Category Archives: brain functions

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 (one or multiple discussions)
  • neuroscience of empathy – effects on the brain, including on neuroplasticity
  • comparative effects of various meditative practices on the brain
  • comparative effects of various psychedelics on the brain
  • effects of childhood poverty on the brain

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.

Giant neuron found encircling and intraconnecting mouse brain

A neuron that encircles the mouse brain emanates from the claustrum (an on/off switch for awareness) and has dense links with both brain hemispheres. Scientists including Francis Crick and Christoph Koch have speculated that the claustrum may play a role in enabling conscious thought.

https://www.sciencealert.com/a-giant-neuron-has-been-found-wrapped-around-the-entire-circumference-of-the-brain 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1569501/ (Crick and Koch academic article)

We’ve frequently discussed how self-aware consciousness likely arises not from any single brain structure or signal, but from complex, recursive (reentrant), synchronized signaling among many structures organized into functional regions. (Did I get close to accurate there?) That a giant neuron provides another connection path among such regions can be taken to align with the reentrant signaling and coordination view of consciousness (ala Edelman and Tononi).

Embodied consciousness and the Flow Genome Project

In line with our July joint meeting with the NM Tech Council, I’m reading a fascinating book (Stealing Fire) on the variety of ways humans can experience states of flow (optimal states of consciousness and performance). The authors, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, explain the significance of flow and introduce their Flow Dojo concept in the videos linked below. Applying methods for achieving flow is often categorized in the consciousness hacking movement, also called brain hacking.

What is Flow (6+ minutes)

The Flow Dojo (4+ minutes)

All Flow Genome Project videos

Long (1 hour) interview by Jason Silva follows:

Evan Thompson: Buddhism and the brain

Here is an interview with Thompson on Buddhism and the Brain. It starts with defining consciousness as awareness, its changing contents and how both then identify as a self in changing contexts. “Consciousness is something we live, not something we have.”

I also like using the metaphor of dance for the process of self. Both are in the enaction of the process, not a thing apart from that process.

He also goes into how mindfulness in our culture has turned into McMindfulness, how we might learn to pay attention non-judgmentally but then fail to  judge how the work we do might be harming others and the environment. It’s taken out of context with the entire Buddhist ethical framework.

There’s more in the interview with an embedded link to the full interview.

Computer metaphor not accurate for brain’s embodied cognition

It’s common for brain functions to be described in terms of digital computing, but this metaphor does not hold up in brain research. Unlike computers, in which hardware and software are separate, organic brains’ structures embody memories and brain functions. Form and function are entangled.

Rather than finding brains to work like computers, we are beginning to design computers–artificial intelligence systems–to work more like brains. 

https://www.wired.com/story/tech-metaphors-are-holding-back-brain-research/ 

Mathematical field of topology reveals importance of ‘holes in brain’

New Scientist article: Applying the mathematical field of topology to brain science suggests gaps in densely connected brain regions serve essential cognitive functions. Newly discovered densely connected neural groups are characterized by a gap in the center, with one edge of the ring (cycle) being very thin. It’s speculated that this architecture evolved to enable the brain to better time and sequence the integration of information from different functional areas into a coherent pattern.

Aspects of the findings appear to support Edelman’s and Tononi’s (2000, p. 83) theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS, aka neural Darwinism).


Edelman, G.M. and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. Basic Books.

Please recommend sources on the evolution of political impulses and thinking

In preparation for the March meeting topic, Your Political Brain, please recommend any resources you have found particularly enlightening about why humans evolved political thinking. Also, please share references about how brain functions lead to political perceptions. I’m assuming political perceptions result from more fundamental cognitive orientations, and that those arise in part from one’s genetics and in part from environment (during development and afterward).

Let’s use the following description from Wikipedia:

Politics is the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance— organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (this is usually a hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities. (Wikipedia)

This description places political thinking in the realm of the brain’s/mind’s social processing.

Following are some candidate resources for our discussion preparation:

Edward’s recommendations

Mark’s recommendations

People’s brains store and recall stories the same way

New scientific findings support the idea that different humans’ brains store and recall story scenes the same way, rather than each person developing unique memory patterns about stories. Also, people generally do well recalling the details of stories. I want to see more targeted research that determines whether information packed in story structures (a person wrestling with a difficult challenge and changing as a result) is more readily and accurately transmitted from brain to brain via storytelling. This would be compared with information packaged simply to inform of facts (Wikipedia entries, technical reports, etc.). My experience agrees with this research: different people tend to recall stories equally well. (Oddly, people vary greatly in their recall of eye-witness tasks. Something about how information is delivered in storytelling greatly improves accuracy of recall.) I think our brains evolved a special facility for paying attention to stories and therefore to remember them. If true, storytellers should learn what we can about how the brain processes stories.