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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Challenging anthropomorphic physics

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?

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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

I’ve mind, hive mind

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.

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Perchance to dream…

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

Brain states trump abuse as criminal excuse?

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.
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