Category Archives: attention

Book: Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff

Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff investigates the impacts of current and emerging technologies and digital culture on individuals and groups and seeks ways to evade or extract ourselves from their corrosive effects.

After you read the book, please post your thoughts as comments to this post or, if you prefer, as new posts. There are interviews and other resources about the book online. Feel free to recommend in the comments those you find meaningful. Also, the audiobook is available through the Albuquerque Public Library but may have a long wait queue (I’m aiming for a record number of ‘q’s in this sentence).

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Neuroscience: Deep breathing changes your brain

Humans have some intentional control over our brains (and minds and bodies) and focused breathing is one of those control mechanisms.

“This recent study finally answers these questions by showing that volitionally controlling our respirational, even merely focusing on one’s breathing, yield additional access and synchrony between brain areas. This understanding may lead to greater control, focus, calmness, and emotional control.”

Ultrasound stimulation to improve brain function

Earlier this year I attended a presentation by Dr. Jay Sanguinetti, UNM, on using ultrasound stimulation of the brain to improve factors related to attention and clear thinking. His team published an article recently in Frontiers in Neurology describing their research.

Gaps in our focused attention

Two papers released in the journal Neuron discuss these gaps, which happen 4 times every second. Hence the object of our focus only gets these quick snapshots and we have to piece them together to create the appearance of continual attention. The reason our focused attention is diverted so frequently is due to evolutionary selection pressures to remain vigilant to dangers in the environment around us. Thus any environmental distraction will interrupt our focus with this frequency.

This reminds me of what I wrote in my review of Thompson’s book, chapter 2:

Consciousness appears to be in a continuous stream, yet it is in fact broken into discontinuous, discrete moments, each of which is conditioned on a variety of contextual factors. […] Thompson wonders if we can measure the gaps between these discrete, phasic moments. […] The referenced experiments showed that we tend to perceive a stimulus when there is a peak in a brain wave cycle, and not so when it hits a trough. That is, much like the longer waking and sleeping cycle, brain wave cycles that happen in milliseconds have a similar effect on perception. These experiments support the hypothesis of discrete, phasic moments. This holds true even for sustained attention of the meditative type. It’s true that such meditative focus increases our ability to sustain attention, yet it is not continuous and alternates in millisecond intervals consistent with brain wave function.

Can children learn to read without explicit instruction from adults?

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An experiment in a remote Ethiopian village demonstrates the potential of mobile devices to enable children to learn and teach each other how to read without traditional schooling.

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See also: How Reading Rewires Your Brain for Empathy

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The evolutionary and present significance of reading

In her new book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, author Maryanne Wolf explores how reading affects the brain and mind. What different effects result from consuming digital media rather than print media and long forms rather than tweets, posts, and other microcontent? In her excellent recent article, she says,

Will new readers develop the more time-demanding cognitive processes nurtured by print-based mediums as they absorb and acquire new cognitive capacities emphasized by digital media? For example, will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences — from social media to virtual games — impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes, such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy, that are all part of deep reading?

Wolf first addressed the evolution of reading and its implications in her earlier book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She summarizes her thesis in this interview (14 min video).

Stanislas Dehaene, an author whose work we’ve discussed, also investigated the brain circuits involved in reading. Hear him speak on the topic in this video (33 min).

Next meeting: Is Eastern psychology relevant to a scientific understanding of mind?

Check the details on our Monday, Feb 5, 2018 discussion meeting:

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.