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.
Continue reading

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.
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.

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

Reaching the consciousness threshold

There has been an enormous wealth of theories about consciousness,
but I think that very few are valid or even useful.  –
Stanislas Dehaene

In 2009, neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene spoke at an EDGE meeting in Paris. His topic in his presentation, “Signatures of Consciousness,” was the question of the point at which consciousness occurs.

His report was a summary of the insights his team had gathered in a decade of empirical research.

As Dehaene noted, there is a truckload of theories about consciousness, but many of them are intuitive or speculative, with little experimental evidence behind them. Dehaene’s group is trying to change that. Continue reading