Another example of our mental complexity

Last time, I wrote about the incredible complexity of the human brain — and of the mind that it creates. Here’s another example, but the point I take from this one is more squarely focused on the idea that what we like to call “free will” and “choice” are more elusive — more illusory? — than we often care to think.

What would it be like never to feel fear? There are people who don’t. Not very many of them, but still.

In “The curious lives of the people who feel no fear” (March 2013), another pay-walled article in New Scientist, Christie Aschwanden relates the story of a woman known as “SM,” a woman who has no fear of snakes, heights, or anything else. The direct reason is that she has no amygdala.

“SM” has the extremely rare condition known as Urbach-Wiethe disease, an ailment that in her case destroyed the amygdala structures in both hemispheres of her brain.

The general understanding of the amygdala is that it is the seat of our most primitive, primary emotions: fear, surprise, fight or flight. Without this anatomical structure, there is no fear, no surprise, no flight.

It’s interesting in its own right, the thought that our reactions to things that terrify and go bump in the night are generated by a specific and primitive part of the brain.

But more interesting to me is how the case of SM reinforces the ever-more evident reality that much, no, most, of what “I” feel and do goes on without much input or control from whatever it is that “I” am. Perhaps without any.
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The compelling complexity of the mind

I’ve been accessing online courses for a while now. I like that I can learn as much or as little as I wish about any subject out there, with no mandatory tests, essays, or lab reports. And without any direct cost.

The most recent course that I’ve been following is “Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life,” by Dr. Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago. This is not the place to go to find sophisticated presentation or innovative instructional methodology, but there sure is a lot of detail.

So much detail, in fact, that I come away from each session with two fundamental thoughts. First, we sure are a smart bunch of primates to be able to figure out all of this stuff. Second, the brain — and the mind it creates — is one damned complicated place.
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Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.

 

New evidence that the self is a mental construct

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.
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Babies, bonobos, and brains

I’ve written fairly often here about the behaviour of our nearest primate relatives, typically with a view to deflating the idea that there’s something special about the human animal. Of course, there is something special about us. But my contention has always been that our specialness is much more a matter of degree than of kind.

That is, to pick just one felicitously phrased example, I believe that we are specially creative, but not the product of special creation. Our superior mental abilities are extreme versions of similar or analogous abilities in other creatures; these abilities are not one-off gifts from a benevolent creative force, natural or supernatural.

I’m back to this topic thanks to the conjunction of three sources: a book, a journal study, and a popular science article. Although these sources are quite independent, taken together they highlight a number of connected points about primate mental development. And this set of overlapping sources adds yet another layer to the arguments that (1) evolutionary biology is the key to any deep understanding of human nature and behaviour and (2) our proudest achievements are extensions of the skills of other creatures.

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Busy baby brains make all the difference

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

Exploring the edge of consciousness

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.
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Study links altruism to specific brain site

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.
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Brain study looks for the location of personality

One recent posting was about the claim of evolutionary psychologists that our basic political orientations are more innate than learned. Today, we take a tangential look at the subject by examining a brain study that indicates that basic personality traits may be tied to neural activity in specific areas of the brain.

Oh, great, some of you must be thinking — evolutionary psychology and brain scans. But patience. I’m not going to advocate anything, just report what the study says.

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Another stab at defining free will

 

There was a free-for-all on free will here a while back.

But that article didn’t contain anything quite like the argument in favour of compatibilism — the notion that free will can exist in a deterministic universe — promoted by Georgia State University philosopher and psychologist Eddy Nahmias.

3:AM Magazine published “Questioning willusionism,” an interview with Nahmias, on May 25th.

Nahmias believes that some of the debate over “free will vs. determinism” arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of what “determinism” means. He argues that determinism doesn’t really mean that the Big Bang created a kind of script that the universe merely plays out by rote for eternity. Nor does he equate determinism with fatalism,  the idea that certain things will happen no matter what. To Nahmias, “determinism suggests that what happens in the future depends on what happens in the past and what we do in the present.”

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