Category Archives: cognition

Review of Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind

This is from a review/analysis of Damasio’s book Self Comes to Mind:

“On Page 8 he says, ‘I believe that conscious minds arise when a self process is added to a basic mind process.’ So, in Damasio’s view the difference between mind and consciousness is all about the self. He defines ‘mind’ as the process by which the brain creates images based on its maps, both of the body and of the world. But he says that the mind is unconscious until it has a sense of self.

“Now, based on Damasio’s definition, minds have existed for a long time, but they weren’t conscious. He says, ‘A mind unwitnessed is still a mind.’ The key idea is that mind developed independently of consciousness—or at least before it. But they’re both rooted in the physical processes of the brain, which itself evolved to maintain life.

“Damasio sees consciousness as being mind plus the self process. Thus consciousness is more than being awake; but of course, you have to be awake to be conscious.

“According to Damasio, consciousness requires that: 1. You are awake; 2. You have an operational mind, that is, one that makes images; and 3. You have what he calls an ‘automatic, unprompted, unreduced sense of self.’

“He has what he calls ‘core consciousness’—which he describes as having a sense of self in the here-and-now, without a sense of past or future—and ‘autobiographical consciousness,’ which includes both personhood and identity….this way of thinking about consciousness allows for consciousness to exist in many non-human species…. He emphasizes that ‘core consciousness does not require language.’

“After acknowledging the importance of consciousness, Damasio returns to his evolutionary perspective and says we need to acknowledge what came before consciousness—that is to say, much of what the brain and the mind does is unconscious. He rejects the Freudian unconscious, but he refers to ‘the large unconscious,’ which he says is made up of two ingredients: an active ingredient, which is the maps and images that are constantly being formed and updated (most of which never reach consciousness), and then the dormant ingredient, which is ‘the repository of coded records from which explicit images can be formed.’

“So, it’s a good thing most of this never reaches consciousness, or we’d drown in the din. The brain takes the overabundance of inputs and tries to compose a coherent narrative. This is another aspect of our limited attentional spotlight—that magicians exploit.

“But despite the importance of consciousness, it is important to remember that it’s built on unconscious processes that are in charge of life regulation. Damasio calls these processes ‘blind dispositions,’ and says that they deliver the rewards and punishments that promote drive, motivation, and emotions. The map-making process is also unconscious; so consciousness is what we would call ‘a late-comer to life management.’

“Damasio says that his position is ‘Consciousness offers a direct experience of mind, but the broker of the experience is a self, which is an internal and imperfectly instructed informer rather than an external reliable observer.’

“‘The brain constructs consciousness by generating a self process within an awake mind;’ the parts are the ‘mind’ and ‘wakefulness— which are indispensable—and the ‘self.’

“He also proposes that the self is built in stages. The first stage is the protoself. He says that the protoself is a neural description of relatively stable aspects of the organism. The main product of the protoself is spontaneous feelings of the living body, which he calls ‘primordial feelings.’

“The second stage is the core self. According to Damasio a pulse of core self is generated when the protoself is modified by an interaction between the organism and an object, and then as a result the images of the object get modified. The modified images of the object and the organism are momentarily linked in a coherent pattern. This is described in a narrative sequence of images, some of which are feelings.

“The third stage, the autobiographical self, occurs when objects in one’s biography generate pulses of core self that are subsequently momentarily linked in a large scale coherent pattern.

“Damasio points out that a lot of what’s in the unconscious is stuff that has been put there through training—learning. And it allows us to do things, because if we had to concentrate on everything—for example, walking—we wouldn’t be able to do anything more complicated. He emphasizes the importance of educating the unconscious so that we’re going to respond the way we want. For example, he says moral behavior is a skill set.”

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.

Neural responses to media a strong predictor of friendship

“The findings revealed that  similarity was strongest among friends, and this pattern appeared to manifest across brain regions involved in emotional responding, directing one’s attention and high-level reasoning. Even when the researchers controlled for variables, including left-handed- or right-handedness, age, gender, ethnicity, and nationality, the similarity in neural activity among friends was still evident. The team also found that fMRI response similarities could be used to predict not only if a pair were friends but also the social distance between the two.”

https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-01-brain-reveals-friends-similar-neural.html

Persuasion: Do you want to be effective or just feel righteous?

A recent article in The Atlantic reports fascinating research on the relative effectiveness of typical and moral-framing based approaches to persuading people of an opposing political orientation to see value in alternative positions. The upshot is that there are verifiably effective methods for getting around entrenched, reflexive opposition.

Altered states and altered traits

Good, brief clip on the difference between the above, and how meditation can turn altered states into lasting traits that one carries in their daily life. Aside from the physiological benefits, if we can just dump the metaphysical mumbo jumbo that accompanies traditional interpretations of what these states and traits mean then we’ll have made progress toward a postmetaphysical cultural metaphor.

Seeing my blindfold

I’ve found some thought-provoking answers on the Q&A social media site, Quora. Follow the link to a perceptive and helpful answer to, “Can a person be able to objectively identify exactly when and how their thinking processes are being affected by cognitive biases?

The author provides some practical (if exhausting) recommendations that, if even partly followed by a third-to-half of people (my guestimate), would possibly collapse the adversarial culture in our country.

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.

Liology: Towards an integration of science and meaning

In this 20-minute video Jeremy Lent gives a brief introduction into his system of liology, his response to substance dualism. Conventional science maintains this dualism, so it is up to the ecological science of dynamical systems theory to correct it. He finds a precursor of systems science in Chinese Neo-Confucianism, which seems a bit of romantic retro-fitting to me, given their own environmental degradation which he minimalizes in his book The Patterning Instinct. That aside, he’s right about the emerging paradigm of systems science as a necessary metaphoric shift if we are to have any chance of curtailing climate change and implementing a sustainable and humane future.