasion. The mechanisms reliably and efficiently leverage neural reward (dopamine) circuits to seize, hold, and direct attention toward whatever end the designer and content providers choose.

The organizer of a $1,700 per person event convened to show marketers and technicians “how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products,” put it baldly.

subtle psychological tricks … can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create “a craving”, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as “triggers”. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation”

Particularly telling of the growing ethical worry are the defections from social media among Silicon Valley insiders.

Pearlman, then a product manager at Facebook and on the team that created the Facebook “like”,  … confirmed via email that she, too, has grown disaffected with Facebook “likes” and other addictive feedback loops. She has installed a web browser plug-in to eradicate her Facebook news feed, and hired a social media manager to monitor her Facebook page so that she doesn’t have to.
It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply.

If you read the article, please comment on any future meeting topics you detect. I find it a vibrant collection of concepts for further exploration.

Communication between brain areas based on nested oscillations

eNeuro, 10 March 2017, 4(2). This might be neuroscientific evidence for my speculations on the syntegration of consciousness states and stages via meditative discipline. To be determined. The abstract:

“Unraveling how brain regions communicate is crucial for understanding how the brain processes external and internal information. Neuronal oscillations within and across brain regions have been proposed to play a crucial role in this process. Two main hypotheses have been suggested for routing of information based on oscillations, namely communication through coherence and gating by inhibition. Here, we propose a framework unifying these two hypotheses that is based on recent empirical findings. We discuss a theory in which communication between two regions is established by phase synchronization of oscillations at lower frequencies, which serve as temporal reference frame for information carried by higher frequency activity. Our framework, consistent with numerous recent empirical findings, posits that cross-frequency interactions are essential for understanding how large-scale cognitive and perceptual networks operate.”

The religious brain and atheism

As much of the world settles into the spectacle and cozy embrace of culturally reinforced magical thinking, New Scientist has several interesting recent articles about the evolved intuitive nature of religious thinking as a cognitive by-product (of the value of assuming agency in environmental phenomena, for example) and delving into how atheism is and is not like religious thinking. I find the point interesting that religion and atheism (or any ism), as social constructs, cannot be studied and compared in the same ways that objectively real objects and phenomena can, but we can learn much from systematic approaches to investigating the underlying neurological functions and their probable evolutionary value.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23631561-000-effortless-thinking-the-godshaped-hole-in-your-brain/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328562-000-the-god-issue-we-are-all-born-believers/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23431212-800-faith-of-the-faithless-is-atheism-just-another-religion/

If you don’t subscribe, Albuquerque Public Libraries carry New Scientist.

The non-conscious nature of being

 Recent paper by that name in Frontiers in Psychology. The abstract follows. Since I’ve long thought the opposite of what the paper claims I’ll have to read and ponder this one for a bit. The introduction follows:

“Despite the compelling subjective experience of executive self-control, we argue that ‘consciousness’ contains no top-down control processes and that ‘consciousness’ involves no executive, causal, or controlling relationship with any of the familiar psychological processes conventionally attributed to it. In our view, psychological processing and psychological products are not under the control of consciousness. In particular, we argue that all ‘contents of consciousness’ are generated by and within non-conscious brain systems in the form of a continuous self-referential personal narrative that is not directed or influenced in any way by the ‘experience of consciousness.’ This continuously updated personal narrative arises from selective ‘internal broadcasting’ of outputs from non-conscious executive systems that have access to all forms of cognitive processing, sensory information, and motor control. The personal narrative provides information for storage in autobiographical memory and is underpinned by constructs of self and agency, also created in non-conscious systems. The experience of consciousness is a passive accompaniment to the non-conscious processes of internal broadcasting and the creation of the personal narrative. In this sense, personal awareness is analogous to the rainbow which accompanies physical processes in the atmosphere but exerts no influence over them. Though it is an end-product created by non-conscious executive systems, the personal narrative serves the powerful evolutionary function of enabling individuals to communicate (externally broadcast) the contents of internal broadcasting. This in turn allows recipients to generate potentially adaptive strategies, such as predicting the behavior of others and underlies the development of social and cultural structures, that promote species survival. Consequently, it is the capacity to communicate to others the contents of the personal narrative that confers an evolutionary advantage—not the experience of consciousness (personal awareness) itself.”

