What does it say about the reality of the outside world if we can be fooled even about the state and composition of parts of our own bodies? And what does it say about the reality of our sense of self if we can’t trust our senses even when they report our apparent body states?
More evidence that the world, including us, is a construct, a mental representation of an otherwise un-experienced world “out there,” crops up in reports of a new study that fools subjects into believing that they have a phantom limb.
Everyone in the social sciences is now aware of the “WEIRD problem,” the built-in sampling bias that permeates the vast majority of psychological studies, the subjects of which are overwhelmingly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.
Are the physical sciences also biased? In particular, is the way we typically explain the physics of the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic, with the assumption from Newton to the present that the universe functions the same way that our minds function?
The pairing of two seemingly-unrelated articles prompts this posting, which examines some of the ways that we can reconsider our “selves” as something other than unitary beings, or even unitary perceptions of dynamic states of being.
In the most recent post on this page (I’ve Mind, Hive Mind), I wrote that “our intellects are unique, in the sense that no other animal more than remotely approaches the power of the human brain.”
Chip Walter made a strong case for this claim in his excellent, soon-to-be-published book, Last Ape Standing (which I recently reviewed on my BOOKS page). Now a new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, gives empirical support to the idea. Continue reading
Human intelligence is unique, and it isn’t.
Our intellects are unique, in the sense that no other animal more than remotely approaches the power of the human brain, a power that includes the remarkable ability both to become aware of its own activity and to think about itself. Cognition and metacognition, on a scale no other animal even approaches.
Our intellects are not unique, in the sense that our formidable mental powers result from the action and interaction of the same neural raw material that compose all synaptic systems, large and small. A hundred neurons or a hundred million neurons is a difference of scale — a very significant difference — not a difference of kind.
The idea that all brains fall somewhere along the same neural continuum is reinforced by David Robson’s “Hive minds: Honeybee intelligence creates a buzz,” published by New Scientist on November 28th.
In the latest issue of Philosophy Now, Raymond Tallis takes a semi-serious look at the great unknown, the under-examined third of our lives in which we are asleep.
The tone of Tallis’s article comes from the fact that he, like the rest of us, doesn’t know the first thing about sleep. Not just what it is and why we do it, but what it means to our concepts of consciousness and self that every night we lose control, passing from a world of physical perception to another of mental impression. Continue reading
It’s hard to imagine a case that could bring the questions about moral and legal responsibility that are raised by neuroscience any more front and centre than the upcoming investigation of the motives and culpability of Aurora mass murderer James Holmes.
We now know that Holmes was seeing a psychiatrist before his rampage. And his dazed behaviour during his first court appearance suggests that he may be so seriously unhinged that it will be very difficult to hold him criminally responsible for his actions.
Many people suspect that the neuroscience student’s “insanity” is a carefully and cynically planned “get out of jail free” card. They worry that he’ll get away with it, avoiding the harshest versions of the retribution that his crime deserves.
There have been several posts here on whether and to what extent neuroscience should mitigate criminal responsibility, most recently “But it’s the other guy in my brain who’s guilty.”
Many experts, among them Michael Gazzaniga (article here), have argued that brain science is nowhere near complete nor definitive enough to inform decisions about criminal guilt. One of the most recent forays into this contentious legal arena is a New York Times piece by psychologists John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz.
Two new online articles explore the brain centres that may be responsible for self-awareness.
The first article begins with the question, how do we become conscious after sleep? The question can be rephrased to ask what brain areas become more active as we wake and regain normal self-awareness.
Whatever your definition of consciousness, or your opinion of brain scan studies, unless you’re up for some form of dualism there’s no real disputing that every cognitive state is associated with specific brain processes.
Science Daily published online a summary of new research into the brain states of “lucid dreamers,” people who, though asleep, are aware that they are dreaming and whose brain activity at the moment of achieving this “dreaming awareness” is more easily measured than is the brain activity of typical, non-conscious dreamers.
What accounts for differences in the level of altruism we display? Why are some people generous, while others are not?
Some of the answer is surely cultural, as there are marked differences between cultures in the frequency and forms of altruistic behaviour. But a new study, published in the July 12th issue of Neuron and reported online last week, shows that there is a measurable physical component to altruism. People who are more altruistic have more grey matter in a particular part of their brains, and that region is more active in them than in people who are less altruistic.
The Neuron study shows for the first time that there is a connection between altruism and the anatomy and activity of the brain.
When a personality that’s not me commits a crime, is it a fair punishment to incarcerate the body we share?
And if it’s not, then doesn’t a part of me that I don’t even know get away with it, even get away with murder?
These are the kinds of brain-twisting questions that loom over criminal justice thanks to advances in neuropsychology. And these are the questions that give nightmares to the many who worry about a science-induced end to criminal justice as we know it.
In “Split personality crime: who is guilty?” — a soon to be “paywalled” article published by New Scientist on July 5th — Jessica Hamzelou reports on a study of patients diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID), also known as multiple personality disorder.