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.

 

Do we misunderstand our selves?

In a recent series of articles, New Scientist magazine explored what their lead article called “The Great Illusion of the Self.”

The article gave more space to why we don’t know much of anything about our selves than to what we do know, or think that we know, for “While it seems irrefutable that we must exist in some sense, things get a lot more puzzling once we try to get a better grip of what having a self actually amounts to.”

According to the article, we are sure of three things about our selves. We are continuous. We are unified. And we are agents.

“All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be” ; yet “as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.”

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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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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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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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