Neuroscience of Empathy

(This is copied from the Meetup site. Thanks again to Brent for hosting.)

Details

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand how they feel- to be them, even for a second. It’s the link between self and others: how we connect, heal, and relate. Considering its importance in every aspect of our lives, we are taking a deeper look at the neuroscience behind empathy.

Recommended Preparation Info.

The Neuroscience of Empathy | Article | 5 minutes (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/the-neuroscience-empathy)

The Neuroscience of Compassion | Video | 20 min (https://youtu.be/n-hKS4rucTY)

Jeremy Rifkin: The empathic civilization | Video | 10 min (https://www.ted.com/talks/jeremy_rifkin_on_the_empathic_civilization)

A CALM LOOK AT THE MOST HYPED CONCEPT IN NEUROSCIENCE – MIRROR NEURONS | Article | 5 min (https://www.wired.com/2013/12/a-calm-look-at-the-most-hyped-concept-in-neuroscience-mirror-neurons/)

Empathy for others’ pain rooted in cognition rather than sensation | Article | 5 min (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/06/160614100237.htm)

Thomas Lewis: “The Neuroscience of Empathy” | Video | 60 min (https://youtu.be/1-T2GsG0l1E)

Suggested Additional Info.

Feeling Others’ Pain: Transforming Empathy into Compassion | Article | 5 min (https://www.cogneurosociety.org/empathy_pain/)

Structural basis of empathy and the domain general region in the anterior insular cortex | Study | 20 min (http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00177/full)

Neurobiology of Empathy and Callousness: Implications for the Development of Antisocial Behavior | Study | 20 min (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2729461/)

The Science Behind Empathy and Empaths | Article | 5 min (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-empaths-survival-guide/201703/the-science-behind-empathy-and-empaths)

Study challenges perception that empathy erodes during medical school | Article | 5 min (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170909194039.htm)

Comments

  • Mark Harris

    Rifkin’s book, The Empathic Civilization, is excellent.

    29 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to an excellent article arguing against a myopic focus on empathy.
    http://bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-against-empathy

    23 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to a free ebook that is entitled Compassion: Bridging Science and Practice. The book is the culmination of research findings in social neuroscience studies conducted by Tania Singer and others. There are multiple formats for download.
    http://www.compassion-training.org/?page=download&lang=en

    23 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to an article about Tania Singer’s research in Science Magazine.
    http://flourishfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Compassioan-Science-2013.pdf

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    From the link: “Patterns associated with empathic care, for instance, overlapped with systems in the brain associated with value and reward, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the medial orbitofrontal cortex. In contrast, patterns of empathic distress overlapped with systems in the brain known for mirroring, such as the premotor cortex and the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, which help an individual simulate or imagine what another person is feeling or thinking.”

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    Here’s another one I just read: “Brain imaging reveals neural roots of caring. http://neurosciencenews.com/caring-neural-roots-6870/

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    From the conclusion: “Shared representations of affective states are activated from the top down in more  cognitive forms of empathy, which recruit additional executive and visuospatial processes. However, the literature overestimates distinctions between emotional and cognitive empathy, following traditional practices to dichotomize in science and philosophy. Despite each
    having unique features, affective and cognitive empathy both require access to the shared representations of emotion that provide simulations with content and an
    embodied meaning.”

