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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But it’s the other guy in my brain who’s guilty

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.
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It’s hard to be rational about irrationality

Last time, I wrote a rather frustrated little piece about how hard it is for a species as habitually irrational as we are to have real democracy.

The more I thought about what I’d written, and about the many books and articles that had prompted it, the more I appreciated an article that I had read way back in April. (In online terms, that’s a couple of decades ago, not just a couple of months.)

In a Scientific American blog piece titled “The Irrationality of Irrationality: The Paradox of Popular Psychology,” Samuel McNerney cautions us to tread lightly when we draw conclusions from the recent flood of popularized psychology explanations of how and why we’re not really rational creatures at all — at least, not often, and never entirely.

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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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Is neuroscience the next “great tragedy of Science”?

The great tragedy of Science —
the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Human behaviour is so complex – and feels so personal – that some thinkers believe that empirical methodologies will never be able to explain it fully, even if “explain” is correctly understood to mean understanding “what” and “how” rather than “why.”

Yet the research keeps coming, and as it does, the likelihood increases that the good kind of reductionism, the kind that uncovers the more basic structures that underlie the more complex, will someday lead to a thorough knowledge of how what we do works – including what we think and feel.
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Why? Because blogging strokes my brain!

I’m sometimes asked why I devote so much time to “that silly blog of yours.” When I choose to answer, I say that writing organizes my thoughts, which enhances the pleasure I get from reading. Or I talk about self-expression and social communication.

Now, a series of studies by psychologists at Harvard has uncovered the real reason that people like me write blogs like this: We enjoy talking about ourselves.

Not just enjoy, like “I enjoy a good joke,” but really enjoy, like we enjoy food, money, and sex. Honest to goodness, neural cascade, spike of pleasure enjoy.

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Is the centre of the universe in your head?

Underlying some of the consciousness discussion here recently is the fundamental question “Where Is Reality?” — or, in its more provocative version, “Is Reality Real?”

The ongoing debate about the nature of consciousness is in one sense a narrow-focus version of this broader question.
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“Now that I think about it, I’m not that religious after all”

According to a much-trumpeted new study, rational thinking has a negative effect on the strength of religious belief.

Well, gee, really? Isn’t that the whole idea behind rational thinking? Do we really need a new study to tell us this? Many religious leaders and almost all atheists readily agree that religious belief is more a feeling than a thought, more emotion than analysis. Continue reading