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    The entire article can be read here: https://sci-hub.cc/10.1038/nrn.2017.72

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    And this article. Abstract: “Recent research on empathy in humans and other mammals seeks to dissociate emotional and cognitive empathy. These forms, however, remain interconnected in evolution, across species and at the level of neural mechanisms. New data have facilitated the development of empathy models such as the perception–action model (PAM) and mirror-neuron theories. According to the PAM, the emotional states of others are understood through personal, embodied representations that allow empathy and accuracy to increase based on the observer’s past experiences. In this Review, we discuss the latest evidence from studies carried out across a wide range of species, including studies on yawn contagion, consolation, aid-giving and contagious physiological affect, and we summarize neuroscientific data on representations related to another’s state.” https://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v18/n8/full/nrn.2017.72.html

    23 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to an excellent video of 4 researchers giving talks at the Stanford CCARE conference. The video is 75 minutes.
    CCARE Science of Compassion 2014: Introduction to the Science of Empathy, Altruism, and Compassion
    https://youtu.be/YFDiQNwqbfw

    22 days ago
  • Edward

    Jimmy Kimmel in this video highlights a lot of what we talked about tonight. Yes, we need to feel empathy for those killed an injured in the Las Vegas shooting, but we also need to DO something about it. Meaning gun legislation. He highlights those in Congress who are making it easier instead of harder to obtain the kind of automatic weapons used in this mass murder. The reality is we must make such guns illegal, for it acts on our empathy and morality in a way that protects and serves us. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruYeBXudsds

    21 days ago

Are We Racists?

BMAI friends. The following ramble is my first cut at making sense of the grave role racial (and other) bias is playing in the world today. This was prompted by comments I see daily from my family and friends on social media. Thinking about the great lack of self- and group-awareness many of the commenters display, I turned my scope inward. How do my own innate, evolved biases slant me to take my group’s and my own privileges for granted and make invalid assumptions about those I perceive (subconsciously or explicitly) to be ‘the other’? I put this forward to start a discussion and hope you will contribute your own insights and references. Feel free to post comments or even insert questions, comments, or new text directly into my text. Of course, you can create your own new posts as well. Thanks.


Two Levels of Racism
 
1. Population Group Level
 
Racism is an expression of group dynamics. Consider two levels of racism. First, there’s systemic racism where conditions in a population generally favor one race over others. One race (or maybe a few races) has greater access to material and cultural influence in the population. This does not occur accidentally, but through the ongoing efforts of the dominant group to achieve and expand its controlling influence.
 
2. Individual and Local-Group Level
 
That’s where the second level of racism comes in. How a person perceives any group’s efforts to attain equal access and influence depends on whether the person is in the dominant group or the aspiring group. There are many ways individuals and their affinity groups perceive and act within the racially unequal system to maintain or change the racial inequalities. The group in power perceives efforts in its favor as good, appropriate, justified, patriotic, necessary, ethical, moral, and even (when there’s a shared group supernatural narrative) ordained, holy, etc. When a member of an out-group appears to support (or at least not outwardly oppose) the in-group’s dominance, members of the in-group view that as a proof that they are rightfully on top.
 
The group in power perceives any questioning of its dominance in the larger population as suspicious, dishonest, lazy (attempts to gain more access than is deserved), subversive, unpatriotic (or even treasonous), or (through the lens of dogma) evil, anti-God, etc. Obviously, racism (and other efforts to maintain inequality) is at work when these perceptions are acted out by legislators, law enforcers, prosecutors, juries, judges, presidents and their staff members, the private sector, and individual members of the favored group.
 
Members of a group with less influence perceive their questioning of the dominant group’s power in opposite terms from how the dominant group sees their struggle. Members of lower-access groups experience their quest for equality on all fronts as expressions of their inherent right–even necessity–to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness.” They see the efforts of dominant groups to control and exclude them as unjustified oppression by people who abuse the power provided them within a biased system that clearly needs to be changed.
 
On the first (population) level, racism is an aspect of the in-group/out-group dynamics that are present in all of us. Our ‘hard-wired’ programming is to subconsciously favor those we perceive to be more like us (in outward appearance, views, and culture) and subconsciously feel some degree of aversion and suspicion (and often fear) of those whose appearances, views, and culture vary from ours. Groups (through the actions of their members and leaders) use their power to slant social and economic systems to favor their own power and influence and to decrease the influence of those they perceive as not members of their group(s). When this natural bias results in one racial group having greater access to resources (education, healthcare, emergency services, and other public services; jobs; legislative influence; judicial equality; media visibility; etc.), systemic or structural racism is in place.
 
A takeaway of all this is that we are all racists, in the sense that the human brain has evolved complex social navigation functions that include strong biases in favor of one’s perceived in-group and disfavoring members of all other groups. To the extent we are hard-wired to perceive people who (as a category) look superficially different from us as somehow less safe or worthy of inclusion and power-sharing, we are innately racist. When we make the effort to become aware of, challenge, and ensure our racial biases do not influence our words and actions, we are moving toward a less bigoted way of being.

Future discussion topic recommendations

Several of us met on Labor Day with the goal of identifying topics for at least five future monthly meetings. (Thanks, Dave N, for hosting!) Being the overachievers we are, we pushed beyond the goal. Following are the resulting topics, which will each have its own article on this site where we can begin organizing references for the discussion:

  • sex-related influences on emotional memory
    • gross and subtle brain differences (e.g., “walls of the third ventricle – sexual nuclei”)
    • “Are there gender-based brain differences that influence differences in perceptions and experience?”
    • epigenetic factors (may need an overview of epigenetics)
  • embodied cognition
    • computational grounded cognition (possibly the overview and lead-in topic)
    • neuro-reductionist theory vs. enacted theory of mind
    • “Could embodied cognition influence brain differences?” (Whoever suggested this, please clarify.)
  • brain-gut connection (relates to embodied cognition, but can stand on its own as a topic)
  • behavioral priming and subliminal stimuli (effects on later behavior)
  • incremental theory – “The Dark Side of Malleability”
  • creative flow as a unique cognitive process
  • Eastern philosophies and psychology – a psychology of self-cultivation
  • neuroscience of empathy – effects on the brain, including on neuroplasticity (discussed October 2017)
  • comparative effects of various meditative practices on the brain
  • comparative effects of various psychedelics on the brain
  • effects of childhood poverty on the brain
  • neurocognitive bases of racism

If I missed anything, please edit the list (I used HTML in the ‘Text’ view to get sub-bullets). If you’re worried about the formatting, you can email your edits to cogniphile@albuquirky.net and Mark will post your changes.

‘Entangled’ consciousness app approaching release

The Global Consciousness Project, Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS, for which I was once Hawaii state coordinator) and Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) are collaborating to release a smart phone app, Entangled, that aims to

  • Monitor your mind’s influence on your physical environment
  • Let you take part in large-scale consciousness experiments
  • Support ongoing development of a”consciousness technology” platform for developers and artists
  • Monitor global consciousness data in real-time

Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, let me explain that I gently stepped away from IONS after nearly 20 years because I did not see enough focus on or progress toward their stated goal—scientifically researching consciousness. I fully enjoyed their practice-oriented emphases on intuitive, embodied, mindful living, but while they remained ‘entangled’ in New Age phenomenalism and esoteric speculations, true scientific programs at many universities and research organizations have made steady, sometimes frustratingly slow progress (which is how science typically works). So, please don’t take this post as a tacit endorsement of any of the sponsoring organizations. They each raise interesting questions and do some work of scientific merit or promise, but (in my view) if you’re interest is in verifiable, repeatable, causally intelligible phenomena, you must stay vigilant of the unscientific chaff.

That said, the spike in non-random streams in random number generators immediately prior to the 9-11 atrocity remains one of the very few well-documented phenomena that could be taken to imply a correlation between a specific objective event and human transpersonal consciousness. In the view of the Global Consciousness Project, by collecting large samples of the right sorts of data, they can test their hypothesis that “Coherent consciousness creates order in the world. Subtle interactions link us with each other and the Earth.” As I understand it, they are extrapolating to the transpersonal level how an individual brain achieves coherent, self-aware states. Also, they would say we’re aware of the apparent precognitive 9-11 phenomenon because someone was collecting the relevant data that could then be recognized as correlated. The Entanglement app aims to collect more of such data while also providing users real- or near-real-time feedback.

If truly well-designed scientific research programs can show significant evidence of direct, entanglement-like correlations between objectively observable phenomena and consciousness (shown in brain functioning), I’ll be excited to learn about it. I think this is a monumental challenge.